Future Islands - NME - December 2014

This is a follow-up article to this interview.

People close to Samuel T. Herring knew that this year would test him. It wasn’t just a sense that Future Islands’ soul-baring synth-pop was about to be embraced by a much wider audience. It was a concern that the singer’s heart-on-sleeve qualities, the very things that make Herring such a unique frontman, would leave him feeling vulnerable in the glare of newfound exposure.

“Friends warned me: ‘People are going to be coming for you, Sam. You need to look out for yourself.’ They feared for me. I said, ‘You’re crazy! That stuff doesn’t bother me. I’m strong and I can handle it.’ Then a few months later, I started to feel some of those pains because I continued to be exactly who I was. I’ve had to step back a bit and not spend so much time with people because they've hurt my feelings.”

Herring is wandering the streets of Washington DC, soaking up the last remnants of autumn, reflecting on the learning experience that 2014 became. When we met in Berlin back in February, the fever over Future Islands hadn’t yet begun. The most pressing concern at that point was previewing fourth album Singles and warranting a return to Germany for eight more shows. That wouldn’t be a problem.

Two weeks later, Future Islands experienced a watershed moment after performing ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’ on The Late Show with David Letterman. The song showcases Herring’s gift for distilling personal insight into simple expression and sums up the tumultuous turns of a two-and-a-half-year relationship.

“I was trying to get her to change so that she would love me the way I wanted to be loved,” Herring says. “And I tried to change too, for the same reason, until I realised that you can’t do that. That’s just one of those tragedies of love: it’s not always going to work out, even if there is something there.”

For the Baltimore-based band, performing ‘Seasons’ for their debut TV appearance wasn’t such a big deal. They would play the same way they’d played for the previous eight years together: an upbeat but dramatic mix of Gerrit Welmers’ new-wave synths, William Cashion’s thundering bass and Herring’s earnest vocal delivery.

What the band didn’t realise was just how far its impact would be felt. The sight of Herring – a stocky 30-year-old shimmying across the stage with his t-shirt tucked into his trousers, beating his chest with eye-watering intensity – stirred something in people. The clip became a viral sensation, amassing millions of views and polarising opinion. Some proclaimed Future Islands as the ultimate antidote to manufactured pop. Others likened Herring to an accountant taking ecstasy for the first time.

The jeering stung, Herring admits, but he has learned to see the funny side and not let it get to him. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a joke as long as it’s not a joke to everybody,” he says. “The spirit of the songs is putting forth this idea that we need to live by our own rules to get what we want out of life. And you know what? There’s kind of a ‘fuck you’ in that too.”

Future Islands contest the idea of finding success overnight. The band had worked hard to build a loyal following over the previous three albums. Relentless touring had earned them a reputation for their ferocious live shows. They’d even recorded Singles independently before signing with 4AD. But Herring admits that ‘Seasons’ began to take on another meaning: ‘We’ve been waiting on you. Where have you guys been?’ Their audience ballooned, the few gaps in their schedule filled up and, just as warned, Herring’s resolve began to be tested.

When Future Islands played their 162nd gig of the year in Glasgow last month, Herring was approached outside the venue by a fan looking for a picture. The singer says he politely declined, explaining that he hadn’t seen his girlfriend since the tour began, six weeks previously, and that she was waiting upstairs. Minutes later, the fan tweeted his disgust, lambasting Herring’s ego. It was resolved with an apology on either side, and Herring laughs about it now, but it hurt.

“The one thing I don’t want to be said about me is that I’ve a big head,” he says. “I share myself so freely because I want to and ego is the last thing that it’s about. I’m not trying to be cool or to become that rock-star stereotype. Nor do I want to be that person who has to hide because they’re overwhelmed by it. I want to be around people and I want to be myself.” He laughs again. “I don’t want to be a dickhead.”

Herring pretended to be a dickhead as part of his previous band, Art Lord & the Self-Portraits, which he formed with Cashion and Welmers in 2003 while studying at East Carolina University. The character was both a projection of the swagger he longed for, Herring explains, and a commentary on the nature of celebrity. Three years later, the joke wore thin and the trio opted for something more genuine.

“When we started Future Islands, I was terrified because I couldn’t hide behind that mask of personality anymore,” he says. “But I’ve worked hard to be able to be free and feel like myself on stage. I think you have to remain human to really reach people.”

As the audience has changed, however, so has their interaction with the band. Herring has always enjoyed mingling after shows and hearing fans’ stories but that moment in Glasgow has become a regular occurrence: people seem more interested in grabbing a selfie than having a conversation.

“I just want to be real with people like a normal human being. We all give so much to our music and I give so much of myself on stage and in my words, so it hurts my feelings when I think people want a little bit more... It’s like, we can just be friends. That’s what the music is about. It’s about honesty, trust and sharing.”

The best example of what Herring means by this lies in the song ‘Light House’. It recreates a moment from 2011 when he confided to his then-girlfriend that he’d contemplated suicide. Herring argued that she saw the world differently to him, that his perspective had been coloured by life on the road, by heartbreak, by friends he’d lost to drugs. But she refused to accept this, insisting: “You’re not that person. You’re better than thinking like that.”

“All of the songs are personal but that one came from the darkest place,” Herring says. “Every time I sing it, I feel like I save myself in a little way.” Most people who hear ‘Light House’ might not pick up on the deeper idea behind it, he adds, but fans regularly email the band to describe how it has helped them.

“It’s through that sharing that I feel like I’ve reached people, which takes away those feelings of darkness,” he says. “My expression comes completely from feeling misunderstood and wanting to get my ideas across to people so that I don’t feel isolated, so that I have value in this world.”

Herring has never come close to committing suicide, he clarifies, as there’s a difference between thinking and doing. “It’s just a thought that you can have and a lot of people understand that,” he says. “Sometimes it can get scary when you feel lonely, when you feel misunderstood, when you feel dumped upon or just weak. Things can creep up on you. But it’s important to know that there are people there. That keeps me from ever doing anything like [committing suicide]. But the thought is there. It’s one of the hardest things I ever shared but it makes it easier to then share that with other friends and to be told again: ‘That’s not who you are.’”

The most valuable lessons are won through adversity, he says, and those dark times are important because they reveal so much about us and what we can overcome. “I’ve had many problems in my life but I wouldn’t take back those feelings and things that define who I am now,” he says, breaking into laughter, “...even though they set my life back years and probably took years off my life!”

As challenging as 2014 has been, Herring is happy. Future Islands has continued to grow and their sacrifices are paying off. The band plans on writing together soon and although Herring has no idea where that may lead them, a swell of emotion has built up this year and it’s best to capture that while it’s still fresh.

“There is that fear that a bar has been set and that people expect something now,” he says. “But, at the same time, we like that challenge. It’s kind of a death wish to think you’ve got this in the bag. I’m just excited to see how we change. Right now it’s crazy to be getting respect from people who’ve had great success in music while also inspiring kids to pick up instruments and start new projects. To come full-circle like that is an amazing feeling.”

Anatomy of a career-maker: ‘Seasons’

“It was one of those songs we just wrote in an hour-and-a-half: Garret on the keys, building a simple drumbeat, William playing the bass and me sitting there, listening. I opened up my laptop, recorded a rough structure with the guys jamming and then we all went home. When I sat down again, the words just flowed.”

“Seasons was an idea to explain the passage of time in a rocky relationship that was on-and-off for two-and-a-half years. It means as the winter falls apart, by the summer we’ll feel love again. Then as the winter comes, it will get rid of those things we’re holding onto.”

“She had just gotten out of a long relationship; I was three years out of a long relationship and it was my first time having somebody again. While I was saying, ‘You’re the only person I want. I’ll give you everything I can,’ it was the very opposite on the other side. She did love me and give me those things at times, but there were also times when she was completely unaffected and didn’t really want any part of it.”

“The big idea of the song is that you can’t change people and that, while time can heal, there will always be those remnants of love. You cannot get rid of those things.”