Home Entertainment Future Islands still goes hard — after a nap

Future Islands still goes hard — after a nap

Future Islands still goes hard — after a nap


Samuel T. Herring now takes naps.

He doesn’t drink before shows anymore, and he’s trying to smoke less of, well, everything.

This is the healthiest the frontman and his Future Islands bandmates — Gerrit Welmers (keys/synthesizer), William Cashion (bass) and Michael Lowry (drums) — have ever been. Once, the quartet went hard on themselves and hard onstage — in hundreds of bruising basement shows, in hundreds of sweaty club gigs, and in a viral performance on “The Late Show With David Lettermen” that confused and captivated millions.

They still go hard, but they’re learning to take it easy, too.

These days, Herring worries about losing his voice. Maybe more.

The whole band feels it. They range in age from 39 to 48. “It’s taking longer to recover after a tour these days. There’s an emotional toll too, having to hit the pause button on your life back home,” Cashion says.

In other words, they’re getting older.

That might not be an issue for some bands. But Future Islands are not some bands. Formed in 2006, in the loose tradition of guitarless rock bands like Ben Folds Five and Morphine, the three-piece (now four) quickly gained a reputation for a relentless schedule packed with raucous live shows. Injuries were not uncommon.

Their songs — driven by catchy synths and melodic bass — pummel the heart. The emotions and, increasingly, the sounds are enormous.

Onstage, Herring prowls the stage like a lion, often while his bandmates barely move. He crouches and swipes at the air and pounds his chest. Sometimes his voice sounds like butter. Sometimes it’s a guttural wail, a wolverine tearing at his vocal cords. He’ll stand straight with an upraised arm like a Shakespearean actor — but instead “Alas, poor Yorick!” he’s bellowing “As it breaks, the summer will wake / But the winter will wash what is left, of the taste.”

Herring “can swing between vulnerability and sympathy to darkness and this unpredictable swagger,” says Jonathan van Tulleken, who directed the music video for the band’s recent single “The Tower.”

On Jan. 26, Future Islands release its seventh studio album, “People Who Aren’t There Anymore.” But their goal is still be here, as long as possible. Maybe for another seven more.

“It’s a force of will,” Herring says. “It’s your joy. It’s your art. It’s your job. But it also takes a lot of strength, keeping yourself together, your mind and your body.”

How many members of Future Islands does it take to work a coffee maker?” someone asks.

It’s a frigid Friday in mid-January, a week before the album release, and Herring and Cashion are fiddling with the appliance in Baltimore’s Wright Way Studios as snow mounts outside. Do they hit the button on top? Wait, this one? Herring finally gets it.

Their jovial mood is an improvement over the previous week. The guys are spread over three coasts — Herring in New Orleans, Cashion in Los Angeles, Welmers and Lowry still in Baltimore — and they have other projects, such as Herring’s recent acting turn (and Cashion’s cameo) in Apple TV Plus’s “The Changeling.” That’s where they met van Tulleken, who directed four episodes.

Before this week, the band had never actually performed some of these songs together. They’ve got “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” in a few days, plus a string of live shows after. They needed to prepare.

“This is the first record we haven’t played live before releasing it,” Cashion says. “Some of these songs were written together but separate, not all in a room together.”

“I was so mad last week,” Herring says. “Like, this sucks. I don’t know what we’re doing. And then after yesterday, I was like, ‘Okay, we’re still musicians. We know how to play our songs.’”

They’ve been ironing the wrinkles in songs written over three years. They wrote about half the album during lockdown, the other half while touring. “This is the longest-gestating record we’ve ever made,” Cashion says.

“King of Sweden,” the album’s opening track, was written while Herring was actually in Sweden. The guys jammed in the Baltimore studio, while he sang along via an app called Audiomovers. “I like to tell people that’s our first transatlantic song,” Cashion says.

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“People Who Aren’t There Anymore” sounds like a culmination of a career spend doubling and tripling and quadrupling and quintupling down on an esoteric and singular sound: lachrymose, synth-driven pop songs made for twilight.

“This is the best album they’ve ever made,” says producer Chris Coady, who co-mixed it and produced their breakout 2014 album “Singles.” “It’s a combination of the drama and action of the albums before, but there’s also this emotional availability.”

At the heart of every song is a poetic openness Herring takes pride in. On “The Tower,” he sings:

When a boy who played with razors

Met a girl who opened cages

All the birds flew through the graveyard

And their laughter was contagious

Herring writes from a deeply emotive place, often about broken or breaking relationships, in hopes that fans “can apply it to their own lives, and have something to hold onto in those [difficult] moments.” No irony here. No winking. No jokes. This is musical therapy. “The Tower” continues:

I, I, I am watching on the other side, sighs

Looked out into every, nil and nigh

Lie, tell myself it’s darkest when it’s quite bright

Everything grows stronger in the light

“The songs are hard to sing at first, but that also feels good,” Herring says. “It’s freeing to share a thing that’s hard to say.” His philosophy: If you don’t want to say something, then you should probably say it.

The afternoon is waning, but the band sounds tight. Locked-in. Haunting. Grooving. Gorgeous. Herring is a version in miniature of his stage persona, head tossed back, that otherworldly voice slipping out. But his vocals are cooked for the day.

They start debating what to name an upcoming tour. The “People Tour?” No, sounds like a traveling church. Maybe “The Farewell Tour.” They laugh. Remember how annoyed everyone was when James Murphy did that, then came back?

“Yeah, only Elton John is allowed to do that,” Herring says.

In some ways, it’s surprising Future Islands haven’t played a farewell tour. At a time when so many of their peers are having 20th anniversary reunions, the band can’t reunite because they never broke up. They’re not a nostalgia act. They’re still Future Islands. Even though the accumulation of almost 20 years of bruises, both physical and emotional from years endlessly touring, take their toll. All those DIY venues probably didn’t help.

This is the first record we haven’t played live before releasing it. Some of these songs were written together but separate, not all in a room together.”

— William Cashion, bass guitarist

“Some turned out good,” Cashion says. “Some turned out bad.”

There was the house show in Plattsburgh, N.Y., when Cashion, Herring and Welmers were still in their first band, Art Lord & the Self-Portraits. It was at a house dubbed the Garage of Death, but the guy who booked them forgot to tell anyone. “So no one knew about the show anywhere, not even the house mates. But we ended up hanging out with those dudes, just drinking a lot of beer all night,” Cashion says. “Eventually they’re like, ‘So y’all are gonna play now?’”

So they played to four people.

On that same tour, there was the show at New York City’s Club Siberia where they were the final act. The place was packed, but when the band before them finished, everyone went upstairs.

They played for the sound guy.

The one upside was that Jimmy Fallon was upstairs. He bought a CD and a round of shots.

Then, as Future Islands, there was the stand-alone garage (“sort of”) in Nashville whose owner unlocked it, told them to turn everything off when they were done — and simply left. Only three or four people showed up, and they might have been in the opening band. To end most sets those days, the band would toss balloons out to bounce atop the crowd. This time the balloons just landed awkwardly on the ground, surrounding the tiny crowd.

“Balloons of sadness,” Cashion says.

Herring may not miss those shows, but looking back, “They remind you of the joy of what you do. When things get tough, you can remember that we used to do it for nothing,” he says. Sometimes the band misses playing smaller venues. Ultimately, though, “we want people to be able to see us when we come to town,” Cashion says. “We try to make every show count and we don’t leave anybody out.”

One thing is certain, Herring says: “I really don’t want to go back to playing for nobody.”

The band wasn’t playing for nobody when they performed their single “Seasons (Waiting on You)” on “The Late Show With David Letterman” in 2014. It was a typical Future Islands performance. Herring alternates between a croon, a growl and a scream. He squats and shimmies and punches. The band is tight, catchy, bombastic. They played and left, pleased but nothing more. Another spot in the books. “By the time it says ‘Worldwide Pants,’ the lights are out and you’re gone,” Lowry says.

But most people watching saw them for the first time. The clip racked up millions of views, and sparked a debate: Was this an impassioned performance or a bit?

Lowry thought it was “wild that people think this is so wild. This is Sam at like 40 percent.”

“I think it’s a thing where we tried to act like it wasn’t pivotal, but it was,” Herring says. “The polar-opposite opinions is what made that go viral, with us hands off. We just did a thing and went on our merry way. And people are fighting online over if this is art or if it’s the biggest joke ever.”

Invites suddenly poured in from festivals that had previously turned the band down. The stages they played grew exponentially.

Cashion calls it “a huge magic wand moment for this band. Letterman totally changed everything and kind of blasted us into the stratosphere.

That didn’t mean the reaction didn’t sting, particularly for Herring, whose heart rests firmly on his sleeve. But now, 10 years later, “I’ve gone full circle and it doesn’t hurt anymore.”

The upward trajectory continued. No more small, empty rooms. No more wondering if a venue owner would blood-sacrifice them. No more sleeping on a beer-stained carpet while cuddling with their amps for warmth.

But the gigs could still be strange. Once, in 2016, they ended up on the French program “Vivement Dimanche,” where they sat in a green room with a tiny TV, watching the show even though none of them speaks French. For four and a half hours. “No one would feed us,” Herring remembers.

“We’re like, can we go into the cafeteria and get some food? And they’re like, ‘No!’ Well, can you get us some food. ‘No!’ Well, can we leave and get something? ‘No, it’s a quiet studio.’”

Finally, they were let out of the room to play. It was an older crowd. “The grandmas were gracious,” he says. “Clapping along on one and three.”

They hate the French,” I joke, pantomiming writing.

“We love the French!” they all shout back.

“We love the BBC, too. We love England,” Cashion adds.

“Panderers,” Herring says.

Then there was a performance on German TV. “There were seals!” Lowry says. Herring chimes in: “It was like a 300-pound woman dressed as a Viking singing opera to a massive elephant seal. And then they married them in the end.” Lowry claims the seal kissed him. “I think that was the most absurd one,” Herring says.

“Love the Germans!” he adds.

The band is laughing about all those insane shows, those bizarre TV appearances, the nearly two decades they’ve spent together.

And it’s clear they want to keep the ride going.

“I just don’t know if people are aware of how grateful we are that we’re still able to do this,” Lowry says.

So they’ll nap. And eat healthy. And cool it on the drinking.

Welmers, who has been mostly silent, provides the simplest and truest answer.


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