A legendary performance on US television helped Samuel T Herring and Future Islands gain their reputation as one of the planet’s most uplifting bands, writes Ed Power.
Four minutes and 23 seconds was all it took for Samuel Herring’s life to change forever. In 2014, the singer, an everyman with widow’s peak and stocky physique, was invited to perform with his band Future Islands on David Letterman’s Late Show. Seizing the moment, Herring put in a raw, big-hearted turn that lit up the internet.
Watching the ‘Seasons’ clip today you see a star being born in real time. “Buddy — come on!” enthuses the usually phlegmatic Letterman, striding from the wings to shake Herring’s hand. “How about that? I’ll take all of that you got!”
“We weren’t expecting things to take off the way they have,” reflects Herring. “It’s about adapting to whatever is happening. In the past three-and-a-half years we’ve been continually adapting.”
In this age of Trump and Harvey Weinstein and Brexit, Future Islands are a band we urgently need, if not fully deserve. Their music celebrates strength, joy, empathy, humanity — with the charismatic Herring exulting in the role of pop preacher. An antidote to gloom and cynicism, they will be back to share some of that sunshine with Irish audiences when they headline Donnybrook Stadium, Dublin, on June 17. It’s one of the summer’s must-attend gigs, especially if you’ve just about lost your faith in humankind.
“None of us are typical rock stars,”says Herring. “We don’t prescribe to a fashion or trends.”
Herring is, rather, a blue-collar rocker in the tradition of Bruce Springsteen. Under the spotlight, the 33-year-old gives everything and then some. He sings, sweats, beats his chest. Whatever it takes to establish a connection.
“I’m a regular looking guy. It is important for me to go up and be strong and to cry and share my naked soul. To show people that they can do that in their lives too — that they can take the hope home with them. You have a responsibility. People are paying their hard-earned paycheques to come and see you. There is a responsibility to put on a show. It’s different from when you payed 10 bucks to see us in a tiny club.”
Their success is remarkable considering that, on paper at least, Future Islands should be a bit of a mess. The building blocks of the group’s music are New Order style synth pop: chilly keyboards, fluttering melodies, robotic grooves. Upon this is overlaid Herring’s lusty singings — a gruff, bluesy croon that might put you in mind of a millennial Meat Loaf.
The formula really ought to crash and burn. But Future Islands make it work through sheer, fist-clenching self belief. The mere fact that they’ve constructed a career out of such
unlikely raw material is, of itself, encouraging — inspiring even. The band exist in defiance of the natural laws of pop. Simply by standing before us on stage, they represent a powerful argument for pushing past received wisdom and obeying your gut.
Success has been a learning curve, Herring says. Being frontman means becoming a beacon for the audience. That requires him to literally throw himself into the concert: exhilarating but also draining. He wouldn’t have it any other way — but sometimes Herring suspects his body might have a different opinion.
“My knees aren’t so good,” complains the frontman, who spends much of his working life sliding across the stage, like an ironic Elvis impersonator. “We’ve been hitting really hard — six weeks in the US. We are feeling the burn right now.”
As he acknowledges at several points, Herring is an unlikely pop star. He grew up in a small town in North Carolina — the sort of place that feels universes removed from the Late Show or Future Islands’ hip record label, 4AD. School yard rap battles were his introduction to performance. Naturally outgoing, he was at ease in front front of an audience and, having moved to Baltimore, Maryland, to take advantage of cheap rents, soon fell into the local art-house music scene.
Future Islands began as a skit by Herring, fellow North Carolina native Gerrit Welmers, and William Cashion, whom Herring met at art school in Baltimore. Herring invented a stage persona — eccentric Ohio visual artist Locke Ernst-Frost — while the band’s blend of bar-band emoting and Kraftwerk synth pop was intended as an ironic juxtaposition.
Thus it came as a huge surprise that audiences took them at face value and they were, in short order, building a following around Maryland and North Carolina. By accident, the trio had stumbled into a pop career. And then Letterman happened.
The transition to stardom has been awkward in ways Herring never anticipated. A Rolling Stone interview heralding the release last summer of fifth album The Far Field probed Herring’s history of drug use when he first moved to Baltimore.
He’s long since cleaned up and got his life on track. It must have been awkward to have his youthful indiscretions aired so publicly. A Rolling Stone interview will be read by friends and family back home. To have your life become an open book must be an adjustment. “It’s important to be honest with our fans,” he says. “They’re buying the tickets to our shows.
“We want to give a real impression of who we are. They may not realise this but they are everything to us. They’re the ones who allow us do what we do. It means a lot. It is a symbiotic relationship.
“It’s important to be honest about where we come from. These songs are our lives — they’re a piece of our souls. So we have to be straight up about things.”
Moreover, his drug days were genuinely dark. He felt it was essential to frankly address a period he was fortunate to come through.
“That was my mistake,” he says. “It is important to talk about our failings as human beings. We should all remember that we’re human and we’re not alone. We all screw up and there is a light. I was lucky to survive my early 20s. I lost a lot of friends. I feel there was an element of luck in that and I don’t want to shy away from it.”
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