A conversation with Samuel Herring of Future Islands on the eve of the release of their fifth album, The Far Field.
Baltimore band Future Islands have been releasing their own impassioned brand of synth pop since 2006. They’re still best known for their turbo-charged performance of ‘Seasons (Waiting on You)’ on The Late Show With David Letterman, which drew attention for singer Samuel Herring’s wild-eyed dance moves.
On-stage Herring dispenses with any vanity and completely commits to his stage persona, making him the band’s gif-friendly centre of attention, but Future Islands are also accomplished songwriters, consistently delivering woozy romanticism through a New Wave lens.
Ahead of the release of their 5th album The Far Field, Samuel talked to Music 101's Tony Stamp about his life growing up in North Carolina, being influenced by everything from Three 6 Mafia to Danzig, and channelling heartbreak into pop.
I want to talk to you about growing up in North Carolina. Could you tell me what the culture was like growing up at the time, and what your formative experiences were with music?
A lot of music, for me, came from my older brother who introduced me to pretty much everything that I would listen to - and my parents records, you know; my mum’s Elton John records; my dad’s Cream tapes. I was really into The Doors when I was a kid. I think Jim Morrison was a big influence. Danzig - huge influence.
But growing up in rural North Carolina there wasn’t really music around for me, there wasn’t a place to go to shows - there weren’t house parties or DIY venues or anything. It was really kind of isolated in that sense. A lot of digging for music happened for me when my brother introduced me to hip hop at 13 and that kinda took me off on a whole other journey. This is around 1997,1998, which was around the time the internet was becoming something you could have in your home. You could just go searching catalogues of music, but that being said I was digging into things that none of my friends were really into. Culturally, I think I was a weirdo in my little town - as far as the music I was getting into and what I was finding.
But in a way hip hop music opened me up to this whole other world because I was falling in love with West Coast underground, and hip hop from Atlanta, New York, and all these big cities that were so very very different from my small town. Basically I was learning about other people’s lives through music, through very honest storytelling.
I think the big thing for me, William, and Gerrit in our first band - that we started in our first year of college - was just wanting to play a house party. We just wanted to have some fun and play a party, so we started a band, and that’s been going for 14 years now.
And you could safely categorize it at a synthpop band - I mean there’s many influences going in there, but I’m wondering at what point did you discover synthpop? Were you a fan prior to the band getting together?
No, all those influences came from William. Like me, Gerrit, and William have all very different musical backgrounds and sensibilities and what we’re looking too, and we all formed our musical relationship. Y’know, Gerrit comes from more like punk and metal (but was really into Three 6 Mafia). So me and Gerrit grew up together in Morehead City, we were coming from the same small town and we were kind of musical outsiders.
I never wanted to be in a band when I was in high school, I was an MC. That’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to be a rapper. Bands to me, I don’t know, it’s not that I have an aversion to guitars, but I never really got a lot out of that.
I think a lot of synthpop bands actually do what we also do, which is kind of pull on a deeper emotional strain. I think a lot of great synthpop is that same way, and I think that’s really what drew me to it. Really, Joy Division was the opening of my brain to rock n’ roll in a new way, because I’d never heard someone sing that urgently.
I think one of the biggest influences on Future Islands is OMD and especially their album Dazzle Ships, but the reason that became such a huge influence was because we got a write up on our first US tour. A guy in Denver said we sounded like Dazzle Ships era OMD and I said “what does that sound like”, and I found the album a few months later and we all just fell in love with it. We couldn’t stop listening to it, and it really just became a huge inspiration and influence in creating our second album In Evening Air, not only in the sounds that we were using but in the actual track layout of that record.
When I first heard that record I realised “Oh shit, we do kind of sound like them." So we’re listening to it and then it becomes a part of the influence, becomes a part of your inspiration, and it opens your mind. Like when I heard Ian Curtis for the first time it opened my mind to being a singer in a band, you know, I could get behind this. I never wanted to be a whiny rock singer, you know what I mean.
How are you feeling now, on the eve of the release of The Far Field?
The whole thing with Future Island’s is we’re not trying to be a band that‘s the sign of the times, we never really change what we do, and I don’t know if that’s a bad thing or not. Sometimes I’m like “should we be trying to revolutionise our sound or use these different things, or like put sounds in songs?” But that’s not who we are.
We come from art school backgrounds, we don’t understand what it means to write a song in the key of C, even if all our songs are in the key of C, or whatever the hell key they’re in. We’ve always written from our hearts, and what feels right to us, and if it sounds good then it sounds good.
This is just another distillation of Future Island’s pop sound. We feel like we write pop songs but they’re not gonna be on the radio. We write pop songs but we’re punk - we always have been - we just make do with what we have.
And so I think it’s the best group of songs we’ve ever written. In saying that, An Evening Air will always be this crazy, deep, album for me, and I think will be for a lot of people, and this is a very different album to that.
I think it’s crazy that a probably a large portion of the people who know us think Singles is our first record, or maybe that’s the one record that they know about, because there’s so many underneath it. I think On the Water is probably our most underrated record. It’s not really that well known but it’s got some of the most beautiful songs we’ve ever written.
I really want to touch on your hip hop career, you make rap under the name Hemlock Ernst, in fact you collaborated with Madlib on a project called Trouble Knows Me. Now that must have been a dream come true for you right?
I don’t think I ever imagined that I’d get the chance to work with Madlib, or get the chance to hang out with Madlib, or any of that stuff. So to make a record with him is kind of like “well, this is really crazy."
At the same time - hip hop is my original art form - it’s where my love of words was really born, but I don’t really push that side of me. I don’t want to be taken in some weird way, like “Oh, that guy from Future Islands, he’s trying to rap now."
I’ve been rapping since I was 14, and it’s just something that I really love to do. I feel really fortunate that in recent years I’ve been able to collaborate with a lot of artists who I love, and luckily it’s because they respect me as an MC, not for some kind of a weird “the guy from Future Islands is rapping” reason. I’ve got some of the stuff in that world that I’ve got unreleased in the last couple of years, but I’ve just been kind of sitting on it because I don’t want that to become what Future Islands has become for me. As much as Future Islands is my life and my passion, it’s also my business and my job. I want hip hop to remain that thing that brings me great joy and is something I can use to express myself. Things will come out over time, but I don’t want it to become like a machine.
The business side of music can become tedious and take up too much time, and I would say that’s the one thing that I miss about the old days, before there were record labels involved and these things. As much as 4AD has been amazing to us, and Thrill Jockey, and Upset the Rhythm saved our lives in giving us a chance to release our music and getting behind us, I miss it when you could just write songs and put ‘em out, and just do it out of the love of creation.
Waiting for The Far Field to come out has made me crazy. I want it to come out, but we can’t do that, it’s a process the record release, but I can record a hip hop track on a Tuesday and put it out that night on Soundcloud or something - that’s something that I can just do, and I want that to remain something that’s just free, and for me, and for anyone who’s interested to listen.
It’s not really for Future Island’s fans, like if they’re expecting something like Future Islands, it’s very different. If they can get down to it then that’s cool but it’s definitely for hip hop heads. What I’m writing - it’s not fun.