YOU HAVE to get up pretty goddamn early in the morning to pull one over on ol' Dave Letterman. Unlike his late-night peers, Uncle Dave is neither a sycophantic huckster nor an undiscerning rube. A sentimental junkie for only the purest of anarchy, he's seen it all—and he doesn't rile easy.
So when he bounded onstage, wide-eyed, declaring Future Islands "wonderful!" and profusely offering to "take all of that ya got," Letterman provided a worthy exclamation point; something special just happened.
Indeed, Future Islands were marvelous, weird yet welcoming. Gripping, unhinged, and totally present, singer Samuel T. Herring's performance pushed a near-perfect pop song right off the edge—and in free fall, it took flight.
With high-waisted pants and a widow's peak, Herring looked at first more '80s dad than 29-year-old frontman. But when "Seasons" took flight, he transmuted. With abandon he shook, bobbed, and weaved. He hung himself by his collar, swung sweeping punches to punctuate the choruses, and unleashed guttural growls. He thumped his chest, his eyes wet as he looked into the light and laid threadbare a beating heart.
He might as well have reached through the fucking screen. With a carefree flouting of conventional, stoic cool, Herring startled and, conveying naked emotional intimacy, he stirred. Opposing forces swirled, the smoothness of the synths and precision of the pop against Herring's volatile, high-watt, electro-magnetic performance art. It was downright transcendent.
Suddenly, a whole lot of people were turning on. But for Future Islands, going viral via Late Show with David Letterman wasn't as much a make-or-break moment as it was a celebration in the midst of a long, determined, steady climb.
"We haven't gotten to where we are through [Letterman]," Herring says. "We've gotten to where we are through grinding on the road. Grinding, writing songs, putting out albums, meeting people firsthand, making fans firsthand, and making them a part of our family for many years."
Future Islands formed in 2006, but they go back further than that. Herring and keyboardist Gerrit Welmers became best friends in high school. Both attended East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. There they met bassist William Cashion and during freshman year, the three, along with a few others, started their first band: Art Lord and the Self-Portraits.
"Our very first show ever was on Valentine's Day of 2003," remembers Herring. "Our whole thing was kind of born out of a punk rock spirit. Like, 'Hey, let's throw a party and we can do a weird performance for the party. Let's do something!'"
The Self-Portraits were a conceptual thumb in the eye of the art school's highbrow mindset. Herring made Art Lord a character. There was face paint, costumes, and shtick. At the time, Herring says, the group wanted to be anything "but a band of dudes in dude suits."
Art Lord and the Self-Portraits developed a regional following but the concept and character dried up creatively, and Herring, Welmers, and Cashion reformed as Future Islands. They wrote all new material but continued in the same tonal and aesthetic veins: driving, four-on-the-floor synth pop. After 11 years that thread remains, albeit under constant refinement, both on stage and in the studio (the 2010 album In Evening Air is a particularly strong example). And throughout, before leaving Greenville for Baltimore, Future Islands toured, perhaps doggedly so.
"We were on the road for basically five-and-a-half years straight," Herring says. "And I would say somewhere around four years into that, basically at the beginning of 2012, I was just about done. I was just tired, basically."
All that traveling had wreaked havoc on Herring's relationships. But the heartbreaks also offered a deep well of breakup songs—just what Future Islands do best. Along with Herring's ability to transmit so directly, the tales of loss and devastation play well against the driving, sturdy, layered compositions.
"It's like putting complementary colors together," Herring says. "It's the opposites, how they are sharp against each other. That's something I've always done without thinking, but I've realized over the last few years that it's something that we're really good at."
The band just released Singles, an album title that came after the fact, but might as well explain the aim. "I wanted this album to be a banger," Herring says. He hopes there will be many more.
"I see us as still a somewhat young band," says Herring. "I know that there are bands who really have been doing it 25 or 30 years. I want to be one of those bands someday. I want to be that; I think we all do—that same kind of band that keeps pushing, keeps doing their thing."