Yours Sincerely, Future Islands
“There’s a fucking moon cake over here.”
Samuel T. Herring has discovered a jaffa cake and he’s holding it up to the light, eyeing it with awe. His bandmate William Cashion needles his rocking chair forward, arching up to get a closer view. “It’s really cool and weird,” he confirms. “A very strange thing.” Sam takes a bite and recoils. “It’s like my teeth just ate into a pillow.”
The three members of Future Islands have been in the same room for a very long time and it’s starting to show. The Baltimore-based trio are in the middle of a maelstrom of press unlike anything they’ve experienced in their eleven years as the band, and our interview falls somewhere in a string of nights hopping across European capitals, telling the world about their fifth album The Far Field. With the world now watching, the release of The Far Field comes at a crucial moment. The LP is the much-anticipated follow up to Singles, the 2014 breakthrough album which elevated Future Islands from critically-acclaimed artpop outsiders to one of indie rock’s most in-demand live acts.
We’re tucked away in a spacious room, below ground, in a boutique hotel in the Bethnal Green area of London. There’s a lot of laughter. Sam is every bit the frontman, beaming confidently in the centre, flanked on either side by William, who plays bass, and Gerrit Welmers, the band’s programmer and keyboardist. Gerrit has a kind of cult status in the room: he speaks in sardonic comments, always to the spluttering laughter of the others. William is relaxed and more talkative than I’d expected, especially when he learns that there’s a debate in Britain about whether jaffa cakes should be classed as cakes or biscuits. He spends the conversation leaning back on his rocking chair, alternating between total sincerity and a kind of stoner-philosopher schtick that’s complimented by the verbal tics of a North Carolina upbringing; dude, bro, dope. At times I feel as though I’m clambering clumsily over the architecture of their in-jokes, but for the most part they let me in on the gag.
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First forming in 2006 out of another band, the Kraftwerk-inspired Art Lord & the Self-Portraits, Future Islands have put in work over the years. As a three-piece, they developed their distinctive sound with romantic, melodic synths, a post-punk bass tone and Sam’s theatrical growl. Pre-Singles, they took three DIY albums on self-managed tours across countless small venues. “A big thing about our early days is that we wanted to grab people’s attention and make an impression,” William says, explaining how Sam developed his instantly recognisable performance style, for which he beats his chest and runs at the edge of the stage like a caged animal, his face a deep well of feeling. He always goes hard, thrusting, lurching and jolting in unexpected directions, a process he admits is tough on his body. “He’s always done that, even in basements,” William confirms. “He used to knock the headstock of my bass and knock it out of tune all the time.”
With a performance on popular US talk-show Late Night with David Letterman to promote their single Seasons (Waiting on You) in 2014, Future Islands’ unique style finally attracted the attention of the world. Sam danced as boldly as he always does, and let his vocal slide in and out of screamo roars delicately, pulling the camera into a vortex whenever he chose. The video gained millions of views and raised the band’s profile massively, helping promote Singles (which saw them move from Chicago label Thrill Jockey to Grimes’ and The National’s label 4AD) as well as upgrading their tour accommodation arrangements from friends’ floors to hotel rooms. But the internet is fickle, and a Letterman-endorsed meme risked reducing Sam’s performance style to the status of a cheap visual catchphrase. Something about the hype was lacking.
Future Islands’ desire to return to their roots is clear. “The old records have a certain feeling because they were recorded in old houses or a skate park, and they were made using three or four microphones and an old portable board,” Sam explains. “Whatever our buddy Chester [Endersby Gwazda] had, we used to record. Because of that, those records have all these, like, ghosts to them. Like the sound of a space. With Singles, we kind of went against that. I think it was really important for us to make that record the way we did, because we wanted to just make as hi-fidelity a recording as we ever had the opportunity to make. But the feeling was that we went too far and became maybe a little too polished.”
When touring for Singles eventually ended, the band took a breather to work on various solo projects. Among them is Peals – Williams’ experimental project with Bruce Willen of the now-defunct Baltimore post-punk outfit Double Dagger – and Gerrit’s project Moss of Aura. William and Sam released a record as The Snails, a live ska band for which they indeed play while dressed as snails, and Sam also raps as Hemlock Ernst – an endeavour which led to him teaming up with respected hip-hop producer Madlib for 2015’s Trouble Knows Me EP. “Hemlock gives me this whole other outlet where it’s completely about flow and wordplay rather than melody,” Sam explains. “There are certain songs on the [Future Islands] record, especially that first verse on [opening track] Aladdin, where I’d never written anything like that before – it’s that weird flow that just flew out of me. I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t been writing hip-hop verse as well.”
When the time came to return to the studio, pairing with acclaimed producer John Congleton helped recapture the spirit of their earlier albums. “Going into recording, I was like: I want to bring some of that feeling back,” says Sam. “And luckily John Congleton was all about it. He was referencing our history.” Congleton also introduced the band to new musical avenues, including setting up a duet with Debbie Harry on album highlight Shadows. As William says, “She definitely made the song her own.”
It’s not just the sonics of The Far Field that echo their earlier work. Like 2010’s In Evening Air, the artwork for this new album is by visual artist (and former Art Lord and the Self Portraits member) Kymia Nawabi. Likewise, the titles of both In Evening Air and The Far Field are lifted from the poetry of Theodore Roethke, a 20th Century American writer who has been a lifelong influence on Sam. The imagery from Roethke’s poems resonates with the album’s themes, particularly the sense of getting older and the idea of the road. The title The Far Field is taken from the following passage by Roethke, which could almost have been written by Herring:
I learned not to fear infinity,
The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,
The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow,
The wheel turning away from itself,
The sprawl of the wave,
The on-coming water.
Sam read these poems religiously when touring earlier albums, and the spirit of the words sunk in. “He was really the first poet that, like, pulled something from me,” he says. “That book of his collected poems, The Far Field, became a book that I carried around. The first four or five years of touring that we did, I had that book. The Far Field and Jack Gilbert’s The Great Fires became my meditation and also the things that, like, calmed me on the road. They were both books that helped me get over – if I’m still over – an ex-girlfriend, the person In Evening Air references many times. I haven’t actually read that book for four or five years but it doesn’t matter because he is like a part of me. The way that he uses words, the way he goes against rhyme at times, putting the beautiful beside the grotesque, it still mesmerises me.”
“A lot of songs on the new record are about going from pure joy and beauty, to something falling apart” – Samuel T. Herring
The album often returns to the sense of continuing onwards on endless roads. ‘How it feels when we fall, when we fold, how we lose control, on these roads’, goes the chorus of lead single Ran. After years of touring, does he feel that writing about life has become almost the same thing as writing about the road? “I do think that our lives have blended. After all of 2014 and 2015 being on the road, I needed to go home, we all wanted to go home after 2015 because we’d just been on the road for so fucking long for Singles, but after being home for a few months I was just like, ‘I need to leave!’ I was just aching to get back out there, and I think we all felt that.”
Much of the emotional power on The Far Field comes from singing about lost love broken by the strain of distance. It’s a theme familiar to the band’s discography, speaking openly of the strains of maintaining – or failing to maintain – relationships whilst on tour. ‘And I went off and saw things I’ve never seen/ I really wanted you there’, Sam lamented on In Evening Air song Long Flight.
He’s just as open about the topic in person. “My love life is so messed up because if I meet somebody in Baltimore then it’s a long distance relationship and if I meet an amazing person on the other side of the country then it’s a long distance relationship. No matter where I am it’s a long distance relationship. That’s really defeating at times. I found myself in love at the beginning of 2016 and that definitely informed this album… It was like a fireworks display that started with the finale and it quickly died. A lot of songs on this record are about that six months going from pure joy and beauty to something falling apart to figuring it out again.”
Sam is responsible for the lion’s share of emotional expression when Future Islands perform, but Gerrit and William have both maintained long distance relationships for the past few years, and the strain of distance can be tough on them too. Asked whether they bring this emotional heft to live performance, Gerrit insists he’s more focused on trying not to mess up, but William feels differently. “I do channel sometimes,” he reveals, to raised eyebrows and swiveling heads, as if it’s the first time he’s ever said so. “Missing Elena. I think about my family, I think about North Carolina, I think about Baltimore. During certain songs like Song for our Grandfathers, it takes me there in my mind. I’ll try to go there.”
When Future Islands go to that place, they take the audience with them; many fans have found solace in their work. In turn, Sam has found solace in the audience. “We found that sharing truth and vulnerability has helped people, people who have become supporters of what we do and who have become part of our family. Those people get something out of the exposing of self, bearing of truth, in those times. When I was writing In Evening Air, I was tearing myself apart as a young man. Like, no one understood how I felt, but I wrote those songs and performing them gave me peace of mind that people did understand what I was going through because they were going through it.
“Light House [from Singles] is a song that has been a staple for us because people know that that song is about suicide and the fear of the darkness and somebody helping them,” Sam continues. “We’ve probably received more mail about that song than any other song. Like, that song has helped people, because of a conversation that I once had with someone I loved who helped me at that time. It’s a song for those people that understand.”
“We found that sharing truth and vulnerability has helped people. People get something out of the exposing of self, the bearing of truth” – Samuel T. Herring
On the new album, Through the Roses deals with a similar sense of vulnerability, and of pulling through to overcome darkness with solidarity. “I had a clear vision,” Sam says. “Not in writing the words, it was more like I had written the words and then I could see it all. I saw 10,000 hands in the air held together, people crying and singing the song. And I know that sounds clichéd and corny but I’m sitting in my older brother’s room in Asheville, North Carolina, writing this down and singing it to myself and I can see it and I’m, like, about to cry thinking about it. I saw the clear vision of what it is.”
Sam’s vision of a crowd singing seems like an antidote to the sense of loneliness that Through the Roses describes. He quotes the lyrics – ‘the clutch of nothing, the curse of wanting’ – which allude to the theme of suicidal thoughts. “Wanting everything but having nothing,” he elaborates. “It takes me over sometimes and I don’t know what to do. I was sitting there alone and that really hit me hard. But the idea – you know – the ‘we’ is the audience. The we was always the audience. We can pull through.”
Sam has brought the whole room with him, and as he finishes talking the pressure unfolds. There’s a sense of relief, like we’ve all come through something together. “I was about to fucking cry right there!” he acknowledges, slumping back on the comfy sofa. “I love you guys. I love all you guys.” The shift in mood feels natural. When we wrap up, he takes a jaffa cake and begins pretending to sob while improvising a song about the curse of jaffa and its hold on him. “The curse of jaffa takes me!” he sings. William laughs and looks on. “I think it’s a biscuit,” he suggests.
The Far Field is released 7 April via 4AD. Future Islands appear at Lowlands festival, Biddinghuizen, The Netherlands, 18-20 August