Future Islands' Samuel T. Herring on doing Letterman: That's not as wild as I get

Categories: Q&A
Photo by Tim Saccenti
Samuel T. Herring can do a phone interview with almost as much intensity as his on-stage persona. Get the Future Islands frontman going -- even in the middle of the Charlotte International Airport -- and his responses just flow with the awareness of the largeness of his band's current moment.  

On the Baltimore-based synth-rock group's newly released fourth album, Singles, Herring, keyboard programmer Gerrit Welmers, and bassist William Cashion have honed an already polished synthesizer-rich aesthetic further. Paired with Herring's confessional lyrics, these challenging songs are like clouds hanging over the ocean -- some with a silver lining, others with far-darker innards. They made their TV debut with the undeniable "Seasons (Waiting on You)" on Late Show With David Letterman in early March, and Herring's unbridled passion onstage awoke something in the comedian. Afterwards, the host yelled, "I'll take all of that you got!" and so did plenty of other unsuspecting Americans as the clip went viral.

Ahead of Future Islands's sold-out performance at Triple Rock Social Club, Gimme Noise spoke to Herring about that fateful night on TV, and the many people who have informed his performance style.

See also:
Review: Future Islands at Triple Rock Social Club, 3/28/14

You recently did eight shows at SXSW, and give so much whenever you're performing. How did you stay passionate when you're just running around and not in the typical setup of an evening show?
Every performance is different. In golf you play a course. It's different rooms, different stages, different crowds, different vibes, especially when you're playing at one in the afternoon and then five in the afternoon and then, you know, one o'clock in the morning. It's probably just important to have a short memory and just go into a performance like it's the last one or the only one. Don't think about the ones later. Just give it everything you've got. When you're on stage and you get those people in front of you, you want to make an impression. It doesn't really matter when or where it is.

Did you meet your own expectations during your time in Austin?
I think we did great down there. Our main goal was smash every show, and I think we did. It was that last 1 a.m. set on Friday night. It was a late show, and I was talking to a buddy like, "Are we going to be able to do it?" I was so tired. "Well, we're seven for seven so far, so if we go seven for eight, that's still pretty damn good." But as soon as I walked onstage and I saw my buddy and he was like, "It was great, man, it was another wild show."

Which performers inspired what you do onstage?
My older brother was probably the first real influence of a front man. He played in bands and stuff, was a writer and a very charismatic singer and MC. I saw a G.G. Allin documentary when I was 10 or 11, as well as early footage of Jane's Addiction through my brother's old VHS collection. When I went off to schoo,l it was my buddies in Valient Thorr. [VT's lead singer Herbie Abernathy] was my first exposure to a real frontman who played many many shows and did it every night. Herbie is really awesome because he is a very big person in real life, and on stage he's even bigger.

One of the important things is seeing how you can be someone on stage and not be that person in real life -- like have a dual personality. You bring something different to a performance, something that's more explosive and hyperbolic than if you were one person. My buddy Nolen Strals from Double Dagger is another one. Nolen is kind of a quiet, shy person, but on stage he's just like one of the most raw, unapologetic singers that I've ever seen. There's the kind of people that get into your head, like Ian Curtis. When I first saw that at 18 or 19, it blew my mind. At the same time, I was also turned onto Kraftwerk, and that's a totally different kind of band. I don't always think that everyone should perform the way I perform. You should perform what's honest to you, you know?

Director Jay Buim's rodeo video for "Seasons (Waiting on You)" is a beautiful juxtaposition of Americana with music that doesn't always breed that association. How did that connection happen?
We basically just let Jay run wild with what he wants to do for us, because we trust his vision and art as a director. His idea was maybe the most -- I don't want to say strange -- but maybe the most interesting. When he heard the song, he felt that it was a very just like a beautiful love song, but he felt like there was a masculinity to it. That was where he went with his idea. To capture this love story, but in this rugged piece of America that some people forget about.

When I first saw that video, I was a little confused. The second time I saw it I was like, "This is really interesting." And the third time I pretty much cried at that last scene. I've heard the song hundreds of times already through writing, recording, mixing, and mastering. Now I'm hearing it with this visual, and it does something completely different to me.

What does it do for you now?
We all come from kind of humble upbringings. We come from different parts of the South, you know, mainly North Carolina. In a way, [the video's characters] are like people that I grew up with, or people that I grew up around. And so it does really speak to our history, but I think it just speaks about people. It just like captures an honest view of people living, and that's really what is the main goal with our music, is to capture a part of the human experience in honest form.

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