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Interview: Future Islands' Samuel T. Herring Talks Partying and Progress

Interview: Future Islands' Samuel T. Herring Talks Partying and Progress

Tuesday 7th November, 2017 11:53AM

Future Islands’ pop is a dreamy mix of synths, melting bass and electronic drums, but the band’s origins are more organic. Singer Samuel T. Herring grew up in a coastal village tucked away behind a K-Mart in the southeastern United States. As a teenager, he became close friends with future bassist William Cashion. Then, in the autumn of 2002, both met up with future keyboardist Garrit Whelmers at East Carolina University, a school better known for partying and football than poetry and introspection. Herring eventually flunked out and took a year off. But it was here that Future Islands’ epic live show was born. Fifteen years later, Nathan Means (of Trans Am) talks to Herring about frat houses, concept bands and surfing ahead of sold out shows in Auckland and Wellington this December...

You, Garrit and William have been playing together in various bands since your first year at university, over 15 years ago. Set the scene for me when that all came together.

Our college was known as a party school. It was actually kind of dubious to go there – it was considered a sort of fall back position. But the art school there was big, probably 1,000 people. There was also a school of music that had their own thing. The drama school had their own thing. So, there were lots of people there with crazy cool ideas. We were just playing house parties for kids at the art school.

Honestly that school has a lot to do with how we took on performance. We made music that was fun and you could dance to it. We were all coming together as artists. It was the first time I had ever sung. The first time William had played bass. Garrit had never played keys or been in band. We just wanted to have fun with our friends.

The first band included elaborate costumes and relatively inexperienced musicians, right?

Our goal with Art Lord and the Self Portraits was to create a performance art piece with music as the medium. We were operating on outskirts of the university, but within a year of us starting we were headlining the local club and selling it out on a Friday night.

All kinds of people who wanted to see live music showed up. So very early on, at 19 years old, we were kind of like stars. I got recognised around the school by people who were frat dudes or sorority girls. They were very different from the people we rolled with, but at the same time we were all kids. I did almost get beat up on the front porch of fraternity house at three in the morning. But I found it funny more than anything.

How did Future Islands come out of that?

After a while, the Art Lord concept went away. We started singing honest songs and decided to change to a band where we were just ourselves, human beings, stripping away the costumes.

We also went from selling out the local bar to not being able to get a show anywhere. We were only 21, but we also already in a band that people used to like. We’d say: “Future Islands is good – you can come to this show.”

Obviously, that didn’t slow you down. In July of 2015 you played your thousandth show. You’ve put out six albums. Your live performances are unstoppable. Do you have any fears on stage?

I still fear that I’ll play a show and no one will show up. I have that all the time. Music moves in and out. You continue to do it, not let people forget about you, build an audience. But as you get older, you need time for life.

Some reviews of your new album,
The Far Field, say that it’s consistent, solid front-to-back, but they miss a track like 'Seasons' from 2014’s Seasons.

Yeah. It’s like they almost wish we had re-recorded that song. But I think Singles wouldn’t have been the record that it was without the Letterman moment. Our performance on Letterman was a month before new album came out and it affected the trajectory of that record.

But is the consistency of The Far Field something you’re proud of?

For me, consistency is OK. It’s definitely better than getting panned. I want us to be seen as a workhorse band - a band that does it in a labor of love rather than playing to media or a musical trend. Since we were in college we’ve been making music with keys and bass guitar and electronic drums, that’s a consistency that has followed us through the years.

If Future Islands rebooted I think it would be dishonest. We’ve continued to paint with colors on our palette – it’s our album sonically. You can’t take back things. You got to put it on wax and get it out and go write more songs.

You each have other musical projects as well. Does that help keep Future Islands focused?

I love experimenting. I love collaboration, singing over completely different things. Music pulls so many different things out of you and allows you to flex so many different facets of your ego, the weak side and the strong side. So, creating hip hop, folk, country, soul – stuff like BADBADNOTGOOD – is an opportunity to exercise myself.

Johnny Cash’s mom told him that his voice was a gift. You’re not a traditionally trained musician, but you’ve got a distinctive voice. Do you consider it a gift?

I used to have a great voice but I damaged it really badly by partying and singing without monitors. I thought I’d never be able to sing like I had again. So, I learned new ways to use my voice.

Whenever you have limitations you can push further. My fears and anxieties about my voice completely dying gave me a distinctiveness. In a way that is a gift. But I wouldn’t recommend anyone picking up cigarettes or drinking half a bottle of tequila a night for a few years.

You guys recorded the new album at Sunset Sound, where Purple Rain, Pet Sounds and tons of other amazing albums were recorded. What’s your favorite album recorded there?

Well, we were in the Van Halen room which was pretty dope. I’m not a huge fan, but come on! It’s Van Halen! But…The Doors. Let’s put it down.

You’ve only been to New Zealand once before , a one-off at Laneway (TK). What did you earn?

Christchurch. That is one of the strangest, craziest names for a place. I also got really bad hay fever in New Zealand. I learned some slang. When you surf on the whitewater, because you don’t know how to surf, they call that “Surfing the Hobbit’s Tears.” (Laughs)

Future Islands are performing in Auckland and Wellington this December, see below for more info.


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Future Islands
Thu 14th Dec 8:00pm
San Fran, Wellington
Future Islands
Fri 15th Dec 8:00pm
San Fran, Wellington
Future Islands
Sat 16th Dec 8:00pm
The Powerstation, Auckland