The unstoppable energy of Future Islands

'By the end of the show, it should look like it hurts.'

© Sarah Rix
June 5, 2017

Some people just have an energy about them. Samuel T. Herring, Future Islands frontman, is one of them. But if you’re reading this, you probably know that.

By the time I sit down with the band, which also includes bassist William Cashion and keyboardist Gerrit Welmers, they’re 8 hours into a daylong press blitz at Toronto’s Pantages hotel. By all accounts, they’re exhausted – but fidgeting under fluorescent lights in the hotel’s main floor offices, you’d never know it.

“What should we do with our hands?”

As the band’s pseudo salsa-dancing show-stealer, Herring draws much of the attention on stage and off. And as a band, that’s clearly something they can live with. Herring’s theatrics, which, vocally, transmit as bellowing hollers, guttural growls and inquisitive croons, ride the waves established by Welmers and Cashion; his distinct vocals float along the band’s writhing rhythm section (filled out on tour by drummer Michael Lowry). It’s a symbiotic relationship. They provide the baseline – and bass lines – that inspire viral Letterman performances, and, after snack and smoke breaks, he provides the extra jolt of energy they need to get through the last of their lengthy interview gauntlet.

The band’s dynamic, refined over the last ten years, has always left me a little curious. How do you not get distracted by him on stage? As it turns out, the answer is surprisingly simple: Practice.

“As crazy as Sam’s being, we’re used to it,” says Cashion.” We’re not watching what he’s doing, we’re just trying to make sure he doesn’t step on our stuff or knock a keyboard off [its] stand.”

“Honestly, and I say this all the time… I couldn’t be the frontman that I am without these guys,” adds Herring. “I just trust them. I know that they have it back there, and because of that, I can be free.”

That freedom has allowed them to evolve and experiment over time, and it’s what helped them sustain after the sudden surge that comes with a viral hit. It’s what led to The Far Field, their newest and by all accounts strongest collection of songs yet.

As album openers go, “Aladdin” is something special: Filled with crescendoing strings and some of Herring’s most impassioned vocals to date, it’s the perfect performance closer, and yet somehow, a suitable album opener. And if we’re digging deep, it’s a fitting allegory for the band itself; Herring’s vocals might threaten to steal the show, but it’s Cashion and Welmers’ pulsing backbone that keeps him on course. That control is important. Herring is easily caricatured but devilishly passionate, and learning how to play with that rawness has been refined through more than ten years of touring together.

“I mean look at us, bro. We’re the coolest.”

Then there’s “Shadow,” which expertly pairs Herring’s longing baritone with Debbie Harry—yes, that Debbie Harry. You’d never know it, but the track wasn’t actually written with her in mind.

“We wrote it when we were working on Singles, and we just couldn’t find the right voice for the song, so we put it on the shelf,” said Cashion. When I asked how they landed such a huge cameo, Herring laughs and adds “I mean look at us, bro. We’re the coolest.”

“Look at us, bro. We’re the coolest.”

They’re pretty cool, yeah. But they were never actually in the room with Harry when they recorded it.

“She recorded it in New York City,” explains Cashion. “We were in L.A. Sam’s e-mailed with her, though.”

Sam, miming his e-mails with Blondie’s Debbie Harry.

The Far Field is more than another notch in the Future Islands belt – it’s the next chapter in a long line for one of independent music’s hardest working bands.

“By the end of the show, it should look like it hurts.”

169, 89 and… 8—that’s the number of shows Future Islands played in 2014, 2015, and 2016.

In 2017, expect them to make up the difference; they’ve already got around 100 booked, because the band, who’ve been called “relentless” tourers on their subreddit, often can’t say no to a good gig. Even after a full day’s slate of interviews, Herring jokes with me about crashing Toronto’s Legendary Horseshoe Tavern for a surprise set. This was in March — in May, they returned to play the Danforth Music Hall, and they’ll be back in Hogtown at Massey Hall on October 6th. And while each set will bring with it its own set of quirks, there will no doubt be one common thread—by the end of their set, Herring will look like he has nothing left. He’ll pant, sweating through is shirt, eyes glinting at the audience. And for affording him the freedom to lose himself on stage, he has his band to thank. It’s not quite a science, but Future Islands have it down to a formula.

“By the end of the show, it should look like it hurts,” Herring tells me, grinning. For him, it’s about breaking people’s expectations; proving that there’s method to the madness he’s been selling for so long.

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