Future Islands: “We had an unwavering belief that things would work out”
For audiences, Future Islands have felt like a constant fixture in America’s indie-pop catalogue. For the band, however, the journey from their conception to worldwide recognition has been a much longer process.
With their sixth studio album on the horizon, we sat down with instrumentalists William, Gerrit, and Michael to chat through the new music, the force that is frontman Samuel T Herring, and to discuss a lesson in resilience.
HAPPY: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak to me guys!
EVERYONE: Thank you.
HAPPY: Firstly, I have to confess: I chose to speak with you instead of just Samuel because, firstly, I love the relationship between the music and the voice in your band. I’m aware that in most cases, you guys compose the music and Samuel composes the melody and writes the lyrics, is that right?
WILLIAM: Yes, Sam does all of the vocal duties and he writes all the lyrics. And then the music is the three of us.
HAPPY: For a band from Baltimore, there’s a lot of Manchester in your sound. Joy Division, New Order, and, dare I say, The Smiths. I love the melancholy of the melody and lyrics in stark contrast to the upbeat nature of the music, which creates a bittersweetness that those UK bands are so well known for. Tell me how it happened for you guys?
GERRIT: I think it’s just part of the influence but also, partly, the instruments that we had at the time. So, we have a keyboard, a bass, and a drum machine, and that was kind of it. We were definitely inspired by a lot of those bands that you mentioned. I think, in the beginning, it was just more like, let’s see what we can do with this weird array of instruments and see what happened.
WILLIAM: I don’t think there was the conscious decision to try to sound like those bands, I know I’ve gotten compared to Peter Hook a lot over the years. I really love Peter Hook’s bass style, but I’m not trying to rip him off or anything, I’m not going for a Peter Hook sound because he does that, he does it really well, I don’t need to do it.
I think the push and pull of the uplifting music and the really intense emotional lyrics is a cool balance that we’ve always been kind of drawn toward. I know that Sam really likes to play with that. Like, I remember when we first wrote Vireo’s Eye for In Evening Air, the music was really uplifting. I think Sam had a lot of trouble writing that song at first because he wanted to do the song justice, but he wanted to make sure that it was the right fit. I think it ends up being a really strong song because the lyrics aren’t really uplifting. The song is actually about the end of a relationship.
HAPPY: Speaking of relationships, it’s great to have you guys here because we can talk about Sam. What is it like to be in a band with him and what is the relationship between you all like?
WILLIAM: I met Sam when I was a freshman in college. I met Gerrit through Sam, they were good friends and had been friends since high school, maybe even middle school? Middle school, Gerrit?
GERRIT: We met each other in middle school, we didn’t really start hanging til high school.
WILLIAM: In high school, we formed a band before Future Islands, we were called Art Lord & The Self Portraits. We had these weird songs that we made up and practised, then we threw a house party, a keg party, and, as soon as we played the first song in front of people, Sam immediately became animated. It was like a different person, just a total, natural performer. Before that, I had never been in a band with a frontman who was so comfortable on stage, in front of a crowd, and meant for the spotlight.
His performance style has changed a lot over the years. But yeah, I’ve always been very impressed with that. Mike has a really good story about the first time he played with us. We were talking about this earlier today in an interview. I think it’s a pretty good story… sorry Mike to put you on the spot.
MICHAEL: No, no, it’s cool. So, I joined up in, like, 2014? Right before Singles came out. And like, we had just been rehearsing in this tiny practice space, Sam was just singing, sitting on the couch. He had a mic and we were running the songs, I think the last practice he stood up and kind of moved a little bit but not much.
Then, we went to play the show in LA at the Eagle Rock Art Centre. That was our first show and, as William said, as soon as we started he just sort of exploded. The stage was so narrow and he was just so close to me that it was quite distracting.
HAPPY: Kinda like a jack-in-the-box?
MICHAEL: Yeah and I was like, whoa, what’s going on? At one point in the song, he just hit the floor. I mean, he really hit the deck. I thought he had slipped and fell, I was like holy shit, did he just hurt himself? I was just looking around, wondering is anyone seeing this?
I had to play the whole set with my eyes closed for the first few shows, because I found it so distracting. I played in a lot of bands, but I’d never had one with such a dynamic frontman, who had such a presence. It was pretty overwhelming at first.
We had this friend called Vice who asked, have you played with the band before, “is this your first show?” And I was like, “yeah, this is my first show.” And he just said, “buckle up, you have no idea.” It took me a while to adjust and get used to it.
HAPPY: I’ve heard a few stories about Sam hurting himself, you guys were opening for Morrissey and he badly injured his knee?
MICHAEL: Oh yeah, that was wild.
HAPPY: I loved the video you released for For Sure. I loved that there is no one in the video… for those who haven’t seen it, we basically see two cars riding cheek-to-cheek through what looks like a dystopian future where humans no longer exist. The scenes are reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys.
Because it doesn’t feature Sam performing, you are able to just focus on his voice and his incredibly beautiful lyrics. Was that a conscious decision in making that video?
WILLIAM: About that video, we had a couple different treatments. The first treatment was going to be a noir-style video of us just playing in a white room. We were going to fly to LA to shoot it but it was like, right when the pandemic started here. We ended up having to look into other options. We ended up working with Sam Mason, we had seen this one video that he made that was just this incredibly surreal, it was like a just a surreal new world. It was like a different planet.
The video for For Sure was created entirely through animation. We just gave him complete control over the video because we knew that he would make it look beautiful. We had a couple of phone calls and then he sent us a rough draft of the video. It was like the whole structure of the video but with no details. It was just like it was like a 3D animation you might see in an ‘80s movie or something.
Visually, it was going to be a hybrid of North Carolina and Maryland, which is where we currently live in North Carolina. In the first edit, the sun was setting over the ocean and I was like, if it’s going to be East Coast, it looks great, but the sun needs to be setting over the land and not the ocean. And he’s like, good point, so he literally went in and reprogrammed the sun to set over the land, which I thought was really cool.
HAPPY: Wow, so the whole video is composited, I had no idea! I thought it was real footage. I wanted to ask you guys, you’re up to your sixth record now and you guys have been going since 2006. What would you say to all the musicians out there about sticking it out? You saw enormous success in 2014 but that was eight years after the conception of the project.
WILLIAM: I would say just stick with it. There’s no such thing as failure, any kind of thing that could be perceived as a failure is an opportunity to learn something and to grow from that. You know, we got turned down by lots of labels, lots of booking agents, lots of managers.
We were turned down for years and, instead of being defeated, we just got out there and we did it on our own. We booked our own shows for like seven years. We just booked ourselves. When we didn’t have a label, we just put out our own music, we burned CDs, cassette tapes, and it’s even easier now to just put it on Bandcamp. I’d just say get it out there and just stay persistent.
I think that’s the main thing, you don’t need to wait until you’re any good to leave your garage, just get out there and in front of people. I think you learn so much more performing in front of people, you’ll learn so much more doing a short tour, or series of shows than you will in a practice room.
It’s more important to mess up in front of people, that’ll make sure you get it right the next time. It seems, at the time, that no one is paying attention, you know, even if you’re playing to like five or 10 people. The next time we went back to those towns hopefully those people came back and they’d have brought some friends.
We had an unwavering belief that things would work out. There was no reason that we should have felt that way though, because everyone around us was telling us not to do it, but we ignored their sound advice. We went out on a limb and we took some chances and we believed we could make this our life.
Now, we could actually do this for a living. 2006 through 2011, those were the hardest years because we all had jobs back home that we would come back to. We had to go back to work and then leave and we were just hustling like crazy, any spare time that we had went to playing shows, touring, writing, and recording.
We really love it, we just stuck with it because we didn’t want to give it up. It was all too much fun and the small fan base that we had made it all worthwhile.
HAPPY: Thank you Future Islands for taking the time to speak with me today
EVERYONE: Thanks, man.
As Long As You Are will be available on all streaming platforms from October 9th.