Howling at the Moon: Future Islands' Samuel T. Herring navigates breakups and bruising tour schedules on Singles

The Baltimore trio return with an improbable synthpop masterpiece to revive a spiritless generation

Feature by Jazz Monroe | 05 Mar 2014
  • Future Islands

It’s mid-afternoon when Samuel T. Herring, roundly stuffed with bangers and mash, calls off group naptime to Skype in from the 4AD band flat in Wandsworth. The label, much to the Baltimore trio’s delight, will release Future Islands’ fourth LP this March, and it’s a cracker. Indeed, after 11 years together the band is cusping a breakthrough that has every fan, label-bod and band-member in heady, cloud-punching spirits. All, that is, but one.

“Man,” sighs Herring, a muscular fellow who sings like a depressed werewolf. “I’m 29. What happened? What happened to me as a 24-year-old?” He makes a strange noise that’s presumably a chuckle but sounds like sobbing. “Where did those years go, man?”

Herring, whose somber patois suggests Jeff Bridges’ Dude being directed by Terrence Malick, navigated troubled waters to get here. It started six years ago, when Future Islands hit the road so hard they barely got up again; since then, the group’s proclivity for touring like an illegal circus has, quite gradually, dismantled Herring’s personal life. Early in 2013 they paused for breath, but that half-decade struck hard. “I sometimes feel like I lost life,” he admits. “I mean, you step away and create an alternate reality, because everything continues on at home. Your friends are there, they’re drinking at your bar. Your girlfriend is at home wondering where you are...”

Herring talks longingly of relationships – love, home, friendship – but seems somehow uncommitted: ”Sometimes after three months on the road, you see a good buddy and they don’t even realise you’ve been gone. You’re like, ‘Yeah, I was just all over the place.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, really? Crazy. You wanna get a beer?’” The implication is that keeping contact was the friend’s job.

“You’re an update service,” adds Gerrit Welmers, a sort of deadpan band oracle who plays synth and beat-programmes. “You give updates to your girlfriend, or to your parents. You’re just like: ‘I’m here today. I’ve arrived.’” He half-smiles, looking ambivalent; the band chuckle or sob in agreement.

By now, Future Islands have released enough breakup albums to qualify as a breakup band. The tag suits them: Herring, it transpires, is very much a breakup sort of guy. When asked to elaborate on an enigmatic comment made at a recent gig, he relays an unrepeatably sad saga involving long-distance love, dangling hope and a six-hour drive to an empty house. It’s a tale so crushingly maudlin you want to pack its bags and fly it to Ibiza.

Let’s jump instead to the months immediately after. It’s 2008, as Herring and bassist William Cashion (also of Peals) bite the bullet and up sticks from North Carolina for Baltimore. Their arrival coincides with the unravelling of Wham City, a weirdo-art community Dan Deacon co-founded, known for goofy hijinks and hipster in-jokes such as Jurassic Park stage plays and Dan Deacon’s music career. But they harness scene disarray and relationship woe to grow anew, and with a work rate that’d make Thatcher grimace set the Future Islands sails to billowing.

"Let’s be open to each other again. Let’s care about our fellow man, instead of living in this world of computer screens" – Samuel T. Herring

Now, after three albums of snowballing charm and wit, Future Islands are approaching perfection. Like all their records, Singles was mostly self-funded, but the band’s aversion to a pressure-making label advance was, in this case, unwarranted. Its stunning hit ratio is thanks partly to Chris Coady’s production (a stipulation of 4AD’s involvement), which planes edges without blunting the spirit, but put simply, Singles' greatest asset is Herring and co’s songwriting, some of the mightiest around. The lyrics kick and frolic like lovers’ legs dangling over the pier, and despite the sound palette’s corporate gloss, the music's cool is fuelled not by irony or effortlessness but something far more interesting.

Essentially, Future Islands’ appeal has always orbited a hyperawareness of time’s passage. As 80s-style synths establish a nostalgic undercurrent, lyrics about loss, romance, turning tides and changing seasons celebrate the romantic inevitability of renewal. Meanwhile, outdated and potentially ironic pop signifiers – fast programmed beats, major-key synths, booming kick drums – confront a brute vocal sincerity that explodes the endorphin dam while tying your bullshit-sensor in knots.

The point is, this glossy synthpop is a Trojan horse for real emotion and soul. Instead of flattering our cleverness, the elements combine to snatch massive heart from the jaws of ambivalence. Modern indie-pop has learned to exploit our cynicism towards sentimentality, but Future Islands are way ahead: they capitalise on our cynicism towards cynicism.

“The difficulty is to write something that has that sentimentality without becoming completely cliché,” Herring explains. “But Spirit is a preachy song, not sentimental. It’s about not letting people carve out a role for you in your life. You don’t have to live the way everybody else lives if that’s not how you feel in your heart or soul: ‘Be more than words / Be more than strength and kind / Be love and blind / To those who come to you.’ It’s like saying, ‘Let’s be open to each other again. Let’s care about our fellow man, instead of living in this world of computer screens.’ We can say ‘I love you’ on the phone but we can’t say it to each other’s faces.”

Lines like Spirit’s “Sing something new,” Herring continues, address a spiritually moribund generation of songwriters: “If you have the platform to say something, say something. If you wanna believe in something, believe in something. And the follow-up line to that is, ‘Belief is wet and ghost.’ Which is like, belief is something you can’t see. It’s heavy and wet, but you can’t see it. But it believes in the most of you. It isn’t there, it’s not something you can see, but it’s in our heart. Our belief is everything – it’s who we are.”

Earnest, heartfelt, direct – Herring’s outlook is hardly the bread and butter of blog-oriented indie, but it’s a neat antidote. At a time when, more than ever, schmaltzy ads and sitcoms dilute our appetite for sentiment and sincerity, we crave a hype-free, spiritual sugar-rush like Singles. This especially applies in indie-rock, the genre thirstiest to overcompensate with vagueness and irony for the inauthenticity of pop.

Asked about his relationship with the modern taboo of spirituality and the soul, Herring instinctively discusses his vocal style, apparently a point of contention for skeptics of Future Islands’ sincerity. “It’s funny to me, because it’s as if people forgot how to sing,” he says. “There’s all this great music, rock and soul of the fifties, sixties and even into the seventies. But somewhere in the eighties and nineties, pop took over and things got more industrial and clean-sounding. And then all of a sudden it’s 2008 and people can’t understand a singer who sings deeply or strong.”

“With emotion,” adds Cashion.

“Yeah, with emotion. It never made sense to me. I mean, I grew up listening to Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke and James Brown and the Supremes, in the car with my mum. That’s what I love: people singing from their soul. I feel like Singles is kind of an exploration of those different voices. Finding an old voice that I had many years ago.”

Though it’s barely conceivable that a sub-30, North Carolinian white guy might be his generation’s great soul singer, witness Herring onstage, howling with funky distress and performing his weird brand of cathartic karate, and you might find you’re hard-pressed to argue. At risk of sounding slightly crass, there’s a parallel with blues historian John Szwed on Lead Belly: “He was a great performer, but in another way, you felt this guy was beyond performance.” Herring’s vocal affectations are so poignant, so rawly emotional, that matters of authenticity are moot.

For Herring, it’s reward enough to be taken seriously. “We’ve always been a very lyrically deep and emotional band. I’ve never taken anything we’ve done lightly – I don’t think any of us have. Early on, people thought it was a joke because of the emotional qualities; there’s an honesty that they took as being tongue in cheek. But as we’ve continued to do what we do, people have realised, ‘Oh, these people are being serious. This is powerful music.’” He pauses, not sobbing but chuckling. “I’m like, ‘Thanks for realising that.’”

Singles is released on 24 Mar via 4AD. Future Islands play Manchester's Sound Control on 8 May