Don’t mess up. Don’t slip and fall. Don’t rip your T-shirt. Don’t embarrass yourself. That, says Future Islands frontman Sam Herring, is what was running through his head as his band performed on Late Night With David Letterman back in March of last year.
“We were all just kind of nervous,” Herring admits. “The moment when I felt more at ease was when I saw, from my periphery, in shadow, some of the [Late Night] band members nodding their heads. That’s when I knew that we were doing all right, that I could relax a bit.”
If, as Herring claims, those were the thoughts going through his head as Future Islands made its television debut, he did a good job of hiding it. The Baltimore, Md.-based synth-pop trio’s achingly sincere rendition of “Seasons (Waiting On You)” on Letterman — and Herring’s jaw-dropping dance moves — wowed the host, audience, and internet alike. It was that inspiring, charismatic performance that jump-started a whirlwind year for Future Islands. The next week, the band became the darlings of South by Southwest and won the Grulke Prize for the festival’s best developing U.S. act.
Shortly thereafter, legendary indie label 4AD released Singles, the band’s fourth record. Herring says he hoped the switch to the prestigious 4AD from the small Thrill Jockey label would give the group a record sales boost — maybe double or triple the sales figures of 2011’s On the Water. Singles would end up selling almost 10 times as many records.
Sold-out shows across the country followed, as did appearances at marquee festivals across the world. The year got so overwhelming that Herring passed out in an airport on the way to the Primavera festival in Barcelona, Spain. He thought — he says in Road Dawgs, a short documentary charting the band’s eventful 2014 — that he might die. Paramedics had to revive Herring. He got on the plane and played the show anyway. And he killed it, he says.
Come the end of the year, Future Islands was seemingly on everyone’s radar, from NPR to Spin and Rolling Stone. Singles appeared on — or topped — innumerable year-end lists. U2’s Bono even called Seasons a “miracle.”
“A lot of people have asked, ‘What’s it like to finally find success after David Letterman?'” Herring laughs. “And people ask us, ‘What’s it like to finally be selling out shows?’ And it’s like, ‘We’ve been selling out shows for years!’ And we laugh at it, because we’ve been pretty successful for three or four years.”
Indeed, Future Islands’ meteoric rise belies the decade the band spent toiling in indie rock’s trenches. Today’s indie-rock machine produces acts that come out of the womb fully developed, but the group’s battle scars — the lean years, the sets performing to no one, the gigs without pay — were formative for Herring and company. The experience has reaffirmed the band’s long-standing commitment to being sincere and approachable. Consider that Future Islands covers very broad, basic themes: love, love lost, life, death. And Herring delivers each line with conviction, vocally and physically. When he beats on his chest, it’s not only to illustrate the feeling, it’s to make the audience feel something — something, he says, they didn’t think they could feel. “I think that’s why the people who were intrigued by our performance seeing us for the first time on TV, because they’re so used to not seeing sincerity that they were either blown away by the sincerity or they were turned away by it because it seems unnatural,” Herring says. “But for us, that’s pretty much always been it. “I perform my way, because I want people to attach a feeling to it and be like, ‘I feel free, because this guy’s very free,'” he laughs. “Or for the people who are just, like, ‘Well, he looks really awkward,’ maybe that allows them to not feel so inhibited.”
Nowadays, Future Islands is what Herring wants it to be, but there’s a fear that the band’s success could become unwieldy. It’s not the bigger stages or larger crowds that intimidate him. Rather, he fears losing touch with who he is as a person, with who William Cashion (bass, guitars) and Samuel Welmers (keyboards, programming) are as people, and with who their fans are as people.
“The truth is,” Herring says, “is that as we grow older, we will lose touch with each other in some sense as we move away or grow families, as we age and mature in our lives. But I think that fear is more of a natural understanding that things will change. But from a creative standpoint, it’s the fear of getting to the point where the business dominates the music, when the band becomes a business or just becomes a brand.
“But I almost feel like we’re too old to let that happen now,” Herring demurs. “Because of all those years of dogging it and then finding success on the other side as, like, 30-year-olds, there’s a different kind of appreciation.”