Future Islands: Singles Scene
photo credit: Justin Flythe
The same toxic relationship that inspired the surging synth-pop ecstasy of Future Islands’ 2014 breakout hit, “Seasons (Waiting on You),” also fueled the band’s atmospheric ballad “City’s Face” six years later.
One damaged romance, two polar opposite songs.
“It’s about someone who treated me really badly,” frontman Sam Herring says. “I found her cheating on me twice. It’s a person I keep giving chances to. That relationship was really detrimental to my mental health.”
No other modern singer can funnel pain into catharsis with such passion and panache quite like Herring, who runs his tender poetry through gravelly growls, soft croons and occasional metallic wails. That raw emotion is Future Islands’ engine—and in a bizarre way, this particular breakup defines two distinct eras of their career.
The first begins with “Seasons,” which went viral thanks to Herring’s virtuosolevel stage theatrics on The Late Show With David Letterman—leading to bigger shows, wider coverage and unexpectedly massive streaming numbers. Before that, Future Islands were a modest-selling indie act with a slow-build, grassroots vision.
“We were pretty resigned that we were making a living as underground musicians, selling 10,000 records at the shows, hand to hand,” Herring admits, recalling his early trio days with bassist/guitarist William Cashion and keyboardist Gerrit Welmers. “We’d play 150 shows a year, and make real fans. The years we spent touring before our album Singles, [which features “Seasons,”] taught us that we could do that. I thought, ‘Oh, we can do this like it’s our job. I make what my parents make now, but I’m just drunk in a van.’” [Laughs.]
Future Islands recorded Singles, their fourth LP, without a record label, believing the strength of their songs would land them a bigger deal. (It did when 4AD swooped in late in the game: They didn’t even sign the contracts until after the album was out.)
“It came out a week before or after my 30th birthday,” Herring says. “Singles catapulted us, on the back of Letterman. That performance really galvanized our career—before Letterman, we were a band that maybe people had heard about, but then people saw it. Some people were probably like, ‘What is this guy crying about?’ But when you connect that emotion that maybe you think is overwrought or fake with the passion of what our live show is about, it just resonated with a lot of people.”
But the popularity of that record, Herring says, “kind of messed with [their] brains”—leading to a follow-up LP, 2017’s The Far Field, that he feels they “rushed” in order to capitalize on their momentum.
“It’s like, ‘Wow, we [had this success], but we have no idea how we did it,’” he says. “We thought, ‘Maybe we should just keep doing what we’ve always been doing.’ But you can’t stay in that mindset. The Far Field was like, ‘Oh, you like ‘Seasons’? We can write another ‘Seasons’ for you.’ I really love some songs on that record, but I really wish we’d gone deeper—me, specifically. Some of those songs I wrote to a pop sensibility instead of my own honesty, which I think has been the most striking attribute of my lyrics. I didn’t dig deep enough into myself to find the truth. I mined a certain relationship that was very short-lived—just to get the feeling so that I could write a heartbreak song. I jumped into a relationship that I shouldn’t have been playing around with. I knew it wouldn’t work, and then it didn’t work. I was being dishonest with myself, as well as with certain people around me and with the audience.”
He says Future Islands were ultimately “focused on the business of things instead of the art.”
“It was like, ‘If we get this record out, we can play this festival and we can ride it out on this other festival,” he adds. “We finally had a profile. When it came out, I was like, ‘One day, this record will be really important, but I don’t know what that is right now.’”
Three years later, Herring recognizes that The Far Field taught him a critical lesson: It’s best to chase your own idiosyncrasies and inspirations, rather than your preconceived ideas of what fans might want.
That realization ultimately led Herring to “City’s Face,” the airy, drum-less centerpiece of their pandemic-issued As Long as You Are.
“It was the first song written for what would become the album,” he says, recalling how the words and melody arrived while vacationing in February 2018. “I was in Los Angeles with my [current] partner, and I was sitting with an old instrumental of William’s that he’d sent through in maybe 2015. I wrote that sitting in front of a big picture window one day. I started going through some old tracks and pretty much just wrote that song.”
The inspiration, of course, was the soured relationship that spawned “Seasons.” Though he was in a healthier place, romantically and personally, his demons from that time were still lingering—and something about Cashion’s ambient demo helped him process those feelings from a new perspective.
“That relationship ended in 2012,” he reflects. “It took me five and a half years to come to that point, to understand. It took me being with my partner, who has given me so much love and so much trust. [I realized], ‘You don’t deserve that; nobody deserves to be treated that way in a relationship. You need to put the blame where it sits.’ Writing that song allowed me to let go of the ghost of this person that I’d been carrying.”
It was the breakthrough moment for As Long as You Are—even if it occurred at a slightly awkward time. “I had a conversation with my partner—it was right around our one-year anniversary,” he says. “I’m sitting in the front room of this Airbnb while she’s chilling in the sunshine on the porch, and I’m writing a song about an ex-girlfriend. I was like, ‘Is it weird that I’m writing a song about my ex?’ She’s like, ‘No, that’s what you do. You’re dealing with your emotions. I love you.’ It would have sucked if she was like, ‘No, you can never sing that song.’
“Those kinds of songs come out when they’re allowed to come out,” he continues. “I knew some of these things for years, but I didn’t have the guts to say them. To me, it was the exact thing I felt that I’d screwed up on with the last record. It was a moment of redemption—I felt I was finally breaking back into myself and being honest with myself.”
Herring’s “City’s Face” revelation actually led to a second awakening in the studio. There, working at a more measured, less hurried pace, Future Islands fully integrated drummer Mike Lowry as an official contributor, rather than just a hired hand. Lowry, a touring member since 2014, was integral to the process—he’s credited as an equal writer on all 11 cuts, helping shape tracks like the funky, shadowy “Born in a War” with his rapid hi-hats and steady kick-snare pulses. But on “City’s Face,” he made an impact by not playing at all.
Cashion started the song as a minimal guitar and bass soundscape, which was then fleshed out by Welmers’ bendy keyboard sounds and synth-string pads. They originally added a full drum track, trying out several beats and mixes before pulling the ripcord on the percussion altogether.
“We were like, ‘Should ‘City’s Face’ be a jam?’” Herring recalls with a laugh. “‘What if we just take the drums away again?’ As soon as they went away, this huge vacuum of silence started to fill certain areas. There’s a spot before the second verse where it almost goes silent. It just pulls me in. It’s funny the way silence can fill a room. As soon as we took the drums out again and heard the original version, it was like, ‘This is right. This is how it should be.’”
“I feel like it had a Bruce Springsteen vibe with the drums,” Lowry notes. “I was like, ‘It’s so much more of a statement without the drums.’ We tried so many beats, and it always came back sounding like Max Weinberg. We went back and forth four or five times while doing the mixes and said, ‘That sounds pretty good.’ I was like, ‘I want it to work with the drums, but I feel like it’s so much more powerful without them.’ I was one of the first people to be like, ‘I think we should take them out.’”
Ironically, that decision highlights Lowry’s deeper connection to Future Islands—the trust of a drummer willing to sacrifice his own playing to service the song. Back in 2014, Lowry—a former member of the Baltimore, Md., acid-jazz/ post-rock act Lake Trout—was just a last-minute touring sub. But his rock-steady stage presence and lack of ego made him a perfect fit for a band with commercial momentum and a fully realized sound.
“It’s a very dynamic live show, so it’s just about trying to accentuate the up parts and down parts,” he says of his early mindset about Future Islands. “I just went in like that—‘I’m just here to beef up what’s already good.’ I was reticent about fucking up. For a long time, I felt like, ‘You guys don’t really need me. You’re already successful doing what you’re doing.’ It just sort of gradually grew from there.”
In the ‘90s and early 2000s, Lake Trout had some success on the jamband circuit thanks to their artiness and versatility; they helped inspire the Millennium-era jamtronica boom, before moving in a more indie-rock direction. And some of their favorite early out-of-town gigs happened to take place in Greenville, N.C.—where Future Islands, then performing under the name Art Lord & the Self-Portraits, had formed as freshmen at East Carolina University.
“I’m like 10 years older than those guys, so I didn’t know them [back then],” Lowry says, noting that he doesn’t see a direct sonic connection between his former and current bands. “[Lake Trout] wasn’t really their scene. I know they’d heard of us but I don’t know, even now, if they’ve heard what our music sounds like. But I was a Future Islands fan from [2010’s] In Evening Air, just hearing their music at the bar.”
The two groups also differ in interpersonal harmony. “With Lake Trout, there were five of us, and it was too many cooks in the kitchen all the time,” he says. “We were all in our late teens and early 20s, and everybody was trying to make their mark and define their space. I’ve grown out of that. It was such a different process. I grew up in Lake Trout. So with Future Islands, I had the benefit of coming in as a hired person.”
As Lake Trout started winding down, Lowry and two other members of the group began focusing more on their instrumental, ambient-leaning Big In Japan side-project. Big In Japan eventually scored a gig augmenting the British-alternative act Unkle, though Lowry only stayed involved for a few years and even spent time working as a firefighter.
The drummer’s presence has reinvigorated Future Islands, helping them dig back into some of their more experimental, less overtly pop sides.
“I was afraid of being pigeonholed after our second record,” Herring says. “We kind of did it to ourselves with our fifth. But there was an idea going back to [2011’s] On the Water that we didn’t just have to write dance music. Part of creating As Long as You Are is taking back some of those moments. People see us as this band that wrote ‘Seasons.’ But we have a history of writing torch ballads, which is the unsung part of what we do. Fans of our music know. They know those songs, and those are really important songs. ‘Thrill’ is such a blast of that old style—a good bit of soul.”
Armed with a mountain of new ideas (and a leftover song from As Long as You Are that Lowry says didn’t fit their various “album flows”), they’ve already started sifting through mountains of recorded jams and booked initial studio time for their next LP.
“I feel like, especially on the record we just put out, we’re like, ‘Nothing is off the table,’” Lowry says. “The vibe I get with us now is that we want to use any and all means at our disposal to get shit out.”
Herring, lyrically, is also using all the tools in his arsenal. A recent revelation that most bands take for granted: Each album in their catalog marks a “chapter in [their] lives,” chronicling whatever “deeper feelings” he’s facing at that time. For As Long as You Are, that meant “falling in love, finding comfort, finding certain peace, still confronting the ghosts.” He adds, “To me, there’s a beauty in seeing it that way.”
The ultimate key, he says, is honesty. Rather than manufacturing inspiration, as he did on The Far Field, he’s recommitted to plunging within, even if that process disrupts the business side of the band.
As a key example of that, he points back to “City’s Face.”
“I think that’s a very vulnerable song,” Herring says. “I’ve heard it called that, but I’ve also heard it called very boring. If you try to write a song for 100,000 people, maybe 10,000 will really dig it. But if you’re writing a song for 500, it’s going to really resonate for those people. They’re going to feel it.”