Future Islands and the Best Year Ever

2014 marked a significant step forward for the band, but it was still only one step.

By Derek Evers

In addition to the well-deserved exposure and heaps of critical and commercial acclaim The Late Show With David Letterman afforded Future Islands last March, it also came with bathroom privileges. The band wouldn’t enjoy such luxury two weeks later as they prepared to close out our Friday Night Austin Imposition on a stage that would have a hard time fitting all of their gear. The entirety of the sold-out, 250-capacity venue seemed to be in line for the toilet, and Sam Herring took IMPOSE’s offer to take his portrait outside as an opportunity to find a bush. 

Herring ducked into a dark alley next to the venue, and in the interest of modesty, we turned around to face a house party across the street, “Hell’s Bells” cutting through the crisp Texas air. “They’re listening to AC/DC!” laughed the man who just a few days earlier had given a career-changing performance in front of millions of people. Herring briefly sung the refrain and audibly zipped up his fly before heading back inside to sing for a few hundred fans. “Wooo!” 

Future Islands, 2014. Photo by Tim Saccenti. Cover photo by Walter Wlodarczyk. 2014 Austin Imposition photo (above) by Dylan Johnson.

For many, The Late Show appearance was the moment Herring, William Cashion and Gerrit Welmers graduated from indie stalwarts to international stars, an obvious “big break.”

But “big break” implies an element of dumb luck, and for a band that has been around for nine years, there’s no such thing as “overnight success.”

Born in North Carolina circa 2003 as Art Lord and the Self Portraits the trio would go on to form the group as we know it today (minus touring drummer Michael Lowry) in January of 2006. 2015 will see the band’s 1,000th show.

“We got a lot of opportunities this year through Letterman,” Herring told me over the phone, two days before Christmas, and during their only two weeks off in nearly six months of non-stop touring around the world. “But that all happened because of 4AD, and 4AD happened because of where we were at at the end of 2012.”

Where Future Islands were at the end of 2012 is a very different place than where they are today. After the release of On The Water, their third LP and second for seminal Chicago label Thrill Jockey, the band was creatively and emotionally spent. Tired from a relentless touring schedule and the feeling that the record didn’t translate into much, if any new growth, the three men escaped to their adopted home of Baltimore to reassess.

“We’d been on the road for five years straight. From mid-2008, to the end of 2012, we were pretty much in it,” Herring said. “We realized we needed to get off the road for a while and take time for ourselves. We got off the road in 2012 and said, ‘let’s not talk about music for a few months.'”

When you’re going through emotional shit and you’re a musician, in a way it’s conducive to running away. You don’t really have to deal with shit if you don’t want to. You can just go out on the road with your buddies and get drunk every night and forget you have life to deal with.

Future Islands 2014. Photo by Alicia Kroell.
Future Islands 2014. Photo by Kellyann Petry.

“Things that were really discouraging made us want to work harder,” Cashion explained in a separate interview.

Of the three, Cashion is the most positive. “When things get intense sometimes,” he continued, “it’s important to remember we’re super fortunate to have been able to do what we do and make ends meet for as long as we have.”

Humility and perspective were common threads running through all three of our conversations, but like any band that faces challenges, insecurity and emotion can often get the better of you.

“There were doubts, definitely,” Welmers admitted. “Especially touring where we would just play show after show and you’re just exhausted and everyone gets really irritated and takes it out on each other and huge fights erupt and people say certain things that destroy friendships and then you think about how you could just buy a plane ticket home and never do it again.”

“But,” he added, “there’s always that one show that kept us doing it.”

Despite their road-hardened perseverance, something about 2012 was different. And for Herring, it was more than just a time to regroup as a band.

“I was in a relationship that was kind of up and down for two and half years, so it was really a matter of wanting to go home and work things out because I hadn’t been around for more than a month at a time. And as soon as we got home, after all that, about a week before I got home, we split up. I got home knowing that I was going to have the next six or seven months off to think about it, and I was like, Why the hell am I here? I don’t need to be here now.”

As devastating as it may have been, his breakup and prolonged Baltimore stay proved to be the crucible that would culminate in the form of Singles.

It was the first album the band had written completely off the road (“because we could afford to do it”) and one, Herring said, they went into writing “by trying to clear our heads.”

“A lot of what came out in Singles was taking those first few months home where I thought I was going to be working on this relationship, and instead I was working on myself, and forced to face the loss instead of running away from it. When you’re going through emotional shit and you’re a musician, in a way it’s conducive to running away. You don’t really have to deal with shit if you don’t want to. You can just go out on the road with your buddies and get drunk every night and forget you have life to deal with.”

Don’t wait until you’re any good to leave your garage.

Future Islands 2011. Photo by Valerie Paulsgrove.

If 2012 was about the members of Future Islands running from their lives, 2014 signaled an embrace. The announcement came early in the year: Singles would be released on 4AD, and for those of us who had watched Future Islands grow—from house-party band, to touring regulars, to Thrill Jockey alum—the move marked a significant change. The band sold out their first four shows after the announcement, in Los Angeles, New York, Baltimore, and London respectively, and was about to hit the road for another obscene duration of time when the Letterman performance aired.

Sure, an increased budget and some friends in high places might have made it possible, but no PR or marketing campaign could predict the perfect timing of it all. Future Islands vaulted to a new level of popularity, yet the three took it all in stride. It was just another step on a long and winding road.

“We’re incredibly proud,” Cashion said. “But a lot of our success, we feel, has come from just the hours and years of hard work that we’ve put into it. There were times where we wanted to get the big press and the big exposure, and we weren’t getting that stuff,” he admitted, “but in retrospect, it was good [that we didn’t] because we were able to hone in on what we were doing and bring into focus what we wanted to do even more.”

“There’s a Dee Dee Ramone quote that I read years ago, and I’ve actually tried to find it recently, but the quote is, ‘Don’t wait until you’re any good to leave your garage.’ And we’ve always said that from Day 1. And anytime I meet any younger bands and they ask us for advice, I always tell them that quote. Just get out there.”

I don’t feel like we’re anything without our cities and the places where we came from, where we grew up as a band; out on the road and the people who’ve helped us along the way.

Future Islands 2009. Photo by Joe Perez.
Future Islands 2008. Photo by Joe Perez.

Nine years of existence also means nine years’ worth of critics, and with their newfound success would come newfound detractors. “For all those people who know who you are and the work you’ve put in there’s always going to be people who think we’re just a flash-in-the-pan band that just got the attention from television,” Herring said. But for a band with nearly a decade in the rear-view mirror, Future Islands have earned the right to proudly look at their reflection knowing what they’ve accomplished. In fact, it’s their appreciation of the sweat equity they’ve accrued that is one of their finer qualities. If Future Islands have catapulted to a new status of success because of a television appearance, it’s still their transcendent humility that allows them to be endearing.

“One of the most important things to remember is we all come from somewhere,” Herring said. “And in the same sense that I’m not really anything without the guys, I don’t feel like we’re anything without our cities and the places where we came from, where we grew up as a band; out on the road and the people who’ve helped us along the way, the people who we’ve toured with and traveled with. For me, it’s a shared experience.”

“It’s kind of funny,” he continued, “I don’t want to be like, ‘we’re totally chill,’ but we were raised a certain way, we were all raised in the south, we all have solid parents… fuck man, going way back, I don’t think the three of us would be doing this if we didn’t come from good families. The three of us were all really lucky that our parents were able to put up with our bullshit and help us out during the hard times. And I think a lot of that comes from being mindful that you come from somewhere.”

“We’re all small-town kids,” Welmers added. “Just the community that we surround ourselves us with; the friendships we’ve made, the bonds, it’s never really going to change. Somethings have changed just because of logistics, but as far as the vibe, it’s still pretty much the same. And we always try to make sure that’s a part of every friendship we make.”

“It’s awesome to be apart of such a large family.”

Ultimately, it’s this notion of “shared experience” that rings true through not only the conversations I had with Future Islands, but seemingly everything they do. While watching them perform in that small, sweaty room in Austin—and again later in Brooklyn at one of Death By Audio’s final shows—it dawned on me, as it probably did on most everyone in those two rooms, that this might possibly be one of the last times I get to witness this band in front of crowds this small. And though, for selfish reasons, I wish this wasn’t the case, for their sake, and everyone they’ve ever played in front of, I sincerely hope it is.  Because if there is ever a band; a group of friends who deserve the right to revel in the spoils of their labor, it is the trio of Sam Herring, William Cashion, and Gerrit Welmers.

I don’t think you ever reach a point and say, ‘I’ve got it.’ It’s really about just keeping your head down and continuing to go.

Future Islands 2014. Photo by Matt Draper.

Before I hung up, I asked the three of them one last question: If it wasn’t the Letterman performance, what or when, in your mind, was the moment Future Islands “made it?”

“My move to Baltimore was a pretty big breaking point for myself and the band,” Welmers said. “It allowed us to tour extensively. It sort of lit the fire under our asses.”

“One of the earliest big ones I can think of is when Upset the Rhythm included “Old Friend” in a mix tape,” offered Cashion. “In the e-mails, Chris from UTR said something like, ‘if you ever want to release Wave Like Home with us, we’d love to put it out.’ I read the e-mail and then forgot about it. A month or two later I was like, ‘Wait, I think, I think he wanted to release our record!’ And so we ended up putting out our first record with Upset The Rhythm in London”

For Herring, it came in 2010 when the band was able to ditch their day jobs and live solely off their art. “We’ve been supporting ourselves off of just music since In Evening Air came out, so in a way that’s when I thought we “made it.” We had Thrill Jockey on board for the first time putting out our second EP and that was a really big deal for us. In a way, the way we grew in 2010 feels very similar to the growth we had this year”

Looking back, it’s easy to see why each of these moments could be interpreted as instrumental to their success. Yet as they turn another calendar year, they have their eyes focused squarely on the future. Quite apropos. For as big as 2014 might have been, the specter of new adventures that lie beyond the horizon will always keep Future Islands motivated.

“You reach those different peaks,” Herring concluded, “But I don’t think you ever reach a point and say, ‘I’ve got it.’ It’s really about just keeping your head down and continuing to go. I remember New Year’s Eve 2013-14, I said to all the guys, ‘All the hard work we put in this year, it all comes real in 2014.’ And it did. And that’s the way I feel about this year.”

“It all comes real in 2015.”

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