Interview: Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands

by

Interview: Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands (MPR)

Samuel T. Herring of Baltimore's Future Islands connects with Zeke to talk about mastering their latest record, As Long As You Are, over Zoom, their dream collaborations, and the band's hopes of helping people open up to one another through their work.

Interview Transcription

Edited for clarity and length.

ZEKE: How's everything going?

SAMUEL T. HERRING: Oh, things are going good. I'm actually back home in North Carolina visiting my parents.

Oh, that's awesome.

They're off at work and I'm working, talking to you. [laughs]

So you left L.A. or were you recording in Baltimore?

Oh we live in--Future Islands is based in Baltimore. Yeah, so we're based out of there. But my partner is Swedish so I've been in--it took me a while to get over there because of the pandemic. I wasn't allowed to travel back. But I got back from there about a month ago? Then we--Future Islands went in the studio in Baltimore for a couple of weeks, and then coming to visit my folks, so I haven't seen them since last August.

Future Islands, 'As Long As you Are'

Wow. How's it been recording the album during this time? I mean, you guys are working on new music and worked on the past project--was that recorded pre-pandemic?

No, As Long as You Are was actually finished recording-wise before the pandemic hit. But we ended up finished mixing and mastering during quarantine. We were on a Zoom call with each other and our producer and then we were hooked into an audio program set up to the internet so we could listen to the mixes. It actually was kind of nice, because it put us in a comfortable environment in our homes because sometimes the studio like--we're not really a studio band, you know? We feel most comfortable in a live setting. That's like where we're--at the least that's where I get my joy from, is performing the songs. Sometimes the studio can feel a little bit too much like work. Just like, "I wanna go home. I don't wanna be here."

There's too many things going on. I don't have my PlayStation or something.

Yeah, it's funny for me because, of course I'm a musician, but I don't play any instruments. So sometimes I get to feel like a child in the studio setting because it's hard for me to translate my ideas. It's like, "No, I had this idea and nobody's really listening!" But that's why I take all the glory on stage.

You're a dancing machine on the stage!

Somebody's paying attention to me! But yeah, I think that studio setting--that kind of work is something that we've grown into over the years. Me and Gerrit and William have been making music since we were 18 together. So that relationship has changed a lot from us recording our living rooms when we were 19 years old to being in a real studio. But yeah, right now we aren't really recording an album, we're actually writing in real time in the studio, which is really exciting. There were some demos that were worked out while I was overseas, but we've we've kind of been writing some songs like that over the years when I'm away, because it takes time for me to fully find--sometimes I write a lyrics to a song in 30 minutes, and sometimes it takes two or three months to find what I want to say or to finish something off. But it's kind of cool to be in the studio recording as we're improvising ideas, and then kind of trying to focus on those ideas together. It's not really new, but it's something we haven't done since that was the only way we could do it when we were just broke, you know?

Exactly.

In between tours we wrote songs for our second and third album, "On The Water" and "Singles" were both songs that were pretty much written in between tours when we had a week or two off, we would write a song on a Friday and then play it live on the next Tuesday out on the road. And so kind of creating--just improvising versus, you know, maybe write a chorus and then over time the songs find themselves onstage in front of an audience, but we don't have that ability right now. So we're trying to make use of that kinetic energy in a room to push ourselves to to find what these songs are, because as much as I like going away and writing in focus, there's something lost in that immediacy of holding the microphone, hearing your voice booming. It does something different, because I mean, I'm going to write a song in my bedroom, and it's gonna be all like soft and quiet, and I'm gonna get on stage and be like, "I can't sing like that." It's gonna jump up a whole octave, just 'cause I'm feeling the--I sound a lot better on stage than I do when I'm in my bedroom. I just have that confidence and the adrenaline rush, I guess.

Will we ever get the bedroom recordings from you from Future Islands?

One day, when we're all out of inspiration. Like, here's the demos, here's the hundreds and hundreds of demos you've never heard.

What inspires you when you're writing? Is it the melody first? Or is it like, you come up with the lyrics? What's your writing process?

It's kind of a combo. Yeah, it hasn't really, it hasn't changed a lot as far as the initial inspirations. I would say the core of what Future Islands is really about that kind of synergy that William and Gerrit have musically, and how that connects to me personally, emotionally. I've always thought more that I'm not just trying to tell a story of my life. Of course so much of these songs are autobiographical to my life, because that's my experience and that's what I have because of that. It's what I can say that I believe in. That's the whole point of what I'm always trying to do, which is say, not the truth, but my truth, because it's really all I have, is my own experience in life.

But I've always felt that it's about me translating the emotions of the music, you know? I don't say, "You know, this thing happened to me the other day, and I want to sing about it." I'm going to go into listening to this song, this instrumental, or go into the studio with the guys and be like, "I'm going to sing about this thing that happened," I really want it to be as symbiotic in a way so that the guys are creating, because even though without words, they're--the music they create is full of emotion. Gerrit was my best friend since we were 14 and he was always really quiet. But when he writes some really sad key chord progression, I'm like, "He's so deep! His heart, it blooms a fountain inside." But you know, it's about trying to translate those feelings. I really just want to hear an idea that pulls something from me, of course I don't write to everything that the guys bring to me or that they create in a room but when they're connecting on something that I feel, the words just come out.

To me, it's the melody of words, it's not--of course, you're hearing a melody but once the word kind of comes out the first line of a verse or chorus, then it kind of just sets things in motion to be like, what does that mean? What does that feel? But so much of is it is less about thinking, for me. Future Islands' music is--we've always tried to be far from pretentious, maybe we still come off that way sometimes. But it is supposed to be about human emotion and the hearts and feelings. I try not to overcomplicate or overthink things, but when I was a young writer, I was a first draft rough draft kind of guy. I was like, "It's what came out on the page. It's the truth, it's the raw truth." Then as I've grown up, I went through the stages of, "Oh, maybe I should take a second pass at this, tighten it up." Now I'm in fourth drafts and fifth drafts to really try to find that. There's something to be said for both things working. There's things that I wrote when I was 18 and 19, that I would never write again because they sound ridiculous, but at the same time they're so unfiltered and raw. You hear a person trying to figure something out, a young person exploring the creativity and emotion and I'm like, that's so beautiful. It's actually probably better than anything I could write now because the filter goes up. As we get older, we start to filter those feelings, protect ourselves more, but when we're young we're just so sure of ourselves in what we believe.

Which song took you the longest to write you think?

Ahhh...

That might be a hard one.

Well with the last record, it's kind of funny because there's a few songs that follow in that line, with the last record it was "Waking". Took me a long time to pen and every Future Islands album has a song that I finished the lyrics when I was recording the finished lyrics, because I've just like been putting it off and I can't button it up but "Waking," there's a similar musical line in "Waking" to a song called "Verio's Eye" on our second album In Evening Air, and that was another song that I just--it took me three or four months to find the ending. To find how to pull things together, and with with "Waking," it was more about me just fighting with, "Am I really saying anything?" But that was also the point of the song that maybe some people miss, or maybe most people missed, is that--that's what the song is about. The first lines of the song I remember reading a review that was like, I don't know about the song, the first lines are so cliche, "I've been sitting here thinking, what's my purpose? What's my meaning?" And the point of that line is to say that, when we're having these thoughts that we find are profound like, "What am I doing with my life?" It is a cliche, we're actually wasting time instead of instead of finding those things and going out into the world and taking chances or reaching out to other people, lending a hand. Whereas I was laying in bed being profound, overthinking things. But then, I'm fighting with this idea for months. Is that enough? Is the sarcasm lost? In a sense. But also there's beauty in that.

I think there's times in our lives where we go through that--searching for that purpose, too. We question everything and rethink everything. And that song--it's funny that you bring that up. One of my questions is the lyrics--what is your purpose? What do you think Future Islands' purpose is after it's all said and done, what do you want the purpose of Future Islands to be? What do you want to be known for?

I think for any of us, we want to be just respected for our music. What we brought in our time, and that we what we did, we did it hard. I think there's a difference between getting the respect and acclaim from a large audience, and getting the respect from fellow musicians. That's a very different thing. I had an art teacher, when I was a kid that was like, you can trick the audience, but you can't trick the players. When you put in the work, you get the respect. Respect is something that's always been very important to me, it's something we speak about in our music, through love, and through giving people the ability to be themselves. We hope that from our music, and I think with our music, our hope is that it opens people up to themselves. That it opens people up to the people around them. To find love in themselves, to be able to not be afraid to share their emotions. To be strong in your feelings of fragility, and understand that this is a human experience that we all go through.

So much of what I do on stage is really trying to bear myself for an audience. So to say, I'm a grown man, and I will cry in front of you. If it can take you to a place where you feel comfortable that, you know, I feel that our shows have always been a place where people feel they can come together and be with strangers and feel free. Not everybody is able to get to that place. But I've heard so many people say that to me. I see that in the kind of people that appreciate our music. It is a place where the music is a safe place for for for being oneself and being free. I think that's a really great thing to strive for, is giving people power through your art. At least in hopes of giving people power through your art.

You brought up touring. When tourings back, where's the first place you want to go?

I don't know, that's such a--I will literally go anywhere. I mean, it's one of those sad things, it's become a common thing that every two months our manager writes us and is like, "So those tour dates, we're gonna bump it back another three months." And we're like, cool, whatever, you know, at first it was like, "Oh, that's alright, that's alright, we'll get on the road." And then it's like, cool, whatever. And he's like, "So do you have any...I've shifted these dates. What do you think? Is this cool with everybody?" It's like, dude, I don't care.

Yeah, just book the tour.

Wherever you say--I'll go. It would be fun to even just play a show in Baltimore straight out. Do a big outdoor show for free for the city. I will go anywhere.

The opening sound of "Born in a War" is like a beverage opening. Was that recorded in the studio with someone actually opening up a beverage, and what is your favorite beverage?

My favorite beverage? Well, probably iced coffee. When I'm home, I'm just like making with the French press. I have a system where I make a French press, I take a little bit of hot coffee off the top and then I let it sit and then I start throwing ice into it. I told my parents, do not throw away my coffee because I will drink--I'll drink like five day old coffee, just put some ice cubes in it.

[grimaces]

Yeah, I know. That's where all these songs come from. Just zooted over here. So that that sound is a La Croix can. Yeah a little bubble water, little clear beer. Mike and William actually came up with the--they wrote the demo for "Born in a War," which was kind of cool because this was the first album with Mike as a full writer in the band, full member of the band. He's been playing drums for us since the beginning of 2014, but this was the first time having him as a writer, so it was a really new thing, and him & William taking time to explore sounds and write a song together. So they brought that song to me and Gerrit and I was immediately taken with it. That was a song that I wrote those lyrics probably within a day. I was just like, this is really good.

And you nailed it!

Yeah, I love that jam. But that was a sound that they recorded in William's studio. He has a standalone garage in his backyard that him and his partner, they made into a painting studio. We practice in there a good bit as well. So it's kind of a music and art studio. So that was a sound that William I'm captured in his own space that was in the original demo, then we just plugged it into the final version, because it sounds kind of perfect.

It's a cool opening too. The Current is in Minnesota, so what's been your favorite Minnesota memory? Or Minneapolis even?

The first time we played, I just have great, great memories of First Ave, of course, I think as any musician that gets to gets to play at First Ave. We had our start there playing the 7th St Entry. Yeah, those are great memories but I also have wild memories about playing the Twin Cities too, because we played this record store, maybe it was called Orion Records? Probably all the way back in like, in St. Paul, like all the way back in 2009 or '10? I think we just played to the opening band and I'll never forget that we got to the venue, to the show. We just thought it was a record store show which we'd done before, but you can't really expect to a ton and then we got there and they have this really cool black box venue in the back of the venue because it was a really large space. We were looking around like shopping records and then--we were there and this guy had some mail. The guy in the store had some mail and he was going through it and he like, opened this big mailer and it was from William and it was our posters that we had mailed him ago and he pulls it out and and we're like, oh, those are the posters that were supposed to go up on walls and things.

[laughs]

I was just like, nope, nobody saw those posters and nobody came. But let me think, I've had some had some good memories staying around the city. I remember being there once--a friend had moved there and she just drove me around. It was in the wintertime, and we went out to a park that was covered in snow. I don't know, I'm in North Carolina kid. So seeing snow in a real way--in a place that knows how to deal with snow, and kind of the beauty of it is really special. First Ave is such a legendary place. I feel bad I forget the guy's name, there's like a famous security guard that's always there. I don't know if he's a security guard but--

I know exactly who you're talking about, Conrad.

Yeah Conrad, exactly! Every time we would go there. We actually played the First Avenue stage before we played on 7th St. because we did a show with Dan Deacon out there, that would have been 2009. So that's kind of how we came in contact with the owners of the place, or the people that book there. Then when we wanted to book our own tour through, they were like, yeah, we'll set you up at the 7th St. So it's really special, and the people the people promoting there. I remember when we got to do our first headline because it was maybe three more times before we did our own headline show. We came through with some other bands opening, supporting on the mainstage. And then when we did our very own, they took us up to the offices and we had a beer together and they're like, we're very proud of you.

They saw how far you'd come.

Yeah, "You've come up from the from the 7th St and opening and now it's like your first--it's your first headline and your first sellout. And we're really proud." And we're like, "We're proud too!" It's great to see it grow.

When's the last time you had a battle rap? Or has that spark ever came back? You know, 14 years old? We're going back.

The last time I probably actually battled somebody was, maybe I was probably 25 or so, 26. But I mean, that's just like in a cipher. But the last time I battled on stage, I was probably 22 or 23. Those are good times, man. But you know, it's such a crazy thing. The beauty and power of a cipher, you know, building with people--everyone just using their mouths, rapping over a beat boxes--is something they brought me so much joy as a young man, as a teenager into my 20s and then something that just kind of fell away. It's an art that you really have to have to practice and keep up, and like I was talking about with the filter, so much of being a great freestyle artist is just like having some strange connection to something that's outside. It's just, you're open, you know? I think freestyle artists will understand what I'm talking about but being--when you're open, you just like connect on this other level and you're connecting things. It's like A Beautiful Mind.

And you're seeing things, and you're picking up more vibes, and everything else like that. And you have to react versus think about it more.

Yeah, but I love ciphering. Battling is fun, but it's about clout. I once did this battle with a kid in high school who destroyed me, and he wasn't even good. I actually went to the rival school, I was probably 17, 18. I was in my senior year of high school. I went to the rival school when my school was playing a basketball game there and just showed up and was like, "Who's your best rappers here?" And they were like, "Oh s***, this kid wants to rap!" And they like, bring this guy over, I just remember this, there was this whole--there's like 40, 50 people just surrounded us and this guy, just, spit a 24 bar verse at me that the whole crowd was just yelling the punch lines. Then I started a rap and was just like, you know, they're saying everything you're saying and it's like, obviously written, this is bulls***. Then everyone just, "Boo!" I just remember the whole crowd just like booed and I was still just standing there like--I couldn't freestyle for like four months. I was so--I was stripped of all my power. I was just like, I guess I'm terrible. I didn't react to anything. It was bad, but don't do that Sam. Don't show up at other people's...

No, and choose to pick the biggest guy in the school. It's like, "Hey, I want to fight with you. Let's go." I can imagine that one.

I mean, I ate up some of their MCs when they were at my school. So it was fair.

It was a fair trade off. You guys did a collaboration with Charmery, the ice cream shop in Baltimore. If you guys could if you could do a collaboration with anyone who would it be? Product and music. I'm putting you on the spot.

I'm gonna be straight up. I need a shoe deal. My feet are messed up. [laughs] My feet look like you shaved a bear's feet. Really, they're crazy looking. Yeah, I am flat footed. So I need some shoe game, 'cause I've been rocking leather Converse for a long time. It took me a long time to realize that they were destroying my knees. Maybe I can get like a platinum knee deal. Titanium. I need titanium. So I have a torn ACL, like my right knee ACL has been torn for like five years. I'm still doing these high kicks and squats but it's getting more painful. So yeah, maybe I need some shoes.

Yeah, after the shows you must just put it in an ice bath all the time. Is that what happens?

Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes I'm too lazy. I just take another sip of tequila. Try not to think about it, that happens.

Tequila does some damage every once in a while too.

Yeah, it's true.

Great talking with you, Sam.

Yeah, it's a pleasure talking to you Zeke.

Credits

Guest: Samuel T. Herring
Host: Zeke
Technical Director: Eric Romani
Producer: Derrick Stevens
Digital Producer: Jesse Wiza

Related Stories

  • Album of the Week: Future Islands, 'The Far Field' Future Islands' lead singer Samuel T. Herring has called his band's fifth full-length release 'a driving album.' That description seems to fit in a couple of ways, with its road-inspired themes and Herring's affected singing style adding intensity and drama to the forward-pulsating beats.
  • Future Islands' new song, 'Cave,' gets rendered in ASL In a clever twist on the 'lyric video' trend, the words to Future Islands' new song are signed by ASL interpreter Jonathan Lamberton.
  • First Listen: Future Islands, 'Singles' David Letterman made them famous, but there's more to Future Islands than animated GIFs of Samuel Herring's dance moves. The band's new album, Singles, is full of extremely catchy pop songs.

comments powered by Disqus