“He’s like a combination of Greg Graffin from Bad Religion, Dave Matthews—and Meatloaf,” my friend Lawrence and I decided over beers at Neptune’s on Tuesday. We were listening to Future Islands “Singles” and talking about Sam Herring, the North Carolina frontman who has exploded after a following a phenomenal dancing performance on David Letterman earlier this month.
The next night, I made my younger brother watch Herring’s Letterman performance. “This is weird,” my brother said. After the band finishes “Seasons” Dave comes up to them bursting with enthusiasm, “Look at that! I’ll take all of that you got! That was incredible!”
Strange to watch lives changed in an instant by David Letterman’s approval on national television. In that moment Future Islands went from being a somewhere-near-Dan-Deacon level indie band
to being famous. Their cellphones were probably buzzing with calls from Geffen, Warner, and Universal later that night. My brother umprompted, says “He looks like Kevin Spacey…and Meatloaf.”
I saw Future Islands as Art Lord and the Self-Portraits in the mid-2000s at a Greensboro art warehouse called Elsewhere. Elsewhere had once been an abandoned building filled with junk, but the guy who inherited it turned it into an artist residency of sorts. Young artists could come and stay there in exchange for “transforming the space.” That is, organizing old toys and handkerchiefs and old knickknacks into art installations.
Elsewhere always reminded of that part in The Phantom Tollbooth where Milo and Tock encounter the Terrible Trivium and he put them to work moving piles of sand with tweezers, emptying a well with an eye-dropper, and digging a hole through the cliff with a needle.
“There are things to fill and things to empty, things to take away and things to bring back,” The Trivium said, “Why, if you stay here, you’ll never have to think again—and with a little practice you can become a monster of habit, too.”
Elsewhere seemed to me to funnel artists’ precious time and energy into the mundane.
Elsewhere bothered me, and so Art Lord bothered me.
This negative association led me to avoid Future Islands for the following eight years.
But seeing Sam Herring dance like that on Letterman was frankly inspiring. It’s not easy for any late-20s-30s straight man to dance. Our hips are ossified from decades of standing in corners at fun parties awkwardly holding a beer with a bemused expression on our faces. Too self-aware of our receding hairlines and potbellies to dance, so we just watch.
Sam Herring seems completely unaware of his receding hairline and potbelly. He loses himself on Letterman. “Let’s be brave don’t make them wait,” he croons on “Song for Our Grandfathers.”
I have been driving around and listening to Future Island’s “Singles” on repeat all week. At times it is cloyingly embarrassing to listen to, reminding one of INXS or Huey Lewis, but mostly is it brilliant. Particularly I enjoy that I have absolutely no idea what Herring is singing about. There doesn’t seem to be a narrative structure to the songs. One minute he’s singing about the creeks in eastern North Carolina and the next it sounds like he’s processing a break up. “We’ll leave here in the morning,” he mumbles on “Fall from Grace.” It creates a comfortable, numb disassociation, like Xanax.
The other thing to note is Herring’s sporadic, accentuating use of the hardcore growl, like a bay-leaf in the marinara sauce. When listening to mass-appeal indie-bands like Future Islands, I often find myself wondering: where did these people come from? They’re musicians, sure, but what culture do they come out of? Were they listening to The Cure in their bedrooms, or were they going to hardcore shows?
Herring’s insertion of heavy guitars and a crushing screamo growl at the end of the otherwise moody, slow song “Fall from Grace” seems like a cultural nod as if to say: We come from the old anger. But now we’re tired.