Future Islands: ‘We’re just three disgusting dudes in a van’
Years of touring in cheap vans taught the band how to transport audiences with their tunes
Gerrit Welmers, William Cashion and Samuel T Herring: The band’s new album, The Far Fields, “is our way of processing what has happened in the three years since Singles came out.” Photograph: Tom Hines
Samuel T Herring of Future Islands performs Seasons (Waiting On You) on The Late Show With David Letterman: “We’re playing music which comes from a feeling we had, so it never feels dishonest to us to perform”
Future Islands are talking about transportation. “All of Future Islands’ vans have been found by my dad,” says singer Samuel T Herring. “All really cheap and all got the job done. The first one was an old office supply delivery van with ‘Office Pros’ written on the side. It cost $500 and we got fifty or sixty thousand miles out of that one.”
“The second van was a bit of clunkier and it died on our first tour in the middle of Montana,” remembers guitarist William Cashion. “Then we got a really solid van which used to belong to a dog-and-cat grooming company.”
“We kept the decals on the side of the van,” adds Herring, “because people don’t think you have music gear in your van if you have a decal of a cartoon dog and cat running towards a heart with ‘Hugs & Kisses Grooming Palace’ written underneath.
“There would a few times when we’d be parked up when someone with a cat would knock on the window and go, ‘Can you guys groom my cat right here?’ We’d be, ‘No, no, no, we’re just three disgusting dudes in a van, we’re a band, we can’t cut your cat’s hair.’ Actually, we’d probably have made more money doing that at the time than from music.”
Vans matter because Future Islands are a band who have found their groove on the road. Between the release of their debut album, Wave Like Home, in 2008 and their breakthrough with their fourth album, Singles, in 2014, Future Islands toured relentlessly.
“We had five years of straight touring and we released our first album, our second album and our third album during this time,” says Herring. “Our second and third records were written and recorded in spaces in between tours. Five years, over 600 shows, three albums, a lot of things going on, a lot of growth as a band and growth in our audience.”
We write pretty fast, a song a day or an afternoon. Seven songs in seven days was more or less what we set out to achieve.
It was their last album that transformed their fortunes. A memorable TV performance of Seasons (Waiting On You) on the Late Show With David Letterman brought the band to the attention of the mainstream and they became that most modern of phenomena: an overnight success after six years on the go.
By the time they came off the road finally at the end of 2015, there was a lot to process.
“We had talked about it and about how things had changed,” says Cashion. “But a lot of this album is our way of processing what has happened in the three years since Singles came out.”
That album is The Far Field, full of alluring, haunting hooks, dark, lyrical introspection and beautifully framed honesty. It’s a grand leap forward, the sound of a band comfortable in their own skins yet keen to face the next challenges.
It was the North Carolina coast that provided the basis for the new record.
“We rented a beach house in the Outer Banks, this thin strip of land which goes from the northern part of the state for about 80 miles,” says Herring.
“It was January, there was nobody there and most of the shops and restaurants are closed. We set up in a house and we wrote seven or eight instrumentals over a week. We wrote Ancient Water the first day and I’d the lyrics finished the next day. We just kept rolling.”
“We write pretty fast, a song a day or an afternoon,” says Cashion. “If we have to spend too much time working on a song, we will eventually just stop and leave it. The lyrics take longer to figure out. Seven songs in seven days was more or less what we set out to achieve.
I personally missed a lot of the weird, dirty rawness of the old recordings. Back then, we were recording in houses and livingrooms and spaces we didn’t have to pay for with whatever microphones we had to hand
“Some bands might work on something for longer, for weeks or months, but we don’t,” says Herring. “We know from our experience that there is another feeling around the corner that is going to come out. We always write from a feeling.”
What Herring remembers most about that week was looking out at the ocean and feeling a sense of place.
“It was like Song for Our Grandfathers. We wrote that in William’s family’s hunting cabin far away from anywhere, in the middle of a forest. Those words were written looking out at this old plot of family land and feeling the history of where we’re from and our ancestors.
“This time, we’re sitting on the third storey of this beach house. There are winds howling outside, it’s cold, the house is swaying and we’re looking out at the sea and writing words. The ocean and water and nature have always been a big part of our music.”
It’s the sound of the new record that resonates most with the band.
“Singles was the first time we stepped into a studio to make a record and we learned more about making a record at that high-fidelity level than we had ever done,” says Herring.
“I personally missed a lot of the weird, dirty rawness of the old recordings. Back then, we were recording in houses and livingrooms and spaces we didn’t have to pay for with whatever microphones we had to hand, with our old friend Chester Endersby Gwazda, using an old 24-track portable board and ProTools set-up. Every time, we were in the process of learning how to do things which we’d bring in for the next record.
“We captured one thing on Singles, but lost another thing. With The Far Field, we wanted to make a record as clean and glorious and big as Singles, but which also had the warmth and feeling of the old recordings, and there’s something in the new record that feels really magical.”
For many of their fans, it’s Future Islands’ live performance which provides the initial draw. The band spoke before about “the power of an honest performance”, and that sentiment remains strong.
“We realised the strength of the performance from the reaction to Letterman and how that caught on like wildfire,” says Cashion. “Because we’d done 700 shows or whatever up to that point, everything seemed to lead up to that moment. Without all that experience, things would not be the way they were.”
My dad tells me all the time about how he bootlegs my CD and gives it out to everyone.
“We’re playing music which comes from a feeling we had, so it never feels dishonest to us to perform,” says Herring. “We try not to overthink what we do and that translates into the shows. For some people, their big song becomes the bane of their existence, but Seasons is a song we love and not only because it has done amazing things for us. Because it’s honest, we can take that song onstage, I can pull myself apart and we can move people with the music.”
The Far Field is released on 4AD on April 7. Future Islands play Dolan’s, Limerick on July 3rd; Opera House, Cork (July 4th); Black Box, Galway (July 5th) and Iveagh Gardens, Dublin (July 6th)
Bootlegged by my dad: Future Islands on their biggest fans
“We’re our moms’ favourite band,” says Samuel T Herring.
“Like, they tell everyone about the band,” says William Cashion.
“His parents told me about the band and I went, ‘I know, I’m in the band,’” adds Herring.
“If I’m with them and we’re in a post office or bank, they’re telling the person at the counter about the band,” says Cashion. “If we’re in a restaurant, they go, ‘do you think this waiter knows your band?’ I don’t know! My dad will pull up our songs on Spotify and play them right there.”
“My dad tells me all the time about how he bootlegs my CD and gives it out to everyone,” says Herring. “I was sceptical about giving him the new album. I gave one to Mom and I did give one to him, but I had to sit him down and give him a talking-to. And he’s going to read this interview too.”