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Three Songs No Flash

Oh Buddy, Come On! Future Islands Live By Simon Price
Simon Price , May 16th, 2014 07:23

Future Islands are the most talked-about band of the year so far. But what does it all mean? Simon Price sees them live and is blown away. (And not just by the gale-force sea breeze...)

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Photos by Valerio Berdini

At Future Islands minus 90, two huge queues - one civilian, one industry - are already stretching serpentine along the cobbles of Brighton's wind-whipped promenade. When The Great Escape festival originally booked the Baltimore band, and scheduled them in Digital (an arch under the beachfront that used to be the legendary Zap Club), the organisers had no reason to think that they'd be able to fill the venue five times over.

At Future Islands minus 45, many disheartened souls, still no closer to the velvet rope outside Digital, have given up and drifted away. Among the hundreds who remain, and hundreds more who've joined them, transatlantic friendships are formed in the surf and spray, bonded by this test of endurance.

At Future Islands minus one, shamelessly using my evil VIP queue-jump card for the first and only time all weekend, I finally get the nod and, with major guilt about the sorrowful faces on the thousands still locked out, gallop indoors just in time to hear Samuel T. Herring finish his introductory salutations with "...OK, let's play some god damn music."

Something, clearly, is happening here. Or, to be accurate, something has happened. Future Islands - a synthpop quartet who have been knocking around since 2006, first on Thrill Jockey and now on 4AD - are a classic example of a band who, to coin a cliche, have taken eight years to become an overnight sensation. They look set to become indie pop's biggest sleeper success since Pulp. And their Fairy Godmother was an unknown booker on an American talk show.

A sign of how rapidly the Future Islands phenomenon took off is that I encountered the backlash before the frontlash, seeing them mentioned on March 8th this year on the Facebook wall of a friend who didn't get what all the fuss was about. Intrigued, I investigated the YouTube clip he'd posted. I got what all the fuss was about.

On 3rd March, Future Islands got the biggest break of their career - a live slot on the Late Show With David Letterman - and grabbed it like a cliff faller would a branch. They were preceded in the running order by Brendan Marrocco, a former US Army sergeant who had lost all his limbs in Iraq in 2009 when his vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb. They wondered, understandably, how they hell they were meant to follow that. But, oh boy, they followed it.

What happened next became an international Water Cooler Moment (or, as we ought to say in a colder climate like ours, Kettle Moment). Now, I bristle against this set of circumstances immediately, partly because journalistic vanity means that I don't like it when something is already a 'thing' without me being an early adopter (god damn it, I'm on all the mailing lists, I diligently follow up promising word-of-mouth tips, how did a band like this get to their fourth album without me even hearing about them?), and partly because I resent the way that we in the UK are expected to accept these Big Moments on American shows we don't even get over here (on terrestrial TV in any case) as being more significant than any other moment in a band's career. Then I got over myself and watched the bloody thing and... well, frankly it was fucking amazing in all kinds of unexpected ways (and it was chiefly its unexpectedness which was most amazing of all).

As a rule, I'm at the extreme end of the scepticism spectrum when it comes to the idea of Authenticity in pop. I'm usually a hardliner who believes that everyone is faking it (indeed, Faking It: The Quest For Authenticity In Popular Music by Hugh Barker & Yuval Taylor is my go-to text on these matters), and that the moment you solidify your emotions into rhyming couplets and take them into the studio for a dozen different takes, you've severed the umbilical cord between the feelings you had in the first place and the form of expression you've chosen for them (i.e. a song). I'm also someone who believes that what we take to be Soul in a singer usually consists of a handful of codified vocal mannerisms and facial tics, which are understood by the listener to signify 'meaning it', even though they are by no means proof of the 'it' being meant. (Far from it, in fact.) But there's always this slight window ajar in my wall of certainty, and once in a while, something comes along which pushes it open. Future Islands on Letterman didn't bother with such niceties, and kicked the glass into tiny shards.

You had this guy, balding and wearing bad clothes, not looking like a rock star so much as a hard-working diner proprietor from The Sopranos. You had this song, 'Seasons (Waiting On You)', which sounded to my ears like a cross between 'Dancing In The Dark' by Bruce Springsteen and 'Brilliant Mind' by Furniture. You had this voice, which flitted unpredictably between the aforementioned white soul mannerisms and an incongruous, almost comical death metal growl. And most of all, you had this performance, this EXTRAORDINARY performance, this life-or-death, my-moment-is-now performance. Beating his chest like King Kong, taking haymaker swings at thin air, giving a display of dad-dancing the like of which hasn't been seen since the heyday of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, gesticulating to communicate every point to the imaginary gig front row in his head, one by one (when all he could actually see, surely, were black rubber cables and chalk marks, and a small studio audience in the middle-distance), a glint of destiny in his blue eyes. At the end, Letterman - always a genial and polite host but not always, shall we say, engaged with the bands his bookers have hired - was visibly overcome with glee, congratulating Herring with the words "Oh buddy, come on!" and "I'll take all of that ya got!"

The music was fine enough, if not exactly groundbreaking. Future Islands once came up with the jokey non-genre 'post-wave' to deflect any attempts to shoehorn them into an existing scene or movement, but it's essentially standard synth-led indie pop (albeit executed with class and panache). Some reviewers have mentioned The Postal Service, though John Doran's comparison with Joy Division is closer to the mark. But it was Samuel Herring's delivery which really stopped you in your tracks.

What appealed to me most was its sheer UNCOOLNESS. It pushed all the buttons of the Dexys Mk II fan in me. And obviously, I more than anyone was aware that his apparent sincerity could all be a calculated charade, but somehow - like Spooky Agent Mulder in The X Files - I wanted to believe. I wanted to imagine that Future Islands Guy was some sort of borderline Care In The Community savant, a cross between Susan Boyle and Andrew WK (please do not, even for a moment, picture that tryst). In reality, it turns out that Herring is no naif, and is arch enough, for example, to have a side career as a rapper with the handle Hemlock Ernst (a pretty damn nifty one, at that). But this fact detracts from the sincerity of his performance not one iota.

It's not even as if I'm immune to being wowed by a bit of 'cool' (in the sunglasses-at-night sense of a certain aloof restraint). In fact, I love it. But when something like this - something so intensely, palpably 4 REAL - comes along, it has the power to blast all that stuff away with embarrassing ease.

Even as these thoughts raced through my mind, I knew there was every chance that I'd dig into the Future Islands back catalogue and it would turn out to be crap. (I have, since. It isn't.) Or that they'd let us down in some way, and do it fast. (They haven't, as yet.) But you know what? If I was a singer in a band, I'd love to think I'd be giving it everything THIS guy was giving it.

And the shivers I got from watching this were a reminder that pop is an arena where alchemy can take place, where the ordinary can be transformed into the outlandish, and where the outlandish can in turn be transformative to those living hitherto ordinary lives. Future Islands had confused me. They laid down a challenge. What the hell was going on here? It made me uncomfortable. In all honesty, I couldn't even tell if I liked it, at first. But whenever a band comes along and I don't quite know what to make of them, it's invariably but a short and fast leap to deciding that I DO like it. The confusion is a positive in itself. I'm a serial benefit-of-the-doubt giver, ever since the age of 16, when my initial reaction of repulsion upon seeing The Smiths on television, and irritation upon reading about them in Smash Hits, became reversed, and I became the world's biggest fan. Nobody knows anything, least of all about themselves.

Before cynicism and caution kicked back in, I typed up my thoughts about Future Islands and posted it on Facebook. The ensuing debate was fascinating. My friends list, inevitably, is filled with other music journalists, who all made useful contributions. The Guardian's Alexis Petridis compared it, quite correctly, to the "disruptive" pop moment when the Associates first appeared on Top Of The Pops. His colleague Dave Simpson spoke approvingly - and, I submit, unimprovably - of Samuel Herring's "man-on-firing-range dancing", while David Stubbs reckoned he "bobs and weaves... like a soul Rocky Marciano". David Bennun, meanwhile, opined that "This guy's locking in to a... tradition that comes from R&B performers schooled in gospel. He's testifying."

There were negative comparisons, too. Many people mentioned Shaun Williamson (Barry from EastEnders), and specifically his turn on Stars In Their Eyes. Others mentioned the dad from Happiness, or simply "an accountant". This pattern of bunking, debunking and rebunking was repeated in the wider world, with Twitter and the blogosphere going into meltdown with pro- and anti-Future Islands factions doing battle. Within a week, the big, grown-up newspapers had all waded in too, with think pieces along the lines of "What does Future Islands on Letterman tell US about US?"

Here's what Future Islands on Letterman tells us about us. It tells us that, no matter your age, the Damascus moment is possible. It tells us that Richey Edwards was wrong: there is always redemption. It tells us that pop is still where magic happens.

And, for 45 minutes, Brighton Digital is where magic happens. Within the first ten seconds of 'Inch Of Dust', Samuel Herring scrolls through all his trademark moves - slapping himself in the heart, growling like he's in Slipknot, dancing like he's doing the Olympic slalom - and is generally so uber-himself that it's almost camp. You have to laugh: yep, that's the guy from the Letterman show, alright.

The sheer physicality of Samuel Herring's performance is a sight to behold. For a start, his biceps look like they were forged from hard manual graft, not 'roids and an expensive gym, and there's something of The Incredible Hulk (mid-change) about his barely-contained rage/lust/pain, a similarity emphasised by the green spotlight which bathes him for the first song or two.

You wonder whether he's ever studied mime of the Marcel Marceau/Alternative Car Park school, so expressive are his moves. More likely, he's just freestyling it. Either way, during 'Before The Bridge' he punches himself in the head and blows spores from an imaginary dandelion, and during 'Tin Man' (and, by the way, if you're looking for a Future Islands song to match 'Seasons', 'Tin Man' should be your first port of call), he pretends to peel his own face back from his skull, horror movie style.

He delivers 'A Dream Of You And Me' directly to the spotlight, working himself up to the brink of tears. I remember what he told The Quietus back in 2010: "I feel like that even with the way singers have performed in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, there were great soul singers and really over the top pop performers... these passionate singers... where are they. Some people say I sing with my soul but how else can you sing? That is how someone should sing." And, fleetingly, I think to myself: imagine if this is what Emo meant.

The idea of juxtaposing a breathing, bleeding human against glacial, robotic synthesizers is nothing new, of course: in the 1980s it was practically a sub-genre in itself. In the past, though, the human has generally been either an effeminate male or a ballsy diva. What makes Future Islands tick is the fact that Herring is self-evidently a "real man" (whatever that means), a salt-of-the-earth Ordinary Joe desperately striving to reach across the singer-audience divide and convey his feelings.

'Seasons' is, inevitably, a MOMENT, and the forest of outstretched palms, all seeking a quasi-Papal laying on of hands from Herring, brings it home that you're not the only one who was touched by that TV clip, not the only one who craves something that tastes as though it's made from distilled emotions. He deflects any latent 'messiah' status with trivial chit-chat (Brighton, he says, reminds him of the coastal towns of his native North Carolina because it shares "the same style of choppy waves"), corny dance instructions (he wants us to "get on down" to FI's "old school jams"), and at one point - alarmingly - some 'sexy' hip gyrations.

Nevertheless, there's a tense moment during 'Spirit' when someone bats a yellow balloon towards the stage. How will this sweat-drenched and deadly-serious frontman react? Whaddayaknow, he breaks into the cutest smile. "You guys are lucky I'm not Morrissey", he says afterwards (and he's righter about that than he'll ever be about anything). "I'd cancel the show right now..."

We won't let them go home. Bucking the conveyor-belt format of festivals like this one, the band return for an encore ('Fall From Grace', the night's first and only ballad, conjuring the elegiac beauty of prime Cure or New Order). As we reluctantly file out into the Beaufort Scale-busting Brighton air, dazed "That just happened" expressions are all around.

I still worry about what'll happen next, and whether Future Islands concerts will lose a little something when they have to play larger and larger venues to accommodate their new-found mass audience, and whether Samuel's sincerity - if it isn't a shtick already - will become one, in the light of exposure and repetition.

Somehow, though, I've got a sneaking faith that they can carry it off. And in pop, the present moment is all that matters, and the present moment, when Future Islands are onstage, playing at full pelt and close enough to touch, is beyond euphoric. For now, like Letterman, I'll take all of that ya got.

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ad hominem
May 16, 2014 1:25pm

vic and bob's 'action image exchange'

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Michael White
May 16, 2014 1:53pm

I'm one of the naysayers when it comes to this band, but this is a beautiful piece of writing, Simon. I'll take all of THAT ya got.

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May 16, 2014 1:58pm

I saw these guys in 2009 opening for Dan Deacon, they only had one album out at that point. It's really difficult for an opening act to win over the crowd but Future Islands really did like no other act I've ever seen. Sam was no different than he is now. Bonus fact I met him a few months later and had a quick word - genuinely nice dude, too. It's been really great to see them hitting the big time like this. Can't think of a band that deserves it more.

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tony m
May 16, 2014 2:19pm

I'm fairly certain Holy Diver got a fair few spins when STH were a lad.

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May 16, 2014 4:19pm

Nice piece of writing, they are still the height of mediocrity though.

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Post-Punk Monk
May 16, 2014 4:20pm

Wow. I live so deep in a cave, I was not aware of this band. But reading the story reminds me of the time I chanced seeing Matt & Kim [knowing nothing of them at all] play a club only slightly larger than my living room in 2009. Bang! The next time they played an 1,100 capacity A-list club. They had the same dynamism that at the time, reminded me of "Jonathan [Richman] Goes Synthpop."
For further rumination on the Fresh New Sound Of Yesterday®

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Gregg Chadwick
May 16, 2014 5:00pm

Really enjoyed your article Simon. Future Islands is a fascinating, pulse racing, emotive band and your writing captures their spirit.

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May 16, 2014 10:58pm

That's Mr. alternative car park to you.

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May 17, 2014 7:00pm

In reply to Christopher:

Yeah, we [myself and my wife, who's an even more devoted fan than me] saw them on that tour as well. We were in San Francisco when that roadshow played - Samuel was cheerfully manning the mercy table. Then we caught them in London when they arrived here, and have seen them every opportunity since.

It's a bit weird, frankly, reading an article like this on The Quietus - a kind of 'where did THAT come from?' article - when they've been around for us for five years. Lovely to see them get their due, though.

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May 17, 2014 7:03pm

In reply to MM:

That should read 'merch', not 'mercy'. Tut.

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Simon Price
May 18, 2014 10:11am

In reply to MM:

I should make it clear that any sense of "Where did THAT come from?" only applies to me personally, not the site as a whole. The Quietus was all over Future Islands long before the Letterman thing. (Have a look for John Doran's 2010 interview, for example.)

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Post-Punk Monk
May 18, 2014 4:42pm

Yikes, that's what I get for living deep in a cave. After seeing where the band came from, I did a little digging and have found out that they gigged regularly in my North Carolina hamlet over the last eight years. My loss for working so much and not paying closer attention to the gigs around me.
For further rumination on the Fresh New Sound Of Yesterday®

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May 19, 2014 12:30pm

"As a rule, I'm at the extreme end of the scepticism spectrum when it comes to the idea of Authenticity in pop"

stopped reading here. cheers lads

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May 19, 2014 12:48pm

In reply to Post-Punk Monk:

Dude, I clicked over to your site and it's got nice design, decent and enthusiastic writing and I like a lot of your musical selections.

So please, take this in the spirit it's intended:

It's kinda gauche to keep flogging your *own* site in the comments section of *this* one. I resisted clicking over for a long, long time because, well, what you are doing here seems rude, and frankly I imagine others doing the same; people who might otherwise dig what you have going on over there, are going to be turned off by the relentless, seemingly-desperate self-promotion here.

Tone it down a little maybe.

Just my .02.

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May 20, 2014 8:15am

In reply to Simon Price:

Ah, I never saw that. Thanks!

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Post-Punk Monk
May 21, 2014 12:11am

In reply to Glyph:

Glyph: Thanks for your comment. I place a text link in my comments at The Quietus, because their CMS [unlike most others] does not allow for automatic reciprocal linking in the comments from registered commenters. I do this because my blog is invisible to search engines. Any searches on any tags or concepts will not return my blog in the results. If you search for the name "Post-Punk Monk" you will get a single return on the name/home page, but that's as far as the spiders go.

Why do I blog and keep my blog virtually invisible in "stealth mode?" Why don't I use WordPress's Publicize tool or use FB or Twitter to grow my blog? Because I find Ithat gauche. I don't understand people sharing their lives on the web. But mostly because I'm not fond of Google making money off of me even peripherally. They are not my friend, I don't want their "free toys" and I think they view us all as their chattel. If someone were to search on terms that would under normal circumstances, yield results using my blog, then I would be abetting the filling of their coffers. So that's why I place manual links in my comments at The Quietus.

Growing readership through reciprocal comment linking is a way of getting readers that I find acceptable. I am mortified that anyone might consider my action gauche. I enjoy the editorial thrust of The Quietus, and I approve of their musical values, even when I don't see eye to eye with them. They manage to engage my interest consistently through the years I have been reading them. I thought that someone who reads a comment I write here and finds a resonance with it might enjoy PPM; for all of its unedited, first draft "glory."

If the editors were to drop me a line saying "lay off the URLs" [and they have my email address to do so] then I'd certainly comply. I'm sorry for taking this comment thread into territory having nothing to do with Future Islands.

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May 21, 2014 12:55am

In reply to Post-Punk Monk:

Fair enough. I really don't mean to come across as jerky about it. I just think seeing your URL and tagline multiple times in comments (especially on the same article) starts to seem kind of pushy to me, like you're coming into one coffeshop with a stack of flyers for your own coffeshop.

I have no idea what the proper netiquette is, and admittedly probably would never have seen your site otherwise. But I just figured I'd offer my opinion: maybe instead of auto-signing every comment with your slogan, you could just tone it down a little. Say, every 3rd or 5th comment.

I also apologize to the OP author and readers for this threadjack sidebar. We now return you to your regularly-scheduled commenting.

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phil lockhart
Jun 4, 2014 12:56pm

Simon, that review just underlined everything about the band , I agree as well, But , the beating heart of the band is William, the bass guitar player, his contribution is just as important as Sams, he gives all the songs that living , breathing momentum for Sam to lock into, Gerrit , the keyboard player is the man who adds colour and key dance points to these amazing songs, yep Sam is an original, I do think he means every ounce of emotion, he puts in, and boy there a lot, But without William and Gerrit he couldn't be who he Is, they all pull together to make an amazing band, watched em again last night in leeds, another brilliant show, I just hope they rest and recoup and don't burn out from too much touring, as I want to see them playing as soon as they are able, as the Sheffield gig was cancelled in November.

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Jun 5, 2014 12:06pm

I'm now researching Simon Price. Very well written piece, particularly enjoying the phrase 'I encountered the backlash before the frontlash', which nicely encapsulates public opinion in the social media age (he said, on a comments forum).

But 'almost comical' death metal growl? The guy means it, the music is catchy, god bless them, and everyone loves a happy ending, but that growl, in this context, IS comical.

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Lea Lohrenz
Jun 17, 2014 2:33am

When a band is good, they don't need any extra gimmicks to make them stand out. That is what I call skill. I would like to hear them some time. Unfortunately I haven't heard them yet even years later! I'll check YouTube or something. Thanks for sharing.

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Jun 23, 2014 11:23pm

Love this stuff...I see some Ian Drury in it. Only with sharp knives instead of tea and toast.

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Patrick Herron
Jun 24, 2014 5:17am

Looks like Marlon Brando circa The Men with Tom Jones chops...

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Jun 24, 2014 12:36pm

does the writer realise they were talked about because they are the most pathetic thing people had seen on there televisions for years? lol at media trying to spin this into a positive just because lots of people don't know how shit they are yet.

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Tom Mills
Jul 12, 2014 11:19am

I've only seen the Letterman clip for the first time this morning and spent the last two hours diving into everything I can find on YouTube. This article perfectly captures that moment when something totally unexpected, that you'd never in a million years think you'll like, sideswipes you and knocks you off your feet. Great article about a really unique band and frontman.

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