Interview: Samuel T. Herring (of Future Islands)

Somewhere along the way, Honesty evolved into Authenticity — the younger, more attractive form of quintessential truth. Honesty is seen as creaky, preachy, cheap — with not nearly as many layers as there is to being authentic. There are positives in both camps, but certainly the pulse of the music scene today beats for the fresh scent of authenticity. Samuel T. Herring, frontman for the Baltimore-via-North Carolina band Future Islands, approaches his songs with the kind of bare, languid honesty that feels absolutely unflappable in the sphere of music today.

Herring shouldn’t fear honesty, because the music that carries his heartfelt lyrics protects them from too much scrutiny or outright dismissal, like the cool clique bringing along the weird drama kid to the party. He wears the simple truth with confidence. His second proper LP with Future Islands, On the Water (due out this week), is one made for all the thoughts and emotions that can take place at the water’s edge. The album is personal in tone, dramatic in scope, earnest in delivery, and offers more opportunities for reflection than dancing this time about.

Not that you won’t see Herring dance while he’s performing these songs. At a Future Islands show, his desire for connection sends him to the furthest reaches of the stage like he’s tugging on an invisible leash chained to the back wall. Even in performance, there’s no pretense to his persona; Herring is that force often too strong for the average concertgoer to absorb in full.

We spoke with Herring about the origins of this record, his feelings about the songwriting process, growing up on The Sound, Baltimore, North Carolina, Daniel Johnston, and self destructing/transcending on the stage.

Have you ever lived on the water?

Yeah. I grew up in a small town called Morehead City, and my house was about two and a half blocks from the sound, or the shore, as you call it. It’s the water that’s trapped between the Barrier Islands and the ocean. That was a big part of my childhood, just walking down to the water and sitting out there. And I’m much more a “sound-side” kid, not only growing up, but still, to this day I just love the stillness of it out there. It’s not like where the beach is, it’s crowded, it’s a big tourist town there. So, people can be at the beach, and I can just sit down by the water by myself. Gerrit, our keyboardist, we grew up together, so that was a big part of our early childhood.

Do you feel that the tone of On the Water is more getting back in touch with childhood, or redefining what that stillness means, now that you’re older?

It’s more like remembering that this place is still as it always was. The way the sound was for me as a child, always returning to the sound late at night, being out of the house, and just sitting there by myself, and listening to my Walkman, and just reflecting. And when I go home now, it’s the same. The first thing I do is drive out there and park across from the water, and get out, put my feet in the water, talking to the water, talking to myself. So, this album is more of a reaffirmation of what the water is for me as a constant in my life.

Photo by Mike Vorassi

Compared to your previous albums, there’s more of a sense of calm that’s happening here, whether it’s a more reflective one, or more patient . Was that something you were going for in the writing process?

Well, that’s the thing…We weren’t trying to “go for” anything, and we don’t want to push too hard with this. In the songwriting, we realized when we went to record in North Carolina, we went down there with five songs and came out of the session with 10 songs. But, you know, those five songs were already putting us on that path. It wasn’t really a matter of trying to create anything in particular, more or less just what we were creating at the time. The question was, “What will these songs sound like when they come out of the recording? What will they sound like? Where are we now?”

The first song we wrote that became a part of the album was “On the Water”. When we wrote that song, it was… I don’t want to say a turning point, but, for me, that song was really heavy, and considering how slow it is, and the tone of it, the story I was telling was really, really heavy for me. Are we taking a chance by going in this direction? When we heard that song, we were like, “Well, we’re doing it! This is it! The slowest song we’ve ever written.”

To me, “On the Water” acts as a synopsis for the whole story. The first verse is about an ex-girlfriend of mine and remembering a time when everything was fine, and the second verse is about finding this new person and telling them the story of when everything went wrong with this other person and telling them, you know, “Don’t worry. That’s not going to happen to us. Everything’s gonna be fine with us.” It’s like trying to reassure someone of something that you’re not even sure of.

Download: Future Islands – “Balance”

That song really put us on a different path of sound and discovering something new. It wasn’t like, “Let’s continue to write calm songs” or “let’s write a calm album.” It was more or less just where we were at that time, coming off a lot of touring, riding that feeling. The calm in “On the Water” is also just the understanding of what came after the last album. In the Evening Air is real life. Those are real songs about my life, our lives. And then this is just like a year has passed, being out on the road, the understanding of those certain stories, and then coming back and writing again, and asking, “Well, where is your heart now? Or mind? Do you still harbor anger?” There was a lot of anger on the former album, but this new album has kind of washed it away, and I don’t mean for that to be such a pun. Really, the way time changes things, the way time changes the way we feel and maybe how it allows you to accept things again instead of being afraid of them… To me, that’s the calmness, and this album is just trying to look at things instead of just reacting.


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