Aug. 13 2014 02:52 PM

Baltimore synth-pop group is free of cynicism or irony

Future Islands
From left: William Cashion, Samuel Herring and J. Gerrit Welmers
Photo by Tim Saccenti

It’s a hot and dusty August Los Angeles evening in 2012, and Future Islands singer Samuel Herring is crouched at the edge of the stage before his band’s dusk performance at FYF Fest. He gives the appearance of being the affable everyman, dressed in a black T-shirt and khaki slacks and having a casual chat with the people in the front of the crowd—his grin never slouching.

When the music finally begins, and the band starts to play the ethereal opening notes of their incredible 2011 ballad “Give Us the Wind,” Herring suddenly transforms. He stands up and changes his expression from a warm smile to an intense and distant gaze. And by the time the chorus comes, he’s practically in a trance, beating his fist against his chest in a raw, primal expression of emotion. With downtown L.A. as the backdrop, hundreds of people—maybe even thousands—watch in rapt attention, but it felt more intimate than that. It felt like our own private performance.

In March, three weeks before the release of Singles, the band’s fourth album, they opened up that private show to an audience of millions. In a now-famous appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman—2.2 million YouTube views and counting—Future Islands dazzled an exponentially larger audience with their single “Seasons.” In the four-minute clip, the group sounds solid, but as with any of their live shows, Herring is the focal point: He engages in a head-nodding, side-stepping choreography that only grows more exaggerated and intense. His body jerks, his hips swivel—he gets the fuck down. Seemingly nobody is more impressed than Letterman himself, who later that week turned the band’s appearance into a running meme gag, wherein he introduced a clip of Herring by exclaiming, “Everybody dance!”

Future Islands—once a cult band with a passionate following—had finally crossed over to the mainstream after eight years. And all it took was one well-timed performance on late-night TV. Since then, the band’s been moving at a relentless pace, playing festival after festival, selling out one theater show after another, including their April show at Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown and their sold-out Aug. 22 show at The Irenic in San Diego.

On a surface level, it’s easy to attribute the band’s runaway success to how entertaining a frontman Herring is. Watch his jerky movements and the flood of emotion that comes flowing through every word he croons, and just try not to be utterly mesmerized. But none of this would matter—or it would matter less, at least—if the music wasn’t a powerful force of its own.

Singles, released via 4AD Records in March, can fairly accurately be called a new-wave or synth-pop album. The Baltimore-based group infuses each song with rich layers of bass and synthesizer melodies, at times sounding like a more modern version of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark or Depeche Mode brushed up with touches of disco and, of course, Herring’s almost superhuman vocal abilities. Music critic Lindsay Zoladz once said of Herring’s vocal style, “He sings every line like Meat Loaf serenading Yorick’s skull

It’s in that mixture of ethereal, albeit accessible, melodies and this dynamic thespian of a frontman where Future Islands transform these appealing, if disparate, elements into one explosive whole. In a crowded and often unwieldy universe of indie rock—where irony-dispensing frontmen like Stephen Malkmus and Robert Pollard are regarded as patron saints—Future Islands stand out for evoking feelings of sincerity and romanticism. Even at their most danceable and carefree, like on “Doves” or 2011’s “Before the Bridge,” Future Islands perform every note as if their lives depend on it. In the latter, Herring repeatedly asks, “Do you believe in love?” during the bridge—straight faced, without a hint of a wink or a snicker. If it’s an emo revival you’re looking for, it’s hard to find indie music that pulses with more genuine emotion than this. 

Nowhere is the band’s romantic sensibility more pronounced than on “Give Us the Wind”—that incredible set opener at FYF and a highlight of their 2011 album On the Water. The group’s message has never sounded more driven by youthful idealism and unwavering earnestness as it is here: “Let me cut away the darkness, and pin it to the wall,” Herring sings. “Let us sing a song of beauty as before.” 

In an interview published on Pitchfork earlier this year, Herring spoke about how important it is for him to not give into cynicism or mockery. “I want to hold on to those romantic ideals,” he said. “Those are things that we believe in and work hard on in our music.”

It’s easy to look at Future Islands’ heart-on-sleeve approach from a distance with skepticism, but to hear it firsthand is an entirely different experience. Future Islands don’t just sell the hell out of these ideas; they package them up beautifully in a dramatic, art-pop wrapper.

And if the last six months have proven anything, it’s that wistful and theatrical music such as theirs resonates with a lot of people. That, and nobody can resist some sweet dance moves. 

Email or follow him at @1000TimesJeff