Future Islands: The Unlikely Rise of Baltimore's Heartache Kings

Future Islands: The Unlikely Rise of Baltimore's Heartache Kings

Breakout trio Future Islands discuss their long rise to indie-rock fame, and reveal the dark emotions behind their uplifting synth pop. Koury Angelo for Rolling Stone

Inside the trio's remarkable journey from college-town weirdos to synth-pop phenoms – and the darkness that fuels their festival-ready anthems

Inside the trio's remarkable journey from college-town weirdos to synth-pop phenoms – and the darkness that fuels their festival-ready anthems

It's Valentine's Day and Samuel T. Herring is onstage at New York's Bowery Ballroom, splitting open his soul – as well as the crotch of his pants and the sleeve of his navy button-down. Sweat blooms around the curve of his back as he jabs, kicks and body-rolls along to his own existential grief.

"So many sad songs on Valentine's Day," the Future Islands frontman tells the crowd, clenching his fist around the mic. "Because that's what we fuckin' do."

For years, the Baltimore synth-pop trio were a well-kept secret. Then, on March 3rd, 2014, they played their single "Seasons (Waiting on You)" on The Late Show with David Letterman. Herring's impassioned delivery and idiosyncratic dance moves seemed to transfix the entire Internet. The clip went viral, becoming the most-viewed video on the show's YouTube page.

"Have you seen them?" Bono asked in U2's Rolling Stone cover story. He called "Seasons" – a galvanic moving-on song – a "miracle," and shipped the band a case of Guinness and champagne in gratitude. When Debbie Harry saw the clip, she hopped on a duet with Herring (the lovely "Shadows," from the band's new fifth LP, The Far Field). Even the reclusive author Haruki Murakami tweeted praise. Suddenly, Future Islands were one of the most in-demand bands in America, selling out venues like London's Roundhouse and New York's Terminal 5 at Bey-level speeds. Festivals that previously passed on them came calling. That summer, even Gwyneth Paltrow asked for a selfie with Herring. 

This year, the stakes are higher than ever before. Future Islands locked main-stage sets at three of the country's biggest music festivals, Coachella, Panorama and Bonnaroo, all before anyone had heard so much as a song from The Far Field. It's a particularly big leap considering that the band has never charted on the Billboard Hot 100.

Future Islands' signature sound is the work of bassist William Cashion and keyboardist/programmer Gerrit Welmers. They create spare, shimmering tracks that recall Eighties synth pop at its most wistful and urgent; Herring adds melancholy reflections culled from his journals – "I try to translate the feeling of the chords," he says – and delivers them in an achingly soulful belt.

Herring's unguarded expression is what captivates many fans, but some close to the band are concerned about him going too deep. "Sam's obviously a great lyricist and is very vulnerable, but I do worry about him," says electronic-music artist and friend Dan Deacon. "I think he drifts into the darker part of his past, which is OK, as long is he doesn't put himself in emotional danger to do so."

It's a gray weekday in Baltimore, and an insistent thrum is coming from Cashion's backyard. Future Islands are practicing in his wooden shed, which is just big enough for the band, a beat-up couch and a case of LaCroix. They run through fan favorites like "Long Flight," "Walking Through That Door" and "Tin Man." Herring stands uncharacteristically still until Cashion’s hand glides down the fingerboard of his bass on the opening of "Seasons." The singer instinctively jolts forward, like he's running head first into a cold ocean.

In exactly one week, Future Islands will play their new single, "Ran," on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. "The one thing that makes us the most nervous as a band is playing on television," Cashion says later. "Ran" has the same restlessness as "Seasons," but it brings in a new hint of desperation, with Herring singing, "I can't take this world without you." In the video – partly shot in Cashion's shed – the singer bounds through the Maryland countryside, contemplating "how it feels when we fall and we fold" like Thoreau in an L.L. Bean fall coat.

The Far Field builds on Singles' themes of compassion and heartache with roving songs like "Ancient Water" and "North Star," balanced with more introspective ones like "Through the Roses" and "Cave." The album is also a bookend of sorts to the raw sound of Future Islands' 2010 album, In Evening Air. Both album titles are taken from poems by Theodore Roethke, a Pulitzer Prize–winning writer who inspires Herring's portrayal of nature. Both record covers were also painted by the same Brooklyn-based artist, Kymia Nawabi. (She also used to be in the band, but more on that later.)

"When I wrote In Evening Air, I was exploding with love and then, exploding with loss," Herring says later. "The beauty of falling in love is the surprise that it can find you, the surprise that someone can make you feel again. … As an older man, falling in love and then losing it – it's not a surprise anymore."

Herring appears sanguine, but as he says later, the period leading up to The Far Field was a lonely one – at times harrowingly so.

After practice, the 33-year-old singer drives me back to his house in his tan-interior Audi, a sensible, used 2007 model that's a major upgrade from his old, white Volvo. "This was my gift to myself after Singles," he says from behind the steering wheel. 

Baltimore has been Future Islands' surrogate home since late 2007. They came together here from various cities in North Carolina at the recommendation of local DIY fixtures like Dan Deacon and Benny Boeldt, who raved about the industrial mid-Atlantic stopover as a creative haven. Deacon knew Herring, Cashion and Welmers when they played in the wild, theatrical Art Lord and the Self-Portraits, in Greenville, North Carolina.

"I thought, 'This is going to be the biggest band in the world' – they had the audience right in the palm of their hand," said Deacon. "And they still do. I'm just confused why it took so fucking long."

Deacon recalls booking Future Islands' first Baltimore show at the now-defunct Talking Head club. "It was a disaster," he says unflinchingly. The set was too early and no one showed up to hear them. Feeling accountable, Deacon insisted they rally for a second show later that night – this one at a DIY warehouse party. "They just killed," he says emphatically. 

The first time Cashion and Herring talked seriously about moving to Baltimore was over a cigarette in Brooklyn. Future Islands was somewhat marginalized in North Carolina's guitar-driven rock scene. "We were coming from Art Lord, which was kind of gimmicky and people knew us for that," Cashion explains. But in Baltimore, particularly when Deacon's quirky art collective Wham City was taking off, Future Islands seemed like the serious ones. 

Herring parks outside his austere suburban house as the sun dips through tall spruce trees outside. Walking past a bucket of cigarette butts on the porch, he opens the screen door to a cavernous living room and heads straight back to the kitchen. His mangy tabby named Chantix slinks at his feet. "Take a seat, it's story time with Sam," he smiles, motioning me to sit as he lights the stove and sets up the ingredients for a scrambled-eggs dinner.

Herring grew up in the small beach town of Morehead City, North Carolina. He hails from blue-collar folks, mostly farmers. His father was the first in his family to attend law school and became a divorce attorney. ("I joke that I continued the family business," Herring says, dimples darkening to a smile, since so many of his songs are about separation).

But it's the endurance of love – not its dissolution – that's made Herring a hopeless romantic, or depending on the day, intensely lovesick. His parents just celebrated their 40th anniversary, he says. They still wake up together, leave for work together (Mrs. Herring is Mr. Herring's secretary), go home together and turn off the lights together. "I see such a true thing in their relationship. … Their love informs how I speak about love – it's beautiful," he says taking fresh broccoli out of a plastic bag. He jokes that when he dates people, it's like, "What do you mean you don't want to hang out for 24 hours straight?" He spreads the olive oil, tilting the frying pan and holding it up like a mirror. "I've always wanted that thing. Someone there. And I don't have that."

As a kid, Herring was doe-eyed and likable, but felt weak in his identity. "I felt isolated in a world in which I was loved," he says. Hip-hop filled a void that the school baseball team didn't. Every week, he'd steal his lunch and pocket his allowance to have enough at the end of the week to buy tapes from obscure artists like Killah Priest and Gravediggaz alongside Eric B and Rakim, De La Soul, and KRS-One. Hip-hop was a twofold gift, providing Herring with a cheeky hubris that impressed his friends in the locker room – and, more significantly, a poet's ear.

Standing over the cutting board, Herring lets out his inner Kool Moe Dee, reciting from memory the first verse he wrote in eighth grade, and promptly cracking up. "I had no idea how to talk to women – I couldn't freestyle at all," he says, chopping zucchini into neat fours. "But that's how I developed my own style and writing – pretending to be the Treacherous Three."

Hip-hop is still a major force in Herring's life. Since 2009, he's rapped under the MC pseudonym Hemlock Ernst. "Hemlock" was his original name as a writer when he was 14, he says. ("Ernst" comes from Locke Ernst Frost, the made-up German character he portrayed in Art Lord.) In addition to his main band, he has recorded and collaborated with hip-hop trailblazers like Madlib, BadBadNotGood and Busdriver. 

Herring's gift for flow come across on "Aladdin," the first track on The Far Field:

I've seen the beaches
Breached the peak of "please" and "thanks"
I've seen my features age
My fingers strange

"I could've only written that song after studying hip-hop," he says.

"The tremble of a word can make you cry," he continues. He pauses, his face serious. "You don't [necessarily] recognize what [it is] about it, but something can make you break down. It's fucking beautiful."

The singer is eager to tour in support of The Far Field, though he fears that as the band grows, he's becoming less accessible to fans, especially after blowing out his voice in 2015. "It was just sad, because I had to resign myself to the fact that you can't give 100 percent of yourself onstage and then give 100 percent offstage," he says. "I had to make a decision.

"I've been alone a lot this year – physically ... well, in every way," he says with a smile. An average day begins with a pot of coffee and ends with a long walk. He writes everyday" in his room, at a picnic table outside a local coffee shop, just driving around. Solitude lets him dig deeper, he says – "maybe not in a good way." 

Just then, one of his roommates, fellow Baltimore music-scene fixture Lexie Mountain, enters the kitchen to grab her journal, which is lying open on the table. If Herring wasn't driving to Chicago tomorrow for Future Islands' first concert of 2017, he'd be attending her standup set tonight at local spot the Crown. And later, he'd probably end up at Club Charles, a favorite dive around the corner.

"Bands aren't in competition with each other like they are in other cities like New York," says Gerrit Welmers in a separate conversation. The quiet keyboard player was admittedly not thrilled about leaving North Carolina for Baltimore, until on his first night in the new town, he found himself at a Dan Deacon–Diplo double billing that featured giant inflatable men waving in the musty club air. Welmers was home.

Welmers, 33, likes Baltimore even more now that he is married to a teacher whom he met through the town's close-knit art scene, specifically, when he was stranded outside a DIY hub in the middle of the night. "I tried to wrap the jumper cables around my car, and Za's like, 'You're doing a terrible job!' and I'm like, 'I love you.'"

Tall and thoughtful, Welmers grew up two streets over from the Herring household. He was an only child who enjoyed solitary pursuits – guitar, skateboarding, shooting hoops outside his house. (One time in eighth grade, Herring beat an infuriated Welmers at H.O.R.S.E.). Mostly, Welmers just listened to metal and punk records alone in his room. He loved the Misfits the most, but wanted to play guitar like late Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Randy Rhoads. (To this day, Welmers prefers playing his ice-blue, Rhoads-style Jackson – "There's nothing like holding one of those in your hand," he says). Eventually, Welmers and Herring would find common ground in their mutual obsessions with Danzig and Kool Keith.

In 2002, they enrolled at East Carolina University. There, they met William Cashion, a friendly, ambitious, blue-eyed country boy who also loved heady alt-rock like Pixies ("Dead" was his favorite Doolittle track) and composing his own avant-garde computer music.

Cashion, 34, recalls winning a Web-design competition for the North Carolina state fair when he was 13 years old, well before most people even owned a computer. "I was just interested," he says with his usual calm. In high school, after hearing Smashing Pumpkins for the first time, he applied that natural inquisitiveness to guitar.

Cashion vividly remembers the first time he spoke to Herring, who he knew as the kid with the crazy mutton-chop sideburns in his Drawing I class. "He was like a politician," Cashion recalls, tucking his shoulder-length sandy-colored hair behind his ears. "He knew everyone's name on campus, in kind of the same way he still remembers everyone's name when we're on tour." Almost instinctively, Cashion and Herring decided to form a band. The specifics – like genre, name, instruments – would come gradually, over beers at Herring's apartment with his childhood friend, Welmers.

Art Lord and the Self-Portraits were an irreverent party band. Their first official show was on Valentine's Day, 2003. Nawabi was a senior fine-arts major who met the gaggle of freshmen (Herring, Welmers and Cashion) through another band member, Adam Beeby. Neither of them had any musical background. But skill was besides the point, says Nawabi, who played tambourine and backing vocals. It was one of the most fun experiences of her life, she says, sitting at the dining room table of her cozy Brooklyn apartment. 

Welmers and Cashion, both guitarists, decided to try other instruments in Art Lord. Welmers mostly played keyboard, learning from copying Aphex Twin and Xiu Xiu records, and Cashion chose bass, a natural transition for the Kim Deal and Peter Hook fanatic. (According to Cashion, this is when the musicians hit upon the taut bass-keyboards-drums mix that would later define Future Islands.) Herring, meanwhile, could rhyme but had never written a pop song. He played the role of the brash, domineering "art lord" Locke Ernst Frost and mostly made up lyrics on the spot.

After Nawabi and Beeby graduated, Art Lord continued as a trio until 2005. ("They were, like, the three kings of Greenville," says Deacon, remembering their warehouse parties.) "There were definitely times I thought I was gonna die onstage," says Herring of Art Lord's wild sets. "I was crammed in a room, high as fuck, singing songs with people on top of me, heart beating out of my chest, nose exploding onstage with blood."

All the attention tugged at Herring. In his late teens, he developed an addiction to cocaine. "It was all just in my head, all an escape, something I thought rock stars do," Herring says quietly. "I'm lucky certain things didn't come in the door like heroin, because at that time, I would've done anything.

"There was a lot of desperation. … I lost friends to drugs and I continued to be a user and a dealer. It was like, 'You were just at a funeral last week, crying, and now you're just doing the same thing?'"

At 22, Herring told Welmers and Cashion that he was moving back to his parents' house. "It was a very emotional meeting. I don't think I knew how bad it had gotten," Cashion says. "It's hard because it's like, you're young, you're partying and sometimes it gets to be too much and you get in over your head. I had no doubt [Sam] could get to the other side, but he's also fortunate that he called it early, realized it was an issue and removed himself from it. He rode the ship. And it's hard to admit – to ask your friends and parents for help."

Herring cleaned up on his own. He moved out of Greenville; if he had stayed, he would've relapsed, he says. Part of his recovery was acknowledging how the drugs masked something graver.

Over the empty dishes, Herring pulls his chair back and leans forward, gathering his thoughts. "Sometimes I think, 'Doesn't everyone think about depression?'"

Sure, I nod.

"But they don't, though," he says flatly, shaking his head. "There are a lot of people who can't even fathom this thing, who have never really thought about it. To me that seems really foreign. … I don't think it's a bad thing to ponder those things. It's another thing to act on them." He pauses again.

"I wouldn't be here, if … I feel lucky that I'm here. Because I just wanted out – like, life is hard. There is so much sadness. And people continue to be hateful." His voice trails off. It's been more than 10 years since Herring has felt, in his words, "the dark darkness." But as a songwriter, he's still drawing on these experiences.

"Through the Roses," The Far Field's most vulnerable song, gracefully addresses loneliness and self-harm. 

In the weak of my soul
The temptation to look inside my wrist – it grows
The cut is waiting
The cut is waxing in its hold
The clutch of nothing
The curse of wanting
Takes me whole

After dinner, Herring shows me his modest bedroom facing the front of the house. "Welcome to my dungeon," he says. It's here that he spends an inordinate amount of time writing lyrics, freestyling and thinking. Above his closet, baseball caps hang in a neat line, one per hook. A fly-catching strip curls from the ceiling light. Four Murakami books are stacked on the bedside table.

Herring points proudly to the leather recliner next to his bed where he writes; its mustard-color cushioning is peeking through the threads. It was his grandfather's, as was the small silver ashtray that sits on his bed.

In less than eight hours, Herring and the band's drummer, Mike Lowry, will be up at 6 a.m., driving their gear to Chicago's House of Vans where Welmers and Cashion will meet them. The group seems excited to hit the road again but also cautious, given their penchant for tours that can last years without a break.

Welmers attests to the grueling schedule. After Future Islands wrapped a five-year tour in 2010, he chased the band's transatlantic flight with a 10-hour nonstop drive to visit his ex-girlfriend in New Hampshire. They'd broken up because their lives were heading in different directions between his touring and her graduate school. It was a confluence of shitty luck, he recalls: That tour stole his gear, his wallet, his passport and his relationship. (Fortunately, the pair reconciled and the same woman is now Welmers' wife.)

"Sam's lyrics about the hardships of touring really resonate," Cashion says. He, like Welmers, met his partner, Elena, before Future Islands took off. They first hit it off on the Deacon-led Baltimore Round Robin tour in 2010, folding T-shirts at the merch table in Philadelphia.

The kitchen windows are now completely black and Herring's roommates have left for the evening. I close our conversation with what seem like two softball questions: What place makes him most happy? And what's his favorite part of falling in love?

Herring looks away, uncomfortably.  

"I don't really have a 'happy place'; a happy memory is also something you long for, something that's not there, so I don't really have them," he says. "I go to the coast when I'm home and it makes me feel like a kid again. It's beautiful to hear the sounds, to smell it. … But it all becomes the longing for something that's not there. My happiest place in this world is the stage. That's where I have purpose. It's what makes me know I deserve to be – not that I need to be – on this earth."

The painting on the cover of The Far Field shows the delicate outline of a woman, lying below a flower that hangs over her like a pendulum. The piece, titled Chrysanthemum Trance, is about finding renewal in nature, Nawabi says. She never told Herring what the painting meant, but a track like "Day Glow Fire" shows he understood implicitly.

Inspired by a long-distance romance of Herring's that began and ended in 2016, the song might be the album's most heartbreaking. Rather than unpack the relationship in detail, the lyrics focus on a walk through the Rocky Mountains. "Nature is the thing I have," Herring explains. "I don't talk about the person I loved – I talk about the beautiful things that we see, because that's the thing that still exists." Cashion’s bass rolls like a quiet river, and Welmers garnishes each line with a synth chime.

"Before I met this person, I was about to turn 32," Herring says of his ex. "I'd lost my great loves, my early loves, my strong loves. They were gone. And I was changed. I couldn't go back to them even if I had the chance because I was a different person. I was a person that I maybe didn't even like as much.” 

He claims he’s grown cynical, and yet he stresses that "love is central. It's the theme I can't get away from. It's like, why do anything if not for that?"

So says the person who's given up on love.

Herring's face softens. "You always give up. You have to give up if you're going to get over somebody." He shakes his head and smiles. "You better give up."