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Future Islands Frontman Samuel T. Herring on Their 11-Year Journey to Letterman and Viral Stardom

Future Islands’s achingly sincere rendition of ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’ on Late Show with David Letterman—replete with jaw-dropping dance moves—blew up the Internet. Get acquainted with indie rock’s next big thing. 

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The dreaded late-night talk show performance.

With its sanitized setting, roving cameras, zillion-watt lights, and wonky acoustics, it’s reduced many a musical act to a pathetic shell of themselves.

For Future Islands, a trio of indie rock journeymen from North Carolina, it was a potential game changer. On March 3, the gang of 29-year-olds, comprising singer Samuel T. Herring, keyboardist/programmer Gerrit Welmers, and bass guitarist William Cashion were, after 11 years of hustling, scheduled to make their national TV debut on CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman.

“We were very, very nervous,” recalls Herring. “All our family members were calling and asking questions. I’m rarely ever nervous, and usually if I am it’s an hour or two before a big show, but I was nervous for a whole week leading up to it thinking, I hope I don’t embarrass myself, piss my pants, or fall.”

If that wasn’t enough pressure, their lead-in was Brendan Marocco—a former U.S. Army Sergeant who lost all his limbs when his vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb in Iraq back in 2009. Marocco, a Staten Island native, eventually became the first U.S. soldier serving in Iraq or Afghanistan to survive a quadruple amputation. The band was seated in the green room watching the whole thing. “We were like, How the hell are we supposed to follow this guy?” says Herring.

After a brief intro by Letterman, the band emerged to perform “Seasons (Waiting On You),” the debut track from their fourth studio album, Singles, released on March 25.

The shimmering synths kicked in. And then, in Upworthy patois, something magical happened.

Herring, a compact fella with receding hair and deep-set, blue eyes, became possessed by the spirits of Tom Jones, Morrissey, and Rick Astley combined. In a tucked-in black t-shirt and slacks, the seemingly average Joe shimmied and shaked to the bassline. He bobbed his head; pounded his chest; extended his hand to the crowd like Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam; pumped his fist like Rocky Balboa. His voice would morph from a melodic baritone to a deep, guttural snarl, grinding notes to a pulp. With each passing line waxing on love and longing, he seemed on the brink of tears. Herring poured his mind, body, and soul into the song, and the audience ate up every second of it—especially Letterman.

As soon as the final note sounded, the late-night host scampered over to the stage and screamed: “Oh, BUDDY! COME ON! Nice Going! I’LL TAKE ALL OF THAT YOU GOT! Future Islands… that was WONDERFUL!”

Video of the performance, arguably the best late-night musical bow since TV on the Radio’s mind-melting rendition of “Wolf Like Me” on Letterman back in ’06, instantly went viral. It’s been viewed over 800,000 times, luminaries ranging from Nirvana producer Butch Vig to Coldplay singer Chris Martin posted it to their social media, and over the next several nights, Letterman would even randomly throw to clips of Herring’s swingin’ dance moves.

“We were like, What the hell is going on?” says Herring with a chuckle. “It is cool, though. I think it’s reaching people because of its simplicity and sincerity. It’s one of those funny things because it’s just us doing what we do, but we inject a lot of honesty in our songwriting and stay true to what we think sounds good. We try to be as unpretentious a band as possible and enjoy writing fun pop songs. We’re not trying to make complicated music; we’re trying to make music that makes us, and our fans, feel something.”

As for those indelible dance moves: “William’s always said, If you ain’t dancin’, then what the hell are you?” says a chuckling Herring. “If I’m not moving then why the hell else would anybody else move? I’m just trying to connect with the music physically—my own weird style—and also create excitement. We want people getting down with us.”

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Future Islands is far from an overnight sensation. Herring and Welmers have been best friends since middle school, and attended East Carolina University together. On his second day of class there, Herring met Cashion, and the two, both fine arts majors, became fast friends. In Feb. 2003, the trio, along with pals Adam Beeby and Kymia Nawabi, formed the band Art Lord & the Self-Portraits—a group that Herring describes as “more synthpop-y” and like a “proto-Future Islands.” In Sept. 2005, Beeby left the group and, after a few farewell shows, Herring, Welmers, and Cashion formed Future Islands in Feb. 2006. Erick Murillo, their buddy from Greenville, North Carolina, joined them on drum machines.

Shortly after forming, the group hit a rough patch. In June 2006, Herring dropped out of East Carolina University. He was battling a vicious drug habit.

“In June, I left town and didn’t come back,” says Herring. “It was just drug problems, man. I got sucked into the darkness of partying and shit college kids do. I came clean to my parents and said, ‘Look, I have a problem and need your help.’ I stayed at my parent’s for about a month and then moved across the state to Asheville, North Carolina. It took about a year for me to get my act together.”

During the prolonged hiatus, Murillo left the band. But by June 2008, things seemed to take a turn for the better. Future Islands, now a trio consisting of Herring, Welmers, and Cashion, reconciled. They were all living in Baltimore and recording music together. By the end of July, they embarked on their first U.S. tour, and in August, their debut album, Wave Like Home, was released.

Things really began clicking, according to Herring, in early 2009. The band was touring Europe in support of their debut LP, and began writing their second album, In Evening Air.

“That’s when, in my eyes, we became the band we are today,” he says. “That album is so overwrought with my own personal pains and things I went through, including problems with my voice—I couldn’t hit a lot of the notes that I used to be able to hit—and a terrible breakup that was so, so sad. The reason, I think, it was a powerful album was because I found out how powerful it was to share myself.”

During the recording of their third album, On the Water, the band clashed with their record label, Thrill Jockey—a Chicago-based indie rock imprint that’s home to acts like The Fiery Furnaces and David Byrne.

“We had some issues,” says Herring. “There was someone from the label hanging around talking about deadlines. Can we not talk about business while writing a song? Do you want it to be a good album, or do you want it to come out on time?

Due to pressure from their label, Future Islands was forced to rush the release of the album. They only had just over a month to mix it, master it, produce artwork, and promote it. When On the Water was released on Oct. 11, 2011, it received positive reviews, but little fanfare.

“I feel like a lot of people missed it,” says Herring, despondently.

After extensive touring to support their third LP, the band cut ties with Thrill Jockey. In the interim, Herring took a short break from the band to dabble in his side-project—rapping under the moniker Hemlock Ernst.

“I’ve been a hip-hop head and writing verses since I was 13, and that’s what I wanted to be when I was younger,” says Herring. “Hip-hop is the reason I fell in love with music. But then I started out in a performance art band, and the rest is history.”

Herring says he’s laid down about 25 tracks for his first rap mixtape, and says he’ll release it soon. He’s also very keen on collaborating with Danny Brown.

Following the brief break, Future Islands regrouped and went into hiding to record their fourth studio album. The group started writing the album in Feb. 2013, a process that lasted about five or six months. In August, they entered Dreamland Recording Studios—a tiny, converted chapel in Upstate New York—and, over the next 19 days, laid it down.

According to Herring, the Letterman tune, “Seasons (Waiting On You),” was written in about an hour and a half, while Singles is a mixture of hopeful and despairing pop ditties based on stories and situations that have haunted the singer’s past, and present (courtesy of their standard arsenal of drum machines, keyboard, and bass guitar).

“I’m just a romantic in my heart… and an idealist,” says Herring. “I think about love. And I’m much calmer. I went through a bad breakup at the end of 2012 that should’ve had Singles sounding more like In Evening Air, but that’s not who I am anymore. I understand why things went wrong in the past, and when things go wrong now, I realize that things are difficult sometimes—you will be happy, you will be sad, and that’s just life.”

Singles was mixed and mastered at DNA Studios in New York City. By November, the album was ready, and the band signed a short form contract with the label 4AD, home to acts like Bon Iver and The National, to distribute it.

Signing with a bigger label like 4AD which, along with Matador Records, Rough Trade Records, and XL Recordings, makes up the Beggars Group, meant more exposure for the band—including that fateful booking on Late Show with David Letterman.

“All the recent notoriety is just an added bonus to the fact that we are doing what we love,” says Herring.

He pauses. “We’ve been doing this a long time, and we’ve learned a lot about what’s important and what’s not important. Of course you want your record to get big, but that doesn’t make you a great band if you sell a bunch of records, and if you don’t sell a bunch of records, you just have to keep going. You have to keep going because one day your time will come, and people will be listening.”