Register Monday | June 17 | 2019

Future Islands' Fugue State

It’s hard to tell how famous Future Islands are—ubiquity can be difficult to gauge when people learn about the world from self-curated Twitter feeds and Facebook timelines. I know a pop music journalist who first heard about the band when they appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman at the beginning of March. Other music-savvy friends—people in bands of their own—found out about the trio weeks later from the viral hype spawned by the YouTube video of that Letterman performance. 

But here’s the thing: Future Islands should be really, really famous. You listen to them—you listen, especially, to the arch growl and orotund diction of their lead singer, Samuel Herring, and you picture … well, it’s hard to say exactly. Here’s what I picture: Hannibal Lecter dancing in his Plexiglas prison cell, singing along to Culture Club; Morrissey in a k-hole; Josh Groban if Josh Groban had the sexual tastes of Christian Grey; Louis Armstrong trying to sing “What a Wonderful World” while being strangled by an assassin in kid gloves. 

In other words, Samuel Herring is a gift. Menacing and tender in equal parts, his voice has brought Future Islands to the verge of being really, really famous. March has been kind to them. There was that Letterman appearance; they played SXSW for the first time; NPR gave them a flattering write-up; SPIN has a piece about them online. They’re not a new band—Singles, out March 25, is their fourth studio album. But there’s been an air of recent discovery about them this month.  

That’s 90 percent Herring’s doing. Don’t get me wrong—the music is great. It’s synth pop, basically, but extra quiet and slow and withholding—the sound of being dumbstruck with romantic longing or heartache. And it’s super catchy. But this is Herring’s band. He makes them unsettling. He’s the fly in the ointment. 

Let’s go back to the Letterman soundstage. It’s March 3. Herring’s dressed in a black t-shirt tucked into black pants; his tidy hair is the colour of shoe polish. You feel like you’re looking at an unmarried high school drama teacher. Then, after a bout of delicate crooning, he starts bellowing like someone in the throes of satanic possession. It’s disquieting in the extreme. You have to watch it three or four times to quite believe what you’re seeing—this is the sound of molten brimstone distilled. 

Then there’s his dancing. One second he’s raising his hand in exhortation, like a Roman orator, and the next he’s using the same hand to pound his chest like a rutting ape. His crouch is predatory. What to make of it all? Half the time you’re worried that Letterman is going to kick him off the set for being so weird. But at the end of their song—“Seasons (Waiting For You)”, the lead single on their new album —Dave swaggers onstage smiling from ear to ear. “I’ll take all of that you got!” he says. He’s smitten.

A couple of days after the episode aired, Letterman’s staff posted a gif of the frontman’s normcore Tarzan moves on their Tumblr. It became a meme—people started sharing it online like crazy. But also talking about it, weirdly. That’s the strange thing about this mini Future Islands moment: it owes as much to stodgy cultural gatekeepers as to the bottom-up ecology of the web. All the magic of that seminal Letterman appearance is in the tension between the staid setting and the absolute freakiness of Herring’s voice and dancing. He’s been anointed by all the acronymed legacy media outlets, but also by people sitting around kitchen tables, watching with mouths agape as Samuel Herring plunges himself into a musical fugue state. 

No number of Letterman appearances or Tumblr posts can launch a band without raw charisma, and that’s what Herring has. He’s from Baltimore, by way of North Carolina, and his stage presence owes as much to the honeyed soulfulness of Billie Holiday as to the campiness and creepiness of John Waters—two of the city’s other great cultural exports. Here’s hoping Future Islands make the same leap.