Why the band Future Islands does not suck (even though hipsters like them).

You will be hard pressed to find a less style-conscious group of fellas.  Could be their eastern NC sensibilities.

You will be hard pressed to find a less style-conscious group of fellas. Could be their eastern NC sensibilities.

This week, thanks to a post from a Facebook friend, I discovered the three-man band, Future Islands.  The band is composed of Gerrit Welmers (keyboards and programming), William Cashion (bass, acoustic and electric guitars), and Samuel T. Herring (words and vocals). Based on that friend’s negative description and the heated and polarized thread that followed, I had to find out who these guys are.  The Facebook post read:

“Am I the ONLY one in the Raleigh/Triangle area that thinks Future Islands SUCK? IMHO, they are just plain fucking weird. The singer is goofy as shit and their music simply does not move me. Haters?”

A bevy of positive and negative exclamations ensued.  The descriptions of this band of native North Carolinians who relocated to Baltimore as being “hipsters” had me ready to write them off as probably yet another bunch of wannabe artists with no musical talent who just wanted to score with chicks and took the easy way out through a keyboard.

So I Googled the band and my first link was to their recent performance on David Letterman.  I was not prepared for my response.  I was immediately mesmerized by the band’s dynamic of 3 barely-moving, expressionless dudes – bass player, drummer, and keyboardist (not sure if this drummer is going to be regular or what the deal is with that addition) – all fronted by what appeared to be a marionette manipulated by a cracked-out chronically depressed puppet master. Sam, the marionette, has a voice rich, thick, dark, resonant, emotional, and just plain fun to listen to.  

I then linked to a live performance at King’s Barcade in Raleigh from 2013 – here I witnessed the full range of Sam’s exacting mad abandon in front of a writhing screaming crowd.   I realized then that the Letterman performance only alluded to the full extent of what this band is capable of.  A friend of the bass player’s pointed out to me that for him, where the band really shines is not the “uptempo bouncers” but in their ballads.  

Next up, I found a couple of articles about them.  One music critic, Christopher Hooten of the British daily The Independent, writes:

“[Sam Herring has been] described by friends I have passed this [Letterman performance video clip] on to as both ‘the voice of a soul singer coming out of the mouth of an accountant’ and ‘like a repressed P.E. teacher finally allowed to direct the school play’, Herring has passion and charisma in abundance.”

The writer is spot on. These guys are not typically good-looking, they dress like average dull mopes but not in a hipster way (though some might argue their plain, functional style ala Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza is normcore), and there actually does not appear to be any irony or parody in their performance.  This enterprise is what it fucking is.

Ah, but what is it?  Not so simple.

Upon first listen across their range (they’ve been around for about 10 years – previously named “Artlord & the Self-Portraits), I discovered that they perform electronic music.  And many will immediately write them off as non-musicians because of that fact.  Rock-and-rollers often see electronic music as the opposite of rock and as a genre to be reviled.   But electronic music is indeed music – music performed by digital means. Nay-sayers are often those from the punk tradition who proclaim all electronic music is inauthentic.  But I think these same folks are held back by their own adherence to the rules of what makes for music.   And there’s nothing punk or authentic about hanging on to strict dogma. Ever.

But Future Islands also incorporates “traditional” music –they have a bass player and drummer – it’s a hybrid.  So what genre is it?   Jazz, Dance, New Age, Rock…what?  I’ve heard some describe it as bouncy synthpop with dark undertones.  But that description doesn’t begin to describe what is happening overall.

Let’s look at their live act.

Sam, the front man, is not a rock star hero but he does embody everything a rock and roll front man is typically supposed to be – entertaining, charismatic, mesmerizing, a sexual beast, etc.  But he amplifies all of those parts of his job by 1,000. He experiments with, plays with, explores the limits of, and just generally has a damn good time with that role. But it’s not irony – it’s an expansion of the front-man role pushed just to the limits of irony.

A friend of mine, the delicious Richard Bacchus, who founded D Generation with Jesse Malin in NYC in 1991 and now fronts N.C.-based Richard Bacchus and the Luckiest Girls, told me this about seeing them,

“The very first time I saw Future Islands, about eight years ago, I ran up to Sam and gushed, ‘Oh my god, you’re like a cross between Darby Crash from The Germs and Jonathan Winters!’ He was confused, but gracious enough to take it as a compliment. We’ve been friends ever since.”   

In other words, he’s punk rock and a solid, self-aware, versatile, eccentric presence.  (I could go on and on about the Winters reference – but that’s another blog for another time.) Ricky later mentioned, “I like that he’s added some Tom Jones and Paul Bearer, from Sheer Terror, to his stage persona.”  

How many front men give such a nuanced and multi-faceted performance ranging across so many genres in music  and use that to create something utterly unique?  Not many.

In many ways this band is as much about the act of making music and being a band as it is about actually making music.  Thankfully, it doesn’t just end up being yet another boring art house experiment because these guys actually are good musicians creating very catchy, accessible tunes.  They have a song with lyrics I interpreted as “too many artists, not enough musicians.” With that song, they are telling us that they know exactly how you might write them off and they ARE NOT that kind of band.  They beat you to the punch by reviling exactly the kind of band you might accuse them of being (of course, if I heard the lyrics wrong, then that theory goes out the window).

I’ve read many arguments that Sam is great, he just needs a better band and a different type of music behind him.  I disagree.

The band that Sam works with expertly develops the tension of Sam’s “frontman-ness” – this straightforward synthpop is the setting in which he exists and from the very first chord, Sam is fighting and wallowing and punching out at the very music that surrounds him and allows him to be.  As I said before, his chosen music genre is electronic.  The British-Ghanian writer and critic Kodwo Eshun points out about electronic music in general:

“…as soon as you have electronic music, by definition, you’re operating to create new worlds of sound. These producers … don’t want to create love songs. They don’t want to sing about revolution. They don’t want to get angry. They want to be scientists of sound. They want to explore new universes of sound.”

But Sam, during his performance, lashes out at the very restrictions of the universe of sound his band has created.  It’s easy to be as emotive and theatrical as Sam when you’re singing in a hard rock or punk band – but how the FUCK do you do it in a synthpop outfit?  Sam shows you how and we are intrigued by the lesson.

Sam is going to sing about love, loss, the politics of music and art, inanity – or whatever the fuck he feels like – and no music genre is going to tell him what he can and cannot do. He beats up on the music backing him but at the same time he masterfully works within the context and its confines.  This battle and finesse plays out on stage.  This battle would NOT work if the musicians were no good – he’d have nothing to battle with.  But this crew gives him plenty to work with.  

The straightforward music creates order but Sam and his voice strain against that order – it’s powerful. And when his movements and performance can’t quite burst through the genre, he lets out a guttural “heavy metal” growl that utterly shatters the entire enterprise for just a moment –and then Sam, and the audience, are pulled back into battle as the band plays on.

Those guttural growls are actually very punk and very rock and roll – the very music he’s chosen creates a delicious tension that manifests (it)self into a brilliant spectacle. His split second movement into another genre of music – death metal – frees him and in that split second the band’s meta-performance is revealed – the entire activity is not just music, it is about what music IS.  It is about context and performance. 

On a less academic note, the Future Islands have nailed everything that made 80s synthpop bands so appealing – catchy music in that sad-but-will-get-over-it zone that bands like the Psychedelic Furs and New Order used to make us hurt so fucking good.

Also, Sam looks a lot like Steve Martin and has the same rubber face that allows Martin to be so expressive.  Sam, like Steve, was born to perform.  (Speaking of resemblances, I did see one quip in a friend’s Facebook thread proclaiming: “that lead singer looks like a Thunderbirds puppet of Stanley Kowalski”. That description lines right up with my puppet master theme – perhaps there’s something here worth exploring.)

For the fans of this band who have been there since the beginning (10 years or so), they might see me as a fair-weather fan and accuse me of glomming on to the fan base because they are becoming popular.  But I had truly never heard of them before three days ago. 

Some hate Future Islands because of the hipster crowd that has appropriated them.  But these guys are NOT hipsters in my mind.  I dislike douchebag hipsters more than anyone – Future Islands is way too complex to be a low-end hipster production (hipsters are the simplest creatures on the planet just after single-celled amoeba).

Folks, the world is awash in mediocre music and less-than-talented musicians.  No, Future Islands is not a traditional rock and roll band.  But they don’t have to be.  There’s plenty of that.  And there’s plenty of room in the universe for all of the genres of music.  Future Islands is a brilliant self-reflexive fusion of tight yet organically executed music, art, and intuition.   I’m only sad that they will soon be too big for me to see them in a small club where all of their talents are best seen and expressed.  Get to them up close while you can.

Editor’s note – if I am wrong about the facts about Future Islands or they change, send me a note and I’ll adjust said fact(s) – i.e., who is in the band, where they are based, etc.  The rest is purely subjective and will only change on my own whim.

Hey gang – I just added in a link to NPR’s slow-motion video from a SXSW performance – all in the name of capturing Sam’s fascinating body movements. 

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