Three years ago, Baltimore trio Future Islands scored a major breakthrough with Singles, their fourth album and first for new label 4AD. After slogging it out on the indie rock circuit for eight years, it was a performance of the album's powerhouse single "Seasons (Waiting On You)" on Late Night With David Letterman that proved to be the difference maker. The clip went viral and seemingly made them one of music's most beloved acts overnight.
After touring the world over a couple of times for Singles, Future Islands return April 7 with fifth album, The Far Field. Exclaim! met up with the band — here are five things we learned.
1. They don't see a point in reinventing their sound — they're happy with the music they're making.
"When we're asked what is different about this album from the last one we now say, 'It has different songs. And two more songs,'" frontman Sam Herring says with a laugh. "To us, it's not a grand departure at all, and I think that's a good thing. We're very honest to ourselves. We're just trying to further distil pop in our minds. It's what we do.
"I'm really into innovation, but there are different levels to that," he adds. "Certain artists are defined by that innovation, and — not to be disrespectful to us — we're defined by who we are as people and the sounds we've been making for 14 years as songwriters, and our weird relationship, and the weird way in which we approached our instruments before we knew how to play them. I'm still learning how to sing, so there are innovations within ourselves. It's more about the self rather than what someone else is doing. We aren't looking outwards and thinking, 'Well, we need to compete with this sound.' That's kind of what our music is about."
"Even though we take the same approach and use the same template for this record, we can't help but evolve," says bassist William Cashion. "It may be similar to our older work, but it's still an evolution."
2. The Far Field is so rammed with catchy songs, the label wished this one could be called Singles.
"One of the first things [4AD label boss Simon Halliday] said to me once he'd heard the full record was [in an English accent], 'It's too bad we already used the title Singles, because we could have used it for this one!'" says Herring. "And I thought that too. It's an even stronger group of singles. Then again, I think Singles is a little more diverse. But I think it still works. I feel like this album has a really strong group of songs… Okay, I'm sorry, I kind of lost it there. What was the question? 'Is the shit dope?' Hell yeah it is bro!"
3. Blondie's Debbie Harry sings a duet with Sam Herring, but the song almost got cut and Harry wasn't the singer Future Islands had in mind.
"Shadows" was written years ago, and was originally planned to appear on Singles, but the band couldn't find the right vocalist to pair with Herring.
"That song means such a different thing to me than when I wrote it," he says. "As your life changes, your songs change, so that song changed a lot for me. That was the reason why I'm against it. I'm not that person anymore. I hate to put gender roles on that track, like 'My character is male and hers is female.' I wanted to switch them, because I felt like my role had switched in the song. We even talked about having a male singer to sing against me, like the idea of breaking the gender norm of what a duet is.
"I was actively trying to not allow it on the record before Debbie Harry became involved," Herring says. "Part of my thing was we shouldn't just get any singer to be on the song. We needed the right singer. Because it was a classic duet, it needed a classic singer that could give some weight to it. We never thought that Debbie would be that classic singer. It all came together in a very cool way."
Harry was a late addition thanks to producer John Congleton, who also produced the new Blondie record, Pollinator (out May 5). But she wasn't the first vocalist they had in mind for the song.
"[Wye Oak's] Jenn Wasner was the original voice, for me," Herring says. "And Kate Bush. But that would be crazy. I believe our agent hit her up, but I don't think they heard back. I thought of Grace Jones as well. That would be wild and put a whole other spin on it. That's where my brain was. I hate to say it because Debbie really was perfect. That's what brought me to the realm of thinking we needed a legend. When John said he could get Debbie, my brain just exploded."
Even though "Shadows" is a duet, there is a plan to perform the song with Herring singing both parts. "We're gonna go off stage and I gonna put on a half-wig, and only show one side of my face to the crowd when I sing each part. Like Tommy Lee Jones as Two Face," he says with a laugh. "We're hoping we can perform the song live with her at some point. We still haven't met her."
4. Sam Herring's deep gruff roar is one of the most identifiable voices in indie rock, but he'd like to experiment more.
"When I wrote the first verse of 'Aladdin,' I was so excited because I don't think I'd ever written anything like that before. That really quick step at the beginning of 'Aladdin' I had never done before," he explains. "The voices I choose to use are driven by the lyricism, which is pulled from the music. And doing some of the high wandering with my voice on 'Candles' — it's really fun to sing live. I feel like Aretha Franklin or something.
"For this record, it was the first time I did a lot of vocal harmonies with myself. That was because we did this cover of 'Last Christmas' at the end of 2015 for fun. I had to layer up because I couldn't get my voice to sound as awesome as George Michael's. So I was putting tons and tons of layers down. And when we started demoing months later, I started playing with that, using those techniques and that's why 'North Star' has a different, lighter voice. It's all thanks to Wham!"
5. "Candles" is borderline reggae. Seriously. And the band are just fine with that.
"That song just popped out while we were jamming one day," says Cashion. "I think it's the delayed keyboard that Gerrit [Welmers] threw in there."
Adds Herring, "I think it was a 100 degrees outside and we were in a room with direct sunlight, so it was like we went to the Islands. When we write a Future Islands song, we just end up in Jamaica! No, the funny thing about that song is when we wrote it, I was like, 'This sounds like a reggae jam, but I'm kinda into it. So that's okay.'"