On a Monday night in early March, everything changed for Future Islands. The Baltimore synth-pop trio was in New York to make its national television debut on the Late Show With David Letterman, performing "Seasons (Waiting on You)," the first single from its new record, Singles, when singer Samuel Herring lowered his hips, held one hand in the air like a beacon and unleashed a series of dance moves that set the Internet ablaze.
"I think our shows have always elicited a certain type of emotional reaction," Herring says, laughing at the idea of his recent meme-ification. "We came up playing crappy dive bars and trying to connect with people, to really move them. You have to do something to distinguish yourself in the early going, and for me that meant just letting go and losing myself in the music."
Though the Letterman appearance made Future Islands more of a household name—the YouTube video of the performance is nearing 650,000 views, GIFs are all over the Web, and the next night, during his monologue, Letterman interrupted jokes about Vladimir Putin with clips of Herring dancing—the reality is that the band, rounded out by keyboardist-programmer Gerrit Welmers and bassist-guitarist William Cashion, has been one of the most reliable live acts in indie rock for years, working its way from tiny Maryland DIY warehouses to midsize venues across the country.
But with the release of Singles, Future Island's fourth and best record, the band is set to enter a whole new stratosphere—one where festival audiences, just like the thousands of people tuned in to late-night TV, are about to fall for a weird, theatrical little pop outfit fronted by a crazed dancing man with a black T-shirt tucked into his slacks.
Herring looks like a young Marlon Brando, prowling the stage with a swaggering strut, swinging to the beat between pounding his chest so hard you can hear the thud in the microphone. As a frontman, he's part Morrissey, part Meat Loaf, only raised on hip-hop instead of classic rock. One of his best tricks is his lurching, growling, Cookie Monster-metal voice, which goes from a high rasp to a deep, guttural howl. It's not a tool he busts out often on record, but when he does, it's staggering—just hear how the music goes from chiming to manic as Herring throat-shouts something unintelligible at the end of Singles' penultimate ballad, "Fall From Grace."
Singles isn't so much a new direction as it is a refinement. Future Islands have stripped away some of their past synth-pomp, amped up the rhythms and placed Herring's voice front and center. After years of torching smaller venues, the band figured it was time to aim for the rafters.
"With Singles, we really wanted to just write the best songs possible and then pick our favorites," Herring says. "It's like, what if we just put out 10 bangers that could stand on their own, removed from the context of the record? The title was a reflection of what we wanted to do."
"Seasons" is the obvious hit, riding one of Cashion's most spirited New Order-esque basslines before cresting into an insistent, four-on-the-floor beat to pop perfection, yet it's far from the only track that might convert naysayers. The album sways from uptempo jams like "Spirit" and rousing closer "A Dream of You and Me" to more tender moments like "A Song for Our Grandfathers" and "Back in the Tall Grass," an ode to growing up in North Carolina.
In a time when many lyricists rely on overreaching metaphor and trite sentiments, Herring's conversational, straightforward songs are refreshing. He sings about love, loss and heartbreak in a way that is plainspoken but never sappy. Previous records In Evening Air and On the Water are both breakup records—"You couldn't possibly know how much you meant to me," is just the first line Herring barks on In Evening Air's "Tin Man"—but Herring sells every word, avoiding the saccharine with a simple tap to the chest.
"We want to try and get as rowdy and wild and weird as possible at every show,â Herring says. âThatâs always the atmosphere weâre going for.â
SEE IT: Future Islands play Doug Fir Lounge, 830 E Burnside St., with Ed Schrader's Music Beat and Jason Urick, on Saturday, April 5. 9 pm. $17. Advance tickets sold out, limited tickets may be available at the door. 21+.