As Long As You Are: Samuel T. Herring on how Future Islands returned from the brink to make their best record yet
16.12.2020

As Long As You Are: Samuel T. Herring on how Future Islands returned from the brink to make their best record yet

Words by Will Brewster

The iconic frontman reflects on songwriting, his regrets while making The Far Field and the evolution of Future Islands.

Future Islands were always on an upwards trajectory. Even before their decade-defining Letterman performance of ‘Seasons (Waiting On You)’ sliced through the fabric of the internet, the Baltimore three-piece were honing their craft as performers as they slogged it out on the road.

Between 2008 and 2012, the band – comprised of impassioned vocalist Samuel. T Herring, bassist William Cashion and keyboardist/programmer Gerrit Welmers – performed an estimated 750 gigs between 2008 and 2012 around America, witnessing their fanbase multiply in real-time off the back of word-of-mouth accounts of their rousing, fist-pumping live shows.

Then, of course, there was 2014’s Singles. Bolstered by the viral success of ‘Seasons’ and celebrated by major blogs and music publications around the globe, Future Islands found themselves catapulted into indie superstardom without a safety net.

Relentless touring exhausted the group in the years that followed, and in an attempt to keep the hype rolling, the band rushed back into the studio to create 2017’s The Far Field in a scant three week slot before embarking on another gruelling world tour: rinse and repeat.

Despite being well-received by the press and the public and proving to eventuate one hell of a live show, Future Islands were disappointed with The Far Field – not because of any mismanagement, bad reviews or experiences, but because it simply didn’t represent where they were at.

A band should be a hive-mind: a group of individuals uniting under a common cause to achieve an agreed goal, and while making The Far Field, Future Islands were anything but that. The band, in principle, continued, but communication between members began to falter, and upon finishing the album’s touring cycle, Future Islands took a much-needed break away from the stage to rest, recover, recuperate with one another and slowly begin to record their follow-up.

On their new album As Long As You Are, released in October of 2020, Future Islands sound more energised and enthusiastic than ever before. Their sound, while retaining all the driving grooves, bubbling synths and rousing choruses as their earlier works, is bolstered by a newfound outlook on artistry and creation together.

Making As Long As You Are wasn’t as much a process of recording an album as it was a process of rekindling the band’s friendships with one another. To assist, they brought on longtime touring drummer Mike Lowry as a full-time member and assumed production duties as band themselves, entering the studio in three week blocks spread over 2019 to ensure the end results were something they’d fully stand by upon its release.

Following the release of the record, frontman Samuel T. Herring spoke with Mixdown about how the band came back from the brink to create As Long As You Are and finish mixing it it during the COVID-19 lockdown, their frustrations behind not being able to tour the record and the evolution – and future – of Future Islands.

Hey Samuel, congratulations on the release of As Long As You Are. Its a joy to hear you guys sounding so reinvigorated and inspired on this new album, especially given how hard you’ve toured over the past decade. What did you tap into – lyrically and sonically – for inspiration while writing/recording this album?

I think a lot of the bigger picture was trying to be unafraid to find new sounds, to find old sounds to experiment with, to not be afraid to maybe explore a song that we felt might not make the final cut of a record. With the last couple albums, it’s been really important that we’re pushing songs that we believe will make it to the stage that will become a big part of our live setup, which is such an important part of who Future Islands are. 

On this record, we really wanted to push songs that we didn’t necessarily think would get there, and because of that, we found songs such as ‘Thrill’, that connect really well with people that we wouldn’t have pushed in that same way as we did on The Far Field, which I think was a good thing for us to rediscover. 

As far as lyrically for me, I was really just trying to find a point of truth: again, trying to find strong sentiments, trying to write words and put thoughts together that I really stood behind – things that I really meant. So to do that, I really was exploring pieces of my past, through through the lens of my present. Songs like ‘City’s Face’ and ‘I Knew You’ that are about relationships that were done many years ago, but I think being in the place I am now where I can look at those relationships in a very different way and find certain certain levels of acceptance that I have not yet reached yet.

I think that’s a recurring element in Future Island’s music; confronting the past and trying to get past it. It was about digging in deep and trying to say something that I really believed in and trying to find truth, which is constantly the search. I felt like I was losing that a little bit on our last record, so it was really important for me to get back to that place.

As Long As You Are also marks the first release with drummer Mike Lowry, who’s been performing with you guys live for six odd years. What motivated you guys to invite Mike to join the band on a full-time basis? What did he bring to the table that felt new and exciting, both while writing the record and when tracking it in the studio?

Mike came along because our drummer that we that we had had play on Singles was unable to continue touring after a few shows. After searching around Baltimore for different people, which is how we found Mike. 

When he came into the practice space, he knew every single song. We didn’t have to practice and re practice or rehearse with him, which was important for us because we were a band that was constantly on the road. He seriously just sits with his practice pad, five to six hours a day backstage or on the bus – he has an amazing work ethic and an extremely positive attitude, and these were things that were really important for us, especially with Singles where everything with just getting bigger and bigger.

When me William and Gerrit wrote The Far Field, Mike was there in the studio and recording drums with us and then of course toured it. I think he already felt like he was a part of the band, but it was important for us to let him know how much how important he is to us. Part of that is is sharing songwriting credits, those little bits of publishing that you get – it’s the little bit of financial security that you have as a band. 

Me, William and Gerrit have been writing songs together now since 2003, so bringing Mike in really was was just good to have some fresh ears in the band. No disrespect to anybody, but the truth of friendships and relationships, and especially creative relationships, is that you kind of create these different dynamics and ways of dealing with one another. 

Mike was really good about us trying to get back to a point of trust and communication with one another through all of the hard touring in the last three or four years. Creating As Long As You Are wasn’t just a process of making a record – it was really like testing the boundaries of what our friendship is, and knowing that it was more important that we be friends than that we make a record.

As a band, you also played a significant role in producing this new record alongside co-producer / engineer Steve Wright. You’ve said you weren’t exactly ecstatic with the results of The Far Field – what steps did you take as producers in order to achieve a different result this time in the studio?

We felt that we kind of rushed The Far Field. And that wasn’t any producers fault, that wasn’t the label’s fault. I put the the blame squarely on us, and we had a lot of people that helped make that decision happen for us. Ultimately, you get mad at someone else, and then you realise that it’s yourself, that is to blame. 

When you’re working on someone else’s schedule – especially if you’re working with a producer who’s in demand, then you have to work around their schedule, and that can be very difficult. So the big thing in making this record was not being on anybody’s schedule, trying to do it in our home base in Baltimore. 

By doing it ourselves, we knew that we would have more creative freedom to work through our ideas and get to a place where we were all happy, instead of feeling like we had to make last second decisions like just about every other record we’ve made. 

All of those factors of creating a record over time instead of kind of trying to squeeze it into the gaps of your tour schedule… The mechanical part of it really takes away the heart of doing it, and your ears just get worn out. You get to a point where you can’t really hear what you’ve created anymore without the space and breath to really listen to something with fresh ears. 

We started recording As Long As You Are in January of 2019 and finished in January of 2020, so we give ourselves a full year, but we weren’t recording in all that time. We basically came in in January recorded for two weeks, the skeletons of maybe four or five songs, then we took a month off and came back to studio to record for another two or three weeks and cycled through that process for the year, just slowly laying things down. Every time we came into the studio, it was like everything sounded really exciting and new instead of feeling like you’ve worn things out or spent too much time overthinking things.

The original idea was to record the album with Steve: demo it to where we thought it should be, and then send it off to a producer. But by the time we got to that step, we realised that we were creating what we wanted to create, and really stood by the decisions that we were making. 

It’s the only record that we’ve all been happy about the way it sounds and that we don’t have any little gripes about certain things. Everybody’s really happy because we took the time, we made the decisions, and we were there for all the decisions, and Steve was someone who really helped us translate what we were trying to hear into the board. 

It can be really difficult as a musician who doesn’t understand recording that well to feel left out in the studio because you don’t know how to explain what you want to hear. Steve was really great with helping us to get our ideas across and into the music, and because of that, we all feel like we’re heard in the music, and because of that, it’s it feels like the most complete Future Islands record in a way. 

At the end of Singles and while making The Far Field, we just kind of felt like we became a business model instead of a band, and that felt wrong. It felt so good to get back and take back those reins for ourselves and feel responsible for our music again.

You finished recording As Long As You Are at the start of the year, and I’ve read that you finished mixing it over Zoom while in isolation. How much of the new album was finalised during the pandemic? Can you describe how you rose to the challenge of working remotely?

It was kind of crazy. I arrived back in Baltimore in early March to mix the record after being in London with my partner, and was planning on returning to London in the end of April. Of course, that never happened. Two days after I got back, everything shut down and borders closed, so I actually didn’t get back to be with my partner for five months. 

That first couple months, I wanted to get back to see the guys and jump in the studio, and then we couldn’t even get together – I didn’t see them for three and a half months in person, so we ended up starting to mix the record through this set-up on Zoom with Steve. He had this program called Audio Movers where you can basically put the sound of a monstrous mixing board directly into a really strong server for us to listen to, so we would listen to the stuff and talk about it over this Zoom call. 

In a weird way, it kind of worked really well. A lot of times when you’re in a studio, you’re not really sitting face to face with people – you’re sitting beside people or around people, people are looking at their phones, everybody’s kind of doing their own thing. But being on the Zoom call, you can see when people are happy when people are not, you can make really quick decisions.

Also, just being in the comfort of our own homes – if you’re hungry or need something to drink, you can just go grab something easily without stopping the process. Sometimes, I’d just be playing FIFA and smoking a cigarette and mixing a record, all at once. I was happy. 

What kind of gear were you using across the record? Was there anything unique that you had access to that made for any special moments on the album?

I have this old tabletop style conference cassette tape recorder: some big clunky 15 pounder that you know, I’ve I’ve carried around with me probably since I was in college. I think I found it at a pawn shop. At one point, it was duct-taped to my headrest in the first Future Islands band van because my tape player died and all I had was a radio – anyway, that’s a ridiculous story. It’s true, but it’s ridiculous. 

Some of our very first practice tapes are on were made on this old clunky cassette tape recorder. Me William and Gerrit would sit in a circle in a room and we’d play kind of quiet electronic music into it; I still have a lot of these tapes. I brought it to the studio because I thought, you know, maybe we could use it for something, and I brought some old cassette tapes that we could record over to give it a little staticky character. 

If you listen to the song ‘Hit The Coast’, it’s actually about a cassette tape, especially in the second verse: ‘Pressing play on this old tape was a bad move / Reduced to hiss, some record I loved / Some record I’ve missed, just static, an absence’. William had the idea of us actually recording something on the tape, and playing it over the top of the song. Gerrit started playing around on this Moog that was in the control room, and he came up with this awesome spooky sound.

 If you listen to that song, you’ll hear this very faint melody that comes in at that point and at the very end of the album where you hear the big chunk of the tape. We manipulated this thing to to give the sense of this old warbled tape that you’re actually putting into your car as you’re on this drive and you get this lost, eerie sound and then stops, which I think was really a perfect ending for the record.

You guys are essentially stalwarts on the festival circuit each and every year, and your live show is truly something special. How significant is the absence of touring for Future Islands? Did you consider delaying the release of the album until you could get back out on the road?

We considered delaying the release of the record for one day in April this year. We didn’t know when we would be able to tour, or when we would be able to release this record if we had to wait for one or two years, so we just decided to get it out. 

If people are still locked inside by the time this record comes out in October – which we still are – then at least they’ll have some comfort in this record. You know, maybe, maybe it’ll bring them some joy and this heavy time. Hopefully it did. Hopefully, it is doing that. 

But it’s really crazy not to be able to tour. Future Islands is a band that has made its name off touring: it’s how we have been able to exist this long through all the hard years of playing to nobody. A lot of people see us as a band who found our success from Singles and Letterman, but we really found our success from 2008 to 2012, five years of dead touring just like 750 800 shows in those years. 

It’s really crazy to release a record and have your greatest asset at your disposal, and for us, that’s our live show. That’s how we that’s how we get people talking and how we make an impression, and that’s how we sell records, which is part of our survival as a band. 

It hurts a little bit, but we’ll be okay. There’s so many more people in this world who are in such worse shape. I feel very fortunate that we are at this point in our career where we can take a hit and know that we just have to pinch pennies for a few years and then we’ll get back to it.

I really worry for the artists who are where we were six and seven years ago. Creatively, I think it’s going to really hurt certain artists, because there’s only so much time before a person goes from wanting that dream to turning it in, because they realise they have to get a regular job or support their family. 

I have so many friends who were amazing musicians who gave up at music because it just got to be too much of a struggle, so I really worry for people that are in a different point in their careers, and just for the world in general.

On that note, are there any specific songs on this new album that you’re itching to play live?

We actually have played every song on this album live except for ‘City’s Face’, which might be the one that stays in the bag for the 40th Anniversary Show or something. ‘Born in a War’ is so fun to play. I love playing ‘The Painter’. It just really allows me to get into the zone, it’s the perfect range for my voice.

 I love to play ‘Thrill’, it’s such an emotional song for me. When you write songs that are so sincere and personal, they really translate live you know, that’s that’s a thing that we’ve learned over time and it’s something that I continue to explore, so yeah – the album slaps live. 

As Long As You Are marks the sixth Future Islands studio album, and to me, it feels as if it’s your most organic and maybe even defining release to date. Do you ever reflect on how, as both individuals and as a unit, you’ve evolved to get to where you are today?

I think about this all the time. I spend most of my days thinking about how we have evolved as as individuals and as a unit… Future Islands stemmed from a band that we started in 2003, so that relationship as a band is 17 and a half years old – it’s crazy that we’ve made it this far. 

There’s so many ups and downs in making music and making this happen. Our fifth record (The Far Field) didn’t quite do what we wanted it to do, but I don’t even think we knew what we wanted it to do, and I don’t think we knew what each other wanted. I think we got we got really lost, and it was a really strange thing. But making this record was really about being proud of what we create and about what we’ve created in the past, finding the sound that we’ve been striving for. 

We’re not we’re not a band who really wants to redefine our sound, or be a different band. I feel like this new record is the most Future Islands release to date, and because of that, I’m more proud of this than any record we’ve made since our second record, In Evening Air. I honestly think that we’re closer as a band than we have been since around that time, because we’re really focused on a universal goal.

These things play in my head a lot, because I want to be a better friend, I want to be a better musician, I want to be a more open artist, and a lot of that comes through these relationships that are so important to me. I think about it every day. And I’m really proud of where we are and I’m proud every day of where we we got to and that we got there together. We didn’t have to find separate ways or lose each other along the way, and I am very proud and happy that I still have my friends with me.

As Long As You Are is out now via 4AD / Remote Control Records.