Samuel T. Herring has been known to be quite multi-layered when it comes to talking about Future Islands, the band where he serves as the lead vocalist and lyricist. “I speak in tangents a little bit, trying to keep it straight,” says Herring, on the phone from his Baltimore home base. “But I go off a little bit.”
Being multi-layered seems a way of life for Future Islands, which consists of Herring, guitarist/bassist William Cashion and keyboardist Gerrit Welmers. Originally from Greenville and now based in Baltimore, the guys first came together in 2003 when they were part of another band while attending East Carolina University. When that band disbanded in 2005, Herring, Cashion and Welmers formed Future Islands a year later.
Since then, the band has been a synth-pop trio that has spent most of the time coming up with a sound that’s both organic and automated.
“It’s definitely something we’ve tried to do in recent years – really trying to make sounds as organic as possible with electronic instruments,” he says.
“I think we’ve kind of relegated ourselves to keyboards way back when we started our first band because that’s what we had, you know. That’s what we had to work with. It’s really just a matter of what was at hand. And, from there, it was just kind of the building blocks of what we’ve done.”
They certainly go about making music that evokes a sense of naturalism, both lyrically and musically. Heck, it’s right there in the titles of their last two albums – last year’s “On the Water” and 2010’s “In Evening Air.”
“I often think about it as referencing outside elements,” says Herring. “Water, earth, mountains – these are things that we’ve seen or we’ve climbed or something that everyone has experienced or have some understanding of.”
It’s not all about the great outdoors for Herring and his bandmates. A poetry geek (“In Evening Air” is also the name of a Theodore Roethke poem), Herring injects romantic lyricism into the band’s songs, lyricism that he feels will still mean something after he’s long gone.
“That’s something that people understand – and immediately,” he says. “I feel like when you sing about, like, technological devices or you sing about politics, it gets into a frame of reference that’s lost in 20 years.”
Future Islands may remind some listeners of the dreamy synth-pop bands of the ’80s. “We love music from that time,” says Herring. “We’re all born from that time. Sometimes I wonder if that’s part of it… We really just try to create music that feels right and honest to us, and we just kind of go with that. We never set out with an idea in mind.”
Even Herring’s theatrical vocal stylings make him sound more like a frontman for a British New Wave band than a band from North Carolina.
“It’s totally Southern, like 1840s North Carolina – like I just landed,” he says, giggling. “Have you ever heard anyone from Harkers Island speak? They still speak in the strange, slightly British dialect.”
Although the band has been making money these past few years on the road, now that they’re not touring as much, they’ve gone back to looking for other means of steady employment. Herring has returned to making concrete countertops.
“I haven’t worked here in about two years, but we’re off the road for a little while,” he says. “And my old boss contacted me the other day, and one of his employees was getting married, was going to be gone for a few weeks. So I’m back on the job, trying to figure this stuff out again.”
Even with regular day jobs, Herring insists that Future Islands is continuing to write, plotting the next move and keeping the layers nice and stacked.
“We want to create music that touches people’s cores and sticks around with them for a while,” he says.