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Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014

Future Islands Find Their Audience

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On March 3, Future Islands performed the song “Seasons (Waiting On You)” on the “Late Show with David Letterman.” It was standard operating procedure in music biz promotion: Get on a high-profile TV show before or shortly after a new album is released and hope to make an impression that lasts beyond the moment when the show credits roll and viewers move on to the next program that day.

Future Islands, though, appears to have gotten much more than a momentary chance to put its name in front of record buyers. The performance, with singer Samuel T. Herring passionately articulating the emotions of the song while doing some mesmerizing bob-and-weave dance moves, struck a chord. Letterman himself shouted, “I’ll take all of that you got!” after the song ended and music fans clearly seconded that thought.

The video of the “Letterman” performance was soon all over the Internet and looking like it would be a viral sensation, just in time for the March 24 release of Singles, the album that features “Seasons (Waiting On You)” as its opening track.

In an interview just several days after the “Letterman” performance, Future Islands bassist William Cashion was still not sure how to gauge the impact the band had made.

“We were on tour, like basically we left from ‘Letterman,’ from the taping, and we had a show the next day in Asheville, N.C.,” he said. “There were some people coming up to us saying they heard about us from the ‘Letterman’ performance and that they were real excited to come out.

“We noticed a large surge of people kind of talking about the video, so it seems to be making the rounds, which is really exciting,” he said. “We’re just excited that people are responding to it and it seems to be mostly positive.”

That performance didn’t turn Future Islands into overnight stars. But it resonated. The “Letterman” video has topped 2 million views, and Singles debuted at number 40 on Billboard magazine’s album chart—by far the best first-week performance yet for a Future Islands album. There’s clearly new buzz surrounding the band these days.

The “Letterman” appearance, along with a May performance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” gave a nationwide audience a glimpse into what a previously fairly small fan base has known about Future Islands all along—that the synth-based group’s shows are just as dynamic and cathartic as the “Letterman” clip suggested.

“When we did the ‘Letterman’ performance, we were like, ‘Let’s just do what we always do,’” Cashion said. “So the performance was just the same level of intensity of the live show. But instead of just one song, we’re playing 15 or more.”

Future Islands has been developing its sound and performing style since 2003, when Herring, Cashion and keyboardist/programmer Gerrit Welmers formed the group Art Lord & the Self-Portraits with two other friends, Adam Beeby and Kymia Nawabi.

That group evolved into Future Islands in 2006, with Cashion, Herring and Welmers joined by Erick Murillo, who played electronic drums until he left the group in 2007. The group has gone on to release three previous full-length albums plus a variety of EPs and singles.

For Singles, Cashion, Herring and Welmers put in extra time, care and effort. On their earlier albums (2008’s Wave Like Home, 2010’s In Evening Air and 2011’s On the Water) the group members entered the studio with a quite incomplete picture of the album they were about to make.

“We’d have like five or six songs written and then we’d go in the studio and we’d be like, ‘Alright, now we need to write at least this many more for the album,’” Cashion said. “With Singles, we wanted to be really prepared.”

They floated ideas for about 25 songs, and whittled that stack down to 11 or 12 by the time they hit the studio. The result is the best, most developed album from the band yet. While Cashion doesn’t like seeing Future Islands called a synth-pop band—he sees the group being more punk and classic R&B influenced—his band is often grouped in with synth-pop and electro-pop acts.

Future Islands, though, offers something many other such groups lack: strong song craft, an edgy undercurrent to its sound and obvious emotion, courtesy of Herring’s gruff but expressive singing, in place of the chilled-out persona of many synth-based acts.

For touring in support of Singles, Future Islands has brought on a drummer, which should add a new dimension to the live sound.

“Bringing the drummer back is cool because it kind of links in with the early Future Islands,” Cashion said. “I think it gives the songs a new energy. The songs already have an energy within them. But I think it gives them even more punch here and there.”

Future Islands play Turner Hall Ballroom on Sunday, Aug. 10, at 8 p.m. with openers Operators.