"Spencer? Hey, it's Sam. I stole your wallet."
That phone call was a surprising way to end my afternoon with frontman Sam Herring and his bandmates in Baltimore-via-Greenville synthspazz party trio Future Islands. Minutes later, Herring returned with said wallet, which he'd inadvertently grabbed in a hurry to hit some of their favorite Raleigh spots while in the neighborhood for a show at Berkeley Cafe.
What wasn't surprising was Herring's frankness in delivering the message, in a way reflecting his general straightforward nature. "I pride myself in my words and how to speak in a way that it affects people," he said as Future Islands sat down to listen to several songs in my apartment, from the big-boy soul of Baby Huey to the indie rock classics of Pixies and Pavement.
Indeed Herring's introspective, often poetic lyrics are refreshing for a group that runs in Baltimore's Wham City circle, which is all too often nonsensical (Dan Deacon's "Okie Dokie," anybody?). You can tell Herring is passionate, too. Onstage, he often comes off as a mix between a possessed soul singer holding a rapturous crowd in the palm of his hand and that dude at the bar who has way too much fun singing half-drunk karaoke.
Bassist William Cashion and keyboardist Gerrit Welmers share his passion for making music that's substantial. Cashion noted the lack of stamina in some of today (or yesterday's) highly blogged bands, dismissing it as "good fluff" while praising forerunners like The Breeders for their timeless contributions.
[from The Baby Huey Story, 1971, Curtom]
SAM HERRING: Who is this?
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Baby Huey.
SAM HERRING: Oh, this is Baby Huey. Somebody called me Baby Huey. Did you call me Baby Huey in a write-up?
No, it wasn't me.
SAM HERRING: I got a write-up that said I was the Baby Huey of indie rock. [Eds. Note: Music Editor Grayson Currin made this comparison.] I actually never heard him until after I read that little review, and I was really interested. When did he pass away?
Right after recording this album.
SAM HERRING: Yeah, so he died then. His stuff is kinda wild. I was reading a little bit about him, saying that he was a really wild, great performer. Great presence on stage, this huge man. Ah, this is hot.
So what did you think about that comparison after you heard Baby Huey?
SAM HERRING: Oh, I thought it was a huge compliment. I hope it wasn't referring to my being overweight, though.
WILLIAM CASHION: You're just husky.
SAM HERRING: Yeah, I'm husky. My and William had to shop in the husky section when we were kids. It really hurt. It's not funny, Gerrit!
WILLIAM CASHION: It sucked!
SAM HERRING: It really sucked! It sucks being in the husky section. And it was always right by the girls' section. It's like the boys' section, the husky section, then the girls section. So you were like the husky kid, and there were cute little girls. And you're in your elastic banded jeans, you know. Fuckin' jeans with elastic! Man, that really hurt. You know, I haven't worn jeans since I was like seven or eight because I was always embarrassed about my elastic banded jeans. But this is awesome. I'm totally stoked about Baby Huey. He was a husky guy. I bet he shopped in the husky section.
[from Slanted & Enchanted, Matador, 1992]
SAM HERRING: Do you know this?
WILLIAM CASHION: I don't think so. Is this the dude from Pavement?
It is Pavement.
SAM HERRING: Did you ever get into Pavement?
WILLIAM CASHION: I've got some of their albums. This is one of the ones I have actually. I'm not the biggest fan.
SAM HERRING: Yeah, I never really got into Pavement.
WILLIAM CASHION: What do you think about Pavement, Gerrit?
GERRIT WELMERS: I don't think I like Pavement.
SAM HERRING: I like that one song they do where he says like [Imitates Stephen Malkmus.] "Do I sound like Getty Lee? I'll sit in a camera and rhyme about the government."
SAM HERRING: Yeah, that songs really good. I just don't think I'm into those kind of lazy vocals, not really my thing.
[from Greatest Hits, 1995, Alternative Tentacles]
SAM HERRING: Wesley Willis is awesome.
WILLIAM CASHION: He played at King's.
SAM HERRING: Did you get to headbutt him?
WILLIAM CASHION: Nah, I never got to see him live.
SAM HERRING: Did you get to headbutt him?
GERRIT WELMERS: No.
WILLIAM CASHION: He played Greenville once before we were in school there, and he drove to Greenville, S.C. first. And then they were like "Where's the venue? We can't find it." And ended up having to drive four more hours back to Greenville, N.C. I hear it was an awesome show. It was years before we went to college there. It's just a story I heard.
SAM HERRING: I do eat a lot of McDonalds. It's bad.
WILLIAM CASHION: WKNC used to play this all the time. That's how I got into Wesley Willis.
SAM HERRING: I found out about Wesley Willis because there used to be a show on MTV that this guy had, he was like a young kid and he basically had his own cable access show that turned into an MTV show but just for like a few episodes. My brother would tape it, and he had Wesley Willis on his show. It was just this like 17-year-old kid who was like a grunge kid and would just talk about weird artists and musicians. What was the name of that? The guy's name was Jake something. But now he does those VH1 Best Week Ever things. He's like one of the comedians.
But Wesley Willis was on there and they talked about his band and showed live performances. And they showed part of that video "Alanis Morissette". Have you ever heard that song? [Imitates Willis.] "Alanis Morissette! Alanis Morissette! Alanis Morissette!" They had performances of him with Wesley Willis and the Fiasco Band. That band was insane. They had that one song I really like "The bar is closed! The bar is closed! You ain't gonna get any liquor tonight!" That was pretty much the song.
[from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, 2005, self-released)
SAM HERRING: Oh, this is Modest Mouse.
WILLIAM CASHION: No, this is Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.
SAM HERRING: We've been compared to them before and I don't really know what that is. I don't know what that is at all.
GERRIT WELMERS: Probably the guitar.
WILLIAM CASHION: Or the bass.
SAM HERRING: Whatever happened to them? Did they put out a new album or anything?
Yeah, last year.
SAM HERRING: Did it do anything?
WILLIAM CASHION: I like this band but I think it never... it's like those things you throw against the wall and it sticks and then falls off the wall. It doesn't stick. It doesn't have any sticking power with me. I don't have a special thing for it inside. It's a good song, but I think it's just fluff. Good fluff.
I feel like a lot of "indie" music has gotten that way because of how it has been blogged about so much...
SAM HERRING: Yeah, exactly. There's so many bands, it's hard to keep up. And the way the Internet is and the way people find out about things now, there's no time for you to fall in love with a band forever. It's not like when we were younger and you're waiting for that band to put out the next album. You get that album and you're waiting for the next one. Now you're so inundated with everything.
And then bands get famous really fast and then they get forgotten about because they have no discography because they just put out their first album and people play the shit out of it and then there's nothing else for you to listen to as a fan. You can't go back and listen to old stuff because they're these 19-year-old kids who just got signed big and are now everywhere [have] one album.
[from Last Splash, 1993, 4AD/Elektra]
WILLIAM CASHION: Yeah, this song is awesome. Our friend Brian [Shaw] played it last night at the show. He DJed it. I read they recorded this album on a houseboat in San Francisco. Our friends EAR PWR are going to move into a houseboat one day. I think that, eventually, we are going to record an album on a houseboat, too. That's what I've planned to do with these guys. What do you guys think: Houseboat?
Is this the first time that you've brought up the houseboat idea?
WILLIAM CASHION: I haven't really told anybody yet. It's just a daydream of mine.
SAM HERRING: I love this song. I love this song so much. So who is this, anyway? Is this Kim Deal?
WILLIAM CASHION: The Breeders, yeah.
SAM HERRING: Kim Deal's awesome.
[from Doolittle, 1989, 4AD/Elektra]
WILLIAM CASHION: And now The Pixies. This is "I Bleed"?
SAM HERRING: William is a huge Pixies fan. Whenever he gets really drunk, he just breaks into "Gigantic" between songs. And sometimes the show's over and he stays on stage and keeps playing "Gigantic."
WILLIAM CASHION: And I sing it sometimes. One time in Greenville, these people came on stage and played drums and guitar and were singing along.
SAM HERRING: Yeah, it was like 2:30 in the morning.
WILLIAM CASHION: The bar was really angry at us, and I just stayed on stage playing "Gigantic." It was pretty fun.
SAM HERRING: That's how we judge at a show, if William is really drunk, if he starts playing "Gigantic".
WILLIAM CASHION: You know I do it now just to screw with you guys?
SAM HERRING: Oh really? Is that why you do it?
WILLIAM CASHION: Yeah. I do it a lot more now just to screw with you guys 'cause you made fun of me so much.
SAM HERRING: That's funny. I like it when you play that Joy Division bassline.
WILLIAM CASHION: You can tell when Sam's really drunk at shows because he falls down over everything and falls on-stage. And he talks too much.
SAM HERRING: That's true, but it looks cool. And yeah, I talk way too much.
[from Hot Fuss, 2004, Island]
SAM HERRING: Is this Black Kids?
It's The Killers.
SAM HERRING: Ah geez. Oh God. I do not like The Killers. People have told us we sound like The Killers, and it makes me really angry, because it's like, "Dude, have you ever heard our music? Have you heard The Killers?" I don't know, I actually like some of this guy's melodies. He writes some decent melodies, at least that first album. But I saw him perform on TV once and he's the most sluggish lead singer I've ever seen. It pissed me off that he could get on TV.
WILLIAM CASHION: They have some good songs. Not this one, though.
SAM HERRING: All right songs. I like that bassline a lot. I feel like The Killers and The Black Kids are both just completely ripping off Robert Smith. Of course, the Black Kids guy sings just like '90s Robert Smith, but the horrible b-sides. '90s Robert Smith wasn't too hot anyways, as far as I'm concerned, even though I love Robert Smith. And this guy, he's from Las Vegas, and he's got this heavy British accent. It's all a sham. It's a sham! It's not so bad though ... ah, I hate The Killers! I feel like it has a redeeming element, but in the end, it's these same throwaway choruses that are just lush and don't go anywhere.
WILLIAM CASHION: It doesn't stick.
SAM HERRING: But I love that bassline.
WILLIAM CASHION: I don't like it.
SAM HERRING: I want to hear this whole song though. Maybe it's a little love/hate.
WILLIAM CASHION: Sam is always really curious inside when The Killers come on the radio. "This is The Killers? Wait, leave it. I wanna hear this." I think he's dissecting it for why he hates it.
SAM HERRING: Yeah, I'm interested. When we were in Vermont, we had some time before a show and went to Lake Champlain. It was on one of our last tours with Adventure.
WILLIAM CASHION: It's the largest lake made entirely of champagne.
SAM HERRING: They were like, "We just got the new Killers single," and it sounded just like New Order. It wasn't that bad. But once again, I was like "I hate The Killers!" I want somebody to give us some love like The Killers get love. If we had time, we could write a great album.
Future Islands plays Troika Music Festival at The Pinhook in Durham Thursday, Nov. 6. The band also plays Local 506 Saturday, Nov. 15.