Future Islands: “What happens when you’re turning 40 and you’re still in a band? Are you capable of still making interesting music?”

How Future Islands – a band whose very name points towards their low expectations for longevity – have made it to their 18th year together, and an album that’s going to change how they operate

Photography by Frank Hamilton

In February 2024 Future Islands will turn 18. That’s one hell of a birthday for a band that was never meant to stick around. “We’re almost becoming a legacy act,” singer Samuel T. Herring jokes. Settling into contemplation about what he’s just said, he continues, “I’m proud of that, but it’s not an easy thing.”

It’s surreal having one of the most long-running and well-respected bands in modern indie in front of you, but Future Islands are immediately affable and at ease – Herring chainsmokes throughout, alternating between a vape and a cigarette, lending our interview a laidback feel. This is their first conversation about their upcoming seventh album People Who Aren’t There Anymore, and they are more than willing to work through the album’s story and context; bassist William Cashion even thanks me for helping him to do that, as for him it’s often through press interviews, talking it through with his bandmates, that their albums become clearer for him.

The tale of Future Islands is almost apocryphal now, having been in the ether for so long, but it bears solidifying in the context of their upcoming album. After their first band Art Lord & the Self-Portraits broke up, founding members Herring, Cashion and keyboard player Gerrit Welmers were distraught. It was in the days of show trades – a band would put on a short headline tour in their part of the US so that a band from a different part of the country could support them. Then a few months later, they would swap so that each band could get some exposure in various areas of the States. Art Lord & the Self-Portraits had supported another band, The Texas Governor, before their breakup, and Cashion received an email from the other band asking how they were getting on with booking their leg of the show trade. Instead of admitting they didn’t have a band anymore, they cobbled together and formed Future Islands.

They never had any expectations of longevity. Herring explains, “Future Islands was a serendipitous name, but it made sense to me. It was perfect, like: we’re not going to be a band, we’re friends now, here in this one place, but soon we’re going to be spread out, doing our own things. It was an understanding.” But that understanding, thankfully, never solidified, and Future Islands kept on going.

Their focus as a band has morphed and matured over the years. Where at the beginning it was simply making sure that people heard them, now it’s more like making sure they’re still making stuff that’s worthy of being heard. Welmers says, “I was thinking recently about how, at some point, bands start putting out these records that are just like, not that good. [I’m] trying to crack the code of what happens when you’re turning 40 and you’re still in a band. Are you capable of still making interesting music?”

People Who Aren’t There Anymore answers this question with a definite, resounding yes. Coated in the iconic Future Islands soundscape (glimmering synth chords, twanging prominent basslines and Herring’s versatile yet distinctive vocal timbre, scratchy and tender all at once), it paints a protracted snapshot of a longer period in the band’s lives. Some songs were written as early as July 2020, with the most recent ones being written up until mid-2022; as a result, the album is neatly “broken in half”, as Herring puts it. “A little bit more than half of the record was written when I was still in a relationship, and then the second half was quickly spewed out on the other side of that relationship.” If their previous album As Long As You Are was about finding peace in maturity, People Who Aren’t There Anymore is about the bitter reality of people falling out of your life as you get older.

The band agrees that the process of writing this new album was a continuation of the one that they had begun for As Long As You Are: writing more consistently, taking the time to write and record as and when they wanted. An altogether more comfortable process than the one for their album The Far Field which followed hot on the heels of their breakout fourth album Singles. They played over 300 shows in one year touring that album, then felt that they had to record another one just to keep the train on the tracks. Herring reiterates at several points throughout our interview that they have shifted to seeing the process of album cycles as less distinct than previously; each album is a continuation of the other, in conversation with each other, to draw a picture of a band evolving over time. Think less about eras, more about a growing timeline.

When discussing memorable recording moments from this album, each band member has their favourite. They let themselves get diverted into each other’s memories: drummer Mike Lowry, who joined the band for the recording process of The Far Field and has since become a permanent fourth member, fondly remembers ‘King of Sweden’ coming together in ten minutes in the studio while Herring was plugged in over Zoom from Sweden, singing eerily in-time without any lag. Cashion, who went through a divorce in the years that this album came together, loved recording the feedback at the end of ‘The Sickness’, a downtempo number that dissolves into discordant feedback as Herring repeats Won’t you lie to me?” Though just a couple of seconds long, it ties up the track’s melancholy with a question. “[Co-producer and engineer] Steve Wright was like, dude the smile on your face was amazing, I’ve never seen you so stoked. Recording that was really cathartic for me. There’s a lot of emotion in that part.”

‘The Garden Wheel’ is another one that sticks out. It’s a Future Islands song at its best: major melodies alternately disguise and emphasise Herring’s despairing groan of “How am I supposed to feel?”; the twanging bassline acts as a twist of the knife, an extra layer of disappointment, Cashion supporting Herring’s vocals through the second verse as friends prop each other up through hard times. The final song on the album, Herring considers it the epilogue not only to People Who Aren’t There Anymore, but also its predecessor. The melody started life as a demo that Welmers had recorded quickly to his phone, and played Herring while they were touring Canada, unsure whether it would be anything useful. Herring was immediately drawn to it: “I was like, I need the song! Certain chords of Garrit’s, they have an intestinal pull. I feel it.” From the rich textural background, Herring spun lyrics that speak to the sheer uncertainty of losing someone that you loved so deeply. “There are so many hidden things in that song that only two people will ever know what they mean, and that’s something that’s important to me: being able to share secrets in a way that they’re still secrets. They’re still mine, but they’re yours.” Herring wrote and recorded a demo himself alone in a Toronto hotel room; the original vocals from that demo are the ones that made it to the final version of the song, as Herring was adamant that he couldn’t reach the same emotional place again in the studio necessary for those lyrics.

Another part of maturing as a band is recognising when you can’t tour like you used to. The draft press release for this album promises that Future Islands are turning their attention to a brand-new stage show inspired by the work of Sparks and David Byrne, drawing on the theatrical heights of their music and performance. When I ask the band about this, whether they have any ideas of what they want the show to look like, there is a pause before Herring admits laughingly, “We have no idea!”

They are still very much in the process of meeting with various stage designers to hash out the details, but essentially the desire to rework the live show comes from a need to make the way they tour more sustainable for them. Lowry jokes that he joined the band at the wrong time, just as they’re preparing to slow down; he would probably play 200 shows a year if he could. However, it’s simply not feasible to expect to tour 200 shows a year, every single year, for the rest of your lives; with Welmers recently becoming a father, and with Herring dealing with acute arthritis in his right knee from years of performing on a torn ACL, there is a need to modify how they tour so they can continue doing so for years to come. It’s a difficult adjustment, however; change sometimes feels like doing less, so that feels guilt-inducing when you’re used to leaving everything onstage. Herring says, “I want to be sure personally that when I’m performing that I back myself 100 per cent, and I don’t feel like I’m taking anything off the top or giving anything less, because it means a lot.” But, he explains, “We’ve missed so much life doing this thing that we love, so at this point it’s gotta be sustainable so we can live full lives and be there for the people in our lives. But also, be there for the people who have actually given us a life, which are the audiences that have supported us so long and continued to be there.”


Contrary to everything he’s just said, Herring says that despite his bum knee, the physical pain of performing every night for months, and the emotional toll of being separated from loved ones, “We’re the best we’ve ever been onstage. The shows we did this year, we were the most galvanised as a unit, and I felt the strongest I’ve ever felt as a performer. That’s as a person who’s lost range on my voice, who can’t shimmy like I used to! But what comes with that is the wisdom of age and what we’ve learned from our 10,000 hours.”

If nothing else, Future Islands are an encouraging example of how graft, curiosity and learning as you go can earn you a place as one of music’s most well-respected bands so many years on. Their signature sound is instantly recognisable: heavily bedded synths, floating so lightly over lyrics whose vulnerability is layered in metaphors of night and day, sun and moon that you might miss them. The aim, as Herring puts it, is for big emotions to be distilled down into imagery and moments that everyone can understand and find themselves in – everyone knows the breaking of dawn and the feelings that come along with it, the mingled regret or sweetness, the aching red eyes whether from crying or smoking or dancing too hard. He says, “What our music is striving for is allowing a place for people to feel safe, to be emotional, to commune with themselves and with the ghosts. To reject death and accept life, and to be in the garden.”

Whether that’s ever fully possible is presumably something that the band will continue to explore in their future projects. With an outlook that sees each new album as an evolving moment rather than a distinct statement, it’s a treat to ponder how each album will speak to the others; does the turmoil of People That Aren’t There Anymore falsify the sincerity of As Long As You Are, or rather preserve it in aspic, a sentiment to be frozen and marvelled at? At the very least, with their latest album Future Islands solidify their spot as one of the hardest working, most considerate bands working in music today.