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Interview by Andy Samberg
Photo by Gene Smirnov
The visceral, soulful synth-pop of Future Islands serves as an emotional rescue from modern life. In conversation with actor/comedian Andy Samberg, the Baltimore band sheds light on its aspirations and inspirations.
I first heard Future Islands while I was working at Saturday Night Live. They’re great, and their music makes you feel good. Even when their songs are about sad things, they still feel uplifting, which is hard to pull off, and because of that I listen to them a lot. This interview went great and is going to change the world, and the guys in the band are now my best friends. Enjoy our convo! —Andy Samberg
Andy Samberg: I’ve been listening to the new album, The Far Field, and I love it. It’s so rad. I was very excited to get it early and feel all cool and VIP. One thing I noticed about it is—and I feel like this is kind of one of your trademarks: There’s this sort of forward motion to it at all times. Even when the songs are lyrically addressing topics that could be interpreted as sad, there’s still this momentum and hope to all of it. Especially right now, when there’s so much negative energy out there, every time I put this album on, I feel inspired or happy.
William Cashion: When we’re writing songs, we don’t really talk about what we want the songs to do; it’s just what comes out. The three of us in a room, we just put a drum machine on and I think we favor the four-on-the-floor type of beat, so maybe that’s caused it to be more driving. I think, thematically, the record lends itself to the road; it’s about the road and also the good albums to listen to while you’re out on the road.
Samuel Herring: That’s actually something that’s always been a thing in music, too. The play of light and dark. I think we explore (the idea) that there are heavy times, but then there is light on the other side. There’s that hope; that hope is the thing that keeps us alive. When we were 18-year-old kids and first started writing, it was writing music to play house parties and have fun with our friends. When you’re exploring yourself as an artist, you’re also dealing with things that are in life. It was years of making this music that was really fun to dance to and compulsive but if you listen to the words, maybe there’s something weaker about it. It was years later when we were like, “Oh, we’ve been doing that, and that’s one of our strengths.” “Beauty Of The Road” was maybe the first song we wrote for this record, and that set the tone. It was that weird meta phase where you’re writing songs about your life but then your life becomes boring, being on the road, so then you’re writing songs about touring and being on the road and writing songs and you’re performing these songs.
Samberg: You’re still working your ass off. Pretty much everyone who’s trying to survive on Earth is doing that.
Cashion: And then also me and Sam grew up shopping in the husky section, and Gerrit never had to shop in the husky section. That’s also a part of our approach, I think.
Herring: Definitely part of our music.
Samberg: And so you probably give them a lot of shit for that. How long have you guys been friends?
Herring: Me and Gerrit grew up together. We’ve been hanging out all the time since we were 14. And then William was my first friend I met at college. At 18, I met William and then introduced him and Gerrit shortly after. Me and Gerrit went off to college together. So we started playing music together when William was 19 and Gerrit and I were 18. Still in the same grade, though.
Samberg: So it’s similar to my experience with the Lonely Island guys. It’s the greatest, right? Knowing someone from that far back and you go out into the world and it’s so fun because every time something cool happens, you get to look at each other like, “Holy shit, it’s us from back then, and now we’re here!” And then also when you’re dealing with things that are new and weird, you get to look at each other and be like, “This feels wrong, right?”
Cashion: The first time we toured Europe was in 2009, and that was after years of sleeping on floors and playing house parties, and we were just kind of like, “What did we do right? How did we end up here? Who did we trick to get to tour here?” It was one of those pinch-yourself moments. It’s crazy that we’re still able to be a band, you know?
Samberg: Yeah, absolutely.
Cashion: Got a question for ya. Are there tons of harps at your house?
Samberg: There are at least two harps at my house. And multiple pianos as well.
Cashion: We’re fans of yours, and we’re also fans of your wife (Joanna Newsom)’s music.
Samberg: Well, thank you. I also am actually a huge fan of her music; that’s how we met. I met her at her show.
Cashion: I was curious about the harps, sorry.
Samberg: By all means, we have a room that houses harps. And it’s kind of like a weird music fan dream come true for me that we have been so in love because I get to hear her play harp all the time.
Cashion: That’s dope.
Samberg: I’ve listened to your guys’ stuff for a while, but it felt like Singles was your breakout. Would you say that’s fair?
Herring: Yeah, that definitely garnered the much larger audience.
Samberg: That’s a weird thing to experience. It’s like, “Hey, we’ve achieved a level of success. Holy shit. Now what do we do?” I guess I’m just sort of commiserating that that’s a hard thing to put out of your mind, but you have to in order to get out of the headspace that brought you there to begin with.
Herring: The thing was, we felt like we already had success before Singles came out. We were on the road from mid-2008 to the end of 2012. In that time, we saw the audience grow, playing 150 shows a year. Seeing that slow growth—coming back from a tour losing a hundred dollars to coming back home with a hundred dollars, then we were finally paying our bills, then I could afford a second pair of pants. We felt the success, but we were still an underdog band. I think we’re still an underdog band. So it was interesting to be in the spotlight all of a sudden because we wanted that when we were 25 or 26 and didn’t get that, you know? And to get that years later was interesting for us, because we’re just doing what we’ve always done. We’ve been here all along. We’re grown men who had been at this for a while.
Samberg: I was curious if you have a favorite or least favorite description of yourselves or the band or the music that you thought was funny that you’d care to share.
Cashion: We get called, like, dads a lot, which we think is weird because none of us are dads yet. I think we throw people off because maybe people have an idea of what a synth-pop band should look like, and maybe it’s bigger hair and makeup. We don’t have that stuff.
Samberg: Sam’s voice gets a lot of different comparisons in articles I’ve read.
Herring: I used to say things about the media, but I can’t because now I just sound like Donald Trump when I do. “Media tells lies!” We always enjoy when people write specific things about us. I get Cookie Monster a lot. That one bugs me. I think it’s more in my vocal delivery than in my voice.
Samberg: Maybe the cadence?
Herring: Yeah, I don’t really know. There was a meme going around of me next to Tim Kaine, and people were like, “That’s crazy, Sam Herring is just like a slightly younger Tim Kaine.” He’s 35 years older than me. Come on, give me a break.
Samberg: I don’t buy that one.
Cashion: Andy, I have another question. “Dick In A Box”—where’s the inspiration? Where did that come from? Did you put your dick in a box?
Samberg: The inspiration for that came from when Justin Timberlake was hosting around Christmas and Lorne Michaels told us, “You’re doing a song with Timberlake.” I realized really quickly that we all loved early ’90s R&B like R. Kelly and H-Town. [Michaels] was like, “What if we wanted it to be Christmas themed?” We started writing it, and I sent it down to Justin, who’s down on the floor rehearsing sketches, and he loved it.
Cashion: Is that the question you get asked all the time?
Samberg: Not the most, but definitely people say “dick in a box” to me as much as anything. I’m very comfortable with it. I love it. The joke is that that’s gonna be my epitaph: “Made ‘Dick In A Box.’” There’s worse epitaphs to have.
Herring: That’s also a shitty thing to put on somebody’s gravestone.
Samberg: “This guy was alive, now he’s just a dick in a box.”
Herring: Works on many levels.
Samberg: Yeah, but the joke’s gonna be on them when I get cremated. But I should also clarify that I’m not sure whether or not I want to be cremated. If something horrible happened, I don’t want them to be like, “Hey, look, in this article he said…” you know? But back to you guys, I read that you guys came up listening to hip hop. Is that true?
Herring: The first record that I really got into was Gravediggaz’ 6 Feet Deep, so that led me to Prince Paul. When I was 13, my brother bought that record as well as (Enter The Wu-Tang) 36 Chambers. For my 14th birthday, my brother got me Digable Planets (Blowout Comb) and (Channel Live’s) Station Identification, and those two records blew my mind, exploded my world, and that’s when I started going to pawn shops and digging through racks and racks of $4 CDs. Luckily, my dad was cool enough to take me because he’s like an old rusty tool in the shed. I really found out about the beginnings of hip hop—of course Grandmaster Flash, but then KRS-One was huge, all the Native Tongues stuff. But De La Soul was my group back in the day.
Samberg: I find that as I am getting slightly older, it’s harder for me to keep tabs on the millions of different rap genres and styles that are coming through. Do you feel like you’re able to?
Herring: I honestly feel like there’s been a renaissance in hip hop, but I don’t know if kids these days want to be labeled that. I do feel like there’s a younger generation of producers and MCs that are doing really amazing, adventurous stuff and are coming at it with their own points of view. And it makes sense because kids these days have access to every type of music in the whole world at their fingertips. When I hear a 16-year-old kid from Chicago who has all these crazy flows because they’re just influenced by everything, I might think it’s like a West Coast style, and then it’s just some kid from Chicago, and I’m like, “How the hell did you figure this out? Where did you come from?” For me, I kind of lost love and understanding of what was happening in rap and hip hop. Danny Brown was the one who really opened my eyes again when I discovered him in 2011. He blew my mind and gave me hope again that there were really MCs out that were saying something. I think it’s coming back. But I also don’t know everything. What’s mainstream is a complete blank to me. I don’t even know a lot of the rappers that are really, really huge now. I know them by name, but I don’t actually know their music. Not that I’m against it, I just don’t keep up.
Samberg: I love talking about rap music. Is there any other kind of music that you guys are feeling, rap or otherwise? Are you bumping into stuff in the studio or while you’re traveling around or anything like that?
Cashion: We all just saw (Hans-Joachim) Roedelius (from Cluster and Harmonia) play last night, an old German krautrock pioneer. He played here in Baltimore and that was a pretty awesome set he did. He was doing sound collage for the first half, and then he switched over and became this kind of meditative piano stuff. That was really beautiful.
Samberg: Do you guys all still live in Baltimore?
Samberg: OK, I have a Baltimore question then. Do the people in Baltimore love the show The Wire or are they all like, “That’s fake!”
Cashion: I think people are into it.
Samberg: They’re into it: “It’s like our spot, that’s us in a good way.” Or is it like people are obsessed with that show?
Herring: I know Gerrit is watching right now. Maybe Gerrit should answer it.
Gerrit Welmers: I’m currently watching it, but I haven’t really talked about it with anyone, any local people. So I don’t know. I would say that the reality of Baltimore is probably a little bit different than The Wire, although we didn’t live here at the time.
Samberg: I always just think of the time I saw that movie Cloverfield while I was living in Manhattan, and there’s a part where they’re running through the subway to get away and they go from West Fourth Street to Midtown in three minutes, and when they came out of the subway, the whole theater went, “No way, fuck that, they could never get that far!” I just had this vision of people in Baltimore watching The Wire and being like, “They could never hide dead bodies there!”
Herring: I’ve never watched The Wire, because I didn’t want to be scared by a TV show of where I’d moved to. Am I gonna watch that thing that’s gonna make me feel unsafe in the place where I live? If I move, I might watch The Wire eventually. We do get asked about The Wire constantly on tour, in the U.S. and abroad, just everywhere. It’s a huge show; people love it.
Samberg: People are pretty obsessed with it. Would you say it’s your “Dick In A Box”?
Herring: I don’t think it’s the same thing.
Samberg: The Wire is Baltimore’s “Dick In A Box.”
Herring: Our “Dick In A Box” is probably the Letterman (performance of “Seasons” in 2014).
Samberg: Are you guys sick to death of talking about that? You must be.
Herring: Nah, it’s cool.
Samberg: There you go, ’cause it’s your “Dick In A Box.”