Back in early March, Baltimore synth pop band Future Islands played its new single, “Seasons (Waiting On You)” on the Late Show with David Letterman. For most bands, a Letterman spot is a routine part of the promotion cycle. But thanks to the charismatic singing and facial expressions, and jaw-droppingly great, GIF-ready dance moves of Future Islands’ kinetic frontman Samuel T. Herring, everyone — including Letterman — was blown away.
The next day, the clip went completely viral.
Living in D.C. from 2005-2012, I got a chance to see Future Islands several times as they were coming up — including a Tiny Desk Concert performance I shot for NPR Music, still one of the biggest bass amps I’ve seen crammed into that cramped office space. So for fans like me — Future Islands’ not-so-sudden “overnight success” felt, instead, like a well-deserved triumph for a hard-working band finally getting noticed in a big way.
It also felt like a resurgent moment of edge and relevance for Letterman and his show, especially in this overstuffed and highly competitive environment where most (younger) eyes are trained elsewhere on the dial (er, Hulu). And while Future Islands is just the most recent act to ricochet to a new level after playing the talk-show circuit, let’s be honest: this joyfully meme-able video is the most I had heard anyone in my circles drop reference to Letterman in some time. And now that Letterman has announced he’s stepping down and retiring in 2015 — to be replaced by Stephen Colbert — that performance will stand out as one of the show’s all-time great music acts.
All of this was on my mind when I stepped into a crowded but giant warehouse space near the waterfront in Greenpoint to see Future Islands. I had not seen the band since I moved to New York, let alone since they kinda blew up. The show was some weird free sponsored event put on by Vans — at their so-called House Of Vans, a sort of event space-meets-skate park-meets-actual warehouse, filled out with free cheap booze and food trucks outside. It was an odd shaped room — many people were standing awkwardly and painfully on the skate ramps — and even odder scene-y vibe, to be honest.
Yet as Future Islands ran through songs from its fantastic 2014 album, Singles, as well as some older favorites from On The Water, you could feel the room connect and come together. There’s something so unifying and unpretentious in the way Herring sings — and windmills and gyrates and slinks and fist pumps and grooves — on stage. It’s super melodramatic, sure, but also, impossibly earnest, heartfelt and real.
The big moment for most, of course, was the single that made them TV stars, and that absolutely was a joy to hear live, with a crowd. But the real moment for me was “A Song For Our Grandfathers” — a ruminative and deeply personal song I keep returning to after that show. As those dreamy synths filled the air, as Herring croons the line “I feel safe,” I felt something akin to pride.
Future Islands is loosely something of a local band for people in D.C. and Baltimore, and while I’ve sorta known about and liked for many years, it was stunning to see them in that moment — playing to more people than I’ve ever seen them play to before combined. It was clear to me finally that Future Islands had arrived in a way that you didn’t worry about what would come next or begrudge the way they got there. In fact, I’ve never been more excited to see what’s next.