Eight years into their career, Baltimore band Future Islands made their network television debut on Late Show With David Letterman on March 3, a rite of passage for rising artists that provides some cred but may or may not make much career impact.
But something unexpected happened. The famously hard-to-impress Letterman was utterly, genuinely captivated by the performance of "Seasons (Waiting On You)," particularly frontman Samuel T. Herring's emotional intensity and striking dance moves. "BUDDY, C'MON!" he uncharacteristically exclaimed when the song was over. "I'll take all of that you got! That was WONDERFUL." Video of the performance went viral, and Letterman continued to promote a clip of Herring's hypnotic sidestep during his nightly monologue.
With new album Singles due from 4AD on March 25, Future Islands made numerous "must see" lists before their first visit to SXSW in Austin last week—an enviable position at an industry festival where it's notoriously difficult to stand out among 2,000-plus artists. Their breakout success at the event was made official on March 18, when the band won the coveted Grulke Prize for Developing U.S. Act, named for longtime SXSW creative director Brent Grulke, who passed away in 2012. Fast Company talked to the band about how what may seem like overnight success does not happen overnight, and how to keep the momentum of a profile boost going.
Herring, William Cashion, and Gerrit Welmers formed Future Islands as college students in Greenville, N.C., in 2006, playing house parties and gaining a small local following. By 2008, Herring and Welmers had dropped out of school, "and I realized I had no skills at all," says Herring. "The only thing I'd done consistently for five or six years was make music." Unlike many other bands who balance their passion with rent-paying jobs while hoping to get discovered, the three decided the only way to make their living as musicians was to stop doing anything else. "We made the move to Baltimore and set ourselves to work," says Herring. "We've made a living off of music for five years now, staying out 150 to 160 days per year on the road. First it was 50 to 60 bucks a show, then 100 bucks a show, then 200 then 300 then 400."
Future Islands attributes a lot of their success to doing much of the hard work themselves, rejecting external management offers for years and booking their own national tours. But they didn't try to reinvent the wheel. "We had some friends, Valient Thorr and Dan Deacon, who were doing big national tours that they were booking themselves," says Cashion. "So I would look at where they toured and send our music to those places, and booked shows using their roadmap over a period of two or three years."
"We always believed that even if there was one person at the show, or 20, someone would remember it," says Cashion. "We've always believed in and been very confident in what we do, even if no one else was." Sometimes this meant playing for five or 10 people, but Cashion says "the 10-person shows are even more important. There are some bands, I've seen it happen, they'll just phone it in when it's that kind of show, or act like they're better than that. But those 10 people, you should be thanking them for giving you their time." And according to Herring, "when you give those five or 10 people the show you would give a sold-out crowd, they will never forget you."
Even with the huge publicity boost before SXSW, Herring says the band's goals and expectations for their eight shows at the event didn't change. "The only goal for this trip was to smash every show and blow some minds," says Herring. "It's just work." He also says that after Letterman, "I have to push my dance moves even further. But I don't want to do what they expect—you don't want to give people exactly what they want." Unsurprisingly, if you've watched Herring perform, he says "I take what I do as a performer like an athlete. There would probably be athletes who would say 'what the hell are you talking about,' but just in the sense that it's like a runner's high, you feel like your body's about to shut down but you just keep pushing and you reach this rush, an adrenaline rush from the crowd. When the crowd is feeding you energy you want to give it back, and you have to give it in the first place to get it. Adversity is important for any kind of creative art, because you learn from it, you feed off of it, and you understand why you do it better."