In the age of music blogging and online streaming, it seems too old-fashioned for an independent band to become an overnight success after a network TV performance. This isn’t 1956, when “The Ed Sullivan Show” could launch the career of a certain hip-shaking, rock-n-roll heart throb from Memphis, Tennessee.
But almost 60 years later, another Elvis-like performance on a late-night show proved it’s still possible for music to transcend the airwaves, without gimmicks or “wardrobe malfunctions.”
For Future Islands, it was their artistic interpretation of soul music that resonated with audiences during the group’s network debut last year on the “Late Show With David Letterman.”
Lead singer Samuel T. Herring danced wildly around the stage, crouching low with fistfuls of passion and a furrowed brow, earnestly hurling out each verse like they were the last words he’d ever sing.
For an audience that didn’t know the band had been touring behind this shtick for the better part of a decade, it was stunning.
“Buddy, come on!” Letterman bursted out after their song “Seasons (Waiting on You)” as the crowd erupted in whistles and applause. “How about that? I’ll take all of that you got!”
The performance quickly spawned a viral YouTube video, which now has 3.8 million views and counting.
The same month, they released their second album “Singles,” which was their first under 4AD Records, a label with indie legends such as Iron and Wine and TV On The Radio.
Satisfying the standard set by the Letterman gig, “Singles” is a landscape of buoyant synth-driven beats weighted evenly with Herring’s profound lyrics and earnest singing, offering a multipurpose element to each track. A listener can play it one day as dance-party material and for self-reflection the next.
Gerrit Welmers, who plays keyboards and handles all programming for the band, said it’s still hard to believe how quickly their music has caught on after working toward this for eight years.
“I think all those things combined and it just snowballed and made things larger, I don’t know. It’s crazy,” he said.
Future Islands’ core members, Herring, Welmers and William Cashion (bass, guitars) first got together in a band called Art Lord & The Self-Portraits in 2006 in Greenville, N.C. Welmers said they started it as “a performance project to play at art shows and parties and things like that.”
Some of those underground parties took place in Charleston, he said, though he can’t remember where or when, exactly. Their return to play the Music Farm is no doubt their largest concert yet in the Holy City.
Back in the Art Lord days, they borrowed instruments and played to crowds of 10 or 15 people.
“We just always used what we had at our hands to make music,” Welmers said. “We just wanted it to be like a craft work band, which evolved into what it is now. There was never a talk about what we were going for.”
It was during one of these performances when the band asked Welmers to play somebody’s keyboard during the show, even though he played guitar.
“I had no idea what I was doing but it sounded way better than my guitar. So I just pretty much taught myself how to do everything. Lots of trial and error pretty much,” he said, explaining that he still doesn’t actually know how to read music or play piano properly.
“If I could play in front of someone who could actually play the instrument, their mind would be blown because I literally have no idea what I’m doing,” he said. “My hands are in completely wrong positions, but it works, so that’s all that matters.”
You get the sense that Welmers is being humble, because a driving force of Future Islands’ sound is how he uses keys and programming technology to layer animated synths and bass lines to create a complex fabric of electro-pop.
But a lot of that is worked out off-stage and recorded, so the live performances aren’t so involved for him, he said. That’s part of the reason Herring’s theatrics are so critical on stage, but that’s also a challenge.
“The live performance is very different for all of us,” Welmers said. “I definitely think it’s more difficult for him (Herring) to pull that emotion out every night over and over again. But this is what we love to do. It’s really fun to be able to play shows every night and show people our music, our performance.”
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.