On a Monday in early March, Hugh Cashion bought a digital video projector, set it up in his living room and invited his friends over so that they could stay up late. His son, William, was set to make his national television debut with his band, the pulsing electro-pop soul men of Future Islands, that night on The Late Show with David Letterman. Hugh and Mary Jo expected more than two-dozen friends to come celebrate.
"It happened to be the night of the bad ice storm," remembers Mary Jo. Some called to cancel just before the show aired, while others tried to navigate the slickening roads, only to turn back on the way to the Cashions' home in Wendell, a short drive from Raleigh. But 10 friends made it. They drank champagne punch as William, dressed in a black blazer and red T-shirt, stared down to strum his curved white bass.
"It was pretty amazing," Hugh says.
The friends that missed the party didn't have any trouble finding the performance the next day. When Future Islands finished playing "Seasons (Waiting on You)," a stunned Letterman screamed, "Buddy, come on! How about that? I'll take all of that you got." The verve and manic dance moves of frontman Sam Herring shocked the late-night host. Off camera, Paul Shaffer signed off on Letterman's adoration: "Fantastic! Love this band."
During the next night's opening monologue, Letterman referenced the song, sporadically exclaiming "Let's dance" atop footage of Future Islands' big moment. The video of Future Islands earned praise from The Guardian and more than 500,000 views on YouTube—twice that of recent Late Show gigs from Sting and Lauryn Hill combined. That performance jump-started a whirlwind March for Future Islands, too. They became the stars of this year's South by Southwest, only two weeks before releasing Singles, their first LP on the large and legendary indie label 4AD.
But behind Future Islands' rising international star is a constellation of supportive North Carolina families and friends—people who will drive on icy roads for a Monday night viewing party, fly to New York City to see the band play for less than four minutes or travel to California and spend hundreds of dollars to watch old pals play for 20,000 people. Those North Carolina ties remain a not-so-secret motivational force.
"I have a hard time saying we're just a Baltimore band. That's not right," explains Sam. He's just survived a crazed week. At South by Southwest, Future Islands played eight shows in four days and left with the conference's coveted new Grulke Prize, awarded to three acts who "are breaking new ground with their creativity and show the most promise in achieving their career goals."
The band is just north of Austin now, stopping to eat on their way to the next date. This tour will take them west, to the prestigious Coachella festival, and eventually back home to North Carolina, for a show at the Cat's Cradle.
"We'd never be doing this if it wasn't for the people who were at the first shows who said, 'Hey, this is awesome. Let's do another show,'" Sam continues. "Even when we're in North Carolina, I say, 'We came down from Baltimore, but we're from where you're from—born in North Carolina.'"
North Carolina permeates the band's discography, too: Their 2010 Thrill Jockey debut In Evening Air is a sort of tribute to home. "A lot of that album came out of that struggle of leaving North Carolina and being in a new place," Sam says. Future Islands recorded 2011's On The Water in Elizabeth City, and Singles, which finds the band on a larger label with a larger supporting team, was conceived in North Carolina. The trio retreated to a hunting cabin in Wayne County, where they wrote what became their tightest collection yet—a remarkable mix of songcraft and dance beats that's poised to push them to their biggest stages yet.
Sam grew up on the coast, in the small Carteret County town of Newport. "Back in the Tall Grass," a highlight from Singles, concerns a creek behind the elementary school he attended. It's low, flat country, just inland of Bogue Sound, and a short drive to the blue-collar beaches of Emerald Isle. Keyboardist Gerrit Welmers lived nearby in Morehead City. They were friends long before they were able to play instruments.
"Sam always had a big personality. Gerrit's a quieter personality, but they're like brothers," says John Welmers, Gerrit's father. He coached them both in baseball and notes that they were excellent athletes. As a teenager, Sam played on both championship soccer and baseball teams, but an elementary school teacher had helped pique his interest in drama with roles as Yankee Doodle Dandy and Davy Crockett. Before that, remembers Jane Herring, they didn't even know Sam could sing. In fact, his older brother, Joel, played in bands first. But Sam was hungry for records. An early favorite, his dad recalls, was A Love Supreme—the most famous album by John Coltrane, another North Carolina native whose career blossomed after he headed north.
"Once he got his license, he and a friend went to Hamlet, to see where John Coltrane was born," says his dad, Stephen Herring.
His parents describe a son who was sensitive to others' needs, who didn't get into fights or hurt people, and who ignored the de facto segregation present in local schools when he made friends and developed his music taste. He still raps. Sure, he got into trouble—underage drinking, possession, a wrecked car or two, his dad says.
"He did the same crap that all kids do," Stephen says with a shrug. "You wash fire trucks and pick up trash and do your little community service. They won't let you join the Marines or the Peace Corps, but that doesn't matter if you want to go into rock 'n' roll."
Sam met Gerrit and William, who commuted to Raleigh's Southeast High School from Wendell every day, years later at East Carolina University.
"I thought he might not want to be like his older brother and start a band and get interested in music and let his grades go to hell and drop out," remembers Stephen of Sam. "Out of respect for my wishes, he waited until the beginning of the second semester to form a band."
In 2003, they formed Art Lord & the Self-Portraits, a semi-serious quartet based around the pretentious persona of a German artist that Sam inhabited during shows. They played living rooms and unexpected venues around Greenville. They toured heavily with Baltimore producer and party-starter Dan Deacon, who would eventually lure them north with the promise of cheap rent and a supportive community. They wanted to pursue music professionally; William's parents insisted he simply finish college.
"He did want to pull out of school and go ahead, and I said you can do anything you want after you graduate, but please graduate," Mary Jo says. "And he did."
All of the parents, as a rule, stood by the decision to go pro from the start. Sometimes, the support has taken the form of $100 when a van breaks down, but lately, it's meant the emotional support of knowing someone in Eastern North Carolina is staying up late to see you on television. Not everyone has such a network, Sam admits.
"We all have solid family structures behind us to help us out," Sam says. "That's been a big part of our success."
In fact, the day of their Letterman appearance, their families became their grassroots promotional network. "My grandmother decided to try and contact every single friend I had in elementary school," Gerrit explains. She called people from Bristol, Va. to Morehead City to tell them her grandson would be on Letterman. She stayed up well past midnight to watch it, too. "It's a little crazy, but she saw it on the TV. She gets it now."
For Sam's parents, there was a bit of disbelief. Stephen knew it was happening, but the magnitude of the moment only clicked when the Late Show started. Folks at the courthouse, where Stephen works as an attorney, have since asked him for autographed pictures of his son. Many of them had known Sam since he was born. And he's amused by reporters who wonder if Sam's onstage passion is real; he's witnessed the answer for 29 years.
"There's this question as to whether he's this sincere as a guy [as he is during shows]," Stephen says. "And, unfortunately, he is."
William's mom has joined Twitter to make sense of all the band's buzz; his dad has upped his phone's data plan just to monitor the online attention.
They didn't expect Letterman to gush over their performance, to replay part of it the next night, or for Sam's dancing to go viral. He's been doing those moves for the better part of a decade, after all. When the show's producers mentioned they'd use clips of the band again, Sam agreed. He didn't expect for a meme to emerge. He understands that being the butt of a joke, however good-natured, is a symptom of a rising star.
"It's a good thing, but I don't wanna be a meme," Sam admits. "We thought we might reach a few people, but also it would be something to share with our families, our friends—and also our fans."
Future Islands' old friend Jeff Blinder is standing outside of a nontraditional music venue in southern Philadelphia. Though he's been away from Greenville for years, he still books shows in the same sort of small, unmarked spaces where he used to host Future Islands sets back in North Carolina. Blinder has witnessed the band's steady, workmanlike progression toward fame, from their days as Art Lord to their new big deal with 4AD. He booked shows for them not long after they moved out of their parents' house. For him, North Carolina was their crucible, a part of their identity no matter the crowd.
"North Carolina could claim them, and maybe Baltimore honed them," Blinder says. "I'm going to say that inside the beast is a North Carolina heart pumping."
In a few weeks, he'll fly across the country to Indio, California, where Future Islands will play the massive Coachella festival. With Future Islands seemingly on everyone's radar, from NPR to Spin and Rolling Stone, Blinder envisions an enormous crowd primed for their set. He pictures a sea of 20,000 people. He just wants to be one of them.
"The best thing, what this is all building up to, is that entire Coachella crowd being excited for them," he says. "And I don't care if I'm in the back. I'm going to dance like I'm in the front row."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Front rows."