Sam Herring speaks in tongues. Although he uses his own lips, the Future Islands front man has been accused of borrowing the tongues of singers including Jim Morrison, Tom Waits, Meatloaf and The Simpsons' sea captain, Horatio McCallister, voiced by Hank Azaria.
"A lot of it is because I can't sing like a normal person," Herring says, laughing. The singer's lower-register rumblings tagged him with Waits — "My voice is a little wrecked," Herring says — but onstage histrionics worthy of a televangelist faith healer have gotten him compared to Jack Black. "We may have similar stage antics, but he's a comedian and I'm a tragedian," says Herring, who also believes that Black has a better voice.
He dismisses the Meatloaf comparison as image confusion. "I think people say I sing like Meatloaf just because I might look like him a little bit." To add to the aural befuddlement, Herring channels Lou Reed on the cut "Inch Of Dust" from the band's latest release, In Evening Air.
But Herring isn't copying any of these folks. The blathering is just critics trying to get a handle on what vocalist Herring, bassist William Cashion and Gerrit Welmers (synth and programming) are up to.
It's a slippery handle. The term New Wave gets splashed about a lot in attempts to pigeonhole the band's sound. That's due in large part to Welmers' contributions, which sound like a mix of retro roller rink fare and merry-go-round music with a backbeat stiff enough to goose step to. Herring says the band never wanted to be defined as New Wave because they were 20 years down the road from that. That's why they started calling themselves a "Post Wave band" back in 2004.
"I always say the New Wave crashed and we came out of that," Herring says. "We have a diverse sound because we have different musical tastes. We're not trying to sound like anything in particular; we're just trying to work with what we have."
The band's philosophy is to keep things simple. Nobody in the band reads music, but Herring says that's caused no problems for them. "Our songs aren't difficult," he says. "We don't want them to be difficult because we don't really listen to difficult music ourselves."
Herring and the band use the three-day rule to write songs. "We don't believe you should have to work that hard to write a good pop song," he says. "If I'm not feeling it by the third day, the guys don't come up with something, I'm not getting any words from it, then we usually just scrap it."
Part of the band's appeal is Herring's willingness to immerse himself completely in his performance. No rock star poses, no strutting — he just lets his raw emotions come roaring out. At times it's reminiscent of rocker Joe Cocker's unfettered delivery: arms flailing, sweat flying as he unleashes his inner demons.
Herring developed his performance skills while in the arts program at East Carolina. He and Welmers have been friends since they were in the sixth grade growing up in Morehead City, N.C. He met Cashion, also a N.C. native, while at ECU, and the two started the band Art Lord and the Self Portraits.
Future Islands got started because of a tour Art Lord was booked do that the band members forgot about when the band broke up in '06. Trying to come up with a name for the new group, the band narrowed it down to two choices, Future Shoes and Already Islands. Pressured to choose one, Herring said it might as well be Already Shoes or Future Islands. "Terrible story, but a serendipitous kind of thing," Herring says.
The band started getting attention with the release of '08's Wave Like Home when percussionist and former Kickass bassist Erick Murillo dropped out and the band became drummerless. Herring says the new three-piece lineup took some of the punk edge out of the group and gave him more room to sprawl out as a writer and a performer. "We've always said we wanted to be cult figures," Herring says, "to be recognized for our hard work and our persistence toward a sound."
The only thing he fears is running out of a creative spark. "How long can we keep putting out work we're proud of, or when do we lose our minds and start putting out work we're proud of that's terrible?" he asks. "We gotta keep pushing. I hope people keep listening."
CasseroleFest Day 3 with Lonnie Walker, Fat Camp, Fan-Tan and Buck Gooter. $7-$10. 9 p.m. Nov. 18. The Milestone. www.themilestoneclub.com