Sometimes good bands become memes.
Over the last few years, for an indie band about to cross over into the mainstream, or at least quit their day jobs, the “first TV appearance” has become a right of passage. Due to Jimmy Fallon's overrated hipness and Letterman's continued authentic interest in new music, bands that are unknown to most people appear on late night TV on the regular. The bands get one short song and maybe a handshake, then they're thrust back into the world where no one really cares that they got an 8.7 on Pitchfork.
On March 4, I clicked a link to watch one of these performances by a band I really like. A few years ago I had seen them bomb an opening spot to a puzzled crowd at Terminal 5, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Watching the video, I couldn't believe how well their typically phenomenal stage show translated to TV. It was one of the most joyous moments of my day, inspiring me to yell “YES!” loudly enough to freak out my cats, and to mirror the antics on screen by enthusiastically punching the air. I posted my reaction on Tumblr, and it was reblogged hundreds of times. This was happening everywhere: their social media numbers rose and rose as thousands of people suddenly found a new favorite band. Marketers have been struggling for years to figure out what “creates” virality. Whatever it is, Future Islands had it that night.
No one who knows the band should be very surprised by this. Every time I've seen them live (barring the ill-fated T5 show) has been a transcendent experience. Sam Herring will walk on stage looking like the squarest guy you've ever seen, wearing an outfit that can only be described as #dadcore (usually khakis and a tucked in polo top). Then the music starts, and he goes totally insane. The melodrama that the world witnessed on Letterman happens at every single show the band has ever played. Except that instead of staring down at Herring, as he beats his chest and gesticulates wildly, you're there, and when he kneels down with what look like real tears, he looks up right at you. It's hard to not be overwhelmed by the vast compassion of his performance. If most band leaders want to seem cool, Sam Herring wants you to understand what he's singing about on the deepest level possible, and if that requires bizarre dancing and theatrical emotions, he is more than willing to oblige.
Everyone has a few bands that feel personal to them, whose exposure to the wider world feels like some kind of violation, however irrational. Maybe because so few of the bands who cross over seem to posses any degree of sincerity, the rise of Future Islands over the last few weeks has inspired a bit of this feeling in me. On one level, I'm beyond ecstatic for these guys, who've spent the last eight years hauling themselves around the country in a van, performing for their devoted cult fanbase and getting little in return. Their ambitions never seemed to be fame and fortune, which makes it even more heartwarming to see a group both so deserving and so unassuming finally being rewarded.
Originally from North Carolina, Future Islands have lived in Baltimore since 2008, and are tight with Wham City, the influential art collective started by Dan Deacon. The Wham City scene has always felt special for their ability to combine authenticity and absurdity, and Future Islands are a perfect example of this phenomenon. A DIY ethos also runs through the scene. Another thing I appreciate about Future Islands' career is their dedication to playing all-ages spaces whenever they can. It's sad to think that there is now no venue of that kind in New York that will be big enough to house them. The magic of going to see them in an un-air conditioned room with all your friends and four dollar drinks might not completely translate to a slick corporate venue where you're practically strip-searched on the way in.
Watching the band's meme-ification, as .gifs of Herring dancing on stage permeated the internet, was somewhat disconcerting. It is admittedly highly entertaining to watch him do his thing in person, but fans are always respectful. It's clear that you're with them, not against them. It's worrying to think about the band becoming a joke, or for them to forever be known as “that band with the crazy dancing dude,” especially as the humor conveyed through a .gif is far from the dominant vibe of their art. The majority of Future Islands' songs, through beautifully written lyrics, express intense sadness, pain, and longing, and seeing them can be more like a collective exorcising of demons than a fun dance party.
The meme-ification of Future Islands, via NPR.
Despite all this, it's good to remind ourselves that bands you love getting big can bring many positives along with the bummers. One of the best things to come out of any once obscure band gaining attention is it gives them the ability to take other underrated artists with them. Arcade Fire's success helped propel Owen Pallett from a brilliant video game-obsessed outsider to a Grammy-nominated composer, while Grimes' rise to fame exposed us to the gorgeous intensity of Majical Cloudz. I would not be surprised if Future Islands do the same, taking advantage of their new fame to bring their long time friends with them into the spotlight.
On that note, if you yourself are a new fan, I'd recommend to you a genre of artists I will label as “weird male pop.” From Future Islands' hometown, there's absurdist rapper DJ Dog Dick and virtuosic guitar looper Dustin Wong, along with frequent tour mates Ed Schrader's Music Beat. On the other side of the country, John Maus performs his dissociated odes in a similarly ferocious manner, with even more self abuse. And on the other side of the world, Kirin J. Callinan is similarly turning masculinity on its head with performances would that feel easily at home in a Baltimore warehouse. Not all of these artists are ready for television, and some of them may never be. But one band winning the media exposure lottery should give us hope that there's still room for unapologetic strangeness and emotional authenticity in the realm of popular music.
Sophie Weiner is a writer and person who dances in front of her cats. Follow her on Twitter @sophcw