Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands: Crooner, Dancer, Rapper?

Originally posted on The Style Con

Future Island’s Samuel T. Herring. Photo by Stephanie Paschal.

During the summer of 1999, I spent at least twelve hours a day downloading music from Napster. At one point my dad thought I was “on drugs” because I would sit at my desk at odd hours of the night basking in the glow of my blue iMac (the one that looked like a portable TV), obsessively searching for music I heard at the previous weekend’s rave. Amongst the Chicago house and Detroit techno DJ mixes, I discovered punk music. More specifically: Black Flag. At 15, I was a music-obsessed, lip-ring-having rebellious teen, as revealed by my Radiohead, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and Pink Floyd posters. I was a human vacuum, absorbing anything and everything about culture outside of my small town of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Of course I was obsessed with Henry Rollins (the singer of Black Flag), it was only fitting. A shirtless dude screaming lyrics about society’s oppression is any female alterna-teen’s dream. I understand this sentence sounds fucking weird, but I have a soft spot in my heart for insanely passionate and aggressive male singers whose voice sound like a demon is being exorcised from their bodies through a hardcore growl noise.

Black Flag is long gone, but now I have Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands to marvel at. He is the singer I often refer to as “The love child of Henry Rollins and Dave Matthews.” He’s an amazing front man.  There’s something inspiring about a guy having an insane amount of passion for music and not giving a fuck how crazy he looks.  I see the same degree of fervor that Ian Curtis of Joy Division had on stage in Sam Herring’s facial expressions and dance moves. I’ve seen Future Islands four times, and each show is never long enough. Their music makes me very happy. Since Radiohead is my other favorite band, it’s nice to take a break from their ghostly and melancholic sound for something that can’t help but put a smile on my face.

(Thom, baby, don’t be mad. You’ll always be my number one, I just need to explore my options.)

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Fuck yes.

Future Islands put on another amazing show at the Wiltern in LA, but I was also intrigued by a show the following night at The Satellite: Hemlock Ernst.

Who the fuck is Hemlock Ernst? He’s a goddamn rapper. He’s also Sam Herring, the lead singer of Future Islands. My friend describes it as “math rap- too many words and stuff.” Fuck that guy though, right? I think he’s just jealous… Hemlock raps about his life and his roots (and Colt 45). Hip-hop is his first love, and it really shows. He’s the type of rap nerd who knows the ten original members of Wu-Tang better than the ten digits in his own phone number.

Seeing him rap for the first time was very jarring. I couldn’t help but smile when he put on the first beat from his laptop and stomped around the stage like he was Nate Dogg’s number one hype man circa 1994. He admitted he was really nervous because he’s only performed as Hemlock a handful of times. It took a few songs for him to get comfortable, but when he did I think the audience felt more at ease too.  It’s not every day you see the lead singer of an indie rock band drop lyrics like “I ate her pussy for dinner and ass for dessert” over J Dilla-esque beats.

The best adjective to describe Sam Herring is INTENSE. Future Islands performed on Letterman earlier this year and Sam’s dance moves wowed Dave and the three million viewers of the subsequent YouTube video. He does these sexy male-stripper dance moves that make me curious about what he looks like while having sex. I can’t possibly be the only person wondering this, right?

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Sam is similarly passionate performing as Hemlock Ernst. He raps about growing up in North Carolina and staying positive while dealing with bullshit, cuz bullshit sucks:

Just keep your eyes off the ground and always fly/

Don’t look down or the fear might well up inside…

He went back and forth between serious and funny lyrics. His flow was consistent throughout and there wasn’t a lack of his signature deep voice growl.

Damn it makes my head hurt thinking what’s my life worth/

It might hurt me now but it might save me later/

I can’t go back to pop rocks and hot potato…

The hat makes him Hemlock Ernst. Photo by Alex Schelldorf

What I like about him is that he doesn’t pretend to know a lot about hip-hop or rappers. It’s something he genuinely loves. He’s had an enormously successful year, but Sam’s hip-hop roots don’t really show themselves in the synthpop sounds of Future Islands.  I’m very happy he decided to take on the Hemlock Ernst moniker.  He’s definitely one of those dudes who is entertaining no matter what he does.

I’ve seen the majority of my favorite musicians live (that 2Pac hologram at Coachella did NOT count) and I can say there are only a few shows I could watch over and over again.  Future Islands has made their way to the top of that list.

Also: Fuck Jagger, we should all strive to have moves like Herring.

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