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Sam Herring: The Late-Night Big Bad Wolf 

Future Islands, the dancey synthpop trio, performs at the Fox Theater Sept. 25.

Wednesday, Sep 23 2015
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Samuel Herring was five years old the first time he performed in front of a crowd. Dressed in a homemade Big Bad Wolf costume for a kindergarten class production of "The Three Little Pigs," Herring fell in love with the rush of eliciting a response from an audience.

"I was a pretty good big bad wolf. I got all the laughs, man — all the laughs," Herring recalls. "That's probably when I fell in love with performance: that first time in the kindergarten classroom. Then in another play in the school gym when I was seven years old, singing a couple songs. That one was the first time I performed for a large group of people, and I loved it. I've been at it from then on."

Herring was destined for the stage, but the art form he would take up wasn't theatre (at least not in the classical sense). On his 13th birthday, his brother gifted him De La Soul's Buhloone Mindstate, Digable Planets' Blowout Comb, and Channel Live's Station Identification. He was hooked. He fell in love with hip-hop, and, within a year, he again found himself on stage — this time to partake in freestyle rap battles.

"Long before Future Islands ever existed, I was an MC," Herring says. "As a teenager figuring out who I was in this world, that was the first thing — as my mind opened — where I said, 'this is what I am.'"

Hip-hop gave young Herring a voice to speak strongly about himself. It also granted him insight into lives and cultures that he, as a suburban white kid, hadn't known. When speaking about how he translates emotion to audience members, a line by Bronx rapper KRS-One, one of Herring's earliest influences and heroes, comes to his mind.

"'While you were home with your mother afraid of the dark, I was chilling out at Prospect Park, eating one meal every 48 hours,'" Herring recites. "That line stills gives me chills, because of the truth of a struggle and the pain of it. For the people who don't understand what I do, so much of what I do in performance is about that. It's wanting to explain my personal struggle in a raw way."

Future Islands' performances (like the one happening Friday, Sept. 25 at the Fox Theater in Oakland) are about heartbreak and vulnerability, with Herring often punching himself (or the air) and collapsing on stage in a pile of tears. With that ego disrobing comes the bold, undeniably original set of dance moves that helped rocket the band's performance on The Late Show With Dave Letterman around the internet and back.

"It's a way of expressing different sides of the ego. I don't know if that's weird but I realized there's a very different person I can be when I want to say something strongly with hip-hop and there's another person when I want to express myself through heartbreak with Future Islands," Herring says. "Life is a contrasting wave. We aren't always one way."

After spending years sleeping on floors (or in the van) while touring the world for $50 a night, Future Islands experienced a boom in recognition they had almost given up on ever seeing. The band's concert in Santa Cruz, a few months after Letterman, was moved from its original booking in a 100-person room to a 1,000-person room, and sold out — fast. As the Letterman clip became the most-watched musical performance in the show's history, each city was a similar story. Crowds grew, the press swooned, and festival slots opened up. The secret was out: Herring, known at the small, DIY venues the band frequented on tour for surprising audience members by looking directly into their eyes, had looked late-night America in the eyes and elicited a visceral response not due to a Big Bad Wolf costume, but because of an open and vulnerable performance few can manage.

"Performance is my greatest strength, but it's also my greatness weakness — looking for respect, seeking validation," Herring says.

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About The Author

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome

Bio:
Matt Saincome is SF Weekly's former music editor.

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