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‘I’ll Take All of That Ya Got!’: The Story Behind Future Islands’ Legendary Letterman Performance, 10 Years Later

The band looks back at the night that changed everything
(Credit: Ben Gaffin)

“Ladies and gentlemen, we couldn’t be happier to have them here. Please welcome Future Islands.”

Late night TV is filled with memorable musical moments. Before Carpool Karaoke, TikTok, and whatever it is Jimmy Fallon is doing these days, late-night television used to be where you could create a name for yourself. It used to mean something. Before the Internet, TV was really the only place to convince an unaware audience to buy your record or see you on tour. 

In the studio that the Beatles and Elvis made famous, television and music history permeated the Ed Sullivan Theater. Musical acts stepped up for David Letterman. He gave R.E.M. and Pulp their American TV debut. And one night in March 2014, a relatively unknown band brought out the best in the comedy icon. 

(Credit: Ben Gaffin)

By 2014, Baltimore synth-pop weirdos Future Islands were very much still an underground act. Samuel Herring (vocalist), Gerrit Welmers (keyboards, programming), and William Cashion (bass, guitars) had been together for eight years, and had three albums of eccentric, gritty, danceable rock to their name and had played hundreds of shows. 

When I speak to the band this February, they’re in a similar situation as they were 10 years ago, having just released a great, introspective new album, People Who Aren’t There Anymore, and performed on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in the same Ed Sullivan Theater, ahead of a tour. Coincidentally, it was also the 18th anniversary of their first performance as Future Islands. 

Nothing changed the trajectory of their career more than their performance on The Late Show with David Letterman on March 3, 2014. “It’s a huge part of our history and a turning point for the band,” says Sam Herring. “It completely changed everything.” 

In the late winter of 2014, the band was gearing up to promote what became their breakthrough record, Singles. Carrie Tolles, the band’s publicist at 4AD, had seen the band live at Brooklyn venue Market Hotel a few years prior, and felt they were destined for something big. “Sam is an incredible frontman, and the band was so tight,” she tells me. “We were just like ‘we gotta get them on TV.’ It was like nothing we’d ever seen before.”  

When the time came to promote Singles, Carrie called Sheryl Zelikson, Letterman’s Music Director of nearly two decades. Zelikson had a good ear and eye for what makes a good musical guest, especially more established acts. For her, booking a relatively unknown indie band like Future Islands was a bit of a risk, but one she was willing to take. 

“I thought there was something very interesting and connective about the band,” she recalls over the phone. “I always felt late night TV—particularly Letterman—was an incredible place for discovery. Letterman is this very curious person. He likes music. Obviously, you want something that’s going to resonate and that you think Letterman and his audience is going to like.” 

Zelikson booked the band in February to get them on a March 3rd taping. Usually, Zelikson likes to see a new band live before booking them, but because of the quick turnaround and the fact that Future Islands weren’t touring, there wasn’t that opportunity. “I would get very involved in the song selection,” she explains. “It wasn’t always the single. It was the song that would be most connective and resonated with me. My feeling was if it resonated with me, it’s going to resonate with a broader audience. Initially, they wanted to do ‘Doves’ because it was a crowd favorite, but I thought that ‘Seasons’ was more accessible for TV. I really wanted ‘Seasons.’” 

The band drove from Baltimore by van on the day of the show, but when they arrived at the Ed Sullivan Theater on 52nd and Broadway, the doors were locked.  “It was cold. Very early, and very cold,” recalls Future Islands drummer and then-new band member Michael Lowry. Welmers agrees. “The sun wasn’t even up, and we were outside calling, and nobody was answering to open the garage. It was snowing, and we were sitting there in the dark and freezing in the van.” 

It was the beginning of a long day for the band, who would leave right after the taping to drive to Ashville, North Carolina for a show at the Orange Peel the next night. But how could you pass up the opportunity to perform on The Late Show? This sort of thing simply doesn’t happen for a band as green to TV as Future Islands. 

Sam laughs when he thinks about how inexperienced they were when they got into the studio. “It was weird—we got in there and people were just looking at us like we were crazy. And we’re like ‘no, we’re the band’ [Laughs]. We always toured with a decent-sized Mackie PA for the drums, a second JBL PA that ran Garret’s keys, and William had a big bass rig, And so we showed up and were like, ‘Where do we put our PA’s?’ And all the stage hands were like, ‘What is wrong with you?’ We didn’t have in-ears or anything. We were like, ‘It’s our keyboard amp,’ and they’re like, ‘No, it’s a PA.’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, but it’s keyboards, and this one runs the drums.’ They just thought we were fools.” 

Cashion elaborates further: “A lot of bands that came through The Late Show had their crew bring their gear in, and then the band just kinda shows up for soundcheck around midday. We didn’t really have a crew at that time, so when we showed up, it was like ‘wait… you’re just the band?’ And we were like, ‘Yeah, it’s just us, we’re here! Where do we go?’” 

They weren’t allowed to unload and set up their equipment themselves due to union rules and were scolded by the stage crew for trying. All they could do was wait and figure out what they were going to wear. “I was very nervous,” admits Cashion. 

Ben Gaffin, who signed Future Islands to 4AD at the time, says, “I wasn’t that nervous. I think we all knew that if there was one thing Future Islands can execute under pressure, it’s playing live.”

“I remember we went to a bar shortly before,” says Sam, “and one thing I did before that show that I haven’t done before any other late night performance since is I took a shot 20 minutes before filming. Then we ran back over. I was changing pants and shirts and deciding what to wear minutes before we went on. You know, the things that you do before a show.”

As the band explains, what you see on TV is exactly how it is live in the studio—Letterman used to run a tight ship. “They do give you the opportunity to re-record if you mess up,” explains Cashion, “but the vibe is like, ‘keep it going.’ I was just hyper-focused, like, ‘Don’t mess up, don’t play the wrong notes.’ Every time we play on TV, I get so nervous my legs start shaking. You can’t see it, but my legs are shaking while I’m playing.” 

When it was time for Future Islands to go on, Welmers said one of the sound engineers accidentally unplugged his USB cord. “He was standing on the cord and had pulled it out of my interface like seconds before we had to do this thing. I reached and plugged it back in just in time, and we got it going. It was a little nerve-racking.” 

Samuel Herring, Gerrit Welmers, and Michael Lowry of Future Islands perform at ACL Live on May 9, 2023 in Austin, Texas. (Credit: Rick Kern/Getty Images)

By now, you’ve seen the video

“Seasons” is a perfect song. Zelikson was absolutely right in pressing for it. It’s timeless and beautiful, with a chorus that reaches the heavens. Bands could spend years toiling away to create something half as impactful. 

To have “Seasons” in your arsenal is like a superpower, but you have to know how to use it. As great a song as “Seasons” is, it would be nothing without Sam Herring. There aren’t a lot of musicians willing to put themselves out there like he does during the Letterman performance. Not many people have the ability to hold an audience’s attention the way he can. While the band remains deadpan behind him, he refuses to stand still. He glides and dances in a low crouch, his feet constantly on the move. He growls and grunts his words with an unusual coolness. Like a maniacal preacher, he reaches emphatically to the sky and pounds his chest so hard you can hear the thump. He licks his hands then throws the chorus with a violent uppercut of his fist. As the song nears its climax, he lets out a guttural yell, arms stretched out as if to reach right through the television. It’s an exclamation point on a perfect performance. 

When the song fades out, the first sound you hear before the applause from the audience is David Letterman himself, with the room mics picking up his reaction before the volume can be turned up on his mic: “Oh, buddy, come on!” he exclaims as he walks over to greet the band. Letterman shakes Herring’s hand, and turns to his Late Show bandleader Paul Shaffer, laughing as if he can’t believe what he just saw before gleefully proclaiming, “I’ll take all of that ya got!” 

Sometimes the best performances are unexpected, and it’s clear by Dave’s reaction he wasn’t expecting that at all. 

Zelikson was in the sound room, in case something didn’t sound right and needed to be edited later. As she was watching, she admits she was a little nervous. “My first instinct was, ‘Am I in a little bit of trouble?’” she laughs, “but when I saw Dave walk over and saw his reaction to it, I knew he was really tickled by it. He genuinely liked it. It was really authentic.” 

The Late Show band’s drummer, Anton Fig, watched the performance from his drums on the side of the stage, unsure of what he was witnessing. “I just remember he was kind of dramatic in his delivery,” he tells me. “He had a weird dancing style. I remember a crouchy, twisty sort of dancing. His performance was theatrical and strange-looking but original.”

Herring and the band performing during Live 105’s Not So Silent Night at Oracle Arena on December 12, 2014 in Oakland, California. (Credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

“I kinda blacked out within the moment,” says Herring. “It was Dave’s voice that woke me up. That’s what brought me up, with the lights up and he’s shaking my hand. Yeah, it was a crazy moment. It wasn’t until later I was like, ‘I think that went ok. Did that go OK?’”

“All the crew afterwards were like, ‘You guys were fucking awesome!’” remembers Michael Lowry, with amusement in his voice. “And we were like, ‘Really? It didn’t seem that insane.’ We had definitely toned it down [Laughs].”  

Sam agrees—he was trying to hold back a little bit. “I wasn’t even turned on,” he says.” I was trying to not be too much, and honestly I think that’s one of the reasons it actually hit.” 

As for the dancing? “That was still kind of new, just like finding movement. I was just trying to activate space. I’m always trying to activate space and do something. When it’s encapsulated on a television, those big hits? I can still watch that and think ‘that’s powerful’ and appreciate it.”

They left the studio around 6 p.m. but didn’t get to Baltimore until well past the time The Late Show was set to air at 11:35 p.m. And they still had three-plus hours to go to Richmond, Virginia, where they’d spend the night before making their way to western North Carolina. When they reached Baltimore, the question was: Keep going or find somewhere to watch yourself slay on Letterman?

“I was like we need to see the performance,” Cashion remembers, “but some of us were like, ‘No we gotta get on the road, we don’t have time for this.’ We were driving out of town and right at the last minute, and Sam—who was driving—pulled over to the Mount Royal Tavern in Baltimore. We go in and tell them to turn on the TV, that we’re going to be on.” 

Sam laughs. “They were like ‘Oh you’re on TV? Sure, whatever.’” Lowry adds, “This is a famous Baltimore, like, not-give-a-fuck bar [Laughs]. They don’t give a fuck about you in this bar.”

Cashion says: “So they turned on the channel, and the commercials were on. When it came back, there’s Dave saying, ‘Here’s Future Islands.’ We were just in time to see it. And we thought it was pretty good. The people in the bar were like ‘Well shit, that was you guys.’”

Future Islands perform at the “Field Day Festival” in Victoria Park. (Credit: rune hellestad/Corbis via Getty Images)

Word about the performance spread like wildfire overnight. The Internet was fired up with Future Islands and their insane Letterman spot. Chris Martin tweeted about it. Bono called “Seasons” a “miracle” and sent the band Guinness as a congratulatory gift. 

Anton Fig remembers other bands coming up to him months after the performance to talk to him about Future Islands: “On the final Letterman show, the Foo Fighters came on and I ended up talking to Taylor Hawkins for a long time at the after party, and at some point, he goes ‘Dude, what about Future Islands?’ Apparently, the band had been watching the video on the bus or whatever at length and really studied it.” 

The day after Future Islands appeared  on his show, Letterman wouldn’t stop talking about it, turning the video of Sam dancing into a meme of sorts. Letterman’s reaction was a major reason why the clip went viral. 

“I grew up watching Letterman—it’s such a part of my youth,” says Sam. “Letterman has seen a bazillion people play that show, and to impress someone who has seen it all before is a good feeling.” 

A few weeks later the band played SXSW, and their shows were a reminder that they weren’t just some one-off meme. “The band became an ‘overnight success’ 10 years in the making,” explains Carrie Tolles. “They had been grinding it out on the road for years. It’s not like they went on Letterman and did something they weren’t doing every night.” 

Sam admits it took years for him and the band to come to terms with the appearance. “The shows were getting bigger, but it also affected the workload and the responsibility we had and the way we made music going forward. I think that amount of work and spotlight affected us negatively for a while, but ultimately it was very positive.”

“It’s very rare, and it probably could never happen again in that way, that a band can become so celebrated while having not been exposed at all to mainstream media previously,” Gaffin says.

A few weeks after Future Islands appeared on his show, Letterman announced he would be retiring. During the final months of The Late Show in 2015, certain acts were invited back to perform, including Tracey Chapman, Eddie Vedder, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and Foo Fighters. Future Islands were invited back that April, not only because Dave liked them but, as Sheryl Zelikson told me, the band were “very important to the history of the show.” 

This time when Future Islands arrived, they were greeted with a hero’s welcome by the same crew who a year earlier gave them shit for bringing their own PAs. On that final Letterman performance, the band played a new single “The Chase.” “You’re gonna love these guys,” Letterman said, introducing them. Future Islands delivered another impassioned performance, because that’s just what they do. And while they couldn’t surprise Letterman this time, it was a victory lap for a band who cemented their place among the greats of late-night TV.