Future Islands is a synth-pop band based in Baltimore that arrived on the radar of many fans after their 2014 appearance on the “Late Show with David Letterman,” where they performed their single, “Seasons.” Lead singer Samuel T. Herring gained a lot of notoriety for his dance moves and magnetism.
A few months earlier, the official video for that song debuted, and it was directed by filmmaker Jay Buim. Interestingly, Buim decided not to feature Herring and the band in the music video, opting for a narrative about love in the American Frontier. Below is a lightly edited version of our conversation with Buim.
3&L: How did you get introduced to Future Islands?
Buim: I think the first time I saw them play was maybe 2005-2006 in Brooklyn. They were opening up for Dan Deacon at Death By Audio, which was this incredible venue that no longer exists, sadly. That was a really, really special place and a really special time.
I just talked to them after the show and we started becoming friendly. I put on a couple of their early Brooklyn shows at my place or my friend’s place. We just became friends through that.
3&L: How did the music video for “Seasons” materialize?
Buim: I’d always told them I’d love to make a video for you. I made a video for “Tin Man” for them, and then for “Balance.” And I did a video for the song “Grease.” We just found that we had a really good working relationship, so we just continued to do it.
That was when they were self-releasing stuff and they were on Thrill Jockey. And then this opportunity came around for “Seasons,” which was a big deal because it was the first record that they put out on 4AD. They’re a band that works really hard. I think harder than a lot of other bands. And just to see them have this opportunity where they’re going to be on this label, where their profile will be raised, it was a really big deal. I felt the pressure. I wanted to do right by them. I wanted to make them something that could match the power of the song.
3&L: How did you choose the rodeo concept for the music video?
Buim: Well, that’s one thing I love about working with them – it’s mostly like, “Here’s the song, what are you thinking? What do you got? What is coming to you?”
For example, for “Balance,” when I heard that song, I was like, ‘I just want to capture that feeling of the endless summer, not wanting the summer to end.’ For “Tin Man,” it was more like examining who they are based on the places that they’re from and trying to capture that abstract concept.
And when I heard “Seasons,” I was like, this is just such a beautiful love song from such a masculine perspective. And at that time, I was just really kind of obsessed with the concept of like the American cowboy, like the archetype that exists in so many things. And I was just like, ‘Well, what does that look like in practice? What does that look like in reality? What does it look like when a man loves a woman?’
So kind of take that abstract concept and bring that to life visually. So that was the impetus for that.
3&L: Where was the video filmed?
Buim: We shot it in this town called Madill, Oklahoma.
Basically, I had this idea and I wanted to find somebody who would be considered a modern cowboy. And I wanted to spend some time with him, just filming him and their partner and just the way that they live their life. And I had no idea how to do it.
And I was talking about it to a friend at a shoot and another friend overheard and was like, “Oh, my cousin lives in Oklahoma and is married to a cowboy.” And that just kind of opened it up. And through that, they put me in touch with another couple, and then that couple couldn’t do it. And they put me in touch with the couple that ended up being in the video.
And I went out there and met with them. And then we went back and shot for about a week with them. We flew out there the day after Christmas and were with them for a week until like the day or two after New Year’s.
3&L: What was the budget for the video?
Buim: So the budget from the label was 10 grand. And I ended up putting a little bit more than 3 grand of my own into the video because I really loved this idea, I really loved the song, and I knew that this was a really big deal. For Future Islands, this is like their first video from the first song on their record on probably one of the bigger independent labels. I was just like, ‘I’m gonna put some of my own money into this.’
And that was to cover lens rentals and just the stuff that would make the video be as good as it could be. So we went out there, it was me, my DP, a camera assistant, and a producer, and the four of us just spent a week out in Oklahoma, just running all over the place.
3&L: Was it hard to persuade the couple to do the video?
Buim: I played them the song and I’m always just honest with the people that I’m trying to shoot with. And I have previous work that I can show them to give them an idea of what I’m about.
I was just trying to document a man and woman in love at a moment in time set against this backdrop. I think a lot of people – especially with the proliferation of reality TV – people are a little bit more savvy and I think they can sniff out when somebody’s motives are a little suspect. So I just try to be as open and honest with the people that I’m documenting before we get into it. It’s a privilege that I take very seriously, somebody opening up their lives to you.
3&L: What’s your favorite part of the music video?
Buim: I’ll tell you exactly what it is. There’s this really beautiful cut that just kills me every time I see it where (the cowboy) is doing a big circle with his lasso and it cuts to him then twirling his wife (2:46 – 2:50). And it’s just like that 1-2 shot right there – no matter how many times I’ve seen the footage or watch the video, it’s just every time I see that, it just blows me away because that’s the power of film right there. That visual poetry that you can only express with a camera. That’s it right there for me.
3&L: Do you have any regrets about the video?
Buim: No. You know why? Because this was one of those things – and it doesn’t happen all the time – but we had the time to let the story unfold. I think with a lot of music videos, everything is about just squeezing the most out of the shortest amount of time. And I just love that the way that we structured the shoot, we had the perfect amount of time to capture everything that we needed to really tell a rich visual story.
3&L: The video has almost 13 million views on YouTube. What’s your reaction to the popularity of the music video?
Buim: Well, to be a working musician is when you can just make your music and tour, and that’s what you do. And you can live a life off that. And Future Islands had been doing that for a few years before this happened.
It’s funny – I remember when I would put on shows for them in the mid-2000s and just trying to beg people to come out like, ‘You guys got to come to the show, it’s going to be really special. This band is incredible.’ And now it’s so funny where everybody’s always trying to hit me up for tickets to their shows now.
They’ve been the same band for so long. They worked really, really hard to build their audience, to build their fan base. It was only a matter of time. Because after that David Letterman performance, where they had that platform that they were able to have from being on a label like 4AD, it was able to explode for them in a way.
Because they had spent so many years on the road honing their craft becoming this powerhouse of a band. When those new doors opened up for them, they had been ready for so long for that opportunity.
3&L: Why do you think that there’s a decline in narrative-based music videos?
Buim: It’s because we are just inundated and bombarded with so much stuff, and it’s a lot easier for things that are visually clever to be the things that get passed around, because it’s something you can look at for 15, 20, 30 seconds and be like, ‘Oh, this is cool. I’m going to pass this around,’ rather than something that’s narrative-based that asks of your time and focus. There’s a lot more competition for people’s attention.
And that never really interested me. That’s not really the way that my brain thinks. I think my work asks of your time. It asks of your focus, and to a larger extent, I think that’s what narrative videos like that require for you to get what’s going on within them.
I just think it’s a tougher ask now that we’re just so saturated with so much visual stimulation everywhere we go. I’m guilty of it, too. I’m on my phone while I’m watching TV while I have my laptop open.
3&L: When you reminisce on the music video, what stands out to you?
Buim: One of the most beautiful things I think about all the time was just how welcoming everybody was in that community and just made us feel at home.
The church that we were filming in was a new church. There’s these people that go around America and build churches for free for people. And that was where we had filmed in. But before they were running the church, the family used to be butchers, and the old cowboy church was in their slaughterhouse.
So this family had been butchers for a really long time. And while we were there, they did a cookout for us one night and it was the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten in my life. I dream about it all the time.
There’s all different styles of barbecue, but I am a freak for vinegar, and they had made their own barbecue sauce that was just this mustardy vinegary sauce that I was like, ‘This is the greatest thing I’ve ever tasted.’ And they gave me two bottles of it. Like this homemade secret family recipe, and I took two bottles home and I was very happy until they were gone. This pastor of the cowboy church cooked me the greatest barbecue meal I’d ever had, and it was so beautiful.
Crew for Future Islands’ “Seasons” Music Video
Director: Jay Buim
Director of Photography: Kyle Repka
Editor: Rachel Webster
Producer: Neely Lisk
Assistant Camera: Rick Cook
Steadicam Operator: George Niedson
Colorist: Colin Travers
Thanks to: Shane & Breanna, Brooks & Brody McAdoo, Misty & Todd Cook, Greg & Michelle Jones, Clint Lindenfield, Shawn Runyan, Josie Hurn, Lacey Coover