John Congleton Talks about Producing Future Islands’ 2017 Album The Far Field

John Congleton
John Congleton and cat | Courtesy of the artist

Ever since Samuel Herring writhe-crooned up a storm on his “Seasons (Waiting On You)” David Letterman performance, the media world has been abuzz with Future Islands’ lead singer mystery man. Rolling Stone wrote a profile piece on the band, calling them a “well-kept secret.” Pitchfork declared that Herring “looks like the guy picking onions next to you at Trader Joe’s.” The New York Times interviewed Herring on how his “Letterman moment pushed Future Islands to The Far Field”—the band’s latest full-length release.

But as much as people have obsessed over his on-stage antics, they’ve also come to love his emotional brand of synth-pop, on stage and off. With Future Islands’ 2017 album The Far Field out, we caught up with producer John Congleton (you might know him from producing St. Vincent’s 2014 GRAMMY-award-winning self-titled album, his production work with David Byrne, or for engineering "You Got Me" by The Roots and Erykah Badu). Congleton gave us a behind-the-scenes look at The Far Field, including his experience working with Herring, and his idea to invite Blondie’s Debbie Harry to sing on the song “Shadows.”

“Sam [Herring] is a deep guy; he thinks and feels in a unique way. Simultaneously an open book and a mystery to know him. I enjoy that.”

How was working with Future Islands on this record?

They were spectacular to work with. They’re an extremely tight unit, very insular, and very committed to what they do and how they do it.

What were some of the challenges producing The Far Field? How’d you deal with them?

They’re a tight unit, so it took a lot of effort just to get to the point of making a record with them. They are very protective of the sanctuary that they built and how they make art. However, they were more than willing to hear me out. In many cases, after talking about options, they wanted to do things in ways that felt most comfortable to them, which I can understand. I learned pretty early on that it was my job to just to put them in a comfortable space to be brave with their own decisions.

Many of Future Islands’ songs are about overcoming heartache. How intentionally did you try to produce the songs from The Far Field with their “messages” or original intent in mind?

When we were still flirting with each other about making a record, I remember saying something about how the music should reflect the lyrics in a way where it sounded like the music was happening in the narrator’s mind. Like a strange dream or something. I guess I kind of clung to that concept for the record.

Did you have many conversations with Samuel Herring about the songs? What were those like, and how did they inform the production decisions you made?

Yeah, it was always there. Sam talked about what the songs were about to me all the time. It was crucial to him that I knew what he was talking about so he could register if it was coming across to me in the performance—like an emotional barometer, which I was happy to do.

I was elated that he wanted to express that stuff. I feel like I'm always having to drag that out of singers and songwriters and even made to feel like I should be dubious about asking. Sam is a deep guy; he thinks and feels in a unique way. Simultaneously an open book and a mystery to know him. I enjoy that. 

What was it like working with Debbie Harry of Blondie on “Shadows?” Is there anything that was unexpected or unique about her performance on that track from a production standpoint?

Nah, Debbie is a rock. I knew she would come in and just destroy it.

I have the honor of saying that that was my idea. We had this song that Sam was one-hundred percent sure should be a duet, and as far as he was concerned would not make the record unless we found the right singer. The band must have gone through a squillion names, and it was looking like it was going to go pear-shaped when I thought of her. We had just finished the new Blondie record, so [Debbie and I] were talking all the time then, and I just brought it up to her.

I don’t think she knew of the band and just assumed these guys must be some old friends of mine and I was calling in a favor. She ended up loving the song—went on and on about how much she dug it.

The Far Field marks the first time drummer Michael Lowry recorded with the band in the studio. From a production standpoint, how do live drums contribute to the sound of the album?

Real big difference to me. It allowed us to record as a band as opposed to starting from a standpoint of overdubbing. I don’t think Michael’s importance can be overestimated. He’s a great guy and brought a lot spirit to the studio.

This album sounds particularly lush with the string and horn arrangements by Patrick McMinn. Could you tell me how closely you worked with him and how you took these arrangements into consideration when producing the album?

Not very. He sent ideas ahead of time on top of early versions. Right away, I could tell the band was about six trillion times more nervous about it that I was ever going to be. I’m definitely pretty fearless as far as pushing boundaries. To me, putting orchestration like that on a record isn’t too extreme, but to them it’s a huge deal.

The arrangements were solid, and I could tell their opinions needed to be sussed out long before I needed to inject mine. At the end of the day, they wanted to keep that stuff real conservative, whereas my instinct was to make it more bombastic, dramatic, and maybe even a bit absurd. They kind of [went with] "a little dab'll do ya," and I respected that!

Many people know Future Islands for Samuel Herring’s intense dancing on stage. Does he dance while recording songs in the studio, too?

I might have seen a little toe tapping once or twice. 

Did you use Neutron on the album or other iZotope products? If so, could you walk me through how you used them?

I’ve probably used Neutron’s Transient Shaper on every record I’ve done on Pro Tools at my studio. I positively love the thing.

I didn’t use any iZotope stuff tracking the record because we taped at Sunset Sound, but we mixed it at my place on Pro Tools, and I used it on the drums. I can’t tell you how much I love the ability to control the sustain in certain aspects of a sound while not even touching the other parts. To be able to open up or tighten only the top-end mid-range or low-end of a sound is a real blast. I totally love it. I love everything you guys make and use Neutron regularly.

Sign up for our Saturday newsletter below to receive the latest interviews with producers, mixing engineers, muscians, and more.