Even as a child, Joel Herring had a hard time falling asleep, so while the other kindergartners napped, he would lie awake at the elementary school in Newport, on the Carolina coast, singing the mid-80s hit, “That’s What Friends Are For.” It led to his first performance: At kindergarten graduation, he and his teacher sang a duet. Just a few years later, he got out of class to see his little brother Sam Herring — who currently fronts prominent Baltimore-via-eastern North Carolina synth-pop trio Future Islands — play the Big Bad Wolf. From an early age, the brothers were drawn to the stage.
“We’ve always kind of fed off of one another,” Joel says. “There’s probably a slightly competitive edge somewhere under there, but for the most part we’ve enjoyed being each other’s collaborators and audience members.” These days, Joel lives in Asheville, where he has performed in projects like Electronic Rap Machine and Plucky Walker.
The Herring brothers share the stage again on Sunday, March 13, at The Mothlight. There, Joel’s latest solo identity, Nervous Dupre, opens for Future Islands side project, The Snails. Three days later, Nervous Dupre plays locally again, this time at The Odditorium. Joel has toured in the past with Future Islands, both as the opening act and merch guy, but he’s anchored in Asheville. He’s been here since 1998, and the town has fostered the evolution of his intersection of hip-hop, drama and performance art.
And evolve it must: Joel holds himself to a high standard. “I was raised to believe that a band should bring a certain degree of spectacle to the stage,” he says. “I just don’t trust people who don’t have presence onstage. I doubt their conviction.”
Years ago, when Joel first debuted his Plucky Walker identity as Future Islands’ opening act at Asheville’s since-shuttered New French Bar, it was a theatrical solo rap show requiring four costume changes in a 20-minute set. There was a shifting narrative, too: Joel would perform as an academic who had uncovered Plucky Walker’s oeuvre, or as a street preacher delivering his war buddy’s eulogy. Over time, friends convinced him he was in danger of pigeonholing himself as a novelty act, so he shed Plucky Walker’s theatrical elements.
Nervous Dupre revisits the multi-character performance, though the strong frame narrative has been replaced with open-endedness. “Where the Plucky Walker songs allowed me to filter my experiences through a fictional character, Nervous Dupre offers an exaggerated version of my actual self,” Joel says. “This new work allows stories and ideas to splinter and fragment, to lose their way, to contradict themselves.” A lot of inspiration for the Nervous Dupre show came from Joel’s involvement with Toy Boat Community Art Space, in repeat programs such as Dance Off and Ten-Minute Movies. Expanding into dance and theater — and working with collaborators at Toy Boat — has helped Joel lighten up and bring a sense of play back into his music.
This isn’t the first time collaboration inspired Joel, either. In 2007 and 2008, both Herring brothers lived in Asheville. Sam had left Greenville, where Future Islands formed, and briefly lived in the mountains with his brother before moving to Baltimore. Joel’s old band, Electronic Rap Machine, had broken up, and he wasn’t performing much. “When Sam moved to town, he kind of lit the fire underneath me and tried to bring me into the fold,” Joel says. The brothers formed the rap duo Flesh Epic, which did the trick.
Their collaboration continues, both actively and passively. Joel was in The Snails briefly — for less than a week, he says — playing drums when the band still had a flexible, rotating lineup. And Sam’s dance moves, which gained mainstream notoriety after Future Islands’ much-viewed 2014 performance on “Late Show With David Letterman,” forced Joel to get creative onstage. The two share many stage moves, and many times Joel can’t remember which brother originated which one. He has to stretch his mind and think up new steps that Sam would never use, particularly before the brothers share the stage, as they will this week.
Joel welcomes the impulse to change his act — it’s one of the reasons he performs in the first place. “The thing is, if I haven’t been writing — if I don’t have new material for a show — I can’t help but feel on some level that I dialed it in, that I didn’t put in the necessary work,” he says. “The audience’s response can’t convince me otherwise.”
WHO: Nervous Dupre opening for The Snails
WHERE: The Mothlight, 701 Haywood Road, themothlight.com
WHEN: Sunday, March 13, 9:30 p.m. $10/$12
WHO: Nervous Dupre with Mister, James Linck, Mic Write and Jaws that Bite
WHERE: The Odditorium, 1045 Haywood Road, ashevilleodditorium.com
WHEN: Wednesday, March 16, 9 p.m. $6