I was tired of talking about [The Unicorns] two years ago. I was tired of talking about it three months afterward. I don’t feel pressure to get back together with them, I feel annoyed talking about [getting back together with them]. It was a job I had. I don’t show up at somebody’s office and go up to their cubicle and say ‘get me a double cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato,’ just because that person used to work at a fast-food chain.
story by Derek Wright
photo by Melissa Trott
About two dozen questions into what would become John Lennon’s final interview before his assassination, Playboy writer David Sheff asked why it was “so unthinkable that The Beatles might get back together to make some music.” It was an honest question, one that Lennon undoubtedly had been asked a thousand times, and in 1980 there still was hope that the Fab Four might reunite. Until their split a decade earlier, music’s most sought-after draws always had featured individuals — Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, Little Richard — and there was a general hope that nothing short of a plane crash or bathroom heart attack could keep an ensemble apart forever. “Do you want to go back to high school?”, Lennon responded. “Why should I go back ten years to provide an illusion for you that I know does not exist? It cannot exist.”
Nick Thorburn is not John Lennon, and his old band, The Unicorns, is not The Beatles. But ask the 26 year-old Islands frontman about his former gig, and you’ll elicit a similar sentiment. “I was tired of talking about [The Unicorns] two years ago,” Thorburn said of his experimental-pop band that dissolved in 2004. “I was tired of talking about it three months afterward. I don’t feel pressure to get back together with them, I feel annoyed talking about [getting back together with them]. It was a job I had. I don’t show up at somebody’s office and go up to their cubicle and say ‘get me a double cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato,’ just because that person used to work at a fast-food chain.”
Distancing the band from the songwriter’s roots is easier said than done for the Montreal sextet. If Thorburn’s current approach to psychedelic melody was a drastic departure from his earlier work, it might be more manageable. If Islands’ feel-good harmonies and fuzzy, hook-laden songs didn’t recall the Unicorns’ lone proper LP, there might be fewer comparisons. But three years in, with a newly solidified roster in place and even with a second album on the way (Arm’s Way, due this month on new label Anti), the Canadians still find themselves fielding questions about their frontman’s past.
“It’s baby steps,” said Thorburn of learning how to write music with others again. “I’m growing as a songwriter. At first — in The Unicorns, or whatever — I needed the support of a band to develop. Then on the first [Islands] album, it was just a band in name only but mostly was me…recruiting friends to lay down some tracks with impromptu arrangements. But this new lineup is solid…and couldn’t be more fulfilling. Everyone had a hand in the arrangements of the songs on this album. I’m slowly getting acclimatized to being a composer, an orchestrator.”
Which is what some acts suffering from members’ looming histories have failed to do. An At the Drive-In reunion continually haunts The Mars Volta, and questions about Pete Doherty’s days in The Libertines follow his Babyshambles mates around every corner. However, Islands seems best poised to widen the gap with the past and withstand the reputation of their short-lived predecessor for one seemingly obvious yet oft-overlooked reason: the music is better than that which came before it. While those other acts move on with convoluted tunes that squash the memory of what once made them great, Thorburn and Company improve upon it.
That’s what Lennon failed to realize a few months before his death. People didn’t want him to “go back to high school,” they just wanted him to keep making music that was as good as it once was. Or, in the case of Islands, music that was even better.
Islands :: Logan Square Auditorium :: June 2 (moved from originally-scheduled date of May 13).