For a long time I was really sore about [The Unicorns] shadow and my musical roots. I really wanted to disown them a bit, but I’ve definitely learned to calm down and be less uptight about the lineage. I feel pretty at peace and lucky that I was able to have that experience.
story by Matthew Partington
photo by Aliya Naumoff
Touring across North America can be just about the worst dose of fortune imaginable for a band that is already on the outs. “It gets tedious on the road. There’s spurts of real pleasure, but also moments of sedentary boredom,” Nick Thorburn (a.k.a. Nick Diamonds) of Islands explains. Thorburn witnessed firsthand his former outfit The Unicorns burst into indie stardom about as quickly as their relationships fizzled, reaching an abrupt demise during their tumultuous tour in the autumn of 2004. Now in his fourth year with subsequent group Islands, the Montreal-born Thorburn has stayed busy during the summer months by writing a comic book, some short fiction and a batch of new music in his New York apartment on the cusp of an intense 6-week, 40-date Islands tour.
Islands are currently promoting the release of Vapours (released September 22 on Anti Records), the band’s third — and arguably most impressive — sonic outing. On Vapours, Islands sound more mature and diverse than ever, successfully balancing modest familiarities with bold new experimentation. The album’s titular track opens with Television-esque guitar solos, while “Devout” features synthesizer pulses reminiscent of Depeche Mode. “Tender Torture” and “Shining,” on the other hand, cathartically release into beautifully orchestrated choruses while “Disarming the Car Bomb” and “The Drums” are based around Islands’ familiar, catchy riffs of heavy bass and fuzzy guitar. Even with all of its creative venturing, Vapours grounds itself in the irresistible pop hooks, cheeky humorous jabs and child-like amusements that have become a trademark of Thorburn’s songwriting.
“I feel like I’m digging a little deeper for things that turn my crank, creatively speaking,” Thorburn says. “[Vapours] has a lot of influences and touches on a lot of styles and genres. But I love hooks and a good song, and I think people do too. I can never do anything too strange — there’s always a bit of cheek, something to flip it on its side.”
Ex-Unicorns member Jaime Thompson (a.k.a. J’aime Tambourine), Thorburn’s longtime friend and creative collaborator, returned for Vapours following his two-year hiatus during the creation of Islands’ sophomore effort, Arm’s Way (2008). “The only way to make the kind of record that I wanted to make was with his sensibility and approach to music,” Thorburn says. “It was great to work with [Jaime] again. It was familiar…and felt natural. He’s definitely a bro’ from another mother. That’s what the cool kids say, I think.”
Coming to terms with his Unicorns legacy was not the simplest of things for Thorburn, who now looks back at the experience with optimism and gratitude. “For a long time I was really sore about that shadow and my musical roots. I really wanted to disown them a bit, but I’ve definitely learned to calm down and be less uptight about the lineage,” Thorburn explains. “I feel pretty at peace and lucky that I was able to have that experience.”
With Islands, Thorburn has undoubtedly exceeded any creative or commercial feats reached with The Unicorns, releasing three equally worthwhile and unique LPs in four years. The Unicorns may serve as a notable starting point for Thorburn’s work, but not much more. “I didn’t feel 100 percent about what I was bringing to [The Unicorns] musically, but it’s still a part of me personally,” Thorburn says. Islands is Thorburn’s true vessel for musical expression, and the band seems set on continuing to develop and enrich that sound for the future.
So how does Thorburn plan to stay loose during Islands’ upcoming hectic tour schedule? With “a basketball, some weights, and stretches in the morning,” he says.
Islands :: with Jemina Pearl and Toro y Moi :: Subterranean :: October 15.