Nick Thorburn is someone you might call a shape shifter – he fronted the great indie guitar pop outfit The Unicorns in the first half of this decade then formed the more mature Islands in 2005. Since the formation of Islands he has had a folk side project with Jim Guthrie in Human Highway, a collaboration with underground hip-hop producer Daddy Kev in Reefer, and a currently hibernating (see below) indie hip-hop group Th’ Corn Gangg. With all of these projects, it is no surprise that Islands has gone through some transformations.The amazing Islands debut album Return to the Sea opens with the epic, nine and a half minute “Swans (Life After Death)” and continues with great indie pop in “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby,” “Rough Gem,” and “Jogging Gorgeous Summer,” only to end with the heartbreaking “Bucky Little Wing.” Islands second album, Arm’s Way, finds the band taking epic to a new level with many songs featuring sweeping string instrumentation and the album running about sixty eight minutes in twelve tracks. The album was not as well received for its unrelenting darkness, but it is still strong overall with tracks like “The Arm,” “To a Bond,” the eleven minute album closer “Vertigo (If It’s a Crime),” and the outlier on the album, the incredibly catchy “Creeper.”
Islands third album, Vapours, was released last month. Jamie Thompson, who was also in The Unicorns, rejoined the band after a one album hiatus and the album could not be more different from the band’s last. While the songs on Arm’s Way are intricately orchestrated with strings and last an average of more than five and a half minutes, there is not one track on Vapours that lasts more than five minutes and the strings are replaced with a more straightforward synthesizer and drum machine set-up. The album is lighter than the last and even features Auto-Tuned vocals on “Heartbeat” – while I rarely enjoy any use of Auto-Tune, it works perfectly in adding a layer of vocals to the song. From the beginning of “Switched On,” it is clear that this album is going to be more enjoyable synth/guitar indie pop. The new Islands shift is appreciated and no one could predict where they will head next. Nick Thorburn discusses future side projects and more below:
Have you seen, heard, or read anything that you would like to recommend to our readers (film, art, music, literature)?
I just saw the new Coen brothers film last night. That was pretty good. I'm reading Gay Talese's A Writer's Life, a life and times bio of Brian Eno and a short story collection of Flannery O'Connor. I have been listening to the best show on WFMU, the new Anti-Pop Consortium, the new Raekwon, Guilty Simpson, Fever Ray, Clues, and an incredible band out of Canada called The Magic who are so good, I filched them for Islands.
What is your songwriting process like?
The process is extremely consistent, which may mean it's time for me to shake things up. It involves me sitting with an acoustic guitar scrutinizing with belaboured detail every minute lyric and musical note until I'm content with the result. I'd like to try doing composition with more gear from now on- I would yield different results with a synth hooked up to a space echo.
You're new album is almost the complete opposite from the last in that it has shorter songs with far less instrumentation done primarily with synthesizers - what was the motivation behind the change?
Some of these songs predate Arm's Way, and in fact, one of them was written before the first album came out, so it's not a direct reaction to the critical reception or personal feelings about it. I already had this record in me, I was just waiting for the right time to make it.
Is Th' Corn Gangg still active?
Is hibernation active? We're on ice at the moment but there's always talk of resuming work on the project. But there's no rush- rap music is in pretty rough shape these days (LOL smiley face, ice cream paint job), so we might want to give it a minute anyway.
Do you plan on recording Human Highway, Reefer, or any other side project material in the future?
No definite plans but I'm always open to these sorts of things. One thing that has been floated around is Honus from Man Man and I making a record in a new (sub)genre we are developing, called Doom Wop, which is essentially low frequency, and extremely slowed down music atop traditional doo wop harmonies. Or something.
What else are you up to?
I finished my first comic book, called This is Howie Doo, which should be out in March on Drawn & Quarterly. It's a humour book, kind of akin to R. Crumb and Life in Hell.