By Michelle Macklem
Formed in 2005 after the demise of Canadian pop-punk trio the Unicorns, Islands rose from the ashes to become one of the countryâ€™s most ambitious and innovative bands. Releasing their debut albumÂ Return to the Seaâ€”a sprawling masterpiece that included everything from strings to rappingâ€”Islands quickly gained a dedicated following. Since, the band has released three more albums and each has been distinct from its predecessor, showing Islandsâ€™ continued metamorphosis as the band progresses. The lineup has altered significantly over the years although frontman Nick Thorburn has remained the architect behind Islands.
Most recently, Islands releasedÂ A Sleep & A Forgetting, which Thorburn says is a â€œmore stripped down and earnest affairâ€ than previous releases. Writing the majority of the album on the piano, it distances itself from the more guitar-based stylings of records past. â€œI didnâ€™t really know how to play the piano, so I got to sort of tinker . . . it was an experimentâ€”I was trying to learn by doing,â€ says Thorburn.
The new methods of songwriting came out of Thorburnâ€™s decision to leave New York and a painful relationship, and move to Los Angeles to pursue an artistic change of direction. Living with whom he called â€œa wealthy benefactor,â€ Thorburn had the chance to write new music with decidedly different tone and content. â€œThe production is starker and more direct, the lyrical content and the musical arrangements are as well,â€ he says.
While Islands may be associated with a brand of indie-rock that incites dancing,Â A Sleep & A ForgettingÂ is much more focused on music as a performance. On the bandâ€™s current tour, Thorburn says they wanted to play venues that were seated, although he finds fansâ€™ acceptance of this difficult to gage. â€œItâ€™s sort of unusualâ€”generally when you go to see an â€˜indie-rockâ€™ band you expect to stand and be at a bar and socialize. Weâ€™re trying to make it a more intimate and personal affair and really a performance.â€
Growing up in Campbell River, Thorburn has his roots on Vancouver Island, which resonates with the choice to call his band Islands. â€œMy bullies were hippies,â€ says Thorburn â€œthey had names like Spirit and River. They were incredibly cruel. I had a rough adolescence and it was kind of boring. But there were showsâ€”weâ€™d go up island sometimes to Victoria, Courtney or Comox to see these five dollar all-ages punk shows, and that was really a formative time.â€ Citing the lack of stimulation in his childhood as a part of his desire to perform and write music, Thorburn seems nostalgic for an era past, one devoid of a constant barrage of media and entertainment. â€œLyrically the first Islands record used a lot of maritime imageryâ€”I think that was formed in part on living on Vancouver Island. Although musically speaking, there wasnâ€™t really fertile ground.â€
As an artist living in the age of hyper-connectivity, Thorburn finds changes in the music industry, such as the use of social media to relate with fans, both unusual and alarming. â€œI think social media with regards to musicians is so inappropriate. Thereâ€™s all this over-sharing and it takes the magic away from it. You see how lame people are. Thereâ€™s no veneer of mysteryâ€”itâ€™s just all people being stupid and boring and unfunny.â€ With the Internet such a prevalent part of being a musician today, the continual issue of copyright and file sharing ties into the changes imposed on the music industry by technology. Thorburn says of strict enforcement of copyright: â€œItâ€™s draconian. A completely antiquated sort of scramble to save something in the most destructive way possible. Itâ€™s counter-intuitive.â€ While he doesnâ€™t consider free music to be a right of the consumer, Thorburn states that there are going to be changes in the ways music is distributed and obtained. â€œI think that itâ€™s inevitable that music will be accessible. If not free, it will be as close to it as possible. Thereâ€™s a currency thatâ€™s involvedâ€”people need to recognize the work and the timeâ€”but I think that the era of musicians getting paid gross amounts of money, disproportionate to other mediums of art, is ending.â€
Islands wonâ€™t stop making music in the near future. With his side project Mister Heavenly and the release of the new album, Thorburn doesnâ€™t want to take a break from performing, touring and recording. On the subject of a possible Unicorns reunion, he even says, â€œI would be open to it. Next year is the 10-year anniversary ofÂ Who Will Cut Our HairÂ [the Unicornâ€™s first and only album]. It would be fun, like getting back into some old pants.â€
Michelle Macklem is CFUVâ€™s Outreach and Promotions Coordinator and also hostsÂ Spiral Scratch RadioÂ every Friday from 3:30pm â€“ 5:00pm.