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 country’s most ambitious and innovative bands. Releasing their debut album Return to the Sea—a sprawling masterpiece that included everything from strings to rapping—Islands quickly gained a dedicated following. Since, the band has released three more albums and each has been distinct from its predecessor, showing Islands’ 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 released A Sleep & A Forgetting, which Thorburn says is a “more stripped down and earnest affair” than previous releases. Writing the majority of the album on the piano, it distances itself from the more guitar-based stylings of records past. “I didn’t really know how to play the piano, so I got to sort of tinker . . . it was an experiment—I was trying to learn by doing,” says Thorburn.
The new methods of songwriting came out of Thorburn’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 “a wealthy benefactor,” Thorburn had the chance to write new music with decidedly different tone and content. “The production is starker and more direct, the lyrical content and the musical arrangements are as well,” he says.
While Islands may be associated with a brand of indie-rock that incites dancing, A Sleep & A Forgetting is much more focused on music as a performance. On the band’s current tour, Thorburn says they wanted to play venues that were seated, although he finds fans’ acceptance of this difficult to gage. “It’s sort of unusual—generally when you go to see an ‘indie-rock’ band you expect to stand and be at a bar and socialize. We’re trying to make it a more intimate and personal affair and really a performance.”
Growing up in Campbell River, Thorburn has his roots on Vancouver Island, which resonates with the choice to call his band Islands. “My bullies were hippies,” says Thorburn “they had names like Spirit and River. They were incredibly cruel. I had a rough adolescence and it was kind of boring. But there were shows—we’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.” 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. “Lyrically the first Islands record used a lot of maritime imagery—I think that was formed in part on living on Vancouver Island. Although musically speaking, there wasn’t really fertile ground.”
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. “I think social media with regards to musicians is so inappropriate. There’s all this over-sharing and it takes the magic away from it. You see how lame people are. There’s no veneer of mystery—it’s just all people being stupid and boring and unfunny.” 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: “It’s draconian. A completely antiquated sort of scramble to save something in the most destructive way possible. It’s counter-intuitive.” While he doesn’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. “I think that it’s inevitable that music will be accessible. If not free, it will be as close to it as possible. There’s a currency that’s involved—people need to recognize the work and the time—but I think that the era of musicians getting paid gross amounts of money, disproportionate to other mediums of art, is ending.”
Islands won’t stop making music in the near future. With his side project Mister Heavenly and the release of the new album, Thorburn doesn’t want to take a break from performing, touring and recording. On the subject of a possible Unicorns reunion, he even says, “I would be open to it. Next year is the 10-year anniversary of Who Will Cut Our Hair [the Unicorn’s first and only album]. It would be fun, like getting back into some old pants.”
Michelle Macklem is CFUV’s Outreach and Promotions Coordinator and also hosts Spiral Scratch Radio every Friday from 3:30pm – 5:00pm.