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Islands' Nick Thorburn opens up about new albums, scoring Serial and the Unicorns

Melody Lau

Nick Thorburn may call Islands his main project, but that is far from his only project. In the past decade, the Canadian artist has flexed his musical muscles in multiple bands including Human Highway, Reefer, Mister Heavenly and in 2014, he even reunited his original band the Unicorns for a brief string of shows opening for Arcade Fire. But beyond that – yes, there’s more – Thorburn has extended his portfolio to include a short film, a comic book, poster designs and creating musical scores, most notably for Serial, one of the world’s most popular podcasts.

While extracurricular activities have helped Thorburn stay creatively busy, he returns his focus to Islands on May 13 with the release of not one but two full-length albums, Taste and Should I Remain Here at Sea? CBC Music caught up with Thorburn to talk about the process behind his two new records, his work with Serial and how he really felt about that Unicorns reunion.

Islands will be releasing two albums, Taste and Should I Remain Here at Sea?, on May 13. Was it always the intention to record two albums?

It was very intentional. I think we did both records in three weeks and they were done concurrently but segmented. We recorded Taste first and then we recorded Should I Remain Here At Sea? I spent about a week and a half on each one.

What made you decide to release two albums?

I knew I had a surplus of songs, but I also knew that they fit pretty evenly into two columns. So I knew I wanted to do two records and I knew that I wanted to do them simultaneously. I didn’t want to have to wait. I had done it before with the last two Islands records. For the most part, they were recorded at the same time and I knew they’d be separate albums but then there was a whole year and a half of waiting between albums so by the time Ski Mask came out I felt pretty removed from it. I wanted to try and capture and maintain the freshness.

That makes sense, but it is very unconventional to release two albums at once.

I had a lot of push back from members of my team. Not a lot of push back, but there was legitimate apprehension. I thought it was an interesting exercise because they’re not related. There’s no symbiotic relationship or anything.

But Should I Remain Here at Sea? serves as a companion of sorts to Islands’ debut album Return to the Sea, right?

In some way, yes. Some of the songs reflect on a timeline from then. There’s also a nautical them to it, which is sort of a staple of mine I guess. Just a device I like, I suppose. It feels like it’s a response to Return to the Sea, like catching up because the album came out 10 years ago so it very much feels like, ‘Okay, where am I now?’ with a little reflection on where I come from and where I’ve been and where I’m headed to.

How else do the two new albums differ?

Stylistically, they felt distinct. I had been demoing with drum machines and synths – I tried to get away from guitar as a song-writing tool – in a way it was how I started writing with Islands and the Unicorns, was with a Jupiter-4 synthesizer. So I was kind of getting back to that and those songs just had a more electronic feel, more groove-oriented but then I had this other side of my song-writing which was more of the guitar-based style starting on an acoustic and that became Should I Remain Here at Sea?

Both styles are very much a part of your sound and your songwriting, though, so it’s interesting to see you fully explore both spectrums.

That’s the idea, that I’m still centered in my writing and I want to still feel like I’m writing songs that are true to me and recognizably so, that I’ve got a sound. I don’t want to be limited just to one style; I like to be able to pivot a little.

Islands is your project but personnel-wise, Geordie and Evan Gordon from the Magic have been with you for a few albums now. How integral are they to the recording process?

They’re foundational to me. I couldn’t really imagine doing it without them. Those guys are brilliant. In the past, I was the one writing the songs and I would being them in sometimes after the songs were entirely arranged and it was a little bit wasteful because they’ve got such a unique skill set and musical comprehension. There are a couple of songs on this record that we finished together, though. I had the skeletal parts, maybe parts or chords that weren't finalized yet, and we did some writing together. The first two songs that were released, “Back Into It” and “Charm Offensive,” were those songs.

Are they still making music as The Magic?

They had to change their name because of that band. They don’t have a name yet, they’re tentatively “the Gordon Brothers,” but they’re writing new music all the time.

In your interview with Vulture, you mentioned three releases this year. Is the third one a re-issue of Return to the Sea or something else?

Well, I’ve got to locate those Return to the Sea files before I put that out. That’s the problem with moving around a lot over the past 10 years. I can’t find those files! So if I don’t find them, I don’t know if I’ll reissue it. It’s kind of devastating but I’m working on that. I’m just short of hiring a detective.

That third thing I think I was referring to is Mister Heavenly. We’ve been writing and demoing so we’ve got about an album’s worth of things. I think we’ll record before summer time and then it’ll probably come out next winter, like January of next year.

You’re involved in so many things – from Islands to scoring films and podcasts to even drawing your own comics – how do you prioritize so many projects?

I try not to overthink it, I guess. I live in a really creatively hedonistic life where, if I want to make something, I do it. It sounds so silly to say but that’s my motivation in life, is just to make stuff.

With so many of your projects, you’re often in complete control over the product so how does it work when you’re commissioned to do the score for a podcast like Serial?

I feel much more detached from that stuff. It almost feels like I’m just channeling something and when it’s over, I don’t necessarily feel a strong connection to it because it’s just a work-for-hire. I’m still proud of it and I’m pleased and honoured to have the opportunity to work on something like that but yeah, I kind of feel like it’s a different person working on that.

What is it that you like about doing those types of jobs then?

I guess the money, to be quite honest. As much as I love Islands and would love for it to be a full-time job, that’s not the reality that I live. So for that reason I need to take other jobs sometimes and that’s what it boils down to. I’m lucky that it’s still related to the work that I do, but it’s all an extra thing.

Does that work inform your music in some way, or vice versa?

I think it’s all tethered together. It’s all work that goes into the same pot. Working on the Serial music prompted me to make my solo record which I released last year. I liked the rhythm of working from home and on my own time, which is what I did for Serial, so that inspired me to keep going and make a solo record in the same vein. Not aesthetic vein, but the same process.

How long did it take you to work on the Serial soundtrack?

The first season I did quite quickly. I was about to go on tour with Islands and was also about to do the Unicorns show so I turned around a bunch of pieces very quickly. I mean, I work fast and I worked hard on it, but it was a shorter kind of thing. Then the second season rolled around and became a much more deliberate process so it took quite some time.

How much information were you given for the second season?

I knew the rough story, just like the first season. They played me snippets of the first episode. They’re making the episodes as they go along but they have a great mixing engineer named Kate Bilinski who lays in the music. She’s really doing a lot of the work. I gave them a library of music. I’ve been long finished with the show since it premiered so I’m out of the loop.

So are you just listening along to Serial like the rest of us now?

I’ve kind of dropped off. I’ve just been working on so many things right now that I haven’t really had a second to dive in.

You briefly mentioned the Unicorns shows, which happened almost two years ago, but I was wondering how you felt those reunion shows went.

It was a lot of things. It was intensely frustrating.


I was deeply disappointed with it, with everything. I think it could’ve been so magical and there were glimpses of it being really special, something that brought joy to people which was almost unbearable, in a good way. Playing the Montreal show and feeling the love from the audience made me physically dizzy. I thought I was going to faint from just how profoundly intense it was. I don’t know. I regret it. I’ll say that. I wish I hadn’t done it.

Was it because you guys opened for Arcade Fire and didn’t get to play your own shows?

Absolutely. I never wanted to, but ultimately my hand was forced to do those shows. It had been 10 years since we played a show and I think it was really significant. You only get to do that once, you know? And that’s not how I wanted to do it. The reason I ended up capitulating was that it would serve as a springboard to announcing more shows. When that didn’t happen I felt really disappointed that the Arcade Fire shows were the only representation of us in this era. It was a real drag.

Arcade Fire are an incredible band and they’re friends of mine and I was honoured to share the stage with them, but at the end of the day, it was their show and we were in the way a little bit. It just wasn’t the way to do it. It was a coronation, or it should’ve been a coronation for us. I knew it would be like that but I didn’t have much of a choice.

So the intention was to get back together for more shows and potentially new music?

Yeah, a new era of the band but there were internal disagreements and, ultimately, I killed it. I had to because, if not, it would’ve become something that I wouldn’t feel would be reflective of the band. I just really sadly had to pass on the shows and it was really hard and painful. The whole thing was painful and the Unicorns have always been. It’s better as a distant memory.

I’m sorry to hear that. I hope you got some joy from playing those shows, though.

I did. I had so much fun in that moment. You sort of just forget all the noise and all the bullshit and it was really fun. I just wish it had been different but I still loved parts of it and I’m somewhat glad that I did it but I would’ve much rather do it on different terms.

You’ve clearly moved on to many other projects since.

That’s where my head is at, just making new things; pushing forward instead of looking at the past.