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An Interview With Nick Thorburn of Islands

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Islands are playing the Henry Fonda next Tuesday. As your faithful attorney, I recommend that you attend. Their recent Arm's Way is one of the year's finest records and they put on a fantastic show. Plus, the last time I saw them play in LA, for their encore they decided to light Roman Candles on Wilshire Blvd.

Q: So how's the tour been treating you thus far?

A: It’s been good. I’m in New York and I just lost my keys and got locked out. But y’know it’s day only three, it’s awesome to go on tour, our show tonight is sold out and the crowds have been really nice and seem really into the album. Even if some people aren’t.

Are you referring to that Pitchfork review? [the interview took place the day after the review ran]. It seemed unnecessarily harsh and just off-base.

Yeah, it seemed a little vindictive. The Internet is a great leveler and it’s supposed to be a place where everyone can weigh in but what I don’t like about Pitchfork is that it’s this hegemonic, monolithic take on music criticism. But whatever, half those guys are like Harvard business school graduates. They’re not musicians, they have no real understanding of what we’re doing.

So have you left Montreal for New York for good?

Nah, just part-time. I’m living with my girlfriend here right now.

How do you like it?

It’s just such a huge place and everything here comes at you all at once. You feel like you’re in the middle of Rome. Everyone here has seen everything, everyone’s continually defying expectations and stereotypes. It’s just a lot of things to look at in a compact radius.

Sorry to have to ask the generic interview questions but now comes the ‘about the album’ part of the piece.

No worries. I’ve got these on lockdown at this point. The answers come out of nowhere. I think they rise out of my lower intestines. I’m like a shaman. All in 20 minutes time.

Alright then, tell me about the recording of Arm’s Way. To me at least, the band sounds like a more cohesive working unit as compared to the first record.

This was definitely a group effort. I would write the songs and while I think I’ve grown as a songwriter, the band has come even further. Touring just turns you into a machine.

It’s a very collaborative effort with regards to the arrangement. I’ll come in with a real skeletal structure and know what I want it to sound like and everyone will have a really great take and they’ll end up surprising me that we can take it to a place that I hadn’t anticipated. I’m always surprised and excited and you to have that in a good band.

You Talking to Me?

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Listening to it, you feel a sort of strong classical influence. Had you been listening to a lot of classical and set out to incorporate it in the songs?

I wasn’t. But the band are classically trained symphony type musicians and I might have been influenced by my surroundings. There’s definitely a real classical element to our band and it might have inspired me to draw things out give the songs space to breathe. It seemed appropriate to go there, we had the ability and we figured it was a good opportunity.

There also seems to be a fusion element to your sound, which seems to be a recurring motif of late, with among others, bands like Vampire Weekend mixing afro-beat to pop, No Age fusing ambient and punk. Is this something you’ve noticed?

I definitely think we hop around a lot in our songs. We’re certainly as much a product of this time as this time is of us.

You’ve also experimented with hip-hop in the past. When you sat down to write “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Whalebone,” did you ever stop to think that hey, wait a minute, I’m doing a rock/rap song, this has the potential to be completely Durst.

Not really. I’d say the difference between us and those bands like Limp Bizkit is that we have taste. The most important element is taste and of course, I know that it’s subjective, but I like to think I have superior taste to that shit.

How did you go about thinking about recording a rap song though?

It wasn’t calculated, it was out of a really honest desire to have Busdriver and Subtle on the track. Jamie and I had a project, Th’ Corn Gangg and they were part of it.

What’s the status of Th’ Corn Gangg record?

It’s on hiatus. Things are happening but not for a little while. It’s like our Chinese Democracy. [Laughs.]

How did you get down with those guys in the first place?

It started in LA actually. We lived in LA for a season, in Montebello, east of downtown. We kept it real in Montebello, a friend of a friend had a spot and we were hanging out. Murs, Busdriver and Subtitle came through and we got active in working with them. It was kind of a transition thing. “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Whalebone” was really a Corn Gangg song and it really fit with where the Islands’ sound was headed.

I’ve read that you’re a big hip-hop fan and saw that you were pretty pleased when Hood Internet mashed up your song with Bun-B

I mean I’m not wearing a white tee and I’m not trapping, but I’m definitely an admirer of the genre. I like trying to incorporate a lot of different types of music into our sound. I just wanted it to be natural and not schtick.

Were you always a hip-hop fan growing up?

Yeah. I mean I had pretty eclectic tastes but I definitely listened to a lot of hip-hop.

Anyone in particular you listened to a lot of?

I was really into Maestro Fresh Wes, who’s from Toronto and made a really great rap record called “Symphony in Effect,” with a great song called “Let Your Backbone Slide” that was pretty huge in Canada.

Your on-stage performance seems to have an element of theater to it, from the face paint to way the band interacts. How do you think this has an impact on the music and the art of performance.

I don’t know if that tension exists in the band per se but we’re certainly into drama in the sound. But no, I never took drama classes or acted.

What about the white face paint you’ve been wearing on-stage. I actually thought you were going for a Kabuki touch or something before I realized it probably was more Dylan/Rolling Thunder Revue.

It had been kind of rattling around in my subconscious and I thought it was a really good way to get into character and the spirit of things for our performance.

Thorburn in his Meiji Restoration Phase

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The album also pays homage to the Who’s “A Quick One, While He’s Away.” What was the story behind that?

It was meant to be playful, an homage or a redux type thing. Pop music is about borrowing from its predecessors. Dylan took from people. Bob Marley took “Spirit Up” from Desmond Dekker and that’s just the Bob’s. We can go down the alphabet, there’s a legacy of the dialogue in pop music.

Thematically, your lyrics seem almost obsessed with the concepts of good and evil. How often is this something you think about or is this something that just manifests itself spontaneously when you’re writing?

I’m beyond good and evil. Sure, I think about it at night, sometimes it’s political and sometimes its apolitical,

Have you ever given any thought to doing concerts to support any politicians?

I would probably do some stuff if I had a voice that people gave two shits about. I lack that viewpoint to protest. I don’t like to make things explicit. It comes off tasteless. I want a change but I’m waiting.

What bands were your biggest influences growing up?

In my adolescence, there were a few that I could cite, but I’d rather not. I’ll admit that I did have a thing for Jane’s Addiction, but I’m only admitting this because it’s for an LA publication. I liked their theatricality, the way they used different styles of music that could get hippies, punks, metal heads and rockers into one room. No comment about how I retroactively feel about that band. I was into lots of things, I grew up in a really small town and bands would come by and I’d have to drive to see them. I think my starting point with bands, my first show was a local regional punk band named Anthony Monday.

Were you a punk rock kid?

I was into punk by association. I didn’t live and breathe it. I had a pretty diverse musical palate. My parent’s had some good jams and old blues records and stuff like that.

Are there any misperceptions about yourself that you think the press have wrongly portrayed, and if so, how have they got the story wrong?

That I’m an asshole. To quote Larry David, there’s an an asshole confusion. People think I’m an asshole because I’m trying. They might conflate pretension with effort. I think things gets lost if you focus on surface interpretations or superficial assessments. I try to keep things layered…like a three-bean dip.