No Drama Here: Islands Just Makes Really Good Music

It’s irresistible: Your favorite band releases a new album, and along with it comes a drawn-out narrative about the recent trials and tribulations of whoever in the band.

It’s kind of like reality TV or gossip mags for the more self-aware or artsy crowd, to get a taste of the personal story behind some gritty break-up tune. After all, it’s a safe bet anyone reading this could name which Full House star inspired Alanis Morissette’s bitter BJ-referencing track “You Oughta Know.”

In any case, you’re not getting that from indie virtuoso Nick Thorburn.

“Every time I want to release a record, the publicist will have to say, ‘well, what’s the angle,’ ‘how do we sell this,’ ‘how fucked up is your life,’ ‘how sad are you,’” Thorburn says. “You hear it all the time in interviews where artists will talk about how they went through this traumatic experience. There had to be some selling point, and it’s fatiguing. I don’t know that any other artistic medium has to deal with this shit.”

Instead, you’ll find that Thorburn followed his own path. On May 13, 2016, he released two concurrent, but entirely disparate albums under the band name he’s been using for a decade: Islands. Where Should I Remain Here at Sea? offers a more expected bridge from past Islands work with sunny, guitar-centric indie, Taste is a departure into firmly poppy electronic territory.

Songs like SIRHAS?’s “Fiction” or “Innocent Man” feel familiar, with tight guitar licks and driving tempos, while on Taste’s “Charm Offensive” and “No Milk, No Sugar,” it’s clear that synth and bass are the focus, though both albums decorate the core presentation with intentional arrangement and polished production. Really, it was and always had been two albums that wouldn’t have made sense if merged.

“I’ve always had the interest in those two modes or styles,” he says. “I like the idea of having these places where I can say something a little differently or do something a little differently.”
Thorburn says the prospect of releasing one and then waiting to release the other, which happened with Islands records in the past, was “so boring.” Certainly, Islands isn’t the only act releasing music on their own terms nowadays — ahem, Frank Ocean — and Thorburn attributes the rise of distro-experimentation to a few things.

“Technology is a big thing. Digital distribution and streaming websites have made it easy for people to control their own output and how it’s heard and when it’s heard,” he says. “The pool also suddenly gets very crowded.”

Thus, the need for sob stories to distinguish. But, it’s a fallacy to assert that Thorburn’s truly prolific creative output in the past year or so, which he hopes folks can listen to and enjoy minus a melancholy mythology, is limited to Islands’ contributions. With an album more similar in style to Taste released under the moniker Nick Diamonds, as well as several commissions to score movies and the podcast Serial, Thorburn has continued to make music much as he has for more than 10 years (he deems it “historically, a very solitary experience”), while also learning to collaborate in ways he hasn’t before, incorporating criticism from directors and altering his music to fit the needs of a particular project.

“It’s obviously a collaborative effort, scoring. Oftentimes, there’s already an idea of what a director wants,” Thorburn says. “It is difficult and, to be honest, I do prefer to work in a vacuum and not have to answer to anybody. I much prefer that autonomy, but, you know, I gotta put food on the table and, you know, pay rent, so these are the compromises I have to make. They’re pretty easy compromises to make because, in the end, I still get to do what I love.”

You know, making music.
“It’s what I do for a living,” he says. “In the past, I was always sort of stockpiling material anywhere from a year to six years. I just had material piling up. Now that I’ve gotten slowly into scoring, I have less time for stockpiling actual songs … I’m very impatient and very scatterbrained would be one way to put it, I guess. I just really like the idea of producing as much as possible. Maybe there’s a feeling of impending doom or something, or my own sense of mortality where I feel compelled to produce as much as possible while I’m still physically able to — to stave off the fear, the great fear of death. That’s why I do it.”

Before making music a full-time gig 13 years ago, Thorburn says he was last working as a telemarketer in Montreal with members of then-up-and-coming bands like Arcade Fire and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, asking doctors to take paid surveys.

“Mostly, I was just goofing off,” he says. “All I remember about working there was just making posters for a show and designing stuff for the band, the Unicorns. ... I was a terrible employee.”

While 13 years making music as a job has Thorburn both “not asking questions” and “thanking — whoever” for the opportunity, a decade with the same songs can be wearing. He says that allowing himself as a touring musician to table certain songs, even popular, oft-requested ones, helps keep things from getting too stale or forced. After a while, even those tunes (“Rough Gem” being the target here) make their way back into the live rotation with new arrangements.

“It’s interesting to come at it with kind of fresh ears and a fresh perspective — not be too jaded or burnt out by it,” he says. “If it’s not feeling good, we’ll retire it — at least for the time being.”

Then, of course, Thorburn is also still a member of yet another side project, Mister Heavenly, alongside Man Man’s Honus Honus and Modest Mouse’s Joe Plummer. Fans of that perfect meld of Man Man’s delightfully bizarre intensity and Islands’ trademark genial DIY indie sensibilities will be happy to know a new Mister Heavenly album is “very close on the horizon” after three or four years of toying with new ideas whenever they found themselves in the same city. With Honus and Plummer, Thorburn says the trio can “conjure a song out of thin air,” but collaborating in bands (or at all) isn’t always simple.

“It’s a little trickier … It’s a little more work, because you have to be considerate of someone else’s creative input. It slows things down a little bit,” he says. “But you can be really rewarded because you can end up going somewhere you’ve never gone before.”

For Should I Remain Here at Sea? and Taste, Thorburn says collaborating with the rest of the band became a bigger part of the process than in previous albums, citing the talent of brothers Evan and Geordie Gordon (who are the sons of Canada folk troubadour James Gordon), as well as drummer Adam Halferty. While collaborating in Mister Heavenly and Islands offers the opportunity to explore new sonic territories, Thorburn admits he still looks forward to his time apart from everyone to create on his own terms.

“Alternately, I would love to just work in a dark room and never have to speak to anybody and just make my stuff and be left alone,” Thorburn says.

Islands is scheduled to play at Valley Bar on Tuesday, October 11.
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Heather Hoch is a music, food, and arts writer based in Tucson. She enjoys soup, scotch, Electric Light Orchestra, and walking her dog, Frodo.
Contact: Heather Hoch