For Islands' Nick Thorburn, performing live is just another piece to the creative puzzle. Formerly known as Nick Diamonds, he has fronted a number of acts starting with the Unicorns, his Montreal trio that began drawing a cult following after the release of their 2003 album Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?.
In recent years, however, Thorburn has dropped his stage name and worked with a number of musicians. He even showed up on "Bad Habits," a track from the 2012 split album by Houston's own Fat Tony and Tom Cruz, Double Dragon,. Now, fresh off a handful of Unicorns reunion shows, Thorburn is jumping straight into another Islands tour to support the band's 2013 album Ski Mask.
Rocks Off: How were your recent shows with the Unicorns? They went well! You know, it wasn't something we'd really planned, so everything about it was just a bonus. I think it made people happy, which was a very important element for us. It was just nice to get back into that mode. There's more levity to the Unicorns than to Islands, and I like to slip into that character and be a bit more prankish.
I think there's a darkness, complexity, and chaos. So we embraced the chaos to it and it was nice to channel that spirit -- punk spirit -- in a way. It's where we started; that was the origin. We kind of veered off into Velvet Underground and Ween, so it was good to get back into the visceral vomit.
If you could go back in time as 2014 Nick Thorburn and tell 2004 Nick Diamonds anything, what would it be? Oh wow, I don't know. I mean, I think I did mostly the right thing. I was good to people, but I was brash and driven, and I think that's important. Especially to anyone young and coming up -- for 99 percent of people on planet, what you want is not given to you, and you have to go take it.
Well, not from other people in need, but no one was giving me deals or a room of people to play in front of. That requires work and determination. I think I would tell myself to cool out and enjoy things a little more. But if it were something really specific, hmm. Maybe not sign to that shitty label in Montreal when Islands started, get a manager, and get my ducks in a row.
But I think I did everything okay. I'm just not sure what 2004 me would say to 2014 me.
You've distanced yourself from Diamonds in recent years. Yeah, I definitely did shy away from that character for years. But it was nice to feel reconciled and feel comfortable with my beginnings again. It was fun to switch back into him, but just because I like trying on the pants doesn't mean I want to buy them.
On the note of moving on, your work is really spread out over many projects, and I've noticed a shift in your music in recent years, especially after the Mister Heavenly collaboration with Man Man's Honus Honus and Modest Mouse's Joe Plummer. How do you feel all those projects have affected you? With every experience I'm collecting things from people. I guess I'm a rolling stone. I don't gather moss, but I do gather ideas from other people and other things that inform the music that I make for me, and that's what's most near and dear to me.
It's all a microcosm of life -- you should go through experiencing it. It's important to live and absorb, to be present, reflect, engage and have dialogue. To me, that's the meaning of life, so having other projects definitely helps.
But you're not just a musician, you're an artist in many ways, from writing to your cartoons. How does all of that play a role in your music, and how do you decide what will go into it? You know, I'm never too conscious of it. I'm never really calculating what I'm letting in or what's going to inform my output. I think I just keep an open and critical mind. It really changes from day to day, album to album, and project to project. I kind of get in my own head a lot, which I hate more than I like.
But current events just kind of have an affect on me. The world seems like a horrible place; this actually seems like the worst summer I've ever lived thorough, and so that even affects me in what kind of person I want to be, what music I make, and the books and movies I watch.
Do you think composing the soundtrack for Only the Young has affected your ear for writing at all? I've done a bit more scoring, and it's an interesting addition to the other writing. I mean, it's the same function -- you sit with a guitar or keys and play or hum, but it's interesting to do that and watch a visual with it while I let myself write the music.
It's a good tool. I guess it's a technique I could use it with my own music, but I definitely want to do more scoring.
Story continues on the next page.
Are there any new projects you're working on that you can talk about? Nothing official. I did a friend's short film, but it's not completed yet, so we'll see how that goes.
Between the Unicorns, Islands and Mister Heavenly, we get different sides of your personality. Is there any genre or sound you'd like to pursue through another venture, or possiblye introduce with Islands and/or Mister Heavenly? Yeah, definitely. I really like Krautrock like Can, Faust, and stuff like that. Then I definitely want to get more into rap production. Right now I'm working on something with El-P and Killer Mike; we've made recordings but there's nothing official yet. But I'd definitely like to continue that.
You relocated to Los Angeles a couple of years ago from New York. Has that affected you at all in terms of your mental state and how it translates creatively? I don't think [I'm] richer or poorer by moving to L.A. And that's in terms of my lifestyle and inward. I don't have many musician friends in L.A., or on a community level, so it hasn't changed how I make songs or how I put them out.
Maybe that's a problem; maybe I should move back to Montreal.
In 2012, we saw the release of Islands' most personal album to date, A Sleep & A Forgetting, and then we were introduced to Ski Mask, which has been described as the band's most "aggressive" album, which is never a word I would choose to describe Islands. In hindsight, how do you feel about those albums and their affect on future Islands releases? [chuckles] Future Islands. Um, I'm just ready to move on. The pattern with me is that once we've toured an album, I'm ready for the next thing. We've got four new songs trying out for size and it's a different flavour.
Ski Mask was great. The last two albums might be the best I've ever written, but I don't know how they relate. I don't know the tapestry and how it will all fit together just yet.
Sorry, I didn't realize I was saying "future islands" until it came out, but I'm glad you caught that. What do you think about those guys? I think their name sucks, but they're a good band. I think I'm a better dancer, though.
Islands perform at Walters Downtown Saturday night with special guests TEEN and Children of Pop.
ROCKS OFF'S GREATEST HITS
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.