Islands in the sun

Islands are forever. At least that’s the domain name the band chose when they formed out of the ashes of The Unicorns ­— who apparently were not forever — in 2006.
With their second album Arm’s Way slated for a May 20 release and a supporting tour already underway, even if they can’t defy the limitations of time and space, Islands are certainly making a splash right now.
Three days before we spoke with Nick Thorburn, the fresh-faced frontman and lead songwriter for the band, Arm’s Way leaked onto the Internet. Thorburn was less than ecstatic.
“There’s a demand to hear the record, and technology is going to make it so,” he conceded in a phone interview. “And if Islands and Islands people can’t meet that demand, then fuck us.”
Blaming the entire industry for its wheel-grinding bureaucracy, Thorburn remembered — though not really since he’s only 26 — the glory days of his fellow Canadian rocker, Neil Young.
“You had Neil Young releasing ‘Ohio’ a week after Kent State,” he said. “He wrote that song about the shooting at Kent State, and a week later it was available in stores … we’re too slow.”
Of course, Thorburn is powerless to change the industry. But he can change his name — the last album credited him as Nick Diamonds — and update his music, which is exactly what he’s done on Arm’s Way.
This time around, the Canadian rockers’ sound is much more polished and pristine, the lyrics just a touch more jaded and cutting. The album’s underlying mood is the same as their first, but everything — the stinging guitars, the apocalyptic lyrics, the contagious melodies — feels tighter and more intentional. Islands cut out the fat.
Thorburn claims this is because “the songs were already there” in the band’s collective conscious; there was little fiddling involved to get them where they needed to be on the album.
“The mix was already in the performance, and it was really just a matter of fine-tuning and making everything just sing to its fullest extent,” he said.
Since the release of Return to the Sea in 2006, Thorburn has had to cope with the departure of nearly half the band, but the one that hurt most was the loss of his creative partner, Jamie Thompson, who had also been a member of The Unicorns.
The loss of Thompson meant that Thorburn had no choice but to come into his own as a songwriter. “I felt like I was really up shit’s creek and really felt wracked with self-doubt and was able to persevere,” he said. “And I think I needed that. Ultimately, I was better for it.”
Since then, he has moved from Montreal to New York, a city he calls “the empire, the center of the modern world.” It’s also the home of one of his biggest musical idols. When Thorburn discusses his influences, he sounds especially giddy on fellow New Yorker Paul Simon.
After the release of their first album, Thorburn said that Islands heard their fair share of comparisons to Simon’s Graceland album, which melded traditional South African music with a distinctly poetic species of American narrative.
“At a certain point, every interviewer was asking a question, ‘Why Graceland?’ or ‘What about Graceland?’ We said, you know, it’s not all about Graceland.”
Which prompts a question from us about Vampire Weekend, another New York band who have suffered (or brought upon themselves) the same circular Paul Simon association.
“I don’t even want to waste words or ink on that band,” Thorburn said, sounding like we struck a bit of a nerve. “They’re mining this rich African territory — African in the most general sense — but they’re singing about Louis Vuitton.”
“I don’t think we’re on the same creative plane whatsoever,” he added.
Of course, his self-described “hatred” of Vampire Weekend is not nearly enough to make him disavow Paul Simon’s influence on Islands’ music. In fact, the other night, he went to see Simon and David Byrne of the Talking Heads perform a retrospective of — you guessed it — Graceland.
One of the last songs on Arm’s Way contains the lyrics: “In the back of my mind / I want to do bad things / I want to be unkind.” What exactly is Thorburn planning?
“I’m not going to reveal that; it’s deep in the back of my mind,” he said. “You’ll know when it happens is all I’m saying.”

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