Islands Arm's Way

Islands Arm's Way
Starting with Alden Penner’s departure from the Unicorns through to Jaime Thompson’s defection after the last album, Islands have been a band haunted by "phantom limb” syndrome. So perhaps it follows that Arm’s Way starts with the horror movie conceit of revenge exacted by the titular dismembered limb. Singer/songwriter Nick Thorburn lets his darker emotions flow through these stories of car crashes, night prowlers and imprisonment and, in the case of "J’aime Vous Voire Quitter,” dealing with his band-mate’s departure. Despite the heavier themes and denser rock sound, Thorburn wisely makes full use of his sextet’s deeply pliable toolset, most wonderfully the Chao brothers’ string sections and chorus vocals, to keep things from becoming turgid. Absent are the calypso/dub accents that buoyed Return to the Sea but long-time fans will rejoice to note the inclusion of "Abominable Snow,” a live set of Unicorns track that had gone unrecorded. Arm’s Way has complexity, both emotionally and musically, raising hopes that maturity can’t kill off rock (or fun) after all.

What do you hope the move to Anti- will generate for Islands?
Thorburn: The infrastructure from the bigger label I’m hoping will result in a larger audience and more records sold. The awareness level will be increased. Aesthetically it’s a nice fit too. There’s an identity there that’s respectable.

Is touring in the States due to Anti’s support, getting your name out there before coming back to Canada?
Really the reason we just did a tour was because we got asked to do Coachella and we were hoping to have the record out by this time, but it [the tour] wasn’t anything substantial. It was just us hoping we could have the record out by now rather than late May, and partially had to do with us getting asked to do Coachella and wanting to time it so that it would be out when we played that festival.

How was Coachella?
It was really fun. There were lots of friends that we saw… And there was a bit of a celebrity fuckfest too, an inordinate amount of celebrities. It was kinda ridiculous, I mean, Paris Hilton and Steven Tyler and shit just wandering around, being lecherous and goofy. But it was really fun, it was a beautiful spot, a lot nicer than I imagined.

Do you think you’ve found new ways of staying happy and healthy the more you go on tour?
I think it’s a weird relationship with the road, I don’t know. We just finished the other day and I’m pretty destroyed from some of the drives.

Is that even harder when you come back to Canada and it goes from being five-hour drives to twenty hour drives?
Yeah, it’s gonna be rough… But we did some serious drives on this last one, I mean, we were going from Birmingham, Alabama to New York and it was pretty mental. We had to get from Coachella to Lubbock, Texas. Those were some epic epic drives, but you just kinda fall into the routine. But yeah, I dunno, I love Canada. When I first toured across Canada I almost cried when I saw the Prairies, I thought it was so beautiful. We don’t get to play Canada enough, or as much as I’d like to.

Did the writing process for the album change after Jaime’s departure? Was it more of a solo effort, or was the band more involved?
It is a solo effort, and it kinda always was a solo effort. What Jaime really… Yeah, basically, it hasn’t changed that significantly, it’s just forced me to step my game up. Jaime… I have a whole different perspective on what happened with Jaime’s departure now. When it happened I was pretty sad and felt like it was a personal attack and I wrote a song that’s on the record that was about it. Because when Alden quit the Unicorns I was devastated and Jaime and I had no idea what we were going to do. We decided to keep playing music together… And then we he left I felt like it was really… Like I was being left… I was being abandoned once again, but really the way I see it now is that he was really just helping me transition into this. Because it’s the most natural feeling in the world where I’m at right now.

Going back to the song ["J’aime te voir quitter], given what you’ve just said I was wondering how you feel about that song still being on the album?
I’m sort of mixed about it. It’s a little harshly worded. But it’s how I felt at the time. It was an emotional… I’m pretty emotional and reactionary and I think I often shoot myself in the foot and put my foot in my mouth at the same time… So I end up shooting my mouth I don’t regret it, it just needs to be prefaced with the subtext that it was a time and a place that that happened and Jaime and I still have a wonderful friendship.

Recording "Abominable Snow,” something that dates back from Unicorns days, is it closing a door on that band or rewarding fans who have tenaciously held on to it?
Those are interesting ways to look at it, I didn’t see it either of those ways. Basically, it’s a lot simpler than that. I had that song. I wrote that song back… Yeah, I wrote that song about four years ago and I guess I couldn’t shake it. It wasn’t appropriate for the first record. It was actually the first song that Jaime and I recorded before we even had the name for Islands.

What do you say to people who are still nostalgic for the Unicorns?
I’m grateful that there’s interest there, but it’s definitely not where my head is at, you know? I respect and appreciate the… You know… I dunno… I don’t have any… I have nothing to do with that band anymore, emotionally or otherwise. So it’s like a vacant feeling.

On the Anti- website they describe a story of you writing "The Arm” after running off in the woods after the tour van broke down in a thunderstorm. I was wondering if their description is accurate or if the truth is a little…
It is! It is accurate. I mean, songwriting is always a mysterious process for me. I never know when it’s going to strike or what the end result is going to be. But that song really… There was something really unusual about the way it just came about.

There’s the figure of the car crash in other songs and even on the album artwork. Are there other incidents that the songs come from or is it just a synergy of ideas that keep creeping back into the writing?
Yeah it’s almost habitual at this point. I guess I can’t avoid them if I try, they keep appearing. Guess it’s my life’s work, I don’t’ know. Kind of morbid fascination with the end. (Anti)