Published Jan 01, 2006"Would a rose by any other name smell as weird?"
Islands' Nick Diamonds knows this will be the question on the minds for fans of his previous band, the Unicorns. As two-thirds of the Unicorns, Diamonds and fellow Islands castaway Jamie "J'aime" Tambeur captured the hearts of the North American underground with irreverent paranormal pop before imploding in December 2004. Resurfacing as Islands, their debut, Return to the Sea, is a far more ambitious take on postmodern pop that mines Caribbean rhythms and African guitars, cornpoke country and the Genre Formerly Known as Indie Rock, complete with fleeting quotes from the Magnetic Fields, Mungo & Jerry and Prince, sung with Nick's typically slacker boy blue vocals.
"There are a lot of musical elements that we wanted to incorporate," says Jamie. "Personally, there's stuff I wanted to do that I didn't feel I could do in the Unicorns. Whether we changed the name or not, it was pretty obvious that we were going to make a record that wasn't like what the Unicorns did."
Where the Unicorns' fashion sense had them pretty in pink, Islands are uniformly dressed in white: as white as the driven snow in their adopted hometown of Montreal; as white as a blank sheet of paper, free of any expectation or formula; as white as Nick's latest hero, Paul Simon, whose African-Americana album, Graceland, Nick will wax rhapsodic about with little provocation.
When the Unicorns split, Nick got a call from a friend in L.A. inviting him to a New Year's Eve party at Orson Welles' house. "I thought, Well, what else am I going to do except sit around and mope [about] the loss of this thing we were building here together?' So I put on my dancing shoes and went down there. I told Jamie it was better being there than being in Montreal in winter. He got on the next flight."
In a move that befuddled misguided indie rock purists, Nick and Jamie resurfaced at 2005's SXSW as Th' Corn Gangg, a hip-hop group with MCs Subtitle and Busdriver. "We were trying to get our heads together and our lives back in order," says Nick. "We'd just been completely derailed and broken apart. When we were in L.A., some of our friends there were rappers, and both of us had always wanted to make rap music. We were in L.A., it was warm, and it was a natural thing to make some beats. It's been a bit stunted by Islands, but it's still there."
Busdriver and Subtitle also guest on Return to the Sea in an awkward rap rock moment amidst otherwise breezy pop. Other guests include most of the Arcade Fire, whose pre-Funeral buzz was created when they opened for the Unicorns on a North American tour in the summer of 2004. Though the Unicorns seem to get zero credit for bringing the Montreal scene to a wider consciousness, Return to the Sea also features members of Bell Orchestre, Wolf Parade and Snailhouse.
"It was ad hoc," Nick explains. "We were anxious to make this record and didn't have time to recruit a band. It was more of a project, enlisting our friends from Montreal and getting them to join in. The album unfolded in ways that were mysterious to us. And it continues to expand, because we brought in all these new guys who are great except that they're all guys, which is a bit of a drawback. It's a bit of a sausage party. But they brought other ideas into the fold, morphing the songs even more."
So they're not hired guns? "No," laughs Jamie. "You pay hired guns!"