Islands in the Slipstream
Published Sep 26, 2009Even as Nick "Diamonds" Thorburn sits idly by, listening to his band-mates in Islands discuss their excellent electro-rock record Vapours, he projects a serene restlessness. Since the 2005 break-up of popular Montreal art-rockers the Unicorns, Thorburn has maintained a hectic schedule, initiating outfits like Islands, Th' Corn Gangg, and Human Highway to satisfy his eclectic musical interests and racing mind.
While Vapours is the most focused record of his career, it required some upheaval; Thorburn dismantled the six-man force behind the prog-rock grandeur of 2008's Arm's Way and brought in Guelph, Ontario-bred musicians Evan and Geordie Gordon of the Magic and, most surprisingly, former collaborator Jamie Thompson who abruptly quit Islands in 2006 during their first tour. "This idea of it being fluid wasn't an intentional M.O. from the outset of Islands," Thorburn explains. "It just happens that way and I embrace it. It's hard to manoeuvre without consistency but it's nice to be afforded the opportunity to make dramatically different records. That's important to me ― to be able to constantly try new things. That's why this record's largely informed by electronic stuff like drum machines, sequencing, and programming, which really scales it back from the last record."
If Vapours marks a departure for Thorburn, it's a greater leap for the Gordon brothers. For one, an eight-week Islands tour this fall means that finishing touches on their eagerly anticipated Magic album have been stalled. Ditto Evan's pursuits in obscure, powerful outfits like his reunited Sad Clowns and the fresher Skeletones Four. "My band was disrupted by the Magic and I've completely failed to make any new songs because now my mental energy is expended on these other people," Evan chuckles.
Being full-fledged Islands and contributing to Vapours stirred the Gordons from their home studio to working with producer/engineer Chris Coady (TV on the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) in New York. "He purposely tried to get in the way of normal processes, making us work on songs backwards or in different ways," Geordie says. "Like songs might start with Jamie doing a loop of some kind or drum machine, and everyone else might trade off on keyboards. There's a lot of parts that are exciting and it's happy; it's not a downer record."
Indeed, the cheeriest member of Islands seems to be Thompson, whose unexpected return to public performance is joyful news for Unicorns fans longing for the chemistry between him, Thorburn, and Alden Penner, who now leads Montreal's Clues. "When the Unicorns broke up, it was really hard for Nick and I because it came out of nowhere," Thompson recalls. "I think I went a little bit crazy with wanting Islands to work after that. I wasn't approaching it right; I stopped having fun and got into a bad headspace about it. Nick had come up with the idea for the four of us to make a record. I love these people and it just seemed like an amazing opportunity."
After years of varied experiences, Thorburn too appreciates how precious band dynamics can be. "With the beginning of Islands, Jamie and I were just trying to continue the momentum of performing, recording, and making a go of it. It can be really pleasurable, y'know? Not to say that it wasn't but, it wasn't for a time; we kinda ran ourselves into the ground."
"Sometimes things change," Thompson adds. "But right now, I'm in the best frame of mind for being in a band and going on tour. I'm excited and I think it's gonna be more fun than any other time."