​Islands' Nick Thorburn on Mid-Show Injuries, Reading Reddit and Almost Getting Kidnapped

The Exclaim! Questionnaire

"I thought it might look good, playing guitar with all the blood pouring out — and then I got really, really dizzy"

Photo: Jason Tippet

BY Matt BobkinPublished Jun 9, 2021

Since leading Montreal's mid-aughts indie rock golden age as a member of short-lived but still-beloved trio the Unicorns, Nick Thorburn has enjoyed a lengthy, multifaceted career as the bandleader of Islands; as a member of Th' Corn Gangg, Reefer, Human Highway and Mister Heavenly; and as Nick Diamonds. He's also worked as a graphic novelist and composer, having written the theme song for true crime podcast Serial.

Thorburn is so prolific, it wasn't until Islands announced their eighth album Islomania, due for release on June 11 via Royal Mountain Records, that they revealed that they had quietly (and temporarily) broken up after releasing two albums in 2016. We never knew they were gone, but we're nevertheless glad they're back.

What are you up to? 

Warming up the engines for the release of Islands' eighth album, Islomania, on June 11, doing the last bit of recording for the follow-up, writing the last batch of songs for the follow-up to that one, and putting the finishing touches on the record for a new project I started with Mike Stroud from Ratatat called T h e  C r ee m that is very, very good — if I do say so myself.  

What are your current fixations?

Putting coconut water in my iced coffee instead of water. In 2019, I discovered this place in Toronto called Ella's Uncle that had it on the menu and I've been doing it ever since. It's such an obvious idea, but I've never seen it offered anywhere else! 

Why do you live where you do?

Since 2012, I've lived in Los Angeles. Why I'm still here, I'm not entirely sure. I guess because at this point it's where I've made a life for almost a decade. This might be the year to shake things up, though. 

What's the last book or movie that blew your mind? 

I mostly read fiction, but I recently read a trio of books about the CIA's nefarious dealings with Nazis (The Devil's Chessboard), LSD (Poisoner in Chief) and Charles Manson (CHAOS: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties) and it's got me properly freaked out.

What has been your most memorable or inspirational concert (one you played or attended) and why?

Seeing Anti-Pop Consortium in 2000 in Montreal. They stood in a triangle formation, they each had an MPC and were triggering every sound live, all while rapping! They looked like a coven of witches! Hadn't seen it before, and haven't seen it since. It totally reorganized in my brain what performing live could be.

What's been the greatest moment of your career so far?

In January 2004, the Unicorns bought a van in the morning before heading out on tour. Five hours later, the van died on the side of the road. We rode a tow truck for an hour to the first stop on the tour, the Middle East in Boston. We arrived at the venue, which had an upstairs and a downstairs room, and saw a giant line snaking around the block. I was dismayed that we were competing with a bigger band. When I asked a guy who he was waiting in line to see and he answered the Unicorns, I realized we might have something good on our hands. 

What's been the worst moment of your career so far?

Where do I begin! Islands played in Freiburg, Germany, in 2008, and during the last minute of our last song, "Swans," I decided to get up on the guitarist Patrick Gregoire's shoulders to rip a little solo. Immediately, I came crashing down over his shoulders and landed on the shards of a beer bottle that he'd broken only minutes beforehand. I sliced the side of my hand open real good. I just stared at it in disbelief as the wound opened like a mouth. It looked like it was gasping for air! The band, unaware, kept playing, so I did as well. I thought it might look good, playing guitar with all the blood pouring out — and then I got really, really dizzy. I threw the guitar off and pushed my way through the crowd to the bar in the next room and held my hand up and said "ambulance?" and right away an ambulance came and a guy named Dr. Hammer rode with me to the hospital and told me all about some kind of German underground techno that he loved. He stitched me up real good and I went straight back to the venue, which had since turned into a dance party, and I tore it up on the dance floor waving my big old bandaged hand. I would say it was a great rock'n'roll moment, except I've never fully regained feeling in that part of my hand, so it's going in the worst category.

Who's a Canadian musician that should be more famous?

I'm biased because they're in Islands, but Evan and Geordie Gordon's band the Magic were so undervalued. Seeing them open for Islands in 2008 is the reason they're in the band. Their album Ragged Gold is a front-to-back jewel, and they have a song on it called "Mr Hollywood" that's an all-time classic. It's bewildering to me that they didn't catch on, but I'm sure that record will have its 'Donnie and Joe Emerson moment' in a few years. There's also this guy Ryan Beattie from Victoria — he has a band called Himalayan Bear, and before that he had a band called Chet. The Unicorns played a show with Chet in a barn in 2003, I think. He writes these really sparse, delicate songs and he's got this serpentine voice that slides all over the place, but really elegantly. I can think of someone in America who has a fraction of his falsetto but at least one Grammy. The world ain't fair!

What advice should you have taken, but did not?

Many years ago, I had a lawyer who warned me not to sign anything without him looking at it first. I needed some money fast, and I had someone pull the wool over my eyes in a major way. Lesson learned.

What was the first song you ever wrote?

It was a sad little song about my dog who had just died. 

What do you think of when you think of Canada?

Honestly, I think of this question! I've been reading this Questionnaire since I picked up Exclaim! at a record store in Campbell River in 1996. After that, probably the As It Happens theme song, and after that, probably just early childhood memories like going to Expo 86 in Vancouver and meeting the robotic mascot Expo Ernie but being way too shy to say anything and watching him ignore me and totally hit on an attractive woman. 

What's the meanest thing anyone has ever said about your art?

I was excited when Islomania was announced and was curious what people thought of the new single. Big mistake. I came across a Reddit thread about [lead single] "(We Like To) Do It with the Lights On" and someone said it sounded like "Bloodhound Gang and late-era Weezer" and now I will think about that comment for the rest of my life. When the Unicorns were starting out, I had this irrational fear that people might think we sounded like Barenaked Ladies, so I'm particularly sensitive to unflattering comparisons.

What was the first album you ever bought with your own money?

Maestro Fresh Wes' Symphony in Effect on compact disc, baby! I felt like the baddest, hardest nine-year-old in school when I listened to that record in my bedroom. Let your backbone slide!   

What was your most memorable day job?

Working the concession stand at a movie theatre when I was 18. It was the easiest, best job. I got to listen to music over the loudspeaker while people were in the theatre, see all the movies for free, and take huge garbage bags full of popcorn to my friends after work. I was almost kidnapped by a man pretending to be a big-time Hollywood producer while on the job, but I'll save that for my memoirs! 

If you weren't playing music, what would you be doing instead?

Drawing another graphic novel, writing a book and making movies! 

How do you spoil yourself?

I like vintage designer clothing and salt and vinegar potato chips.

What traits do you most like and most dislike about yourself?

I like that I have good follow-through with projects. I do everything in my power to see things through to completion. On the other hand, I can be a bit cynical at times, and have a bit of a self-destructive streak. 

What's the best way to listen to music?

As loud as possible, really. 

What do you fear most?

The end.

If you won the lottery, what would you do with the money?

Spend, spend, spend, as fast as I could!

What has been your strangest celebrity encounter?

In 2009, I was getting on a small plane from NYC to Toronto and realized I was sharing the flight with the guy who had just been ousted from Barenaked Ladies. I immediately felt this overwhelming sense of dread that the flight was cursed, the plane would crash, and that my name would be forever linked to Barenaked Ladies. I did not board the plane. 

Who would be your ideal dinner guest, living or dead, and what would you serve them?

Comedian and Brutal Knights singer Nick Flanagan, and I'd serve him flan, again. 

What is the greatest song of all-time?

"Spinning Away" by Brian Eno and John Cale has got to be near the top of that list for me. It's a bit "woo," and probably evidence that I need to leave Los Angeles, but I feel like I've always known that song, like it exists in a place outside of time. 

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