Nick Thorburn Picks His Five Best Songs, Including Islands and the Unicorns

He reflects on learning his own song from, living through his “wayward” era, and his assessment of what makes great pop music

Photo: Laura Moreau

BY Alex HudsonPublished Jun 19, 2024

When Nick Thorburn was 23, he worried that his best days were behind him. His beloved first band the Unicorns had just broken up in 2004, causing him "swirling anxiety" that, as he puts it to Exclaim!, "my life was over."

He needn't have feared. On Friday (June 21), Islands — the band that he formed in the wake of the Unicorns' split — will release What Occurs, their 10th full-length. In that 20-year span, he's also released solo albums (under the name Nick Diamonds), launched side-projects (Mister Heavenly, Human Highway) and notably scored the hit podcast Serial.

On What Occurs, Thorburn turns his focus to quintessentially Canadian power pop, recording live with his band in a single take in Vancouver Island studio. It's a more energized, raw rock 'n' roll sound than he's usually known for — and yet the 13 songs still sound distinctively like Thorburn, carrying the mark of a songwriter whose distinctive pen transcends whichever genre he's working in at the time.

Thorburn wasn't able to put his five best songs in order — both because his opinions change and because he's "philosophically opposed to hierarchical classification" — but he gave a chronological rundown of the five tracks that best show his songwriting abilities.

"I Don't Wanna Die"
The Unicorns
Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? (2003)

This is the first song by my first band from our first album. I just played this one on the recent UK/Europe Islands (duo) tour. It was the first time I've sung it since the abrupt, ill-fated Unicorns reunion in 2014, and the first time I've let those two bands cross streams. It's been fun to sing it again. "I Don't Wanna Die" manages to be both a simple, naïve tune and a sophisticated, avant-pop song. The chord progression is unpredictable and the time changes are unexpected. In many ways, it betrays a lack of prowess, but it also reveals my reliance on a "prankster" POV, as well as intentionally pushing at the boundaries of what was acceptable.

When I was relearning this song for the tour — shout-out — I was pleasantly surprised to meet my younger self. Enough time had passed that it seemed like a song from an entirely different person. I'd spent years distancing myself from those songs, so it was good to feel that sense of satisfaction. Sometimes you get it right, right out of the gate.

"Swans (Life After Death)"
Return to the Sea (2006)

This is Islands' mission statement. It stands as a theme for the band, and it opens the first album. I wrote "Swans" in the spring of 2005, and it's more or less a song about what it means to be free. It's also got a lot in there about death abd rebirth. It was borne from the swirling anxiety that, with the Unicorns having ended only months earlier, my life was over — at 23 years of age, no less.

Throughout the song, there are easter eggs referencing the Unicorns, and the main lick that kicks the song off comes from an early Unicorns tune called "Thunder & Lightning" that never saw official release. I wrote the rest of "Swans" sitting on a couch in the Outremont neighborhood in Montreal during a single 12-hour session, under the influence of magic mushrooms.

It's an ambitious song. I felt like I had a lot to prove after the Unicorns imploded. I despised the superficial assessment of that band as having a "quirky" and "whimsical" sensibility, and wanted to stretch out a little with "Swans".

Islands wasn't a real "band" at that point—more of a project—so Jamie Thompson and I had everyone in our scene hop on the track. Dan and Spencer from Wolf Parade lend a lot to the song's signature sound, with their needly guitar and driving piano, and we got to gather everyone together in the studio to jam on the outro. Years earlier, I had read Shakey, Neil Young's biography, and discovered that he would often push record in secret while Crazy Horse were still rehearsing the material. When we were running the coda in "Swans", and everyone was learning it for the first time, I had our engineer Mark Lawson, hit record on the tape machine to give it that unsteady, shaky quality from some of those early Crazy Horse albums.

"Vertigo (If It's a Crime)"
Arm's Way (2008)

The debut album was a critical success (Best New Music, etc.) and, from my modest perspective, a cultural and artistic achievement as well. Nonetheless, when Return to the Sea came out, I was still getting saddled with descriptors like "quirky" and "whimsical." It drove me up the wall.

With the second album, I made a concerted effort to go darker and heavier. "Vertigo" was the last song on the album, and, clocking in at over 11 minutes, I felt like I got a chance to spread my wings a bit and prove my muscle.

I had a band that was assembled to play the first record live, and we'd been touring for a year and a half solid by the time we entered the studio. It was a very good band with very good players, and we had a real recording budget, with ANTI- releasing in North America and Rough Trade handling overseas.

It felt like I finally had the infrastructure to take my music to the masses. What better way to do that than with a 70-minute album with the average song running six minutes! Very savvy business decision on my part.

"Vertigo" tops out at 11 minutes, and it's currently my favourite of that album. It's sprawling and restless in the way that "Swans" was, but the focus was stronger and the themes much bleaker. I got to take things further with shifting tempos, time signatures, and Steve Reich-inspired polyrhythms. The touring made us airtight, and, with our road readiness, we were able to knock the whole thing out live to two-inch tape.

We used to open our shows with this song before the album was released, and people that had shown up to see our Graceland-inspired songs were completely confounded. I loved that.

A Sleep & a Forgetting (2012)

"Yearning" is one of the buttons Islands tends to push. After my longtime relationship in New York ended, I was adrift, with zero desire to return to Montreal and no interest in sticking around the city. I was heartbroken and totally lost, and the concept of being stuck in between rooms struck a chord with me.

I chose this song because it's an efficient "pop" song with an effective — if simple — metaphor (a.k.a. what a successful pop song tends to be) and a very hooky refrain.

I wrote the song on a piano in Los Angeles when I lived for free in a benefactor's mansion (during the peak of my "wayward" era). I'm not a real piano player, so I knew I could only take the song so far. Geordie Gordon, who had joined the band for 2009's Vapours, was a stellar pianist and knew exactly what "Hallways" needed. In the studio, we did a dueling pianos thing, where we both sat at the piano bench and played simultaneously. I held down the low end while Geordie went wild, like Jerry Lee Lewis playing a saloon bar during a barroom brawl.

We also had a fun time creating the percussion track for this song, which involved us walking to a hardware store near the studio and buying a large sheet of metal and big metal chains. The stomp/clap effect was inspired by Simon & Garfunkel's "Cecelia," a great yearning pop song about inspiration and creativity.

"The End"
What Occurs (2024)

You think I wasn't gonna include my new single on this list? If I didn't think I could get better at writing songs, I wouldn't continue making music. Like most writers and artists, I'm always trying to find the best, most effective way to express the inexpressible. I say "find" because, oftentimes, songwriting feels less like hunting a wild animal and more like waiting for the wild animal to hunt you. You chase the song until it catches you, as they say.

We recorded the music of "The End" live all together in the room, and then I went into the booth immediately and sang the words, trying to capture the rollicking spontaneity reflected in the music. I've become increasingly interested in using songs as a vessel to tell specific stories and the narrator in this song is reflecting on a life lived and pondering whether they've done enough during their time on Earth. I'm proud of the writing on "The End." It feels like a culmination of everything I've done, and everything I've been influenced by, and I think that's all reflected in the music. But, despite the title, it's not the end. Until I feel like my writing's peaked, I'm gonna keep going.

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