The burgeoning pop maestro
talks his impressive new album, the heartbreak that inspired it, the curse of
Buddy Holly, and more.
BY RYAN REED
It’s no exaggeration that indie-rock outfit Islands have
sounded like a totally different band on every one of their first three albums.
They’ve played Arcade Fire-esque pop, complete with strings and mountains of
overdubs; they’ve gone full-out art-rock, journeying through weird, proggy song
structures and fractured lyrics; they’ve even stripped everything down to a
throbbing electro-pop core (2009’s Vapours). All of those sonic
reinventions came from logical places: When the band’s line-up expanded around
the time of 2008’s Arm’s Way, the resulting album took on more of a
rocking, full-band feel. The insular minimalism on Vapours came from mastermind
Nick Thorburn’s decision to strip things back a bit and overhaul the roster. But
with A Sleep & A Forgetting, the band’s fourth album, Thorburn has
plunged head-first into dreamy pop balladry and old-fashioned doo-wop – a shift
brought not from member shifts, but from heartbreak, identity crises, and pure
coincidence. (The current incarnation of Islands includes Evan Gordon and Aaron
Thorburn started writing A Sleep on Valentine’s Day
of last year, and in a full-circle twist of fate (or, perhaps, good marketing),
the album saw a V-Day release last month. BLURT recently phoned Thorburn to
discuss the dark inspiration behind his new songs – and the challenges of
writing as honestly, as nakedly as possible. But first, let’s take a look at
the insanely clever, skeleton-populated video for album track “Hallways”:
BLURT: Hey Nick! Where are you at the moment, and what
are you up to?
NICK THORBURN: Not much is going on. I’m about to get into
rehearsing, the rhythm of rehearsing. Right now, I’m just at my friend’s place.
The album’s coming out on Valentine’s Day. Are you ready?
It’s happening, it’s finally happening. The baby’s coming
So this album is very personal for you. A lot of these
songs (if not all of them in some way) deal with heartbreak, loss, and
loneliness. I hate to dwell on the past, especially when it might be painful,
but would you care to provide a little more info on what inspired the mood on
your new album?
I mean… (groans)
…it’s funny. I don’t know what way to provide more insight or context that
will make the record more enjoyable. I think the subtext – it’s such a literal
record. Some of the lyrics are so pointed, so direct, that I don’t know if I
can articulate verbally any more.
The stark emotional quality of the lyrics is very
powerful on this album. It seems like you’ve mostly moved away from more
abstract imagery in favor of the literal meanings of what you’re feeling.
That’s often difficult for songwriters – was it something that took some getting
used to, or did those words just pour out of you since that’s how you were
It was a struggle. I had to really push myself to avoid
using the tricks and devices I’d relied on earlier to really get to the heart
of what I was trying to say. It was definitely a struggle. I was in New York
and left New York after… a change in personal lifestyle and was floating for
a few months with nowhere to go. I had no direction, no home. And I ended up in
Los Angeles four months later and was staying with kind of a benefactor of the
arts – a patron of the arts, rather. This woman who was well off and put up
people who kind of need somewhere to stay for an undetermined period of time.
There was a piano at my disposal and a rehearsal space, so I had all these tools,
and after four months of just kind of spinning out of control, after leaving
New York, it gave me a chance to just stop and reflect on where I’d been and
what I was feeling. I kind of took that time to just go inward and… restore
The piano sort of dominates the mood of the album. Did
you know from the beginning that you wanted to emphasize the piano, or was that
just a situation where it was there and you utilized it, almost as fate?
Yeah, I think it was just there, you know? It was just
there. I’m not a piano player by any means. I can use it for basic
compositional purposes, you know, but it was there, and it was… it was
different. I’d been in this mode of writing while I was living in New York and
Montreal of writing with a guitar, an acoustic guitar, so I kind of needed to
break out of that formula, I guess.
I really loved the Mister Heavenly album ( 2011’s Out Of Love, cut by Thorburn, Man Man’s
Ryan Kattner and Modest Mouse’s Joe Plummer) and the whole
“doom-wop” idea that you guys were exploring. What I find interesting
about this new Islands album is that it sounds like plain ol’ doo-wop at times,
or at least classic pop in the purest sense possible. The two albums feel sort
of connected in that sense. Did one project influence the other, or vice versa?
There’s a connection because I worked on both, so there’s
definitely, in the most plainest sense, a connection there. But yeah, I think
they’re cousins in a way. I was in guitar mode on that record. Any time you
collaborate with other people like that, you come away with new tricks and
stuff. I never thought of that being the case [the sonic connection], but I
respect that. I appreciate that.
One lyric from this album that keeps sticking with me is
from the chorus of “Never Go Solo,” when you sing, “Now that I’m
old, where do my hands go?” What inspired that line (and even that song)
I don’t know. The way songs happen and lines and all that
stuff, it’s just kind of like being in a train at night, watching the landscape
pass you by. I get a glimpse of something or see something, and then it’s gone.
Shortly after it’s written, it’s kind of gone from my view. These songs are
almost as foreign to me as anyone else. I’ve heard them a bunch, but their
meaning and subtext is gone; it’s lost for me. I don’t know what I was thinking
of when I wrote that line. I can guess. I just imagine that feeling – I don’t
know I can’t articulate it. It’s kind of like trying to look up my own nose. I
don’t think I could identify it. But thank you – I’m glad that resonates with
you. It’s definitely using the idea of being in a band with the idea of being
in a relationship with someone else.
I’m very intrigued by the dynamic between music and
lyrics on these tracks. Lyrically, the songs seem to fit the heartbroken
feeling of lots of classic ’50s and ’60s pop ballads, where it’s a dreamy kind
of sadness, almost like the come-down after the initial sadness into some kind
of twilight stage. It’s past the grief and into this bitter-sweet in-between
zone, and the music is very consoling.
I like that. I think that’s a very insightful
interpretation. And I think people can interpret the songs in any way that they
want. It means something to them, and that’s important to me – that people can
have a personal relationship to the music and being their own feelings and own
baggage to it.
It’s funny how much of a departure this is from the
earlier albums. Were you channeling any specific influences?
That’s great if that comes across. I don’t know if there
were specific artists or things. There were the standard torchbearers: the
Motown family and the northern soul stuff. That kind of way of dissecting
heartbreak – the really emotional and personal and also at times very
You were forced to record the album quickly and with
minimal overdubbing because of financial constraints. These songs are
definitely not overcooked in terms of the arrangements. They’re very direct and
to the point, just like the lyrics are. How much of that was the result of money
issues and how much was intentional from the get-go…
I definitely knew that I wanted to make a much different
record. I wanted to make a record that was sparse and skeletal, really
fragile-sounding, minimal flourishes, not a lot of production design,
especially. So that was a thought going in, and our budget was low, and times
are tough these days, so we really had a constricted budget and we had to work
around it, but the great thing is that I was already kind of thinking in an
economical way because I wanted to make this really stark record. We had a few
weeks in the studio, and every day for two weeks leading up to that, we just
rehearsed and prepared, and when we got in, we were just really ready. We were
a tight unit. There were no additional musicians coming in, minimal overdubs,
and we tracked almost all of it live. We blazed through the album in like a
week-and-a-half. We had an incredible engineer. Evan and I, the other member,
produced it, so we kept it small and kept it really easy and manageable because
there were very few people working on it, and everyone was just working really
As an artist, it’s important to trust your instincts and
to follow your heart, as you’ve done on this new album. But when you were
writing and recording these songs, were you at all concerned about how Islands
fans might respond to it? It’s definitely less immediate than some of your
other albums. I wonder if that ever entered your brain during your creative
I don’t think it crossed my mind. I don’t think I can ever let
those sorts of things affect me. I try to go into each record with a real
stupid naïveté about previous material and treat it like it’s the first album.
This album is so soft and reflective, sort of in contrast
to your earlier material. Is that a concern in terms of how you plan on
presenting the album in a live setting?
It is a concern definitely. It is so much easier to play
music that’s upbeat and kind of danceable. I think people respond so much more
immediately to that in a live setting especially. So there is that challenge,
but we’re going to focus on this album, and we’re doing pretty intimate
versions of these songs. We’re going to have a piano at every venue, and most
likely, it’s going to be seated. It’s going to have this very personal and
direct sort of feeling. It’s not going to be like going to rock show. It’s
going to be like going to see a play or a movie.
One track I specifically wanted to ask you about is
“Oh Maria.” Your vocals are great on that one – I don’t remember you
going into a falsetto before. Also the lyrics in that song, and the line,
“If every day is a holy day, then today must be the day of the dead”…
Yeah, it’s kind of my love letter to rock and roll, I guess.
“Oh Maria” – Maria is Buddy Holly’s widow, and it’s about these
dreams about seeing Buddy Holly’s plane crash, being in the field with the
wreckage, and having all these onlookers crowding around her and running past
her. And the line “Holly Day” is such a weird specific trivia, but
when Mark Bolan of T. Rex was killed, he was driving a car and was killed by
driving into a tree. Allegedly, in the glove compartment, they found a little
button that said “Every day is a Holly day.” There’s this rumor in
rock conspiracy – not even rock conspiracy because it’s supernatural, really – that
there’s some kind of curse around Buddy Holly. It’s pretty intense – best not
to listen to Buddy Holly before getting on an airplane.
Yeah, that’s crazy. Finally, I have to ask about “Same
Thing.” It feels like the emotional climax of the album, so it’s very
fitting as the closer. The lyric “I loved a girl, and I’ll never love
again” is such a raw expression of heartbreak, and that electronic rhythm
almost feels like a heartbeat. That one almost had me in tears.
That was the last song I wrote before coming into the
studio. And it was kind of written at the depth of whatever I was feeling, very
despondent overall. So yeah, I was really in a low point and just the churn of
that song and the almost – the vocal take is just almost not really singing,
just kind of too bummed out to sing. (laughs)
Even though it kind of closes out the album, it kind of sets the tone for the
album. It’s sort of the centerpiece.