Islands’ sweetly idiosyncratic 2006 debut, Return to the Sea, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Such a milestone would normally be cause for celebration, but band co-founder and former Unicorn Nick Thorburn (also known as Nick Diamonds) is struggling to suppress his ambivalence.
Maybe it’s because the singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer used to feel embarrassed by his debut as Islands, the indie-pop project he co-founded with Unicorns drummer Jamie Thompson in 2005 after the latter band split the year before. ”[Return to the Sea] felt a little precious, and it felt a little squeaky,” he says over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. “But I’ve come around. I’ve appreciated it since that period of time. It’s just a chapter of my life, and I acknowledge that.”
Even though the 34-year-old Canada native chafes at Return to the Sea, which housed a series of chirpy, at times epic, bird-on-your-shoulder songs like the anthemic “Rough Gem” and the clip-clopping “Jogging Gorgeous Summer,” it remains a favorite among mid-aughts quirk-pop nostalgists. When it originally dropped, it generated mainly positive reviews and even earned a coveted “Best New Music” stamp from Pitchfork. The accolades are something Thorburn, who has put out six more records under the Islands moniker with a rotating cast of backing band members, can genuinely appreciate now, which likely contributes to his decision to celebrate Return to the Sea with a vinyl reissue, out on Nov. 11, and two tour dates featuring the album played in full.
“Looking back, time can humble you,” Thorburn says. “And I’ve certainly been humbled in my time. So I feel grateful that I could make something that people could react to on such a personal level, it’s really beautiful.”
Paste called up Thorburn to talk about choosing to reissue Return to the Sea despite his fluctuating feelings toward it, reuniting with The Unicorns in 2014, and grappling with his need not to look back in the face of fan-born nostalgia.
Paste: Let’s go back to the beginning. Why did you decide to found Islands immediately after The Unicorns split up in 2004?
Nick Thorburn: There was a lot of momentum with Unicorns, I wanted to keep that going. I wanted to harness whatever interest there was in whatever it was I was doing and associated with and just kind of propel forward with that. I also had a stockpile of songs that I wanted to be Unicorns songs, and a lot of those ended up on the first Islands record. So it was a pretty smooth transition actually.
Jamie [Thompson], who’s also in Unicorns, and I decided we wanted to keep making music. We didn’t rush it, but we wanted to keep moving. We didn’t feel like we should just sit around for a year. With the Unicorns I’d been touring for a year and a half non-stop. I had nowhere to live, I had nowhere to be, I had no life, I had no personal life, I’d given everything to the Unicorns… and it had been, you know, taken from me, basically. So, the only logical thing I could do was to build a home to live in, basically. And very quickly move into it.
Paste: I read that for a long time you had less-than-positive feelings toward Return to the Sea. How do you regard it now, 10 years after its release?
Thorburn: I’ve sorta come around on it. For years I was a little embarrassed by it. I sort of shied away from it for a long time—often playing songs from it, it was mostly the production quality and my performance. Mostly my singing. I mean, a lot of the things that will embarrass me about my records are either the extreme earnestness of my records or the weird affectation, that I wasn’t sort of cognizant of at the time. I was just, you know, trying to perform. So I think I’d inhabit these different voices and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t.
It’s weird, doing the reissue and the reunion—the retrospective shows, or whatever—people are obsessed with nostalgia. And all of my songs, in some way or another deal with nostalgia. So it’s weird that now I put the spotlight on nostalgia, coming externally, like people looking back. I don’t know, I’m torn by it, because I do this shit and I sing these songs that are sort of nostalgia punctuated with a bit of grief and melancholy… But the idea of actually looking back on my work… to me, it’s dreadful. It feels like a wake or something, a living wake.
And then doing the Unicorns reunion was truly awkward. It was like pantomime. It was a nightmare. I don’t want to find myself in a place where the only way I can move forward is by looking backwards. I’m proud of the record, I’m proud of it, I did something, I made something, and people liked it. I’m grateful for that. But I don’t want to just be on this nostalgia train chugging around. I want to keep moving.
Paste: Then in that case, it sounds healthy that you’re only doing two anniversary shows.
Thorburn: Yeah, it’s a compromise.
Paste: It’s also funny because I caught the Unicorns reunion show in 2014 when you guys were at Barclays Center opening for Dan Deacon, Television and Arcade Fire. Though, to be honest, I felt that both the venue and the lineup arrangement was strange—that such a respected cult act would be somewhat relegated to the background.
Thorburn: Ah, thank you. Well, that was a screwy. We were supposed to be the main support, and Dan Deacon was opening, and then he moved to the ground in the center of the arena, so he ended up going after us, and we went on like a half an hour after doors. It was just like—the whole thing was a disaster. It should have been our moment. Like, if we are gonna do this precarious, vulnerable thing where we get back together and we don’t like each other and we’re putting all our differences aside to make music again, and we do it in this way that just didn’t honor it at all. We tried… I mean, I made a valiant effort, at least. I tried to make it fun and strange and silly, but… Yeah, I felt burned by the whole experience.
Paste: Strange as it must have been, I’m glad that you did it. I think the effort did not go unappreciated.
Thorburn: Well, thanks. The itch was sort of was asking to be scratched, and I would have been curious if I had never done it. I didn’t want to do it, and I kind of tried to weasel my way out of it, those shows, and I was kind of—my hands were a little bit forced. I don’t want to do it again, but I’m glad I got to know what it was.
I don’t think this [reissue/anniversary] is comparable; I think that Islands is a tricky thing, ‘cause it’s very nebulous, and the band has changed over the years. So we’re trying to do these shows to honor the past, but have one toe in the present. We’re going to do the record and bring back a couple people who played on the record and just friends over the years who’ve been a part of my personal and musical life and just try to make it fun.
Paste: I remember when Return to the Sea came out it got rave reviews, even a “Best New Music” on Pitchfork. How did you contend with the wave of approval, when internally you felt it was lacking?
Thorburn: Right, right. Huh. Well, at the time—it wasn’t like a violent arrogance, but I was so self-determined and self-assured that when the “Best New Music” thing came out, when things were happening, we were playing festivals and touring a lot, and there was accolades and stuff, it just—it seemed like the most normal thing in the world. It wasn’t cause for celebration, I didn’t stop and like, congratulate myself or anyone else, I just—it just seemed normal. It’s like, “Yeah of course, of course this is getting the recognition it deserves.”
Now looking back, time can humble you. And I’ve certainly been humbled in my time. So I feel grateful that I could make something that people could react to on such a personal level, it’s really beautiful. And even though I’m a little embarrassed by some of my work, as I move forward I look back, I bristle a little with some of the earnestness or the reaching that I’m doing on the record I made after Arm’s Way, I was really trying to break out of this box I felt like I was being put in, which was sort of a whimsical sort of thing. I was trying to beef up.
Paste: So why, if you don’t mind me asking, decide to reissue at all?
Thorburn: It’s purely logistical. We got the rights back from the label [Editor’s note: Return to the Sea came out on Equator Records] that put it out 10 years ago. I didn’t see a dime on that record. Not a fucking dime. So getting it back felt really justified. So that was a big thing, and so it’s like, “Okay, we have the rights back.” And it’s also it’s really hard to [find]. It’s out of print. I saw on eBay and Amazon, people were paying were paying like $200 for this dumb vinyl, so I was like, “Okay, let’s get the rights back, they’re reverting back to me, I’m gonna reissue it on my label so people can get it if they want it on vinyl.” That was the real impetus. Okay, well, “How do we put a cherry on top of this? Okay, we’ll play a couple shows to sort of commemorate it.”
Paste: Well, when you do perform Return to the Sea in L.A. and New York, are there any elements to the songs that you feel you’ve had a chance to evolve to your current liking?
Thorburn: Well, yeah, over the years we’ve occasionally played songs from those records. Half of them. They’re still in rotation. And they evolved—when you play a song for 10 years, it mutates and it changes and ideally it changes for the better, you sort of improve upon it, you streamline it, or you remove all of the parts that you kind of didn’t like before. So with “Rough Gem,” particularly, which is one of the more-requested songs in our catalog, I hadn’t played it for years and years, I think the last time I played it was 2008, or—yeah, 2008 or 2007, and we just brought it back this year. I realized I wanted to make it a little more muscular and a little less squealchy.
The record has a lot of synthesizer business going on. So I wanted to trim that so it’s a little more of a rock song. You know, it was originally a Unicorns song—it was gonna be on the next Unicorns record. So we kind of brought it back to more of that like lean arrangement that the Unicorns used to do. So on that front, it’s almost come full-circle. What we’ll do live I don’t know, because we’re going to bring in some string players and things, so it might return to a more ornate, synthy, stringy kind of arrangement.
Paste: When Return to Sea came out, I’m guessing fans were aware that many of its songs were intended to be on a Unicorns record that never came to fruition. To what extent did you try to differentiate Islands from The Unicorns?
Thorburn: I was so staunchly determined to make Islands its own thing. I remember—and it’s such a naïve way—December of 2005, before the record came out, we did shows in the U.S.—Columbus, or some, yeah, Oberlin College and like New York, we did the Knitting Factory. And I remember Chicago being really aggressively opposed to any kind of Unicorns mention in the Islands literature, the copy where the posters were going up. I mean, the whole existence of Islands was sprung from the Unicorns, and yet I was so aggressively determined to make it its own thing. I think I had to do that to protect myself, for self-preservation. I didn’t want to just rest on something I did in the past. I wanted to move forward, and I wanted to create something unique that stood on its own.
Paste: I imagine that you had many, many journalists asking you about The Unicorns in conversations that were meant to be centered around Islands.
Thorburn: Yeah! I did. And it made me angry. People still do yell out Unicorns songs [when I perform live], and I don’t think they make the connection. And it’s all a jumbled swirl in their head. And I try to keep that in mind and be considerate of that. For years it would send me into a tizzy, really, like I would get furious about it. Now I’ve sort of come to peace with the occasional flare up. But I understand that’s part of my history, the same way, you know, the first Islands is a part of my history, as much as I feel like I’ve grown from it. It’s still in me. And I do have to honor, I guess, that to some degree.
And it’s just like—that was 10 years ago, or 12 years ago, that was a lifetime ago for me, I’m still out here, I’ve made six Islands records since that first one, I mean it’s not like I’ve just rested on my laurels and I’m going around and just playing the older material. I’m really trying to push forward. I can’t expect everyone to feel the way I do, so I just have to adopt a more calm, tranquil outlook. Which is a daily struggle.