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The Weekly interview: Islands frontman Nicholas Thorburn

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No man is an island: Thorburn, second from right, and his bandmates land at Beauty Bar this weekend.
Briand Guzman

When Islands last played Las Vegas, at 2005’s inaugural Vegoose music festival, the Canadian-born indie band was still six months from releasing debut album Return to the Sea. Since then, rumors that frontman Nick Thorburn’s previous band, The Unicorns, might reunite have hovered over Islands, but they’ve soldiered on, and in 2013 the group released its fourth album, Ski Mask. We caught up with Thorburn by email in the days leading up to his Vegas return.

I was reading your Twitter feed (@NickfromIslands) and some of the posts are too good to pass up. I picked out a few and was hoping you’d expand on them. What were you thinking when you wrote:

My next record “Music For Dumb Idiots” is gonna sell like hotcake gangbusters The majority of people seem to like the majority of the bad music that’s out there.

Tom Hanks It was Thanksgiving, and ‘Tom Hanks’ is another way to say, ‘thanks.’ As in, T. Hanks. I discovered this nugget at a pizzeria in Brooklyn called Vinnie’s.

My mustache is blond, but my heart is a brunette That’s all true.

My game is ridiculous :( I was referring to my ‘game’ in regards to talking to women. Ridiculous as in not good.

R Kelly calls tweeting “tooting” A reference to R. Kelly’s “Ignition (remix).” He yells out “tweet tweet, toot toot” in the song. It made sense at the time, but doesn’t anymore.

LA: your home to the dumbest people on the planet There are some dumb people here. I saw a lot of them on Halloween. Vapid, vacuous, scene creamers whose only goal in this life before shuffling off their mortal idiot coil is to trick themselves into thinking happiness lies in some kind of wealth/power/social status paradigm.

Tour is so so sad. Don’t ever do it not even for a million dollars That’s pretty self-explanatory. The life of a touring musician is intended for alcoholic narcissists. If you weren’t one before, the road will make one out of you.

Lately, I’ve seen you referred to by your real name, Nick Thorburn, but in the past you’ve been called Nick Diamonds. Why did you use a stage name and why have you more or less dropped it? Because I’m not 20 anymore, and Nick Diamonds is juvenile. I still sometimes use it, as something to hide behind. It makes sense as a “project” name, but not something I would ever refer to myself as to another adult.

You screen print and sell some seriously funny shirts at your web store, Iconic Celeb. Where do you get some of the random (and awesome) ideas for your shirts? I also saw that some got taken down. What happened?

I don’t actually do the screen printing. The company called Skreened does all the work. That might be why for every $25 that is spent on a T-shirt, I receive only $5. But it’s done well enough that it’s a nice little chunk of change. The basic concept is old enough, but seems to be the de rigueur ironic joke for the Internet. Putting accompanying text to something that is clearly not the stated thing. Duchamp did it well before me, in an inverted way, with “C’est Si Ne Pas Un Pipe.”

It’s become a fun trick to think of a person or a name that triggers something else. “Kevin Spacey” with a picture of Kevin from Home Alone (who wouldn’t have missed his flight with his parents if he wasn’t so spacey) and the vertically challenged Martin Lawrence with the text “Martin Short.” John Meyer with his shirt off and text that says “John Candy” and Billy Ray Cyrus on a beach holiday with the text “Billie Holiday.” There are many people who do a very similar thing, but I do it the best.

Islands feels like it’s stayed true to itself as a band while still evolving, especially on Ski Mask. A lot of bands seem to kind of ruin things after a while, usually by becoming nauseatingly radio-friendly. What is it that keeps Islands fresh?

Not knowing how to be radio-friendly, I guess. Believe me, I’ve tried. I naively assume every record I make will have some kind of traction at radio. “Hallways” comes to mind. That song is locked and loaded and ready to go … and yet? This will sound nauseatingly cliché and ever so trite, but I keep trying to write the best song I can. This might account for the Islands feeling fresh. I haven’t done it yet, but the songs I’ve written in the last few months feel like I might be getting closer.

On Return to the Sea, I feel like you can still hear remnants of The Unicorns, and that influence doesn’t seem present anymore. Have you intentionally worked at sounding different from that band—so as to not be associated with it any longer—or is that just the organic progression of Islands? I truly believe it’s an organic progression, but I would disagree that bits of what I was doing in The Unicorns haven’t made their way into the newer Islands stuff. I think there’s some songs on the new record that are indebted to what I was doing in The Unicorns. The thing is, in The Unicorns I was learning how to write songs and how to play my instrument. Trying to replicate that would feel forced.

What are some of the influences—either lyrically or sonically—on Ski Mask that are different from past records? I also saw you’ve been getting into a lot of Curtis Mayfield lately, and that it could influence your next album. Might we hear any new soul-inspired tracks on your stop in Vegas? I go back and forth on that. I’d honestly rather leave that kind of stuff to the pros. I will never sound like Curtis, and I don’t think I even want to try. It would sound unlistenable if I tried to imitate him. Islands have covered Ray Charles before, so it’s not like I haven’t attempted to sound soulful. Ultimately I want to stick to my strong suits but push that as far as I can.

Speaking of Vegas, it’s been eight years since you played a show here. Why’s it been so long—and do you like playing here? I usually leave the routing stuff up to our booking agent, and it just never seemed to happen. I’m not sure why. The last time I was there I saw a man bleeding to death on the sidewalk fending off ambulance attendants who rushed to his aid. That was strange. It was also Halloween night, and I wasn’t sure if people coming out of one particular room in a casino were Jimmy Buffet fans or just dressed as Jimmy Buffet fans for Halloween. And I may have purchased ecstasy off of a man in a trench coat in the Vegoose parking lot.

Any surprises on this tour? Built to Spill just played here, and their three-song encore was all covers. It’s too early to say. Maybe a new song? We always like to do a different cover for when we play live. I’ll try to stir up something fun. Maybe a Sinatra cover! Or Liberace!

I know most bands are in and out, but do you have any plans for when you’re here? All of the money that night will go on black.

Islands With Haunted Summer, Twin Brother. January 24, 9 p.m., $8-$10. Beauty Bar, 598-3757.

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Local and independent music lover Leslie Ventura found her passion for journalism as a UNLV undergrad, contributing to Las Vegas ...

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