Interview with Islands: True To Form

Canadian trio Islands have combined their musical strengths in an effort titled Ski Mask. The 2013 release is a fusion of laid-back pop and rock, with an undercurrent that mirrors the classics of generations past. The group is a few albums deep these days, but this piece is the first full-length to be put out under their own label, Manque Music. Residing currently in L.A., they’re planning for extensive touring this go-around in support of the new record. Islands also have been featured on the YouTube network JASH in a short documentary exploring the creation of the current album.

The philosophy of letting the material come together naturally on creative and musical levels has remained intact as the notoriety of the group continually flourishes. Within Ski Mask, their fifth effort, simplistic foundations are found along with melodies of expansive nuance.

Islands have hit their mark creatively this fall. Shortly before the CD hit stores, frontman Nick Thorburn divulged to me the specifics of this outfit’s processes. The transcription is below:

How do you believe Ski Mask is the next step for Islands?

I just think it’s natural. I just think it’s only natural that we would continue to get deeper into it and develop a shorthand in our playing together, in our recording, and in our collaboration. I think it’s just a logical progression. It’s very natural. We’re not trying really to do anything specific, but make the best version of Islands that we can. There are many potential versions. It’s pretty open-ended is what I mean.

So you are allowing the dynamic that you have formed to take its natural course?

Yeah, I think so. Just let it run its course. That’s generally how I operate. Pretty laissez-faire, maybe to my own detriment, but who knows.

As a cohesive piece, how would you describe your latest effort to someone who had never heard you guys?

That’s a really tricky question. I generally have no way of answering because I’d much rather say something that people can relate to than what I think it actually is. We operate under the indie rock description, which I don’t feel any affinity with. I don’t think it applies to what we do. I don’t know what it is that we do. Every genre name sounds cheap. It’s kind of a losing battle.

Could you describe it in a few words instead of trying to label it?

I think it’s a look to the songs of the past, the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Maybe with a more forward sounding idea. More modern, obviously. Contemporary. Lyrically, I think it’s sort of unusual. It’s not standard fare subject matter. I think it’s pop. I love good melodies. It’s really fun to plan when a melody is very fluid and plus, I love to sing.

I just read online today that singing exercises the heart, lungs, and releases endorphins, so it physically makes you feel good.

I am happy to learn that because it always keeps me afloat (laughs).

Structurally, how was the single “Wave Forms” initially fleshed out?

I wrote that song on a piano. I demoed it, played it for the guys. At the time, I was living in L.A., where I had access to a piano, so I would sit and write every day. I demoed it pretty thoroughly, but without drums or bass. Then I brought it to the band and we just kind of jammed on it. I played it for them live, so we kind of rocked it out and were really feeling it.

Are you the primary lyric writer?

Yeah, I write the lyrics. Some songs, though, will be almost entirely arranged by myself. Some I’ll open it up for the arrangement to be collaborative because Evan and Geordie [Gordon], the two brothers within the band, are just incredible musicians. They are super talented, intuitive songwriters. They have a band of their own, which is terrific, and partly the reason that I asked them to be in my band, Islands. It’s not always the same process, but they are definitely a big part of it.

How do you get into the writing state of mind?

I try not to force it too much. I let inspiration have its way with me. When I’m feeling like I’m in the mood to write, I’ll sit down and write, but I try not to conjure it. I try to let it appear for me. We’ve been rehearsing the new songs all week, this past week, all day, and just playing and being with the guitar so much has just given me a lot of ideas.

Which song are you excited to play live out of the new stuff?

“Death Drive” is really fun and “Wave Forms,” too. We’ve only played them in our rehearsal space. Today actually marks the first day [of the tour]. We’re doing an in-store in San Francisco. I’ll know in a few hours! We’re going to do seven songs.

Has the California music environment at all rubbed off on your musicals style?

No, I really don’t [think so]. I think L.A. is terrific, but I don’t think my lifestyle has been affected or infected by it. It’s a great place to live; it’s very easy. It doesn’t inspire me on a creative level.

What has inspired you the most musically?

I guess the music that I grew up with probably has the longest lasting effect. I’m always still being inspired, always hearing new stuff, getting ideas from it, and being moved by it. Be it the Bee Gees or the Cocker twins, just rediscovering those bands, you know, like Cheap Trick or something, just sort of unlikely influences start popping up. I do listen to contemporary music, but I find it problematic. It always sounds so familiar.

Most of the time when I go in to make a record, I kind of shut the world out. I’ve got a couple songs that I’ve been collecting over the years and that’s kind of it. Maybe that’s to my detriment. I’m very closed-minded when it comes to the recording process.

That can be a positive thing because then at least you know what you’re doing is pure.

Right, I like to think it’s pure. It probably isn’t. Nothing is pure.

You had a listening party just last week at a wine bar. How did that go?

It went well. I was mostly outside. I don’t need to hear the record, but I could hear bass and drums through the wall. People showed up, so that was cool.

I’m glad people showed up. That’s important.

Yeah, that’s all I care about.

Your own material aside, what are you into at the moment?

That is a good and important question. I am always listening to The Best Show; that’s a New Jersey radio show on WFMU that sometimes plays music. It’s more of a comedy show. The new Man Man is good, the latest Jim Guthrie, god, what else? I draw a blank when it comes to lists. I’m always listening to tons of shit. I always do this, but I am blanking out. Steve Miller I just discovered. I always thought he was corny and bad, but it turns out he’s awesome. I listen to a lot of 93.5 [KDAY] in L.A., which is the back-in-the-day hip-hop station. Listen to a lot of that West Coast shit, lots of stuff. I’m trying to keep an open mind between writing and recording. Now is the time to soak it all in.

What are the not-so-distant future plans for Islands?

I would like to tour. We didn’t really tour that much on the last record. I’m not sure why we didn’t, but we didn’t. This record came out on my own label, so it’s kind of on me to promote it. I plan for us to hit the road hard and tour. I’ve already got seven songs written for the next record. Trying to keep busy.

Islands will play at Johnny Brenda’s in Philly on Oct. 17 and the Bowery Ballroom in NYC on Oct. 20. Ski Mask is available now. For more information, go to