One man is an Island

Nick Thorburn talks life as an indie pop professional

When I was a teenager my shitty metalcore band played a house show at Vancouver’s beloved punk shack The Alf House with a brand new synth-pop group called The Unicorns. It was a long time ago and I don’t really remember much aside from it being poorly attended and my band being a bad fit for the bill. Fortunately former Unicorns frontman and current Islands mastermind Nick Thorburn doesn’t really remember it either.

“I vaguely remember this house” he tells me. “It was on the east side right? Fuck. So scary that I kinda remember that but don’t really. There’s a lot I don’t remember from those days which is another reason I want to revisit it.”

Since The Unicorns dissolved at the top of their game 10 years ago Thorburn has had an impressive career in myriad projects. Most notably he’s released five impeccable pop albums as the frontman for Islands. Last month however his former Unicorns bandmate Alden Penner told Toronto journalist Vish Khanna that the band would definitely be reuniting for a new tour.

“It got out a little bit early — I was a little bit bummed when it got out” Thorburn says about the reunion talks adding that they’ve certainly toyed with the idea of a reunion. “I think that would be such a positive experience but we’re just not at that stage of discussion where we can make it work yet. And hopefully it will but there’s a good chance it won’t.”

In the time since The Unicorns’ dissolution Thorburn has proven himself again and again as one of North America’s top pop songwriters. In late 2013 he might have topped himself with the release of the band’s fifth album Ski Mask .

The record’s another pristine collection of top-shelf pop songcraft and sweeping sing-alongs — “Becoming the Gunship” has got to be one of 2013’s most criminally under-appreciated songs — but it was also packaged as an angry record. Or at least that’s what Thorburn said in the initial press release.

“It’s kind of the way I was feeling when I was being interviewed for the bio” Thorburn clarifies. “I don’t really feel like the record is about being angry at least not exclusively…. I’ve inserted myself into the narrative so much more I think and part of that is frustration and anger and part of it is just putting myself in the position of the villain in the story and being kind of the bad guy as opposed to just being this ‘woe is me’ sob story that I sort of channelled on the last record.”

Thorburn’s presence extended into the manufacturing of the record as well. Having fulfilled his contractual obligation with massive indie imprint ANTI- Thorburn launched a new label called Manqué. “I kind of wish I had just done it earlier” he says of starting his own record company. “Having the control and owning the record and definitely getting a larger piece of the pie just makes so much more sense to me. Because we’re selling comparable amounts of records as before.”

Though Manqué will stick with Islands releases for now Thorburn says he’d eventually like to start working with other bands as well. That’s not to say he doesn’t have enough on his plate — he says he’s 12 songs into the writing process for the next Islands LP and still plans to resurrect the Mr. Heavenly project he formed with members of Man Man. Outside of that he occasionally provides live music for his friends’ comedy shows at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles works on film scores and dabbles in visual art (I can hear him scribbling on paper while we talk on the phone).

“I try to be as productive as possible” he says. “I get extremely restless because I don’t have a regular job so I need to keep busy. One of the ways I do that is just by doing creative projects.”

That’s why a Unicorns reunion just doesn’t feel necessary at this point in time. While it’d surely sell out venues the world over it’d go against the constant forward momentum that Thorburn has achieved.

“I’m constantly learning new things and getting better as I do this” Thorburn says of his current status as a professional musician. “That’s the idea I think is that I’m improving… and I feel like I’m changing and I’m getting better and I’m progressing. It’s still all very exciting for me.”