Islands – In and Out Of Arm’s Way

Saturday, 23 August 2008

It has often been said that the best art tends to be borne of frustrating or generally inclement conditions. The nature of creation—whether forced or not—can often be mentally taxing (just ask Van Gogh or Hemmingway) and it isn’t uncommon for an artist to begin questioning the validity of a project if there are enough obstacles between the point they’re at and where he or she envisions the terminus of the endeavor to be. In singer/guitarist Nick Thorburn’s case, that point came as the group that he fronts, Islands, was involved in sessions recording the follow-up to 2006’s Return To The Sea in two different studios on opposite coasts of North America [one in Montreal and the other in Washington State –ed] while simultaneously attempting to negotiate a new recording contract. Let it never be said that multi-tasking is a feat beyond a musician.

Even with such a horror story to tell, Thorburn is quick to point out that he couldn’t be more content with the outcome. In spite of the potentially harrowing conditions under which it was made, the band was very prepared when it started the process so at no point did the mental duress infiltrate the songs and what filters out is a new, ambitious beginning for the band.

‘A new beginning’ is actually an excellent way to characterize the sound of Arm's Way—Islands’ sophomore long-player. While all of the elements that are so striking about the album were present on the band’s debut, they’ve been refined to crystalline purity this time around. The album opens with a symphonic build in “The Arm” that resolves quickly and opens into a monstrous and sprawling aural environment colored with spectacular strings courtesy of multi-instrumentalists Alex and Sebastian Chow. More than other bands attempting similar dramatic dynamics (The Last Shadow Puppets could be considered a peer), Islands has mastered the bracing instrumental give-and-take required to keep songs like “Abominable Snow,” “We Swim” and “I Feel Evil Creeping In” from feeling formulaic or as if there might be only one guiding thread through them; while there is a common bond that holds Arm's Way together, there is no bleed between tracks, each one is its own autonomous entity. When such a description of the album and the individual songs on it is put to Thorburn, one can almost hear the smile pass across his face through the phone line.

Bill Adams vs. Nick Thorburn of Islands

NT: Hello?

BA: Hello, may I speak to Nick Thorburn please?

NT: This is he.

BA: Hi Nick, it’s Bill Adams calling.

NT: How’re you doing?

BA: Not too bad, how’re you doing?

NT: Pretty good.

BA: That’s good, where are you right now? Are you at home?

NT: I am at home right now—yes. It’s nice; it feels good.

BA: That’s cool. Is this a stopover night? Are you already on tour?

NT: We just finished a little one—it was a Coachella tour basically, it was a tour there and back and now we’ve got a couple of weeks off back at home before we start again.

BA: That’s cool. Now, I was looking at the bio and – now maybe I’ve got this wrong – a lot of the album was recorded in Washington State….

NT: The vocals were. It was pretty much half and half – like creamer you know? [sipping from cup] Ugh, this is terrible coffee. I just made some really terrible coffee—speaking of creamer. Anyway, we did all the bed stuff in Montreal—all the band stuff—tracked it pretty much live, and then went to Washington to a studio in rural Washington State to do the vocals. The producer that came up to Montreal is from America —he’s from Washington State—and we went back to his studio to do the vocals. It’s a converted barn; it’s a pretty cool place.

BA: Yeah—it mentions that studio in the one-sheet they sent me with the album. Apparently, it’s a ‘spooky place.’

NT: Yeah, I was definitely spooked a little bit. Totally spooked.

BA: and it was saying that they have the phone booth recording studio in there….

NT: Yup, totally.

BA: Did you make use of it?

NT: Uhm, I didn’t, but I was actually in Sun studios just last week. We were in Memphis and so I went into Sun Studios to ask them about it; if they’d heard of it. They were pretty excited that I’d been in the same spot as it was, but I was pretty excited that I was in Sun Studios so I guess it’s all about give and take.

BA: That’s a decided upshot. So I guess congratulations are in order. Congratulations on the new record

NT: Thanks!

BA: It’s a pretty impressive piece of work. How long was it in the making?

NT: Well, it was a week in Montreal, and a week in Washington State I think all-told. Maybe a little bit more, but it couldn’t have been more than three weeks total of tracking. It was a slightly slower process because we were without funds for a long time. We were switching labels and the logistics of that as well as renegotiating and settling with old contracts and stuff was a little hairy at times. It ended up taking a year to get this thing out which was intensely frustrating and nearly killed me; not so much physically, but emotionally and creatively, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep making music for a living. It was really destructive. But that’s over now and I couldn’t be happier to be on Anti. It’s all about new beginnings now.

BA: Indeed. Were you writing the songs during the whole legal snafu? Was that during the song writing process?

NT: No, that was during the studio time so it was pretty tense. We weren’t sure if we’d be able to finish so it was a really awkward time – that’s for sure.

BA: Okay, so presumably then, all the songs were written prior to walking in.

NT: Oh yeah—not just the songs, but the arrangements and sequencing. We definitely had all the tracks, I knew which song was going to start, which one was going to end… it was very methodical and we didn’t have any room for error.

BA: I suppose that’d be handy. Walking in and pressing through it because you don’t know what the situation will be tomorrow so let’s get it done and get it done right and not mess around much in between.

NT: Yeah. I also get really excited. Just leading up to the recording, I was getting really anxious and thinking about it a lot. That got me really excited about it and mapped out in my head which songs I wanted to get done and when.

BA: That sounds like you had it right down and were prepared for anything. But how’s this going to work now? I saw a tour itinerary, and it’s looking like about eight Canadian dates around Ontario, what’s happening after that?

NT: We’re probably going to be touring for the rest of the year for sure. I think the road was actually a pre-cursor to the record; we’d been playing these songs live before we made the record, so it’s more about the shows and the performance than it is about the record. We’re never not going to be on the road at any given time.

BA: I guess that makes sense, how do these songs translate to the stage? There’s some pretty ornate work on the album and I’m assuming not all of that is coming with you when you hit the road….

NT: Oh it is! It is! We’re six guys who have worked out these arrangements and basically gotten these songs to the point where we were just basically walking in and just tracking what we had in our rehearsal space. We just had it recorded really nicely; really professionally. When we go out on the road, as far as I know it sounds just like the album. The instrumentation is varied—there are violins and bass clarinet—and everybody’s full-throttle; it sounds big. The feedback we’ve gotten so far has been really good too; unless we really blow it at these upcoming shows and I end up having to eat my words, it’s been good and I think it sounds larger than life.

BA: That’s really cool. I wanted to ask about that too – did you hear from your audience coming off after a set?

NT: Uhm, it’s hard because it’s new, but overall I’d say it’s been really good. I think people are willing; people that come to our shows tend to be on the fringe by and large and I think they tend to be pretty open-minded.

BA: It’s funny because when I was first running through the record a few days ago and I was really struck by how strange the record was as far as the songs sounding incredibly large but none of them bleed into one another; you can tell where the songs begin and end and there isn’t a lot of carryover in between.

NT: Oh I like that. You’re right too; each one is its own piece. I’m not sure if it’s the symphonic element of having Sebastian and Alex on the violins, but they’re movements; they’re real pieces of music that stand on their own, but we’re reaching pretty high with this stuff. It’s supposed to be epic you know?

BA: Well, you certainly succeeded in that, it feels that way. With that said then, are there any influences for this record? Were you listening to something in particular where you said, ‘Wow, if I could make something kind of like that, I’d really have what I’m looking for.’ Did you have something like that? What was the motivation?

NT: I don’t know if it was explicit motivation, it was more a matter of, ‘Here’s how I’m feeling today, here’s the song that came out of that feeling.’ I’m not going in with a five-point plan or a real serious outline of things, it’s really a natural process. It’s a reflection of who I am and who the band is. That sounds like some bullshit easy thing to say or passing the buck, but when it’s something that you live and breathe, it becomes as natural as those things. There’s not a lot of thought.

BA: So the process breaks down to, ‘This is how I was feeling today, I wrote it down, what can we do to back this up?’ Or is it more a matter of you and the other players getting together and sort of hammering it out piece by piece?

NT: We hammer out the arrangements, but I come into the fold with a fully formed tune. We’re not jamming, that’s for sure, but I bring something in and then we pick it apart. We zoom in and pick apart each section and each progression and movement and make it all work. But the initial song writing process is natural and then the final touches are always very methodical.

BA: So you’re handing people charts?

NT: No, no, no, no…I’m not handing charts, I’m coming in with a song written on a guitar, vocals, lyrics and melodies and then we sit down and we work out the sections and arrangements by discussing the dynamics of the drums and bass together as a unit and figure out how it’s going to sound.

BA: So it’s more a matter of hammering out the finer points in order to drive the vibe.

NT: Yeah.

BA: Okay, I see, now, after this tour coming up, has your time already been spoken for as far as the possibility of touring the States, jumping the continent… has that already been outlined or is it still very much up in the air?

NT: As we get closer to it, it comes into better focus, but we pretty much have the whole year accounted for.

BA: Okay, are you getting off the continent? Are you doing the States?

NT: When we come through, we’re doing a Canadian and U.S. tour at the same time and that’ll be five weeks long and then we’re going over to Europe in July and doing festivals and that sort of thing.

BA: Okay, I see how it works. While you were making the record, were there any songs that sort of dropped off ? Are there any unused ones that you might dust off for the tour or wind up as B-sides?

NT: We did a couple of B-sides after the fact—after we’d recorded the record—because we knew the songs that were going to be on Arm's Way. There was no room for anything else; as I say, when we went into it, I knew exactly what I wanted on the record right down to the sequencing of the songs. There was no time in the studio; we didn’t have the luxury to record B-sides that we knew weren’t going to be on the record, we only had time to get the album tracks down. A month or two after the fact, we went into a different studio and just recorded some B-sides so we do have three or four. One’s already up on iTunes—it’s a cover of a Beck song called “Cyanide Breathmint”—and I’m not sure if we’re going to dust those off live but we always try to do a couple of special things like a cover or something to keep it interesting.

BA: You were just talking about the way you were working in the studio, and that must have been incredibly harrowing to make sure that you got everything to sound precisely the way that you and the band wanted it to sound while simultaneously watching the clock. It must have been mentally taxing I’d assume. Was that the case?

NT: Yeah, but it was also totally enjoyable. It was natural and fun; I mean , you’re getting the opportunity to make music and do it in a really wonderful place with a really good producer, the over-arching feeling was definitely one of pleasure; not pain. We weren’t in pain in there. There were times when it was tough because of the label situation, but it didn’t consume the process or anything.

BA: And now the label situation is obviously all resolved; is the deal with Anti short term? Like one release?

NT: We’re trying to really foster a relationship—like a real home. I’ve never had that sort of situation in North America so it’s going to be good to have someone take care of us that really knows what they’re doing.

BA: So it’ll be ongoing.

NT: God willing.

BA: I see. So what else am I very obviously forgetting to ask about? What else would you like to see in this article?

NT: Uhm, I dunno. I’d just like to see the picture of my pack and just dirty, dirty stuff. If it can get anything dirty, like that kind of fan fiction where we’re all fucking each other and that kind of thing—a lot of man-on-man shit, that’s what I’d like to see if possible.

BA: I’ll see what I can do. It shouldn’t be too terribly difficult. We’re talking about a rock and roll band here which, if you look at it, is fairly—

NT: Ambiguous. I mean, if you look at David Bowie and you look at Lou Reed, those guys were all fucking each other so why can’t Islands get it on.

BA: Well as I say, the nature of a band of guys going on the road for an indefinite period of time—always within a foot and a half of each other—is fairly homo-erotic exercise anyway. You’ve got six guys crammed in a van for X number of hours every day….

NT: Oh yeah! It’s full-on. It’s happening.

BA: There you go, so that shouldn’t be too difficult to work in.

NT: Cool.

BA: Well, thanks for taking a couple of minutes to do this.

NT: No problem, thank you man.

BA: The pleasure was mine.

NT: Alright. Well, we’ll see you soon.

BA: Have a nice day.



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