Photography by Philip Cosores
Nick Thorburn tells me to meet him in Los Feliz, his arrival on bicycle very un-L.A.: a reminder that though he now calls Los Angeles home, his music was originally associated with the Canadian independent music scenes that dominated the aughts. These days, he’s likely known for his work with the Unicorns as much as he is for his post-Unicorns project, Islands, which now boasts five LPs. But with the recent announcement that the Unicorns will reunite for a handful of shows with Arcade Fire, as well as an appearance at Pop Montreal, Thorburn is suddenly forced to consider the last 10 years, in terms of both what he has achieved and what he has lost.
Considering the irreverent and idiosyncratic nature of his older music, the understanding and complexity he displays in our interaction leads to the conclusion that he enjoys all this reflecting, if not for the nostalgia, then just for the pure challenge of it. He strikes me as highly intelligent, maintaining a gaiety in his banter, and more than anything, he is kind. He thanks our waiter at the end of every interaction. At the end of our interview, he waits to walk me out. Thorburn says to me, “Maybe I’ll see you at the show and heckle you from the stage,” referring to the band’s return set this Friday. I respond, “Yeah, I’m usually in the front taking pictures.” Thorburn looks distraught and says, “Oh God, what if I do see you at the show and heckle you?” He’s realizing his off-the-cuff comment could easily be a reality. Or maybe he’s finally realizing the Unicorns reunion is also about to be a reality.
These shows with Arcade Fire mark 10 years since the Unicorns took their fellow Montreal-based band out on tour. Breaking up shortly after, the Unicorns, which also features Alden Penner and Jamie Thompson, haven’t played together since December of 2004 and hadn’t planned anything until Win Butler reached out with an idea.
“Since it had been 10 years since we took them out on tour,” Thorburn explains, “he thought it would be funny — I guess it’s funny, or it’s really not funny — but he thought it would be a funny twist to come back 10 years later, in an arena, with the stakes higher.”
At the point we speak, less than two weeks before the first show is scheduled, Thorburn still hasn’t been in the same room as his bandmates since they attended an Islands concert in 2008. With so much of how the reunion will fare still to be determined, our conversation is largely speculative, but it’s curious to see Thorburn’s frame of mind right before what will surely be a significant life event.
So, the announcement recently came of the Unicorns’ reissue of Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? Along with the Arcade Fire dates, things are starting to come into focus. Are you just sort of flying by the seat of your pants?
Very much so. It all just sort of happened as casually or accidentally as you can imagine. We knew we were going to reissue the record. We had the rights back to it; the license was up. It just makes sense to have control of it. It is our record. Since we aren’t going to be too active, it just made sense.
There has been a little bit of talk about it. I think Alden talked about it earlier in the year.
There was talk, but we couldn’t really agree on how to come back. We wanted to do it right, but we also had to get the timing right. All three of us are busy.
The press release for the reissue refers to it as your third album. I thought that was kind of weird. Like, there is only one album I think of.
Did it say that?
Yeah, I was a little confused.
I meant to correct that. I guess they are counting…
Yeah, but that’s really confusing. Confusion is a big part of what we do; it’s kind of a playful element. I’m always trying to confuse people, but I wasn’t trying to confuse people about the number of albums we released. I like the clean one album. It is our only record. I acknowledge that as our only real record.
Have you ever played an arena?
With Beck. The first Islands shows, actually. He wanted the Unicorns to open for him in Montreal in 2005, and we told him that we had broken up, but I got this new thing, and he listened and was into it. They weren’t all arenas, but the one in Montreal was. And the other ones were like a state fair arena thing and then a college in San Diego at their school arena. It was pretty strange. We were still figuring it out. They were our first shows ever. So, I think this might be similar, very disorienting.
It’s a lot to plan for. Not only will it be your first show in 10 years, but it will be in front of a ton of people that aren’t necessarily there to see your band. Are you guys already rehearsing?
No. We start next week. Which is crazy, because the shows are also next week. I would have liked a little more time, but it is just a scheduling thing. And we’ve been rehearsing on our own, just memorizing our parts again, and then we’ll just do a crazy cram session for five or six days. We’re kind of pros now. I was an amateur back then; now it is kind of old hat.
It’s not going to be the same band in that respect. There has been a lot of musical education in that time apart.
I would think so. Ten years of hard work. In a way, it will be hard to unlearn the experience I’ve gained, because there was a sort of innocence to that songwriting, the compositions, the word choices, the voices, where I put my fingers on a guitar. It was a lot of guesswork. So, now it is a little tricky to try to unlearn the conventional methods.
The breakup of the band, was that just a result of being young and taking on too much, too fast?
Yeah, I think we were on the road pretty much non-stop. I gave up my apartment, this place in a loft with Richey [Richard Reed Perry] who is in Arcade Fire now, and I guess he was then, too. He and Alden and I had a loft in Montreal; it was dirt cheap. So we figured we’d just tour non-stop and wouldn’t need the apartment, so for a year I didn’t live anywhere. I think that put a strain on my personal life, not having a foundation. We’d just keep touring. We’d play small venues, sell them out, and then come back because there was a demand. I think it really burnt us out. And, we had some different ideas about the unveiling of the band and the legacy of the band, so there was some conflict, but ultimately, all the rumors of the infighting and stuff, you know, that all gets blown out of proportion. It was mostly just exhaustion, I think.
Do you still connect to the music?
I hadn’t listened to it in years and years. There is no need for me to listen to it. For years I was embarrassed by it, and then I sort of forgot about it. So, it is only in relearning these songs that I re-listened to it. And yeah, it’s fun to listen to. I feel completely removed from it now, so much so that it is difficult to get back into the headspace, but I think I can finally appreciate it for what it is. It’s flawed, but it has this … uh … I always bristled at some of the words people would use to describe it, like “quirky” and “whimsical.” I always hated that. I think there are better words to use. They are in the right ballpark. There was sort of a naiveté, a prankish quality about it. That’s kind of fun to get back into. I think it will be helpful for my own musical path going forward.
So, I saw Islands on your first big tour at the Fonda in 2006, and then I saw you at the Bootleg a couple years back on Valentine’s Day, and you still played the older songs, so there is some continuity there. But, album to album, it does sound very different, with you being the only real continuous element.
That’s the idea, that I am the through line, and the songwriting. But I’d like to have isolated records that sound different from each other.
Has the project of your music changed in your mind? Starting off, there were greater stakes because you had this audience from the Unicorns and this expectation on those people’s part, and now you have become this more mature artist, putting out a new record every couple years and not necessarily attracting the 16-year-olds like before, but still with a loyal base that allows you to keep doing it.
Yeah, it’s comforting to know that I’ve carved out this world for myself. I don’t have to explain myself; I don’t have anything to prove. I can just quietly do my thing in the corner, and if people want to come check it out, they can. There’s not a lot of riffraff; there aren’t a lot of tumbleweeds rolling by. I guess it’s a little quieter, but it’s nice playing shows to people that aren’t fair-weather fans. They are there because they like the entirety of what I am doing. And it’s nice to make a record and not have to worry about the radio, but just get to make a record that I am proud of, that I believe in, that is true to me.
On the other hand, it is nice to think about attracting as wide of an audience as possible. I’m creating music for consumption, not to store on a hard drive somewhere. The idea that someone new can come along and discover my music is still very exciting. I do accept that challenge. But in a lot of ways, it is beyond my control. I can’t chase trends. I can only do what I think is true or right.
Does the fact that the music style of the Unicorns and Islands is not trendy right now affect your songwriting?
It will affect it on the most basic level, like I’ll be driving in my car and hear a song of the moment and be inspired by it. More likely I won’t. I’ll be repulsed by it and change the station.
It’s nice to be getting back into this Unicorns thing, though. As much as I try to make the records unique and try out different styles, I was getting into a self-serious mode. I think it was to distance myself from it. Like, prove I’m a serious songwriter. I have serious things to say. I am not whimsical or quirky; I am deep and disturbed. I think I’ve boxed myself in a bit railing against the lightness of the Unicorns. So, this is good. It’s fun to think of all the ideas I have for the show, to confuse people, or maybe make them angry. I’ve always taken pride and pleasure in upsetting people and confusing them. Giving them a magic show in a way. Deception, withholding, and such. And I think I will transfer this over to Islands, since the last two records have been pretty heavy.
It seemed like you had a similar break from the severity with Mister Heavenly. You looked like you were having so much fun.
I guess so. I actually don’t know what that was. I mean, I did have a blast playing with Joe and Ryan and sometimes Michael. That was just good fun. Crack a beer, hang with friends, and make songs. Islands has also become like a community with the steady band it now has. So much so that I think I’m going to make a proper solo record.
So, the next Islands album might not be an Islands album, but the solo thing?
I have a ton of songs, well not a ton, but like 16 or 17 songs demoed. But, I want to have even more for Islands to whittle out the best ones. So, I’m not really sure if these are going to be Islands songs or solo songs. I also have the beginnings of some Mister Heavenly songs, because we made loose plans to write in the fall.
Has there been talk about new Unicorns music?
Not really. There’s no plan to do anything. This might be it. I want it to be fun; that’s the prime motivation.
Money is good.
Money is always good. Come back after 10 years and there’s an interest. It’s nice to be compensated for what we did. We broke up before we even had a chance to be the best we can be. I was devastated when the band broke up. I thought we were getting better as a band and that I was getting better as a musician. It was a devastating blow for me to not be able to take this thing on the upswing to the next level. So, it’s nice to come back to it and see there is still interest. Or maybe there isn’t.
Interest might have even grown. You see it right now with Neutral Milk Hotel, who are pretty much known for the one album 15 years ago and are playing the Hollywood Bowl next month.
That’s nuts to me. To be a reunion act that just goes out and plays the same songs every night? I think that’s why the Pixies had to make that new album. People were like, “Okay, you’ve been reunited for 10 years; now it’s time to make a record.” And Kim Deal wasn’t even a part of it. To me it felt…
I don’t think I even listened all the way through.
You know, I listened for like 10 seconds. But that’s the thing with the Unicorns, the dilemma. Do we try to recapture the magic, the mode we were in, writing these skewered pop songs, writing these damaged, catchy, kind of out of tune … there was this chaos to what we were doing, while working within a pop frame. It wasn’t like we were intending to make that a thing, but it was just a summation of our influences and our interests and our desire to fuck with the normal pop structure.
So, do we try to recapture that, or do we add on all that we’ve changed and grown since then? Either decision feels inauthentic. So, it almost feels like a losing battle. It seems better to just play shows for the people that never got to see it, hang out with old friends, and play these songs that meant something to us and other people back then. And then who knows? Maybe we’ll just pack up and move on; maybe we’ll take the experience and let it inform our other projects.
It seems like the reunions that work best are the ones that keep it loose and don’t try to overthink or overplan everything, making it seem calculated. If you have great chemistry, why not make something new? If not, then don’t.
Yeah, you don’t want to be too strategic, or it will just reek of people looking to cash in. I know it’s hard to believe, but the prime motivator is genuinely the thought of how fun it will be to play these songs at these Arcade Fire shows, with a huge audience, that you don’t know what to expect. They could be confused or interested.
I have no idea what the crowd will be like.
I think it will be a bunch of people looking for their seats, with their bag of popcorn. It will be like a sporting event. But I think we can rise to that challenge and we can play with that. I like to play with confrontation. And indifference.