Following an evening of showcasing some new tunes at Chicago’s Empty Bottle, acclaimed indie poppers Islands made one last stop here at Threadless HQ to show us a good time on our lunch break before skipping town. Nick Thorburn (vocals, guitar) & Co. played for us a handful of gems from their excellent new record, Ski Mask, which came out in September of this year. After engaging the eager Threadstaff with a sharp performance, Nick was kind enough to sit down for a chat with me (Dustin Currier) about art, music, and his own t-shirt company which, he assures me, will probably put us out of business.
At Threadless, we love to explore the relationship between visual art/design and music. How important is it, as a musician, to embrace that relationship?
Nick Thorburn: I think it’s important, too. I know I should expand on that… I’m a visual person - I draw, and I went to film school - and I see things visually more so than I do in any other regard, so yeah. I think it’s an important relationship; I like to have a visual element to all the records.
What caused you to choose to release the new Islands record, Ski Mask, under your own label (Manqué Music)?
NT: Well, we were out of contract with our old label (ANTI-), and the option came up to self-release with an “enhanced distribution” deal, it’s called, which is becoming more popular now. This distributor out of North Carolina called Red Eye, which is the biggest independent distributor, offered us an enhanced distribution deal, and they’ve done an incredible job. They’ve done everything that ANTI- has done, if not more, and we own the record. We own the rights to it, we get the split, percentage points are great… I mean, I’m my own boss, and there’s been no downsides to that. I just wish I had done it sooner.
Does Manqué Music have any plans in the works for other future releases?
NT: I would like to. I would very much like to get to that point. I think it depends on how this record does and if Red Eye wants to support that venture, but email@example.com is where people can submit stuff. If they want to submit their music, I’d like to hear people’s stuff. Y’know, we tour a lot, so we get to see great bands, and yeah. I’d like to have a successful label, it’d be fun.
Are there any newer or younger artists out there that excite you?
NT: Uh, The Magic, who are in Islands. The brothers, Evan and Geordie, they have a band called The Magic that released a record last year, and it’s terrific. They’re exciting. There’s this band from LA called Family that are pretty good, that are gonna put out a record I think soon… I think this year or next year. There’s a comedian named Max Silvestri who’s putting out a comedy record shortly, he’s very funny.
Some of your past records seem to have centralized major themes, or at least a specific catalyst for the end product. Is that the case with Ski Mask?
NT: Yeah, I like to have a concept with records. I like there to be a cohesive sort of mission statement, and yeah, Ski Mask is no different. There’s a reason it’s a record. There’s a collection of songs, and there should be a relationship amongst them - otherwise, why are they on this record? Some of these songs on Ski Mask I’ve had sitting around for upwards of seven years, waiting for them to find the right time. The last three songs on the record pre-date Vapours, so they’re older songs and we waited for the right time, and this collection of songs - the idea, the themes - the overarching concept seemed to be fitting for these songs.
How would you describe that overarching concept?
NT: Well, I do a lousy job of articulating that. That’s why I write songs and not record reviews. But I would say there’s issues of identity - geographical identity and temporal identity and [blah-blah-blah] (laughs)… I’m terrible, I’m really lousy at describing the meanings of the songs, but there is a through line, I assure you.
Speaking of geography, in what ways has having lived in such varied parts of the continent informed any of your creative choices?
NT: I don’t think I’ve been that influenced by the places I’ve lived - New York, LA, Montreal. I don’t think there’s been any explicit influence from geography. I write the songs that, ‘yknow, that I would write based on circumstances and based on situations, not so much the kinds of places I mentioned.
Are there any non-musical influences that find their way into your music/lyrics?
NT: Yeah, umm… cinema, books, documentaries. “Cinema” sounds so pretent[ious], but yeah, movies and books and stuff definitely find their way in. I’ll steal little lines from philosophers or professors or writers or filmmakers, or y’know, visual imagery and stuff I’ll pull from. The cover of the album is from an 80s B horror movie called ‘Ozone Attack of the Redneck Mutants’, so even just visually, I like to draw from other places.
Is that a still from the movie, or did you just use the imagery from it to make the cover?
NT: Yeah, it’s a still from the movie, and actually before I knew the movie I saw this image that this guy Jason Ruiz had posted on his Tumblr. He’s a visual artist, I guess, and I saw it and loved it, tracked him down, and from that I found the movie.
Yeah, that cover is very strikingly unsettling.
NT: That’s the idea, I want these songs to feel unsettling.
Between The Unicorns and Islands, you’ve utilized quite a lot of different instruments, on your recordings. Are there any instruments that are off-limits for you, or any that just drive you up the wall?
NT: Yeah, yeah. Good question. Glockenspiel. Anything child-like, anything kind of twee and quirky and all those words. Kiddy instruments drive me f***in’ bananas. Ukuleles are kind of in that world. [They’ve] been on a Human Highway record.
I feel like the recorder might even be in that realm, right? Isn’t that what I’m hearing in the beginning of…
NT: ‘Sea Ghost’? Yeah, and that was kind of tongue-in-cheek and, like, funny. We were trying to conjure kind of a sea shanty-type feeling.
Metal flutes. Wood flutes are okay, but metal flutes. Mostly glockenspiel, mostly that kind of wimpy, cutesy car commercial bullsh**. I hate it. I hate it so much. And it was used a lot more like eight years ago, and people mistook The Unicorns for being in that realm, which really bothered me. We didn’t play cheap [instruments]. We played an old synthesizer from like ‘77. It wasn’t a cheap Casio keyboard, but when you heard about The Unicorns it was like, “Oh, they play cheap Casio keyboards.” No, it was a Roland Jupiter 4, and it was, y’know, a top of the line synthesizer that f***in’ Tangerine Dream used, and Jean Michele Jarre. It’s not a joke. But anyway, that’s a whole other conversation.
So, what’s next for Islands?
NT: You know - same old, same old. We’re just gonna plug away on this record, trying to get the word out about the record and do some more touring. I’ve started writing songs for the new record, and we’re gonna try to meet up in LA, where three quarters of us live now, and slowly build the next record and make the new sounds, new directions.
Anything else you’d like to share with the people of Threadless?
NT: Yeah, I have a competing shirt company called Iconic Celeb, and I’m gonna try to drive Threadless out of business, if I can help it. The website is skreened.com/iconicceleb, and I have great shirts with pictures of iconic celebs.
Are you wearing one right now? (Nick sports a tee featuring a photo of Bob Marley under text that reads “BOB DYLAN”)
NT: I’m wearing one right now, yeah. Bob Dylan. There’s about 50 designs on there now, and there’s more all the time. So definitely check that out. The people out there should check it out and buy ‘em up.
But they can’t submit designs to you, right?
NT: They can submit suggestions, but it’s not as user-generated as Threadless. You still wanna go to Threadless for your fun, user-generated shirts. Your market’s just gonna get smaller once I get going. (Laughs)
Interview by Dustin Currier