If someone is self-aware enough to proclaim their lack of self-awareness, does the sentiment ring true?
It’s not the question to follow the one hand clapping paradox, rather one of the contradictions to be found within Nick Thorburn, Islands frontman who is simultaneously devoted to making music immune to commercial or critical whims, and hungry for mass acclaim.
“In my ideal world, I would be treated like a king,” Thorburn says, on a break checking sound for a gig in Leipzig, Germany. “I would be carried in on a rug by four giant men who feed me grapes. That sounds homoerotic, but basically, I think I’m making good records and I think they have the innate ability, not in an intentional strategic way, to appeal to a broad audience. I’m interested in that. I’m interested in that level of communication.”
Regardless of whether or not the Campbell River native sees Ski Mask, the fifth Islands record, propel his career to new heights, he asserts gratitude for what he has. After 15 years on stage, the co-founder of the now-dissolved debut band The Unicorns, has built a solid contingent of devoted fans and collaborators (from Jim Guthrie to Michael Cera), his own record label (Manqué) and a new album that seems to synthesize all the divergent stops on his sonic journey to date. But Thorburn’s bright harmonies engulf a dark foundation – unedited sentiments deluged by beautiful indie rock, joyful melodies with a lyrical edge, not quite buffed out by its artful pop charm.
When L.A.-based Thorburn returns to Victoria April 1, he’ll be back in the city where it all began. Legends (now Club 9ONE9) set the stage for Thorburn’s first show with Alden Penner as The Unicorns. The two booked The Microphones to headline and finagled themselves the opening slot.
“We drove down from Campbell River in Alden’s mom’s car and we really didn’t have any idea what we were doing. We were both flailing. I was especially,” says Thorburn, who began learning the guitar by ear in high school after lying to Penner about his musical abilities, in hopes of initiating friendship. “It was very crude, but it was exciting. We were beside ourselves, just thrilled to be there.”
The rush of performing new work still exists for Thorburn, though not with the same youthful naivité, and alongside his greatest fears in life: becoming stuck in his career and repeating himself creatively.
“Being 45 years old and playing Lucky Bar in Victoria, that doesn’t appeal to me. I need something more. I’m not really willing to compromise my artistic integrity – unfortunately I had to use that expression – but I’m not willing to compromise that, so I’m playing ball, but I’m following my own rules,” he says. “The idea that I would make the same song today that I made 10 years ago, that disgusts me.”
At 32, the creative chameleon (film school grad, comic mind, skilled illustrator – see howiedoo.tumblr.com) is just really ready for the next chapter, wherever it takes him.
And if it happens to include selling a million records or reaching new audiences through mainstream charts, he welcomes it, but doesn’t suspect Top 40 super-hit status will befall a guy like him.
“I dress too well for that. I have too much good taste for that garbage.”
See Islands play Lucky Bar at 8pm April 1.