Listening to an Islands record is like going to the carnival. The lyrics are curious and bizarre; the music is unexpected and peculiar. But in some inexplicable way, this mish mash of experimentation always seems to work. From their explosive, sea-themed debut, Return to the Sea, to the dark undertones of 2008’s Arm’s Way, and of course the eerie melodies of 2012’s Ski Mask, two things are certain with this band. One, Islands won’t sound like any other band you’ve ever heard, and two, Islands have never made the same album twice.
The ever-intriguing Nicolas Thorburn, aka Nick Diamonds and fellow band mates Evan Gordon, Geordie Gordon, and Adam Halferty are back on the road a second time around in support of the positively received album, Ski Mask. Pop Counter//Culture catches up with Nick in the heart of Chinatown, hours before his Vancouver show. As if sharing a private, inside joke with himself, Nick is dressed head to toe in yellow, reflecting perhaps the unexpectedly sunny spring day. Check out what Nick had to say about his latest record, maturing with age, and misdirection.
The album cover for Ski Mask is taken from a 1980’s b-film. What was so striking to you about that screen shot that you decided to make it represent your entire album by putting it on the cover?
To me it seemed, you know, evocative and ambiguous. I wasn’t quite sure what it was when I first saw it. It looked like a kind of galactic, cosmic sort of face. It had a menacing sort of quality, but it also looked alien and otherworldly, and I liked that. This record to me, it has a big, ominous quality to it and I thought that cover was representative of the songs contained within.
Over the years, the flamboyant Nick Diamonds persona that long-time fans have come to expect at live shows has mellowed a bit. What factors have played into the development of your stage persona and its evolution since you first began performing?
I still like to reserve times where I can be light and maybe not flamboyant, but limber. I’m definitely maturing as I age, I guess. I don’t want to be a silly billy for another twenty years. I’d like to demonstrate that I’m a serious musician and have a desire to write the best music without any flash or too much distraction. I also want it to be a fun experience for people. I want people to feel like they are being entertained, so I often want to dress up, act a little wild from time to time.
Tonight you are performing at Fortune Sound. The last time you were in Vancouver was a very packed show at The Media Club. Does intimacy or lack thereof of a venue affect how you design your set and deliver your performance?
Yeah, I mean I don’t think it’s a conscious decision, but there’s a tone that is probably set at the venue, the amount of people in the venue, the way the stage is, the way the sound carries. That will dictate what kind of a show it is to a certain extent. If it’s a packed house it’s going to feel rowdier than an empty show, which would be a little more laid back or mellow. We like to put on the best show possible either way. I met KRS-One and he said ten or ten thousand they gotta get rocked. So regardless of how many people are there, you gotta deliver the goods.
A reoccurring pattern in your songwriting is the use of contrast. There’s a lot of juxtaposition of the morbid with the cheery. What’s your fascination with mixing emotions this way?
It just seems like a classic joke – the misdirect – to feel like you’re being led down one path and you’re being set up for something light, let’s say the music is whimsical or catchy or hooky or pop-oriented. But then the lyrics come in and it’s super depressing or morbid or bleak, I think that’s a fun contrast that I’ve always been attracted to.
Are you more captivated by songs that use misdirection?
I guess so. I like all manner of songs, but it’s fun for me. It’s just kind of how my brain works. Mischievous…
Another facet of your music that’s interesting is that you have a very conversational voice when you sing. Did you ever make a conscious decision on your singing style or does it depend on each individual song?
I try not to overthink it. I feel like the second I overthink it I’m going to kill it. Not to say that it’s this natural gift. I just let the sound dictate how it should sound. I try to be as graceful and agreeable as possible.
Whether it’s the nostalgia or the sound quality, vinyl has made an impressive comeback in a declining physical media market. What are your thoughts on vinyl culture and what was the biggest factor in having Islands music available in vinyl format?
Well, I guess the decision is to make money. People buy records. It’s a format that is still in existence. I personally like vinyl. That’s my preferred choice of listening, but obviously I listen to a lot of music on the iPhone. But I think [vinyl] is the nicest way to listen to a record, it’s the most thoughtful way you can listen to a record and it sounds the best. It doesn’t fatigue the ears like digital recordings do. If the kids want them, we’ll make them.
This is an Islands interview, but we cannot end without inquiring about any pertinent information or clues you can give us about the Unicorns reunion rumours.
No truth, unfortunately. We jumped the gun a bit. We’re not ready, but you never know. It won’t be this year. But hopefully, I’d like to.