Call & Response: Islands
Islands are a six-piece indie pop band from Montreal. They are led by former Unicorns member Nick Thorburn - the talented singer/songwriter/visual artist formerly known as Nick Diamonds. They just released their second album called Arm's Way on high profile label ANTI- (owned by Epitaph Records) and are playing tomorrow night at the Phoenix as part of a non-stop tour schedule even larger than the one they had for their debut full-length Return to the Sea.
I spoke to Islands member and former-Torontonian Patrick Gregoire about the making of the new record, what he thinks of Toronto, and the promise of sweet smelling hydrangeas.
Keep reading for the complete interview.
Why are you called Islands?
Patrick Gregoire: Nick named the band before my time. I've heard him offer up the explanation that it's a metaphor for the isolation and solitude of human beings. You can choose to believe him or not. I think it's just kind of catchy for the imagery, though occasionally confusing because it's plural with no article.
How would you describe your sound using only a noun?
Your band is quite multi-cultural. Is that something you're consciously proud of?
I guess we're rather Canadian that way, at least in the Toronto sense of the word. "Consciously proud" is a strong term. Self-aware would probably apply though. Race and culture is definitely something that we talk and joke about constantly. It's also something that has a profound impact on the music we play. I think that the Islands sound, especially as heard on Arm's Way, is very much a product of the intersection of each member of this band's background, cultural and otherwise. I guess I'm proud of that. I'm proud that we can reference basically the entirety of pop music, write proper three part counterpoint and make use of complex African rhythms all on the same record.
How does this new record compare/differ from your first?
Well, we were joking today about how the standard spiel for this question has become, "Well, the first was a project record, where as this one is more of a band effort". I guess that means that Islands has settled into a well-toured and intimately connected group of six musicians who sat down and very consciously composed a bunch of songs over a period of time. That bears very different fruit from a couple of people laying down skeletal song structures and then asking friends to improvise ideas overtop of them. Other differences include a turn toward the dark and expansive in the songwriting as well as a seriousness of production that wasn't on Return to the Sea.
Was this record easier or harder to make?
I hadn't yet joined the band when RTTS was made so I can't answer this one so well. If you re-phrase it as "Was this a hard record to make?" then I guess the answer is "yes" just because it always is. Recording music is a difficult and expensive task that takes a lot of jumping through hoops. Our old label wasn't exactly supportive when it came to going into the studio and so there was a lot of anxiety and delay at first. In some ways that turned out to be a blessing, because it forced us to rehearse, polish and refine our music to a level that I don't know we would have been able to achieve had we just gone straight into the studio after tour as we had originally planned. Adversity and challenge are often the boundaries artists need to push their creativity.
What song on the new record are you most proud of?
I'm most proud of the "Arm". I think that it's the most concise and well-arranged song this band has ever made (running 5 minutes plus with at least 5 different repeating sections - I guess that's not saying much though...). I think it represents Islands finally writing together with ideas that really interact between instruments and vocals all the way through. It's a solid whole that we'd never managed to make before.
Have any of you lived in Toronto? What do you like about our city?
I actually grew up in the West End so it's a pretty dear place to me. I like the sheer size of the city. I found out a while ago that it's the 5th largest city on the continent, which feels good to achieve for a Canadian city. It's sprawling and diverse in a way that's really comforting. There's anonymity in that kind of size. I also like the amazing health and creativity of the music coming out of there right now: Nif-D, $100, Final Fantasy, Wavelength, Wyrd Visions and Blocks Recording Club are all scenes and artists who I admire quite a lot. Also, street meat. They don't have that in Montreal.
What do you dislike?
Cover charges everywhere. The viral spread of condos. I see neighborhoods and places of my childhood swallowed whole by towers and development. What's happening in the forest at Cherry Beach? I debate this with my Father a lot (he's an architect and so sees more merit in some of these things than I do). I suppose there's health in urban renewal, but I also think that there's another kind of health in the stagnancy of a place like Montreal. Not to be another Toronto ex-pat in MTL who forgets his roots and shits all over his hometown. We all know how the world needs more of those.
Where is your favourite place to enjoy the sun?
Cherry Beach, The Jersey Shore, my rooftop. I actually don't do a lot of this. I'm not a good loafer. I get anxious.
What can people expect to see/hear/feel at your Phoenix show?
This one stumped the crap out of me. My bandmate Aaron offers this: "A delightful array of flickering objects that arouse and delight the senses accompanied by the sweet smell of hydrangeas, all underpinned by the fragrant taste of youthful inhibition in the air".
Call & Response is a series of Q&A's with bands/artists from or playing in Toronto. Photo: Melissa Trott.
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