June 17th, 2008 | Interviews

Alice Rutherford

Islands “Creeper”


Islands have just released Arm’s Way and have just lost one of their guitars. Nick Thorburn speaks now to Jennifer Brandon.

Nick Thorburn (guitar/vocals): I just left my guitar in a cab and there are like eight million cab companies here and it’s fucking impossible to find it so I think it’s goners.
Oh no! Did you get a receipt?
I did and it’s a generic receipt with the title ‘Cab Company.’ I was doing a college radio interview and then going to the venue. I’m not even drunk, you know? The guitar wasn’t super amazing. It’s a nice guitar, but it’s not like Yo-Yo Ma’s cello. At least I got to hop in another cab and try and catch him. That was exciting—except we weren’t able to catch him.
Is that the most exciting car chase the band has even been involved in?
Maybe. No—you know what? There was another one where this guy dinged the car that I was in. Well, he rammed into us and we had to chase him. It was like a high-speed chase.
The title of your album Arm’s Way reminds me of A Farewell to Arms—all the different meanings of ‘arms.’
It’s a lot like what you just described with Hemingway. The ambiguous picture of an arm that has to come to harm or embrace or rescue you from some nasty experience. Something to guide you—pull you back.
An arm to remember to grab a guitar?
Ironically—or coincidentally or annoyingly enough—since the album has been released, I’ve developed tendonitis in my arms. I need to stay away from naming any body parts on the next record.
I was reading that your producer and engineer Ryan Hadlock performed some rituals before each session to ward off evil spirits. What were some of the rituals?
Salt on window sills. He was lighting candles in a circular direction on the mixing board. Nothing too mystical. It was mostly just to get into the spirit of recording—not really to ward off anything really evil. It was more kind of a homage to Joe Meek who is a bit of an idol of his.
To whom would you guys most respectfully pay homage?
Collectively, I don’t know if I could come up with one name. There are lots of people that I admire. I guess some of the recording techniques or attitudes—and good jumping off points of recording when going into a studio. Like looking at the way Neil Young would make a record. Like not telling them that he was gonna record. He would just be showing them the song and rehearsing it with them—one run through and then kind of surreptitiously be recording. Stuff like that. And people like that who go into a studio and just want to experiment—that technique of catching people off guard.
How and why did Ryan know there are evil spirits in his studio? Did he have direct experiences with evil spirits there?
You know, I think he might have. He might have mentioned something. But offhand I don’t know. He alluded to some sort of negative experience. I don’t remember him getting into too much detail. It’s almost like he didn’t want to talk about it.
And his studio is outside of Seattle?
About a hour. And its not even in a city. It’s basically just a barn. Not even a small town. Like a rural area. Like a gas station and some houses nearby—the woods. Like where I grew up. I grew up in British Columbia. Really rural.
When did you see your first traffic light?
When I was like eight or something and we moved to a bigger town that was actually a municipality. But the first place I lived—the population was like one thousand. There was a gas station off the highway. It wasn’t even a highway—more like a road, even though it was called a highway. It was serene and really beautiful and in the woods. It wasn’t developed at all.
So you had to plan to go into ‘town.’ Was ‘going into town’ a really big event for you?
Oh, for sure! You couldn’t go into my town. The town was called Black Creek, which is kind of an ominous name in itself. You couldn’t go to Black Creek—you were just there. The next town over, to get there was huge—a huge trip. I have these memories—these really evocative memories—of driving in the car and listening to Paul Simon, Fleetwood Mac and Leonard Cohen. All the music my parents were listening to. I have such strong memories attached to that because it was such a trip.
Where did you buy your first record?
At a yard sale in Black Creek. I think it might have been a Beatles record. I was probably five or something and it was a penny.
This album is a lot more mature. Does this reflect the state of the band?
Definitely. We went through a couple of tribulations and I think we really just wanted to—well, we were forced into stepping our game up. And it required a lot of concentration. I was put in a position where I had to step into the role of leader. When you are faced with adversity and challenges, you just have to step up and come through. I spent a lot of time arranging the songs.
You do most of the songwriting?
I handle the songwriting and bring the songs in complete form and then we work out the arrangements.
‘Pieces of You’ is about a group of local teens that killed a fisherman when you were in high school—and you knew one of the kids? What was it like to know a kid that ended up murdering someone?
Ugh—it was upsetting. We were like acquaintances and slowly kind of becoming friends. He stole something from me in gym class one day—he stole my watch and it was quite awkward. And then it was only a couple of weeks later that he did the deed.
What were you building your friendship on?
We were on the basketball team together and we both were terrible basketball players. We were on the bench for the majority of the time. We were benchwarmers. And I think we kind of bonded over being neglected or ignored—totally underused by the coach. So that’s how our friendship was budding. But it really came to a halt when he stole my watch.
I see in a lot of past photos and videos you guys were wearing a lot of white.
It’s the uniform thing. It’s also clean and aesthetically cohesive. But we also wanted to have this absence of color—sort of absorb any surrounding. And this time out we are wearing all black, so I guess we are really moving past any light.
Can you tell me about your videos? I’m completely fascinated as they are almost all just a little over one minute long. Is this a comment on the current state of attention spans?
Initially I was just bored and just wanted to make good teasers for the songs. It was before the album was out. And I just grabbed a bunch of footage and edited it together. I really just wanted to be on tour and had waited so long for the record to come out. I was languishing and in stasis. It was something to do to keep me from going crazy.
So you pulled out some Cher footage, Mary-Kate Olsen picking her nose and Ole Pa from Little House on the Prairie?
All the good stuff.
What should residents of Los Angeles know about Montreal?
You would hate the winter. And by winter I mean from October until May. It is freezing. I would advise Angelenos to steer clear if they don’t like anything over a breeze. But it’s nice! The west coast is so different from the east coast in the way they built the cities before cars were introduced. Montreal looks like a European city.
Like a Christmas scene in a pretty snow globe.
That’s it. Narrow streets and old apartments. It has that feeling to it. [Loud sirens in the background.] Sorry, I bring trouble with me wherever I go.