Islands’ Nick Thorburn tells us about the inspirations behind new album ‘Islomania’
Islands‘ Nick Thorburn had quietly put his band into retirement after celebrating the 10th anniversary of their debut album in 2016. But after pursuing other interests in film and scoring, Thorburn began writing songs again and here we are with Islomania, Islands’ eighth album, which is arguably their danciest, poppiest album to date. “Tension and release exist throughout,” says Thorburn. “Every song here begins bottled up, but there’s always a cathartic release by the end. There’s darkness and doubt in every crevice of this record, but there’s always a release.” Islomania is out today and you can listen below.
We asked Nick for a list of inspirations behind Islomania and he obliged with 10 items that cover just about every aspect of the record, from the sounds and players on it, to the cover art (which features actor Alex Karpovsky) and its title. Nick’s list includes Arthur Russell, Sparks, Depeche Mode, Alan Partridge, Fat Tony, books, synthesizers and more, and comes with thoughtful commentary for each. Read that below.
Islands will be on tour this September, hitting San Diego, Pioneertown, Sacramento, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Philadelphia, DC, Brooklyn (Elsewhere on 9/24), Cambridge, and Hamden, CT. All dates are listed below.
Also below is Part 1 of an Islands podcast where Nick and host Tom Scharpling go through the band’s whole career. Listen to that below.
ISLANDS’S NICK THORBURN – 10 INFLUENCES BEHIND ISLOMANIA
From the Oasthouse
Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge character has existed through four decades, and I swear it’s only gotten better with age. Last year, Alan Partridge released a podcast called From the Oasthouse. It’s more of a one-man radio play than a podcast, coming in at around 10 hours. It’s as good as anything Coogan has ever done, among my favorite iterations. It’s incredible! It was one of the few bits of entertainment that kept me going through the pandemic year, and got me loose and limber driving to and from the studio to finish out the record.
Loose Joints – “Tell You (Today)”
This song from Arthur Russell’s downtown disco side project Loose Joints directly influenced Islomania album cut “Natural Law Party” with his song’s beat serving as our foundation. It was the penultimate song we made for the record and sealed the album’s rhythm-forward motif. Like most, I love Arthur Russell’s music. I especially love how easily he was able to slide between genres. He wrote beautiful avant-garde chamber music, early electronic stuff, the aforementioned Lower East Side disco and mournful country/folk songs that sounded like standards. And tragically, only one proper album came out in his lifetime. I strive towards his agnostic approach to songwriting. Arthur Russell is my beacon!
Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim
A tragic love story about a woman who travels forward in time to save her boyfriend during a global pandemic really struck a chord with me. Similar to the songs I like to write, it’s a bit political, a touch surreal and fairly melancholic.
The Dog by Joseph O’Neill
Joseph O’Neill is easily one of my favorite writers. His work is wry and touching–something I strive for with my songwriting. In this story, a divorced man takes a job in Dubai. In a small moment in the novel’s middle, he discovers the word “Islomania,” and is taken with it. The word refers to a love of Islands, obviously. This is where I nicked the album title from.
I’ve been a big fan of Ratatat since their very first release back in 2004. I was especially impressed with the way they married electronic music with classical, while using electric guitars as a primary instrument. I was drawn to their melodies—always extremely hooky, emotional and very tasteful. When temporary member Jim Guthrie bowed out of Islands in the early days of our first touring cycle, I sent an email to Ratatat. It had been two years since their first record, and I thought maybe they’d broken up or gone on hiatus. No one from the band responded, but I became friends with them years later and Mike, the band’s guitar player, came by Sunset Sound while I was recording the first song for the record, “Closed Captioning”. On the spot, he picked up a guitar and laid down a series of mind-meltingly good guitar riffs. It was a great fit, and it only took 14 years to get him to play with Islands! We had such a good time that I went to his house in the Catskills to record “A Passionate Age,” the second song I made for the album. That was such a success that we started a band together, called t h e c r ee m. We’ve got a record in the pipe that’s really, really special.
Fat Tony is a rapper from Houston who I met many years ago, when he came out to an Islands show. He’s a supremely charismatic, talented guy and we did a little collaboration over the years on one of his mixtapes. When I was “on hiatus” with Islands, I started making some beats and we actually made two songs together. I think they turned out really well. I was trying to sample slightly off kilter stuff, like JJ Cale. Tony was able to write an entire song on the spot—really impressive workmanship! This was a perfect way for me to ease back into full time songwriting and one of the early beats I made ended up as the album’s title track, “Islomania.”
Depeche Mode: 101
After working on Closed Captioning during the first session for Islomania, that song’s producer—Chris Coady— hipped me to an old Depeche Mode documentary directed by DA Pennebaker, called 101. The doc follows the band as they travel across the US, intercutting between them and a group of contest winners that follow the tour. At the end of the film, the band makes it to their final stop, a gigantic show at the Pasadena Rose Bowl Stadium in Los Angeles. The live performance of “Everything Counts” intercutting with greedy managers and owners counting the evening’s money was a bit on the nose but still totally incredible! I got back into Depeche Mode after watching, and it was around this time that I wrote “Never Let You Down,” my attempt to write a big rock song with tons of keyboards. For this, it’s almost entirely the Korg M1, a very versatile and occasionally terrible sounding keyboard (see Seinfeld’s theme song for evidence).
Sparks, Propaganda cover
For the new album cover, I wanted to capture the feel of the classic Hipgnosis album covers of the 70s—albums like Zeppelin’s Presence, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, and 10cc’s “How Dare You!” These were covers that told you a story in just a single shot. You get the feeling of a before and after—a beginning, middle and end. I knew I wanted to capture that sensation with this album. I had an immediate idea of someone crawling through the desert. A “dry,” ironic cover about a record that’s celebrating “islands” (and presumably the bodies of water that surround them). A very influential band from the early days of Islands was Sparks. I was lucky enough to collaborate with them on the mock-Geldof charity single “Do They Know It’s Halloween?” back in 2005. All of their album covers are great and the first record of theirs I discovered was my favorite: Propaganda. The two brothers laid out on the back of a speedboat, hogtied. It’s great. I knew I wanted something similarly evocative and the album’s photographer Jason Tippett nailed it.
I started with the Unicorns. While we were still in high school, Alden [Penner, Unicorns bandmate] found a Roland Jupiter-4 analog synthesizer at the local pawn shop. Almost immediately it became the signature sound of the band. I ended up getting one of my own in 2007, while living in Brooklyn, but hadn’t recorded with it. It was either in storage in New York while I was in LA or we were in Toronto recording while it was back at my apartment in Los Feliz. Islomania was the first time I’d been able to put it on record since Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? It was like returning to an old friend I hadn’t seen in years, and as this was a synth-heavy record, the Jupiter-4 fit right in.
David OReilly’s Everything
This video game came out a few years ago, while I was on The Hiatus™️. It blew my mind. There’s no other video game like this. The game has no real objective, and you can’t die. You just experience the world, and work your way through it, inhabiting everything from a microbe to a galaxy. In other words, you can be everything. While you move through the universe, Alan Watts speeches periodically pop up, alongside a truly beautiful score. David began as an animator in Ireland, made a huge splash in that world and then had a very successful transition to video games. I don’t play video games AT ALL, but I had a very emotional reaction—this one hit me like a ton of bricks. The game’s trailer is on YouTube and plays like an abstract short film. Check it out. The guy’s a genius and his work has been very inspirational to me.