Broken Unicorns 

Ex-bandmates reunite to help form Islands

"I don't want to be pulled under by indie rock," says Nick "Diamonds" Thorburn, the leader of Montreal's Islands. "Indie rock" is a good description for the subversively joyous and shambolic music the band plays, but Diamonds fears the term is doomed to ridicule and extinction, such as "New Wave" or "alternative rock."

"It's like a riptide or something," he says. "I want to swim freely in a non-genre-specific territory."

Diamonds is an opinionated vocalist and musician with ambitious ideas on what Islands can become. Return to the Sea, released earlier this year on Equator Records, was an impressive debut, but he nearly dismisses it as an unfinished work: "I don't think it's a completely wasted effort, but I can [hear] lots of places where it can be better."

The journey toward Return to the Sea began in 2004 when Diamonds' first band, the Unicorns, collapsed. By all accounts, it was a difficult break-up; the Unicorns had just released an album, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?, that earned it a cult following in North America and made its demise all the more frustrating.

"I think it was acrimonious for a while," the 24-year-old says. "And then when emotions simmered a little, we were able to be cool with one another. But I don't think we achieved a tenth of the potential we were capable of. We were really only getting started. It was a shame and a loss. I think we were on the right track. But that's how it goes."

After the end of the Unicorns, former members Diamonds and Jamie "J'aime Tambeur" Thompson formed Islands. Over the course of five weeks in the summer of 2005, the duo recruited acclaimed musicians such as guitarist Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade), fiddler Richard Perry, and violinist Sarah Neufeld (the Arcade Fire), and Los Angeles rappers Subtitle and Busdriver to contribute. Save for Busdriver and Subtitle's rapid-fire rhymes on "Where There's a Whale There's a Whalebone," the various musicians coalesce into a slightly loopy, psychedelic theme.

Diamonds doesn't like to compare his new band with his first one. While the Unicorns were just three friends, Islands is a six-piece band that elaborates and broadens the Unicorns' freewheeling and giggly pop experiments. The light and pleasing melodies bubble with layers of instruments piping away like a happy parade.

Islands' central personality, however, is Diamonds. On Return to the Sea, he sings about overpopulation on "Humans," compares himself to a "Rough Gem," and wonders if "Volcanoes" might bring about our demise. "Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby" addresses America's addiction to celebrity culture; its title is an allusion to Sly and the Family Stone's "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey."

"Bones bones brittle little bones/It's not the milk you seek/It's the sun you need," he riffs.

Diamonds' reedy voice skates over most of Return to the Sea (except for the instrumental "Tsuxiit," an ode to a killer whale famous in Canada). Concurrently, his barbed broken poetry sets Islands apart from the sometimes-annoying conceptual indie-pop bands it resembles.

"I'm exploring different subject matter, just trying to express what I'm thinking at the time," Diamonds says. "At the time I was writing some of those songs, I had a pretty bleak worldview."

Shortly after Return to the Sea received resounding critical reviews, group co-founder T'ambeur quit the band in July, albeit under less difficult circumstances than during the Unicorns meltdown.

"He wasn't interested in being in a touring band anymore," Diamonds says.

Meanwhile, Islands has expanded to include bassist Patrick Gregoire, bassist Patrice Agbokou, drummer Aaron Harris and violinists/oboists Alex and Sebastien Chow. When its current tour is complete, the band plans on returning to Montreal and will begin recording a second album for a release tentatively scheduled for next fall.

"[Return to the Sea] was very off-the-cuff," Diamonds says. "And we've got this band now that's just an incredible group of musicians. This next record will demonstrate that."


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