There’s a cinematic quality to Nicholas Thorburn’s work. As frontman and producer for Islands, his role has long been comparable to that of a film’s writer-director who also happens to serve as the feature’s principal star. Beginning with 2006’s experimental and exuberant Return to the Sea, each new Islands album has played like the soundtrack to a film in Thorburn’s mind, weirdly skipping between genres as diverse as Afropop and ragtime while filtered through his signature landscapes of piss-stained laughter, love, and decaying human flesh. The group’s fifth studio album, Ski Mask, is like prom music for an ’80s high school horror film, a bittersweet slow dance with Thoburn playing the masked aggressor in songs like “Shotgun Vision” and “Becoming the Gunship.” I talked to the always tongue-in-cheek songwriter about movies, ski masks, branching out into new art forms, and the wise words of Dr. Cornel West.
Where did the horrifying cover image for Ski Mask come from?
An amazing B movie from the 1980s called Ozone Attack of the Redneck Mutants. Just a glorious piece of trash.
I think it might be my Halloween costume this year.
I thought about trying to make rubber replicas as tour merchandise. It could be the new Edvard Munch Scream mask.
It’s the loose tufts of hair that really do it for me. The rest of the album booklet also has a Trash Humpers kind of feel to it. I’m not sure if that was an influence or if you’re into Harmony Korine?
I love Harmony Korine. Gummo was a profound influence on me as a teenager.
In what way?
Style and sensibility.
Wife-beater ensembles and glue-sniffing habits?
Well, yes, but I meant more cinematically! I went to film school in part because of that movie. And Kids made me horny.
You’ve said in a press release that Ski Mask is about “being angry.” After listening to the album, a lot of critics seem confused. I think they expected speaker-thrashing and you gnawing on a microphone. Is your anger atypical or do comments like that make you feel misunderstood?
I’m not even sure it’s about being angry. I think I was angry at the time of being interviewed for the press release. I was back in New York staying beneath the apartment I lived in, like a troll. I looked around my old neighborhood and saw old neighbors. I thought they looked like ghosts. One did a double take when he saw me, and then I realized: I’m the ghost. That put me in a real foul mood.
A Sixth Sense kind of deal.
I was thinking more The Village, but yeah…
Do you approach each record from the standpoint of knowing what you want to do or knowing what you don’t want to do?
I like to have an outline of the record before beginning—a theme or a through line. It lends a cohesion that I think can help with things like sequencing.
What was the theme for the newest album?
Identity crisis. Islands has been an orphan from the word “go.” We don’t have any real musical peers, and we don’t belong to any city. We exist in this weird netherworld. It’s alienating and can be a little depressing at times, but I find resolve in being alone. And I also write all my songs about one person. So they’re kind of all about her.
Does she know it? You’d hope by the fifth studio album she would.
I’d say. Much to her chagrin.