Interview: Islands’ Nicholas Thorburn Talks Ski Mask and More

Thorburn talked to us about movies, ski masks, branching out into new art forms, and the wise words of Dr. Cornel West.

Interview: Islands’s Nicholas Thorburn Talks Ski Mask and More
Photo: Christian Faustus

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.

Was Ski Mask a process like any other or did you and the band experiment with new and exciting recording methods? Self-flagellation? Color coordination? Daily meditations in an anechoic chamber?

Those are great suggestions for the next time around, but no. We did this recording in almost exactly the same way we did A Sleep & a Forgetting: just four people in a room, playing live, minimal overdubs when necessary. Some vocals were cut live but most were added later.

I like the album, but the opening lyrics for “Of Corpse” have me puzzled: “Featherless/Born between urine and feces/Bless this mess/Convalesced in a pretty dress/While I robbed your ass in a ski mask.” Maybe I’m taking it too literally, but what were you thinking about when you wrote it, and what did it mean to the band to have the album named Ski Mask?

The lines “Featherless/Born between urine and feces”?

Of course, I interpret that as birth…

That’s life, baby. That’s a quote from Dr. Cornel West.

Then you get your ass robbed by someone with a ski mask?

No, I do the robbing. But in the first draft of that song, I was the victim. I got bored by being the victim. With this record, I’m the aggressor. I have the “shotgun vision.” I am “becoming the gunship,” etc., etc.

What does the image of a ski mask mean to you? I understand it better now in terms of “being the aggressor” and the theme of an identity crisis, but that’s a cool image in particular. I think ski masks have had somewhat of a resurgence/makeover with Spring Breakers.

Right. Well, that was a rather unfortunate coincidence. I had this album title lodged in my brain for over two years. “Of Corpse” was written in 2007. The ski mask is vague and sinister. It’s like that other song I wrote “The Arm” [off 2008’s Arm’s Way]. I like the ambiguity of benevolence. A ski mask isn’t inherently a tool of violence. It’s to protect your face from the elements. That subtext has been applied, and that sort of thing interests me.

You’ve been really busy the last two or three years with branching out into lots of different forms of expression. Was moving to Los Angeles something that opened you up to the possibilities of movie scoring, acting, etc.?

I went to film school with an interest in editing and writing. The move to L.A. was a practical one, not borne out of a desire to switch careers. But it’s a showbiz town and everyone seems to be working on something.

How do you organize all these different forms of expression? You’ve also made comics in addition to everything previously mentioned. Do these come to you in their own unique ways so that it’s easy to differentiate? Or does it require more logistical-minded planning? I remember an interview with Miranda July where she said she had a coding system in her notebooks. Something like a little circle next to an idea meant a film, a star meant a short story, etc.

I like that. I guess I have a similar system, but I keep it in my head. I’ll have an idea for a short story that may mutate into an idea for a short film. And lines for prose that have turned into song lyrics. I let these things decide for me. I like crossover. I think the one thing that stands outside of all of this is the comics, because tonally, they’re very different from everything else I do.

Does being involved with all these projects become a nine to five kind of thing, or do you work in creative spurts?

It’s always on my mind, so I guess it’s more fluid. I sort of wish I had that rigid structure of a nine to five. Like the way Nick Cave does things. Gets up, puts on a suit and goes into the basement to write.

From your experience, do you find artists that don’t practice your musical profession more enjoyable to be around? More supportive of your work? In past interviews you’ve said you don’t have very many musician friends.

Well, I like to be surrounded by talented people. And I think that I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by those people. I don’t know why, but I have very few musician friends. Maybe it’s a competitive thing. I don’t really relate to most musicians. I have a fair number of comedian friends, but I also don’t really like stand-up comedy that much. Most of it is dreadful. I haven’t really thought about it too much though. I don’t like musicians, I guess. I also don’t like looking in a mirror. Maybe those two things are related.

Austin Duerst

Austin Duerst is a multimedia professional with over 12 years of diverse experience. His writing has appeared in Isthmus, The AV Club, Nerve, and LA Weekly.

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