Nick Thorburn Talks with the Star of Islands’ New Album Cover, Alex Karpovsky

The friends catch up on the band’s five-year hiatus and more.

Alex Karpovsky is an actor, writer, and director known for his work on HBO’s Girls and the Amazon series Homecoming; Nick Thorburn is the frontman of the Montreal-originated, now-LA-based indie rock band Islands. Islands has a new record out this Friday via Royal Mountain Records, Islomania, which features Alex on the cover; To celebrate its release, the friends sat down to catch up about it, and more.

— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Alex Karpovsky: I’m very excited about your new album. 

Nick Thorburn: Thank you. 

Alex: When did we go to Death Valley to shoot the cover? 

Nick: We went in October, I’m gonna say? 

Alex: Oh, I thought we went to the hottest place at the hottest time of year, but maybe that’s not right.

Nick: We went to the hottest place just after the hottest time of the year. We wisely waited until it was a little less hot. But it was hot.

Alex: It was really hot—it was also really beautiful. The whole area was gorgeous and the trip was really fun. And I walked away with some great photos of myself.

Nick: [Laughs.] Yeah, one of which made it on the cover of the album.

Alex: And one of which I might make into a dating profile main picture.

Nick: The one of you in the pool? 

Alex: Yeah. 

Nick: We’ll show that right below this whole block of text.

Alex: That’d be perfect.

Nick: That shot actually adorns the plate of the CD and the vinyl. I think you can see your face on that.

Alex: Oh, you’re making CDs? That’s cute.

Nick: Yeah, CDs are coming back. 

Alex: In, like, a retro novelty way?

Nick: I believe so. I’m a geriatric millennial, so that was the primary method of—

Alex: What was your first CD?

Nick: There were a couple, but I think my first CD that I purchased with my own money would have been Maestro Fresh Wes, Symphony in Effect. He was the first big Canadian rapper. What was yours?

Alex: It was The Misfits — “20 Eyes,” I think? Or that song was on it, anyway. I don’t remember. It was also used and didn’t work very well, like, it skipped a lot. 

Nick: That’s the problem with CDs. 

Alex: Yeah. My dad got a Madonna CD as a gift, and the box was like twice as long as the CD.

Nick: They used to do that! I think it was an anti-theft thing. 

Alex: Oh, is that right? 

Nick: Yeah, they did it at Tower Records, they had these giant big plastic containers. I think it was a shoplifting deterrent. Or, wait..Maybe it was a way to make your purchase more substantial, because vinyl was so big. I don’t know. I can’t remember.

Alex: That was my assumption, it was less meaningful listening to the smaller format… 

Nick: But then how does that explain cassettes? Because those are even smaller. So, I’m talking out my ass — I’m Talking-House my ass.

Alex: Yeah, I don’t know what Madonna album it was, but someone gifted it to him at some office Christmas party thing. And it worked perfectly because it was new and I ended up listening to that a lot more. I was like, Yeah, this is pretty good. It has that song “Cherish” on it, where she’s a mermaid in the video, I believe. Or something sexy on the beach.

Nick: That’s a good gamut that you’re running, from Misfits to Madonna.

Alex: Yeah, I’m covering a lot of ground.

Nick: That’s good homework right there.

Alex: Let’s get back on track. I’m going to ask you a few questions. One is, in your mind, is there a theme to this album? 

Nick: Yeah. 

Alex: What is it?

Nick: This is my eighth record with Islands, and in the past, I’ve tended towards more of an emotional sound, where I’m either sad or angry. This time around, I’d taken three solid years off from writing, and I wanted to reorient myself — I was interested in revisiting my approach to making music, publicly. For me, the best way to do that was just a celebration of what it is, the privilege and the pleasure of making music. There’s plenty of exuberance to this record, even though lyrically there’s still some dark moments. 

Alex: I definitely find that to be the case. There’s sort of a celebratory vibe to the album. It’s very dancey, it’s very, like, roll your windows down in your car and just belt out the lyrics. 

Nick: Have you done that?

Alex: Um, yeah. I think we did it together. I think you made us listen to a few of the songs

Nick: [Laughs.] And I made you roll down the window and belt out the lyrics.

Alex: I mean, I genuinely love the other music you’ve made, but this does seem different in the sense that it has more effervescence to it. There’s a natural spring in its step, and it’s a really fun listen. It lifts my spirits, and puts me in a good mood. It’s amazing to see you find a different gear, and then really kind of have fun and connect.

Nick: And it’s all a facade. I’m still miserable.

Alex: Sure.

Nick: But I’m trying to manifest a little bit of optimism, you know? 

Alex: Does faking happiness make you more happy, temporarily?

Nick: That’s what they say, fake it ‘til you break it.

Alex: They also say if you smile, like if you contort your face into a smile, it does make you happier because of neurochemical associations or something. 

Nick: Alright. What about crying?

Alex: Tears of joy or tears of pain?

Nick: You name it. I’ll cry, I’ll do anything. What do you want? 

Alex: Would you say that’s a theme to the album, or a sort of emotional throughline? Or is there a difference for you between those things?

Nick: I guess the theme is more, “elevator going up”. I have a record planned as the response to this one — the counterpoint — which is Sunday morning. It’s the morning after, reality has set in, the elevator is going down. But Islomania is more fantasy, I suppose, and hopefully synchronising with a time when people can finally feel like they’re able to relax a little, and enjoy themselves.

Alex: Yeah. That’s what I think is interesting about the feel of the album and the timing, is you recorded it during dark times, at least from a health perspective and a cultural-social perspective. I remember visiting you in the recording studio, and it was like we were in the toilet — there was no light at the end of the tunnel, we had no idea if there’d be a vaccine soon. And yet you were creating music that was very counter to that feeling. And it’s coming out at a time that’s brimming with optimism. Prophetic?

Nick: You know, I am a prophetic man. I’m a soothsayer as some would say. I don’t know. To me, when a work can connect with people, a lot of it has to do with timing — what people are hungry for, what their appetite is. And it seems like a good meal to serve at this juncture.

Alex: Was it easier or harder for you to write this album than it was previous albums?

Nick: It was just different. I had taken years off from writing — entire years in the interim between the last record where I just didn’t write a song. I thought, Maybe I’ll never write a song again, I’ll never complete [a song]. I could pick up a guitar and start writing a song, but I’ll never finish, I’ll never follow through again. That’s sort of why I felt like, back in the first chapter of the band — because I do feel like it was broken up with this hiatus — that I gotta keep writing while I have the fire and the inspiration. I have to tap into it, because who knows? I may wake up and just not feel the pull. So I was worried that I never would again, and I took these years off and then it slowly started to bleed back in. Once it came back, it was like, Oh, I do feel better  —  more able and more equipped with that break, and with a little bit of perspective  —  to write

I’d been writing some stuff  — some non-music stuff  — and I’d been getting notes on a lot of that, going through pages of edits and revisions — which I know that’s a world that you inhabit. That really helped me, because when it came time to be concise and edit and think about a song, it was more like, Let’s just keep tweaking, let’s keep fine tuning this, let’s do another pass on this song. I feel as though I’ve gotten better at articulating an emotion, better than I’ve ever been before, where I can edit and be more concise and fine tune it in a way that maybe before I would let play. Earlier, I might say, OK, this is how it felt in the moment, I’m just going to honor that. And then years go by and I’d listen and think, I could have tweaked that line or reworked that phrase. I could have fine tuned it, but I didn’t. And now I think I’ve got a better handle on the overall conception of the story within a song. Because you are telling a little bit of a story. Not to be too fanciful, but… 

Alex: Yeah. Do you think you can articulate what the reasons were that allowed you to regain an enthusiasm for songwriting?

Nick: I think I just needed a break. I didn’t know what to write about. I felt like I had nothing to say. Then I was asked to do a writing session with this young kid. His manager had liked The Unicorns and thought that this guy might find something useful with my style. I did a couple of days just… it wasn’t really writing, it was almost like mentoring, coaching or something. I suggested a few chord changes and was like a “vibe guy” or something. But it was fun. I picked up a bass, and played bass on a track, and it just kind of reinvigorated me. Seeing it through the eyes of a young person who is coming into music — this kid was [half] my age, you know, so it was interesting to be this elder, seeing his approach and the way he was a sponge, just absorbing music. I think when you’re making your music, you don’t want to be too aware of the history, too focused on the music that came before you, but you want to be engaged on some level. It’s a little conversation. You don’t want to be too isolated, either. And I think the older you get, when you’re a creative person, you can lock yourself off and build yourself into a little island and become hermetic in a way. And that can be detrimental, because ultimately making music is social. Quite often, it’s going to be received by someone. People will hopefully listen! And I think it’s good to be in a conversational flow with the world. So that little session was a good reminder. Like, Oh, yeah, the world is still going and people are still excited and listening. So I tapped into that and it kind of got me going again.

Alex: That’s really interesting. Did you know at the time that your enthusiasm for songwriting was starting to resuscitate? Or is that something that unfolded slowly? 

Nick: No, then it hit. After that little session, which didn’t go anywhere, I went home and just started writing, and in a month I had written 20 songs or something. They just started pouring out of me. It was like the dam had burst. It just came out. I allowed it to happen. But I wasn’t really too aware of what it was that was happening. It felt more… I don’t know, maybe I’ve lived in LA too long, but it felt more like I was just tapping into something. [Laughs.]

Alex: Yeah, it sounds like you were. You told me a while ago that you basically came up with three albums worth of songs?

Nick: Yeah.

Alex: So, elaborate on that. This is the first of three, in effect?

Nick: Yeah. So I definitely like to organize the songs into a theme, I guess, where there’s some kind of cohesive element. Islomania is the upper, the amphetamine. The next record — the response to Islomania —  is called And That’s Why Dolphins Lost Their Legs, and it’s the downer, the ketamine. Maybe not a downer, maybe ketamine’s more of a side-to-side, I don’t know. But it’s definitely taking you a little bit out of your body. And then the third one — maybe it’s the Monday, “back-to-work” record, if we’re extending the days of the week metaphor. Either way, it feels a little more like it’s back to business. That one — tentatively titled What Occurs —  I have most of the songs for —  they’ve been demoed, but I haven’t taken them to the band. This third record will be more of a “band” record. A meat-and-potatoes kind of experience. It’ll feel a little loose, a little ragged, a little more like a live record. I try to vacillate between just like, what you can play around a campfire — like, this is a song, here are the chords. And then a record like Islomania, where there’s a little more finesse, I guess. It’s kind of more of a production journey, or whatever.

Alex: Yeah, but I could see you putting it on at a party, I could see you putting it on on a day at the beach.

Nick: I like that.

Alex: It’s upbeat. It’s fun. It’s amazing to me that you basically have the content of three albums. How far apart would these be?

Nick: I mean, if it was up to me, I would want them to come out in rapid succession. I think Dolphins, I would like to come out a year from now. I don’t want to breeze too quickly past this record, you know, so I think one a year seems like a good compromise. I mean, that was how they did it back in the day — you just were recording all the time, you were going into the studio all the time and you were on the road all the time. But you always had the songs.

Alex: Yeah, and you kept your discourse with society, if you want to phrase it that way, more fresh, more vital. As opposed to three years or whatever the average is between albums now, where things are sort of less germane than they used to be.

Well, let’s go back to me [laughs.], and the album cover. You described to me your idea loosely for your inspirations and for the type of album cover you wanted — let’s talk about that for a second. 

Nick: I wanted to do a cover that felt like a scene from a film, that told you a story that kind of hinted at a before and an after. A big inspiration was the band Sparks. They have these great album covers, one in particular called Propaganda, the first record of theirs I got into. It’s this band with these two brothers, Russell and Ron. 

Alex: Cool band.

Nick: Yeah, very cool band. Seemed like they never fully got their due back in the day, but I think they’ve been getting it in recent years. They’ve gotten their flowers, or whatever. Anyway, the cover of Propaganda is them in the back of a speedboat with their hands tied behind their back. You can just read a lot into this one image, it’s very evocative. And then Hypnosis of course was this collective of graphic designers in the ‘70s that did the biggest and the best covers — they did all the big records by Pink Floyd and Zeppelin. Their most iconic ones were Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here — and obviously Dark Side of the Moon, but Wish You Were Here is this amazing cover, with the handshake and the guys on fire. You’re just drawn in immediately. It’s more than just some big text and a color scheme. 

Alex: It sort of begs a series of questions. 

Nick: With Islomania, I knew I wanted to call it Islomania, which was a kind of celebration of the band, and just where I’ve been and, you know, the love of Islands, so to speak. So the funny joke was, I want a person to be stranded in a desert, who could not be further away from a body of water. That yearning, that love of Islands, because you haven’t had it for five years or whatever. So then I immediately thought of you, as someone who’s an incredibly talented actor and a filmmaker who can say so much with their face. You can just see that person [in] just a still, just a screen shot, if you will, and it feels like you can read into it. You can read the before and the after, and the beginning, middle and the end. It felt like a nice thing to see you with a parachute. That was Jason’s [Tippet, the photographer] idea  —  you have clearly just landed in the desert. You’re in a suit and tie like you had somewhere important to be, you had a map in your hand. You’re obviously lost, you didn’t intend to be landing in the desert. So it was just a playful way to add to the theme of the record, I guess, which is like, I’m happy to be back and I’m not taking for granted where I am as opposed to where I’m not, which I guess would be lost in a desert. Because you’re not going to survive, I think. I mean, even when we went out there, I had the fear a little bit. It seems small, that little patch of desert up in Death Valley, but once you’re in there, you can get disoriented very quickly. And the sidewinders come out at night. 

Alex: Yeah, I have a huge, huge, huge, huge, huge fear of snakes. It’s terribly irrational. 

Nick: What did Freud say about that?

Alex: Now, that’s a good question. What would Jung say about it too? I’m sure they both have theories. These sidewinders, which I didn’t know about until that trip, sleep in a coil, I believe, and they come out at sunset. We got out there in the late afternoon, and Jason Tippett — the very talented photographer who took the photo — took a few photos and was showing them to me, I’m like—

Nick: “Looks good, let’s get the fuck out of here!”

Alex: And he was like, “Well, the shadows look better if they’re longer.” And I was like, “Let’s get the fuck out of here, please.” They’re poisonous too, I think?

Nick: Deadly. They are deadly snakes. And mercifully, we didn’t see a single one. But the walk back to the car, to the parking lot was… harried, I would say.

Alex: Well, it’s hot out there, even in October. And we’re walking through sand and we’re lugging shit.

Nick: You’re in a full suit and tie too, with a parachute backpack on your back.

Alex: Yeah, but I love that stuff. I love how agile you can be when you have a small crew.

Nick: It was just the three of us.

Alex: On the way to Death Valley, we were driving near Mojave, the city, and right before it we saw a fire in the distance and we were like, “Awesome, let’s just pull over and have a few photos in front of this raging fire in the field.” You can’t do that if you’ve got a big team and trucks and permits, all the bureaucracy of a real shoot. It’s like indie filmmaking, guerilla filmmaking. I love that excitement and freedom, and the danger that goes with it. Because we got our ass handed to us — remember that woman came up to us?

Nick: Yeah, we got pretty close to this fire, and I think it was a controlled fire on some field or something. 

Alex: It was massive. 

Nick: It was massive. We got really close. We kept driving, and it felt like we were tornado chasers. Like we were Helen Hunt in Twister. But this lady was asking us to leave, and threatening to call authorities because we somehow breached some level of security.

Alex: She told us we were trespassing and were now on a US Air Force base. There were no signs that I saw.

Nick: I think I saw a sign but I looked the other way. We were definitely a little close for comfort. She did give us a stern warning, but mercifully allowed us to leave. It did feel for a minute like we were in a bit of trouble. But we got a great shot, and that is what’s fun when you’re with a small crew. You can move in the corners a little bit.

Alex: And it gives you chase impulse. You can really nurture spontaneity.

Nick: Maybe that’s a metaphor for this record. We are a small operation, we move in the crevices. It’s a blessing to be small. Small is beautiful.

(Photo Credit: Jason Tippett)

Nick Thorburn is the frontman of the indie rock band Islands. Formerly of The Unicorns, and a composer for the critically acclaimed podcast Serial, he is also an active volunteer around the LA area for organizations like SELAH and OMG Everywhere.

Islands’ new album, And That’s How Dolphins Lost Their Legs, is out Friday, August 25 via ELF Records.

(Photo Credit: Jason Tippett)