At 6:30 PM this past Tuesday, a few hours after grim signs of the apocalypse began to emerge, I called Nick Diamonds. I had pulled off the 101 South into a fast food parking lot, while Diamonds, frontman and founding member of Islands, was en route to a friend’s place in Los Feliz to, as he put it, “white-knuckle” the impending presidential election results.
In retrospect, the moments we spent catching up about Islands’ upcoming show at the Masonic Lodge at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery seem like the final fleeting moments of a now extinct innocence. A new September 10th, if you will, replete with deafening and desperate screams of fire truck sirens down in LA and the unmistakable scent of a drive thru somewhere in the Valley. Harbingers abounded. I digress.
Fresh off a tour in support of a pair of releases earlier this year (Should I Remain Here At Sea? and Taste), Diamonds (AKA Nick Thorburn) and his mates will soon convene to play a pair of shows to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the release of Islands’ debut LP, Return to the Sea.
On Return to the Sea, I hear a lot of corporeal or grotesque or almost violent lyrics that belie the sound of the album. Was that intentional?
Yeah, that always been my modus operandi — the disjointed contrast between the mellifluous, melodic music and then these dark lyrics. You can see that on pretty much every record. I lean into it a little heavier on some than on others. Unicorns is where I started doing that, using the concept of death as metaphor. Islands is more about rebirth, but a messy rebirth.
The band name Islands. First track, first verse of Return to the Sea in “Swans (Life After Death)” — is that were it came from? (“Swans, swans, swans sing songs all night long. Who knew how warm the islands were?”)
I think they kind of came together. Honestly, I was thinking maybe I should have a signifier or descriptor adjective before “Islands,” even “Future” — not even kidding — instead of the more plain and simple Islands. I think the name came after a lot of the songs were written.
How did the creative process of making Return to the Sea inform what you’ve done since 2006. What was it about those sessions or life experience that stuck with you?
It was so early for me. It was the first time I was in a proper studio and a pretty new experience. It was a big step.
Once Return to the Sea came out in 2006, do you recall any specific shows in LA?
We were on Beck’s radar. He asked us to open for him. It was our first show. He asked us to support the last leg of the Guero tour. It was a very exciting time. Then we came back and did El Rey Theatre.
I was, for some dumb reason, really into fireworks at that time. They are hilariously stupid and foreign and exotic, but also a very American concept, too. We picked up a bunch in the South, and then we played our LA show.
We were on stage at El Rey, and I remember pulling out sparklers and the security guard completely dousing me with fire extinguisher foam. Just soaking me in it, covering me, like I was a snowman. Then I led the crowd out into the street, Pied Piper-style, and lit off all these fireworks, jumping on top of cars.
On that tour we did it a couple times, leading the crowd outside onto the street for drum circles or jams in revelry. We probably lost thousands of dollars in merchandise, but it was way more fun to get everyone outside on the street in a drum circle, and jam, just…revelry.
[Sirens start blaring in background during interview]
So we did that in LA, and we lit off these fireworks and fire trucks came, which are weirdly coming at me right now as I say all of this. It was fun times. I was so much younger then and naïve. When you’re naïve you can do some really fun things. You think you’re invincible.
When you play Hollywood Forever on December 2nd, will you play the album front-to-back or have you not yet decided? Will you play other Islands material?
Yes. We are going to try to present the record as faithfully as possible. We are bringing in some players who played on the record and some other OG friends. We are going to do some greatest hits and other surprises, too.
When I hear different samples of your projects (Islands, Human Highway, Unicorns), I think one unifying characteristic is that they are really well produced. They sound good, which, surprisingly, is not always the case in music today. Who are some producers that you admire, such that when they put an album out, you make sure to check it out because you know they produced it?
During the making of Return to the Sea, my co-producer Mark (Lawson) and I were looking a little bit at Tony Visconti and some of his tricks he would do with Bowie — like doubling acoustic and electric guitars, or vocal techniques where you get a live reverb by placing a microphone at the other end of the room so you get a natural room sound.
Joy Division, too — we put drums on the roof for a song that was never released, but maybe we will put out eventually as b-side or something. We timed the flutter of the drums between the two neighboring buildings and then played the song at the tempo that would create a nice, natural slapback on the drums. We’re always trying to experiment.
With new producers, big guys like Richard Swift (The Arcs, The Shins, Starflyer 59), Jim Eno (Spoon, Phosphorescent, Heartless Bastards), and Tchad Blake (The Black Keys, Los Lobos, Peter Gabriel), all these slick-sounding records are fun when there are little bells and whistles that get your ears perked up when you hear little moments.
How did your work on soundtracking the Serial project come up? Did you know the plot line? Did it inform your writing or did the music already exist?
They had one episode in pilot form and a script, but it wasn’t final. They sent me that episode, which gave me a sense of the show, and it immediately reminded me of Twin Peaks, which had a missing girl. That made me think of this dreamlike guitar twang.
The theme song came to me on the spot. It was really just a couple of hours, and it was fully formed. Later, I gave them a library of music, and they dropped it in when or if it was appropriate.
Has any other work come from that project?
Oh yeah. It changed my life. I am now a composer. That was my first real composing job. I am now scoring feature films, and [Serial] completely changed my approach to making music. It’s a new era for me.
Making records and touring is going to become a thing of the past for me, unfortunately. This LA show will be considered rare in the future, I think. My priorities are changing in life — fewer live performances — so I’m putting a lot of heart and soul into this upcoming show.
Apart from your career, what keeps you in LA?
Friends. I’ve lived here now for four-and-a-half years on paper, but moved here six years ago. I have a deep connection here. Islands started here in 2005, and Islands is a home for me. The community of friends I have, along with the work that I am trying to do, it’s here, so it feels like the right place to be.
Tickets for Islands’ December 2nd show in celebration of the 10-year anniversary of Return to the Sea are on sale now.
Return to the Sea was remastered and reissued on November 11th.