Rank Your Records: Islands’ Nick Diamonds Rates the Band’s Five Records
From 'Return to the Sea' to 'Ski Mask', the frontman has been obsessively writing in his post-Unicorns career.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Nick Diamonds (née Nicholas Thorburn) can’t stop making music. And if he does take a brief second to do anything else, it’s either to direct a film he wrote or act in someone else’s film. He’s like a shark—if he stops moving, he’ll likely die. Because of this, Diamonds has spent the last ten years obsessively writing, recording, and releasing music through various names, but none more trusted than Islands, the group he formed from the ashes of Montreal’s most beloved cult band of the 2000s, the Unicorns. That band unexpectedly called it quits after one brilliantly whimsical album, 2003’s Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?. Diamonds and bandmate Jamie Thompson then formed the short-lived hip-hop duo Th’ Corn Gangg, which evolved into Islands. Although Thompson has come and gone as a member, Diamonds has always remained the band’s backbone, conducting a revolving cast of musicians to make albums of whimsically melodic indie rock that sound different from their predecessors each time around.
This year is arguably the most productive one yet for Diamonds, as he’s releasing two brand new Islands albums—Should I Remain Here At Sea? and Taste—simultaneously, via his own Manque imprint. But Diamonds insists there is no connection any greater than with the band’s previous records. “They are separate works,” he says. “They were both made at the same time in Toronto, but it became clear pretty early that they would be separate records. Although when we first went to Toronto I wasn’t sure if one would be the greatest hits of these two records but they started to feel very distinct. All of the songs had value to them, so I kept one mostly synthesizers and drum machines, and the other one more guitar-based and very live and roomy.”
Noisey got Diamonds to rank all five of Islands’ earlier records, and even though he struggled in the take off (“It feels bad to do this…”), he hit the ground running after a few minutes. “One of my fears in doing this is that I’ll rely on external judgment. I don’t want to fall prey to thinking poorly about the record that was the least critically savored on Pitchfork.”
5. Arm’s Way (2008)
Noisey: Why is this your least favorite?
Nick Diamonds: This is number five because I really think I had something to prove with that record. I had come off of the Unicorns, which people called “quirky” and “whimsical,” and I wanted to prove there was more than these light, ephemeral things; that I had substance and weight to my work. And I think I really tried to prove something with Arm’s Way. I mean, Return To The Sea was the first record, and I was trying to prove something there too, but by Arm’s Way I was trying to do a lot of prog stuff and psych stuff, and I was listening to a lot of the Kinks—there were a lot of ideas going on because it was a big band. Musically, it’s interesting. I hadn’t listened to it recently until a couple of weeks and I think what it goes for but doesn’t succeed is in the lyrics and the vocal execution. I don’t think I really stick the landing on the vocal side. I think musically it’s really interesting; I played with time signature shifts and there are a million chord changes. I just think less is more and I went into the opposite direction trying to flex a muscle and show off too hard.
Jamie Thompson started Islands with you after Unicorns broke up. He was on Return To The Sea but then left before this album. How did that change things for you?
We put this band together to play this record. So the two of us made Return To The Sea with an engineer and all of our friends in Montreal. And then Beck said, “I want the Unicorns to open for me.” And we said, “The Unicorns don’t exist anymore but we have Islands.” And so we played our very first show opening up for Beck, but we needed to put a band together. So we rushed to put this band together, and then Jamie quit about a month after the record came out and I was just left with this band. I went from not having a band to having a permanent band, and I felt like I had to step up my shit a little bit. So Jamie was gone and we had a new drummer who was great. I don’t know. I felt like I was trying to prove too much, which is such a bad look. It’s better to be calm and collected in the corner.
4. Return to the Sea (2006)
I think this is one of the most critically beloved of the bunch. But it’s just so painful to listen to. It sounds so naïve and so juvenile. Despite the fact that some of the songs are the best I’ve ever written, I think some of the execution of the songs is not on par with the actual songwriting. Again, I was still so new at performing and singing, and my musicianship was still in development, so listening to songs like “Human” and “Jogging Gorgeous Summer” are embarrassing. Like you’re watching an old video of yourself during puberty. Maybe it’s just vulnerability, but it feels really unrefined.
Obviously Unicorns meant a lot to so many people. Was there a lot of pressure felt when you were releasing the first Islands album, knowing so many people were anticipating it?
I don’t think so. I really was so naïve, and I think with the Unicorns we were so naïve and cocksure. We thought we could come out, make a splash and be a big deal. I don’t think we had any reservations or hesitations with that. And I think it was the same thing with the first Islands records. I thought we would hit the ground running. I had all of these songs written for a potential sophomore Unicorns release and I just knew there was this momentum and that I could maintain it. I felt super confident in a very naïve way, which was good. That is a valuable trait, to not overthink anything. I did want to go deeper and show a more nuanced side to my songwriting though. And I think I did, but listening back I think it had some of the same qualities, only stranger.
The guest list on this album is incredible. Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug from Wolf Parade, Regine Chassagne, Tim Kingsbury, Sarah Neufeld, and Richard Reed Parry from Arcade Fire, and Jim Guthrie all contributed. How did that all come together?
We didn’t have a band, and I could hardly play guitar back then. So it was a practical as it was an enjoyable thing to do. We just reached out to friends that we knew were around and good and appropriate. It was just a fun thing to get all of our friends together. With “Swans (Life After Death)” we did this thing that Neil Young had done, where I had pretended we were just rehearsing the song, and when we finished I told everybody we had been recording the whole time. So they were caught off guard a little, but it was just that kind of natural hang. It was all very natural. There was nothing contrived or forced about making that record. We just wanted to capture a mood and a moment and a feeling. And I think that comes through and people relate to it. There are just some things I’d like to change about it. I’d like to pump the brakes on my vocal affectations and recording styles. I think I could have been a little more restrained.
3. Vapours (2009)
Vapours and Ski Mask seem like they’re interchangeable, but I’ll go with Vapours. This came after Arm’s Way, where I had these really long songs with all of these different parts. It was a very loud, pointed attempt at proving my mettle. And I think with Vapours I just wanted to boil things down to their simplest thing, and it was a bit of a reaction to Arm’s Way. I wanted to make things a little less organic and build the songs in more of an electronic way. That was the idea. And on the Arm’s Way tour we had this band the Magic from Toronto who opened up for us, and they were so great and fun with this dance-y feel. I was really taken with them, so I asked Evan and Geordie [Gordon] to play on this record and they’ve been with me ever since. Jamie had always been into drum machines and hip-hop production, and I felt like I wanted to make that kind of record, just to push back, because the pendulum was swinging away from the Arm’s Way stuff.
I was hurt that Arm’s Way got trashed, and I took it personally. So I tried to go in another direction. I got a new band together, and Jamie came back and we were on good terms again. We went and worked with Chris Coady, who has done a lot since. He’s a real hands-on producer; much more than anyone I had worked with. We co-produced the record together, but he really helped us construct the record. But it wasn’t a very pleasant experience. Islands was a live thing: four or six people in a room recording a song from beginning to end. And this was the first time where we sat down and built the tracks. It wasn’t live and it wasn’t as vibe-y I guess. It was an experiment that I’m glad we tried, but it took way longer than any other record I’ve made. And it was the least amount of music recorded. So there was detail there, but I don’t know if it was for the better.
You mentioned this was a reaction to Arm’s Way. Every Islands album sounds different from the other. Is that because you’re always reacting to the previous album?
Yeah, I think so. Maybe it’s like this animalistic thing in the wild, like I make a new baby and then reject my old baby that has gotten hideous. I’ve got this precious new baby that I love more. And then I’ll have another baby and then hate that previous one again. It is a reaction and a rejection. It’s also like a shedding of the skin. I look back at all of these records and I feel so little connection to them. I see all of their flaws and imperfections.
2. Ski Mask (2013)
Some of the songs are really hit and miss, but there is some great stuff. I don’t know. I feel like maybe Return To The Sea could be number two, but… We made Ski Mask at the same time as A Sleep & A Forgetting. We made both records in three weeks and we put this one out later because we added a couple of songs. But Ski Mask was the first record where instead of rejecting the thing before it, I think this was more like a summation of all the other records. It felt like I was trying to access all of these styles and sounds I had and pivot between them. So it felt like the first time I was trying to represent what Islands was up to that point.
So this is the complete Islands record?
Yeah. I think it’s a reflection or a reassessment, I guess. I think it’s strong because I’m pulling from my experience, and it reflects the strengths that I had accumulated. My abilities had obviously developed since the first record.
1. A Sleep & A Forgetting (2012)
So why is this your favorite?
It just feels like the strongest, most cohesive record. It’s consistent, it’s a perfect length, the songs are really strong, and it came from a real dark place. I was really plumbing through dark depths. We made it so fast that it felt really pure and honest. And it sounds good.
How does Valentine’s Day play a role in this record?
We started making it on Valentine’s Day 2011 and then it came out on Valentine’s Day 2012. To be honest, it just seemed like a funny, bitter joke. It was about love but it was more about lost love. But we really moved fast on this thing that it was a little creepy. It was a little dangerous to be making a record that fast. You hear about artists like Frank Ocean taking four years to make a record, and then I think, “Fuck. Maybe I should take four years to make a record. Maybe I should be more deliberate and careful and precious.” But I’m just too impatient. Like I said, I eventually hate all of my old stuff so I would just reject it anyway. For me it’s more like a cleanse; to get it out. And it was excruciating to wait that long because we finished it before the summer 2011, but we had to wait because of the scheduling. So by the time it had come, so much had changed emotionally, but it was easy enough to tap into it. And it still is.
The year before this album, you started making solo albums. Does that mean that Islands isn’t necessarily Nick Diamonds music?
Well, I think Islands is “Nick Diamonds + X.” It’s me plus another element, generally speaking. I write 95 percent of the music, but actually on these two new records, I was squandering this opportunity to have these amazing musicians in my band collaborate. So we wrote a few songs together. I treat my solo records more like exercises to test the limits of what I’m capable of doing. With Islands it’s more like the real deal. But I think A Sleep & A Forgetting is the record I’m most proud of, front to back. Of course, excluding the two new records, because I do think they’re better.
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter - @yasdnilmac