Q&A: Nick Thorburn Premieres “Aloe Hills,” Talks Soundtracking The Film Only The Young

This week at the IFC Center in NYC, Oscilloscope Labs presents the opening run of its latest critically acclaimed film, Only The Young. (Get tickets here, film folk. It looks nice!) It focuses on three charming teens teetering on adulthood in an economically depressed town, and its directors (Jason Tippet and Elizbeth Mims) and producer (Derek Waters) were smart to commission original music from Nick Thorburn, whose work with Islands and Unicorns and all manner of comedians makes him particularly well qualified to spin gold from the themes of young adulthood, suburban ennui, depression, and general teetering. Since this was Nick’s first time soundtracking a film, I figured it’d be nice to engage in a conversation with The Artist himself about it. Below you can hear “Aloe Hills,” the film’s theme song, which is followed by a long talk we had about writing for film, growing up, projects past and future, Foxygen, the Grammys, and his relationship to fun. (the band, not the concept).

STEREOGUM: How’s everything going, Nick? How’s life?

NICK THORBURN: Things are good! Just chilling in LA.

STEREOGUM: Awesome. Well first of all, I should congratulate you on all the Grammy nominations for Fun. (Editor’s Note: Please follow and scroll through @jondaly and @nickfromislands for this to make sense. But basically, Jon has fun. pretending that Nick is in fun..)

NICK THORBURN: Well, I’m just about to take to my Twitter to complain about not being nominated.

STEREOGUM: I hear that if you @ Bon Iver, everything works out in the end.

NICK THORBURN: Right, that’s what I was thinking. Because if there’s one thing that I’m entitled to, it’s everything. “Gimme My Grammy.” That’s my new t-shirt.

STEREOGUM: So how long have you been out in LA now?

NICK THORBURN: Officially since June. I started to come out here two years ago when I left NY officially, and now I’m out here full time.

STEREOGUM: So what’s the bulk of your activity out there relate to, officially?

NICK THORBURN: You know, I’m on my grind. Some stuff it’s a little too early to speak on. But it’s very fun and exciting, a combination of all the things I’ve ever wanted to do.

STEREOGUM: OH MAN so you’ve got a variety show, and it’s coming out in graphic novel format.

NICK THORBURN: That’s close but no cigar. I’m trying to have a good time, still making Islands music, and trying to do soundtrack stuff, because it was really fun doing Only The Young. This was first film I ever did!

STEREOGUM: Congratulations! What was your relationship to the filmmakers going into the project? Did you have one?

NICK THORBURN: I knew the producer, Derek Waters, I’m good friends with him. He’s a great, hilarious guy. He does the Drunk History stuff. Really good guy, good soul. He approached me, they thought of me when they were looking for some original music. They had shot the film and edited it but they had some placeholder music, some of it they couldn’t clear, so they came to me and asked me to do just a few short pieces to fill in. And I did two. One of which I kind of elaborated on with Islands, put it to words, made it from a 30 second score into a full song. That’s the song that Oscilloscope sent you: “Aloe Hills.”

STEREOGUM: How much of your music can people expect to hear in the film?

NICK THORBURN: There’s really two key points in the film where my music is used. I watched it and wrote to the theme that they’d given me: It’s kind of that melancholic turning point when you go from being an innocent teenager to becoming an adult and that weird, awkward transition that everyone goes through, some more extreme than others. There’s a hint of sadness in the film that I tapped into because I am deeply obsessed with “sad.”

STEREOGUM: So it is a “coming of age” film. Then you have Everyday Is Like Sunday, which is another film you’re involved in (this time as an actor). And that seems to be a “coming of age” film, too? So the question is: What is it about you and coming of age?

NICK THORBURN: I don’t know if Everyday Is Like Sunday is coming of age. You haven’t seen it, have you?

STEREOGUM: No, I just saw the trailer and theorized. But … you’re acting!

NICK THORBURN: I wouldn’t call it acting. I would call it “floundering in a scene.” I don’t know if Everyday is about coming of age, I’m not interested in coming of age as a theme, it’s not something that springs to mind when I’m trying to get inspired. Especially since I feel like I aged way to fast. I feel like Unicorns was all about youthful, brash resistance to everything, and I really embellished that and indulged in it when that was happening. And then when the Unicorns broke up I really felt like distancing myself from that and trying to prove that I’d outgrown it, and maybe prematurely I did. Because I was only 22 or 23 when I started trying to act like an adult. And now that I’m 31, I kinda wish I had been immature for a little bit longer. You know, I’m listening to this new band Foxygen a lot, their last record and their new record, and I really like what they’re doing, I think about them a lot because they remind me of that kind of insolent snottiness that the Unicorns had, that bratty thing, and I miss that and can’t get back to that. So maybe in that sense I yearn for that kind of “coming of age.” But now I’ve come of it, and I have nowhere to go but to get old and be crazy and sad.

STEREOGUM: In thinking about and writing music for Only The Young, how much did you identify with the film’s characters and setting? The synopsis ties the themes very specifically to its town, which is a hardhit place with lives feeling incomplete and unfulfilled all around. Does that resemble what you experienced?

NICK THORBURN: Yeah, I think there’s a throughline between the kind of childhood I had, as far as the physical space goes. The town in the movie is pretty depressed economically. A lot of the locations where they hang out are abandoned houses, which I think is probably a direct result of the economic collapse of 2008. But the town I grew up in, or one of the towns — I grew up in two very small towns, one in northern British Columbia, and one further south — but both were hit by hard times. The one in the north, in particular, was definitely very similar to that kind of thing, with not a lot of opportunity. Growing up there, it didn’t feel there was a lot of hope for getting out. Everything was closing — employment was the local mill and that was closing, fishing was drying up, and those were the main resources. Those and the logging industry. Seeing that destitute lifestyle, it kind of makes you feel like there’s not much worth living for. And not in that dramatic “do or die” way, but definitely in that way where you get into trouble. Less so in the movie — I think those kids are all pretty straight and narrow, like, good kids — but that was the town where I was living: going down to the dock and throwing rocks at the homeless people that were sleeping under the bridge and huffing all kinds of fucked up drugs, that was just what you did. I’m glad I got out of that town before I really got swept up in that.

STEREOGUM: So you were able to identify on a socioeconomic level, and also on an emotional one. How did that affect your process as a first-time film soundtracker? Was it very different from your customary writing process?

NICK THORBURN: Generally my process when I’m writing is just to sit down with a guitar, and if there’s something that’s lingering, like a vocal melody or a progression or something, I’ll work that out. Or I’ll pick up a guitar when I’m inspired. So really, with this process, it’s just adding one element: Like OK, let’s open the theme I’m trying to score and play along to it and see what clicks. Fakin’ it ’til I make it.

STEREOGUM: That’s how it’s done. I’d been thinking about your love for the comedy world, and your clear embrace by it, and after hearing about the Sandy benefit you’re doing (on 12/13 at Largo in LA with Jenny Slate, Gabe Liedman, Jon Daly, and Kurt Braunohler), I decided you were kin with Craig Wedren and Ted Leo, who are such good dudes. You’re the indie rock guy who seamlessly bridges those worlds, and now that you’re a film soundtracker, maybe you’ll soundtrack their projects. So my question is: Do you reject that? Do you want to punch me?

NICK THORBURN: No, I don’t reject that at all! Yeah I mean, I’m a chuckle-fucker. I hang out with the comics. Most of my friends in LA are in that kind of field. I don’t have many, if any, musician friends. I find musicians kind of insufferable to be around. Or they’re just not very sociable and friendly or polite, or they just don’t like me. I don’t know! I tend to gravitate toward funny people, I’m not sure why. I have some little projects with some. I’m doing this thing with comedian Jon Daly on the 16th, he has a character called Sappity Tappity which is a drunk, British Christmas tree on rollerblades, and on Saturday we sat down and wrote ten really stupid Christmas songs, about base things.

STEREOGUM: It was very much Jon Daly I had in mind when I congratulated you on those Grammy nominations for fun.

NICK THORBURN: Oh yeah, of course. Well he thought I was in fun. for awhile, which was a fun joke, and now he thinks I’m dating the lead singer. All true.

STEREOGUM: All true things. We’re printing all of them.


Only The Young premieres tonight at IFC in NYC, and plays there for a week. You can get tickets here, and watch the trailer below:

Also check out Nick’s new project with El-P, STEPSON.