We’ve Got A File On You: Nick Thorburn
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
Even in an age where everyone in indie is a multi-hyphenate, Nick Thorburn’s done a lot. He’s scored a feature film, written and directed his own comedy short starring Tim Heidecker and Michael Cera, put together his own graphic novel, and has composed the music to some of your favorite podcasts. A lot of this work took place after the breakup of beloved early-2000s indie rock gonzos the Unicorns, as well as during the initial run of his Islands project. Some of it took place because he essentially retired from making music as Islands in 2016 after the release of the companion albums Should I Remain Here, At Sea? and Taste — a fact that he chose not to share with the world at the time.
“I didn’t want to do a big song and dance like some musicians do when they retire, but I was done,” he explains during a phone conversation last month. “I had nothing left to give and nothing left to say.” After years of writer’s block, however, some session work with a younger artist inspired him to get back in the songwriting game as Islands: “I picked up the bass and thought, ‘This feels so fucking good,’ and I just got bit again. This shit is a bad penny, man. I can’t shake it.”
What followed was a burst of creativity — over 50 songs’ worth — that resulted in Islomania, the project’s first release in nearly five years. (You can see the album cover featuring Alex Kaprovsky at the bottom of the article.) Producer Chris Coady, who also worked on Vapours from 2009, manned the boards for this one, making it the first Islands album with a producer that wasn’t Thorburn since, well, Vapours. During our hour-long chat about his illustrious career so far, Thorburn repeatedly emphasizes his pride in Islomania as the best record he’s made in his career — and it’s already led to new creative avenues, too, as he’s formed a new and untitled project with Mike Stroud of Ratatat (who also pitches in on Islomania) that he hopes to release later this year. “It’s some of the craziest shit I’ve done in my career,” he exclaims. “I’m really excited about it.”
Here’s the album’s lead single, “(We Like To Do It) With The Lights On” and read on for our interview with Thorburn:
Th’ Corn Gangg (2005)
NICK THORBURN: It was around Christmas in 2004, and Alden [Penner, of the Unicorns] called me and said, “I think I’m done.” I was lost and distraught. I didn’t want to go back to Montreal in the winter, and I didn’t have an apartment because we’d given up all our places to just tour forever. I had nowhere to go, so my friend in Los Angeles was like, “Come here for New Year’s, we’re going to a party at Orson Welles’ house.” I booked a ticket for what was supposed to be two weeks but ended up being four months. I convinced Jamie to come down too, and we had a few friends there, two of them being Subtitle and Busdriver. We were trying to figure out what our next step was, and we always wanted to make beats. We weren’t Islands at the time, but we knew we wanted to push through to the other side.
So Corn Gangg became this transitional oddity for us. We did some shows, we had Steve McDonald of Redd Kross and Josh Klinghoffer before he was in Red Hot Chili Peppers. We were reconfiguring Unicorns songs with rapping over them. We played a show at SXSW in 2005 where Matisyahu came on stage, but he was super Orthodox so he didn’t want women in the front row while he was up there. It was very strange. Also, my synthesizer didn’t work, and I was having a terrible show — but I dropped ecstasy right before we went on, so it was total chaos. We also played a show at the Echo in Los Angeles where it was confusingly billed as “The Unicorns are Th’ Corn Gangg.” I had a more disruptive streak back then. So a lot of people came to the show and I think they were pretty bewildered. But we had fun! Nothing was ever recorded, but there are bootlegs floating around that are probably pretty raw. We were experimenting and we had nothing to lose.
When did you start getting into hip-hop?
THORBURN: I got into it as a kid, but not the good stuff — Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer, Kid n’ Play. [Laughs] But when I became roommates with Jamie [Thompson] around 2000, he introduced me to Lootpack, Antipop Consortium, and Aesop Rock. It all opened up a portal for me, and it’s been open ever since. I still try to keep up with the styles and trends of today, and I still have vague interest in being a participant in the world on the production side.
Any current artists you’ve been into?
THORBURN: I have an ever-expanding playlist of songs that get me pumped for going on a run. I really like Boldy James. The Griselda label are hitting a pretty good ratio of good releases. I’ve always liked Mayhem Lauren. I’m a cheesy old-timer that likes ‘90s stuff. I really like Big L and Kool G Rap. I love Danny Brown and MF Doom — I’ve been revisiting a lot of Doom’s stuff since his passing, and it’s crazy how well all of it holds up. He’s the best of the best.
“Do They Know It’s Hallowe’en?” (2005)
THORBURN: I always wanted to go through the side door with things. I wanted the next Unicorns album to be a board game, or a split with a noise band called Unicorn. We were on a noise label, so it felt like there was no rules. One of the other things I wanted to do was a one-off single taking the piss out of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” — a patronizing, condescending song about how hard it is in Africa because they don’t have Christmas. So “Do They Know It’s Hallowe’en?” was a cheeky satire of that. Do these people in these poor countries know how bad we have it with Halloween? How scary it is? Razor blades in apples, goblins, ghouls — they should be so lucky.
We were in LA, and Steve McDonald produced it with us. People are always passing through in LA, so everyone was getting in on it, and when we went back to Montreal we kept finding more cool people to be a part of it. I feel like that song never got its due. It was such a crazy assortment of people — Roky Erickson, Thurston Moore, Karen O. All the proceeds were charity, we gave the money to UNICEF because it’s a big part in Canada for trick-or-treating.
THORBURN: I met Daddy Kev in the underground hip-hop scene through Busdriver. He founded the Low End Theory night that he was doing with a couple of other people. He’s really serious about music on the technical side. I was a fan of this Awol One record he did, as well as his involvement in the LA scene. He invited me to make an EP with him in Hawaii. He said, “I’ll fly you and your girlfriend out and rent a nice house on the beach in Maui. During the day we’ll drive around and do cool stuff, and at night we’ll work on music. All expenses paid.” We went out for a week. He had these Hawaiian samples he’d play me, and I’d fuck around on guitar and write some lyrics and that was that. It was very chill and low-stakes.
Human Highway (2008)
THORBURN: The same year as Reefer, Islands had made Arm’s Way and we were getting out of a bad label situation in Canada. We were signing with ANTI- and trying to slip out of these greasy handcuffs that were on us. In that interim of waiting for Arm’s Way to come out, I wanted to keep the momentum going. I’d always loved Jim Guthrie — Now More Than Ever is one of my favorite albums of all time. I got him to play a few songs on the first Islands record and convinced him to do the first few tours with us too, even though he’d sworn off touring with his own stuff. We had a day off in Tucson and I had this song that I showed him, so we went up to our room and recorded it live in our room. That song became “My Beach,” the first Human Highway song. A year later, I went up to Toronto for 10 days and we spent every day in Jim’s home studio making the record. I admired him so much and just wanted to see what would happen if we mixed our spices together.
The Gum Bowl (2010)
THORBURN: That was a weird time in my life. A dark period. The event was a blur. All I recall is that our team was called the Bull Shits. Heems was on my team. I met some great people that night. I was just kind of falling apart in my personal life, so I don’t know how good I was at bowling that night. I also hate bowling more than anything. I just hate it so much, and it’s because I’m terrible at it. I have no coordination between my hand, the ball, and the lane.
Mister Heavenly (2011)
THORBURN: A couple of times I played Philly, Honus Honus came around and was really forward in introducing himself to me. He was such a character, and I got hip to Man Man through that. They were so bonkers and wild. There was a kitchen-sink kinship between them and the Unicorns, and maybe that’s why he reached out to me. I remember going to SXSW in 2006 and seeing Man Man a bunch of times, and we eventually became friends and he floated the idea of collaborating on a song. Initially it was supposed to be a split 7” — one of his, one of mine — but we just got along and the songs were really good. He suggested getting Joe Plummer, who he met through touring with Modest Mouse and is just this amazing ray of sunshine.
Once he got on board, we quickly fleshed out an album, sent it out to Sub Pop, and they said, “Let’s do it.” It all just happened so easily that I didn’t even think about it. It was such a nice outlet to have a band where I wasn’t singing and could just think about guitar. Usually when I have a guitar in my hand, the guitar is just a service to the singing. Now I could step back out of the light and just focus on the guitar parts, which was really rewarding.
Have there been any attempts at collaborating with others that haven’t been easy?
THORBURN: I don’t think so. My intuition guides me away from even getting that far with somebody. Every collaboration I’ve done has been released. What you see is what you get.
El-P – “Stay Down” (2012)
You played this song on Letterman.
THORBURN: That was cool, yeah. That was El-P’s first time, too. Obviously, because of Run The Jewels, he goes on late-night talk shows all the time now. I first met him in Clinton Hill and just went up to him and said “What’s up?” Jamie had previously introduced me to Cannibal Ox and Def Jux in general, so I was a fan of El-P’s. When I introduced myself to him, he said he was a fan of the Unicorns too, and he said, “My place is right around the corner, we should collaborate on something.”
You know what, regarding your previous question, this was a collaboration that didn’t work out. We worked on a song, and then he invited me back and said “Let’s make a project.” So we had a project called Stepson. We only released one song that got picked up by a few outlets, but we started to make a whole record together. That is a collaboration that just fizzled, and I don’t know exactly why. Life got in the way. Run The Jewels was happening around that time too. One of the Stepson songs was “Stay Down,” and that ended up being a focus track for Cancer 4 Cure, which we got to do on Letterman. I haven’t done late-night since. At the end, Letterman came over to shake hands, and I looked like a little kid waiting for my handshake from Sir David — and he didn’t shake my hand, so I did a little twirl of embarrassment just to undo the shame of not getting the handshake.
THORBURN: The Unicorns were always impish, trying to prank and subvert audience expectations. Doing those shows was fun because it was about being silly and tricking people and not being too precious about anything. For our last previous tour, we wanted to do something bigger — so we played My Dinner With Andre behind us. We wanted to do something similar for the reunion shows, so I used Fiverr to get people to record a bunch of testimonials about how much they loved the Unicorns, but I fed them inaccurate information about the band and had them slip in [9/11 conspiracy theory] stuff about building 7. [Laughs]
Alden didn’t want to spend any money on a light show, so I had my friends create a Unicorns-themed DVD screensaver. Before the show, we told fans to use the hashtag “#TheUnicorns” on Twitter so it would show up on stage, and on stage we had all these fake Tweets appear, like Jon Hamm tweeting about how Moby was at the show and KCRW talking about how awesome Moby was. We also had a bunch of Tweets being like, “The Unicorns suck. I can’t wait for Moby.” It was a lot of Moby content. Just nonsense. But all the people at the Arcade Fire show wanted to see their tweets, so they used the hashtag and we ended up trending in real life. I guess it worked out.
Do you think the Unicorns will ever reunite again?
THORBURN: It’s so hard to say. Look, I didn’t want to stop the second time, either. I wanted to keep it going. Some things are beyond my control. 2025 sounds like a nice number, if things were to restart — but the thing about The Unicorns is that it was just such a moment time, a part of my youth. To get up on stage in my 40s and sing songs about ghosts … it feels disingenuous. That was a really pure moment in my life, and it’s so perfect that it had its time and was so combustible that it couldn’t continue.
If I ever do it again, it wouldn’t be for the money. I could’ve kept going in 2014 if I was just interested for the money, but there were a few disagreements about the creative side of it, and I decided I didn’t want to be a part of it if it wasn’t going to be pure. I’d rather live in a hovel and preserve my integrity. I’d never say never, but I’m not banking on it ever happening again.
That Dog (2015)
This was your second time working with Michael Cera. The first was when he played with Mister Heavenly.
THORBURN: Michael’s been a friend for years. We did a McSweeney’s event for charity in LA way back in 2006. He was the emcee and I was the musical guest, and we had all kinds of cool people doing live bits. We stayed in touch, and he’s a great musician, so when we started rehearsing for the first Mister Heavenly tour, I thought it would be fun to bring him because he’s such an awesome person to be around. It was also a crazy thing to do. As soon as we got on stage for our first show in Seattle, I realized how idiotic it was, because we didn’t even tell Sub Pop. I was naive thinking it wouldn’t be a news item, but I guess it was.
While I was on tour with Islands, I had this crazy, vivid dream, and I woke up and wrote it down. I ended up translating the dream into That Dog. I asked Michael and Tim Heidecker if they would do it, and I was really surprised that they said yes. It was my first time directing. I went to film school, and I always figured when I got too old to do rock ‘n’ roll, I would make movies. So this was my first foray into that. I knew Tim and Michael were perfect for the roles, and Andrea Riseborough is such an incredible actor too.
Jash produced That Dog, and that was a time in which there was a lot more money going around when it came to funding comedy projects. I feel like that changed over the last few years.
THORBURN: I do agree. Jash started because they got a huge amount of money from YouTube and carte blanche to do whatever they wanted. I was so fortunate to be a part of that. Funny Or Die was a thing around that time, too. But there’s no money in short films. They weren’t going to recoup from That Dog. [Laughs] It couldn’t sustain itself forever. I just got in under the wire with that. I don’t have any real insight into it, but it seems harder and harder to find people who want to finance your short comedy film as the streaming wars keep accelerating.
Serial Podcast (2014)
THORBURN: While I was working with El-P, I met Jane, a producer on This American Life who was a friend of a friend. I had also met Gabe Delahaye at the Gum Bowl, so when Jane and Gabe were doing a podcast, they asked me to do a theme. I turned around a few ideas really quickly, and while Jane was working on This American Life, Sarah Koenig or Julie Snyder at Serial asked her if she knew anyone who could do a theme song, and she recommended me. They emailed me, and in a weekend I composed a library of music for them — one of which was the theme song, which I wrote in 30 minutes. It was the simplest thing. I kind of knew it would be the theme, because it felt the most thematic.
That led to a lot of podcast work. I do a lot of theme songs for BBC podcasts. It’s kept me afloat, and it’s given me the opportunity to do music that’s more personal to me. It’s not so lucrative — if Serial was a TV show and there were royalties, I’d be living on a house on top of a hill, instead of my one-bedroom at the bottom of the hill. But I do keep getting little gigs. I just did the theme song for Bad Faith, the new podcast with Virgil from Chapo Trap House and Briahna Joy Gray from Bernie Sanders’ campaign. It pays the rent.
Ingrid Goes West Score (2017)
THORBURN: That was a wild ride. I was friends with the director and his wife, and he liked Islands and floated the idea of me scoring the movie. It was something I’d never done before, although I was working on another score around that time too. Islands are in the movie for a hot second too, we’re in there playing Orange Juice’s “Rip It Up” in Pappy and Harriet’s in Joshua Tree. But scoring the movie was one of the most challenging experiences of my life. I kind of swore off scoring after that. That said, if the opportunity arose and I found a filmmaker who really knew what I’d provide and wasn’t just trying to get me to make something like Jonny Greenwood and Danny Elfman … you gotta hire me knowing that this is what I do. But it was an incredible learning experience.
THORBURN: Drawing is my first love. Since I was a kid and all throughout my life, I’ve loved drawing comics. As a kid, one of my favorite places was Fantagraphics. Years later, I was just drawing stuff, and a guy at a comic book place in LA, Secret Headquarters, floated my stuff to Fantagraphics, who were doing a new anthology. I submitted to that anthology and had a couple of my comics in that. In 2016, I decided I was done with Islands and wanted to do other things, so I started to get this idea for a book — a wordless book of miserable experiences. I wrote to Fantagraphics and sent them the first 10 or 15 pages and said, “Do you want to publish this?” I knew I was out of my depth. Fantagraphics is the best publisher of alternative comics in the world. But they were down, so that was my project for 2017. Every day I drew and drew, and by the end I had 300 pages. It was a dream come true. I want to do a longer story next, but I’m working on other forms of writing that might come next, too.
Special Thanks In Borat 2 (2020)
THORBURN: You’re such an eagle eye. Jason Woliner is one of my dearest and closest friends. I had no involvement in the creation of that movie. Maybe I was of emotional help to him. I found out about the movie a year and a half ago, but I wasn’t allowed to talk about it, so maybe I got a “Thanks” for keeping a secret.
Islomania is out 6/11 via Royal Mountain Records. Pre-order it here.