It starts with “I Don’t Wanna Die.” It ends with “Ready To Die.” And they did, so to speak. The Unicorns only lasted for one album. Released 20 years ago this Saturday, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? is the wacky Montréal indie band’s main contribution to history. And with all due respect to the wealth of music Nick Thorburn and Alden Penner have released over the past two decades, it’s the album that will be cited first when both of them conk off for real.
Thorburn and Penner met in 1998 as high school classmates in the small fishing town of Campbell River, British Columbia. As the story goes, 12th-grader Thorburn was intrigued when 10th-grader Penner, the new kid at their high school, wore a skirt and a T-shirt that said “Share The Power” on his first day. They played together in a handful of bands throughout that school year — names included Mad Daddy & The Patty Stackers, Poor Alexander, and the Stanley Milgram Project — before Thorburn headed to college at Montréal’s McGill University in the fall of 1999. When he came home for Christmas in 2000, he and Penner attempted to reform the Stanley Milgram Project, but when they failed to click with a pair of collaborators, the two of them decided to start something new called the Unicorns. Their first show was in nearby Courtenay; because they only had two songs at the time, they supposedly took the stage with a Dio cassette, two sets of barbells, an 8mm film projector with a reel of cartoons, and the makings of 10 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Such was the Unicorns’ ethos. Their songs played like inside jokes, scrappily performed and full of non-sequiturs, but were also subtly deep and sneakily catchy. Their live shows brought the surreal slipshod slapstick of the records into the realm of performance art. Taken together, it worked as discursive stoner entertainment and as fodder for those who argue that goofball low-budget projects can be just as rewarding as populist blockbusters and critically acclaimed prestige fare. Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? is the kind of record that could have just as easily fallen through the cracks, but instead it’s remembered as a cult classic.
Not that Thorburn (stage name: Nick Diamonds) and Penner (stage name: Alden Ginger) were an anomaly. In a 2004 feature, Jason Heller reels off a laundry list of band names in an effort to triangulate the Unicorns’ sensibility: the Shins, of Montreal, Ween, They Might Be Giants, the Flaming Lips, Pavement, Frank Zappa. A years-later Vice article pinpointed the Unicorns’ big Adventure Time energy, too. The pump was primed for a record like this one to connect with a wider audience — an audience included me.
With some bands, Pitchfork is inextricable from the story. In 2003, the webzine’s indie rock hegemony was already in full swing, and a Best New Music designation was enough to get a large chunk of the underground to pay attention. As a college sophomore eager to have my opinions dictated to me by a site that had turned me on to so many of my favorite records, Eric Carr’s 8.9 rave was enough to inspire a two-hour drive to Cleveland to see the Unicorns at Beachland Ballroom. There, I watched Thorburn, Penner, and drummer Jamie Thompson (perhaps you know him as J’aime Tambeur) do something like art-pop community theater. Dressed in matching white outfits that made them look like droogs, they swapped instruments a lot, humped plush stuffed unicorns, hugged people in the crowd, and generally engaged in lots of antics. Afterwards, I interviewed one of them for my going-nowhere college webzine; all I remember about it now is that our chat felt a lot less coherent than my talk with James Mercer at a Shins show a few weeks earlier, which makes sense if you listen to Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? back to back with Chutes Too Narrow, released on the same day.
The Unicorns’ debut has major DIY vibes, but they actually recorded it with Grammy-winning audio engineer Mark Lawson, who has logged studio time with other Canadian indie stars like Metric, Basia Bulat, and the extended Arcade Fire universe. Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry plays on the album a bit too; partially due to that Unicorns association, the band had a handshake deal to release Funeral through Montréal’s Alien8 Recordings, which released Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?, before signing with Merge instead. It’s funny to think of the two groups rubbing shoulders. Arcade Fire poured their heavy feelings into earnest widescreen anthems that sounded arena-ready even on relatively lo-fi recordings, whereas the Unicorns channeled their own neuroses into music that felt charmingly amateur despite the group’s obvious gifts for pop songcraft.
Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? plays out like the work of some lost prankster cousin from the Elephant 6 family. Interstitial nonsense abounds. Songs rarely hold to standard verse-chorus-verse structure. Instead, they build from rangy chaos to a transcendent chorus. Or they start off with big momentum, then intentionally plunge off a cliff. The keyboards squiggle with cartoonish flair, the guitars morph from tight post-punk riffs to a bright jangle depending on each song’s mood, and the drums make each track feel like it’s held together by Elmer’s glue. Thorburn and Penner’s vocals are lightweight and borderline cloying at times, and the musicianship is not what you’d describe as crack. But every sub-professional touch contributes to the sense that you’re listening in on somebody’s loopy slumber party.
Stylistically, the record jumps around like crazy. “I Don’t Wanna Die” opens the tracklist with zonked piano-pop that builds pressure until it bursts. Then, “Tuff Ghost” creeps into the frame to remind us that dance-punk was all the rage in 2003 — but not without organ parts that stay true to the band’s retro psych fixation. The twee, electronic “Ghost Mountain” is like if Phil Elverum made a Microphones record with a Casio, while “Sea Ghost” (are you sensing a theme?) transitions from a traditional folk flute reel to guitar-driven pop-rock that cruises along like a jalopy. The miniature suite “Jellybones” is as wobbly and fluid as the title implies, and then “The Clap” comes crunching in with a chord-based guitar riff that hits harder than anything on the album. And that’s just the first half.
Thorburn and Penner sing again and again about death, ghosts, and coming to terms with mortality, but befitting an album called Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?, they undercut the anxiety with jokes and a lighthearted playfulness. As Carr wrote at Pitchfork upon release, “This hilariously morbid variation on a typical theme of loss or abandonment is par for the course on Who Will Cut Our Hair, exemplifying how the Unicorns continually and effortlessly sap the drama from rock’s favorite, most maudlin topics, and transform them into simple, charming, light-hearted fun.”
Beyond the main theme, there are plenty of topical detours. “Let’s Get Known” finds Thorburn and Penner half-genuinely dreaming about hitting it big: “Say, let’s get known/ If we keep it up, we’ll show the haters/ It’s gonna be soon not later.” On “Child Star,” they playfully sing back and forth at each other, “I hate you,” “I hate you too,” until they start to sound like two siblings fighting over a toy on the living room floor. “Inoculate The Innocuous” — kind of an epic by Unicorns standards — contains lines like “Somewhere in the asshole of my eye/ There’s a muscle which relaxes when you cry” and “Bananas help me unwind/ Watermelon makes it awesome.” And on signature stomper “I Was Born (A Unicorn),” against spindly guitars and a rumbling rhythmic backbone, they declare, “We’re the Unicorns/ We’re more than horses/ We’re the unicorns, and we’re people too!”
By the time they’re invoking Biggie Smalls on closer “Ready To Die,” you feel like you’ve been on a journey through these guys’ helium-brained subconscious. Maybe you’re annoyed, or maybe you’re inspired. You almost certainly have one of the songs stuck in your head. But if you’ve been enchanted by the album’s peculiar magic, you also probably recognize it as unrepeatable. The Unicorns must have thought so too, as they disbanded in 2004 and moved on to a range of other projects — most famously Thorburn’s long-running Islands, which washed and combed the more unkempt aspects of the Unicorns sound. And maybe you heard his soundtrack to the first season of Serial? As for Penner, he went solo, eventually formed bands like Clues and the Hidden Words, and seemingly has accumulated a solid catalog over the years. At press time, both were still alive.