by STEVE MCPHERSON
“Nick Diamonds’ office.”
“Uh, yeah, I’m calling for an interview with Nick.”
“Hold on one second.”
Exactly one minute later.
“Hello? Sorry: I just took the longest piss of my life. It was amazing. Sorry I kept you waiting. I think I broke a world record,” says Nick Diamonds from his .. home? home office? ... in Montreal. How long? “It was long—I lost count. I can only count to a couple hundred.”
it turns out, he doesn’t actually have an office, just a girlfriend with
a sense of humor. Diamonds (born Nicholas Thorburn) is, since the departure
of co-founder/drummer J’aime Tambeur, the engine behind Islands, the band
that rose out of the ashes of Montreal’s Unicorns. Their debut album,
Return to the Sea, is one of the best releases of 2006 coming into the
homestretch and I still haven’t been able to decide whether its sprawling,
gymnastic leaps from orchestral rock to intimate acoustic shuffles to pseudo-rap
rock are indicative of careful calculation or wanton experimentation. So naturally,
my first question is about his songwriting process.
“I steal all my ideas,” says Diamonds with all the sincerity he
can muster. “I listen to old songs that people have forgotten about, and
I invert a couple of the chords, rework the lyrics a little bit, change the
tempo slightly and you know, I’ve got myself a new song and no one knows!
I make millions.”
If he sounds a bit cheeky, he is, but what’s missing from the printed
word here is his good-natured tone. Yeah, he’s yanking my chain, but lightly.
I decide to go for the big guns right here—research. The fifth track on
Return to the Sea is a meandering and shimmery instrumental called “Tsuxiit.”
It’s diaphanous enough to not make much of an impact, and through my first
several spins through the album, I had thought that the title was simply a creative
spelling of “Sucks it.” A hunch, however, led to the discovery that
Tsuxiit (pronounced Sook’-eet) was actually the name of a whale (aka L98,
aka Luna) that had gotten trapped in Mooyah Bay off the coast of British Columbia.
“I used to know that whale,” Diamonds says, confirming the connection.
“My dad works on the water [as a Fisheries Officer] and he took me to
hang out out there because it’s incredibly beautiful and a big draw for
me to go was this whale that lived in this bay. It had gone off fishing with
its uncle in this big pod and I think the uncle was really old and it died so
it got stuck in this bay. Tsuxiit is the native name for it from the native
tribe that lives there. They believe that the whale was the chief that had just
died before the whale had shown up, so they were really attached to the whale
and didn’t want it to leave, but the conservationists wanted it to go
back to the sea because it was lonely and a baby and it needed its family. It
didn’t need to be turned into this freak show where people would come
and put their babies in its mouth and feed it junk food and shit. It would get
too close to boats and propellers would cut it and that’s actually how
it ended up dying. It was playing with a boat and got sucked into the propeller.
Really unfortunate and avoidable. That song was written and recorded before
it died. I guess that’s like the centerpiece of the album.”
definitely an “Old Man and the Sea” or “Rime of the Ancient
Mariner” vibe to the album as a whole. Whales make a return appearance
in “Where There’s a Will There’s a Whalebone,” a darkly
funky cut laced with themes of vengeance and seafaring, and water, oceans and
seas show up in at least half the tracks. Not to mention the connection between
the the real-life Tsuxiit’s struggle to accomplish the titular return
to the sea.
“It has a nautical theme, but I didn’t even realize that the album
title related to that song,” says Diamonds, sounding more than a little
psyched to see the connection. “And just saying it now I just realized,
but it has so many other meanings for me that I completely forgot that there
was a huge effort to get that whale to the sea.”
Aside from a literal return to the sea, the title connects to a broader theme
of turning away from the emptiness of pop culture and back towards the natural
world, a world that isn’t filled with instant gratification but is instead
(to switch from Coleridge to Tennyson) red in tooth and claw. “Now turn
around, it’s burning down / The city we live in,” sings Diamonds
in “Humans.” “We washed our mouths at the riverbed / when
we noticed something glowing / It was growing / Things are going to change /
Hot rainfalls made of magma / melts Alaska,” he sings on “Volcanoes,”
but the most direct attack on the vapidity of the modern world comes in the
form of “Don’t Call Me Whitney, Bobby.”
“It came from an e-mail subject line I wrote to Richard Perry of Arcade
Fire years ago,” Diamonds explains. “We were corresponding as friends
do and I guess I just wanted write funny subject lines and that one just came
out of the top of my head. So I’d had for a year the idea to turn it into
a song and then I kind of developed the theme and subject matter from there.
It just became a kind of comment on how awful and devoid of any true depth our
culture is—you just come home and turn on the TV and just go into a coma.”
bones, brittle little bones,” sings Diamonds, taking aim at our culture’s
obsession with being physically thin and mentally malnourished. “And the
sleek, sleek skeleton I hold / Where are the hidden folds? / Where is the meat?
/ Did you eat?” Removed from the track’s sunny acoustic underpinning,
the lyrics reveal themselves as pointed barbs, right in line with the album’s
underlying post-apocalyptic vision. Instead of drowning in their own weight,
however, the songs are buoyed by their charm and sunny straightforwardness.
Like their fellow Canadians Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire, Islands are
somehow able to throw everything but the kitchen sink into an album and make
it float, the jumble of dark themes and joyous instrumentation holding you with
its glittering eye, much like Coleridge’s mariner.
It’s a real roadtrip of an album, with opener “Swans (Life After
Death)” coming off like the overture to a grand adventure movie, and Diamonds
does find a good deal of romance in the road. “There are moments where
it’s the lifestyle I really crave, that kind of weird nomadic anonymity,”
he says. “Just cruising around—go into one place and leave no trace.
But then that gets a little tired and you want some substantial impact to be
made in your life. When you’re constantly walking around like a ghost
you lose touch with reality a little. It’s good to have time off to be
in one spot.”
Lucky for them, when they arrive here in Minneapolis, they’ll have just
gotten to spend some time in Iceland around a date playing the Iceland Airwaves
Festival. Any big plans? “We’re just gonna hang out and ride their
shetland ponies, go to the geysers and maybe get helicoptered up to a glacier.”
Enjoy it. You’ve earned it. ||
Islands play on Sat., Oct. 28 at First Avenue with Blueprint and Subtitle.
6 p.m. $10. All Ages. 701 First Ave. N, Mpls. 612-338-8388. For more info on
Islands, check out their official website at islandsareforever.com.