There may be two new records from Islands out today, Taste and Should I Remain Here at Sea?, but this is no Use Your Illusion I and II situation. The two volumes don’t comprise a double album, nor are they two parts of a single whole. They’re just two new Islands records that happen to have the exact same release date. As frontman and chief songwriter Nick Thorburn plainly puts it, “Two are better than one.”
Islands are best known for producing lighthearted pop, but with these albums, Thorburn is ready to get serious. The music on Taste is more electronic in nature, while Should I Remain Here at Sea? is, “in many ways, a spiritual sequel to the debut album, 2006’s Return to the Sea.”
Thorburn, who also composed the theme song for the NPR podcast Serial, was inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris — both its swirling colors as well as its consideration of the human condition. The film’s main character, Kris Kelvin, adrift on space station above the mischievous planet Solaris, finds himself asking the question that gives one of the records its title: “Should I remain here at sea?”
We caught up with Thorburn in Los Angeles before Islands head out on tour.
Can you tell me a bit about each of these albums? Why did you choose to put both out at once?
Well, two heads are better than one. You know, content is king. I can make twice as much money off these suckers, so that’s always a positive [laughs]. No, but really, it was just a practical — and also impractical — decision based on the quantity of songs that I had amassed, as well as the quality of the songs. I have a very unfocused creative output. I want to do too much. I get really inspired and influenced by certain things, and I want to make certain kinds of songs and certain kinds of records. But I also want to make these other kinds of records, and I found that I had been writing these two contrasting sets of songs. When it came time to make the record, it was like, ‘Do we whittle down the best and make this kind of Frankensteinian version of one record? Or do I give them all the attention that they deserve?’ It just seemed more appropriate to give each song its due. It started to really make sense, it started to really fit. There was a clear distinction between each song, and the columns started to really match up. It was pretty natural.
Did you have a spreadsheet or a notebook page?
I kept a diary. My diary told me that I should go for it. It talks to me. It’s really weird.
Tell me about the Tarkovsky film Solaris and how it influenced the album. When did you first see it?
I saw it really late. I saw it recently, after wanting to watch it for basically a decade. I watched it, and something hit me. I should have written all of this down while I was watching it, because it’s such a densely-packed film. There was the scene at the end where the guy who’s gone to the ship to rescue people is trying to decide whether he’s going to stay in space or go home. He ends up on these islands on another planet, which seemed very fitting. I was interpreting a quote from the film with title, which I felt tied in nicely to the overall theme of the record. It’s the little soliloquy at the end of the movie that the main character recites: “Should I remain here? Among things and objects we both touched? Which still bear the memory of our breath? What for?” He feels lost in the world.
You’re from the west coast of Canada and went to school in Montreal, but now you’re in LA. How are you liking it?
It’s awesome. I love it up and down, and side to side. I don’t have a real community of musicians here, but I never really belonged in much of a scene. Even in Montreal, where all these cool bands were coming up, I never really felt like I had that much in common with them. I’ve never been a team player, I guess, so it doesn’t matter where I am. But I like it here. I like the oppressive nature of the sun. I think it mocks us, and that makes it even better.
You’re about to head out on an extensive tour. What do you listen to when you’re on the road?
I’m listening to a lot of podcasts and new audiobooks. We’ll listen to new things and old things. It’s always hard to pinpoint exactly what I want to listen to, because I’m consistently trying to soak it in. I’m a little bit flighty about it, because I dance from thing to thing. I’m very scattered in everything I do.
Speaking of podcasts, you composed the music for the first and second seasons of Serial. What was that like? I think I hear a bit of the Serial soundtrack’s drama on “Charm Offenders.” How much of the series had you heard before composing the theme song?
For the first season, I just had the pilot episode as a rough cut. I just listened to it and tried to get a sense of what the story was about, and the tone. There were no cues for me at all, just voices. I tried to interpret it musically. I’m really just a theme song guy, that’s kind of my designation. I did a little bit of the scoring, but I’m much much happier with themes. To score, you have to hang in the background and be undetected. You have to be felt but not heard. I have no interest in that, to be honest. I want to be like Alan Thicke and make theme songs for sitcoms. I think that would be fun, and I’m capable. That’s going on my tombstone: ‘I’m the Theme Song Guy.’
So, did Adnan do it?
Shit. I don’t know. I didn’t take notes.