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At the end of 2016, after ten years and seven albums, Nick Thorburn quietly decided to put an end to Islands and retire from music. There was no announcement or farewell, only two shows at Webster Hall in New York and the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the band’s widely adored debut album Return to the Sea. “This seemed like a perfect time to put a cap on things and close out the circle,” Thorburn says. He switched focus, selling and producing a pilot television script, creating a graphic novel with preeminent comics publisher Fantagraphics, and scoring a few films and the occasional BBC radio show.
Thorburn’s years-long leave of absence resulted in a kind of rock and roll Rumspringa, with Nick unable to shake the bug for making records. After a sudden burst of creativity from a few weeks of working in his kitchen studio, Thorburn had written dozens and dozens of songs informed by everything from late-70s avant-disco to Thea Lim’s time-travel novel An Ocean of Minutes, and would write dozens more over the next year and a half, almost all with a clear focus on rhythm and groove.
Thorburn decided that if he was going to make another Islands record, he’d do it without a deadline. He also wanted to work with outside producers, which would be his first time since 2009’s Vapours. He reached out to that album’s producer, Chris Coady (Beach House, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) , and asked Islands drummer Adam Halferty and guitarist Geordie Gordon to join him in a recording session at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles.
“At the time I still wasn’t sure what this new music was going to be, or if coming back to Islands even made any sense,” says Thorburn. “But once we started playing, it quickly became clear this would be the next Islands album.”
Five years after Islands went dormant, Nick resurrected the band, who reemerge this year with their 8th album, Islomania. More than two years in the making, Islomania is a culmination of things Thorburn learned from the intervening period and all the things he’d accomplished during the band’s initial ten year run.
That initial session at Sunset Sound also featured Mike Stroud (RATATAT) on guitar, who then invited Thorburn to his studio in the Catskills, where they worked on another song (“A Passionate Age”). With Islands bassist Evan Gordon soon brought into the fold, Islomania slowly came to life over the coming year, with more sessions in LA involving producer Patrick Ford (Tanlines, !!!) and Coady. When the songs had been sufficiently finessed, they brought on John Congleton (Sharon Van Etten, St. Vincent) to mix and Joe LaPorta (Vampire Weekend, David Bowie) to master.
“I was determined to let the record breathe, let the process take as long as it needed. I wanted the freedom to rework the songs as we went along,” says Thorburn, noting that the band’s simultaneously released 2016 albums Taste and Should I Remain Here at Sea? were completely recorded in a three-week span. Through this unhurried process, Islands found an entirely new form for their idiosyncratic blend of art rock and synth-pop, ultimately arriving at their strongest record yet.
Over the course of ten groove-heavy songs, Islomania flits from the ridiculous to the sublime. On the surface, these songs are all blissful hedonism, tracing the reckless abandon of a progressively wild Friday night. But pick at the scab and there’s a darkness. Themes of futility and repetition (“Closed Captioning”), a yearning for transcendence (“Natural Law Party”), a need for understanding (“A Passionate Age”) and a deep desire for vulnerability and intimacy (“We Like to Do it With the Lights On”) thread the album. “Tension and release exist throughout. Every song here begins bottled up, but there’s always a cathartic release by the end. There’s darkness and doubt in every crevice of this record, but there’s always a release,” Thorburn says.
After kicking off with the album’s sweetly tropical title track, Islands intensify the mood with “We Like to Do It With The Lights On”: a dance song whose dreamy exuberance betrays a more profound message. “I wanted this record to be a celebration of finding joy and pleasure in life,” says Thorburn. “I think it’s important to remember that, despite the darkness and conflict and pain, there’s still goodness in the world.”
Thorburn’s distinct brand of marrying upbeat and urgent melodies with comically dark lyrics remain intact, with songs like “Closed Captioning” interweaving jagged horn arrangements with grim lyrics about the end of the world. “That one came from having to turn on closed captioning while watching a ‘prestige’ TV show because the style of acting nowadays seems to be everyone mumbling,” Thorburn says. “I thought the concept of closed captioning was a fairly decent metaphor for the divisive nature of this country, and the inability to understand one another.” The Stroud-produced track “A Passionate Age” rides the line between dizzy and chilling in its vocoder-warped reflection on modern life’s endless chatter. And on “Never Let You Down”, Islands present one of Islomania’s most tender-hearted tracks, a radiant yet mournful piece of synth-pop. “The album is all about transcending- In the political, the spiritual, the emotional and the physical sense,” Thorburn says. “After Natural Law Party” – which features an interpolation of Arthur Russell’s early disco outfit Loose Joints and their song Tell You (Today)- “culminates in a plea to ‘set my body free’, transcendence is achieved. Never Let You Down serves as the beginning of a come down, though. The drugs have worn off, the doubt is creeping in, but you push on, try to keep the party going. It’s a bit of a reckoning, or a gradual return to earth- with hopefully a little enlightenment in tact. There’s a failed love song in there, too- this hopeless idea that you can always be there for someone, but both the narrator and the subject know it’s a lie, though they choose to believe it,” Thorburn says.
By the time Islomania closes out with “Gore” – a song Thorburn synopsizes as “the bloom coming off the rose”- the spirit has returned to the body, descended. All that’s left now is death. And this is Thorburn’s party record!! Despite the heaviness, the delicately articulated moods, and the moments of melancholy and unease, the album sustains a heady effervescence that’s undeniably tied to the spirit of its creation. “This record is way more playful than I usually allow myself to be, or have allowed myself to be in the last 15 years of making music with Islands,” says Thorburn. “It made me remember why I got into this in the first place. I want everything to have meaning and intention, but I also want to leave room to get a little lost. I want the listener to feel enchanted by the music, and I think we absolutely achieved that with this one. This is the best album I’ve ever made, and I don’t think it would have been possible without leaving it all behind.”
(Here’s a bio I wrote about myself in the third person, even quoting myself, cause that’s what these things almost always are anyway)
“It only took me 20 years of releasing music, but I’ve finally grown comfortable in my own artistic skin to release under my actual name.”
Menno Versteeg was born on the floor of a stone house in a one street town with a working mill. “My mother was a visual artist and my father was an environmentalist, so yeah of course they gave me a strange name that was a perfect target for the Cody’s and Corey’s that used to kick my ass in middle school.” When he turned 13 he begged his parents to let him change his name to Cody or Corey and they told him to go ahead, if that’s what he really wanted to do. “I showed up at school the next day and told everyone I was now going to be called Cody. That didn’t go over well with Cody or Corey, so one more bloody nose later, I decided just to toughen up and learn to take a scrap with a smile.”
And as they tend to do, these petty differences resolved themselves with time and the commonalities emerged. The music of John Prine, Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline. Summer jobs cutting grass or moving piles of rocks, the value of a hard day’s work and a self-reliance that nobody’s going to do it for you. Weekends spent swimming in the river, throwing rocks at the train or getting high under the bridge reading Far Side comics. Soon came Shell Silverstein and acid, then Vonnegut and and teaching himself to play the guitar from mix tapes of The Modern Lovers, Van Morrison, Lou Reed, and Operation Ivy.
Then came the bands. “There was nowhere to play except the Legion, and we’d organize everything ourselves. All-Ages shows for $5 with 10 bands and most and the audience played in at least two of them. They always ended early, busted by the cops after someone threw up on an adult or a fight broke out.” These teenage scenes never last long, the kids grow up and move away, or stay and grow roots. Menno moved to Montreal to go to school, but the music followed and bad punk bands with even worse names ensued.
Summer tours in old vans, all booked on computers in public libraries with greasy fingered, dog eared copies of “Book Your Own Fucking Life”. Shows in church basements and backyards, sleeping on floors in middle America often living day to day off the kindness of strangers. The many faces of America, so often contradicting themselves as well as each other. Each story was unique in its joys and tragedies. The beauty and the ugliness of the infinite grey area between black and white extremes was shaping Menno’s writing, but definitely was not paying the bills.
Relocating to New York City and signing the only record deal he ever signed only made matters worse. “The guy who owned it was a total scumbag, although he did let me live on his kitchen floor in Brooklyn and teach me about drugs”, Menno recalls fondly. “He took every cent we had, and we decided to fold.”
As romantic as it is being and young and stupid in New York City, the mania could not be sustained and Menno was urged return home to get a real job. “I really tried, I went to some job interviews and until one guy told me, – come back when you are ready to give up on music for real”. Mid-twenties and back to living at his parents basement and working whatever odd jobs could be found. Luckily his childhood neighbours down the street had grown up while he was away, all in their early 20’s now, they played every instrument better than he did, and were looking to get the hell out of that small town too. “We moved to
Montreal, the city where 25 year olds go to retire. What better place to give it one last shot of playing music in a band for a living?”
The band with his neighbors became Hollerado and like a blink, 13 years passed. The self proclaimed “World’s Greatest Opening Band”, toured everywhere that would have them. China, South America, Moscow and everywhere in between opening for literally anyone who asked. Genre didn’t matter as they amazed and/or annoyed crowds waiting to see Gang of Four, Passion Pit, The Flaming Lips, Jack White, Sum 41, Snoop Dogg, the list goes on. Along the way Versteeg earned the title as “a four time Juno Loser”, as well as penning half dozen top 10 hits, and accidentally founding Royal Mountain records, the label that helped launch the carers of his friends in Pup, Alvvays and Orville Peck (among others).
Hollerado’s final headline tour in 2019 had a commemorative patch which payed homage to the Apollo 13 Mission patch. As Versteeg’s dear friend, Hollerado guitarist, and musical life partner, Nixon Boyd explained. “We came close to the moon but never walked on it and we almost died in the process.”
Then came the Anyway Gang, a band he founded with the sole purpose of playing a show at Massey Hall, the only venue in Toronto he had never played. The band consisting of Sam Roberts, Chris Murphy from Sloan and Tokyo Police Clubs’ David Monks, went to number one with their first single, but has yet to play Massey Hall.
And then Mav Karlo. A moniker adopted in homage to Menno’s friend that had lost his life that year. A tough record of a tough time, the first EP, recorded alone, on a four track cassette machine, in a thirty dollar a night casino hotel in Reno, Nevada over Christmas 2019, delved into the humour found in darkness and the release found in madness. And from the darkness, the LP “Strangers Like Us” which documents his journey of coming to terms with his own bipolar disorder and addiction, and finding the light in oneself. A collaboration with producer Chris Coady, and Nixon Boyd that Exclaim called “an instant classic”.
“There’s nothing overwrought about this album; it’s simple and safe, and this is why it’s so effective. It makes no grandiose claims. The words focus on deeply idiosyncratic and lonely impressions, on microcosms gravitating around and within Versteeg, but they tap into something so deeply human that you see yourself in Versteeg’s place. The tracks are like parables that, while telling Versteeg’s stories, serve in turn as advice and as cautionary tales to listeners. Mourning a city lost, hoping for a safe individual and collective future, hoping for a stable mind, for bravery, the album speaks to a desire we all have: to be okay. He tells gritty stories — sometimes with a wily sense of humour, other times with grim realness — of a life deeply felt.
Versteeg has stated that writing this album served a therapeutic function for him, but listening to it is also deeply healing. You’re left feeling as though you’re not the only one in pain, mired in confusion, or blinded by anger. Not so much a rallying cry as a reassuring hand on our shoulders, Strangers Like Us is a relatable and beautiful debut from Mav Karlo, artist of the people. After all, its title is effectively “us.”
And yet, ever the chameleon, Versteeg is ready for one last name change. And that’s to Menno Versteeg.
“I finally think I’m ready to be me”. To tell the stories I want to tell without any expectations or filters or coloured lenses shaping my view. “Just my truth and some really easy chords.”