Islands: all metaphorical, not at all tropical

Ben Breier

Ex-lovers, drug addiction and teenage angst are modern-day pop music clich‚s — that Islands lead singer Nick Thorburn avoids like the plague.

Instead, Thorburn elects to sing about more underground subject matter –ÿlike the torment and hardships faced by diamond miners in Africa, which he sings about on Return to Sea’s most danceable track, “Rough Gem.”

“I don’t feel terribly educated about the subject matter, but I still feel strongly about the injustices endured in places like Africa, where diamond mining is exploiting,” Thorburn said. “People are suffering and dying for someone’s ornate jewelry.”

The song has become a bit of a burden for Thorburn, who said he is usually wary of composing dance tracks.

“I don’t relate to it anymore,” he said. “I’m at a crossroads with the identity manifested in that song, and feel less like I relate to that character.”

But producing an addictive pop song fits well with Thorburn’s methodology of creating dark and heavy-ended music and packaging it in something digestible and enjoyable.

Thorburn often resorts to personification in his lyrics in order to catch people into his music like a freshwater bass — hook, line and sinker.

“It’s a storytelling technique that really ropes the listener in and creates an alternative reality or universe for them to get lost in,” he said. “But I won’t make a conscious effort to repeat it –ÿthe songs on the next record are more mixed. Some are quite different in tone and lyrical style.”

In the aforementioned “Rough Gem,” Thorburn personifies one of the diamonds in the African mines – singing “they want me raw and smooth like glass / they want it fast but they don’t want flaws / I’m a girl’s best friend / can you cut, I can cut / ’cause I’m a rough gem.”

“Bucky Little Wing,” a song about a small child who becomes the victim of a hate crime, isn’t based in a realm of metaphors or personification –ÿit’s a true story siphoned from Thorburn’s childhood.

Thorburn was inspired to create the song when he was thinking about the life of his childhood companion –ÿwhich consisted of rather dramatic ups and downs –ÿwhile sitting in front of a piano.

“It’s the strongest emotional piece on the record,” he said. “There are moments on the record that are just as strong, but a bit more oblique and abstracted.”

The band’s debut record was inspired in part by the story of a lost killer whale off the coast of the Pacific Ocean. The whale had separated itself from its pod to hunt with a member of its family, who died amidst the hunt. The whale was then stuck in a harbor and became worshiped by a local tribe who believed the whale harbored the spirit of their chief, who had died the night before.

“Authorities wanted the whale to return to nature, but it ended up getting knocked under a propeller blade of a boat and dying,” said Thorburn, who recounts the story of the whale in “Tsuki” –ÿReturn to Sea’s only instrumental track.

Inspiration seems to strike Thorburn wherever he goes. While traveling in between venues, the band’s vehicle struck a herron, which wandered into the middle of the road only to be killed by another car.

“I could see it creeping into a song in the future,” he said.

Contact campus editor Ben Breier at [email protected].


Where? The Grog Shop

When? Oct. 15 at 8 p.m.

How much? $12