At first blush, Ski Mask might seem like a strange name for an album — but it’s less so when you consider how much imagery is bound up in what is, really, a utilitarian piece of clothing.
Islands’ fifth album explores confusion, violence and anonymity — and, according to frontman/ founder Nick Thorburn, "the power and control that comes with that."
I think it was a natural thing that was born out of the fact that many of these songs existed for six years before finding a home on the record.
But, at its core, Ski Mask is a record about identity — specifically, Islands’ identity as a band.
Musically, the new album, which was released last September, is a stylistic collage of all the ideas that were hinted at throughout a strikingly diverse catalogue. Each album presented a different iteration of Islands: off-kilter indie pop experimentalists (2006’s Return to the Sea); hazy psych rockers (2008’s Arm’s Way); electropop purveyors (2009’s Vapours); and serious singer/songwriters (2012’s A Sleep & A Forgetting). At the heart of these sonic adventures is Thorburn, 32, who has served as Islands’ anchor.
"It’s an assessment," Thorburn says of the new record. "It feels like a recapitulation. An itinerary check. I’m taking stock.
"I think it was a natural thing that was born out of the fact that many of these songs existed for six years before finding a home on the record," he continues. "Shotgun Vision and Becoming the Gunship are two songs I wrote years ago and they just didn’t fit on other albums. As the years progressed, they still resonated with me."
Ten years and five albums in, Islands — which these days includes Evan Gordon, Geordie Gordon, Adam Halferty and is now based in Los Angeles after calling Montreal home for years — is at a turning point. Many critics have read into Ski Mask’s lyrics, inferring that this might be the band’s swan song. But one could also draw the opposite conclusion: that this is the sound of a group that has found itself. After all, as Thorburn so often likes to say, "Islands are forever."
"I’m sure it’ll just change," he says. "Change is inevitable. I’d like to keep going with it."
Besides, Thorburn’s still got songs that haven’t found homes yet. "I stumbled upon another one yesterday, actually — it was kind of a companion to a Mr. Heavenly song," he says, referring to his collaboration with Honus Honus (a.k.a. Ryan Kattner) from experimental Philadelphia act Man Man and Portland drummer Joe Plummer, who has played in Modest Mouse and the Shins. "I was like, ‘Oh, this is kind of good.’ I’m glad I kept it."
One could even expect a followup to Mr. Heavenly’s 2011 Sub Pop debut, Out of Love, in the future. "Nothing concrete, but we’ve all expressed an interest in making another album."
There’s also been renewed buzz about another project. Thorburn was a founding member of the much-loved indie rock act the Unicorns who, along with the likes of Arcade Fire, the Hidden Cameras and Wolf Parade, were an instrumental part of the nascent Montreal indie-rock scene of the early 2000s, before breaking up in 2004.
In February, various music media outlets reported that a possible Unicorns reunion and a reissue of 2003’s benchmark Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone? are in the works. But Thorburn, who knows how much the Unicorns meant to their fans, wants to manage expectations.
"It’s still talk," he says. "I’d love it to get beyond talk but it hasn’t progressed beyond that."
Whether it manifests as Islands, Mr. Heavenly or Unicorns, Thorburn’s got no shortage of creative energy. "I’m trying," he says. "I’ve got lots of ideas."