What happened to our beloved and magical Unicorns? For those who laid witness to the innocent and effortless chemistry of the Montreal trio’s live performances, eventual rumors of infighting and boiling-point tour exhaustion came as a bit of a shock. But almost as quickly as songwriters Nick Diamonds and Alden Ginger split paths, Nick and drummer Jaime Thompson boldly re-emerged on the map as Islands. And it doesn’t hurt that they recorded their upcoming album Return to the Sea with help from the Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, and Belle Orchestre.
After a handful of secret shows and opening for Beck back home, Islands have taken their new playfully venomous songs on the road. The seven member touring band includes Jim Guthrie, a bass clarinet, and the sweetest Asian violinists you’ll find this side of the Pacific Ocean—basically two kids on loan from McGill University’s Faculty of Music. Prior to the tour’s first show in Toronto, I spoke with Jaime “J’aime Tambeur” Thompson about the smoky Unicorns aftermath. He had been busy convincing the Drake Hotel’s gatekeepers that his dad was on the guest list.
How does it feel to be back on the road? Is there any apprehension, given what happened in the Unicorns?
No, not at all. People have a lot of ideas about what happened in the Unicorns. We’ve been doing interviews now, things are getting cooking with Islands, and of course the issue comes up all the time. Everyone talks about it. How could you not? But that’s the thing: no one really knows what happened. It’s not like we’ve ever gone public and explained it.
It sounds like it got nasty.
You can say it got nasty but we are all friends. We’re still friends with Alden. It became apparent at a certain point that Alden didn’t want to be doing what we were doing anymore, and it definitely caused friction. At the time it seemed a lot more serious than it does now. There’s fighting all the time when you’re touring. Especially when it was just the three of us, you’re with the same two people all the time and everyone’s fighting. But that’s not really the issue. It came down to Alden not wanting to be in that situation. He wanted to do other things with his life and that’s totally respectable. I love Alden and I love the music he makes and I love what he does with his life. But Nick and I had a more similar path that we wanted to take, which was being in a band that tours, that does interviews, that makes records.
What happened in the stretch between the break up and Islands?
We played our last Unicorns show in Houston after coming back from Australia last winter, and that show was pretty nasty. But I wouldn’t say it was hateful. We were all really sad it was ending. We went home and had Christmas with our respective families. Nick went down to Los Angeles on the invitation of our friend Adam who lives there with his girlfriend who’s an actress. Nick met a couple people down there, Steve McDonald [Red Kross founder] is a really important one. Nick and I had been talking ever since we realized Alden didn’t want to be in the band, and we agreed we wanted to keep playing music together. So he called me and was like, “Why don’t you come down to LA? We’ll see if we can make something happen here.” So right away we were working on stuff. We had this thing called Th’ Corn Gangg…
Your hip-hop project.
Yeah, which we already started conceptualizing and laying the groundwork for while the Unicorns were still going on. We wrote some songs down in L.A., but it ended up going in this more heavy kind of rock direction. We were listening to a lot more hip-hop at that time, and I had actually been getting into African guitar music like Ali Farka Toure and Ebenezer Obey, these guys who play almost psychedelic guitar. Nick and I both grew up on Paul Simon’s Graceland record and it was a reference. So we both started getting into more Soukous music and ... Neither one of us were really big indie fans or whatever, and we realized that we’re becoming this rock band all of sudden. This new thing which didn’t represent what we wanted to do at all. So we left Los Angeles and regrouped in Montreal. We basically just holed up in my room where I have a little home studio set up. We demo-ed 20 songs of very different sounding material and then put it together there. It didn’t become Islands until maybe this summer, but Nick and I were working on music right away.
How many people are performing with you and Nick this time around?
There are seven people in the band, total. Patrice the bass player plays on many songs on the record and his sound is very crucial. A lot of songs would be completely different songs if he wasn’t on them. Jim [Guthrie] plays on a couple songs on the record. And the other guys aren’t on the record at all. But on the new stuff we’re working on right now, we’re really work-shopping everything together. Generally, Nick comes in with an idea and we hammer it out. We’ve already got a couple new ones with the whole band.
And what about Th’ Corn Gangg? Is that on hold? Don’t you have something on Beck’s Guero remix album?
It’s weird because me and Nick did two remixes for it and one of them is called Islands and one is called Th’ Corn Gangg. It was just so they could have two different names on the thing, I guess. We’ve done more remixes but we want to make beats for some emcee friends of ours.
L.A. guys, actually. Two of them are on our record, Busdriver and Subtitle. We have a history with them.
Well, it’s great that you’re already writing new Islands material.
We have a lot of stuff we haven’t even recorded yet, things are coming together really well. We’re like, “always push forward.”