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The Unicorns’ Nick Thorburn Says New Record Is a ‘Possibility’

The Unicorns - Nick Thorburn Interview
Laura Crapo

The Unicorns‘ ‘Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone’ is the stuff of legend. In 2003, the young band locked down their inscrutable mythology with an unhinged concept album — a rough-hewn debut that attained a level of depth and energy most bands don’t achieve in an entire career. Then, at the tail-end of 2004, after a long tour with still-blossoming Arcade Fire, their rising star went supernova. Founding member Nick Thorburn went on to form Islands, his more toned-down and still-evolving project; the other two members, Alden Penner and Jaime Thompson, have flitted between several projects, including movie scores, label management and bands like Clues and the Hidden Words.

The original legend, however, added another chapter when the Unicorns reunited this year for the reissue of their final studio album as well as a string of shows in L.A. and New York with Arcade Fire. (The reissue of ‘Who Will Cut Our Hair’ was released digitally on July 29 and comes out on CD Aug. 26, with a limited-edition vinyl release set for Oct. 7.)

In an exclusive interview, Thorburn says he’s pleased with how well the band’s initial shows in L.A. went — and that because of their success, he’s actually contemplating a follow-up record. “Before these shows, I don’t think I had any interest in resurrecting the band to make a new album,” Thorburn tells us. “But I think it was enjoyable enough that it’s a possibility.”

The L.A. shows with Arcade Fire took place Aug. 1 and 2; the Brooklyn shows are coming up on Aug. 22-24. Thorburn says the L.A. dates reminded him of the fun and energy behind the first Unicorns record. Now, Thorburn says, “My intention is to make more records that are just expressly or explicitly fun.”

Read on for more from our exclusive chat with Thorburn, as well as the story behind the the Unicorns’ dark final days, growing up with Arcade Fire in Montreal and how the Unicorns’ shows with Arcade Fire are shaping the band’s possible future.

How were the Unicorns shows in LA?

They were ultimately very good. The first show was a little tricky — I think we were still finding our footing. It was our first time playing the songs in front of an audience in ten years. There were only four days of rehearsals, and so only four days to even be in the same room together.

It was a quick turnaround, though — we all felt happy by night two. We kind of got our groove back, and locked in. The trick is to feel like you aren’t just playing your part alongside another person playing their part, but you’re playing the same song together. By night two, that started to happen.

What was it like playing for a big arena audience like that and opening for Arcade Fire? I’d imagine that crowd was probably different than what you’ve played to in several years.

It was a larger crowd, but it was actually surprisingly a commanding crowd. We had their full attention — it was kind of unreal. I had not played an arena show I guess since we played with Beck when Islands first started playing. But this felt like we had people’s attention. And it was very easy — it felt like we could just get any reaction from them that we desired. It felt like we were in complete control, at least by night two.

You always hear that at big arenas it’s hard to make a connection with the audience, that there’s this disconnect or something, but people seemed extremely engaged. It was strange — it was almost better than a small rock club because people weren’t there to party, though I’m sure some people were there to do drugs and be in a giant crowd of people. But people paid a lot of money to be there, and they were there to listen to music and be entertained.

Do you feel any differently about the reunion now that those shows are over?

The tension and the fear, I guess, of doing the reunion — the uncertainty and the apprehension — has washed away. The fact that it’s under the wing, and we look back and we did it — I feel good about it. I was pretty hesitant. It’s a dangerous territory to be in, the whole reunion thing. It can reek really bad if you don’t do it right, and with taste. I’m trying to be as respectful and tasteful as we can. But now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, it feels like the right thing.

I’d imagine it’s cool to go out there and play for an audience that hasn’t heard of you and gain some new fans, too.

Yeah, yeah. That’s the bonus of this. Obviously we ultimately want to do our own shows and play for people expressly there to see us. But it is nice to go out there and have that cosign from someone as mighty as the Arcade Fire.

Well, and there’s the kind of reunion where you play a few shows, and the kind of reunion where you try to release new music, to make another artistic statement. And that risk is arguably bigger. Does this change your perspective on whether you’d want to make an album?

It doesn’t hurt. Before these shows, I don’t think I had any interest in resurrecting the band to make a new album. But I think it was enjoyable enough that it’s a possibility. I think it could be really fun. You have to be careful with these things, but if you’re too careful, it can backfire, too. There’s a lot of noise I’d have to shut out to make a record.

The Unicorns were always so much about that one album — that was really the statement of the band. One would naturally be curious as to what a follow up would even sound like.

Man, I’m right there with you on the curiosity, I don’t know — there would be many ways to approach it, I guess. You can keep the thread going — but we already made that record, we don’t want to repeat ourselves. I think it would be a natural thing. By virtue of Alden and I writing together, it would probably be an honest reflection. I wouldn’t want to overthink it. I’d want to be delicate, but I wouldn’t want to be too precious about it.

The Unicorns – Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone Reissue
Caterpillar Records

You’ve spoken before about your changing feelings on ‘Who Will Cut Our Hair.’ How did your perspective on that album change as time went on, and you worked on your Islands project?

When we first made it, I was in the middle of it — I didn’t have a good perspective because I was an active participant. When the band broke up, I didn’t want it to break up, I wasn’t ready for it. So I was a little resentful, and I also wanted to keep moving forward, and not just coast on what I’d created but use that momentum and keep going. So I kept it out of my mind — I didn’t want to repeat myself or rely on it too heavily.

And then, once the dust settled, I thought about the record, and I wanted as a musician to be taken more seriously. I thought that people misunderstood the Unicorns and treated it like a joke band or a novelty band. Words like ‘quirky’ and ‘whimsical’ were thrown around, which irked me greatly. So, I sort of pushed it far away and was embarrassed by some if its … sincerity? I don’t know. I wanted to be taken seriously as a musician and felt like I wasn’t. But I was also young and naive and brash — there was a lot of ego going on. Now that time has passed, I feel grateful that I was part of the Unicorns thing. I don’t know what people’s opinions are of it now, but it’s far enough away from me that I don’t feel embarrassed — it just feels like an earlier part of me.

And now with this re-release, there a chance you’ll gain a certain amount of new fans.

Yeah, that’s true. I think it holds up. It kind of belongs in its own place — hopefully that won’t change.

Well, and there are obvious reasons people think it’s whimsical. But when you listen to it, you realize it’s a really earnest record — the songs are about a band learning how to be a band, and finding a way to do it that’s different.

Yeah, it feels a little reductive to just paint it in one light. I think it was complex — I don’t know that all of those complexities were intentional, but the songs came from an honest place. We were trying to express things that we felt were real and important, and in a way universal, but in a way deeply personal. And I think we couched a lot of that stuff in lightness, in levity or whatever, but there’s darkness there.

How close were you to Arcade Fire back in the day? Did you guys influence each other much?

Yeah, I think they looked up to us when we first started, and we obviously looked up to them and brought them out on tour. The first shows we played were some loft parties. I mean, the very first show, we opened up for them, and that was early days. It was Win [Butler] and Regine [Chassagne] and an entirely different band. And it was very obvious that they were going to be a big band, I could tell right then and there.

They were an inspiration to us as much as we were to them. We were both just trying to make good music.

Part of your legend is that you embarked on this never-ending tour with Arcade Fire and then there was a show in December ’04 where you broke up on-stage. Is that how it actually went down?

I don’t actually remember. I was self-medicating at the time, with alcohol, because I was distraught by the animosity [within] the band. It was pretty clear that that was going to be the last show. It was pretty much unspoken. We all knew that after this show, the Houston show, that was it. And it was hard — it was an emotional thing. And I definitely didn’t want to be present for it. So, I think that’s why I decided to check out. I don’t really remember that show, but I know there are recordings of it, and it’s a pretty dark listen.

Are you finding elements of this Unicorns reunion that could make it into Islands records or your upcoming solo record?

Oh yeah, definitely. It’s informing very much how I work with my own process and songwriting, and it’s been nice to get back into Unicorns mode, which is a little more playful and impish. Just relearning the record and seeing how I used to write songs, there’s an innocence to it that I’d like to channel and get back to.

Yeah, you know, the last two Islands records, you could really pair them off together, they were both a bit subdued. I have to wonder as a listener what that will all sound like after this experience for you.

Yeah, I think they’re gonna go to a good place. My intention is to make more records that are just expressly or explicitly fun.

Do you have any plans for what you’re going to do after the Unicorns shows? I know you were planning on a solo record.

I’m thinking about that. I have a bunch of songs written and I have plans to make a solo record. I also want to make an Islands record, hopefully before the year is out. That’s the basic plan — just make more records. That’s all I really want to do.

Get details on the digital re-release of the Unicorns’ ‘Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone’ here, and the physical copies (both CD and vinyl) here.

Next: Arcade Fire Covers a Classic Tune from the Pixies

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