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Nick Thorburn Talks Human Highway
"Ketamine, opium, Xanax, take your pick."
Back in April, Islands frontman Nick Thorburn briefly took the spotlight off of his main band's then-forthcoming album Arm's Way to add yet another new project to his arsenal of musical outfits. That project is Human Highway, a collaboration between Thorburn and Canadian songwriter/former Islands member Jim Guthrie. Their debut album Moody Motorcycle finds a nice midpoint between the easygoing harmonies of the Everly Brothers and the big open spaces of the mid-70s west coast songwriter boom. It was written and recorded by the pair in Guthrie's Toronto home over the course of a week. It's due out August 19 from Suicide Squeeze in the States and Secret City in Canada.
We spoke with Thorburn about his relationship with Guthrie, the difference between the deliberate nature of Islands records and the off-the-cuff Moody Motorcycle, and just what substances one might wanna put in their pipe to ensure proper enjoyment of the disc.
Pitchfork: When we last spoke, you talked about Arm's Way being a good record for alcoholics to listen to, because it requires a lot of concentration. I thought that was a great thing to say, and upon hearing the record, very applicable. Do you have a similar application, or maybe prescription, for Moody Motorcycle?
Nick Thorburn: [without hesitation] I think that it's a great record to smoke opium to.
Pitchfork: [laughs] Sure. Any reason? Just seems like it would go well with laying back on the couch, lighting up a little opium?
NT: Yeah, laying back on the couch and getting into a hole. Ketamine, opium, Xanax, take your pick. I think it's an overwhelmingly sad record. I've always been drawn to sad songs, and I know Jim has a soft spot for the sad ones. We're both sad dudes, so we need to get that out.
Pitchfork: How long have you known Jim?
NT: Right around the time we were cutting the first Islands record was when I got to know him well. He'd been friends with Jamie (Thompson, formerly of Islands and the Unicorns) for years and years. They grew up together in the same town, Guelph. That's how I met him. So I'd been a long-time fan, but I hadn't been close to being friends with him until we were making Return to the Sea and we brought him in to play on a couple of tracks, one of which didn't make it on the record. It was "Swans", he played on the outro to "Swans".
Pitchfork: What was it that drew you to his music initially?
NT: His voice, his lyrics, his pop sensibility, I guess. His keen awareness of what makes a good song.
Pitchfork: He's got an impressively large back catalog as a solo artist and with his former band Royal City. Are there particular entries in there that you're fond of now, as a friend and fan?
NT: Oh, totally. I often find myself in this situation, quoting his lyrics. His lyrics kind of jump out at me... finding how appropriate they are, and applicable they can be. He touches a nerve with his music, and I definitely wanted to be as close to that as possible.
Pitchfork: How did you guys decide to make a record together?
NT: Well, I just presented it to him. I mean, what actually happened was we were on tour with Islands, and we were in Tucson on a tour stop. It was a great little venue called Club Congress-- it's got a hotel attached to it, a really historic hotel. [John] Dillinger was holed up in it, baited the police, and eventually burned it down. The place is haunted. It has a bit of a historic quality to it.
Anyway, we were kind of just hanging out, killing time. I was strumming a guitar and whistling a tune, and Jim kind of picked it up and started singing harmony to it. It sounds kind of sexual, but we went up to one of the rooms-- room 104, I think-- and we had some gear, some recording stuff, and just set up a mic and I scrawled out some lyrics and pushed record. We put it to tape and left it. It kind of stagnated for about a year, and I said, "hey, let's finish this off, and let's go make a record." I went up there to his place in Toronto and finished it off.
Pitchfork: You were only there for a week or so, right?
NT: Something like that, yeah. We just did it in a really impromptu manner. Just let it come out of us and didn't really question much.
Pitchfork: Beyond the song that you referred to from the Islands tour, did you bring a lot of material to it, or was it mostly written while it was being recorded?
NT: It was a mixture. Jim had some basic structures down, and we had some stuff that was more complete. I had a couple of things that I felt were more appropriate for what we were doing, like stripped-down, centered on harmonies, or basic arrangements. It was a combination. We took one night off, and Jim went with his friends to see the White Stripes, and I wrote a song. Then he came back and we recorded it. It was kind of like that, just... really casual.
Pitchfork: You mentioned how much of Arm's Way was mapped out before you took it into the studio. Seems as though the approach on this one couldn't be more different.
NT: It's nice to have a variety, you know? It's nice to have a palate cleanser. It's nice to have a variety of approaches to songwriting. It's a good way to keep it fresh.
Pitchfork: Did you complete this record after Arm's Way or before it?
NT: It was a couple of months after everything was tracked.
Pitchfork: The harmonies and easygoing melodies on Moody Motorcycle are reminiscent of 50s and 60s pop and doo-wop. Do you find yourself drawn to that kind of music as a listener? Do you see it coming out in your other stuff, like Islands?
NT: I mean, I've got broad taste in music. There's a time and a place for trying everything, but there's no explicit genre-specific which came with this record. That was just kind of what we underlined it with just to give it some perspective, some placement. It's not pastiche; it's not like we're doing "Earth Angel" or whatever, and it sounded so ridiculous. It's just that we're both are fans of the music-- the Everly Brothers and early Simon and Garfunkel or whatever. We're just trying to sing together. I love Jim's harmonies and wanted to harmonize.
Pitchfork: I assume that the name of the group is an homage to Neil Young, right? Any reason for that?
NT: Yeah, there's a poetic reason to it, I guess.
Pitchfork: Do you care to get into it?
NT: I don't know if I can articulate it, but I think it just kind of found us, really. I was watching Neil Young at Farm Aid in New York. I got free tickets and I'd never seen Neil Young. I had to endure some horrible music: Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp. But it was worth it, even though Neil Young only played five songs. One of them was "Human Highway", and it just immediately resonated. Obviously, a sort of allusion to the solitude and the human condition, and all that fun stuff. It blended really nicely with "Moody Motorcycle", which was the centerpiece of the record, in a way.
Pitchfork: I know you're planning on doing some sporadic shows around North America, but it doesn't exactly sound like you could call it a tour.
NT: It probably won't be a tour. We might just do one-off spots where we can. But if something comes along where we get an amazing tour with the Everly Brothers, then we'll take it! But yeah, as of now, we're not really a functional band. It's just a labor of love, and a personal project that we've embarked upon. We'll see what happens. We're not really set on anything.
Pitchfork: Do you plan to make another record with Jim?
NT: It's pretty early to say. I wouldn't feel I wouldn't, because we had such a great time making the first one. And there's so much room for us to grow as a project, in terms of how much we want to put into these songs. This record was done without any attempt at anything. We weren't striving for anything, we weren't looking to accomplish anything, we just wanted to make a record together. And we wouldn't want to sully that, but we also really enjoyed it so we'll probably do it again. I think we both have songs up our sleeves that we both would put into the project.
Pitchfork: You recently did a show with your hip-hop project Th' Corn Gangg, which is kind of a rare thing at this point. How'd that go?
NT: It was hard to tell. I was bombed. Everyone was. Members of Islands came up, and we flipped a couple of Islands songs off-the-cuff. We did some improvisation. We really reined it in, though. It wasn't really jammy. It was pretty stable, I would think. We had Busdriver, we had Nocando. It was great to play with Jamie again. We're still working on stuff this month. I think we're going to get down to business and do some more production stuff and get a little bit closer to our Chinese Democracy.
Pitchfork: [laughs] Last time, you mentioned that you were aiming to get the album out by the end of the year. Now we're halfway through it. Does it still seem likely?
NT: It doesn't really seem likely, but we might forgo the traditional album format for the time being and just focus on individual songs as they come. It's up in the air-- it's just something we're doing because we feel passionate about it. We enjoy it. We're not trying to do anything that isn't fun.
Pitchfork: You've got a few more dates throughout the summer, but you finished the first leg of the Islands tour pretty recently. There's been a lot of activity with Islands lately: the new label, Arm's Way itself, the way people are responding to it. Are you feeling good about the whole experience at this point?
NT: That's a good question. And it's a loaded question for you to be asking. I feel pretty misunderstood, but I never claimed to be understood. It does seem a little ridiculous at times, the way it's been received, I think. And unfair. I think it's something that, over time, will make more sense to people. People will actually give it a little more time, because it's a record that requires a lot of patience, because so much went into it. I think sometimes people confuse something that's deliberate and willful with hubris and overconfidence, and that's a fucking shame. That's not in my control. I just make the music. I'm still really proud of it, and I think a lot of people are responding well to it. I think it's a slow burn, you know.
Cover art and tracklist for Human Highway's "Moody Motorcycle"
Ope To Abner
Duties of a Lighthouse Keeper
I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free