The Unicorns Return: How Arcade Fire Brought The Cult Pop Group Back Together

Laura Crapo
 Nick & Alden of The Unicorns

"The three of us haven't been in the same room in six years," says frontman Nick Thorburn ahead of the arena-set reunion shows.

In 2003, Canadian trio the Unicorns issued one of the weirdest, most wildly inventive pop debuts of the 00's -- and promptly broke up before ever following it up. "Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?," issued through Alien8 Recordings in October 2003, was a cult hit upon its release, making Pitchfork's Top 10 Albums of 2003 list and leading to a year-long international tour for the Unicorns before squabbles between the three band members tore the project apart in 2004.

With the recent announcement that the Unicorns would be reforming, 10 years after the group's demise, to play five shows opening for Arcade Fire next month, frontman Nick Thorburn tells Billboard that the Montreal trio had long "flirted with" the idea of a reunion, but it was Arcade Fire's leader who eventually helped them pull the trigger.

"The 10-year anniversary was coming up, and who doesn't like an anniversary?" says Thorburn, who forms the Unicorns with Alden Penner and Jamie Thompson. "There was some murmuring that I guess got through the grapevine and onto the Internet about possibly doing some shows again, and then we couldn't schedule it and get it going in time [for the album's anniversary]. I guess Win Butler and Arcade Fire saw that on the Internet, and reached out and asked if we wanted to play some shows with them. In a way, it was strangely fitting, because 10 years ago this month, we brought them out on their first national tour. It was a little role reversal, but this time, in an arena."

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Thorburn has spent the decade since Unicorns disbanded as the leader of the indie-pop band Islands, which infuses its quirky pop arrangements with the same cunning songwriting that the 32-year-old demonstrated on "Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?" Although the life span of Islands, which has issued five albums since its 2006 debut "Return To The Sea," now triples that of the Unicorns, "Who Will Cut…" remains Thorburn's best-selling release (55,000 copies sold to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan) and arguably his most fiercely beloved album, a sentiment that took him some time to accept.

"For many years, I tried to stay as far away from it as possible -- I was embarrassed by it," he says of the Unicorns' only proper album. "People would mention Unicorns, I would bristle. At shows, people would call out Unicorns songs. I've totally come to peace with that over the years. I'm proud of what the Unicorns accomplished."

Thorburn chalks up the 2004 dissolution of the Unicorns to "egos getting involved" and being a young band without a clear vision. He does, however, admit that the in-fighting made "Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?" a better album. "The combustible nature of the band is definitely on display -- all of the songs are just metaphors for the tension within the band," says Thorburn. "We were basically like Fleetwood Mac in that regard. We weren't having sex with each other's girlfriends, or each other, but we were definitely at odds, and a lot of the songs reflect that. The tension raised the stakes, and made things more meaningful."

Although Thorburn harbors no bitterness toward Penner and Thompson, he's still unsure of how the reunion shows, which begin on Aug. 1 in Los Angeles, are going to play out. "The three of us haven't been in the same room in six years … so your guess is as good as mine," he says. "This will be a real crash course of us getting together. I'm not sure how it's going to go, but I think the main emphasis is just to have fun and rekindle that state, which was hard at times but also so fun and important for my upbringing. It's like a high school reunion, basically."

Along with the reunion shows, the Unicorns will reissue "Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?" with four bonus tracks -- a live version of "Haunted House," a cover of Daniel Johnston's "Rcoketship" and two previously unreleased originals -- on July 29. Although Thorburn says that he has "a full slew of songs ready for the next [Islands] record" and hopes to enter the studio in the fall, he won't rule out another Unicorns album, now that the band is officially back together.

"I wouldn't say it'll never happen, but we're definitely taking this slowly and carefully," says Thorburn. "We're being very relaxed about it. We're not treating this like it's a big campaign. We're doing these shows, Win had asked us, we're reissuing the record, and then we'll take it as it comes. If we still feel like there's magic there, I'm sure we would try to write stuff together. But at the moment, we're just taking it slow."

Check out the Unicorns' upcoming tour dates below:

* w/ Arcade Fire & Dan Deacon
8/1: Los Angeles, CA @ The Forum*
8/2: Los Angeles, CA @ The Forum*
8/22: Brooklyn, NY @ Barclay’s Center*
8/23:  Brooklyn, NY @ Barclay’s Center*
8/24: Brooklyn, NY @ Barclay’s Center*
9/21: POP Montreal - Montreal, QC @ Metropolis Theatre


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