A decade ago, the Unicorns laughed at the idea that they'd be playing arenas in 2014. They even made it official with a song called "The Unicorns: 2014," released on an eponymous 2004 EP: "I looked in into my crystal ball," sang Nick "Diamonds" Thorburn, "See gummies in the sunny/Riding moonbeams into money."
It was a joke mostly because the Montreal outfit had all recently entered their 20s and a career in the music business wasn’t high on their list (if they even had a list). And at that point, the three musicians had already been butting heads enough to know their trio was doomed anyway.
Yet Friday night the reunited Unicorns will play the first of two dates at the Forum – yes, an arena -- opening for Arcade Fire.
The last time Thorburn and the band’s other members, Alden "Ginger" Penner and Jamie "J'aime Tambeur" Thompson, were in the same room was 2008. Thorburn and Penner haven't played a note together since the Unicorns broke up.
"It was kind of shocking, but we dropped right in and it felt like we kind of picked up where we left off," Thorburn says of rehearsals. "We jumped right into 'Tuff Ghost,' and it felt like we hadn't missed a day. I guess it's just muscle memory, but it was really kind of spooky."
The Unicorns crashed onto the scene in 2003 with its one and only album "Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?" a delirious 13-song earworm that became a hit in tastemaking circles. It turned the Unicorns into an instant cult favorite.
Hallmarked by a cheerful existentialism and a penchant for fantastic beasts (like ghosts and over-the-hill child stars), their electro-funk-pop mixed loony comedic banter with catchy grooves. It was a combination that exemplified just how few damns the rookie Canadian weirdos could possibly give about the self-serious air their peers were adopting in 2003. At that moment, their immature daring was exactly the slap in the face that the indie rock world needed.
"It was fun to sort of prick holes in the pomposity of our contemporaries, to have fun and goof around and play with people's expectations," recalls Thorburn. "We had the ego and the brazen attitudes of people in their early 20s, but we didn't have the experience or the chops.
“It could've been dangerous, obviously, but we made it work because we were playful,” he continued. “We had the confidence to mess around with conventions, and because we didn't really know what we were doing, it had an innocence to it that I think people liked, because it felt spontaneous and off the cuff and it didn't feel too heavy."
But stars that burn twice as bright, etc., etc., and just a year later, after releasing the now prophetically titled "The Unicorns: 2014," those egos got the better of them, and the Unicorns imploded.
Thorburn and Thompson moved on to form Islands, which has now plowed through five albums and become a respected mainstay in its own right and all three Unicorns attempted to put their flippant, short-lived band behind them. It was a difficult feat considering there were plenty of fans and journalists who swore they'd wait for them.
"It was torture," says Thorburn of dodging questions about the Unicorns as frontman of Islands for the past nine years. "Infuriating! Even the mere mention of [the Unicorns] sent me into a tizzy, which was a little naïve and a little egomaniacal to think that I could just completely separate myself from my own personal history."
But now, to the genuine surprise of fans who believed they were done forever—and perhaps to the surprise of the band members themselves—the Unicorns have gotten back together. As Thorburn says, it’s "to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of us dying, basically."
They've remastered and reissued "Who Will Cut Our Hair" via their own Caterpillar Records (out digitally now and on LP Oct. 6), and thanks to an impromptu invitation from Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler, they've signed on to play a string of six dates through this month, beginning Friday at the Forum in support of their Canadian brethren (who, incidentally, opened for the Unicorns when they initially toured a decade ago).
The reunion may end up being as ephemeral as their initial career—says Thorburn, "I've totally come to peace with [our legacy], and obviously I'm integrating it into my current life, but Islands still is my main creative outlet"—not to mention a little ill-fitted to arena gigs, considering the low-stakes aesthetic the Unicorns' music has always embraced.
But considering how many acts are cashing in on full-blown reunion careers these days, a cheeky now-you-see-us-now-you-don't would be right up their alley.
"I like to think of it as the Unicorns 2.0," says Thorburn. "We're not doing anything new, but it's a different landscape now. We've come back and the world has changed. It's like 'Flight of the Navigator,' the little kid went to outer space for 20 years, and [things] changed. We're still the same."