Who Will Manage Our Web Presence When Were Gone?: The Secret Online Afterlife of The Unicorns

Published: November 20, 2013


know that in all relationships, memory tends to cloud reality. You recall the rosy details and forget the gritty ones. Maybe that ex-boyfriend wasnt as funny as you thought, or maybe your favourite band wasnt as excited to be at a show as you were. But how could I have forgotten a dropkick?

I remember driving down to Toronto for the concert, my dad at the wheel, two friends in the back seat. I remember sitting shotgun and manning the stereo, blasting the Unicorns album Who Will Cut Our Hair When Were Gone? in dutiful preparation. I remember feeling ecstatic when I learned the Montreal-based indie pop band was playing an all-ages show just an hour or so north of the small city where I lived. I remember clicking onto the Unicorns website and pre-selecting my prized piece of merch: a squiggly, cartoonish narwhal t-shirt, bubble lettered with the words The Unicorns Never Liked You.That one I know for sure: its still in my closet, though I dont wear it as nearly as much as I did in high school.

It was my first time seeing the Unicorns play, and it was also my last. They broke up just two months later.

This year marked the 10th anniversary of Who Will Cut Our Hair When Were Gone?, the bands seminal and concluding record of a short, frenzied career that lasted just under fouryears and resulted in only one "real" album. But despite their miniscule discography, the Unicorns legacy is potent and lasting, preserved by a mythology first invented by the band (they offset the monotony of interviews by inventing elaborate backstories for themselves), later perpetuated and controlled by a self-appointed online cabal: their fan forum.

Innocuous at first, it was the place to find bootlegs, track down rare unreleased tracks and gossip about upcoming side projects. But mostly, it was a semi-anonymous haven for fans of the band to shoot the shit about upcoming Presidential elections, recommend obscure bands from local scenes, and wallow in the woes of crushes and homework. (A couple of very real sample topics: thread where you help jane with her world history homework and ESSAY! HALP!) It was a community.

Eventually, the forum outgrew the band. It may have even hastened their breakup.

And yet still, years after the rise of social networks like Facebook and Twitter sounded the death knell of message boards, the forum continues to exist as a weird, active time capsule. Even if some former members of the Unicorns wish it didnt.


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Like so many other uncool high school kids in the early 00s, I spent an embarrassing amount of time on the Internet. Some battled on the digital plains of World of Warcraft while others agonized over which Cure song to best project their mood on LiveJournal. My boy-repellant of choice? Music forums. I dabbled in emo poetry on the Dashboard Confessional message board and lurked the threads of MuchMusics alternative show, The Wedge.

There were others, of course, but nothing as meaningful or as long-lasting as the Unicorns forum a space to analyze the indie pop bands coyly morbid lyrics, the hidden profundity under the lo-fi keyboard flourishes and deceivingly simple guitar hooks, the serpentine give and take between the dual vocals of the two lead singers. It also gave me a respite from the dullness of small town teendom, where the most interesting thing to do on a Saturday night was to sneak into a country bar named Random Ranch. Instead, I stayed in and made connections online. Naturally, I hid my posting habit from my IRL friends.

I saw The Unicorns play in October 2004 at the Vatikan in Toronto, a now long-gone goth club on Queen West (now the site of the swingers club, Wicked). The venue was located across from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, which incited my overprotective father to park his car directly outside the door until I was safe and sound back in the passenger seat.

The Unicorns swooped on stage with crazed, short-circuiting fervour, their pink-accented white costumeshilariously clashing with the dark accents of the bar. I tried to keep it together as they played my favourite songs, I Was Born (a Unicorn) and Jellybones, but when the audience started rushing onto the stage, I succumbed to the gentle prodding of my friend and climbed up too. Dancing in an awkward riff on the Twist, arms waving manically, I felt cool. And through my frenzied haze, the band looked happy.

Nick Thorburn, now the leader of his own band, Islands, remembers it differently: Maybe I dropkicked someone.

Wait, what?


Nick Thorburn. Photo: Samantha Edwards, 2004


s I gave in to the mlange of glee, synths and flailing, I had no idea that my favourite band was on the brink of implosion. Examining the evidence nearly ten years later, the breakup seems like it was inevitable. The Unicorns rising popularity combined with a brutally hectic touring schedule to ignite the two leaders clashing personalities.

On one side of the ring there was Alden Penner: stubborn, adverse to change and unwilling to compromise his DIY punk ethos for success. And on the other, Thorburn: cocksure, confrontational and eager to play the game. The bands drummer, Jamie Thompson, was forced to play middleman.

We could never agree on what or who we were, Thompson says in a later interview. It was very difficult to reconcile the idealized version of ourselves with the reality of being a functioning band who actually has a real following.

It all came to a head in Houston, the site of their disastrous final gig. The forum dug up a bootleg of the show, and its a cringe-worthy listen. Thornburn can be heard hurling insults over the hisses of the noticeably bored crowd, culminating in an eerily introspective moment at the end of the show. This is our last song of potentially our last show ever, he resigns. I dont think we should be playing for this many people. I dont think we were meant to.

Meanwhile as the Unicorns end neared, the forum intensified. Posters pieced together cluesof the bands looming breakup and formed two camps, Team Alden and Team Nick. Elaborate in-jokes quickly developed, many of which poked fun at the band that gathered them there.

I wouldnt say its too far off to suggest that the forum seriously exacerbated a lot of problems we were having in the band, quite likely speeding up our breakup, Thompson says.


On December 28, 2004, a message appeared on the Unicorns' website: "THE UNICORNS ARE DEAD, (R.I.P.)" When the site later came down, bringing the forum with it, it was the end of era for more than just the band. Where was the displaced community to talk music with other fanatics? More importantly, where were they to seek refuge, get calculus help, vent about unrequited love?

Forum member Dean Birkett, then a thirty-year-old with experience hosting websites, took it upon himself to resurrect it. The reincarnation launched in 2005 and quickly became the unofficial message board for Thorburns, Penners and Thompsons subsequent side projects like Islands, Clues and The Small Is Beautiful. The posters shared the server costs.

Now dubbed The Secret Unicorns Forum, the community became even closer. We exchanged mix CDs and Christmas presents through the mail, talked on MSN Messenger, began relationships. Eventually the forum moved offline. We met up at real-life events we jokingly called SUFCON, an abbreviation of Secret Unicorns Forum Conference. I baked a pumpkin pie with one forum member and skated with another on Ottawas Rideau Canal. Once in New York I missed my bus home and slept on the floor of a former online friends NYU dorm room. Another brought me to an ultra-hip Montreal warehouse party. It was a long way from the Vatikan. Our community existed in real space, and it was continent-wide.

As years passed, a disparity emerged on the forum between the cool, niche group that occupied the General discussion and the Lower Forums, where all band-related talk was now relegated. Many lost interest in talking about the Unicorns at all.

I was shyer and less vocal than a lot of the other forumers, but I felt accepted there. Popular. But once again, that fuzzy feeling shaded a darker reality.



t first the idea of an online community dedicated to the Unicorns excited Thompson and the band, but he says the forum quickly devolved into an environment for the lowest form of fan interaction.

To be completely honest, I had a pretty rough relationship with that place, Thompson admits.

He points me to the Whos better, Nick or Alden threads and to the mean-spirited jokes, many of them directed at him. Later, a LiveJournal called The Uniporns mysteriously emerged as a repository for X-rated fan-fic about the band. In one the forums lowest moments, someone posted a photo of Thompsons fiance and made disgusting, sexualized comments about her.

I think a lot of it was tongue-in-cheek, says Birkett, in defense. But whether or not that comes across if youre a visitor to a website and you dont go there all the time, a lot of these silly in-jokes can be taken quite harshly, especially if youre the person theyre discussing.

Thompson wasnt laughing. He asked for the sub-forum dedicated to his side project to be taken down.

I was literally ashamed to be associated with that place.


Since the Unicorns messy breakup, the three of them havent been in the same room together. Thorburn lives in L.A. and keeps busy with Islands, who just released their 5th album, Ski Mask; Penner resides in Montreal, tucked away at home working on his first solo album (to be released next year); and Thompson runs his own studio in Montreal and plays with the instrumental band, Esmerine.

The trio have exchanged a few tentative emails about a rerelease of Who Will Cut Our Hair When Were Gone?, complete with bonus tracks, sometime next year. Theres no Secret Unicorns Forum thread about it yet, but Im sure speculation will begin to mount soon enough. What could those new songs be? The saccharine Peach Moon? The sardonic rarity Do the Knife Fight?

Even more exciting than a re-release would be a reunion. Penner and Thorburn both hint that neither a show nor even a tour are of the question. Hearing about it reignites my decade-old excitement. We on the forum would often joke the ultimate SUFCON would take place at a Unicorns reunion show. None of us ever thought it would actually happen.

Those thoughts still give me such a warm feeling, now Im left wondering: how did I miss the forums seedy underbelly? Was I part of the problem? Like my t-shirt foreshadowed, did the Unicorns actually not like me?


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n hour into ourinterview, I finally confess to Penner that Im from the forum. I explain how I got there as a teenager, how it provided me with a community outside of what I knew. I explain myself delicately, trying not to make myself sound crazy.

But Penner is sympathetic. He can relate. In fact, its a lot like the Unicorns origin story. Thorburn and Penner met during high school in small town, B.C., and became friends almost out of necessity. Feeling like outsiders, theyd write each other letters, dropping them in each others mailboxes at night. Eventually, they came up with the ultimate cure for boredom and isolation: they started a band.

The forum probably served best to those isolated pockets of people who had been touched by the band and have no other way of expressing or reaching out to other people, he says. Thats where we were coming from too.

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