The Thermals and the Coathangers are two proudly unrefined and straightforward modern American alternative-punk bands. Together, the groups are currently touring through Europe and recently played a show in Dresden, Germany, at an old pre-World War venue called Beatpol.
Bunched up in a rowdy pre-show huddle, the Coathangers chanted a good-luck cheer and were about to go on stage when one of them yelled, “Wait! We forgot the setlists!”
The Coathangers played a 45-minute set full of lustful, loud political party songs. The punk vocals were mainly rough, but poppy and danceable. With two acclaimed studio albums under their belts, the female foursome played mostly older songs, but added in a handful of newer ones from their upcoming album that’s due out in June, titled Larceny & Old Lace. The new tracks show a different and more complex side to the girl group; they include more melody with singing in place of what used to be “screaming” or “yelping”. One of the high points of their set was a new track called “Hurricane”, full of trading, varying vocals and wavy keyboards and choruses.
The Atlanta ladies know how to entertain. And yes, they are all women and they can all sing and play instruments. It’s a gritty and pretty combination of angry and passionate lyrics bundled up with a sense of humor; the girls are all able to smile and laugh with each other on stage.
When asked how she feels when people say they don’t “get”, the Coathangers’ music, band member Julia Kugel replied, “I don’t care. It’s a selfish thing we’re doing. It helps us let out steam. If they don’t like it, it’s fine.” The band carries this attitude with them to their shows as it helps out with tougher crowds. The German audience wasn’t sure how to take them at first, but they eventually loosened up and were even clapping along on songs like “Nestle in My Boobies” and “Pussywillow”.
After the Coathangers, the Thermals opened with “Returning to the Fold”. It was the band’s second time performing at Beatpol (their last show at the venue was in 2005). The band filled out the space and played a successful set with numerous songs off their latest album, Personal Life (2010). This tour is the band’s first in Europe since the album was released in the fall.
Hutch Harris, Westin Glass, and Kathy Foster owned the audience; the crowd grooved and sang along to the band’s songs despite the language barrier. The mosh pit that formed at the front of the stage thrashed and thrived during songs like “I Don’t Believe You”, “Our Trip”, and “Here’s Your Future”, in which Glass got the whole crowd clapping and fist pumping. Although the Thermals are on their last leg of tour, they oozed energy and proved they mesh well together.
The band’s performance was cohesive and to the point. Perhaps this is because Personal Life is the first Thermals record written by all three band members. Wasting no time and plowing their way through the fast-paced and high-energy tracks, the group demonstrated this current line-up is the right one (The Thermals have had four different drummers since the band started in 2002).
The highlights of the night were the songs “Not Like Any Other Feeling”, “Never Listen to Me”, and “Now We Can See”, which the band played during their encore. Harris’s talky vocals were just as strong as they are on the band’s albums, especially during the performance of “Never Listen to Me”, when he had moments to sing alone without playing the guitar.
The Thermals are one of those bands that instantly jumps up the favorites list when they’re seen live. Last night’s show was no exception. The group spoke with PopMatters about their latest release, touring with the Coathangers, smoking weed, and traveling through Europe.
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So were you guys together as the three of you the last time you were here in Dresden?
Hutch Harris: No. That was six years ago, in 2005. Crazy…the club was called Starclub then. I didn’t recognize the name Beatpol but I recognized the place as soon as we drove up.
Wow, long time ago. How do you guys feel about this new album…it’s been out awhile now and you’ve been playing a lot of shows, but it’s your first time in Europe since then, right? How’s the European audience responding?
Kathy Foster: Yeah, it’s been really awesome. People know the new songs and seem to like them.
HH: We’re always surprised when people know the new songs. We never really know what it will be like in Europe, but there have been a lot of times where people have seemed to know the new record better than anything else.
The new album Personal Life feels more personal when you listen to it. Does it seem like the album is also easier for audiences to get into because it’s more relatable?
HH: Yeah, but at the same time The Body, The Blood, The Machine... people loved it here. They really got it. It was surprising. But yeah, the subject matter is much more relatable talking about relationships rather than talking about death or something.
In one word, how would you describe the evolution from the first album until now?
HH: One word is never enough! We need hundreds of words.
KF: It was a natural progression. Each album feels like a natural progression from the last one. “Natural,” would then, be the word of choice.
And if I may ask, why did you guys switch from Subpop to Kill Rock Stars between albums?
KF: We had had a three-record contract with Sub Pop. After that we talked about what we wanted to do next and Sub Pop wanted to sign us for two more records, but it just came down to logistics. We wanted to be able to own our masters and do one record at a time, but that was the only reason. We loved working with them and we were sad to not work with them anymore…but we love Kill Rock Stars too.
Speaking of Kill Rock Stars, are you guys Elliott Smith fans?
KF: Oh yeah, definitely.
It must be awesome to know that he was a part of something you’re such a part of.
HH: Oh yeah, as well as Sleater-Kinney [and] The Gossip. There are so many good artists. It was the same way at Sub Pop. We definitely feel proud to be a part of that repertoire. We write all the press releases for the records, so we’re always name-dropping all of those bands. It’s great to be a part of those groups.
You guys write the press releases? Were you a journalism major or something?
HH: No, I just like to write. When we signed to Sub Pop, I read a stack of a lot of press sheets and they were all really boring to me, so I just wanted ours to be more interesting and funny, too.
Oh yeah, and your Facebook site is pretty funny. Don’t you have a “Grandpa Award” on there or something random like that?
HH: [Laughs] Yeah, well Facebook asks you to plug in what awards you’ve got. Why!? How many Grammys!? But yeah, “Greatest Grandpa” of the month, like the mug! We got a couple other awards, but I forget what they were.
Okay so moving on, some of your writing has been more political in the past, but that’s not the case with this album, correct?
HH: Yeah, people started thinking of us as a political band and once you get stuck with that…we just didn’t want to get stuck with any one tag. We never called ourselves a political or punk band because you get stuck when people want you to do the same thing over and over again. You want to be able to do something different and you don’t want people thinking you’re just “one” thing.
Right. But if you guys were to write political songs today, what kind topics do you think you’d cover?
HH: There’s a lot to talk about today. Like the Tea Party…nothing new, just scary, conservative Christians on the right, acting catty. You know… it’ll be interesting… we hope that Obama will get re-elected, but it’s scary to think who will be our president if he isn’t. It’s a scary slate of people. Maybe Donald Trump will run and he will be able to buy votes!
[Laughs] Yeah…so when you’re writing songs, what comes first, the song or the lyrics?
KF: We usually start with the music. We’ll work on the music a lot and then lyrics start coming as we get more songs established.
HH: We all keep journals, but they don’t end up being lyrics. Almost always we write the music first because then you know what the feeling of the song is—if it’s lighter or darker, or how serious it is.
What musicians do you guys like lyrically? Who has inspired you guys lyrically?
HH: I like The Cure. I like Robert Smith’s lyrics a lot. I like Nirvana and Pixies lyrics, even though you don’t always know what they’re saying. Fugazi too. To me, it’s more about the feeling you get, or what you think the song is about. Elliott Smith’s lyrics are great, too.
I’m a big fan of female bassists, I think they’re rad. Kathy, were there any female bassists who inspired you? What made you get into the bass?
KF: Just this band, and I didn’t want to play the drums. Our other friend Jordan played drums at first, so I just played bass.
Why do you think more women don’t play bass? It seems like a guy thing.
KF: I wouldn’t say specifically the bass. I’d say instruments in general. It’s just male-dominated and women are intimidated. If you’re not in a supportive community, then you might not feel like you should play, or people will make fun of you…there’s not always support for it. But I grew up in the Bay Area of California and I was lucky to be in a supportive music scene with a lot of girls playing music. There are a lot of girl bands on the west coast, on Kill Rock Stars, Sub Pop, and Lookout. It’s a community with a lot of girls playing music. I was never scared about playing, but I know other communities aren’t like that. Just going on tour, you feel that in different places. Guys can treat you like you don’t know what you’re doing.
So you guys have been in Europe for a few weeks now. Are you fans of Europe?
KF: Yeah, it’s awesome! Especially with touring, compared to the US, you feel really spoiled. Everyone’s accommodating with nice hospitality…just really nice people. There’s always someone to greet you, they always have snacks for you, put you up, make you dinner. In the US it feels more like you have to prove yourself, and you can come to the club and no one’s there and they don’t care.
HH: You feel like a guest over here. They take putting on shows more seriously here. You show up to a club in the US and just the sound guy shows up, he just woke up, and he’s super bummed out and grumbling. Maybe the promoter comes to the show? But here, even with the lights and sound, they take everything more seriously, like, “we’re putting on a concert”. In the US, it’s just another show.
KF: It feels more like they take music and art more seriously over here—like it’s a bigger part of society. Whereas in the US, it’s more underground.
So in another PopMatters piece that was done with you guys, you said you smoke a lot of weed, is that true? If so, is weed any better in Europe?
Westin Glass: Yeah, I remember that interview…
KF: We don’t get a lot here, but it’s hard to beat in Europe, or just in the Northwest, around California and Canada.
So there wasn’t an Amsterdam trip on this tour?
KF: Yeah, we’re always smoking weed in Amsterdam, but we’re always smoking weed everywhere. The weed’s probably better at home than in Amsterdam, though. It’s super green at home.
HH: On earlier tours, we used to smoke all the time and try to find weed all the time. But now, if it’s around, we’ll smoke it, but we’re not breaking our backs to make it happen. The Coathangers have found it a couple times on this trip. Actually a friend in Brussels brought us some weed and that was really good. But, you know, a lot of the stuff in Amsterdam, I think because they’re growing it legally, it’s grown like a crop and it’s treated.
WG: We’re just spoiled in Portland because the weed’s so good.
Okay. I’ll keep that in mind. How did you guys get The Coathangers on this tour?
KF: We’ve toured with them a couple times in the US, and we just love them. We love their band and we love them as people. We talked about bringing them over here with us and they were excited about that, so we just made it happen.
HH: We got along with them the first day. We’re always on tour with bands that aren’t all dudes, because at every club there are so many dudes, and we would do tours where there were eleven guys and Kathy. So we always wanted to take other bands that were either all girls or at least mostly girls. This tour we have something like seven girls and three dudes. It’s great.
Okay, so random question time. I saw some videos you guys did online. How was hanging out with MTV’s John Norris? That was a good interview!
KF: He’s so awesome. He’s the best interviewer ever. He’s super pro, and so natural. It’s always a good conversation and he’s so nice.
WG: He’s a really passionate guy. Cares a lot about what he’s doing.
HH: He gets his facts super straight and he knows his stuff. We thought he’d have no idea who we were, but he does his research. There’s a reason why he’s had his job for twenty years or something. You can just tell he knows what he’s doing.
Yeah, it was great! And I was wondering how you guys feel about the show Portlandia? Have you guys watched it yet?
KF: I’ve only gotten to watch the first episodes so far, but we got to play the premiere in New York. It was fun. It was in January. They had a premiere in Portland and one in New York…the New York one was the fancy one.
HH: A ton of SNL people were there, Heather Graham was there. We were playing and I was watching Heather Graham play us. I like the show. We’ve been friends with Carrie [Brownstein, formerly of Sleater-Kinney] and Fred [Armisen of Saturday Night Live; both the creators of the show] for a long time.
And German words. Do you guys know any random German words?
KF: It’s such a hard language and it’s so foreign to me, that I can’t remember the words, so I just know the basic “danke”.
WG: I don’t even know how to say yes in German!
HH: I know “was ist dat?”.
Nice. You just spoke some dialect there. In Western Germany, they refer to things as “dat” instead of “das”. Nice job!
HH: [Laughs] That’s right. That’s where I’m from in Germany.
So, summer plans. You guys will be back over here, right? Playing some European Festivals?
HH: Yeah, we’re playing some shows in Poland, and a few festivals in Europe. Omas Teich Festival in Grossefehn, Germany, Juicy Beats Festival in Dortmund, Germany, and Terraneo Festival in Sibenik, Croatia.