PopMatters speaks to Thermals drummer Westin Glass about recording Personal Life, the pressure of joining a band late in the game and what mind-altering substances motivated the band to get through so many shows in such a short time.
Playing 170 shows in just one year might sound exhausting to some, but for Portland band the Thermals, that exercise in rigor resulted in a sense of musical cohesion they’d not yet reached, one that would eventually lead them to write their most unified and vulnerable record to date. Since the band formed in 2002, the Thermals’ ever-changing lineup could be likened to a soap opera cast (albeit minus evil twins and miraculous resurrections), with members coming and going, and founding members Hutch Harris and Kathy Foster the only constants in the mix. Not wanting to let lineup changes slow them down, Hutch and Kathy simplified the band’s sound, shifting from a two-guitar attack to Hutch’s one, and took over whatever leftover duties they could. Kathy became the Thermals’ studio percussionist for second and third albums The Body, the Blood, the Machine (2006) and Now We Can See (2009), but it was when the duo was about to hit the road for the latter that they again began the search for a new drummer.
Enter Westin Glass, a Seattle resident who, at the time, played for Seattle’s Say Hi (formerly Say Hi to Your Mom) and had long admired the music Hutch and Kathy were making. After a chance connection and a couple auditions, Westin was the third Thermal, both honored by and burdened with the task of learning the band’s catalog before hitting the road for a stretch of touring that would wear on even the most experienced of bands. Those shows, though, solidified Westin’s place in the band, and led to writing sessions that would produce the Thermals’ forthcoming record Personal Life, a darker, more minimal, and, as the name suggests, much more lyrically personal take on the crunchy lo-fi punk the band had produced in years past.
Westin talked to PopMatters on his first morning back at home in Portland, Oregon, about writing and recording Personal Life, the pressure of joining a band late in the game and what mind-altering substances motivated the band to get through so many shows in such a short time.
You joined up with the Thermals about a year and a half ago. How did you get involved with them originally?
I had been in another band [Say Hi] who was on tour with this band the Big Sleep from New York, and they told me the Thermals were looking for a drummer. I was living in Seattle at the time and I just called them up and drove down from Seattle and played with them once or twice. I guess they liked me, I don’t know. I didn’t really think anything of it. I figured it was just a cool experiment - that it would be a rad experience just to play with one of my favorite bands. But then it turns out they thought I was the right guy or whatever, so it was pretty cool.
So did you guys have an immediate chemistry with each other?
Yeah, I would say so, for sure. I just really got along with those guys right away when we first met.
Was it a challenge for you to start playing songs another band had already written? Was there a lot of creative freedom there?
Well, I’ve kind of done that a lot. The band that I was touring with before the Thermals was Say Hi and I did the exact same thing with that band. I don’t know if you’re familiar with his [Say Hi’s Eric Elbogen] music but he makes all of his records just on his computer, so I was learning stuff that was basically impossible for a drummer to play because [Eric] isn’t a drummer and he was just making all these things on his computer that sound great and cool but you would need eight hands to play it. So I was learning how to translate all of those songs into something that I could play on a drum set. So for me, the Thermals are the kind of music that I’ve always been wanting to play my whole life. The way that Kathy plays drums on those records, I couldn’t improve on it at all. It’s exactly what I would play if I was to play on those records. So for me it wasn’t super hard to learn but I really tried to learn every recording that they had done note for note and play as closely as possible to what the recording was. But on the new record [Personal Life], we just went into the studio and every one of us wrote the parts that we’re playing just as we were coming up with the songs, so that was really, really fun for me and it was really an honor that they gave me so much freedom to just do whatever I wanted.
So when you’re writing these drum parts, do you try and fit the part to the song itself, or are you more of a lyric guy?
There’s definitely both. In the past, most Thermals songs have been something that Hutch wrote on the guitar and then all of the other parts sort of came from that. But on this record I would say that most of the songs came from Kathy. She would come into practice with a bass line, and then I would sort of build the drum part off that and Hutch would come up with some lyrics and little guitar things. There’s a few songs where Hutch doesn’t play any chords at all, which is a new thing for this band, and he’ll just play a little note or a line of guitar and then he’ll sing and not play guitar. So the record is very much just the drums and the bass. I’ll always, as a rule, try to make sure the drum parts will go with the bass as much as possible, but then there’s also some songs where Hutch wouldn’t have the words down but we would know what the melody was and the rhythm of what he was saying. There are some songs where I tried to match the drums to the vocals as well. I think you can hear that, like in that single that just came out, “I Don’t Believe You.” In the verses of that song, the things that I’m doing on the drums are reinforcing what he’s doing vocally.
You mentioned that Hutch was taking a different approach to this record. From following you guys over the years, I noticed a difference in both your sound and the lyrical content on this record. Was that an intentional shift or did it just happen organically?
It would be more organically. I think that we all three knew that we wanted to do something that wasn’t the same as what Hutch and Kathy had already done on the other records, but as for choosing exactly what to do and where to go, that was something that came out organically in the songs. As one song after another came, it slowly started to coalesce into a theme.
You had a pretty quick turnaround from Now We Can See (released April 2009). What made you decide to put out another record so quickly?
I guess just because it came that quickly. When I started playing with them, they gave me the demos for Now We Can See so I could start learning those songs. I played my first shows with them in December of 2008, and pretty soon after that once we started touring we were already coming up with new songs. “I Don’t Believe You” and “Never Listen to Me” are pretty old at this point. Those were almost completely written back in spring of 2009. It just felt right because all those songs came so quickly and there was this whole new record worth of songs that seemed like they should really get out there.
And how did you choose “I Don’t Believe You” for the first single?
It just felt right. I’m pretty sure that’s the first one that was written for the record. I think it’s a good single because there are a lot of songs on the new record that sound pretty significantly different from what the Thermals have ever done before. But “I Don’t Believe You” is not totally different. It still has guitar chords going on through the whole song and it’s really catchy and upbeat and it sounds familiar to people who are familiar with the Thermals. But then I think it gives a hint of the new direction of the record as well. It seemed pretty clear to all of us and to everybody at Kill Rock Stars that that was the right choice for the first single.
Since this is the first record you’ve recorded as a trio, and we touched on this a minute ago, do you feel like you had a lot of influence on this new record?
Yeah. I was really honored and amazed at how much influence I was allowed to have by those guys. It just warms my heart. When I was coming up with parts for this new record, a lot of times I was thinking, “What would Kathy do?” or, “What is the Thermals way to do this?” So I would like to think that I was staying true to the band’s aesthetic as it was already, but obviously any new person is going to bring some new ideas. I guess I did that, or I just picked some different drummers to rip off in making up my parts (laughs).
Who are some of these drummers that have inspired you along the way?
Well there are so many amazing drummers out there. The drummers that I ripped off the most on this record would be Ross Jarman from the Cribs and Fab from the Strokes. There’s a certain deadpan quality to both of those guys that I really love and I thought would go really well on this record. There’s maybe a million other drummers I love, but those are the two that really influenced directly what I’m playing on this record. And, of course, Kathy Foster.
And you play a three-piece drum kit, right? Any reason?
Well that’s all you really need to play Thermals songs. I like how minimal it is. It’s just a kick drum, a snare and a floor tom. I did actually cheat—there is one song on the record, “It’s Not Like Any Other Feeling,” where I added a rack tom, because a whole bunch of times I play a fill that needed two different tom sounds. But when we play live I don’t use the rack tom for that song. I think that one of the best things about the Thermals is that age-old trick of limiting your options and really imposing restrictions on yourself and making art that way. You know, Hutch recording on a four track is the same idea. It’s taking a few minimal elements and making something cool out of just that. That’s kind of why I’m not playing an eighteen piece with a ton of crashes and stuff.
Going back to the recording the new record, what was it like working with Chris Walla [producer, Death Cab for Cutie guitarist]?
He is so amazing. I feel really lucky to have gotten the chance to work with him. It was the first time in my life I’ve worked with someone who is a producer, as opposed to just an engineer. And Chris really does things that I would say only a producer could do. Half to three quarters of the songs on the record we wrote really fast in the last three weeks before we went in to record. But at that point we already had this idea of the sound and we described it to Chris and he just got it right away. He knew exactly what we were talking about and he was so good at getting all of the sounds just the way that we were imagining. He really got the big picture of the record. So the beauty of that was that when we were in there doing takes, he would know whether a take was what we wanted or, if it wasn’t, what to tell us to try differently to make it closer to our vision. He also made us work harder than we would have without him there. He really pushed us and brought out performances that were above and beyond what we would have accomplished without a producer doing something like that. He is just such a brilliant guy, and so sweet and nice, as well. Such joy to work with.
You’ve also toured like crazy over the last couple of years. Do you feel like that also had an impact on the final product of this record?
Yeah. We played something like 170 shows last year, and for me personally that helped to really lock in with Hutch and Kathy musically and aesthetically, and to really know how they think about music and what they want to hear. As a drummer, you need to have a special musical relationship with the bass player. The rhythm section has to be so tight. Kathy is definitely my favorite bass player I’ve ever played with. When the two of us are locked in together, that feel is so cool and it took playing hundreds of shows for us to get to the point we’re at. On the record, almost every song is me and Kathy in one take, just the two of us playing together all the way through without any edits or anything like that. I really feel like playing all those shows together got us to a point where we were able to do that.
Being out on the road so much, what do you do to stay entertained?
We smoke a lot of weed (laughs). Just coffee and weed, that’s our tour. And then just trying to annoy our tour manager. He’s an awesome guy and we just try to tell him really bad jokes that annoy him. And watching movies and reading and stuff. I always bring so many books with me on tour, and then I’ll be lucky if I get through one of them, even on a really long tour. Reading becomes more difficult, I don’t know why. You’d think that sitting in a van for eight hours you could read, but you just don’t want to read. On these long drives we’ll stop once an hour at least, not even to get out and pee but just because everyone is so bored. It makes our drives take a little bit longer but I think everyone is in a better mood when we get there. It’s a good trade off.
Any tour reading you made it through that you’d recommend?
I just finished this book This Is Your Brain on Music [by Daniel J. Levitin]. It’s really cool. I was a little afraid to read it, because as a musician I was afraid to start thinking about music in a different way. If I started to know too much about the brain then I was afraid it would mess me up as a musician, but so far that hasn’t happened. But it’s a really interesting book. It took me a really long time to finish it, though.
Well besides your time off and the new record coming out, any big plans in the works?
I’m going to try and record some music this summer, just some random songs I’ve been writing. We have to make a video for that song “I Don’t Believe You” by the end of this month. It’s still in the works. We should really get that going pretty soon though (laughs).