Music That Hits You in the Body: An Interview With the Thermals’ Westin Glass

The Thermals
Desperate Ground
Saddle Creek

2013 marks a decade since the Thermals first released their brand of sharp, tuneful punk screeds on the world and the band shows few signs of slowing down. After releasing a trio of albums culminating in their masterpiece, 2006’s The Body, The Blood, The Machine, the band moved from Sub Pop to Kill Rock Stars. Their next two albums were (comparatively) less raucous and featured more introspective lyrics, especially 2011’s Personal Life. Earlier this year Sub Pop re-released the first three Thermals albums on vinyl and on April 16 the band will put out their sixth record, Desperate Ground, this time on Saddle Creek Records.

After cycling through three drummers in six years, the arrival of Westin Glass behind the kit in 2008 brought continuity the Thermals’ last two albums and allowed the band to stabilize as a power trio. Known for his exuberance and audience interaction, Glass has become a fan favorite during the group’s live shows. He has also been a strong presence shaping the band’s sound in the studio. Fresh off of a string of dates on both coasts and a hectic visit to South By Southwest, Glass talked with PopMatters over the phone about touring, staying D.I.Y. and the group’s back-to-basics approach on their new record.

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You guys just got back from South By Southwest, how did it go for you?

Westin Glass: It was ridiculously fun. It’s always a marathon and it’s so exhausting, physically and mentally but it was really fun. We did seven shows in four days and we were just carrying all of our stuff in our hands, walking around between shows.

It’s been a while since you’ve done a full tour, I’m sure the fans were excited to see you back on the road.

WG: The crowds were great. There was a lot of interactivity, people moshing and jumping around. Hutch and I were getting into the crowd a lot.

You guys do always go all out when it comes to shows.

WG: That’s the only way to do it, I think.

It’s got to be hard though doing that every night with the same level of enthusiasm.

WG: Yeah, it’s exhausting for sure. I ended up pulling a muscle. I’m not a guy who gets messages but I’m gonna go and get one today. I really pulled a muscle in my shoulder blade halfway through South By Southwest. And I had to play a bunch of shows after that. Lugging all of our gear around all over that town through sweaty, stinky crowds of people was not good for my body, you know? But still, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.

So you’re still running around, lugging your own gear, is this where you imagined the punk rock road taking you? Would you say you’re living the dream?

WG: This is definitely living the dream. We’re D.I.Y. all the way. We always want to do everything ourselves as much as we possibly can and we really don’t mind. I mean, it certainly would be nice to have people doing stuff for us but all those people have to get paid. It’s better to just do it ourselves, it makes more sense that way. We when we do a real tour we do take some crew with us but we try to keep it as minimal as possible. We tour manage ourselves and we manage ourselves as well. Distinct from tour managing we don’t have a band manager. We just try to keep everything entirely under our control.

It sounds like both a financial and principled stance.

WG: Yeah, the video for first single off the new album, “Born to Kill” we directed ourselves. We just didn’t wanna release that control, you know? We like to do everything that we can. We keep it all in our own hands.

Desperate Ground seems like a break from the last two albums. Personal Life especially seemed a little bit different. I know that Kathy was doing a lot of writing so there was more bass and it was less straightforward, three-chord rock. Was the new album an attempt to get back to basics?

WG: It was. It was fun to do all that Personal Life stuff and I’m glad that we went down that road and explored that sonic palette and I think it’s a great record. But we decided on this one it was time to get back to the core of this band and the stuff that the fans love and wanna hear and the stuff that’s the most fun for us to play live. We just wanted to go for the loud, fast two minute songs.

It reminds me of a Ramones album, it’s almost like you guys are racing through each song to see how quick you can get to the next one.

WG: It does sound like that, I love it that way.

You said that those songs are the ones the fans love, who do you think of as an average Thermals fan? Teenagers? People who’ve been fans since the first album?

WG: We have fans of all ages, it’s really cool to see. We try to play all ages shows as often as we can, whenever it’s possible. We have kids of 14, 15 coming out and we have people in their thirties and forties coming out. It’s a really diverse group. I’d say the things they have most in common is that they’re slightly nerdy, in a cool way and very high-energy folks.

People who know the words AND come to dance.

WG: Exactly.

I imagine that’s a flattering place to be in for a band, knowing that people both respond viscerally and are really listening to the records.

WG: It’s awesome. I was actually just talking to Hutch about that the other day, body music versus mind music. We feel like a lot of music that’s popular right now is very cerebral. Like you have to sit there and really analyze it to appreciate it. And you’re like “Hmm, I like this. They’re really making a statement.” And that’s great but a lot of it doesn’t really hit you in your body and for us that’s one of the most important things about music. It’s something that’s got to make you want to move your body and let out all this pent-up energy that everybody has. So we really try to focus on that. But with Hutch’s lyrics and what we do with song structures, I feel like if you do sit down and analyze our music there’s a lot there. There’s a lot of candy for your brain as well.

A lot of times those go hand-in-hand in punk. You want words that are as visceral as the music. Stuff that’s good to scream along to.

WG: Exactly. And he’s is really good at writing lyrics that hit you that are really visceral that way. I feel lucky to be in a band with Hutch and Kathy, they’re both so rad.

You joined the band about five years ago and they were already a long-standing collaboration. Was that an organic fit?

WG: It felt so natural from the beginning. From the first moment we met, we all just clicked. I’ve always felt like we all have the same overall ideas of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and how we want to go about it. They’ve been really cool. I’ve been 100% involved in the songwriting for everything that we’ve written together. We all just kinda see the same way. That’s why I say I feel so lucky to have met them. I’ve played in many, many bands before this one. I spent so many years trying to get bands together and it’s hard. It’s really, really hard to find people that you can just share the same viewpoints so easily with.

There are so many festivals now, it seems like that’s just a part of summer touring. Do you like that vibe better than the club show?

WG: I would say better. It’s different. Playing outdoors in a sunny, packed festival is always fun but playing in a really compact club that’s just packed with people, there’s a certain energy that you can get there that you can’t get anywhere else and I just love that. I love playing a small, sweaty room. There’s just something really great about it.

And with these kinds of songs it’s almost better when there’s people bouncing off the walls and it’s all very compact and intense.

WG: Exactly. There starts to be this critical mass when get enough people into one room. It just makes the show very exciting. Bouncing off the walls is a really great way to describe it, I like that.

And because touring is now so important for most bands do you think that’s a good development? That it forces an emphasis on the live show and the connection?

WG: I feel like the Thermals has been a band that’s always been strong live. I saw them play on their first tour, I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the time, and I saw them play when they were touring off their first record. It was an awesome show then. That was back when Hutch was just singing and not playing guitar. He was getting in the crowd, getting in people’s faces and generally putting on a really good show. This band has always been putting on a great live performance.

Speaking about the industry in general, it seems like there are more and more bands that just have the most boring live show. Just laptops, just one or two people up there just tapping on the space bar. I don’t see how that’s a show.

It’s a different approach. They’re creating sound as opposed to a Thermals show, which is the people, the experience. It’s more than just songs for an hour and a half.

WG: Yes, it is really interactive and that’s as much thanks to the crowd as it is to us. People come to our shows ready to ready to jump around and get sweaty. It’s so cool I love our fans so much. It’s awesome to have that, I feel really lucky in that way.