Maturing at Their Own Pace: An Interview with the Thermals
"We want the songs to be joyous, or like a celebration, even if what were singing about is not a happy thing. We want our songs to be fun even if it's a dark subject or a sad subject."
Having worked at their own pace for the past 13 years has helped the Thermals avoid the dangers of dwindling relevance.
It seems as if the Portland trio's brand of punchy, pop hooks has increasingly become a rare commodity in indie rock, seeing as blogger-approved bands have been gradually trading in their guitars for pre-set synth sounds. As it is expected, these kinds of trends tend to come and go with little impact, and it has especially eluded the Thermals' approach to songwriting.
"We like to go to an expensive studio and then make it sound like you recorded it in a garage," quips guitarist/vocalist Hutch Harris with his longtime musical partner Kathy Foster by his side, bending his torso forward over a slightly uncomfortable set of stools in a crowded cafe at Atwater Village in Los Angeles. Harris is mostly referring to how all their records maintain a fuzzy, lo-fi aesthetic, a form of recording that has been a necessary constant for their punk-fueled songs since the release of 2003's More Parts Per Million.
Harris is a chatty, more animated personality, always quick to make a point and ready to ramble on about his feelings. Foster, on the other hand, is more of a quiet listener who's quicker to speak when it's related to her past or her upbringing, though they're both almost unanimously in agreement about all matters that involve what and how the Thermals should and do sound like.
Harris is also very adamant and tactful about giving the audience an emotional experience, which has always been tied to how their listeners immediately assume all their records to have some connective thread to them. "I wanted specifically to not have a theme because it's too expected and you feel like, 'Eh, it's getting old,' but then you don't even think it and it comes out that way," Harris jests.
The Thermals have played around with the format in varying degrees throughout the years, and yet these changes have made a minimal dent on what is truly the over-arching theme of their entire discography: to rock hard and with an open-hearted embrace. This is especially true of their latest album, We Disappear, a revealing mid-career effort that passionately explores the bond between love and death. In Harris' case, he's practically obsessed with the two. "Most art is about love or death. It's something we all understand and that we all have in common, and it's the things we think about," says Harris.
We Disappear shares some common parallels with an earlier Thermals records, Personal Life, one that relishes its romantic contradictions with stark vulnerability. Nevertheless, Harris is quick to point out how We Disappear carries a more optimistic tone. "To me Personal Life was about love and relationships, but it was also very cynical. It was very dark and cynical, and it didn't have any kind of optimistic outlook about love or relationships," Hutch clarifies, sometimes repeating his words as his mind puts his thoughts together. "This one is not positive and it's more melancholy. It's more about accepting the blame for things that go wrong in relationships as opposed to blaming someone else or just blaming love in general. I feel it's more honest that way. It's more melancholy but it's also more heartfelt. I mean, it's not cynical but it is also death obsessed, too."
This sincere display of yearning love can be found on one of We Disappear's first singles, "Thinking of You", a rousing anthem that resonates with the same immediacy and clarity that the Thermals are commonly known for. But it also especially exemplifies Harris's knack for finding depth in the the simplest gestures. He's quick to note how they like to balance the good with the bad after I proposed the idea that "Thinking of You" was a song about longing. "That's a good way to look at it, actually," says Harris. "I hadn't thought of it that way but it's nice we're always trying to write songs that might be sad, sentimental or even dark. But we like the lyrics to be like that, but we don't always want the songs to sound like that. We want the songs to be joyous, or like a celebration, even if what were singing about is not a happy thing. We want our songs to be fun even if it's a dark subject or a sad subject."
"Like that's classic, though," Foster adds. "I mean, if you listen to songs throughout history it's like that. A lot of the songs you just dance and groove to, and you listen to the lyrics and they're about heartache. Or just groovin'."
"Or just groovin' hard," Harris jokes.
That flair for writing catchy, even tender choruses, like "Thinking of You", could very well be the Thermals' covert homage to Green Day's "When I Come Around", a band that has shaped and molded Foster's sensibilities from an early age. "Growing up in the Bay Area I was surrounded by a lot of punk pop, and like a lot of Green Day songs, a lot of the music is just about him [Billie Joe Armstrong] being sad in his bedroom over some girl, but they're like so catchy and fun. You just want to sing along and you identify with those emotional feelings that everyone can identify with, like feeling heartbroken or not getting the person you want to be with."
Harris agrees with Foster, and reflects on how he's grown more comfortable in his skin. "I think a lot of the times in the past I was afraid to be sentimental. I was more cynical and it came out more angry because it's embarrassing to be sentimental sometimes. You don't want to be sappy, or you don't want to be vulnerable."
Harris pays great attention to his lyrics because they're pretty much synonymous with The Thermals. It's almost expected of them to write about penetrating and difficult accounts with frank specificity. "I was thinking about all the lyrics I've written for The Thermals, and thought that usually I'm just kind of honest and straightforward. I say what I mean. But when I went back and read the lyrics I'm thinking, "That's not true at all", so I wanted to correct that."
"I've always loved Hutch's lyrics," Foster assures. "I want everyone to hear them, and people love his lyrics. They're really smart and I think that's a huge part of why people like them."
"Yeah, that's a big part of the band," Harris concludes in a lower pitch, a bit more modest, yet unfazed by Foster's complimentary tone.
But despite the praise they've received from both critics and their fans alike, the Thermals have had to withstand some peaks and troughs throughout their career. Harris recalls the lukewarm reception they received from their last record Desperate Ground, which he rates high and still thinks fondly of. Desperate Ground was easily their most biting and unhinged since after releasing their politically-fueled magnum opus The Body, The Blood, The Machine in 2006, going even further back with a muddy, crumbly sound that was something of a throwback to More Parts Per Million.
"With Desperate Ground I wasn't like, 'Yeah, people are going to love this one,'" he remarks. "We were just trying to please ourselves first. We both love that record, but I can also see why people may like this new one a lot better. The response to the singles has gone really well, in a way that didn't to our last record, which was kind of dark and, for the most part, not sentimental. We were definitely trying to make a record that sounded like one of our first records, because it's this crazy, loud blast."
But the lyrical component is what they continue to push forward, regardless of the direction they wish to pursue. Another challenge they had behind them in the past was related to the sound of their vocals, which at one point didn't go like they originally planned. "When Kathy and I made The Body, The Blood, The Machine the first mixes of the records -- which Brendan Canty was producing -- were great, but he was mixing the record in a really punk way where the vocals were low," says Harris. We never fought much with Sub Pop but they were definitely like 'The vocals have to be louder,' and I remember at one point they also said, 'You want to go ahead and shoot yourself in the foot.' I mean, they were getting all upset and it was just about the vocals. Ultimately they were okay with it, but most of the time I was just like, 'Fuck you, don't tell me what to do. I'll [in a vindictive tone] make the vocals super quiet to spite them.'"
He continues: "You feel like now there's this trend for vocals to be like really reverbed and washed out, way in the back, and even on newer records that I like I have no idea what they're saying. It's so buried. And a lot of the time I think that if you're proud of your lyrics you should put them up front, and if you're embarrassed by the lyrics then maybe that's how they end up quiet."
All these changes have been integral to The Thermals' maturation as songwriters, an element that gets oftentimes dismissed since they continually play with a formula that sounds so effortless, almost primal, at first glance. "I think you don't want to get too far from yourself," Foster describes with enlightening precision. "It can't be contrived. It's most important to play music that you love and not write anything that you think you should, or not write to what people expect."
Hutch follows: "We've just allowed to grow slowly without sitting down and saying, 'Okay, we have to mature or we need to grow up.' I think if we did that it wouldn't come out as honestly."
Curiously, We Disappear also features some of the Thermals' most fleshed-out songs to date, songs that can be easily distinguished from those Foster considers to be "like high school pop punk." One of these is "The Great Dying", a slower, meandering track that occupies a more spacious feel with a brooding and almost despairing undercurrent. Or consider "Years in a Day", a slow-burning ballad that remains poised and reflective to its very conclusion instead of going into a mounting riff or an impassioned wail.
"The songs we're most excited about on the record are the slower songs that aren't the singles, like in 'Years in a Day', because we've never made a song that sounds like that," Harris admits. "'The Great Dying' too. We've been wanting to do songs like that in the past but we never really pulled it off. But even on that song, as for the whole record, there's some emo moments that we really put forth. And I mean classic emo, like going to bands like Fugazi. The whole record also has a very '90s feel."
So even when they acknowledge their growth as songwriters throughout the years, The Thermals are still committed to a sound that gives them a potent shot of nostalgia. And who can blame them? It seems as if those, like myself, who are in their early 30s tend to at some point revisit and celebrate the sounds that shaped their youth when they were younger. "When I was in high school grunge was popular, and it's been very formative. We still listen to all that music," Foster exclaims with much delight. "That's just the style I listen to and to me I have the most fun when I play like all those grunge and pop songs."
Harris adds: "Yeah, I listen to it more than ever. The music that you grow up to is always going to be the most important. It's always going to touch you in a way that stuff won't when you get older. You gotta have this nostalgic feeling for the music you grew up with, and a lot of the time as a band you're trying to give yourself that same feeling. But then kind of give other people that feeling, too."
An integral part of The Thermals who's greatly helped in shaping their gradual evolution is songwriter/producer Chris Walla, better known as the former member of Death Cab for Cutie. Walla has been side-by-side with the Thermals since the beginning of their career, and he's fondly considered by the duo as "another member of the band."
Hutch goes more in detail about the recording changes in We Disappear, which was the first they accomplished with digital means: "This was the first record that we did all digitally, which was cool because we had done all of our records on tape for Chris, who is in all our records and he loves doing stuff on tape. Kathy and I both asked how we go about making a record this way, and he said that digital technology had finally caught up with analogue. Before that we did all these records that were very spare, like there wasn't a ton of instrumentation. And we've done all these records with Chris, who's like a real producer, so he can really produce, so he brought in all these old synthesizers and all this really cool guitar equipment. So he layers a ton of stuff, just like a studio record, and we hadn't made a record like that in a while. It was cool to have him do a bunch of tricks as opposed to just capturing us live, which is what he usually does."
There's a sentimental quality to having Walla behind the console, too, who's done more records for them than anyone else. "He always knows what we like, and we just like his taste, like when he suggests something we're usually like, 'Yeah, that sounds great.' Chris is also a really emotional person, too, and you can tell with all the records that he's worked on like ours, Death Cab, Tegan & Sara, and the Decemberists. It's all very emotional music, and he knows tonally what sounds work and with what emotions you're trying to get out of people at certain points. With 'The Great Dying', it all sounds like it's just falling apart, going into some huge black hole. And Chris did all these kaleidoscope sound effects and I don't even know what the hell is happening."
He continues: "Kathy and Chris made a lot of noise tracks on this record I wasn't even aware of. I would come back while they were working and say, 'That sounds insane.'"
Foster adds: "All the suggestions fit really well with what we're doing. Nothing's totally out of context, or I usually agree with everything he suggests because we just feel so comfortable around him."
But even through all these milestones, what they're most looking forward to is playing the new songs live, in which they will be joined on stage with Jessica Boudreaux of Summer Cannibals to further widen the scope of the band's sound (and so Harris can sing and run around). "We played a few one-off shows in February and people were really loving the new material, and just having played all these solos that we haven't been able to play before because just playing them as a core three piece is a challenge," Foster says. "It's hard to just go from like rhythm to solo, so we changed them a little bit so that you're playing either rhythm or solo."
I invented the rhythm solo, but now I'm going to leave them behind," Harris jokes.
Harris is also excited about the possibility of playing some old material, especially on the upcoming tenth anniversary of The Body, The Blood, The Machine, which seems even more prevalent in today's political climate than when it came out during the Bush years.
"We like balancing them," Harris says. "We played a couple of tracks from the first record, and some from Desperate Ground, but mostly The Body songs like 'Back to the Sea' and 'Power Doesn't Run on Nothing'. We haven't played those songs for such a long time so those always get people excited. About how it fits today, well, someone just told me this morning that Donald Trump reminds them of The Body, and I'm like, 'Yeah, but like way scarier now.'"
But Harris remains optimistic, just like in most of the newfound cheerfulness that pervades throughout the entirety of We Disappear. "It's not gonna happen, and to make sure it doesn't happen we have to do something about it."