You may think you know The Thermals—Portland, Ore.’s masters of the beloved post-modern musical art
form adhering to three chords and the (occasionally unappetizing and
bracingly-expressed) truth, prepared in multiple two-minute helpings
and served piping hot. But perhaps you’d better think again. On the band’s fourth record, Now We Can See (out April 7) what used to sound like snotty-nosed
raging at the dying of the light has emerged as more…considered. Has morphed from “protest music” to “post-power-pop.” Could even be called-wait for it-mature. Which isn't to say The Thermals have become safe or
quieted down at all. Rather, it's just that, as a band and as people, they seem
perfectly suited to the unprecedented, wacked-out times in which we
now live. Paste caught up with the band’s founders/partners,
Hutch Harris and Kathy Foster, over a bowl of soup and some coffee in
one of the pair’s favorite Portland haunts, and found them eager to
discuss the creative process, their fellow Portland scenesters and
rumors of a “lost” Thermals album.
Paste: You know who I
noticed in the audience at one of your guys’ shows at SXSW? Pete Doherty. At first we were skeptical, but it was totally
Harris: Supposedly the
Libertines would listen to the first Thermals record when they would
come offstage on their tours, which tickled me a lot, ‘cause I loved
their records. I really wanted to meet them, do some shows with
them, but our agent was like [affects dramatic voice] “No, No, No!
Their lifestyle’s horrible. I don’t want you guys around them;
they’re toxic!” Then they broke up.
Paste: The NME just ran a
piece saying that a reunion is inevitable now, largely because both
of them are supposedly so destitute financially.
Harris: I think people just want
those two guys back together again.
Foster: Wasn’t there some
crazy story, like Pete stole from Carl [Barat] or something, and went
to jail for it?
Harris: [high pitched laugh] Yeah, yeah,
totally! Ha ha! That is so rad, so weird. Pete was
doing shows in his flat for 10 pounds so he could buy drugs. Jesus.
Paste: Let’s talk about
the new record. If you can forgive the cliché, Now We Can See
seems like the most grown-up thing in your catalogue. There are
a couple of songs on there, “At the Bottom of the Sea,” for
example, that are more Velvet Underground than the sort of
hard/fast stuff you guys have become known for.
Foster: We spent the most time
on these songs of all the albums we’ve worked on.
Harris: That chord progression
at the end of “At the Bottom of the Sea” is-so many bands use
it, C, G and F-the one the Velvet Underground made it all their own; I
can’t play those chords without thinking of the Velvet
Foster: These songs, a lot of them were
re-written a few times. We’d try all these different ways of
recording them: “Do we want them to sound like this, or sound like
that?” The arrangements on this album, we’d mess with
them until we found the right feeling for each song.
It’s like each one, we sweat just a little more. This is by
far the most time we’ve taken to write an album. I threw out
a lot of lyrics. When all the music was done, instead of going
back and editing what we had, I’d throw away the whole version and
start over-“When I Died,” “I Let It Go,” those were like
the third versions of those songs. Songs with different titles,
whole new sets of lyrics. We had “I Let It Go” as a quarter-beat
song at one point!
Paste:who previously worked with Explosions in the Sky and Polyphonic
Spree] and his influence? I probably wouldn’t have picked him
out of a line-up for you guys, given how bombastic some of his
previous records had been for other bands.
Harris: That’s the right word
for it: “bombastic.” You need a producer to come to you,
tailor their stuff to you, not the other way ‘round.
Foster: That’s just how we
are. We go to the studio totally prepared, we know what we want
already. We don’t show up and say, “Hey, we have these parts,
can you help us arrange it?” We have ideas, they’ve been
demoed to death, and what he brought [to the record] was the way it
was recorded: setting up the mics, getting the sounds, his style
of doing that. When we’re mixing, we come together, make some
compromises. He had tons of room mics on everything we recorded, some songs we liked that way, other songs we didn’t want it to
sound that roomy, we wanted to reign it in a bit more.
Paste: It seems like the
Bush years have been pretty good to you guys in terms of providing
fodder for your muse...
Harris: It’s been easy to be
amused, for sure. [laughs]
Paste: There’s a
certain layer of righteous anger that comes through in your guys’
music. So now that Obama is in office, regime change has
been affected, and I wonder, “Now what?” If
anything, I hear a very strong death vibe on this record, lyrically. Were you trying to declare the previous administration “dead,”
Harris: It’s cool to use it
that way, but that’s not what we were thinking. When other
people start interpreting what you were thinking, sometimes it’s
even more interesting than what you were originally thinking when you
wrote it. But that’s not what we were thinking at all. We
were following the last record, which had kind of an “end of the
world/end of humanity” theme, so death was a pretty natural place
to go. But there’s also the death culture. A lot of our
entertainment is death-related: novels, film, TV, music. There’s always been a lot of death in music. Love and death are
the two most inescapable themes for art and life, too, actually!
We wanted to just get rid of religion and politics and anything that
had been done to death on the last record. [laughs] But
there was a lot of water, air, light...
Foster: Hutch and I went out to
the Oregon coast twice, for two weeks at a time, and we rented
a house, brought all our gear, set up the equipment in the house, did
some demos. We went to this area called Falcon Cove, mostly
beach rentals, really quiet. There’s a private beach, mostly
rocks and driftwood and stuff. It’s a two-minute walk from
the house. And I know there’s a lot of themes of water and
light. Obviously, nature rubbed off on us.
started writing this record in 2007 when we were still on tour for
The Body, The Blood, The Machine. We’d get off tour for a
couple of weeks and Kathy and I would go in without the rest of the
band and play and write. There’s a song we were calling “The
Aces,” which was a version of “We Were Sick,” with a whole
different set of lyrics. I remember telling Kathy, “I have
lyrics to all these songs but they’re just not that good!” and
Kathy would be like, “Be patient, take your time.” In
hindsight, we toured way too long [behind The Body]. When you’re on
your third U.S. tour for one record, you start asking yourself, “Oh
my God, was this totally necessary?” [laughs] But I
think this is the best record for people to get into us for the first
time. At the end of all the press and touring for the last record,
we felt so weighed down by all the religion and politics, instead of
having gotten it off our chests, it was more like an albatross! We feel like this is a fresh start for us; this is a good time to
hear us for the first time. There may be more death on this
record, but it’s also way more positive, much less prickly than the
Paste:something in the water here. Decemberists, M. Ward, you guys,
Viva Voce: Portland’s definitely having one of its years, so
the inevitable scene pieces are already starting to emerge.
Harris:Tucker [Martine, the Decemberists' producer], and didn’t know how
much rock stuff he’d done. I really appreciate people
who can write so expansively; someone like Colin can write the new
album but then also something like “Oh! Valencia,” which is just killer, so fucking rad: a perfect three-minute, 20-second piece of
Foster: I think it’s good that
all of these bands sound so different; there’s less for the media
to latch onto.
Harris: Which means it’ll be
that much harder to burn it out. You know? If it’s all
one sound that can get scooped up and sold to the rest of the world,
it’ll have a year or two shelf life, then people will be done with
it, and the city will be done with it. It hurts the whole
scene; it’s like a virus at that point.
Paste: So we were talking
earlier about arrangements, about all the songwriting changes you
made on this record. Is there a Thermals b-sides or rarities
disc out there somewhere?
Harris: I’m pretty sure that
if they’re not putting out a Shins rarities disc, there’s a 100%
chance they’re not putting out a Thermals rarities disc. [laughs] The thing is, we have almost a whole “lost record,”
which every band needs. It’s called We Sleep in a Holy Bedmoved, tracked about 10 songs plus the Elliott Smith cover (“Ballad
of Big Nothing”), but none of them came out. Sub Pop has the
rights to that; it’s while we were under contract. Maybe
they’ll put it out, or it will just leak. But I should
probably get it out there before [the material] gets too stale.
It makes sense in terms of what came next, The Body, the Blood,
the Machine, that the music is just way heavier, darker, slower. Besides that, there’s not a lot of extra stuff; we’re not a
b-sides band. When you put out a record that’s only 26
minutes long, there probably shouldn’t be any b-sides. They should
just be on that record, you know? [laughs] Otherwise,
you’re ripping people off!