Catching Up With... The Thermals

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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 him.

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 Underground.

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.
Harris: 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,” or...

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.
Harris: We 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 last one.

 

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 pop. 

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!

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