Apparently, the east side of Portland is where all the cool people live. Yet, the three folks of post-punk Portland group The Thermals schlepped all the way over to the yuppie part of the west side for lattes and scoop about their upcoming record We Disappear, out March 25 on Saddle Creek Records. Nobody in Barista recognizes Hutch Harris, Kathy Foster, and Westin Glass on this side of town, even though The Thermals are one of the longest-running groups that still lives in town and gets national attention. They’re okay with it, though, and it gives us enough privacy to talk about breakups, Battleship-like synthesizers, Twitter, and of course, death.
We Disappear is your seventh album. You’ve been together for 14 years. What’s the dream at this point?
Kathy Foster: We woke up from the dream.
Hutch Harris: There’s only reality now. We’re just having a career now.
Westin Glass: Yup, just havin’ a career.
And that’s a good thing?
Harris: No, it’s great for a lot of aspects of our lives! There’s no delusions. There’s just working.
Foster: I feel like that how we’ve done it the whole time. We’ve ridden the wave. Maybe before we were on Sub Pop we wanted to get on a label and wanted to get out music out there. But I never had any delusions of grandeur.
Each of you has a side-hustle going on. Kathy and Westin, you play in Hurry Up, and Hutch, you do some stand-up, right? How do you stay pumped for The Thermals?
Harris: When this record comes out, it’ll have been three years since Desperate Ground came out, which is kind of as long as you can go and still have people remember when you come back…By the time we come back, people are ready and they’re not sick of us. People are really excited for this record. We don’t do the band when we don’t feel it. We took off about six months, which to us, was like a lifetime, because we never took a break ever since we started the band. So then when we made the record, we were super excited to do it. The songs were awesome, and we were really glad that we made something that we liked a lot. It wasn’t that we were making anther record because we had to or we felt like it was time to. We actually wanted to.
Foster: Even before we took a break, we started working on these songs and then we needed to just step away for a while. So when we came back and played them, we were like, “Oh!”
Glass: We surprised ourselves! We had all these ideas and stuff we worked on…and after that six-month period, we got back together to practice for some shows. We didn’t even practice at all. We just started playing these older songs and all of a sudden, everything’s clicking into place and sounding really good. We were really excited and we just wrote the rest of the record.
What are some of the themes on We Disappear? I definitely get some breakup and heartache vibes, which is pretty new and raw for you, right?
Foster: But we did it a little on Personal Life.
Harris: Everything on Personal Life was…a really cynical take on relationships. But for me, truthful.
Foster: A lot of people have written to say that it’s helped them through a breakup.
Harris: I think it’ll help you when you want to feel bad about the other person. But this record, I don’t want to say it’s more honest, but it’s definitely a breakup record.
Foster: It’s more humble.
Harris: Yeah. It’s more sentimental. It’s more accepting the blame for stuff, as opposed to just cursing the other person. And then the record’s about death, like a lot of our records. Like, almost all the records. It’s just always there. To us, We Disappear is like you and I, but also all of us disappear from life.
So it’s the microcosm versus the macro?
Harris: Yeah! It sounds really dark when you’re just talking about it, but when you listen, I don’t think it comes across that dark. A lot of times, the music and really fun and uplifting, but the lyrics are dark.
I definitely got that, particularly from the single “Hey You,” which—by the way—has gotten a lot of buzz.
Glass: It’s deafening!
Harris: Yeah, it’s surprising to us!
Foster: We just got an email today that it’s the second week it’s No. 1 on the Specialty Radio.
Harris: When stuff like that happens to us, it’s different than other bands! When you look at a lot of other bands on the charts, a lot of them are major labels. There’s a lot of bands that are way bigger than us. We’re still basically an independent band on an independent label, so when that kind of stuff happens for us, it happens for real. It doesn’t happen because anyone poured a bunch of money into it because that’s not what’s happening.
Foster: And it also feels weird because we didn’t do anything to do that!
Harris: It just happened naturally.
Foster: They just liked the song!
Harris: DJs are so old-fashioned. People are liking the song and playing it on the radio.
Glass: And radio is like the only place left that something like that can happen—where something can organically become popular without gobs of money.
Foster: I was excited to see that KROQ in L.A. added it!
Glass: Yeah, that was awesome!
Harris: And what I was going to say was that it was obvious for us and the label and Chromatic PR that this was the first single we were going to put out. It sounds like us very much, but for us, the rest of the record sounds way more varied and way more different than a lot of stuff that we’ve done.
Totally. And the closer, “Years In A Day,” in particular got serious fast.
Harris: Yeah, and “The Great Dying,” too. Both of those songs are slower and darker, just way different. For me, those are the songs I’m really excited for people to hear. Because for us, they’re something just way different. Once the whole record comes out, people are going to see more places that we’ve gone to.
Foster: We all love “The Great Dying.” I think it’s my favorite song. And “If We Don’t Die Today,” I really like that one. It’s kind of the darker ones.
Foster: It’s always looming.
Harris: I used to be scared of it. I’m not really that scared anymore.
Foster: I’m still scared.
Harris: But I still think about it all the time!
Foster: Not only are some of the songs about it, but we also captured some sounds that represent that feeling of fear and death.
What are some of those sounds? What sounds like death?
Foster: Chris Walla, who we recorded with, brought in this Putney VCS 3...
Glass: It’s a synthesizer. But it’s not like what you’d picture when you picture a synthesizer. They used it to do all the sound effects on the original Doctor Who TV show!
Foster: So there are pins that you put in and that manipulates sound waves and then you turn all these knobs. And then there’s this joystick thing that controls stuff! So we used that. I was making a lot of noise with that through my bass amp with distortion and delay and stuff. So I just made 20 minutes of noise and then we put it in different songs. So in “The Great Dying,” there’s a bunch of it like zoo-OOO-oom
[hums an example] Some of it with what [Hutch] is singing just gives me chills because it just represents exactly what he’s saying.
Harris: With almost every record, Kathy will just make a huge bed of noise on a four-track or something and then we’ll bring it in and apply it. The cool thing about this machine is that there’s some super chaotic, crazy sounds. And then in like “Years And A Day,” there’s some kchhhh [mimics another example] ocean-y, pleasant, peaceful sounds.
Glass: There’s at least one track on the record where Hutch’s guitar is plugged into that thing and it’s the guitar amp. So yeah, we love Putney!
I’m glad you mentioned that because I read about some of the technological aspects about We Disappear, but didn’t necessarily hear them while listening. So there’s this old technology that literally went into the making of the record, but I was wondering if you could elaborate on those other themes.
Harris: There’s super old technology with the Putney, but this was also the first record that we didn’t record on tape at all. We only did it on a computer. The themes refer to separation too, with people being assimilated into digital technology….I’m obsessed with internet and digital technology. I love it.
And your Twitter rules.
Harris: Thank you. I don’t think it’s healthy, but I love it. If I’m home alone, there’s at least three devices…I’ll be watching TV, on my laptop, while holding my phone. And then the iPad is on the couch. Seriously! I like to update one thing and then look at it from something else.
Foster: So it comes into the record like we’re all turning into code—digital representations—and that’s what we’re going to be left with.
Check out The Thermals performing “No Culture Icons” in Austin in 2009 in the player below.