It’s been almost three years since Portland, Ore.’s Thermals dropped a new full-length. The last, Personal Life, saw the band slowing their signature manic pop-punk cadence. Desperate Ground, out today, hoists and lowers the trio back to their simple, frenzied roots. And we can all thank a revived stress on speed and Excalibur for that.
The Thermals are over a decade deep into their existence as a band, with a carousel cast of band members joining bassist Kathy Foster and guitarist/vocalist Hutch Harris as the only two constant elements. I’ve seen The Thermals close to a dozen times over the past six years; without fail, each performance bubbles unadulterated fun, with a fierce vivacity. No one is bored. No one is cranky. The band and crowd are present the whole time.
Foster laughs politely when I ask her how the hell they keep the posi pumping. “I think just because it’s a pure friendship,” she says. “We love each other a lot. We enjoy being around each other. We have a really unique friendship. It’s lasted a long time. We hang out a lot. We laugh a lot together. I think that a lot of people pick up on that energy. It makes way for us to be able to focus on music, touring, stuff that we like to do without any drama. There’s never any drama between the three of us. We’re just really good friends and I think that comes across in the music and when we play live.” That is tough to argue.
From the get-go, Desperate carries itself at a melodic rushed pace with the single “Born To Kill.” The band returns to their hard-edged, fast punkiness and were stoked to do so. “I’m really excited about this [album],” Foster says. “The last album, Personal Life, kinda… [was] a little bit sparser, a little bit slower tempo songs. … [Desperate is] the first album in a while I’ve just listened to over and over again. I really like it. The songs are super fun to play. I can’t wait to play the songs for people.”
Yep, the cuts sped up all right. Only three of the 10 tracks spill past three minutes—and those max out at just 14 seconds over. The songs themselves take on individual, seemingly autonomous existences. Each inhales, exhales, living and growing from what it once started. Foster explains how the band’s creative process makes this unique quality possible. “We always do a lot of collages and stuff,” she says. ”[Hutch] has tons of old magazine like Life, National Geographic, that kind of stuff. He was also getting a bunch of old, medieval books, sword books, art.”
The art that mysteriously conjures at the hands of the band (although Foster says it’s mostly Harris creating the physical work) helps lead the groove of the album. It’s an opportunity to visually dissect and sort creative directions. These sorcery sessions usually happen at Harris’ home, this time heavily inspired by dramatic war sketches. ”[This album’s] fictitious element is one man against the world kinda idea,” she continues. “He got really into swords.” She laughs, before continuing, “So he’s watching a lot of Lord Of The Rings and Excalibur and these types of movies a lot.”
It’s largely these collages and allowing the prose room to grow that make the verbal vertebrae. ”[The lyrics] come together like they have for the past few albums,” Foster says. “When he starts writing, he has a specific scene. He’ll write lyrics for one or two songs and then an idea [for the album], a theme, will form.”
Desperate feels the most fantasy-philic of The Thermals’ discography. It’s not a clear-cut concept album, but it indeed follows a vivid, loose narrative involving powerful swords, heroic battles, unwavering passion and I wanna say dragons (but probably not). It’s nerdy pop-punk—an epic told in slightly mismatched vignettes.
“It’s not a direct story, but it’s an intertwining of images in this perpetual war with this one man fighting,” Foster says. “It’s also this situation where there’s war all around you and it seems hopeless. Are you gonna hide or are you gonna go out in a blaze of glory? It’s about that, too. At one point, there’s fear but then at one point, it’s like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll fight for as long as I can.’”
I ask her about the band’s future. When Foster and Harris first started playing together, it looked like it was a low-level commitment to Sub Pop for just three albums. Six full-lengths later, and the band has only gained haste. “We’re staying really present with what’s happening which I think is important for our own enjoyment of it,” she says. “I think it keeps it not too overwhelming looking into the future. Worrying about the future can be unnecessarily stressful… We never really look too far into the future. I think we’ll just do it for as long as it’s fun, as long as we can.”
Trust the power of their live show, too, and catch them on tour this spring if you can. Wear extra deodorant because you will move.