The Thermals

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The Thermals

There is a small brown Chihuahua-like dog sitting on Hutch Harris’ lap when I meet him a few hours before The Thermals show at The Pour House in Charleston, SC. I mistakenly assume that the dog is his because he strikes me as the type of individual — at least on The Thermals’ records — that would bring his dog along on tour. But it’s not his. In fact, he doesn’t know who it belongs to; it’s just a dog that probably belongs to someone at the bar — the club owner, maybe. It’s a peculiar scene to be sure, but one definitely fitting the persona of Portland, Oregon’s The Thermals.

On record, they’re the type of band that you want to party with. But they have substance, too if you’re looking for that sort of thing from a two minutes-two-chords pop punk band. They’re also the type of band that’s poised for durability and resilience in the fickle independent music scene. After four full-length LPs, they’ve only gotten better. They’ve flexed their songwriting muscles, honed their guitar/bass/drum attack, and managed to keep a focused perspective on their relationship as a band.

Singer/guitarist Hutch Harris, bassist Kathy Foster, and relatively new drummer Westin Glass all took the time to speak with Stereo Subversion before heading to the local beach before their show.

SSv: On the way over here I was struggling to think about bands that I really like that have the longevity that you guys have; bands that I’ve followed from the beginning. Because it seems like every band I pick up on, they have one album out and then you never hear from them again.

Hutch: I know, right? That’s a lot of bands.

SSv: Or their one album explodes and their second album kind of sucks and they fall off the radar.

Hutch: That’s why you don’t explode on your first record because then you get overhyped.

You think about things long term. You try to make records that people want to listen to 20 years from now.

You think about things long term. You try to make records that people want to listen to 20 years from now.

SSv: So you guys went for the gradual build over time.

Hutch: Yeah, totally.

SSv: Did you find it very difficult to follow up your last record, The Body, The Blood, The Machine?

Hutch: I found it challenging, for sure. I thought there was a lot of respect for that record, so I wanted to make lyrics that were as good as the lyrics on that record.

Kathy: We definitely took more time on this one. Just making more versions of demos and writing and re-writing songs.

SSv: What’s a typical demo process for you guys?

Hutch: Cassette, usually.

Kathy: Four-track cassette, or eight track cassette…

Hutch: We did a lot on eight-track cassette…

Kathy: Yeah, we just got an eight-track this last year.

Well, it was really only seven tracks because the eighth track didn’t work.

Kathy: For the last two records, since it was just me and Hutch, we would make demos; I would play drums and he would play guitar and then we would pass the tapes back and forth and he would write vocals and I would play bass. Even the news songs we’re writing with Westin, we have a four track in our practice space and have just been recording stuff in the practice space live.

Hutch: Yeah, that makes it super easy because we would just record stuff and pass the tapes.

SSv: Westin, when did you join the band?

Westin: I moved down to Portland from Seattle in November and the first show with these guys was in December. And we’ve done a bunch of shows since then.

Hutch: A lot of shows since then. We went to Europe once, the UK…

SSv: Yeah, I saw your tour itinerary and I thought, “These guys are touring machines.” Is it absolutely grueling?

Kathy: It can be grueling. This tour has been really fun. Everyone is getting along which doesn’t always happen and we’re really lucky to have Westin because we get along with him so well. And then we have a tour manager and a sound person and a merch person who we all get along with, so it definitely makes it less grueling. But it is really tiring, most of the time you’re not getting enough sleep, you have to get up and drive…

Westin: It’s hard on your body, for sure.

Hutch: Yeah, it’s really hard on your body.

And if you get sick it’s so, so hard to get better.

Kathy: And everyone catches it from each other.

Westin: Yeah, because you’re spending so much time in the van, one person gets sick and it’s just…epidemic.

Kathy: Vandemic. [Laughs]

Westin: Vandemic, that’s what we call it. [Laughs]

SSv: Vandemic? I like it. We should submit it to Webster’s as a new word. Do you guys ever get to the point where you say, “Oh, God, no more music, please. I just want silence.”

Kathy: When I’m at home I drive around a lot with no music on and I don’t even notice.

Yeah, me too. I feel like right after we get off stage I don’t want to hear music. I just want to chill out.

Hutch: I feel like that, too but only then. For a while I would get back into it, but yeah right when you get off stage.

Well, it’s so loud up there. It’s loud as fuck and my ears are just…I wear earplugs but my ears are so sensitive by the end of the show I just don’t want to hear anything.

SSv: Kathy, you mentioned that it’s a lot of fun and that’s what I’m drawn to about your records; Thermals’ records sound like a haphazard party is happening and everybody got invited. Even on the new album and the previous album, even though there is an apocalyptic sense, it still felt light.

Kathy: We always write the music first and that’s really the type of music we like to play. It’s fun to play and rock out; we love rock and pop and to play loud. It’s fun to play that way. And we write the words after. Hutch spends a lot of time writing lyrics…they happen at the same time, but they’re separate processes, too.

SSv: Do you find yourself in a certain frame of mind, thinking that one thing is completely consuming what you write about, or do you just go with it?

Hutch: Um, no. I think I just always sit down so much to write and just so often just…nothing. So often the stuff that you write has to be edited because it’s not that good and then every so often something good comes out.

SSv: Do you just run off at whatever comes to your mind, or do you make certain lyrics fit into a song?

Hutch: No. Well…I don’t know. It’s something so…like…the more you pay attention to how you’re doing it, the less you can describe it. You just start writing. You stare at a page forever and not write. And then maybe…if I write something that’s bad I’ll just throw it away. But then something will come out very quickly that’s good.

SSv: Do you ever feel like you just threw something out that might have been great?

Hutch: No, no. You know it sucks.

SSv: What if someone else read it and thought it was the greatest thing you had ever written?

Hutch: They don’t know. [Laughs] That would never happen. That’s what I would hate to do is write something bad and then everyone love it.

SSv: How do you judge what’s bad?

Hutch: Well, I would say something like it’s honest or sincere but that’s so fucking cheesy to say. I don’t know. You just kind of know. And Kathy would tell me sometimes, she would say, “I just feel like this is not there, yet.” And I wouldn’t get offended because I feel like I kind of knew that.

Westin: It’s just very intuitive. It’s not something you can put into words. And I think that’s one of the reasons you play music is to express things you can’t say. If you could say it you would just say it.

Kathy: Yeah, totally. When you have a version that you don’t think is quite there, it’s like I can kind of tell what Hutch is trying to convey but he could do it in a better way. So, yeah. It’s hard to describe.

SSv: Is it easier being a trio, than if you had a fourth of fifth person? Sometimes I see bands with eight people and I wonder how they get anything done.

Kathy: Yeah, I feel like it’s hard to find three people you can get along with.

Westin: It’s hard enough to get three people on the same wavelength onstage. With eight people you probably could, but with eight personalities…

Hutch: You see some bands who can do it. Bands like the Arcade Fire seem like they have a lot of people onstage with a good vibe, but you can’t think of too many. Most good bands are five at the most. Four people is rad, I like that, too, but so many musicians are just flaky and weird and annoying, you know? Myself included.

SSv: You’re flaky and weird?

Hutch: And annoying. [Laughs]

SSv: The Hold Steady is a good five-person band. They seem like they really work on their dynamic.

Kathy: Oh yeah, they’re awesome.

Hutch: I think The Walkmen, too. They seem to have a good vibe.

SSv: Do you all think you’re at a point where you want to go out and make fans, or do you feel like you’ve reached a level where you tour to a fanbase?

Kathy: I never think about it like that. We’re just playing to the people who come.

Westin: Yeah, there’s no reason to overthink it that much.

SSv: One of the reasons I ask that is because I think about the time that bands spend networking vs. the time they spend playing music, and there is a lot more networking involved.

Hutch: Yeah, I know. A lot of it is a waste of time, I think.

Kathy: We don’t do a lot of that stuff for this band.

Hutch: We do a lot of business for this band, but we were talking about this in various interviews for SXSW, about how a lot of bands spend too much time on that side and not enough time being good. Writing songs and practicing. Well, a lot of bands practice they’re just not that…I don’t know. You see a lot of bands just think about getting big and marketing. But if you’re not that good, you’re just wasting you’re time. [Laughs] Well, it’s true! There’s like a million bands and they’re all just spamming people with all this stuff. “Listen to this!” Maybe if it was rad but usually it’s just okay.

Westin: Well, for bands, it depends on how far into the future you’re thinking. A lot of bands think about now. They just think, “I want to be big now. ASAP.” But one thing I would say that makes me love [The Thermals] so much is that you’re thinking like I have been. You think about things long term. You try to make records that people want to listen to 20 years from now.

Kathy: I hope so.

Westin: I know you guys have been thinking about that and that’s what you should be doing. If you can have some level of success right now, that’s awesome. But the primary thing is that you make music that’s really fucking good, that’s going to stand the test of time. And I think a lot of bands aren’t thinking about that, what they’re thinking about is that they’re trying to write music that will get them big right now. And that’s a bad mistake to make and it shows that they’re coming from the wrong place.

Hutch: Yeah, definitely.

SSv: Well, unfortunately, sometimes it works.

Hutch: Oh, it totally works! A lot!

Kathy: Yeah, it does.

Westin: But, like you were saying, are you still gonna hear about those bands a year from now?

SSv: Well, they’ll have a second album but they’ll beg you to take a free copy.

Hutch: They’re just wasting everyone’s time. Yeah, I mean, you get people all excited and you can’t even make another record? But that’s musicians, too, again having four or five people in your band; a lot of bands just hate each other right away because it’s so difficult and things get hectic and they break up. And it’s not because people stopped liking them, they couldn’t keep their shit together.

Kathy: And if you’re a band who’s just trying to get big then your not focusing on how well you get along.

Westin: Any band that’s just there to get big as fast as possible, then it’s never gonna be enough, you know? If the band doesn’t get huge on their first record, they get really pissed off and start blaming each other.

Hutch: [Laughs] No, totally. It’s sad.

Westin: I’m just interested in bands that started out with the immediate hype but ending up having longevity and then became really good.

Kathy: Like who?

Westin: I don’t know! That’s the thing! You could almost say Radiohead because their first record was so big.

Hutch: Yeah, they could have been a one-hit wonder.

: They could have just dropped off the radar, but then they went so left-field.

Hutch: The Beastie Boys kind of, too.

SSv: I feel that longevity from you guys; from the first album to right now. And Now We Can See is a great cusp record, if that makes sense.

Kathy: Yeah, I get that.

SSv: Although I will say, Westin, I think Vampire Weekend got crazy big, but I can still put on that record and listen to it.

Kathy: Yeah, but are they still making records?

Westin: Right, and has the second album come out yet?

SSv: No, it sure hasn’t.

Hutch: Yeah, and what’s their second record gonna be like? That will be the test for them, for sure.

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  1. Kitty LaRue says:

    Good questions! I like that they don’t want to hear music when they get done with a tour!

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