When Hutch Harris and Kathy Foster traded in their acoustic pop duo for instant-gratification pop-punk seven years ago, they had no idea the Thermals would catch on. But then-guitarist Ben Barnett slid a copy of the band's first demos to Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard, who passed them to Sub Pop records. The Thermals quickly became one of Portland's hottest bands, signed to the Northwest's most prestigious indie label.
But unlike some of their Sub Pop labelmates, the Thermals never exploded. Instead, the band grew its fanbase in a sustainable fashion—the same way it grew its sound. In 2006 the band released its largest success yet—the epic, politically charged The Body, The Blood, The Machine. But the trio's fourth full-length, Now We Can See, is a quieter milestone; a clean-sounding and contemplative return to melody that stands in stark contrast to the band's early 4-track recordings. The album also finds the Thermals switching to the Kill Rock Stars label, a decision Harris credits largely to the label's strong Portland roster.
So are the Thermals allergic to mainstream fame, or is this all part of a master plan to be the most Portlandy band of all time? WW talked to frontman Hutch Harris at the band's Southeast Portland rehearsal space to find out.
WW: Willamette Week once described the Thermals as "A natural bi-product of many hours spent in skanky basements." Does that still apply?
Hutch Harris: There's still a lot of skanks hanging out. It's like hotel rooms now, maybe. Less basements. The first shows [in PDX] were a lot of basement shows. But I'm getting more claustrophobic as I get older. The basement shows I've been to lately have been fuckin' packed, which is rad. But if we never play basement shows again, it wouldn't be because we're too cool; it's because I'm scared.
Was there ever any talk about a plan with the band—like a long-term plan?
Kathy and I always had a plan. We were going to make music our whole lives, and figured that eventually we'd find a good label. But there was no real plan for the Thermals because things just happened so fast. Like the third show or fourth show we played was going up to Seattle to play for the people at Sub Pop. They were calling us before we'd even played shows. I thought it was a joke at first.
Do you ever think about your band's legacy?
Yeah, totally. We never wanted to be a quick, trendy band. If we're talking about legacy, it's not just the output, but how you carry yourselves, the things that you don't stand for and the things you do. For people that are really into our music and have been inspired by it, I would hope the way the band conducts itself is inspiring, too.
So The Body, The Blood, The Machine railed against the Christian right, but I've seen you say in interviews that you "wished you believed in God."
Yeah, if you actually believe, then it's very comforting, I'm sure. I was into the church in high school, but I still wasn't fully convinced. The group I was in was really positive—building houses for homeless people in Mexico. But there would still be times where I was like, "Well, this is positive, but it doesn't mean that there's a God," you know?
Does writing songs comfort you in a way that religion didn't?
I want it to. I think that's why a lot of people are creative—to exorcise these feelings, or to move past and get over them. But it's not working for me.
After releasing The Body, The Blood, The Machine, people wanted the Thermals be spokespeople for their movements. You don't want to be a cause band?
Noooo! That's just not who we are. Yeah, that record was a fictional story that was heavy on politics and heavy on religion, but we're not a political band, and I don't consider myself a political person—so I don't want to be stuck in that, and that's why we tried to take all the politics and religion out of this [new] record.
Musically, this seems more like the old Hutch and Kathy project. There's more singing.
It's a circle for us, because we started at this more melodic, pretty songwriting type of area, and then we went to, whatever, punk rock. There are subtle complexities, but a lot of people are like, "Well, it's still three-chord punk." There's like seven or eight chords! [Laughs] And sometimes I think I'm singing and then I play it back and am like, "No, I'm just shouting." Sometimes we'll play shows and I'm like, "Well, I just shouted at those people for an hour."
So the worst part of being a Portland band has to be touring during Portland summers.
Well, we were here for the last summer and it was so short! When I'm here for the summer, I go to the river every day or go to the hot springs, we'll go to the beach. But you don't want to tour in the winter. Touring in the winter sucks.
Do you do most of the press because you like doing it, or because Kathy doesn't like doing it?
She's doing more and more. I'm going to try to make her do most of the German interviews. They're way too honest! [In a bad German accent:] "So you're getting quite old now, and your songs are slowing down. This is a very natural progression for a band to get slow and more boring."
Are you self-managing to avoid what happens to bands when they blow up?
We specifically try not to get too big too fast, and try to be as DIY as we can. A lot of times, success kills bands. We went up for the Sub Pop 20th anniversary, we were watching all these bands, like Seaweed and Pond. A lot of those bands were on the verge of getting huge, signed to major labels, and fucking disappeared. Almost making it ends up breaking the band up.
If you get to that point and your anxieties haven't disappeared, maybe you really panic?
You know, a lot of people who are rich and famous, they're fucking babies and they're assholes. It'd probably be worse to think, "Well I've got everything I wanted in the whole fucking world, but it doesn't mean a damn thing." That's why you go to Scientology, I think. I feel satisfied now, but I'm not expecting anything the band does to make me any better spiritually. Hopefully I'll buy a house one day, but I'm not expecting the band to solve my problems.
The Thermals aren't going to solve anyone's problems?
No, no, just not mine. It will definitely solve your problems. But you've got to buy the T-shirt.
The Thermals play Wonder Ballroom Thursday, April 9, with Parenthetical Girls and Explode Into Colors. 9 pm. $14. All ages.