When the Thermals' debut EP, No Culture Icons, debuted in 2003, who would have predicted the snotty then-quartet, with its lovably silly lyrics ("The Thermals go right to your head/ The Thermals have sex in your bed"), would turn out to be one of Portland's smartest groups? Having covered politics on The Body, The Blood, The Machine (2006) and flirted with death on last year's Now We Can See, the trio tackles its most musically diverse and, well, personal collection of songs with just-released Personal Life. We asked frontman Hutch Harris to walk us through the songs—which, taken as a whole, follow a relationship from the start to the bitter end.
"I'm Gonna Change Your Life"
"It's a little slow, but actually, when we first started working on it, it was a lot slower. Like most songs, the longer we work on them the faster they get. As always, the first song is kind of the mission statement for the record, but it's got a real sarcastic, arrogant vibe. Which is fitting, because the record is about the mistakes you make in relationships. So it's the journey from arrogance and sarcasm into actual sincerity."
"I Don't Believe You"
"We're kind of following this doomed relationship, and on the second track there's already problems. There's already paranoia and distrust. So, right away things start going bad. I wanted a lot of the lyrics to sound like I had written them when I was 16 or 17…I haven't changed that much since I was a teenager."
"Never Listen to Me"
"We had done demos of that song that were close to six minutes long.... We were thinking of like, '80s English pop—definitely New Order, and I was really thinking of OMD. It's a dance song…it's about not trusting yourself, and therefore forewarning anyone else not to trust you."
"Not Like Any Other Feeling" / "Power Lies"
"I was thinking of politics and personal relationships. [The lyric] 'You only exist to be replaced'…if you've just come out of a relationship, on either side—if you've been dumped or you've dumped someone—people have found that lyric useful. 'Power Lies' is about the struggle to get power, and then to hold onto it. That can go for anything, from art to relationships to politics."
"Only for You"
"Most of the songs on this record were written on bass, which is why the guitar is more interesting on this record, because it's not just me hammering out chords. The bass became the…base, b-a-s-e. There's a lot more space for the vocals and guitar. Kathy [Foster] is great with coming up with stuff. "
"Alone, a Fool"
"We're always trying to do things that are new, but just new for us. Going to little places we've never gone before. When Chris [Walla] recorded that drum, he sped the tape up so when you played it back it just sounded like a gun cracking. [The song is] just a nice segue from one song to the next, a nice place to breathe. But it's a very dark and cold place."
"Your Love is so Strong"
"[The relationship] is just in hell. The whole second side is just hell. Every line is sarcastic in that song."
"We think of this song like a bridge—it's not verses and choruses, it's just a riff that repeats. And it's all over at this point. This is the climax of the record. It's about a huge, overwhelming stack of emotions where the only way to deal with it is to play music really loud and scream along."
"You Changed My Life"
"Westin [Glass] is playing a Breeders-style beat there. Any time you date someone, you will change their life, and they'll change your life, too. That's a really good thing, it keeps you from being the same boring person your whole life. I think the ending is hopeful. The song doesn't resolve in the end, and that's exactly like most relationships. It's hard to get real closure—there's always the chance you're going to get back together."
The Thermals play the Crystal Ballroom on Thursday, Sept. 9, for MusicfestNW. 8 pm. $16 (or MFNW wristband). All ages.