The Thermals: innocent love children of Portland's music scene, or a bunch of scheming indie wizards?
The quartet's debut album, More Parts Per Million, released March 4 on Sub Pop, had press types in conniptions before it was even created. Home-recorded and chock-full o' harmonically lo-fi morsels, MPPM has the substance to back up its anticipatory buzz. What's with all the pants-wetting? Here are a few talking points:
The Thermals are actually the beautiful bastards of PDX's indie world.
Band-plotting began after a local show one year ago. The members, all in their late 20s, have logged time with their share of outfits over the past decade: Hutch and Kathy (a.k.a. Urban Legends), All Girl Summer Fun Band, Kind of Like Spitting, Operacycle--an impressive résumé for any Portland band. All those musical projects have seen the inside of record-company offices. Far from a calculated product, the Thermals' sound is the natural byproduct of many hours in skanky basements.
Yet the Thermals' working lives offer a glimpse into the real reason they're so quintessentially Portland: Vocalist Hutch Harris and drummer Jordan Hudson sling well-crafted lattes for a little coffee-shop empire you might have heard of, name of Stumptown. Bassist Kathy Foster spends her days selling snowboard gear and, in her spare time, creates lowercase-lettered T-shirts and stationery. As for guitarist Ben Barnett--well, he's unemployed. Sound like a microcosm of the microcosm of twentysomethings in this town? Just a little.
Hutch Harris wants you to dance.
DIY success story aside, the Thermals offer a product that diverges from any presupposed all-star indie musical package. When attending a Thermals' show, one would be wise to check pulse levels and stop with the head-nodding. MPPM rediscovers the significance of the distortion pedal and explodes with an energy ready to burst some time ago.
While a chunk of Harris' lyrics cling to the age-old clichés of the Dejected Individualists Community, the sheer fire in the lungs and force behind the instruments is a departure from the more mellow drones of the indie canon. And then there's those hints of punk rock. The music's not angry punk. It's punk that's fun, adding intelligent pop beats to frantic guitar riffs. All of which is very...nice.
But, the band's greatest asset may be the responsibility the four feel as entertainers. At a recent tour warm-up in Walla Walla, Wash., the Thermals debuted some new material. This time, Harris says, the new stuff's "slower and more dancy." After witnessing awkward motion within previous crowds, the band started working on songs that would spur an audience's rhythmic evolution--from head-nodding and foot-tapping to a balls-out dance party. Harris' philosophy on the subject is more than agreeable, damn near diplomatic: "A band should go out of their way to set the mood for dancing."
What next, group-sponsored salsa lessons?
They're going national.
Think of last Saturday's Crystal Ballroom show in support of Seattle's Death Cab for Cutie as the Thermals' hometown send-off. The hourlong set showcased the band's explosive sound (and guitarist Barnett's spazoid headbanging) with a kind of unpolished intensity that made the DCFC set seem like radio-friendly smooth jazz. Yet, the show was also a reminder of how far the band's come in such a short time. As the vastness of the Crystal Ballroom threatened to swallow the band whole, it was easy for one to become nostalgic for a smaller, more intimate venue.
Alas, though, the road beckons. The band's loaded its equipment in a mid-'80s Chevy tour van and embarked on a cross-country tour. There's a stop planned in Austin to partake in that town's yearly mixed-media debauchery, South by Southwest. If they make it out of Austin alive and with ambulatory limbs intact, they'll break from the Death Cab support act somewhere between Boulder and Des Moines for a tour of their own.
With any luck, the rest of the country will be able to digest the Thermals' new Northwest formula.
Download a hot Thermals song at www.subpop.com .