Back in early March, Thermals frontman Hutch Harris sat down with me in the band's SE Portland practice space and we shot the shit for a while. Here's most of that interview, minus some of the stuff that went into last week's WW culture feature (which you can find here
). The Thermals' CD release for the brand new Now We Can See
is tonight at the Wonder Ballroom, and they'll be accompanied by the Parenthetical Girls and Explode Into Colors. Tickets are still left, and go for just $14, so grab 'em while you can!
WW: Are you physically claustrophobic?
Yeah, I always have been, but like if someone has a two-door car, I can't ride in the backseat. My ex-girlfriend was giving me a ride to a train station, and there was a bunch of us in the car—I almost freaked out. I started freaking out on planes a little bit. But I started taking drugs to fly.
Oh yeah, some knock out pills?
No, not all the way, just Xanax or something to make it all right.
So, has the tour bus gotten a little bigger over the years?
Yeah, it's a Sprinter now. [laughs] So it's not quite a bus; it's almost a bus.
You can almost stand up.
Yeah, well that's what we started renting in Europe. Every tour we do there's something that I'm like, “Fucking, not again,” so now it's like six people in the two-bench van with all the merch and all the gear and everyone's suitcases. Never again.
So it's still not a glamorous touring experience?
No. A lot of times bands on the bus, even when they're doing really well, it's not glamorous at all. It's still very hard. Unless you're like U2 or something, there's a big gap between like, you know, you can still be doing well but it's not very comfortable. But you have to love it, so that's cool. It's nice to make small steps so that each year things get a little better.
Can you talk a little about when you and Kathy started this band and went from doing softer stuff to being in a punk rock band? About why you wanted to do that, what kind of itch that scratched for you guys?
The Thermals were a reaction to what we were doing before, which was when Kathy and I worked on that Hutch and Kathy record for like a year, just really meticulously recorded it—we just did it on reel machines at our houses. We'd write it, and then, just like a lot of people, just get sucked into it during recording. There's not expenses, so there's nothing rushing you. We didn't have the label. Jealous Butcher ended up putting it out, but when we were recording it, just like the first Thermals record, we didn't have a label yet, so we really just took all the time we wanted. We were really happy with the result in the end, but it had taken so long to get there that I really just wanted to do something that was really immediate, quick. So that was like on the 4-tracks. The Thermals songs were just written that day, recorded that day on the 4-track. There was no editing, no re-writing. I just did a version and then just went and sang it.
So that's with the first EP?
Yeah, and then More Parts Per Million
, same sessions. It was over like four or five months because Kathy and I actually did a tour like in the middle of that, but yeah, it was really just making quick, loud, fun songs as opposed to the Hutch and Kathy softer folk-pop.
Was there ever any talk about a plan with the band, like a long-term plan from the beginning?
I mean, Kathy and I always had a plan. We were going to make music our whole lives, and just kind of figure that eventually we'd find a good label for whatever projects—we were always changing projects, that's how we looked at bands, like projects more than like bands with a start or breakup, it was more just like recordings we were doing at home and stuff. And then the All Girl Summer Fun Band signed to K Records. I guess that's not so relevant, but there was no real plan for the Thermals because things just happened so fast. We had that CD floating around, just those songs I made at my house, before we even played shows, and so Sub Pop had heard it, like the third show or fourth show we played was going up to Seattle to play for the people at Sub Pop, so things moved so quickly. They were calling us before we'd even played shows. Ben Barnett gave a copy to Ben Gibbard who gave a copy to Tony at Sub Pop. So Kathy and I were on that tour, that one tour that we did for the Hutch and Kathy record, and Sub Pop was emailing us halfway through it, and I thought it was a joke at first. I was like, "This is impossible." And they were like, “Can you come play a show for us?” I don't think I told them that we never really played a show, but that just motivated us because that wasn't even a band, it was just like, oh, this is kind of funny, I'm making these songs that are kind of like the Ramones, and just passing out CD-Rs to friends of ours really. Whereas, the Hutch and Kathy record, every other record Kathy and I did, worked so hard to send it out to like 30 or 40 labels, and Sub Pop was always on the top, always the one we really wanted to be on.
Yeah, that's like the apex for when you're trying to get your name out there in the Northwest.
Totally. But the thing with the Thermals, I didn't send out one CD to any labels. Sub Pop just got one because Ben Gibbard liked it and gave it to them, but there was no question on our part. I think, if Sub Pop hadn't found us so fast, eventually I would've liked to send it out because the responses are so good. But things were happening so fast we didn't really need to make a plan, we just kind of like rolled with it.
It must have been a lot of fun just breaking out of doing more acoustic stuff.
Yeah, super fun…The thing was, CDs were floating around a few months before we played the first show, so a lot of people knew the words to the songs, so it was so weird because there was no record out, the band hadn't played a show, I mean, that stuff gets more common these days because you have MySpace, so if someone doesn't have a record out they can still be totally massive. Bands get huge before their records come out, so that's cool; that's exciting.
I was hopping around, doing my research the other day, and I found in two separate spots, I heard you using, more or less, the phrase that you wished you believed in God.
Yeah, if you actually believe then it's very comforting, I'm sure. Not if you feel like you're going to go to Hell, but I just think it has to be really comforting. Death obviously causes a lot of anxiety for people; it's just waiting for you at the end of the life, which is very scary. You don't know what's going to happen, you don't know if anything will happen. I mean, I don't know, some people feel they know, but I just think there would be…just you must get such a comfort from feeling that.
When you were a kid growing up Catholic, did you have that comfort, or was it more of a fear?
I couldn't wrap my head around eternal life [and that] was what scared me. Dying and then going to Heaven forever, that was as scary to me. That wouldn't scare me as much now, I don't think. Maybe that's just because I can't like, I just can't believe, I don't know. I don't remember at what point—I mean, I definitely went back and forth between believing in God and being part of the Church. I was into the Church in high school, but I still wasn't fully convinced. The group I was in was really positive wasn't about what I think of Christianity now, it was the good side. It was like building houses for homeless people in Mexico. It was more about like public service, the things Christianity should be about. Things that are Christ-like. But there would still be times where I was like, "Well, this is positive, but it doesn't mean that there's a God, it doesn't mean I believe, you know?"
So you were going through the motions a little bit as far as you liked the group of people and what they were doing.
Yeah, I still thought it was a positive thing, it just wasn't convincing me about God and Heaven.
Did writing songs help you through that?
See, that—I keep saying this, I want it to. I think that's why a lot of people are creative, to exercise these feelings or to move past and get over them, but it's not working for me.
It's still just as much of a question?
It's funny because anytime what I don't think about is you have to do interviews for like a year or two after you do something, and so as soon as I think I'm done with something, that's when I really have to get into it. So for like The Body, The Blood
, I was like, done with the politics and religion, and then, oh my God, I'm still getting interviewed about it. I was getting interviewed the other day and all she wanted to talk about was that record, so no, it doesn't work, but there's something about facing your fear. For me, I think I thought I'd be less afraid, or either way, I just felt compelled, like right now just thinking about death. What I do to make myself feel better, I just remember feeling so many different ways about heavy things in my life, like if I'm really down about death, or just like, whatever, I just tell myself, “I won't always feel this way. I'm going to go through something else where I'll start feel a different way about this.” Or, I used to tell myself, “I don't know.” If I look at people who are religious and say, “How can you be convinced and how can I be convinced that it's not true,” you know, I really have to tell myself that I know nothing.
Do you mostly write [Thermals] songs on acoustic guitar and work them out yourself?
The more Kathy and I write together, the more riffs she's writing—the last two records Kathy's played the drums, and most of the bass, and all of the bass on the last record. The more we write together, the more collaborative it is, as opposed to me bringing in all the parts, Kathy brings in parts too. The newest songs we're working on, Kathy's writing more and more, and then I'll just write the lyrics.
So, for this record, you sat down in a room with Kathy and worked through things and talk it out, even as far as the lyrics are concerned?
We talk about them, but usually I'm just writing and I'll bring something—you know, we went through so many rewrites of lyrics on this record. We had a whole set of lyrics for a song, with a title, and then we changed everything. Like completely a new set of lyrics. Kathy and I would just sit and talk about the lyrics, and there'd be a point where we're both like, eh, it could be better. Usually we just kind of both know when the song has reached the point where we both think it's presentable.
Your comfort level has to be pretty high, so is it easy to write songs with her? How deep do you guys get in that process?
A lot of it we just do on instinct, and a lot of it, the reason why we work so good together is we both are the same age, we grew up in the same scene, we come from the same place, which is kind of this punk rock, but punk rock as DIY. Punk rock not meaning pleather jackets and studs, but meaning bands that used to be called emo, and late '80s early '90s, and then like alternative, like Dinosaur Jr. and Nirvana and Sonic Youth, and then the Kill Rock Stars bands we grew up with and the Sub Pop bands we grew up with. We were talking about this when we worked with John Congleton, because he's the same age as us too, and he grew up in kind of the same exact scene. So when we would say a reference—mention a band or a record—we were all kind of in the same place when it happened, so we kind of all think about it. It was different working with Brendan [Canty, the Fugazi drummer who worked on The Body, The Blood, The Machine
], where it was like we know the same references but are at different points of our lives when certain things happen, so just that Kathy and I have that bond, we just really think about music. It's not that our tastes are that similar, it's just that we kind of understand music the same way. When we sit down to create, our ideas are usually really in line of where we want the song to go.
And that extends to lyrical stuff and not just the musical stuff?
Since this band started with me writing all the songs and lyrics, it's just kind of taken that path. I can't sing anyone else's lyrics. They're pretty much the most important part—I don't always enjoy it the most, but it's the most satisfying. When it's done I'm always the most proud of the lyrics. Kathy's really supportive. She'll definitely tell me if something's not good, but if I come and am like, “Man, I'm so stoked on these lyrics,” usually she's really supportive and really into it—really gets behind the lyrics a lot too.
For me, my barrier to a lot of punk rock is often the lyrics. And that's why a band like the Thermals is more special, because you balance those things. You worry about the lyrics. What were the bands to you that were like that for you growing up? I know Bad Religion was sort of an influence in there somewhere.
Yeah…there's a fine line where lyrics are too smart. I don't mean like smart in content, but just the words you choose. When people are rhyming like four or five syllable words it's like kind of annoying to me, but Sub Humans were really big for me—really intelligent lyrics, just great lyrics, and to me they have times where they're almost psychedelic. They were really doing concept—there's this record called From the Cradle to the Grave
that's from like '80 or '81 that I loved so much, and the whole second side of the LP is just one piece, and it's kind of like Television, not in style, but the fact that Television was a “punk” band, but a lot of times they sound like Pink Floyd—the Sub Humans are like that. They were a total English punk band from the second generation of the '80s, which I loved, like Minor Threat. Minor Threat I loved. Even though I don't agree with any of the lyrics, like I was never straight edge. I always wanted to have sex and get drunk, but still, I like that a lot. And then Fugazi was huge for both Kathy and I. The lyrics were really “post” because a lot of the time you can't tell what they're really singing about. The thing with punk lyrics is that they're so point blank, they're so obvious. That's what we sort of talked about when we were making The Body, The Blood
was how do you make good political lyrics that aren't just like, “smash the state.” That's so boring. You can say that any time of day and any year, and it doesn't mean anything.
And Operation Ivy was really big, we were in the Bay Area, Green Day was really big for us too. Not incredibly lyrically, but Operation Ivy for sure. Just being 17 or 18 and listening to those songs.
Yeah, and they have that balance of socially aware lyrics, but it's really personal. A lot of the songs are about their scene, their friends.
Yeah, and Propaghandi, those lyrics were huge for me…Operation Ivy and Propaghandi, that was just like the perfect age for me. I was 18, I was moving out of my parents' house, I was really getting my mind blown by how fucked up everything was—by just learning about the world. Just realizing things, having those bands spell out just a lot of stuff. This is what's fucked up and why, explaining a lot of things.
Yeah, more than you get in the newspaper really...I was thinking about when you guys go on tour you miss a lot of the 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'd go to the beach. I love the summer here, but dude, this last summer was so short. But the thing is, you don't want to tour in the winter. Touring in the winter sucks
. We just toured a bunch this last winter. It was like snowing everywhere. Yeah, that's fucking dumb.
Do you ever feel like just staying home? [Laughs]
Yeah, it's always, it's too bad because every year there's more to do in Portland both culturally and musically. When you think about how many shows are going on this week. If you go to two every night, it's massive. Every time you leave for tour, you're going to miss at least like four or five really good shows. Did you see that Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest are playing a show at the Keller. They're playing like Spinal Tap
songs, A Mighty Wind
songs. We're going to be on tour, but I'd love to see that.
I wonder as somebody who's been in Portland bands here for longer than I've been here, if you think that all these transplant bands and people moving to the city is overall a good thing for Portland still at this level that it's at now, or if it's having any adverse effects?
I think it probably is still good…but at the same time, I've seen a lot of people who move here and can't get a job and have to move away. The thing is, I wouldn't recommend anyone moving here to make your band big. Kathy and I, we weren't like, “Ooh, we're going to move to Portland to get discovered.” I mean, there's not a lot of big labels here; there's not a lot of industry. A lot of the successful bands here, their labels are in Seattle or New York or L.A. You will see a lot of people move their whole band to Portland, and a lot of times they're shocked, I think, when something doesn't happen. It's not that kind of city and that's still the cool thing. It's not a schmoozy city that way. If you get some buzz around your band, there's still no one in the audience. I mean, maybe someone from L.A. will fly out, but it's not like you're in L.A., where half the crowd works for a major label. You don't come here for your big break. You need to go somewhere else to get it, and then this is your home base for when you come back, which is a great thing about Portland, I think.
Have you and Kathy every talked about relocating the band for whatever reason?
Yeah, we moved up here because we were really into the Northwest…I would go back and forth, you know, like in the worst winters. Last winter, I was like, “This is the last winter!” I was so pissed. It was so dark, and we were home. We weren't doing enough. But now, I'm like, no, I'm not gonna move. And also like, where? We go everywhere in the U.S. and Europe, and there's nowhere where I'm like, “Yeah, I want to live here.” Like, I would maybe live in L.A., I would maybe live in New York; you know, you have to have a lot more money, but for now, we're not going anywhere.
Do you do most of the press because you like doing it, or because Kathy doesn't like doing it…
You mean, interviews?
It kind of just works out that way usually. She's doing more and more. I'm going to try to make here 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.” I'm like, “Well, yeah, it's true.” The other day, I was like, “Kathy, you have to do this.” We did a bunch recently where all three of us sat, but if Kathy's not going to be there I just do them alone. A lot of times people ask for me because they want to talk about lyrics. But it's cool, it doesn't bother me. It gives me a chance to process what we've just done and what we're actually thinking, but then there's this part where you're over-analyzing things you've done. A lot of time maybe press would give you an ego, an inflated sense of importance, when really I don't think you should feel that way. You shouldn't get too into it. But I think it is helpful. It just makes me think about what we're doing and what we've done.
As far as the ego thing, it seems like it'd be a little tougher in Portland, because it's a small pond in a lot of ways. So, I think, when you go out everybody kind of knows who you are.
Yeah, but I feel like people in Portland are really good at keeping that in check, and not acting too cool. A lot of times it's when bands are starting out that they have a huge ego, like, “We're going to be so big!” and then they're the ones who walk into a bar and are like, “Fuck everyone else.” Success kind of humbles people sometimes, which is probably a good thing.
I'm sure you've had interest from major labels.
Is that something you ever see yourselves pursuing?
It's something we've considered in the past. Right now, I don't consider it. We love working with Kill Rock Stars. I would love to make more records with them. The majors all seem to be falling apart. We've talked to a bunch of labels in the past, from Warner to Island; we talked to Columbia a little bit, Capitol. You notice, Capitol really watched Portland for a little bit. The Decemberists are on Capitol, Dandy Warhols were on Capitol, really like all the major-label bands in Portland were on Capitol…They were nice enough, but their idea was like…there's not guarantees. I talked to people from Columbia and they seemed really cool, really nice…I go to Columbia's website, and the bands are horrible. So bad.
That's the thing—you go to a lot of major label rosters, and you go, “Who the fuck are these people?” You go to Merge's website or Sub Pop's webiste or Kill Rock Stars's website and you're like, “Oh yeah, these are bands that are cool.”
All the cool bands are on indie labels…Major labels don't seem like they change at all. The ideas of how to sell to people, and what sells, and just going for junk and just really trying to sell people junk all the time. Roster was really important to us when we were signing, when we did this last deal…we were feeling like we don't fit in the roster with Sub Pop anymore, especially what's really working for Sub Pop. It's like, Fleet Foxes, Iron & Wine, Band of Horses, Postal Service—all very melodic, guitar-type stuff. We were talking to Merge too, and we were like, no, I don't think we'd feel so at home. I mean, great label. Great label. It really came down to Kill Rock Stars and Merge for us. I really wanted to be on Merge, too, because Superchunk is huge. This band would not exist if Superchunk wasn't a band. And then Saddle Creek too, we talked to Saddle Creek.
Did you sign a multi-album deal with Kill Rock Stars?
No, just one. We just had a lot of demands. When we got off Sub Pop, they had offered us a couple more, and that contract just didn't look like something we wanted to sign. We pretty much had our contract in our head, which was, We're going to own it; we're going to do a short license.
You thought about even putting it out yourself?
Yeah, I would, but where is the stock going to go? In my apartment? I don't want to be that kid whose basement is filled with CDs, you know. We find ourselves doing more and more business, and it's just too much. I want to do less business and more creative work. That was the other thing, we didn't want to give the label the option to do a second record. We were like, “We're going to pay for this record. If we can afford to pay for it, we should own it.” And then, there's just a lot of things in record contracts that are all slanted toward the label side, and we were like, “Well, we should have a contract that is held in our favor.” Kill Rock Stars really gave us a great contract. A really, really good contract, and gave us the money that Sub Pop was going to give us. And then, we own the masters. We really lucked out, I think. Or we just really got a good deal for ourselves.
So owning it means that down the line, if you want to re-release it or something you can, it's just the initial print and everything is on Kill Rock Stars?
Yeah, yeah, but it's just us licensing that recording to them for I think like 10 years. I'm not sure, it might be like 7 years. Whereas, most of the bands at Sub Pop, those masters are just owned forever. For the universe [laughs]. I would never say, don't sign to Sub Pop…but the whole thing with labels that have a contract like that is they put up the money, they pay for the recording, they own the recording, but then the recording is recouped out of your royalties. So what is actually happening is, you're paying for the recording and giving it to the label forever, just because they lent—you know, they're really just like a bank in some ways.
How old were you when you and Kathy met?
We were like 18 probably.
Is it weird for someone to step into that third role, that dynamic must take some getting used to.
Yeah, it's hard. I think it's been impenetrable for some people because there's not really catching up with us. We have like 13 years or so, but there's just no way around that. There's a lot of shit you have to deal with to be the third person in this band. Being the drummer, you just have your nuts in a bind anyway. I mean, Kathy does too when she's drumming. That's a lot of it—the drummer has the hardest job and gets the most shit. If the guitarist speeds up the song, you point to the drummer. It's not easy.
Would you say it's the hardest job in Portland, to be the Thermals' drummer?
[Laughs] Yeah, we really lucked out with just playing with people we were already really good friends with. Jordan we were friends with for a long time, and I'm sad that that didn't work out because we had been friends with him already for like three years, so there was a bond we had, but we just wanted different things out of the band and out of life. Then we played with Caitlin, and Caitlin we had been friends with for a couple of years. She's totally awesome. Lauren we had just met, but really sweet guy. Both of them, Caitlin and Lauren, left the band with no hard feelings. A lot of times when we play shows there are a lot of old drummers in the audience. This was the first time we had auditions for the band. There were so many people writing to us. People from Massachusetts and stuff like, “I'm going to move. Just let me know, and I'll get on a bus.” Don't show up on my porch. No, don't do that. Don't move. It's funny, because Westin's from Seattle. So when we were auditioning, personality was as important to us as skill because it's just like, you have to spend your whole life, for however long you're playing together, you have to see this person every day, and then when you're on tour you have to see them 24 hours a day. We didn't audition a ton of people, and they were all really nice people, but we just kind of gelled with Westin right away. He seemed really cool and he had really just done his homework. We gave everyone a list of like six songs to learn, and he learned like 10 or 15, and then we had those demos up on MySpace and he learned those too, so all of a sudden we were playing “I Let It Go,” and some other songs that we'd never played as a band. So it was a really obvious choice to make, and it's worked out really cool.
Is it like a brother/sister type relationship with you and Kathy?
Kind of. We're just like best friends. Sometimes it's like a brother and sister thing. I don't know anyone else as close, and her too I think. We've been so close. We've dated, so we know what it's like. We know how each other are. We can counsel each other about our relationships now. If I'm complaining about my girlfriend, she can be like, “Well, you know you're like this in relationships,” and I can be like, "Oh yeah." I always think it's important to stay friends with someone after breaking up because they know when you're being an asshole and they can tell you to pull your head out of your ass. Then also, we have a working relationship. Besides just creative, like managing the band together. That's a whole other bond.
How did you come to that decision, to manage the band?
There's just more work every fucking day. There's been a lot of offers, I think at least like 10. We've had dinners with people, but we've just always been more comfortable running it ourselves. Maybe one day, but not for now.
It's really awesome for to see you guys find success and find a crowd, but that elusive stadium band level, that would be a strange fit.
Yeah, and it's like, do you want that? It seems like maybe it'd be interesting to do for 6 months or a year or a couple of years, but that there's no real going back. That's why I think a lot of bands that are on the verge of getting big break up, because they're not going to make it in the huge scene, and you can't go back to the little scene. Look at a band like Nada Surf, or even Spoon, to come back from a major and go to a cooler Indie, do way better, get all your cred back. But I think a lot of bands just get caught up in their own success. Look at Nirvana. They wanted to be big, but I don't think they wanted to be selling out stadiums. Obviously it wasn't what they wanted. A lot of people think they know what they want, but when you get it, you might be fucked.
And as far as what you want?
I would like to be, I don't know, I remember Modest Mouse, we opened for three of their shows, they scheduled like three nights at the Crystal Ballroom, and I was like, “Fuck, three nights at the Crystal!” They added a fourth and sold out. They added a fifth. They did Monday through Friday. And it's cool, because it's decent sized, it's not like it's the big asshole Convention Center or wherever. But it was just really cool. Obviously, they've gotten way bigger now, but I really like that size—you know, like 1,000 or 1,500 capacity theaters—if we were touring and playing those type of places. The gaps get smaller and smaller, you can do those and then play at a place like the Schnitz and play for 3,000 people every night, but then after that, they play big outdoor places. You're playing for 15,000 people, etc. There's only so many bands that can do that. You know, like Death Cab for Cutie, they transitioned really well, I think, every step of the way. They were self-managed until the point where it just got too hectic that they couldn't physically do it…but I don't know if they're happy, if that's making them happy. I know that they're busy and really successful. I was talking to Chris about it one time, and he was like, “You know, when you get to a point where you're like, well where can we go and what can we do that we haven't done?” I think the bigger you get, the more you start seeing the actual ceiling, or just like the limit. Whereas, you have to stay a little hungry or feel like there's a lot ahead of you in the future.
It seems like if you get to that point and your anxieties haven't disappeared, maybe you start panicking about what is going to fix this?
A lot of times people think they know what they want, but then when they actually get it, it's not as satisfying or it doesn't help. 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 [laughs]. I feel satisfied now, but I'm not expecting anything the band does at this point to make me any better spiritually. Hopefully I'll buy a house one day, but I'm not expecting like, “Okay, I'm totally going to feel good about everything and okay about life once the band does this.” I'm not expecting the band to solve my problems.
But the creative process that happens, you try to help yourself through that.
Yeah, I mean, that's just more like, you keep moving, and that feels good. But it's not that there's one point where it's all going to make sense or solve anything.
I don't think anything really prepares you to grow up. When you're a kid you see adults that look like they have it together, and you assume that you're going to hit an age where everything is going to come together, and it just never happens.
Yeah, you assume in your life that there will be a time, at least once, where everything comes together and makes sense. I mean, if you're like on a couple hits of acid, then there will be a point where the world makes perfect sense. But then it's all going to fall apart again.
And then you're just getting chased by something.
And then there's demons in your closets.
Photo by Alicia J. Rose