Following their fantastic 2006 album The Body, The Blood, The Machine, Portland power pop punks the Thermals are now launching Now We Can See, their fourth full-length in total and first for Kill Rock Stars. While many thought the album would falter compared to The Body's unwavering energy and vitriolic religious critiques, Now We Can See is a fitting follow-up in its lyrical maturity, though the band clearly haven't lost their edge. In the week following SXSW, Exclaim! caught up with guitarist and front-man Hutch Harris about the new album, the record label switch, and why going through so many drummers puts them up there with rock'n'roll royalty.
How was SXSW for you?
It was great, actually. I thought it was a really good year. We played eight times. I thought we were playing a lot until I heard there were other bands playing a lot more than that. It wasn't too chaotic, we ran with our guitars from one show to the next sometimes, but it was cool. I mostly saw bands I've already seen, like Cursive, the Hold Steady, Monotonix... the Circle Jerks were fucking awesome. That was maybe the best show I saw, and I had not seen them play. Lucero was rad, I hadn't seen them play ever. I got to see a lot of the bands I wanted to see at the Kill Rock Stars show, like Thao and Marnie Stern and Shakey Hands. That was all rad.
How did you first become interested in independent music, and how did the Thermals sound of punk-meets-indie rock develop?
It's just a classic story. A friend of mine gave me a mixtape in high school, and it had Minor Threat, Operation Ivy, Mudhoney, maybe Subhumans, so those were the first bands I was getting into when I was 16 and 17. Then indie rock, I didn't really grow up on stuff like Pavement or whatever was considered the original indie rock of the '90s. I still like all those bands now, but not when I was in high school. I really liked the Breeders and Nirvana. I really loved grunge at the same time. The Thermals sound was pretty much a mix of the old poppy bands like the Ramones, the Buzzcocks, and the Jam, mixed with shit like Guided By Voices and Sebadoh... all the lo-fi '90s indie rock. That was indie rock, but I don't know if that's what we called it back then. "Indie rock" is a term that doesn't make sense anymore. There are bands on major labels that are "indie rock," so whatever. It's like "alternative." But I kind of love that too... alternative. To what?
Do you feel like the band has evolved since you started?
I think so. I think it's pretty close to how it sounded when I wrote those original songs when I started. I think the lyrics have gotten better, a lot of people think the lyrics have gotten better. But I also love the lyrics from the first few records. They're very simple, and that's kind of the point. They're really repetitive. The songs we have now, there's a lot more too them. But that was what I was really going for back then, with the first record especially...just writing really short, catchy lyrics.
What caused the change?
It's just like anything. Like the first record was recorded on the four-track. If we just kept making records on a four-track, it's just dull. Bands just have to evolve, even if it's really slowly, because we are evolving really slowly. And I think it's good, because it's a better way to not burn out.
There's no question that The Body, The Blood, The Machine was your breakthrough record. Did you feel the pressure when you were making the follow-up?
Definitely. I think that's why we took a while. Kathy and I wrote for over a year before we even went into the studio. And the lyrics I just rewrote over and over for this record. I just felt so much respect for that last record. And we feel like, if we're not doing something better than what we just did, then there's no point in putting it out. It's weird; it's definitely not pressure to sell records. I just don't want to lose that respect. You can make something great, and if it was really easy you can make something that sucks. Bands do it all the time.
How about when you wrote The Body.... Did you intentionally kick things up a notch for that record as well?
That was natural. It was just the fact that Kathy and I had played together for a long time, and after Jordan left the band we just decided that we would make the record just the two of us. We were just back to our old writing relationship where we were taking our time on things. Those lyrics did come naturally, I didn't write it like I wrote this one, but it was just written over a long period of time as opposed to the first two records which were written quickly then recorded. So those songs had time to grow and we took more time to flesh them out.
Is there some sort of loose concept that ties the new songs together?
I wouldn't call it a concept, because I feel that can turn people off. If people haven't heard us, I'd rather have them be able to just listen to the songs and not have to think about the concept. There's a lot of death on this record, there's a lot of water. There are just a lot of love songs too, but I wouldn't assign any other concept any other than that. There are a lot of classic themes.
I definitely didn't notice any of the religious themes from the previous record.
There should be none. If there's any, it's incidental. There's a little politics, because I couldn't help it, but there's supposed to be neither [politics nor religion]. It was just enough on the last one. We can't keep singing about that stuff to try and get over our own personal shit.
Do you still get flak from the religious imagery on the last record?
Lot's of people got pissed off, but even now that the new record has come out there are still so many people writing us about those themes and those lyrics. A lot of people are taking it more seriously than me, you know? It was a work of fiction, and a lot of people write to us and talk to me like that's exactly who I am and the way I am. I love those lyrics, but I don't look at them like that's my life. I should be grateful that people take it so seriously.
When you write, do you start with the lyrics or the music?
We always start with the riffs and the music. We're working on new songs for a new record, and Kathy will have a part or I'll have a part and we'll just play it together. Eventually I'll get the lyrics together. The new stuff I've been writing, I've been writing music and lyrics together at the same time. Kind of like More Parts Per Million, just getting the song done in one day, then kind of editing it a little bit after just going with the first instinct, and keeping it more simple.
Whether you spend days labouring over a song or work quickly, how does that affect the final product?
Either way, there's a danger that you're not really going to get your point across, but a lot of the time it doesn't matter in music. Things can be more ambiguous. A lot of the time you can labour over something for a really long time, but it doesn't necessarily make it any better. It can be better, and it should be, but a lot of times what comes right out is more fun and off the cuff and rock'n'roll.
Do you ever feel like you're running out of song ideas that fit the Thermals' sound?
No, we'll all think that and then the next day write another song that has a ton of chord changes. We still have a lot of songs to write.
I know it's kind of a dead horse by now, but can you tell me a bit about the label change? Why did you choose Kill Rock Stars and are you still on good terms with Sub Pop?
It was just weird for a second, because we had definitely considered a second contract with them, because we loved them and we still do. We had a great relationship with them. It came down to the contract itself, we just wanted one that looked different, and the one that Kill Rock Stars gave just looked like exactly what we wanted to sign. We had just moved to Portland, and they were really aggressive to sign us, which is always good. And they're awesome people as well. It just became really obvious to Kathy and I that we should sign with them.
What's the deal with you guys and drummers? Do they hate playing with you?
Yeah totally, we just suck to be in a band with [laughs]. I dunno. If it was that way for Spinal Tap and Nirvana, that's two bands whose footsteps I don't mind following in. That's fucking ultimate, to me.