All Systems Intact: The Thermals

the thermals

Here's why I love the Thermals: I had the band's discography on shuffle this morning and heard three awesome songs just while I was waiting in line at Starbucks. And the line wasn't even that long! The Thermals don't overthink things. Rock-and-roll should be fast, loud, catchy, succinct. They have those bases covered. But just because the Portland, Ore., trio doesn't overthink things, it doesn't mean they don't think about their songs. As fun as the band's spunky anthems are, singer/guitarist Hutch Harris likes to make sure there's a bit more to the songs than some pogo-inducing power chords. "We don't want to make it challenging," he said. "Just smarter than the average band."

I talked to Harris last month before he left for the band's current tour, which hits the Black Cat tonight. We talked about his attempts to cover the Hold Steady, making short records and what makes for a satisfying performance. For more on the band check out last Friday's feature in the Weekend section today's feature in Express Night Out. Washington Post loves the Thermals!

So this is your fourth album. And you have short albums with short songs. But now it seems like you finally have enough material where you can do some different things with the live show, is that right?
Yeah, and there are more slower songs, now that we have "Test Pattern," from the last record, and "At the Bottom of the Sea." Real slow, kind of dirgey pieces that help break up the set so it's not just one three-minute pop song after the next. And we've been doing a bunch of covers, too, so the set is in really good shape right now. It's really varied. We've always tried to just come out and do one song after the next and try to cram in as many songs as we can. But there are definitely more peaks and valleys now.

Covers are always fun. What are you breaking out?
We do Nirvana. "Sappy," or "Verse Chorus Verse." And we do the Breeders' "Saints."

Wow. It's like eighth grade is coming rushing back to me.
Totally! And we're working on a Hold Steady song. We'll see if we get that done in time, "Hot Soft Light."

That's a tough vocalist to do, I'd guess.
The trick is doing it without sounding like I'm doing an impression of Craig [Finn]. Complete with the spastic hand gestures. (Laughs.) And then the other challenge is that there's like two [expletive] pages of lyrics. I thought I wrote a lot of lyrics until I started writing out the lyrics for that song. Oh my god. There are two bridges and they both have different lyrics. There are two choruses and they both have different lyrics, at least the first half of each one.

So your records have gotten progressively "better" sounding, in terms of recording fidelity. And I guess the timing is a little weird because there's so much stuff these days that sounds like what you guys sounded like when those first records came out. Is it weird for you to see this lo-fi explosion happen as you've moved further away from that sound?
I guess so. It wasn't anything original when we did it. We were thinking it was just a throwback to the '90s. Especially because we were on Sub Pop, we were comparing ourselves to Sebadoh, Eric's Trip and Guided By Voices. So I guess our lo-fi years were just stuck between the last time it was trendy and now, when it's popular again.

Sub Pop asked us to re-record that first record when we brought it to them. But we were just so stoked on the sound and the energy of that record that there was no way we were going to make it hi-fi. After that we just tried to grow in small steps so that "[Expletive] A" was a little more produced and then continuing with the last two records. It's a good place to start and can be a good place to go back to sometimes. If every record you do is so lo-fi it just wears thin really quickly.

(Read more after the jump.)

The Thermals are certainly a fun band but there are some serious themes in the lyrics. Do you think it's important to give the songs some meaning?
We try to have some gravity in there. But it's usually just stuff that's on my mind. I don't feel like I push myself that way. I feel like we come by it honestly. Lyrics are so important to me in all music. If I like a band, even if I'm not into the lyrics but the songs are catchy and they sound good, I'll still be into it. But if there's another level where if you dig deeper with it where there's something else there, that's a great thing. So we're trying to keep it interesting and also make albums as opposed to a bunch of singles, so there are themes and all the songs tie together. Not just a collection of songs.

So making albums ... but today with MP3s we're almost back to a very singles-based environment. I guess keeping the records short is a good way to find that happy middle ground. It seems things got so overblown when people realized they could put 78 minutes of music on a CD.
I know, I know. I like people to be able to put on a record and listen to the whole thing and not start skipping songs around track 13 of 21. It's just too much. It's like the old showbiz saying, always leave 'em wanting more, right? I mean those early Beatles records, those songs are very short, a lot of times they're under two minutes, maybe a minute and a half, but they're still really complete songs.

So you've been doing this for many, many years, not just with the Thermals, you've played hundreds and hundreds of shows. So what's the great payoff when you walk offstage after a show? A lot of times people will say, "Yeah, the crowd was really into it!" but sometimes the crowd can be into it even if you know you played a [expletive] show.
That's true, yeah. We played Portland the other night and the crowd loved it and I didn't think it was so hot. It sounded terrible on stage. It's a combination of how well you play, how the sound is for you. Lots of times it will sound good to the people out in the audience but if it sounds like [expletive] to you then you're not happy. And then how the crowd reacts. If it sounds good on stage, we're going to play better. If the crowd is into it, we're going to play better.

There have just been some shows where I walk offstage and I feel like something was watching over me just because we played so well. There was one show we did at the Bowery in New York, there was actually a Black Cat show that we did -- not that last one we did, but the time before -- and then there was a show we did in L.A. a couple years ago. I specifically remember those shows, feeling untouchable. And kind of realizing while we were up there. Just feeling like nothing could go wrong. And that's a great feeling, honestly.

By David Malitz |  May 13, 2009; 10:56 AM ET Interviews
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