Interview with The Thermals
by Jeanne Fury
On the Portland, Oregon band's third album The Body, The Blood, The Machine, singer/guitarist Hutch Harris and bassist Kathy Foster crank out high voltage mania that's meant to violate your comfort zone. This is indie-punk disaster area music. Better start dancing. Focused primarily on how the church can't stay out of the state's pants, and vice versa, Harris's lyrics form a noose that fits snug around our throats, wildly and sadistically flinging us around the room. Assuming the roles of preacher, politician, and bride of Armageddon, Harris stridently hawks a pedagogy fit for the cuckoo's nest, trying to convince anyone within earshot that his way is the best way, the only way. Meanwhile the music conveys an alarming, pants-on-fire urgency. This is the sound of the pope and president exchanging vows on the threshold to hell. Turn it up. Harris recently talked to Virgin Mobile.
VM: After the exit of your drummer, you and Kathy recorded this entire album yourselves. Were there frustration or hurdles that haven't been there in the past?
HH: It was actually really natural because it was going back to things Kathy and I have done in the past because we had had a lot of bands where I would play guitar and she played drums before she was playing bass in the Thermals. So we worked that way a lot. We had written that way before. Not a Thermals record, so really the challenge was in how much time we had to put into it since it was just the two of us. But it was really nice and natural for us to go back to that.
VM: Lots of coffee and exhaustion?
HH: Um, yeah... not coffee (laughs). We were smokin' a lot... actually.
VM: Now that you're on album Thermals album number three, how has the dynamic between you and Kathy changed or evolved during the years?
HH: It's just kinda growin' stronger over the years. It was nice to just make a record with two people. We're so close. Like, we kind of, our ideas are so close, like what we wanna hear. It's just like we don't really clash so much when we're getting sounds and working the songs out. We really agree on a lot of things so it makes it easy for us to make a record together.
VM: The Body, The Blood, The Machine is built around the church and state clusterf*ck set to rock n roll.
VM: Were you raised in a religious household?
HH: Yeah, Kathy and I were both raised Catholic and we grew up going to church and going to Catholic schools.
VM: What was going on in your life that you decided to focus the album on the church and state affair?
HH: For me it actually just came out. I didn't sit down like before I started writing lyrics and decide that the songs would tie together. I sat back after I wrote like half of the lyrics to those songs and it was all coming out and it was working really well for me. But I hadn't made a real effort to do that until I noticed, until I finished the rest of the songs. I told myself every time I sat down to write these thoughts coming out in the songs that kinda made it easy for me to keep doing that and tie all the songs together that way.
VM: The music starts off sounding like this uplifting, uprising kind of stuff. The more I listened to the album the more lunacy I heard in it.
HH: Totally. Cool.
VM: You can really feel the wheels going faster and faster and worry about them falling off. It's incredibly effective. Do you see the human race as kind of careening to our demise?
HH: I do but maybe it always has and I don't know. A lot of time people will say now it's worse than it's ever been and I don't know if that's true. Things can obviously get a lot worse and maybe they have been a lot worse. It definitely comes out of the music, that apocalyptic feeling. For us, it's joyous even though it's really cynical at the same time.
VM: Appropriately, you sound kind of delirious and loony and drunk, kinda whipped into your own ecstasy.
HH: For some reason [that sound] gives people a really positive feeling even when the lyrics are really negative.
VM: The album reminds me of "Orgasmatron" by Motorhead.
HH: I don't know if I know that one.
VM: It's a really sinister tune calling out religion, hypocrisy, politics, war, the whole mess.
HH: I gotta listen to it. What record is it on?
VM: Orgasmatron but you can also find it on any Motorhead greatest hits album.
HH: Cool. I have just the first one someone put that on my iTunes®. All I know is like, "Ace of Spades." That's cool.
VM: Your take on fanaticism and sacrifice as the way to salvation on "I Might Need You To Kill" is really creepy because it's so believable. The way the drums just march you out at the end of the song... it's just creepy.
HH: That for me is for what a lot of the record is about survival. A lot of the lyrics are really selfish when you're talking about, like, if the world's gone to shit, this isn't the record that's about how you're gonna help out everyone (laughs) and make it right again. It's from the point of view that there's nothing left that can be done. It's really every person for themselves. And you're really only concerned about yourself and those people close to you, your family. It's more about having to do whatever it takes to protect yourself at that point.
VM: In "Power Doesn't Run On Nothing" you sing "Our God is with us and our God is the richest" and you're shouting "We have no shame!" It's leaves me feeling dirty. Did you feel like you needed a shower after recording some of these songs?
HH: That to me, well, is like me trying to understand people that I see as evil. Really trying to get in someone's shoes and almost celebrate if you can really understand how people can be so terrible (laughs) in the world and so it's like a triumphant song from the point of view of a terrible person who runs the world.
VM: The last band I interviewed for this website was the Hold Steady, and aside from both being very literate bands, I hear the parallels in your music because you're both know how to use volume to drive home your words and your melodies.
HH: Totally. Definitely. It is conscious for me. It's all about combining the sound and the lyrics to make it ... a lot of times with the Thermals we're just going for a real overwhelming feel. We even tried to back off a little on this record but somehow still a lot of the songs just come out and are supposed to kick your a$$ really hard. It's just a good way, especially when we're recording. I was talking to the Hold Steady about their first record they were just layering guitars, so that's what we did with this one. It really is fun to make something that just sounds really huge and loud because it just destroys everything.
VM: You're about to embark on a big fat tour with Caitlin Love on drums. What are some of the essentials that go with the Thermals on the road?
HH: The Thermals can't tour without "Arrested Development" DVDs and Cliff bars. It's funny. We did this radio show and they had all these promotional huge cases of Cliff bars and they gave us one. It's lasted forever, like the last three or four tours. So now we've totally become addicted to having Cliff bars all the time. We don't need too much else. Couple of pillows. We travel really light and simple.
VM: Because of the nature of this album and the political climate, what kind of vibe are you anticipating?
HH: We just have really fun shows. I think even a lot of people just come to have a good time and just rock out. The shows are super-positive and depending on the city, some cities go nuts, some are a little shy. But more and more shows we do people have been letting loose which is really fun. Just people not acting too cool, kinda letting go. This is the first for the U.S. We haven't done a headlining tour for this record yet. So a lot of the shows, the tickets are selling really well because we haven't really done our own tour in the U.S. for years so it's really cool. It's really exciting.