Catholics, Demons, and The Thermals

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Hours before The Thermals perform to a near-sold out crowd on a chilly, windy Wednesday night, bassist Kathy Foster thumbs an open E on stage at Chicago’s Bottom Lounge. She winces as she works with the sound crew in leveling the bass. To her left, vocalist and guitarist Hutch Harris sorts through his three guitars, killing time and waiting for his turn to sync into the mix. Drummer Westin Glass’s seat remains empty. “Westin to the stage, please,” the faceless technician announces over the P.A. “Westin to the stage, please.”

Within seconds, Glass slinks out of the dark, wearing all black and a less than humble grin. Drummer on-demand, goofball by nature, the former stickman for Seattle’s synth-pop band, Say Hi, comes off as a shoe-in for Mike Myers’s infamous “Sprockets”-sketch. Once behind the set, he pulls the drum mic down and asks, “Will you say paging Dr. Glass from now on?” Harris and Foster laugh, while the sound technician informs him of a Deerhunter tune with the same name. Surprised, he retorts half-mockingly, “Really, that’s about me.” Immediately, the three lunge into a raw, untamed cut of the religious love song, “St. Rosa And The Swallows”.

Let no proper introduction exclude you from Portland, Oregon’s own, The Thermals. Among their three-chord progressions, crunchy pop protests, and angst-dripping lyrics, this Portland trio rips up stages, blows kisses to fans, and spits on religion — all with great pleasure. Their fans champion them, their critics hug them with kind words, and venue doors break down at word of their arrival. With three albums behind them, a fourth currently accepting heavy applause, the cool-as-fuck yet nerdy-as-hell group feels no need to assume the best, the worst, or anything at all. Some call all this good fortune lucky, Hutch Harris calls it “rad.”

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“I don’t really try to set really huge goals for the band, I don’t think we’ve ever done that,” Harris tells me, lounging out on a vomit-colored couch, snuggled in one of the venue’s back dressing rooms. If Glass comes off as a Saturday Night Live regular, Harris seems primed for Sesame Street. Although he sounds like Jimmy Fallon and looks like a thinner Bill Hader, his tight, red and blue sweater belongs to Ernie (or is it Bert?). Today some fans consider Harris a true-rock n’ roll hero. Hero? Debatable. Songwriter? You bet. He insists: “The goal, usually, is to write really good songs.”

This type of mentality explains the band’s seminal 2003 debut, More Parts Per Million, which Harris wrote, performed, and recorded by himself, all on a crummy four-track cassette in his own kitchenette he dubbed the “Moss Motel.” This personal recording session spawned 13 tracks, two of which are now crowd favorites (“No Culture Icons” and “Back to Gray”), and led to the creation of the band, which at the time was a four piece. Having lived in Portland since 1998, Harris and Foster, who both grew up together and shared previous garage bands, knew just the right people. This included the likes of Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. Gibbard, who’s more or less an indie rock legend today, personally handed the demos to Sub-Pop Records, thee independent label to snag. It was only a matter of months before another friend, Chris Walla (of Death Cab for Cutie), mixed the debut and the band found an official home with the acclaimed Seattle label.

Labeled a “supergroup” of sorts at the time, namely because each member hailed from a different popular local act, The Thermals broke out across the Pacific-Northwest by late 2002. And while he may appear tame now, at one point, Harris used to strip and pummel through tune after tune in his birthday best. The four-piece hardly lasted and by winter of 2004, when it came time to record their sophomoric effort, Fuckin’ A, Harris, Foster and then drummer Jordan Hudson championed on as a trio. However, Hudson would eventually bow out months later, leaving the band with a steady rotation of drummers and a revolving door that’s become a rather comical element with the group. Harris assures there has never been bad blood with anyone: “We’re friends with everyone who we played with.”

9328 the body the blood the machine 300x300 Catholics, Demons, and The ThermalsHarris and Foster remain strong, even after 11 years, and this is one of the shining attributes of The Thermals. They both come from the San Francisco Bay area, they both were raised Catholic, and they both own the same records. So it should come as no surprise that their highly successful, 2006 breakthrough album, The Body, the Blood, the Machine, was the result of just the two of them working alone. Filled with religious paranoia, slams against American politics, and distortion galore, the album, as the band insists, “tells the story of a young couple who must flee a United States governed by fascist faux-Christians.”

“I went to Catholic school up until tenth grade,” Foster says. Much like Harris, she keeps her cool on a nearby leather couch (sans vomit-colors). Foster is the epitome of hip: a head of curly black hair, a chic pink dress, and some very fitting grey stockings — something the class of 1986 might have in their attics. “I went to Church every morning, but my family was pretty lenient. We went to school and church, but outside of that we didn’t talk about it, but my dad was more into it.”

“It was definitely ingrained, whatever, in our sort of lives,” Harris adds. “It was really big for us, so obviously this is something we’ll have with us forever.”

“The institution and the people running, you know, they’ve become so corrupt and greedy and selfish,” Foster explains, her voice elevating some. “I saw that in my own family and in people around me and became overly critical.”

It doesn’t take a conversation with the two of them to understand their apprehension towards their religious upbringing. Just listen. Their songs gush with snide retorts (“Good luck getting God on the phone/Good luck getting even a tone”), tongue-in-cheek criticisms (“Ashes and friends, ass-backwards medicines/They follow, they follow”), and horrifying imagery that parallels biblical verses (“God reached his hand down from the sky/He flooded the land then he set it on fire”). Of course, most of these images are buried in the poppy melodies and fuzzy distortion that would otherwise be saved for something, well, happy.

2009 04 thermals Catholics, Demons, and The ThermalsDespite the religious overtones, The Body, the Blood, the Machine won the hearts of critics and audiences alike. By the end of 2006, the album found itself on “Best Of” year-end lists in Pitchfork Media, Spin, and even National Public Radio. With this successful writing style in mind, Harris and Foster developed ideas for the follow-up, this year’s equally aggressive and equally dystopian, Now We Can See.

“The Earth was too hot, the air was too thin/I took off my clothes, I took off my skin,” Harris sings on the opening track, “When I Died”. The song kicks off what is essentially an unraveling outlook on the crumbling world and the humanity lost inside it. One thing stands out: the two remain skeptics.

“I was thinking about things like based on real societies and as bad as it can get,” Foster says with a smile that comes off rather eerie. “With the last record, we were thinking of our country in the, you know, 1984 sense, based on the realities and stuff. I feel like [Now We Can See] is a continuation from that record but it goes about in a different direction, so it’s like taking place at the end of the last record, this apocalyptic end of humanity.”

Outside the dressing room, opening band The Shaky Hands sound checks. As Foster unravels her love of science-fiction, Kurt Vonnegut, and the idea of the end of the world, the band’s bass drum booms through the walls in this haunting, rhythmic fashion. It sounds scary. Harris flails his arms around and makes ghostly noises.

“Exactly,” Foster says a bit excited and points to Harris. “It’s like from the perspective of the dead and looking back on humanity and looking back on our lives. But it’s not as political, it just kind of goes off in different science fiction directions…”

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The continuing themes behind the past two album also stem from the fact that Harris enjoys concept albums. He cites Pink Floyd’s 1978 epic, The Wall, as a prime influence, and insists that the parallels between The Body, the Blood, the Machine and Now We Can See were intended. He explains: “[The album] works well if you listen to it in terms of a whole. All the records you can take apart pretty well, and the songs stand alone, and I think that’s the key of a good record. You know, you just hear one song, you don’t need the rest of the record, but it’s nice to have. It’s kind of like a little story, it’s a little bit of a story.”

Now We Can See marks the first record with Kill Rock Stars, the band’s new label. Both Harris and Foster insist that the two both amicably split from Sub-Pop, as their contract had expired, and they had other invested interests. “We were kind of interested more in owning our record, our masters, and work on one record at a time,” Foster explains. “[Kill Rock Stars] was just really excited and aggressive in working with us, so we met with them a few times, and we really liked that they just moved to Portland.”

“[The label] moving to Portland really made a big deal,” Harris agrees.

Harris and Foster may be Californians at heart, but they consider Portland home now. Wedged only two hundred miles from Seattle, Portland sports just as much action, at least musically. “Right now, there’s a ton and a ton of stuff going on,” Foster attempts to sell the city. “It’s just really cool, and small, and affordable and doesn’t have an attitude to it.”

“We’re working on that though,” Harris says, a devilish smile curls up his mouth. Both he and Glass laugh some. “We want people to get cockier.”

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In an odd contrast to his stage presence, Glass sits quietly on a chair in the corner, chewing on a hamburger bigger than his hands. This August marks his one year anniversary with the band, an impressive feat for anyone who’s ever picked up drum sticks for The Thermals. He calls it all “a dream come true.”

“[Say Hi] wasn’t the ideal band for me to be in,” Glass admits. “But you know, it was a really good experience. I’d like to think I was a good addition to that band, as well. But, it wasn’t really the thing, I wasn’t really a band member. I was more like a player.”

“Yeah, you are a player,” Harris adds wily.

The three work well, which is important given their hectic touring schedules. After this current tour wraps up, which involves some festival appearances (including Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival), The Thermals have some European dates to honor, which will take them to the end of the year. Unlike past tours, however, Harris and Foster don’t intend to carry this road trip for more than a year. As for the next step in The Thermals’ career, Harris and Foster are already kicking ideas around.

“We’re talking about making a noise record for Christmas,” Harris adds. “We should really do that. We’ve been so fucking busy. We should just do the anti-Christmas record which is just horrible, screeching noise and the most distorted waste of recordings. It won’t be experimental as much as it’ll be just destruction. Destructive. Destruction!”

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Later this night, hundreds of fans will demand this eccentric, intimately youthful side of Harris, and tonight, he doubles down in Chicago. Fans lick up the classics, scrambling around the concrete floor in Chuck Taylors and satchel bags, looking just as nerdy as their alleged hero. It’s loud, raucous, and yet downright cozy. Midway through the chummy track “A Pillar of Salt”, Foster’s bass produces some horrendous feedback that sizzles the crowd. This time around, she’s not wincing, she’s just smiling. Destruction indeed.

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City of Portland image courtesy of Mike Rohman