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Flame On

The Thermals light a fire under indie rock's ass.

He bleats at you with foghorn-like forlornness, a bedwetter yelping in his sleep while dreaming about tsunamis. In a downpour of snot and spit, Hutch Harris of the Thermals sings, "Eyes so deep/You'd never see through/I can't fucking stop/Thinking about you!" His voice, extinguished, then sinks like an anchor, drums thrashing in panic as feedback leaks like a trail of bubbles to the surface.

The song is "No Culture Icons," from the Thermals' debut album, More Parts per Million. Its opening couplet is retardedly catchy: "Hardly art, hardly starving/Hardly art, hardly garbage," Harris yodels in apparent self-reference, though he ends up dissing the very concept of self-reference later in the song. The single has landed in heavy rotation on college radio stations around the country, KVCU/1190-AM included, and the Portland-based foursome recently completed a sold-out tour of the United States opening for indie-rock big shots Death Cab for Cutie. The Thermals are also freshly indentured to Sub Pop and just played a buzz-generating set at Austin's auspicious South by Southwest festival. Not bad for a band that was incubating in a living room until a few months ago.

"It was just kind of for fun," Harris says of the Thermals' ignition. "Kathy and I had just done a record that was super mellow, and so it was kind of a reaction to that. I just wanted to do something that was fun and fast."

Kathy Foster, the bassist of the Thermals, has been Harris's musical companion throughout three previous evolutionary stages of the band: Haelah, Urband Legends, and, aptly enough, Hutch and Kathy. She also plays in the K Records combo All-Girl Summer Fun Band, as well as recording solo under the name Butterfly Transformation Service. Drummer Jordan Hudson is formerly of Operacycle, and guitarist Ben Barnett is the dripping-heart genius behind Kind of Like Spitting, a protean collective that somehow crams the leftist folk of Phil Ochs and early Billy Bragg into the intricate emo-pop of Braid.

"Ben and I had been screwing around, playing with each other a couple times a week. But we had no plans at all," Harris says. "After I wrote these songs, though, everyone was like, 'Ooh, let's make this a band!' They were real excited about it."

It's easy to see why. More Parts per Millionhits the brain like a blast of serotonin, as raw and hyper and beaming as a little kid with a skinned-up knee. There's sadness, too, and angst and confusion, but the songs can't sit still long enough to wallow in it. "It's Trivia" snidely advises, "Get fat and waste/Get smashed in the face," then asks, "Where the hell you wanna be?"

"I'd been listening to a lot more of the older punk stuff, like the Misfits and Subhumans and Minor Threat," admits Harris -- a fact that might confound most sweater-clad Thermals fans. It makes sense, though: All three of these legendary hardcore outfits pulsed with a dark, subconscious pop sensibility. "Walk Among Us is my favorite Misfits album. It's so catchy. When I was first telling people about the Thermals, I'd say we sounded like the Misfits crossed with Guided by Voices."

The Guided by Voices comparison has been made in just about every scrap of press written about the Thermals; it's hard to avoid. More Parts per Millionsizzles with tape hiss and in-the-red overdrive, each song a two-minute sucker punch of melody and distortion. Sloppiness is applied with pinpoint accuracy. The overall sound recalls the shuffling, lo-fi majesty of vintage Guided by Voices, only with a little less art and a little more crud.

"We recorded the album on a four-track machine in our house," Harris explains. "We had no idea that anyone would want to put it out, or even like it. We weren't sending it around to any labels. But I think that's what kept it pure. There was no pressure on us to make anything at all."

After the album was recorded, Harris's friend Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie remixed it at his Hall of Justice studio in Seattle. Walla's bandmate Ben Gibbard played the tape for a rep at Sub Pop, who immediately contacted Harris and Foster about releasing it. "Sub Pop e-mailed us while we were on a little Hutch and Kathy tour. They said, 'What's up with the Thermals?' and we said, 'We'll be back in three weeks. Then we can be the Thermals,'" Harris remembers with a laugh. "It's weird, 'cause with all our other projects, we sent off a ton of demos to record labels. This is the one where we didn't even try. It's totally ironic, but it kind of makes sense to me."

Harris began playing music in San Jose, California, at age fifteen; his father, a professional concert pianist, had fruitlessly tried getting him behind the ivories throughout elementary school. Two things kick-started Harris's interest in the electric guitar: Guns N' Roses and Led Zeppelin. "But the thing with both of those bands is their songs are so hard," he says. "I tried to learn how to play them, but I just couldn't get it. They're still too hard for me." At seventeen he joined his first band, an ensemble that played mostly Ministry covers but was, in his estimation, "still pretty punk." He met Foster in 1995, and the two formed Haelah a couple years later before moving to Portland together.

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