Flame On

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

"The scene in San Jose just totally died," he says. "Everyone just got too old or stopped playing or stopped putting on shows. The scene in Portland is so much better. For as small a place as it is, there's just a ton of music going on. It's cheap, so you can work part-time and have a lot of time left over to play music. It's real easy for a bunch of kids to have a house and play music in their house. It's not burned out at all; it's really fresh." Besides his own various projects, Harris also served a six-month stint as the drummer for the Minders, the Denver expatriate group that moved to Portland four years ago. But the Minders aren't the only Elephant 6 outfit that Harris feels an affinity for: "I love the Apples in Stereo, especially that new album [The Velocity of Sound]. The recording's fucking awesome. We've been listening to it a lot on this trip, actually."

Now on their own headlining tour, the Thermals hope to keep fanning the fire they kindled on their recent outing with Death Cab for Cutie. "Those shows were awesome," says Harris, "but it was a little hard at times, 'cause their crowd is a little anti-rock. Not that the bandis anti-rock, but I think their crowd likes something a little mellower. Not all the kids were totally stoked on us." When asked if any devotees of Urban Legends, Kind of Like Spitting or All-Girl Summer Fun Band showed up at the concerts, Harris replies, "Um, a few. A lot of people who might have been into our other bands just don't know about the Thermals. It's still pretty word-of-mouth." He adds, laughing, "We didn't have that many fans in the first place, either."

What helped make up for it all, though, was the Thermals' appearance at this year's South by Southwest music conference in March. Taking the stage at 1:15 in the morning right after the overrated it-band Hot Hot Heat, Harris wasn't expecting much. "But people stuck around," he says. "They started going fucking crazy. That was awesome for us."

"What I'm really worried about right now is our next album," Harris confesses. "We have four or five new songs right now, and our writing has changed a little, but not because of what we're going through right now as a band. It's more like a natural change." His concern is justified, as many "undiscovered" bands that burst on the scene follow up a brilliant debut album with a low-grade photocopy of the same thing. "Our second record could totally suck," he says, "and each one after that could get a little bit worse. Most labels, that's what they want you to do. They want to take whatever was good about you and clean it up so that it's just really bland. Sub Pop is great, but even they would have been happy if our album had been better recorded."

"We're going to try to keep the same feel on the next album, but it'll be hard," Harris admits. "I would like to keep it a little bit raw. Keep the gear crappy. Keep being loose. I'd like to keep moving up with the machines that we record on but still try to hit the tape the same way, really loud and hard and dirty. The recordings will get bigger and wider but hopefully still sound kind of trashy, kind of fucked up."

Despite his fears, Harris seems to have it all figured out. "More Parts per Million was written as one batch of songs. I was trying to make them all sound the same, to make them all kind of a family. Some of the lyrics even repeat the same phrases and words. I used to try to make sure that didn't happen, but this project is really about throwing out a lot of the rules I had made up for myself," he says. "Our new songs are a little bit longer. Some have the guitar dropping out completely, with Ben doing some kind of weird Pixies-type feedback while the bass and drums and singing keep going. The new stuff is more laid out that way, more dynamic."

Then, after a contemplative pause, he adds, "Actually, I guess most of it just sounds exactly the same."

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