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 Million hits 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 Million sizzles 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.
"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 band is 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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