Monolith Q&A: The Thermals

The Thermals new album, Now We Can See, represents more than simply a fresh recording for the Portland-based trio. After an amicable departure from the iconic Seattle label Sub-Pop, the group released their new disc on Kill Rock Stars. According to frontman Hutch Harris, the shift afforded the band the opportunity to take another role in the album's production - namely, the financing for the record. Harris spoke to Westword about the transition, as well as the rigors of touring and the advantages of playing a large, outdoor festival like Monolith.

Westword (A.H. Goldstein): I thought I'd start out asking about the big, outdoor festival setting, whether that's a new step for the band or whether it's par for the course at this point.

Hutch Harris: We haven't gone to Red Rocks and Monolith ever, but we definitely do a lot of festivals. We just did a block party in Seattle, and we just got back from Europe where we did a bunch of festivals. I like them a lot. I think festivals are the best way to play for people who have never heard you before and never seen you before. If people are going to hear us for the first time, I'd rather they see us live then hear our records. I think it's the best way to play our music for people who haven't heard it.

Hopefully, you get to see a ton of bands. Maybe because we're gone from Portland so much, we miss a lot of bands that come through. We really like Grizzly Bear, we're missing Grizzly Bear. We've already seen them like three times in New York and Chicago and Germany. It's pretty cool.

WW: On that note, on the Monolith lineup, are there any bands that are going to be here that you're particularly looking forward to?

HH: I'm looking forward to the Portland bands, actually, like Viva Voce and the Dandy Warhols, M. Ward, and then Thao Nguyen, who's not from Portland but who we consider to be from Portland because she's there a lot. It will be cool. We're just going to see a lot of our friends, which will be pretty cool.

WW: You mentioned you were just in Portland. How long did that tour last?

HH: That lasted two weeks. That was our fourth trip of the year - we're going to do one more trip there. We keep going for just two weeks. We will go in October for three more weeks.

WW: Going along with that, you mentioned that you're away from Portland and from the local scene a lot. What are some of the benefits for the band going overseas, and specifically going over to Europe?

HH: As far as just an experience, they're really accommodating over there, which is really nice. It's funny how many American bands tour the festival circuit in Europe, so we'll have bands that are from the U.S. that we've met in Europe. We met Calexico there, we met Grizzly Bear - there are just so many. A good percentage of the bands from Portland that we know, we met in Europe.

WW: A lot of people who are outside of the Portland scene think of the older players like Eliot Smith and the Decemberists. How would you say that the scene out there is evolving in a more contemporary sense?

HH: A lot of bands moved to Portland, like bands that were already formed like the Shins or Modest Mouse. Steve Malkmus moved to Portland not long after we did, which was like eleven years ago, so he started the Jicks there. We're not from there, but we've been there a long time. It's the same for bands like the Decemberists. It's become a magnet for bands to move to, but at the same time a lot of good people who had already been living in Portland just started making good bands.

WW: I know that you recently left the Sub Pop label. How has that departure informed your sound? Has it helped define the sound on the new album?

HH: We didn't change the sound at all, because the story is that Sub Pop offered us a second contract and we just didn't want the same type of contract. So, we got off Sub Pop and financed this record, Now We Can See, ourselves. We found the producer. We paid for it ourselves, and then we found a label.

This record would have been the same no matter what label it was one, because it was already finished when we were shopping it.

WW: Did having such a hand in the production and the formation of this record differ from your previous recording experiences?

HH: The main difference is that we paid for it. We had always taken a big part. We just kind of always liked to have a big hand in most aspects.

WW: That being said, for you, what are some of the new components of this record that stand out in terms of artistic development and sound?

HH: It's a little more produced. These last two records, The Body, The Blood and The Machine and Now We Can See fit together. One is all about religion and war, the next is about death, so it's definitely like a sequel of sorts, the new one. I think in terms of the sound and the scope, it's just a little wider and brighter. I just think the lyrics, they're really mature. I'm really proud of them. I think they've grown since the last record. But at the same time, I think they fit well with some of our other songs, too.

WW: Portland does seem to be a magnet for a lot of bands. Do you have any theories about the reasons for that?

HH: The main reason why we moved to Portland is because Portland is really cheap. You can get a lot of what you get in the bigger cities, and your rent is just much cheaper than Seattle and a lot of other cities.

We moved there, we were from the Bay area in California originally, we worked in San Francisco, but it's just incredibly expensive there, so we chose Portland instead. It's been a creative city for a long time. It's just the fact that it's a really creative city and it's really cheap too has a snowball effect.

WW: Is there a pretty symbiotic relationship with what's going on in Seattle between the music scenes?

HH: There's really not, it's weird. A lot of Portland bands are on Seattle labels, like Sub Pop and Barsuk, but for some reason, the scenes are very separate. They always have been.

We love Seattle. We might have played there more than we played Portland, since we were on Sub Pop. But they are definitely very different scenes.

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A.H. Goldstein