“I looked my fear in the eyes!” Hutch Harris shouts from the depths of The Thermals’ newest album, Now We Can See. This time, the fear isn’t of Little Georgie Bush Jr. and his fascist army of Christian culture warriors. No, this Portland-based trio has been there and done that. Instead, Now We Can See is more of a personal journey of life, death, and resurrection. The song titles alone speak volumes: “When We Were Alive,” “We Were Sick,” “How We Fade,” “I Let Go,” “When I Died”—you get the picture. Depressing stuff it would seem, but in true Thermals fashion, Harris, Kathy Foster, and new addition Westin Glass never go far without arming themselves. This newest piece of work bleeds of all the critical and classic punk weaponry of sarcasm, humor, wit and energy. Read on to check out our interview with the wickedly-cool-fierce force of Kathy Foster!
Did you all grow up with similar musical interests/influences?
Hutch and I met when we were about 18. We were in the same music scene in the Silicon Valley of California. So we grew up with similar musical interests. But no one in my immediate family played music. Hutch’s father is a professional pianist, so he was around music and songwriting his whole life.
What is your songwriting process like?
For the last two albums, Hutch and I would get together and jam on guitar (him) and drums (me) for a few hours a day. We start with a riff or part of a song or a drum beat, and go from there. As we play through it, we figure out what drum beats we like and what energy the song should have. Once we get a main structure for a song, we’ll start playing it in different ways to see how we like it. Some songs come together really quickly and others take a long time. In general, we spent more time writing the songs for Now We Can See. We made several versions of demos and took time arranging and re-arranging the songs.
What topics never seem to get old to write about?
Love, fear, death.
The Portland music scene is thriving—is it a creative/supportive atmosphere to work in or does all the success from that area breed resentful discouragement between bands?
Yes, its a very supportive atmosphere. There are hundreds of bands, and we’ve been playing music in the scene in one band or another since we moved here in 1998. I’ve never felt any sort of competitiveness. Everyone helps each other out. Its like there’s room for everyone, even though its a very small city. As bands get bigger, they play bigger shows less often, and are out on the road more, which leaves rooms for the smaller bands to thrive. It takes a lot to shock audiences these days.
Do you think music—punk in particular—can still be a vehicle for positive, youthful rebellion?
Yeah totally, especially locally. The small local punk bands are always the ones I identified with the most.
In a related question: When looking back on punk’s first wave, especially U.K. punk, it’s clear that social unrest, class war and poverty were major issues that artists and fans had firsthand experience with. Do you think that youth culture today has mellowed in comparison and grown to accept the disappointments of society, or are we still very much engaged in a progressive battle?
There is a lot more peaceful progressiveness going on now. We’ve improved our surroundings. The U.K. is less rough, as are New York City and L.A. In the 70′s, those places were a lot more dangerous and violent. There was a lot more to be upset about. We’re very comfortable in the U.S., even though we’re undergoing some tough times socially and economically. I think people are still very much engaged though, just less anarchistic.
Your previous record dealt with a lot of religious themes layered with sarcasm. Do you think organized religion is a menace to society?
Hutch and I were both raised Catholic and went to church regularly. I realized in my teens how corrupt and hypocritical the church was. There is a lot of “do as I say, not as I do.” I think the ideas behind “Jesus’s teachings” are positive – treat people how you want to be treated, love thy neighbor, etc. – but people are greedy and selfish. Our last record (The Body, The Blood…) was a comment about how Bush was using religion to move his evil agenda forward. He was only Christian for the sake of convincing other Christians to follow him. On the other hand, plenty of Catholics and Christians do a LOT of good for society, helping those in need, spreading positivity. I think, theoretically, organized religion can be good, but people and their greedy agendas get in the way. I think PEOPLE are a menace to society.
Your Wikipedia entry calls you guys and “indie/alternative/post-pop-punk rock band.” Do long descriptors like that seem silly to you when so much of your music is based on very straightforward structures like power chords and 2 minute sprints? In some ways do you think critics try to make it more complex than it really is?
I think longer descriptions are more and more necessary as the broad genres of “punk”, “rock”, “indie” and “pop” grow even broader and more diluted.
I’ve heard Hutch speak in interviews about how he believes the live concert experience is one of the few aspects of music culture that will always be in high demand, even as other areas of musical appreciation change over time. What do you try to bring to your shows, as performers?
We’re just ourselves pretty much. We play the music we enjoy and love to rock out with everyone at the shows. It’s loud and energetic. I love connecting with people and seeing how our music affects people and seeing everyone’s smiling faces. It’s a very positive experience. And people love to get their ears blown.
What part of the creative process do you enjoy the most?
I love writing songs and that feeling when we first finish a new song and we’re really excited to play it over and over.
I also read an interview with Hutch were he said that trying new things by setting creative rules for yourself when making music is essential to keeping everything sounding fresh. Did you set any rules for yourself when writing this latest record?
We wanted to challenge ourselves more. So I guess our rule this time was: spend more time! We spent a lot of time writing, rewriting, arranging, rearranging, developing, redeveloping. Oh, also: no religion and no politics.
You guys had a lot of success relatively quickly. What were your reactions to experiencing everything blowing up so fast?
We were really stoked! We loved being on Sub Pop and we loved that people were getting into our music. It’s a great feeling!
Why do you think you guys work so well together?
Hutch and I are best friends and we’ve been through a lot together. We laugh and have fun together, love playing music together and we’re also great business partners. And we were lucky to find Westin last year. He fits in perfectly. He’s very sweet, funny, active, smart, and up for anything!
What do you do for fun on the road when you’re not playing shows?
We’ll watch movies or TV shows on DVD. Our faves are: Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, Mr. Show. In general there is a lot of joking around and excessive Twittering. We also read, make art, take photos. And if we ever have extra time somewhere, we’ll try to do something fun in that town.
What do you hope listeners take away from your music?
Excitement, energy, passion, thought, inspiration, humor.
The Thermals will hit the stage and blow your ears at The High Noon Saloon on Tuesday, April 28th with special guests, The Shaky Hands and Point Juncture, WA. The show starts at 9:00 pm. Get tickets here!
See you at the show!
Filed under: Music News & Reviews, Music Shows This Week in Madison, Sounding Board Blog Tagged: | High Noon Saloon, Hutch Harris, Interview, Kathy Foster, Live Music, Madison WI, Point juncture, The Shaky Hands, The Thermals, Tickets, WA, Westin Glass