Reviews

Desperate Ground

Author: Josh Modell
The Thermals started making records about a decade ago, and the trio's discography is filled with fiery, fuzzy albums that frequently feature overarching themes. 2006's The Body, The Blood, The Machine blasted through the world of religion, while 2009's fantastic Now We Can See deals with death and escape. The crushing new Desperate Ground tackles war and killing, with a group of unflinching songs that are strangely unbiased in their explorations. Singer-guitarist Hutch Harris loves movies, and he presented us with a theory that each Thermals record has an analogous Sam Raimi film. That was a starting point for his choice of movies for this 24-hour film festival. Harris came up with 24 hours of films about characters who were born to kill; which happens to be the name of the first track on Desperate Ground.

The A.V. Club: Should we start with the genesis of this list, Sam Raimi, or should we wait until we talk about Army Of Darkness later?

Hutch Harris: The thing is, Sam Raimi was a big influence for the "Born To Kill" video, but he's not a huge influence on the record. Really, the whole thing is that we were trying to make a record that was an action movie.

6 p.m.: Die Hard (1988)

AVC: Okay, let's talk about your overarching theme, then, and test it. Is John McClane from Die Hard a guy who was born to kill?

HH: Oh yeah, definitely. With "born to kill," I'm thinking about someone who, either by choice or who is forced into the situation, is really good at killing, whether they want to be or not. They find themselves enjoying it. I think John McClane has a good time killing in that movie. [Laughs.]

AVC: Does some part of you relate to a character like that?

HH: Definitely. John McClane is a real hero. I think there's maybe some anti-heroes in the rest of these movies, and I feel like we're definitely in the age of the anti-hero, where we're kind of rooting for maybe not the bad guy, but someone who's doing horrible things. John McClane is really relatable because he's a good guy and was forced into this horrible situation. He's a cop and he's trained to do this, but it's just coincidental that he finds himself in this situation.

8:30 p.m.: No Country For Old Men (2007)

AVC: In No Country For Old Men, Anton Chigurh was born to kill, and is definitely out looking to do it.

HH: Oh yeah�and he's one of the great characters of cinema over the past however long, and someone who very much enjoys killing. He's almost like a compulsive killer. There's a random scene where he's driving across this bridge at night, and he sees this crow, and he stops just to shoot the bird. There's a lot of really sick moments in that film, but especially that scene... He just kills this animal for no reason at all, except that he really likes killing.

AVC: Probably a lot of people watch that movie and root for him, in a way, especially since the person he's after isn't exactly innocent.

HH: Yeah, and the thing with Chigurh is, he's so good at what he does. Near the end, he gets in the car accident and his arm is broken, and the two boys come up to him, and he's offering them money for one of their shirts, and the kid just gives it to him. Chigurh can't believe anyone would just do something out of the kindness of their own heart. He believes everyone is just like him, inherently evil.

AVC: A lot of characters in that movie might be born to kill. Tommy Lee Jones' character might be, even.

HH: Does he kill anyone in the movie?

AVC: He just seems like a guy that could kill you pretty easily.

HH: Yeah, definitely.

AVC: Maybe I'm just thinking of Tommy Lee Jones the person, as opposed to his character.

HH: [Laughs.] Yeah, in real life, he's born to kill.

11 p.m.: Army Of Darkness (1992)

HH: I've just been on a Sam Raimi kick lately, re-watching a lot of his old stuff. I wrote this short thing that was relating each of our records to his films, starting with the really scrappy debut, Evil Dead, kind of matching up with our first record, More Parts Per Million. They're both really cheap, but they're both really satisfying, and they both prove that you don't need a lot of money to make something really good and entertaining. It goes all the way through to Drag Me To Hell, as compared to our newest record, Desperate Ground. What we're trying to go for is something that's pure entertainment. Army Of Darkness, I was comparing to The Body, The Blood, The Machine, because they're both just so over-the-top. Everything's pushed to this point where it's just ridiculous. And it's dark and evil and scary, but it's just about having a really good time as well.

AVC: You've mentioned Drag Me To Hell having a moral center. What is the moral center of Desperate Ground?

HH: If there is a moral in Desperate Ground, it's not intended by us. We wanted to make a record about war and violence that was on neither side, or both sides. It's not an anti-war record, it's not a pro-war record. It's just a record about war and violence. I don't think we need another anti-war song or record. I think there's enough out there, and it feels like such a clich�. I feel like the war-protest song has been done enough. Someone else can do it, but that's not what we're going for.

AVC: Your lyrics are frequently the center of attention on your records. Does that bother you? Do you like to have that discussion?

HH:I like it. For me, for most of what we do, the songs are just a platform for the lyrics. I feel like the lyrics are such an important part of it. With a band like this, with pop-punk or a band of this style, so often, lyrics are forgettable, and you can just throw them away, and they don't mean anything. For me, I always want to have that conversation. A lot of times, people are reading in, finding things in the lyrics that are not intended at all. Most of the time, I'm quite pleased people are finding things, even if they're totally wrong. That's what art is. If I go to a gallery, I really don't like the artist statement, because you don't need something overexplained, and a lot of times, I don't want to know what the artist was going for. It's so much more important what people are getting out of a piece of art, as opposed to what they're told they're supposed to be getting from it.

AVC: Do you worry that somebody could take a song like "Born To Kill" and find inspiration to go kill somebody?

HH: Newtown didn't happen 'til after we had finished everything for this record. We had just gotten home, and that happened, and I did have one night where I kind of stressed about it, but I got over it. I can't worry about that. Does violent music and film make people commit violent acts? I don't think so. Humans have always been incredibly violent. So yeah, I did have a night where that kind of scared me, but this is the statement that we've made, and we're going for it.

12:30 a.m.: Yojimbo (1961)

2:30 a.m.: A Fistful Of Dollars (1964)
AVC: Let's move on to Yojimbo, because how much damage can you do with a sword, really?

HH: We love the sword. The loose plot of Desperate Ground is just about one man, and we don't mention guns on the record. We do mention the sword. Overall, we didn't want it to be about weapons, but there's a song called "The Sword By My Side," and Yojimbo's really fitting for that. I love the story of just one man, one weapon, and that's why I chose A Fistful Of Dollars, too. A Fistful Of Dollars is a remake, or at least was really inspired by, Yojimbo. Both of those were incredibly fitting to the story that we're trying to tell.

AVC: The unflappable, violent loner who's mostly above the fray?

HH: It's quite different than a soldier. Obviously we're referencing war and soldiers, but if we sing about a soldier on the record, we're singing about someone who's gone rogue. Someone who's still killing, but who has no master, who's not being told what to do. The whole thing of Yojimbo is, he's incredibly smart, he plays the two clans against each other. So it's not mindless killing, it's very smart and calculated. And it's another character great at what he does. He's the best swordsman there is. Fistful Of Dollars is a lot of the same idea: man with a gun in the West, as opposed to a man with a sword in Japan. He's just really good at what he does, and he's really clever.

4:15 a.m.: First Blood (1982)

HH: First Blood is so serious, and it's the film that most relates to Desperate Ground. Rambo is on desperate ground. He's one man being hunted. Like Die Hard, he's definitely forced into this situation. He's like a total bitch at the beginning, he's getting hassled, and he kind of puts himself into this situation, but it's still very unfair to him, especially with everything he's been through. He's just getting shit on by these "jerkwater cops," I believe they call them in the film. He seems like he's not bright, except when it comes to killing, he's very good. He's so well-trained. I like that about the character. He doesn't seem like a genius at all, except when it comes to killing. He's in the forest a lot, and it's really one man alone in the dark at night. Maybe more than any of these other films, First Blood really matches up with the theme and the imagery on this record.

AVC: Does the overarching theme for the record come first, or do you start writing songs and realize you're writing about this stuff?

HH: We like to have a broad theme when we start. I wanted to make a record about war and violence. When we were writing The Body, The Blood, The Machine, there was a theme, but it kind of got overtaken�the theme became more about religion and fascism on that record. So for this, I knew I wanted it to be violent, and the more I wrote, we just found that it was from a really singular point of view, and it wasn't about a specific war. It wasn't about what was going on now in any part of the world. It was more about one man and a violent world.
6 a.m.: Escape From New York (1981)

AVC: Escape From New York is a little more cartoony. It seems escapist compared to the others.

HH: Yeah, but escaping is a theme in a lot of our records. The Body, The Blood is about escaping this fascist regime, and Now We Can See is about escaping humanity, or escaping life. For some reason, we're always on the run in these records. Escape From New York fits the theme a lot less than all the films we just talked about, but I love these films so much. I would love to go to this festival. I might make the band try to stay up for 24 hours with me and watch them all one night. But yeah, after a lot of heavy, really serious films, Snake Plissken is a great character. Again, he's one man against time, and against all the odds. I just watched Escape From L.A. a couple weeks ago, because I had never seen it. That movie is a fucking mess! It is so fucking cheap.

7:45 a.m.: Reservoir Dogs (1982)

AVC: There's plenty of born killers and killing in that, but no real hero.

HH: Lots of good killing, yes. Tim Roth's character is kind of the only good guy. I mean, he is the good guy in the film. He's the one trying to infiltrate this gang, and he meets a horrible end, as he slowly bleeds to death through the whole film. I love [Quentin] Tarantino, but the past couple films have seemed really bloated to me, and so all over the place that I'm always wishing they were more like Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. Reservoir Dogs is so tight. There's a lot of flashbacks, but it takes place over 24 hours. Everything is in the right place in that film.

9:30 a.m.: Full Metal Jacket (1987)

AVC: "Born to kill" is right there on the Full Metal Jacket movie poster.

HH: Yeah, and that phrase has been all over the place in culture for the past whatever, hundred years. There's films, there's a great Damned song. Stuff like that used to bother me, whereas with this record, I didn't care if it was the same title, because it just fits really well with what we're doing. Joker in Full Metal Jacket, he's taking a piss on everything in that movie. He has "born to kill" written on his helmet, and then he has a peace sign next to it, and he gets a lot of shit for that. I don't know if he actually does kill anyone, but it is one of my favorite movies of all time. I love Kubrick, and that one is probably my favorite. It's like Catch-22, about how war is ridiculous. You can't make real sense of it. It's just so ludicrous. Full Metal Jacket, the Mickey Mouse scene, as bombs are going off, troops are marching... It's a great idea. If there's any statement for that movie, it's just that war is hell and it's just fucking ridiculous.

AVC: Was Vincent D'Onofrio's character a born killer, or did boot camp twist him into one?

HH: He was born to kill himself, maybe. It's more like he was just badgered into it. I don't think he was born to kill. Obviously, he's kind of a slow, stupid person. Probably sweet at heart, but he does become a killer, because he's treated like shit the whole first half of that film.

11:45 a.m.: Natural Born Killers (1994)

AVC: From the movie that explores the futility and madness of killing to one that was accused of making murder look awesome.

HH: I was pretty young when that movie came out, probably 15 or 16. I was pretty shocked. I didn't grow up watching horror movies. I don't think I saw an R-rated film until I was 15 or 16. I just wasn't allowed, and my parents really made sure we weren't watching stuff like that in the house. When I saw Natural Born Killers, I remember not liking it. It was a little too much for me the first time I saw it, but then I really did grow to like it. It's another movie that's so ridiculous�it's such a cartoon. When we were finishing writing the record, the last song we wrote was the last song on the record, which is "Our Love Survives." Kathy [Foster, Thermals bassist] was saying, "Oh, this record is so dark and violent," and she liked that, but at the same time, she was like, "We need a love song in there. We need something that's a little lighter or sweeter." And so I wrote "Our Love Survives," and it turned out to be just as violent as the rest of the record, but it's kind of this romantic violence, which is what Natural Born Killers is, and what Bonnie And Clyde is too.

AVC: But Bonnie and Clyde don't get away, they pay for their crimes. Mickey and Mallory ride off into the sunset.

HH: They do. They have a bunch of kids at the end, right? Oh God. I guess that was Oliver Stone's sense of humor at the time. Maybe that's what pissed a lot of people off. There was no justice in that movie. Maybe if they had been killed, people wouldn't have been so angry.

AVC: And they still kind of are. It's a divisive movie.

HH: Yeah, but it seems made exactly to elicit that response. I wonder, was Oliver Stone surprised? I wouldn't think so. It's so, so over the top, like Robert Downey Jr. getting decapitated, or Rodney Dangerfield as Juliette Lewis' uncle or dad, molesting her. It gets horrible. It's really sick. [Stone] just went over the top to piss people off, and I can totally respect that.

AVC: Do you ever expect blowback from your records?

HH: Sometimes. The Body, The Blood, we got a lot of angry letters. A lot of people were like, "Why are you picking on Christians?" Some letters said, "Why don't you pick on Muslims, and then see what happens to you?" My thing was, "Well, wait. I didn't just randomly fuck with Christians because they can take it." I wasn't like, "Well, I want to make a record about Muslims, but I don't want to get killed." Kathy and I were brought up Catholic. We went to Catholic church every week of our lives for the first 18 years. These stories were in my head. We were dealing with the whole Bush-Cheney regime. To me, that's how that record became about religion, because to me, where was all the money coming from? It was coming from the religious right. So it wasn't like we randomly decided to fuck with Christians. This record, I don't know. I feel like I never really know what the response is going to be until a record comes out. And that's another thing, as soon as it was done, when Newtown happened, I was like, "Oh God, I hope I don't hurt anyone's feelings." People are affected. It's like any art that people would find offensive. You have the choice to ignore it.

2 p.m.: Excalibur (1981)

AVC: What do you love about Excalibur?

HH: It's kind of dark, and there's a lot of sex in it. I feel like it's a real influence on Game Of Thrones, and I love that show. That's actually what led me to Excalibur, was getting really into Game Of Thrones and then seeking out films like that. It's not a great movie at all. The sword is such an old, classic weapon. This man's whole power is held in this one tool. It seemed very fitting. And that was one of the films we watched while we were making the record, because we were just getting into this whole idea of the sword as an icon.

AVC: Does it have great sword fights in it?

HH: Um... they're all right. [Laughs.] I put it on here, but I can't really defend it.

AVC: Well, maybe at this point in your festival, people will be nodding off a little bit anyway.

HH: Yeah, they will. It's going to be mostly narcoleptics and heroin junkies at this point.

4:30 p.m.: Rocky (1976)

7 p.m.: Do The Right Thing (1989)
AVC: Rocky has no swords in it, as far as I remember.

HH: There's no killing in these last two. Maybe after 21 and a half hours, we're ready for... I was going to say less violence, but boxing is incredibly violent. We're shooting a video this week for the second single, which is "The Sunset," and the plot is going to be Kathy Foster as a boxer. If you're going to do an homage to boxing in film, you have to go to Rocky, and there's going to be some Raging Bull in there. But really, it started with Do The Right Thing. If you remember, the opening credits is just Rosie Perez doing this kind of routine to Public Enemy. And Kathy and I loved that movie for a long time. We were watching it one time, and we thought it'd be a great video if we just recreated the whole Rosie Perez sequence. And I felt having Rocky in there kind of ties in, since Rambo's in there as well.

AVC: Who do you play in the video?

HH: I will barely be in it. Wes [Thermals drummer Westin Glass] and I will barely be in it. I think you may see me in a bikini as the girl who announces each round on a little card. So far, that's my role. I think we may have everyone except Kathy in drag�have a couple girls play the announcer and Kathy's trainer, or Kathy's coach. We did the "Born To Kill" video, which is just me for the whole time, so we wanted to make one that's focused on Kathy, and have the guys barely be in it.
Desperate Ground

Desperate Ground

LP / CD / MP3