Desperate Ground Leads To New Energy: An Interview With The Thermals
Harris played all the instruments himself on the band’s 2003 debut LP, More Parts Per Million, and then recruited longtime friend and former bandmate Kathy Foster to play bass, Ben Barnett to play guitar, and Jordan Hudson to play drums.
After Barnett and Hudson departed &emdash; in 2004 and 2005 respectively &emdash; The Thermals found new energy as a duo, with Harris now playing guitar and singing and Foster handling all bass and drum duties, and released the 2006’s now-classic The Body, the Blood, the Machine &emdash; a screed against the Bush-Cheney regime and Christian hypocrisy in the USA.
As Harris tells Caught in the Carousel, The Body resulted in The Thermals getting pigeonholed as a political band. While he doesn’t like this, he definitely values the addition of drummer Westin Glass &emdash; who came on board in 2008 &emdash; and the new energy that he finds in the band’s new LP, Desperate Measures.
In this by turns playful and snappy interview with CITC &emdash; which covers Harris’ musical beginnings, bands previous to The Thermals, creative partnership with Foster, the making of The Body, and, most of all, Desperate Measures &emdash; Harris reveals himself as a passionate proponent of his band’s diverse body of work and most definitely not an excusively political songwriter.
Caught in the Carousel: What were some of the bands that inspired you to become a musician and be in bands of your own?
Hutch Harris: Nirvana, The Breeders, Led Zeppelin, Guns N’ Roses, and AC/DC.
CITC: What was the first instrument you ever played?
HH: Alto saxophone!
CITC: What was the first song you ever wrote? How old were you?
HH: (laughs) It was called “Transparent.” I think I was 17.
CITC: How did you meet your Thermals’ bandmate Kathy Foster?
HH: No joke, man &emdash; we met in the parking lot at a Grateful Dead concert! Our bands Pistil and Buncha Losers played a show together at the Cupertino Library not long after that.
CITC: Why does your musical partnership work so well? You both can play pretty much everything . . .
HH: Kathy and I have played music together for so long that we know each other’s tastes and instincts very well. I get along with Kathy, both personally and professionally, more than anyone else I’ve ever known.
CITC: One of your earliest bands &emdash; Urban Legends &emdash; originated as your own project, on which you initially played all the instruments. What was the recording process like for the Cycle EP?
HH: It was just me, in my living room, recording all the instruments on a four-track cassette. And this is exactly how I would record the first Thermals’ record, More Parts Per Million, five years later.
CITC: Was the first LP &emdash; Urban Legends &emdash; made in the same way?
HH: I recorded the record in 1998, and then we formed a band a few years later. I feel that recording a record alone, playing all the instruments myself, is an incredibly fun and rewarding experience, although it is a lot of hard work.
CITC: What can you tell us about the band?
HH: Kathy played drums, and I played guitar and sang.
CITC: I’ve read that you also like playing drums . . .
HH: I do like playing drums! But I’ve never played drums and sang at the same time &emdash; and I’ve never played drums in a band where I wrote the songs as well. I think the only band I’ve played drums in was the Portland band, The Minders.
CITC: What can you tell us about the 2007 Urban Legends’ album, Of Old Lost Days?
HH: Of Old Lost Days is a compilation of singles and B-sides that were recorded between 1996 and 2001.
CITC: So the record consists mainly of you playing solo, without Kathy?
HH: Yeah, I perform most of the songs alone, although Kathy does show up on a few songs as well.
CITC: I love the album Hutch and Kathy, which came out in 2002. Why the move to folk music?
HH: Thanks! The Hutch and Kathy LP is really not that far from what Urban Legends had been doing at that time. I love acoustic guitar, and I still write most of my songs for The Thermals on acoustic guitar. We were way ahead of the American folk-rock revolution, and therefore made very little profit from it.
CITC: You recorded the first Thermals’ album, 2003’s More Parts Per Million, by yourself. What challenges and rewards do working on your own present?
HH: It is challenging and time-consuming for sure. You can get every part just how you want it, as long as you are able to play it. I think it’s very rewarding when I’m able to sit back and listen to a song, knowing the entire piece came from my own mind and body.
CITC: I’d like to skip ahead to 2006’s The Body, the Blood, the Machine. What was the inspiration behind this record?
HH: The Bush-Cheney regime, the Catholic Church, and the books It Can’t Happen Here and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
CITC: Was Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade or a more mainstream concept albums an inspiration?
HH: Zen Arcade was not an inspiration, but The Subhumans’ LP From The Cradle to the Grave was a huge influence. I think you could call it a concept record. It’s one of my all-time favorites.
CITC: What did Brendan Canty of Fugazi bring to the project as producer?
HH: Great production skills, and so much positivity. Fugazi is one of my favorite bands of all time, and it was an absolute thrill to work with Brendan.
CITC: Drummer Westin Glass came on board with 2010’s Personal Life. What does he bring to the band?
HH: Great drums skills, and so much positivity. Westin is one of the sweetest, smartest people I have ever met. We love him!
CITC: The new record &emdash; Desperate Ground &emdash; is extremely cool and immediate. Was it a conscious attempt to do get back to a more punk sound after the previous two records?
HH: Yes. We felt that after Personal Life, which was a slower, moodier record, we wanted to get back to the loud, fast intensity of our earlier material.
CITC: The record is so energetic and powerful that it seems like a rebirth of sorts. Would you agree?
HH: I agree! I feel totally reenergized with this record. I feel excited about this band in a way I haven’t in years.
CITC: The record has a very short running, as well as short songs. Why the decision to go in this direction?
HH: This is what we do! Most of our songs and records are short and to-the-point.
CITC: What was the recording process like? The record feels like you guys just went into the studio and bashed it out. Were any of the tracks recorded live?
HH: Most of the tracks were recorded live! We did indeed just go in and bash it out.
CITC: Some of the tracks &emdash; especially “The Sunset,” “I Go Alone,” and “The Sword by My Side” &emdash; exude confidence and a willingness to stand up for one’s beliefs in the face of adversity.
HH: I feel that songs of this nature are always necessary, and these are the kind of songs I always want to write and sing. Lack of confidence is never a problem for me.
CITC: “You Will Find” me &emdash; on one level &emdash; is about the power of romantic love. But I’m wondering if there’s also a political implication here about love as a political force . . .
HH: It’s not political! I swear there are NO politics on this record. But I feel because of our past records, people will now find politics and religion in my lyrics no matter how much I try to leave them out. Fuck me!
CITC: I know that Desperate Ground isn’t a narrative concept record like The Body. But do you think that it has a through line? It just doesn’t sound like a collection of unconnected songs . . .
HH: We like to say that our records have themes, as opposed to saying they are concept records. We like all the songs on each record to share a common thread.
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