The Thermals reappear to face ‘the end’ on new album
photo by Jason Quigley
For Hutch Harris, the frontman of longstanding Portland indie rock trio The Thermals, it happened a little over a year ago. Standing onstage, looking into the curious crowd, he got stage fright. Harris and his band, one of the longest-running acts since Portland experienced a resurgence in independent music and arts, had stood in front of numerous crowds without fear. But this time, he was on a stage alone, with no guitar in his hands and nothing but his good humor to lean on — literally. Harris was performing stand-up comedy for the first time.
“I’d wanted to do stand-up for a long time, but I was scared to do it,” says Harris, who was a high school theater nerd before music took precedence. “But once I did it the first time, it went pretty well, and I was just hooked on it. (The stage fright) went away very quickly.”
While Harris first began an affair with stand-up six years ago, when he started writing his own material, he didn’t act on it until The Thermals concluded the touring cycle for their 2013 album, Desperate Ground. The break provided Harris, bassist Kathy Foster, and drummer Westin Glass an opportunity to pursue other interests. Foster got a radio show in Portland and started another band with Glass. She and Harris also toured briefly as a duo after the re-release of Hutch & Kathy, their pre-Thermals folk album.
For the past two years, Harris has also been working on new materials for The Thermals. The extended time to write has resulted in what he calls the band’s most mature record, We Disappear, which will be released March 25 on Saddle Creek. Noise Pop attendees will be able to catch an early glimpse of the new material Feb. 25 at the Brick & Mortar Music Hall.
“I write sporadically, and with this record, we were choosing all the best stuff that I had written over the past three years,” Harris says. “Whereas on the last record, all the songs were written within a short time.”
We Disappear is, thematically, a multifaceted record. On the one hand, it deals with the concepts of love and death (constants for The Thermals), but also about technology — about trying to create lasting legacies that people try to create by posting private information publically online.
On the other hand, We Disappear is a separation album for Harris, who, for the first time, wrote songs based on his own thoughts and experiences rather than fictional ideas. That makes the new album his most personal. The song that most closely represents the entire album to Harris is the second track, the up-tempo but saddened “My Heart Went Cold.” The song clocks in at a typical Thermals pace of 2:39 and covers both the loss of life and love.
Other songs include hard-driving first single “Hey You,” about “fleeing from the Grim Reaper as he calls after you” and the stirring love song/“relationship eulogy” “Thinking of You.”
“When we say ‘we disappear,’ … we’re going to end, eventually, one way or the other,” Harris says. “It’s a breakup record … about breakups I’ve had over the past five or six years.”
Harris, who had previously written songs only for The Thermals, was influenced in his songwriting by two other projects on which he worked during his break between albums: Two Amazon TV pilots. Both were children’s’ shows — one similar to a Breakfast Club for middle school students and the second about high school students in a band. That show also had music written by the Smashing Pumpkins’ James Iha.
While neither pilot was picked up, the work taught Harris to write in different ways and for different audiences. His favorite type of songs to write comes in the vein of The Ramones, Green Day, and Nirvana.
“I’m always trying to please myself,” Harris says. “I like really catchy, simple songs.”
Chris Walla of Death Cab For Cutie produced the new album, The Thermals’ seventh since 2002, in Portland and Seattle. Harris’ goal was to create a track listing that varied from song to song, similar to 2006’s The Body, The Blood, The Machine and 2009’s Now We Can See, which he considers fans’ favorite Thermals records.
“I went to high school in the ‘90s; all my favorite bands are, like, Nirvana and Weezer and Smashing Pumpkins,” he says. “I was trying to make a record that kind of sounded like a ‘90s alt-rock record.”
Nineties music happens to also make up a portion of Harris’ stand-up routine, though he doesn’t share his jokes in interviews (“It never works unless you’re standing in front of someone with a microphone”). Further blending the lines between The Thermals and comedy, the band convinced comedian Kurt Braunohler to write the bio for the new album. Braunohler, who had the band play on his and Kristen Schaal’s comedy show in Los Angeles last spring and later brought Harris back to do stand-up, described We Disappear as “the soundtrack to breaking glass, and an ode to the beauty of brokenness.”
Now more than a year into his new vocation, he sees the parallels and differences between music and comedy performance.
“Timing and rhythm are hugely important for both,” he says. “The difference is being in The Thermals is just so loud and chaotic the full time we’re up there. There’s no lull, there’s no quiet, there’s no silence. With comedy, there is a lot of silence, whether it’s me leaving spaces between jokes, to let it hang there, or if people don’t laugh, it’s just dead silence. I appreciated that right away.”
Roman Gokhman has been covering the music scene in the Bay Area since 2006; first with the Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times and the San Jose Mercury News, and since 2011, as a staff feature writer with The Bay Bridged. Follow him at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter and RomiTheWriter.Tumblr.com, where he posts Q&A outtakes from most of his artist interviews.