Hutch Harris is the lead singer and guitarist of The Thermals, my on-again-off-again Twitter boyfriend, and most recently, a burgeoning voice in the Portland comedy scene. The Thermals released their latest album, We Disappear, earlier this week and are in the middle of a promotional tour, yet Hutch is still making time to tell one-liners and share personal anecdotes such as the one about the time he literally shit himself while getting head.
Hutch and I sat down at Fred 62 in Los Feliz to chat about his experience as an up-and-coming comic, the differences between performing music and comedy, and what it’s like to balance the many sides of Hutch Harris. We are seeing each other for the first time since I opened for his stripped-down musical project Hutch & Kathy on tour last summer. Our flirtation is palpable and it annoys the other guests.
Noisey: Before we get started, I should tell you that this is the first non-Simpsons-related interview I’ve ever done.
Hutch Harris: I’ll try to quote The Simpsons as much as possible to make it easier for you. Actually, I won’t even have to try, it will just naturally happen.
That means a lot to me.
So the reason Noisey asked me to interview you is because, in addition to us being friends, you and I both do music and comedy. The difference, of course, is that I do music-comedy where as you do music and comedy.
Totally. And while I totally see your music as being real music, I definitely separate my band life from my comedy life more. They bleed together at times, though. I’ve been the musical guest at comedy shows.
What’s the difference between doing a comedy show as a comic and a musician?
It’s so hard because when you’re a comic, there’s such an obvious reaction you’re supposed to get. Laughter! You can tell how you’re doing instantly. When you’re the band, you have no clue! The audience just sits there politely listening and you’re like, “Do you like me or not?” And of course, silence is the desired reaction because it means they’re listening to you. It’s just so weird when you’re up in between comedy acts where silence is death. It sounds like you did a bad job when in actuality you did a great job. You just don’t really have a way of knowing unless someone goes out of their way to tell you. Comedy is instantly gratifying, or instantly awful depending on how you did.
Hutch, pretending not to pose immediately after I said, “I’m taking a picture of you."
You’ve been playing music since you were in high school. When did comedy enter the mix?
A year and half. Buuuuut, I really have been around it for years. There are two shows in particular, Amy Miller’s Midnight Mass and Barbara Holm’s We’re Gonna Be Okay, that I would go to all the time just to watch. I loved being around it and I feel like watching live shows for so many years before I started kinda gave me a head start. I remember a few years ago, Kathy and I got a beach house and I just wrote jokes for like, two weeks? It was amazing.
Sure, sure. Just like how ALL up-and-coming comics get a BEACH HOUSE to write jokes.
OK, to be fair, we were there working on a Thermals record. It was around 2008 and in between songs I would write down all these jokes that I wanted to tell but did nothing with for years.
What kept you from doing it?
Basically the better the band was doing, the more scared I was to pursue comedy. I thought, “If I do this and I suck at it, it’s going to ruin the band’s reputation.”
People would say, “I would love to see the Thermals but I heard Hutch bombed at an open mic.”
I feel like one of the biggest differences between music and comedy is how well the audience wants to know the artist. A comic can do a set and the audience gets the sense that they know them. A musician can bare their soul in their lyrics, but the audience still knows almost nothing about them.
That’s one of the reasons comedy is so scary. Even if you do one-liners and avoid personal material, you still are saying, “This is me, this is who I am, and this is what I find funny.” When it comes to bands, I actually don’t want to know anything about the musicians. The more I know about a band, the less I like them.
Why do you think there’s a level of mystery and seriousness surrounding musicians that doesn’t exist for comedians?
Music is all about creating a moment. A song transports you somewhere else and you’re constantly afraid that a distraction or mistake will make you lose it. If you’re being goofy during your set and your music isn’t goofy, it’s distracting and you can’t get into it. That said, I’ve seen singers crack jokes and the audience goes crazy.
I’ve seen you make the tiniest jokes at Thermals shows that have killed. It’s like the audience considers any amount of comedy at a music show a gift. What’s it like to go from that reaction, to a venue where people feel cheated if you don’t make them laugh?
Ah, it’s so much harder! Even storytelling shows are easier than stand-up because people aren’t necessarily expecting you to be funny so when you are, it’s a bonus. At a comedy show, people are sitting there with there arms crossed like, “Make me laugh! I came here to laugh!” In any other context, you’re just pleasantly surprised. Another difference is that at music shows, you don’t have to win people over. They came to see you and are already on your side. With comedy it’s a challenge, but I like that.
Me, my regrettable haircut, Hutch, Kathy, and the tour van. Somewhere up North, 2015.
I think about what you’re doing and Shelby Fero comes to mind. When Shelby started stand-up, she already had a big following due to her success on Twitter. I can only imagine that there is a lot of stress and pressure that comes from having a built-in audience watching you try something for your first time.
Yes! People somehow think that because you’re good at one thing that you’ll automatically be good at the other thing right away. It makes no sense. Just because a person is good at Twitter doesn’t mean they’ll be good at stand-up—I think Shelby is good at stand-up by the way—just like I had no idea if I’d be good at stand-up. Being in the band both helped and hurt me. It helped me book shows because people were curious to see Hutch Harris from the Thermals, but it also made me feel like I had to be good. Like I owed the booker or something. Still, it’s exciting to be new and to make mistakes. When you’ve been doing music for a long time, you almost look for new mistakes.
Did you ever hide that you are in the Thermals when you first started?
Totally! When hosts asked how I’d like to be introduced I begged them not to mention my band. But after a while, I learned I had to get over it. Hosts liked making fun of me and I ran with it. It was a great lesson that there are aspects of being a performer that you can’t control. I wanted to start comedy with a clean slate and make my own name, but I could only hide it for so long.
Like Apollo Creed’s son!
Apollo Creed’s son wanted to make a career on his own but people found out who his dad was and he just had to run with it!
Cool. I’m the Creed of indie rock comedy.
You’re musically talented, comedically talented, and handsome. Do people hate you?
[Hutch does a little dance and bats his eyes.]
First off, thank you. Second? Man, I thought music was competitive until I tried comedy. When I would get a slot, people would act like, “This is my slot and you took it from me!” Like if I wasn’t there it would specifically go to them? That makes no sense. But I made a decision that I wouldn’t let it get to me. I am nice and I made a point of being even nicer to comics that weren’t as friendly to me. There were comics that were cold to me at first and I knew we’d be friends. Like, “This person doesn’t know it but we’re going to be good friends.” And then we were!
Has anyone given you advice for comedy?
My least favorite thing is unsolicited advice. People will go up to you and tell you how they would have ended your joke and it’s like, “You tell it then.” People would suggest I take classes and stuff but honestly, I just wanted to figure it out on my own. It’s more fun that way, and I feel like when I look back on it all, I’m going to really love these days where I’m struggling and figuring it out.
That said, there is one person who’s not a comedian but follows the scene and gave me advice in the best way. She sent me a list of comedians that she felt I was doing something similar to and said, “Watch what they’re doing and tell me what you think.” She showed me Tig Notaro, Ron Funches, and Rory Scovel. They’re the best and I already loved them, but watching them and their delivery was good to study. This person also helped me with my timing and taught me about not losing the audience. I used to take so long telling a joke that by the time I got to the punchline, the audience would have forgotten the set up. She was helpful because she was guiding me, but I still got to do it on my own.
I think a lot of comedians have a level of stress and pressure that you’ll never face because if you fail at comedy, you’ll always have your music. Do you treat comedy as a low-pressure activity or is this something you’re really ambitious about?
It’s definitely not a hobby. I feel like it’d be so offensive of me to treat it like a hobby because I’d be all, “Oh, I don’t really care about this but can you still put me on your show?” Amy Miller once said she wouldn’t put me on her show if I didn’t take it seriously because she only wants to book people who are hungry. I love that.
In terms of my ambitions, I think it would be so cool to do a one man show with comedy and my style of music. When I was a kid, my parents took me to see Steven Banks who had a show that I think was called “Banks Banks Banks.” The set was his apartment and it was so beautiful and simplistic and he would just walk around his apartment showing people who he was. I would love to do something like that and show people this side of me when I’m alone that still manages to break the fourth wall and invite the audience in. That’s a long way out though. Who knows what it would be?
Tell us about your Twitter account. When people go to @TheThermals, they probably aren’t expecting to find jokes, memes, and what has ultimately become The Hutch Harris Show.
So what’s funny is that our label is who made us get on all the social platforms so we could promote shows. They told us to get a MySpace back in the day, and when Twitter came around we jumped on it and started being funny with it. It was just our natural instinct.
There’s something kind of punk about being funny if all you’re supposed to be doing is posting tour dates.
I’ve never thought of it like that but it’s totally true. It was important to us to have our own voice. What’s interesting about Twitter is that if you do it right, people will hear the tweets in your voice. I’ve seen some bigger accounts that don’t get very personal and so their followers don’t know them. I’m one of those accounts with a slightly smaller following that I think really gets what my deal is. What we’re talking about here is “brands” and I hate that, but it’s true.
Does Twitter give you the same buzz that comedy does?
Totally. Twitter has also helped me so much with my comedy writing in a way that actually mimics my songwriting. With tweets, songs, and jokes, I try to trim down the fat and get to the core of what I’m trying to say. You learn this doing shorter comedy sets too. You have to take a longer joke and make it shorter.
What does Kathy think of your stand-up? Does she take it seriously or laugh at you?
She’s so supportive. I will always remember the first time she saw me do a set and told me, “It’s so weird, but you’re really just a comedian now.” It felt so good.
When did you feel like you could call yourself a comedian instead of just a musician who does comedy?
Ha! I still identify as a musician doing comedy. I’ve only been doing it a year and half so I feel like I told people I was a comedian it would offend people. I say, “I’m trying to do comedy” or “I do stand-up.”
How do your feelings on stage differ from when you’re doing music to when you’re doing comedy?
Nothing compares to the feeling of doing stand-up. It makes me want to get trashed and I feel young. When you are doing well it honestly feels like a drug. When the band does well at a music show, it’s not quite the same high. It feels more like a job well done. We’re up there for 30 minutes to an hour and we’re doing our jobs. It’s a fun job, but it’s just a different kind of accomplishment like when you get home from a day of good work.
How does it feel to be doing something creative that has no input from a label?
Well a lot of people that don’t do comedy might not know, but comedy doesn’t pay. Doing something where you don’t get paid reminds you of why you’re doing it in the first place. It’s not a job, it’s just something you love. It’s exciting to be able to do whatever I want and I like getting nervous to do a five-minute set in front of 16 people. It’s addictive too. If you do well, you want to do it again. If you do poorly, you want to do it again to do a better job. It never ends and I love it.
What do you feel about music-comedy and what are some examples of when it works?
Well, I think Allie Goertz.
No you. I love what you said at your show the other night. You sang your Milhouse song and at the end of it said, “If you know Milhouse that song was very funny. If you don’t know Milhouse, that was just a gibberish love song.” There’s no middle ground with your songs. They love the references or they don’t. When they do, it hits them in a really special place. Outside of you, I liked Flight of the Conchords but I like the jokes in between their songs more than the music itself.
Do comedy lyrics take away from music?
It makes it harder for repeated listens. Also, as a listener, you can go to a music show and talk in the back with your friends. Once you add the comedy lyrics, you have to really pay attention to it. But it’s funny, we were listening to the band White Reaper on the way over here and it made me feel so much and I love it, but I had no idea what the lyrics were.
I don’t know. Who are your music comedy inspirations? I know you love Steve Martin.
Are you interviewing me now?
Honestly, I forgot we were recording.
Aside from Flight of The Conchords, Karen Kilgariff, Henry Phillips, Drennon Davis, and Erin & Melissa who all seem to put music first and comedy second, all my inspirations are just straight-up musicians. Fountains of Wayne, early Weezer, Ben Folds. These are bands that are clever but they aren’t comedy per se. It’s so impressive. Oh and Tenacious D.
Oh my god, “El Scorcho” is hilarious. And Tenacious D is beautiful! Kathy and I freaked out when the Tenacious D album came out because the music in insanely good but the comedy is hysterical.
Oh, and I almost forgot Spinal Tap!
Spinal Tap! [We freak out about how perfect Spinal Tap is for five minutes.]
Would you ever do music-comedy?
I don’t think so. For me they’re just different. I admire that people are able to do it, but for me it’s just a different part of my brain. I like getting serious and emotional in my music while I prefer staying light hearted and jokey in my stand-up. Like, my jokes aren’t even based on my life. But doing both, I get to tap into every side of me, and I think it makes all sides much stronger.
Thank you for sitting down with me, Hutch. Now how’s about we blow this popsicle stand and play some music.
Let’s do it.
Hutch and I went back to my apartment in Frogtown and recorded our cover of my cover of Pillar of Salt.
Allie Goertz is a musician and comedian and makes albums about Rick and Morty in her spare time. Follow her on Twitter - @AllieGoertz