Rank Your Records: The Thermals’ Hutch Harris Orders the Band’s Six Albums
In advance of the band's new record, 'We Disappear,' we had the frontman reflect on his catalog of perfectly crafted power pop albums.
Photo: Jason Quigley
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Some bands drastically change up their sound from album to album, much to the dismay or delight of their fans. (Usually dismay.) For The Thermals, though, it’s been more of a slow evolution. They captured lightning in a bottle with their 2003 debut album, the bare-bones More Parts Per Million, and across five more releases, the Portland band has made only slight tweaks and subtle additions to their sound. The production quality has improved a great deal over the years, which is not much of an accomplishment given that More Parts was recorded alone by frontman Hutch Harris in his kitchen. Some of their records have set themselves apart by leaning more sinister or mellow than others, but rooted in each album’s heart is a sound that is still distinctly Thermals—effortlessly perfect power pop with razor sharp hooks.
The Thermals are about to release their seventh album, We Disappear, on Saddle Creek and the band has once again found new ways to build on the foundation that Harris laid down among his stove and refrigerator some 13 years ago. Harris describes We Disappear as a “varied record with a lot of textures and tempos, that goes to a ton of different places.” We talked to him about the six albums leading up to We Disappear, and asked him to put them in order of personal preference.
6. Personal Life (2010)
Noisey: Why is this one at the bottom?
Hutch Harris: I was ranking them how I would rank them, but I kind of feel how our fans feel about them, too. I usually agree with how people feel about our records. Personal Life was the one where we said, “OK, let’s do something really different than what we made before.” I felt like people didn’t like it. [Laughs] Or, that they liked it less than our other stuff.
This seems like the one where you slowed things down a bit.
Yes. If it has a fault, it’s a little too mellow. I feel like we did what we were trying to do correctly with Personal Life, but it is a little too mellow. But I really like the sound on the recording. I really like how it turned out. It’s the only record we did entirely analog.
5. Fuckin A (2004)
This seemed to be your breakout record.
Fuckin A, I don’t have any problems with it. More Parts Per Million was made just by me, I played all the instruments. So for me, Fuckin A was the band coming into its own, it was the first record with a band playing. And it’s cool that we did it live, pretty much. There was one overdub of vocals and the solo on “Let Your Earth Quake,” but besides that, there’s nothing added. The band had to move in that direction. It started out as a project for me. So with the second record, it had to turn into a band. I had to learn to let go of a lot of control. The sound got better, but I had less control.
I love the title but I’ve always wondered if it came back to bite you or got censored.
It never got censored, it never bit me, but honestly, there’s very few things I would go back and change, but I would actually change the title. It wasn’t because it said “fuck,” it’s just because like Fuckin A is… You know, the point of that record is that it’s the sophomore record, we were trying to make something sophomoric. It’s stupid in that way. Some of the lyrics reflect that, but a lot of the songs are still serious. But I wish that the title wasn’t “funny” at all. I feel like we haven’t done a lot of stuff that’s funny in that way, so I wish it had a more serious, meaningful title.
You’ve been making a foray into comedy lately. Do you want to separate that completely from your music? Do you want to have a sense of humor about your music?
I feel like we have a sense of humor about the band, and there are some funny videos, and if you see us live, you definitely see a sense of humor in us. But I never want to make funny songs. I don’t want the band to be a joke.
Musically, you can get serious themes across while still being fun. That seems to play to your advantage in that you can get people singing along to something meaningful.
Yeah, exactly. And sometimes it’s OK if you’re just into the surface, but if you want to dig deeper, there is more serious or emotional stuff going on.
4. Desperate Ground (2013)
This was the first one you did for Saddle Creek. How did that come about?
We had known the Saddle Creek people for a really long time. Kathy [Foster] and I knew Conor Oberst way back in the late 90s and we actually put on the first Bright Eyes show in Portland that was… must’ve been ‘99 or 2000. So we got to know his whole crew and The Faint and Cursive, and we got to know Robb and Jeff who run Saddle Creek, so eventually we met all those dudes. So we knew we liked the label, we knew we liked them personally, so that made it really easy to sign with them.
This one sounded like the fullest rock record you’ve made.
Yes. We were trying to make a record like the early records with Desperate Ground. We wanted to make a record that was done in the studio but was still very lo-fi and scratchy and a little bit out of control. I love Desperate Ground. I love it way more than anyone else does, I think. I think maybe other fans of ours would rate it lower on the list, but I really like it. Some accidents happen, but overall we’re very intentional with what we’re trying to do. Desperate Ground really did turn out just how we wanted it to sound. Crazy and distorted. Recorded in a studio, but still sounds like it was done on a four-track. I brought a cheap mic from my house to sing through, and the vocals I actually sang through a four-track because I wanted to get that really compressed sound.
3. Now We Can See (2009)
This was your first one with Kill Rock Stars.
Yeah, we had done three with Sub Pop and they offered us another contract but we just didn’t feel good at the time about re-signing with them. I loved being on Sub Pop, I love Sub Pop, but it became really important to own the masters for our records. We tried to talk to Sub Pop about a deal where we owned the masters but it just wasn’t gonna happen. So we just decided from then we were going to sign short contracts and always own the masters, which is the deal we had with Kill Rock Stars and with Saddle Creek.
Did you execute what you were going for on this record?
We were trying to follow up The Body, the Blood, the Machine, which had done really well for us. And when Kathy and I were making The Body, the Blood, we knew it was special but I don’t think we realized how well that record was gonna do. Both of those records were looked at like… we didn’t call them concept records, but there was definitely a story for The Body, the Blood. The theme of Now We Can See was supposed to be that we’re dead. The first song is “When I Died” and in most songs, we’re either dying or looking back as if we’re already dead.
What prompted that?
On The Body, the Blood, the Machine, it was not clear at all on the record, but in our heads, it ended on some kind of extinction of humanity or some kind of nuclear annihilation. We pictured some horrible war ending all human life on earth. So we just started thinking, “Let’s write songs as if we’re already dead, looking back on our own lives, and on human existence,” which was fun for us. [Laughs]
2. More Parts Per Million (2003)
The recording of this one is so rough, but the hooks and songs are perfect. How did you make that one?
That was just me in my kitchen of my old house in Portland on a four-track cassette. That’s how the band started, just me recording those songs. I would just record the instruments one at a time. Most of those songs were written in one day and I mostly would just spend a single day working on each of those songs.
Why did you decide to call it The Thermals? Did you have a vision that you’d eventually have a band behind you?
I definitely pictured a band doing shows. I liked the songs so much right away and I really wanted to have a band that sounded like that. I didn’t want it to be my name. I knew I was making a “solo record,” but I didn’t want it to come across that way. We weren’t even gonna tell people at first that it was just me because I wanted people to immediately think of it as a band.
Would you ever go back and remaster it or re-record it? Or would you just leave it the way it is.
No, I would always leave it the way it is. And Sub Pop, when we signed, they asked us to re-record it, but to me, a lot of the magic in that record is how fucked up that recording is. If we had done the songs with a band in the studio… I mean, it might’ve been cool. Who knows. But we were all so in love with how that record sounded in the first place that we weren’t gonna change it. Now, as time goes by, I definitely wouldn’t go back and change it.
I remember reading that you turned down a car commercial that wanted to use “It’s Trivia.”
Yeah, it was Hummer. So that made the decision super easy because it was fucking Hummer. We didn’t wanna do a car commercial anyway but Hummer is the worst. We definitely didn’t want to be associated with them at all.
Would you turn down most commercial uses of your art?
We’ve done a few ads that we felt OK about. We did an Oregon tourism ad. We were fine with that. But there’s been other stuff similar to Hummer that we’re just not interested in.
1. The Body, the Blood, the Machine (2006)
This album seems to have a storyline of something like a rapture. Is that right?
Kind of. Really it’s about fleeing a fascist US government. There’s a lot of references to Nazi Germany and there’s a lot of Christianity in there too. Kathy and I were both raised Catholic. This came out in 2006, so we were writing it right after George Bush had been re-elected. It was a dark, scary time. I wanted to say something about it but politics in music can be simple and dumb. So what we were looking at was, “OK, who’s actually propping up politicians and where does all the money come from?” And in that case, a lot of support and money was coming from the religious right. It’s not a revolutionary record, it’s a record about about trying to escape.
Is it difficult to apply those heavy themes to the fun nature of The Thermals?
Not for me, those are just the two things I really like. When I sit down to write a song, that’s how it comes out. I really like the music to sound really catchy and hopefully uplifting, but it’s super hard for me to write optimistic, positive lyrics. It’s just not what comes naturally at all. I like dark, cynical lyrics, but over catchy music.
Do you have different influences for your lyric writing and for your music writing?
I always think of Robert Smith. I think of The Cure because they have a lot of dark songs, but they have a lot of catchy songs with very dark lyrics. I always love his lyrics. They get pegged as this downer band, but at the same time there’s a lot of bouncy, catchy, colorful songs. And I think of Nirvana too. He could write a super catchy song but with really sad and dark lyrics.
I don’t know what you guys had going on here, but it was just something really special. Why is it your favorite?
That album changed our life in that the band got exponentially bigger on that record. We just immediately started selling out shows. That’s a record that people just obsess over and any time we meet people, so often they want to talk about that record. It was a lot of people’s record where they found out about us. That was just Kathy and me and Brendan Canty from Fugazi who produced it, and was amazing to work with. It did feel really special and we knew we were making something good, but you never know what people are going to connect with. It’s cool to have made at least one thing that is important people. You can’t ask for much more than that.
Dan Ozzi might need you to kill. Follow him on Twitter - @danozzi