After releasing something of a mini-landmark with 2006's bitter, enraged The Body, The Blood, The Machine, Portland trio The Thermals found itself at a crossroads. Ultimately, they pursued in a new direction: It meant a switch from one stalwart indie label (Sub Pop) to another (Kill Rock Stars), and a transition from the vitriol of The Body, The Blood, The Machine, to a somewhat more hopeful tone on Now We Can See. A political parallel, perhaps?
"When I Died," the first cut from the new record, sets the stage for the band's rebirth, even as its speaker sleeps with the fishes. Elemental imagery and frontman Hutch Harris' rhythmic vocals are indeed holdovers from previous efforts, but the band sounds almost triumphant here, even as it launches into a chorus beginning with the phrase "When I died."
We caught up with Harris as he and his bandmates traveled by train through New York for an MTV filming in the midst of an East Coast tour.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: How did the song come to be?
HUTCH HARRIS: When I wrote The Body, The Blood, The Machine, I wrote "Here's Your Future" first, and that kind of opened this door where we said there are so many other places we could go with this. And then, I wrote "When We Were Alive" first, it seemed like a really good place to start writing from the perspective of people who are dead, or writing about life and the end of life. I just started writing most of the songs from that point of view.
Then, I guess on "When I Died" I was really thinking it's kind of a sequel to "Back To The Sea," from The Body, The Blood, The Machine, where you have the narrator who's sort of embarrassed to be part of the human race. He doesn't want to be a human anymore, so he sort of wants to de-evolve.
You have a narrator in "When I Died" who's the same as the one who wants to go back to the sea, but the arrogant side is that he thinks that that's something he can do. He doesn't think about the fact that you can't survive under the water and you can't just de-evolve into a fish because you want to. So you have someone that drowns to death.
It does seem that the band's imagery has been somewhat consistent. You talk a lot about the elements: air, earth, water. Did that start with The Body, The Blood, The Machine and just keep going?
Kathy and I go to the Oregon coast to write. We take all our gear up to this house and set up to write and record. It's a house on the coast, so we're near water and there's an influence.
With water there are always connotations of life, or with religious imagery—baptism and rebirth. And in this song there's a point where the narrator is sort of yanked back from the ocean. Is that some kind of resurrection, or a denial of his ability to, as you said, just devolve because he wants to?
I forget how we really got to that point in the story. It's not really a resurrection because it's more a way to show that the narrator was actually dying and not going to be able to actually be revived.
I've read a lot about this album having a more optimistic or hopeful outlook, especially when compared to The Body, The Blood, The Machine. I think the press materials used the term "cautious optimism."
Well, that's just what a lot of people have been saying about Obama. I mean, it is more optimistic than the last record, but I don't think it's so optimistic. I think it's still cynical, too.
Maybe more cynical than enraged?
Yeah, definitely. I think there's a healthy does of cynicism in everything that we do.
Do you think within punk rock, which is so often a very enraged genre, you seem to be broadening the emotional palate a little bit? Is that a deliberate thing?
A lot of what we do is very deliberate. And a lot of that is trying to get away from being just a punk band. It's very limiting. We hope with this record, people will think of it more of like a power-pop band.
It's been interesting because it's punk, but it doesn't fit a Warped Tour mold, which I guess could be a blessing and a curse when you're trying to sell records.
I guess. I mean, we've always thought of ourselves as a really simple rock band. I think the record's got a way in which the songs are more complex and the lyrics are more complex.
I think, too, you have a very distinctive vocal cadence, where when you hear a Thermals song you can recognize that immediately. It has that same sort of rhythmic bounce.
It's really recognizable, which is pretty much what bands try to do, just trying to find something that makes it new, and something that people can recognize instantly as being you.
Going back to the song, Thermals songs have always had an anthemic quality, but it seemed ironic to me to turn the phrase "When I Died" into this big triumphant chorus.
That's really funny to us. A lot of the point of the record is conquering your fear. And of course, death is big for so many people. "I Let It Go" is very similar, too, a lot of the songs are very similar, even "You Dissolve." It's just about celebrating death, or celebrating not being angry or afraid of it.
You're listening to the song, and there are all these images of death and the body being broken down, but it doesn't really sound, necessarily, like a bad thing.
At that point, it was just kind of funny to us, I think. Just to think about it.
With the label switch from Sub Pop to Kill Rock Stars, and this new record, it seems like there's a new outlook—even beyond what the songs are explicitly saying. It feels like The Thermals have been re-energized.
I would say so. I don't think we ever lost our energy, but we're definitely stoked right now.
Comparing this record with the one before it and with that rage turning into cynicism, the outlook's a little brighter, even if nothing's perfect. With the political climate meshing with the story of the band, how much of that was on your mind when writing this record?
Well, the world looks like a much better place right now. We're definitely glad to have Obama, but you know all the music and lyrics were written before Obama was elected. We knew we wouldn't have Bush, which was great, but we were thinking we might have McCain. So there was some hope, but it's very cynical, as well. We didn't know what we would be getting into.
So I guess maybe it's more that there's an opportunity for hope, but the outcome isn't clear?
Yeah, I guess so.
The Thermals plays Local 506 Thursday, May 14, at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10-$12, and Shaky Hands and Point Juncture, WA open.