The intense and bouncy audiences at The Thermals’ performances a few months ago in Austin were a welcome site to the Portland punk band. South by Southwest was a chance for the band to show off its then-upcoming album, “Desperate Ground,” and crowds at The Parish and Mohawk (and several other Austin venues) careened through the band’s new songs.
And occasionally the band careened right into the crowd. (Singer Hutch Harris and drummer Westin Glass developed a habit of jumping into the audience to jump-start the audience’s energy.)
On Monday, the band will perform at Slowdown. ($12 tickets) with opener Pleasure Adapter. Then on Aug. 17, the band will be on the Maha Music Festival stage. Both shows are quite a way to show some love to the city of the band’s new label.
Omaha’s own Saddle Creek Records released The Thermals’ “Desperate Ground” last month. It’s a record with energy to make you spring from the couch and join the album’s protagonist in his bloody fight.
Before the band set out on its tour, I called bassist Kathy Foster at her home in Portland to talk about the energy contained there and how they created such a kinetic record. (Foster had a lot to do with keeping things high-energy.)
Kevin Coffey: When The Thermals hit the stage, you guys have tons of energy. I was at some of the shows in Austin and Westin and Hutch dove into the crowd. You never stopped moving. Where does the energy come from? Does something click when the show starts?
Kathy Foster: (laughs) For me, something definitely clicks. It also has to do with the music itself. Playing that, you have to have a lot of energy to play it. It’s really energetic music so it pumps you up. It’s kinda this circle of energy.
Personally, I’m a pretty mellow person otherwise. Playing that music and being onstage and interacting with everyone gives me a lot of energy. I think because I’m so mellow, I save up all the other energy or something. (laughs)
Hutch and Westin are both more highly energetic in general. I call them the Zing-Zang Twins. They kind of bounce off the walls sometimes.
We’re a good balance. I’m pretty mellow and they’re the funny goofy guys.
We all enjoy playing together and the music itself gives us that energy. And if the crowd is giving that energy back, it keeps feeding itself back and forth. Those are always my favorite shows.
You never know. Sometimes, the audience doesn’t have that kind of energy and they’re kind of standing there, but the shows where people go crazy, it’s so fun. I feel like we’re all at the same party.
KC: When you recorded “Desperate Ground,” it was just before Hurricane Sandy, right?
KF: Yeah. We were in Hoboken. We were out there for like two weeks. We got out there around the middle of October, and so we didn’t know about Sandy. As we were recording and watching the weather, we saw it was coming towards us.
We were supposed to be in the studio another few days after Sandy, but as we were watching the weather and saw that it was coming, John Agnello made a point to work hard the last few days and get it done before the storm hit. He knew that we should probably get out of there.
We finished it late the night before the storm hit. And then we got out of there.
KC: Did you get everything done?
KF: Technically, we got everything done. We got all the songs mixed, but alter we ended up remixing some stuff. We were in Portland and John (Agnello) was doing it in New Jersey.
It would have been cool if it was perfect.
We were glad that we got out of there because the studio ended up getting some flooding. They got hit a lot harder than they expected.
KC: “Desperate Ground” has a theme of war and violence. Where did the inspiration for that come from?
KF: We started writing music – we always work on the music first and then as we’re shaping up some songs, Hutch starts getting lyrical ideas. Usually, he kind of gets a theme in mind or he’ll write one or two songs and see that a theme is forming and he kinda sticks to that theme.
I don’t know. He got the idea that he wanted to write a record about war and violence, but not about any specific war but rather this human obsession with war and violence and how it seems to always keep going on.
It’s not really commenting on it. The fact that all these songs are about is a comment on it. We’re commenting that it’s all going on, and that humans can’t seem to get away from it. But there’s no moral about it. It’s as if you’re watching an action movie.
That’s kinda how we started thinking about it, too. As more songs were shaping up and he was writing more and more lyrics, we thought of it as an action movie.
KC: It’s really violent, but then it ends with “Our Love Survives.” I like the profession of love amid all of this killing.
KF: That was the last song we wrote. Actually, we wrote it right before going into the studio. We were still finishing it up once we got to the studio. I had told Hutch, “We need to write a love song because there’s all these song about violence.” He was like, “OK.” That’s how that one came to be, and it seemed to be the perfect ending for the record.
Then as Hutch said, “I wrote the love song, but of course it’s this violence, Bonnie and Clyde sort of love song.”
KC: “The Body, The Blood, The Machine” has a similar energy. Did you think about that at all when you made “Desperate Ground?”
KF: We were thinking about it a little bit in terms of energy. When I first started writing, the songs were a little more epic. Or kind of bigger. And a little bit slower. Especially after “Personal Life,” (which) was a little bit different from what we normally do. There was a little bit more mid-tempo songs on there. Personally, I was craving getting back to writing energetic songs because they’re just fun to play.
Once we started writing for this album they were a little bit mid-tempo. I didn’t want to repeat “More Parts Per Million” or “The Body, The Blood, The Machine,” but I wanted to get back to that energy so I definitely put that out there.
I wanted to have another album of energetic songs. Hutch stays up on the news and he’s very interested in war. That’s a topic that’s on his mind a lot.
KC: I think “The Body, The Blood, The Machine” and “Desperate Ground” both have a very cinematic feel. I feel like I’m in that world watching what’s going on.
KF: Cool! That’s how we feel. We were in the studio recording this and we were acting it out, wielding swords and stuff. (Laughs)
It kind of has that energy. We felt like all the songs were cinematic and we could picture all these scenes happening. It’s fun. I like the way Hutch writes lyrics because there’s this fictional element to it. Then there’s some of him in there, and he’s writing a story. I like that element of his writing.
KC: Hutch said you set down rules while you’re writing to kind of focus the band.
KF: (Laughs) Yeah.
KC: What were some of the rules here?
KF: I don’t know. I just want it to feel good. If it’s not feeling good, then I definitely say something. When we’re writing, I’m opinionated. If a song’s not feeling right or I don’t like the way it’s coming together… Sometimes, I immediately have a reaction to something Hutch is doing or something Westin’s doing then I won’t say anything right away. I’ll be like, “Let’s just work with this for awhile,” and see if I start liking it. If we’re working on it and it’s not changing, then I’m like, “I don’t like this.” (laughs)
I just wanted to challenge ourselves more, and push ourselves and work on the songs until we all really like them. I’m glad that we did. It just came together as just a really great album.
I don’t think of myself as laying down the law. (laughs) I’m just opinionated.
KC: I think every band needs that person to stand up and say, “No. This isn’t working.” You don’t want to be silent and then have the song bother you forever.
KF: I’ve definitely been that way in the past and be like, “Oh, that’s OK.” Then it always bugs me every time I listen to that one part, you know?
It was really fun. I kind of got more involved with John Agnello. He’s a super funny guy, and we all got along really well. We all have the same sense of humor and had a good time.
We recorded all the music onto tape – a 2-inch tape machine, 24 track. Then we dumped all that into Pro Tools and then Hutch did his singing on Pro Tools.
John had him sing the song like 8 to 15 times in a row – the whole thing – and then he would take the best parts of all of those takes and make one good take. It was like comping the vocals.
It was cool because Hutch had never done it that way before. “Personal Life,” we made it all analog. It was all on tape the whole way through. But when you’re recording on tape, you have such limited space. You have to get it right or write over it and you only have room for two or three tracks of vocals and then you have to piece those together.
Then when you have limited space – if you have only a couple tracks of vocals – then you have some good parts of it – then you’re like, “Well, I don’t like this part,” so you’re punching in the vocals. What we didn’t realize is that you’re not necessarily capturing the right feeling if you’re just concentrating on one line.
This way was cool because he sang it all the way through and he’s not worried about getting one certain part.
John put what he’d think was a good vocal track together, and then we’d come in and listen to it. We’d be like, “I mostly like it, but I don’t like this one part. Is there a different take of that we could listen to?” I was giving my opinion so much that he was like, “Why don’t you sit in here and do it with me?”
I was like, “OK.” We became the vocal comping team and had a really good time. I know Hutch really well and know what we’re going for feeling wise. I felt like I was valuable in that part because I know exactly what we’re going for.
It was cool to see where, in the first few takes, the second halves of the song would be really good because he’d have to get warmed up. Then the later takes, the beginning of the song was really good because he’d be warmed up, but he’d be fizzling out by the end. It was really cool to see that whole process.
I really feel like we got some of the best vocals on this record – just in feeling.
KC: Now you can produce the next record.
KF: Yeah, I know!
John is still texting us all the time when he’s working on other records: “I’m comping the vocals alone. How am I supposed to do this?” (laughs)
He was really fun to work with.
KC: I know there’s a long history with Saddle Creek, but how did you end up releasing with them?
KF: We recorded the record without a label in mind, and once we finished, we started sending it around. They were one of the labels we sent it to, and they got back to us with a good offer and good timing, too.
We weren’t totally thinking about how much lead time it needed. We were like, “We wanna get this out in a month.” But a lot of labels have really full calendars and plan out really far. But they had a really good deal and on their calendar, the timing was really good. They could get it out when we wanted to get it out.
They had approached us a few years back when we ended up signing with Kill Rock Stars. At the time, it made sense because Kill Rock Stars is in Portland.
This time, all the elements all came together, and it worked out really well. We went with them, and it’s our first label outside of the Northwest.
We’ve known those guys for a long time and known a lot of the bands. I feel like the scene in Omaha is pretty small and similar to Portland. A lot of the people know each other and play in each other’s bands.
We met Conor (Oberst) and the Bright Eyes guys a long time ago – like ‘99 – and keeping in touch and staying at each other’s houses on tour. We’d meet a tons of people in Omaha through knowing a few people because everyone knows each other. Then those people would stay at our house on tour.
It felt really comfortable. We’re already friends. We were really excited to be working with them. They’re all super awesome and on top of it.
The date that we had was this week, so to meet that deadline when we signed with them, we had to get everything in within a couple weeks. We had the record, but it wasn’t mastered yet and we didn’t have the art, so we busted ass and got everything done.
The three of us, we like to do a lot of stuff ourselves. We do all the artwork and Hutch writes all the press materials. The three of us were over at Hutch’s house a lot working on art ideas and putting it all together. Going back and forth with them on e-mail all day long and I felt like all of us together did a really good job. We worked really well together. It was awesome.
KC: You put on the first Bright Eyes show in Portland, right?
KF: I think it was ‘99. It was just he three-piece: Conor and Roger Lewis on drums and I think it was Conor’s cousin, Ian (McElroy). Maybe one other guy.
It was like this house show and I remember this girl’s house that was kind of nice. There wasn’t that many people there – probably 20 or 30 people in the living room. So it was on the main floor and not in a basement or anything.
The girl was kinda worried. They were really loud and Roger was playing super hard and loud. She was kinda freaking out about it. She was worried would break or was freaking out about the noise.
“Why did you put on the show, then? You know what we sound like, right?” Or they’re like, “Can you turn it down?” And we’re like, “No.”
It was a funny situation.
KC: Any other good Omaha stories?
KF: I just have fond memories of staying at people’s houses in Omaha. My other band (Butterfly Transformation Service) we stayed with Roger one time. He took us to some thrift stores because we had a day off. That was actually a funny day because we went to some thrift stores and then we left later that day and we were in a minivan. We were driving out of town to the freeway and it was a long route through city streets.
Kim was driving and she’s kind of short and I think she couldn’t see that the light that was saying a door was open was on. We pull over and realize the back door is open. All this stuff has fallen out. (laughs) Our bags and sleeping bags and we were like, “Oh no!” We had to retrace our steps, and it was nice: People had put our stuff on the sidewalk. I think we found everything.
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