In the spring of 2004, I was sitting in a strange apartment in San Francisco, staring out of a window that looked out onto a brick wall and fire escape. I had moved there on a whim, and managed to get a job and a room in a two bedroom apartment in the same day. My new roommate had left town for two months on the day I moved in, and at 19 I’d never lived outside of my hometown before. The absent roommate had a massive record collection and while looking for something to ward off the teenage despair, I randomly put on More Parts Per Million by The Thermals, having never heard of them. The first track, “It’s Trivia”, thundered out of the speakers, distorted and whirling around, filling up the previously empty feeling living room.
It is the end of winter in 2016, and I am waiting on a picnic bench for singer and guitarist Hutch Harris of The Thermals on an unusually clear day in Portland, Oregon. I am now 30 years old, a little fatter, and no less of a bummer than I was 12 years ago. I’ve kept The Thermals with me all these years, and when Harris shows up and we begin to talk, it’s hard not to feel like I already kind of know him.
We start with the prevalence of vocal melody in the band. From the get go, that seems to be one of the most important aspects over the thirteen years of records the band has created. “My dad loved The Beatles,” says Harris, “We listened to The Beatles a lot but no other rock bands… Me and my sister just grew up listening to show tunes.” The influence of Broadway on The Thermals’ music might not be instantly apparent until one starts to delve into the structure of the songs. The swelling arrangements and build ups, along with the short bursts of catchy, pop craftsmanship, harken back more to Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Weber than Johnny Thunders or Joe Strummer upon closer inspection. Harris, however, is quick to give respect to his ’80s and ’90s punk influences. “A lot of Misfits, Green Day, and Nirvana.”
I ask Harris an admittedly loaded question. “How are you with God these days?” The band’s 2006 album, The Body, The Blood, The Machine is a paranoid passion-play following what I had thought for years was Harris’ questioning and biting back at religion. As someone with 12 years of Catholic education, I recognized the sentiments immediately, but Harris corrects me. “I’ve been out of the church since I was 18 or 19 or something like that,” he tells me, “I’m not religious now, and I don’t hate religion, but what that record was about was people that use religion… A lot of that record’s about the Bush administration using religion but not acting Christ-like at all.” It is a testament to Harris’ prowess as a songwriter that he is able to make the political sound so personal.
Along with the subject matter and content of The Body, The Blood, The Machine, Harris speaks about his longtime partnership and friendship with bassist Kathy Foster. “That’s a lot of people’s favorite record, and we’re the only ones that played on it, so it means a lot to us.” Harris and Foster, who have known each other for 23 years, have been the two consistent members of the band since its incarnation. “It’s so hard to keep a band together, so if you find someone that you like, it’s rare that you can find that anyway, and even if you do, people fight or change or grow apart.” He says that one of the keys to their long friendship is their differences. “I’m kind of manic and Kathy’s real mellow and realistic.”