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Taking a break from the studio, Thermals bassist Kathy Foster describes the Portland trio’s upcoming fifth full-length as their “dark album.” Funny coming from a band who wrote a near-concept record around a dystopian future brought on by a religion-fueled dictatorship. That album, 2006’s The Body, the Blood, the Machine became a critical and commercial breakthrough, and its core ideas were continued in last year’s mortality-themed Now We Can See. So “dark” is maybe a relative term.
To clarify, Foster says the new material finds front man Hutch Harris “singing a lot about love, but about the difficult and darker sides of love.” As for its sound, she explains, “I’ve been writing a lot of the songs on the bass. Hutch wanted to write songs where he’s playing less and more sparsely on the guitar and playing note-y lines instead of power chords. And I tend to write darker melodies. We’re just trying to change it up.”
Though a cursory pass over the previous four records might not yield a ton of variety in Harris’ nasal shouts and the band’s bottle-rocket roar—think Superchunk or Buzzcocks—the Thermals have in fact been changing it up each time.
The Thermals 2003 debut, More Parts per Million, sprang from Harris’ four-track kitchen recordings, and he played every instrument. The next year’s Fuckin’ A featured a since-departed drummer and cemented the role of Foster, with whom he’d released the 2002, self-titled homespun pop record Hutch & Kathy. The Body, the Blood, the Machine introduced a connecting narrative to the Thermals “post-pop-punk,” and Now We Can See distilled that into something leaner and meaner.
The as-yet-untitled new album is being helmed by Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla, who mixed More Parts per Million and produced Fuckin’ A. It’s also the Thermals’ first outing since Fuckin’ A to benefit from a full trio in the studio. Often finding themselves between drummers, the band had Foster play drums—her chosen instrument pre-Thermals—on the last two records. But now the lineup is complete and steady thanks to stickman Westin Glass, whose involvement has accelerated the creative process. “I think that’s why it’s come together so quickly,” Foster notes. “It helps in writing the songs, just developing them. We also wanted to go back to how we recorded Fuckin’ A, not overthinking it.”
She admits that after the surprise success of The Body, the Blood, the Machine, the Thermals didn’t want to be labeled as a political band. “We’re definitely aware of that and not wanting to be that,” she says. “We like to have the freedom to do what we want on each record.”
Following three albums with Sub Pop, Now We Can See came out on Kill Rock Stars, the famed Olympia, Washington, indie label that relocated to the Thermals’ hometown of Portland. While it didn’t receive as much attention as its immediate predecessor, the album furthered the band’s style of biting lyrics and thrashing melodies that avoid coming off as whiny or rote. If anything, it’s the most thoughtful record yet. And given our country’s disastrous health-care policies, such cautionary tales as “We Were Sick” sound all too relevant.
Their new album due for release in September, the Thermals are touring California this month—including a stop at Detroit Bar Tuesday—and heading to Australia in March before hitting the East Coast in April. Foster has also been playing some with her other longtime band, the indie-pop supergroup All Girl Summer Fun Band, but Thermals and family commitments have kept that more of a hobby. Still, it enables her to play drums and sing along with old friends. While that provides Foster with the occasional break from the Thermals, she and Harris make sure their band evolves enough with time to remain consistently interesting for them and listeners alike. They may no longer be lo-fi brats slinging two-minute anthems, but that same flinty spirit remains intact.
“We were really in love with that style—really scratchy, noisy, four-track recording,” she says, “but once we spent time with that for a while, we started wanting to branch out.”
The Thermals open for Thao and the Get Down Stay Down at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.detroitbar.com. Tues., 8 p.m. $15. 21+
This article ran in the print edition under the headline "She Sees a Darkness."