Out of the Light We Begin

Everything Thermals came out of only two things: the coffee shop that had singer/guitarist Hutch Harris behind the counter and the Fender practice amp waiting alone in the house for him when he got home. And if you've worked in coffee shops, you understand: up at 5 a.m. to be at work by 6, sunrise working a few tired fingers under the front door, caffeine running pins and needles down your throat and giving you jitters you feel in the back of your shoulders, and then bang, off at noon and home, and ol' faithful Fenderina's hoping you'll plug in and warm up her vacuum tubes, and there's no person in the world to come home and interrupt you for another six hours.

“That's why the songs are faster and louder,” says Hutch—no supervision. He wrote “It's Trivia” in about four hours, the first song of all Thermals songs. The lyrics showed up just as the tape fluttered around the rollers on a Tascam 424 Mk II, one mic per channel hanging from ceilings or hidden under couch cushions when buddies Kathy Foster (bass) and Jordan Hudson (drums) and Ben Barnett (guitar, but he split) added their parts. And then Hutch played it back, adjusting knobs like tuning a radio, sifting out static to hear what was gonna come through: “It was so perfect. I was so thrilled,” he says. “I was almost crying.”

And aw, it is, and you'd cry, too: tape does not come wide enough to hold this band, and that's not four-track hiss; it's blood rushing through dilated veins or cymbals spinning loose on their stands. The first time you hear it, you think it's from 1977—it's that pushy, that untutored, that accidental. It does not sound so much like the Ramones; it sounds like the Mekons (whom Hutch has barely ever heard) or the Slits or Red Cross, which is kids, unsupervised, isolated, turned up, struck by lightning the very first time they hit a switch on an amp. That's of course a factual impossibility since Hutch (the son of an off-Broadway pianist, for what that's worth, and something of a multi-instrumentalist anyway) is now 29 and played in bands for years and years before the Thermals—though he notes he was always writing those songs (which related or not, probably lots less people have heard) on an acoustic guitar—but that's how it feels, and that feeling somehow survived even to the second album—recorded in a real studio by Chris Walla from Death Cab for Cutie—which shows how interminable Thermals are.

By now—about two years since “It's Trivia”—the Thermals have to schedule their spontaneity; the early land-speed records (album written in two months, signed to Sub Pop after three shows, etc.) are something to remember over coffee to reporters. “Yeah, I hate sacrificing that,” Hutch says. “But we don't have a choice.” But they still sing sad songs at top speed: “Out of the light we begin/out of the old and thin/and control we spin/into the night we pass!” Burn and rave at close of day, says the poem; the first time you hear Thermals songs, it's light bulbs swinging from the ceiling.


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