Death is never the end for kinetic Portland punkers the Thermals
Like a hummingbird, Hutch Harris always hovers in perpetual buzzing motion. Usually, what occupies most of the singer/guitarist’s time is his Portland alternative trio the Thermals, and its seventh set, the Chris Walla-produced We Disappear, took him two years to gradually, meticulously compose. He even turned down invitations from his old touring buddies Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein to appear on their locally filmed Portlandia. “They asked me to be on it a couple of times in the first two seasons, but I was always busy,” he says. “But I like to keep busy, I like to keep working, and I like to record. I like it a lot.”
To that end, Harris—who has his own gadget-filled basement studio—was thrilled when he recently started getting some unusual extracurricular assignments. “Projects that came at a good time, when the Thermals had little breaks,” he says. Somehow, Amazon Studios discovered him through his publishing company and liked what they heard so much, they hired him as a composer for potential children’s shows. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. “I enjoy jobs like that, because it’s writing songs, and I love writing songs,” he says. “So, I’ll write them a bunch of different songs, and they’ll just pick one for each project, and I end up having a bunch of extra songs.”
So far, the shows have yet to be picked up. Harris penned a kinetic theme song for one pilot called Table 58 and an anthem for another, The History Of Radness, which was scored by ex-Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha and featured other rockers like Henry Rollins and—as the narrator—Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino. “It was about these kids in high school that have a band, so I wrote this song that the band played, and I have to admit it was pretty cool to see them play my song,” he says.
Punching the clock on kids’ programs has become a cottage industry for musicians these days, but the 40-year-old Harris says the Amazon leftovers won’t be compiled on an album: “Because they’re not even children’s songs, exactly—the stuff I write for them isn’t too far from a Thermals song. It’s just that the lyrics are slightly more positive than the lyrics I usually write. But they typically want a high-energy pop/punk song, just like the Thermals.”
We Disappear is that, in scratch-chorded spades. Opening on garage-punchy stomper “Into The Code,” it quickly settles into a surly Cheap-Trick-meets-Replacements scruffiness on “Hey You,” “The Walls” and “My Heart Went Cold,” an arena-rousing rocker revolving around the Joy Division tight rhythm section of bassist Kathy Foster and drummer Westin Glass. Thematically, it covers two grim topics—the frontman’s latest romantic breakup (he also dated Foster at one point) and the encroachment of technology on modern society.
And on dirges like “The Great Dying,” “Always Never Be” and “If We Don’t Die Today,” things grow more sepulchral. “If you look at our records, we’re always dying, there’s always lots of death happening,” says Harris. “When I was young, it used to scare the hell out of me. Now it doesn’t scare me in the same way, but I just can’t stop thinking about it—it’s just always on my mind.” Hence, he points out, the two key aspects he stresses in his writing. First, there has to be a concert-level intensity to the music. “That energy has always got to be there,” says Harris. “But it’s not easy to get—sometimes you’ll see a group that’s great live, but then you’ll only hear parts of that energy on their record. So, we’re always trying to stay excited in the studio and make sure we’ve got that.”
Lastly, jubilant-sounding Thermals riffs need to be candy-coating a sinister center. “Most of the bands that I grew up liking do that same thing, like Nirvana—catchy songs with really dark lyrics,” says Harris. Fans can listen to the Thermals on a playful surface level. “But it’s also cool to provide something deeper there, if people want to dig for it.”