The last record the Thermals released, Personal Life back in 2010, was not quite the frantic explosion their fans expected. It was a downright hook-driven, midtempo, New Wave production—quite different from the unhinged urgency present on early indie-punk recordings.
The band, in fact, received plenty of emails and letters from fans addressing the album’s change of sound.
“People like this band when it’s irrational and crazy, when it kind of rails against the world,” says lead singer/guitarist Hutch Harris. “We learned what made people fall in love with this band in the first place, ’cause they told us. They definitely told us.”
Those fans will be happy to know that the Thermals are returning to form for their upcoming record, Desperate Ground, which comes out April 16 on Saddle Creek Records. And those early classic Thermals records—the first three—will be reissued on vinyl on March 5.
According to Harris, Desperate Ground sounds a lot like More Parts Per Million (2003), their first record, and the critically acclaimed The Body, the Blood, the Machine (2006), their third album. He insists that the return to the noisy, chaotic sound is unrelated to the fans’ response but has more to do with what music has been playing in their iPods.
“We’ve just been listening to a lot of the bands that we grew up with, like the punk bands we loved: Agent Orange, Black Flag. When we were making Personal Life we were totally listening to the Cure and New Order,” Harris explains.
The first single off Desperate Ground, “Born to Kill,” released Feb. 11, isn’t quite the fiery mess that characterized More Parts Per Million, but it definitely swings the band back into punk-rock territory once again. As the title suggests, the lyrics talk bluntly about death, violence and war, which are ongoing themes on the album.
“Human violence is such a huge part of all our lives. The story of human history is mostly war and violence. It’s just inevitable. It’s not an anti-war record. It’s not a pro-war record. It’s definitely right in the middle. It’s more talking about how war and violence are inevitable,” Harris says.
This isn’t the first time the Thermals have taken on specific issues on an album. The Body, the Blood, the Machine discussed religion and fascism at length, which was, in part, why critics fell in love with the album.
When the Thermals do approach political content, they aren’t so much political in the traditional sense as they are sharing their own experiences, what they’ve seen as regular people and how these issues have affected their lives.
“Too many punk bands want to preach,” Harris says. “I don’t feel like I want to tell people that this is how it is, and this is what’s wrong. We’re not trying to tell people what to think or do.”
The immediacy found on those early records was actually a stark contrast to Harris and bass player Kathy Foster’s previous band, Hutch and Kathy, which they started shortly after moving to Portland. (They lived here in the South Bay until they were 21 and played in such bands as Haelah and the Urban Legends).
They spent a full year writing and recording their one and only album as Hutch and Kathy. It’s a carefully crafted, bouncy pop record that garnered almost no attention. For fun, they pulled out their four-track and wrote and recorded several songs without the extensive planning and meticulous recording techniques: just raw and intense. These songs eventually became More Parts Per Million. It wasn’t long before Sub Pop wanted to release it.
“A lot of times when you’re making something, you’re trying to do something different than what you just did. It was like writing a song in a day, recording it that day, mixing it the next day. It was fun and refreshing to work that way, which was the opposite way that we had been working,” Harris says.
Even though capturing that same immediacy was important for Desperate Ground, they spent nearly two years writing songs for it. They tossed out a lot of songs, anything that didn’t sound just like they wanted.
“We weren’t going to rush to make another record. We were going to make sure that we were going to make a record that we really liked,” Harris continues.
Instead of a four-track, they recorded Desperate Ground at a studio in Hoboken, N.J., with producer John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth). They finished recording only hours before Hurricane Sandy tore through the region. “We were holed up in the producer’s house with no power for another four days,” Harris recalls. “We’re just sitting and drinking wine in the dark waiting for the storm to pass.”