The Thermals, from Portland, Oregon, pulled off the first trick with its 2003 debut, More Parts Per Million. It was recorded on a four-track in singer and guitarist Hutch Harris' kitchen over the course of three months, literally for less than the price of that fancy-pants coffee and ass-widening pastry you bought this morning at Starbucks.What did that six bucks buy? Six blank cassette tapes from Kmart. And the songs laid down on them were subsequently brought to Sub Pop by Ben Gibbard (of Death Cab for Cutie and the Postal Service). The smitten Seattle label pressed thirteen tracks to disc essentially as-is, hiss and all.
The Thermals pulled off the second trick with its new release, Fuckin' A. Harris, bassist Kathy Foster and drummer Jordan Hudson trucked up to Seattle's Avast Studios and recorded the album in a little more than three days, then mixed it in a little less than two with help from producer (and Death Cab for Cutie member) Chris Walla. Granted, the experience cost the Thermals about 400 times more cabbage than the first album, but if you do the math, the grand total is still far less than most bands spend on one day's worth of catering or drugs.
Efficiency, of course, doesn't necessarily equate with quality. Ford had its Pinto assembly lines rolling like clockwork in the '70s, nevermind that pesky exploding gas tank. But there are no discernable flaws, artistically speaking, in the Thermals' indie-punk design. Melodically stitched guitar chords clutch and rip like barbed wire on a fence-jumper's T-shirt, Foster's bass lines offer as much euphony as rumble, and Hudson spastically snaps his snare like a military drummer on crank.
Above it all, Harris's nasal voice spews personal and political observations forcefully, his lyrics like chunks of steak flying from a diner's trachea, post-Heimlich. The threesome's tight anthems seem to surge past far quicker than their average two-minute lengths, yet they lodge in the brain for days on end (in a great, grin-inducing way).
These qualities unquestionably come through with more sonic clarity on Fuckin A, but with no less urgency or passion than they did on Million. For these guys, it doesn't matter how limited the time or money or whether you stick them in a broom closet or the main room at Abbey Road; they'll still come up with fantastic, energetic songs that'll compel you to pogo, pump your fist and sing along like a complete freak.
"We like to do things fast and cheap," Harris says with a laugh from a tour stop in Minneapolis. "It always comes out more immediate that way, which is what we're going for. What really only matters to us is what the end result sounds like, and so far, that's the best way we've found to get that. But, I mean, we would go into some huge studio as long as it didn't sound too sterile, long as it came out good and loud and scratchy."
Strangely enough, the Thermals achieved that vibe on Fuckin A while working with Walla, who's not exactly known for roughing things up in the studio.
"Yeah, it's funny because Chris is not a total rock producer guy at all," Harris says. "He usually does a lot more pretty stuff, like his own band and Nada Surf and shit like that that's not anything like us. But he really had his ears trained to the sound we wanted to get and was good at scratching the whole thing up while making it sound fuller.
"Plus, he had this energy and complete excitement about working with us," Harris continues. "He was so determined! All last year, he kept saying, 'I'm gonna do your next record, I'm gonna do your next record,' and we were like, 'OK!' And then it turned out he had five days free, and we were thinking we'd just go in and see what we could do. And the next thing you know, it was done."
The heightened production make Harris' lyrical outbursts much clearer. (Million's mike distortions rendered many of his lines indecipherable on that album.) And Harris is often cranky: Keep me dead and muted/Slap me 'til I'm stupid/I'm dying for your hand/I'd die to understand he sings on "Let Your Earth Quake, Baby." But he is also an idealist: We're past our sense/Past the consequences/We're past the fear/We're through the mirror, he sings on "Keep Time." And then, on the memorable "God and Country," he's just plain furious: Pray for a new state/Pray for assassination/I can hope, see?/Even if I don't believe. Now there's some fresh fuel for the fire.
"I don't think of that song as controversial," Harris says. "I don't really want to assassinate George W. Bush. But I like that it's shocking. It gets people's attention. It came out of feeling so hopeless because things are so crappy that, well, what's the farthest you can take it? It's just like, if you're real angry and drunk and screaming your head off, no one should take everything you say as the truth. They should take it as a burst of 'Argghhhhhhh, I'm just so fucking pissed off!'"
Although the band is just now hitting the road in support of Fuckin A, Harris says the trio has already set its sights on finishing the next album by year's end. Which would make three discs in less than two years. Call the band prolific, call it efficient, but the singer attributes the Thermals' success more to a vague, constantly lurking dissatisfaction.
"There's no one point where you're like, 'Wow, I feel like I've really achieved something,'" Harris says. "You think the end of the process will be really gratifying, that when you get that finished copy of the album in your hand and it sounds good and you're happy with it, that's the best part. But that feeling wears off so quickly, which is why you just have to keep moving and working and creating."