MP3: The Thermals – No Culture Icons from More Parts Per Million (2003)
The fetching bassist of Portland pop-punksters the Thermals is one Kathy Foster. And a long-standing rockstar crush for me (see right *drool*). So it was with great giddiness that I got her on the horn and poked and prodded her brain about the latest Thermals-related affairs, which she answered graciously and humbly, with a touch of coyness, only deepening my googly-eyes. OK, enough school-boy non-sense. Read up on my thoughts on their latest, Now We Can See and let’s talk the after-Sub Pop and the after-life.
Kathy Foster – We had a contract with Sub Pop for three records, and that was up after The Body, The Blood, The Machine. After that, they gave us another contract for two records. So we sat with that for a few months, talked about it, talked to them about it. To us it seemed really similar to the first contract…and the way it was laid out was more like a major label.
We wanted to make a record, license it to a label and not have them own it. And we wanted to work one record at a time. So we just kind of felt like we needed a change. Finally, after several months, we decided we were not going to work with Sub Pop. And both sides were sad to not be working with one another anymore, but we felt it was the right decision for us.
So then we recorded the record without a label in mind. And, I can’t remember if it was before we started recording, but it was pretty early on that Kill Rock Stars got in touch with us and expressed a lot of interest in working with us and putting out our next record. But it was still really early and we didn’t know quite what we were doing yet. We just wanted to record and then we’d have a better idea of what we wanted to do.
So we focused and recorded, and once we were done we started giving people some songs to listen to and sending it around. Just about that time, we met with KRS and they kept in touch with us. They were really excited and expressed a lot of enthusiasm. When we got together we really liked what they had to say, about how they run their business, what their plan would be and what they thought they could do with it. And I was really into them being in Portland (they had just moved from Olympia that summer) and it just gave me a good feeling to work with them so we signed with them. Just like with Sub Pop, they were a label I grew up with and totally respect both labels. They’re my dream labels.
AS – For a lot of your previous records, it seemed the song-writing happened in really quick bursts. Was that the same for Now We Can See?
KF – We took more time with this one. With each record, a little more time was spent on the songwriting. We started writing beginning of 2007, and in between touring when we were home, Hutch and I would just get together and work on them a little more. We recorded demos along the way. And we spent all of 2008, from the beginning, making several different versions and demos of the songs on the cassette 4-track and 8-track and computer, just messing around trying to experiment with the sound. Playing them in different ways, before reining it in and finding the sound we wanted.
There was a lot more experimentation on this record. And Hutch spent a lot more time writing lyrics. Some of the songs he’d write a whole version of lyrics, decide he didn’t like it and throw the whole thing away. Not even try and edit it or anything, just start over. So he wrote a lot of lyrics. I was noting on the final insert this time, the lyrics fill up the whole front and back whereas on the other records, all three were on one side I think. There were a lot more words on this one.
We spent a lot more time developing everything about these songs, the structure, the sound, the arranging, the words. I guess we like both ways, writing a song really fast, not messing with it and just seeing what comes out. I love the raw energy of that.
AS – Do you think your sound progressed in the same way as the songwriting, from this raw energy to a more intense, thoughtful energy?
KF – Yeah, I think so. I think it’s just natural. You can’t manufacture raw energy. As soon as you’re aware of it, it starts changing. The first record was kind of a response or reaction to the Hutch and Kathy record we made. Just the two of us recording on an 8-track, going back and forth to each other’s houses. We spent a year, leisurely recording songs. That finally came out, then Hutch just wanted to do something totally opposite, record a song in one day and have it be blown out, fast and fun and catchy. Not thinking about it very much. A lot of the songs on that first record he wrote in one or a couple days. Like you said, it was just quick and raw, and that’s what people loved about it. When Sub Pop wanted to put it out, they asked us: “Do you want to re-record it?” We were like: “Uhh, no, we’d lose the whole character of the recording.”
AS – What were your goals with this newest album, both musically and lyrically?
KF – Musically we wanted to be better. Spend more time, making songs that develop more and are more dynamic. As far as lyrically, Hutch writing about death wasn’t specific to any experience. We both tend to think about death. And I know he was going through a breakup around the same time so there’s a lot of love and relationship stuff in there.
We don’t really set out to write around any specific theme. Hutch didn’t set out to write TBTBTM, but after the first few songs were written, the theme developed on its own. That’s just how we write songs, pretty naturally. When writing, I play on the drums and Hutch plays guitars and messes around with lyrics and we try not to narrow things too soon to any one idea.
We recorded the new album on cassette 4-tracks, and I wanted to spend more time on the bass lines (which were last minute on TBTBTM).
AS – So the fact that Now We Can See continues weaving a lot of threads, both musically and lyrically, from TBTBTM, this wasn’t your intent?
KF – Yeah, I suppose it was inevitable, but not intentional. We were both super proud of TBTBTM and happy people understood it. But after talking about it so much, Hutch didn’t want to write another political or religious album. So Now We Can See follows up on the last record, where the world ends in a fiery apocalypse. On NWCS, we take the perspective of someone dead, looking back on an Earth with no life. Reflecting on their own life & the history of humanity and how we treated each other and the planet.
AS – Did you guys decide on a metaphysical state for the dead? Like, where are we reflecting from? Is it a purgatory-like place, heaven, hell, or something more spiritual or ghostly, like a disembodied narrator?
KF – Definitely not purgatory, I think that’s too religious for me. It’s kind of ghostly…
AS – But not like glowing white sheets or semi-transparent bodies or anything?
KF – No not that, but something more philosophical.
AS – You guys definitely ramped up the contrast of poppy, upbeat music with severe content, like on the almost-giddy “We Were Sick,” which recounts our wanton misdeeds and ecological destruction.
KF – I think that reflects our personalities. Hutch is a really bubbly and happy person, but also really smart and always thinking about heavy stuff. We both joke around a lot and think about heavy stuff.
And to an extent I think that describes Portland. It’s a really moody city. There’s all this beautiful stuff, graet music going on, but at the same time it can be so dark and grey. It’s something that is really natural when you look back and consider 50′s and 60′s pop, soul, funk, dancey tunes. They’ve always contrasted pop tunes with heavy content. When you stop and listen to the lyrics, everyone is dancing around to someone singing about heartache.
AS – Can you say a little about the first single “Now We Can See”?
KF - That song is a culmination of many different influences. It’s the exact kind of song we wanted to write. While on tour for TBTBTM, we played with bands like the Hold Steady and the Cribs (UK), both of whom have really catchy non-word choruses. So there’s some of their influence in there. And it also combines some of the influences we grew up with, heavier and more rock focused. It’s also a good wrap-up of the theme for the album, looking back on the planet and human arrogance. How we all know we are making mistakes, but continue to do the things we do.
AS – I was really impressed by “At the Bottom of the Sea.” You guys did a great job at creating that underwater feel without resorting to overly cliched effects, doing it instead with a lot of precise mixing.
KF – Thanks! John Congletone had a lot of really great ideas on how to get that sound and in how he mixed it. I kind of think of that song as what we would play if we were the band at an underwater dance, and it reminds me of Velvet Underground, so I think we had that influence in mind a lot with that song.
AS – So what’s with you guys and drummers? This is the 3rd, 4th consecutive album you’ve written as a duo?
KF – Yeah, I’m sabotaging it so I can play drums. *laughs* It’s just always worked out this way. I mostly played drums in previous bands, the Thermals being the first I’ve played lead bass in. Hutch and I have played that way together (me on drums, him on guitar) a lot in previous bands so it is comfortable.
We’ve been really lucky to get creative people as drummers, but it’s hard to keep them interested. Jordan, our first drummer, and Loren who played with us for 1 and a half years behind TBTBTM, both left to focus on other pursuits. Caitlin, who was in between those two, was having some problems with back pain so she couldn’t play. But after Loren left, Hutch & I decided we really work well together and we wanted to record again, so we did. I played drums and bass, Hutch on guitar and vocals.
AS – It seems that you guys are progressing more and more back to the days of Hutch and Kathy, mellower and poppier songs than at the outset of the Thermals. Is this because you’ve been recording as a duo so much, you guys kind of revert back to that state?
KF – I think the more we play as the Thermals, the more they come back in. But Hutch and I have been playing in bands together a long time, and all different styles, and I think they all come into our music. Our first band was a heavy stoner band, slow, countryish, a lot of Led Zeppelin influence and other heavy rock bands. Coming out of that, into Hutch and Kathy, we toned down and were just playing guitars. The newer songs we’ve been writing remind me of New Order a lot. Starting out with fast bass and drums and the guitar comes in and out with the single melody line. We’ve been writing a lot of different things.
AS – I don’t know if this is intentional, but you’ve been writing albums in stylistic pairs it seems. Your first 2 being fast rippers, the second pair being higher-fi, poppier numbers. Was this just because you guys just naturally get bored after 2 albums and change your sound? What’s next?
KF – Yeah, I think that’s accurate. I know I can play the same songs over and over, but Hutch gets bored and pushes us more forward (at least, more than if I was in charge, not that either of us is in charge). We’ve been working on a lot of new stuff, other than New Order, we’ve been writing with a lot of Modern Lovers and the Kinks, garagey stuff in our heads.
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