Somewhere around 2006’s The Body The Blood The Machine, The Thermals all but perfected the poppy garage-punk sound it had developed on 2003’s More Parts Per Million and 2004’s Fuckin A. It also set a precedent for albums loosely written around a theme—religion for The Body and death for its similarly great 2009 successor, Now We Can See. Going in to 2010, The Thermals faced a common predicament: maintain or reassess. Chances are no one would complain about another typical Thermals album, but guitarist-vocalist Hutch Harris and his longtime musical partner, bassist Kathy Foster, had even more incentive to change: drummer Westin Glass. For the first time in two albums, The Thermals actually had a drummer during the writing and recording process, instead of relying on Foster to pull double duty. With some extra time on her hands, she had more opportunity to focus on her primary instrument, and Personal Life—produced by Chris Walla—puts The Thermals’ ace rhythm section front and center. In doing so, it frequently minimizes Harris’ guitar, creating a more subdued sound than the one usually associated with The Thermals, which suits the album’s theme: love. Just before The Thermals left for tour—stopping in Denver this Thursday at the Bluebird Theater—Harris talked to The A.V. Club about his capability to write happy songs and why you shouldn’t congratulate him on his marriage.
The A.V. Club: Did you plan to write songs around the theme of love, or is that just how they cohered?
Hutch Harris: It happened the way the last two records before it were. I started writing. There was no discussion. It wasn’t premeditated what the record was going to be about, which I think is a better way to work for us. It doesn’t come off as too planned. I just start writing, and we see what I’m getting into and what’s interesting. The other two, I wrote a couple songs and just thought it would be interesting to kind of make the whole record be like that.
AVC: Do you choose songs going into the studio that fit? Do you have songs that you wrote that aren’t necessarily part of the theme?
HH: Some got discarded. Some, they kind of end up as B-sides. There were the B-sides for “I Don’t Believe You” and for the next single, “Never Listen To Me.” They’re loosely connected, but yeah, the songs that didn’t totally fit with the theme or didn’t fit with the other songs just became B-sides.
AVC: The album definitely has a different sound than the predecessors. Did you have the more “traditional” Thermals songs that didn’t fit the sound?
HH: I’ve been writing a lot of songs that are even less like the Thermals songs than the ones on that record, and Kathy wrote a lot too. The thing with this record was, the past two records we didn’t have a drummer. We had drummers on tour and in between records. But it was Kathy and I making records like projects, as opposed to, like, a band going into the studio. Having a full band actually write songs—it was just different than the last two ones we did. So then, going into the studio, we just decided that we wanted anything that wasn’t layered at all, something super simple—like, no guitar overdubs at all. There’s just like one song that has a vocal overdub. We really wanted it to sound like the three of us playing those songs.
AVC: Having the drummer around has to help with taking the load off Kathy a little bit, and just making it a little bit more collaborative.
HH: Yeah, fully. That’s why a lot of songs were written on bass, because the bass, it got so left out. It became an afterthought in the last two records. We would write the songs—I was on guitar and Kathy was on drums, so the bass line wasn’t written until everything was in place. So the bass is bending to whatever the song is already doing. Now, the bass got equal time with all the other instruments, which I think made it really cool. That’s really how we got the different sound, because a lot of the songs that have been written for this band have been me hammering out power chords on a guitar. It doesn’t leave a lot of space for anything else. The drums and bass follow the guitar. We write a song for the bass, and then the drums are written next. That’s the foundation of the song, so it leaves a lot more room for the guitar to do less. The guitar just kind of comes in and out. I do a lot more note-y stuff, as opposed to just like chugging along the whole time.
AVC: If you hadn’t had a drummer you’ve been with for a couple of years now, would this record have been more of a continuation of the stuff from before, or would it have still have happened this way?
HH: I don’t know. That’s hard to say. I mean, it definitely would have been a totally different record. The style might be similar, but I don’t think playing with Westin or playing with a drummer in general made us mellower or introspective, or whatever the word for it is. I think that’s just kind of what the three of us were feeling at the time. It’s funny, because this has been the thing that a lot of people have liked about this record so far, and the thing people have not liked. People will give you shit for putting out a record that sounds like what you’ve done, and people will give you shit if it doesn’t sound like what you’ve done. It’s not new by anyone’s standards. It’s for us; it’s a new place.
We started writing with Westin really soon after he started playing with us. He’s been playing with us over two years, but really [started writing] after six months. We just hate practicing. Really, that’s why we wrote this record, because it’s just so boring to practice. Whenever we get together, we would much rather write songs.
AVC: What sent you into the direction of thinking about love and relationships?
HH: I started just knowing that I didn’t want to do anything political, nothing religious, nothing death—something more simple and not so heavy, although it ended up being as heavy as anything else. The lyrics, the content. We’re just trying to not make the same kind of songs. But, like I was saying, I try not to be too premeditated about it. I try to let whatever I’m thinking about naturally come out. I think those were things just on my mind, and those are the most classic themes of songwriting. The majority of songs are about love and about relationships. It’s the thing people relate to more than anything else, myself included.
AVC: You said in an interview that a lot of it was really coming from stuff that had been happening to you over the past year. Perhaps stuff that was more immediate to you when you were writing?
HH: Yeah, what I was doing was kind of taking it from two or three relationships that I had been in in the past five years, but writing it so that it all sounds like it’s about one relationship, which is kind of manipulative. But it’s making art, too. I mean, this is fiction again, but very much based on true events that happened to me.
AVC: Is there any one kind of experience or occurrence that you revisit a lot when you’re writing?
HH: Definitely. A lot of times, getting over someone is hard. I’ve had hard times in my life getting over certain girls. Like “I Let It Go,” the song from the last record. You get to a point where you feel like you have to let go of something, and you’ve gotten over something. Sometime later, you just realize you’re totally not over it. The first song I wrote after the last record was this song called “I Can’t Let Go.” [Laughs.] But that’s the whole thing about being in love with someone, or getting over someone, or falling out of love with someone, is that you can feel totally different from one day to the next. One day you feel fine about things, and the next day you’re a total wreck.
AVC: Is it tougher to write those kinds of songs when you’re in such close personal space with your bandmates, especially when you dated one?
HH: No, because I just feel so much support from those two—emotional support and creative support—because I feel not really afraid to say exactly what I feel or write what I feel around them. It could be a real son of a bitch. [Laughs.] I haven’t hidden much from them. They’re like my closest friends and the people I work with. A lot of it, me being comfortable to say exactly how I feel, in just normal life or in a song... yeah, getting so much support from them has made me not be afraid to say anything around them, for better or for worse. [Laughs.] Suffer my fucking bad days.
AVC: One of the reviews for this record referred to you and Kathy as “lovebirds.”
HH: No, no! Kathy and I did go out. Kathy and I broke up 10 years ago. [Laughs.]
AVC: That’s kind of what I was getting at. Is it weird to write in that space when people may assume it’s going to be about this other person?
HH: We weren’t thinking that at all. I wasn’t thinking that at all. That’s something we’re only kind of reminded of once someone brings it up, or there’s some erroneous article. Like, there was some article that New York Magazine did like a year ago, when we were on tour, that said we had just gotten married! We were like, “Where did this come from?” [Laughs.] But honestly that’s something we’re reminded of sometimes, that people think those things. But then, we know the reality, so we don’t think about it that much.
I think it’s kind of funny. I mean, seriously, Kathy and I have known each other for so long—17 years or something—and we dated from ’97 to 2000. So that’s fucking been a while. It doesn’t matter. Anyone that actually knows us knows. So much information on the Internet in life is just incorrect. There’s not much you can do about it. You can try to correct it, or you can make up your own lies as well.
AVC: You’ve said you were trying to write more immaturely for this record. What does that entail?
HH: I’m super-proud of the lyrics on the last two records, but they were definitely labored over. A lot of the finished versions are like the third set of lyrics—not just edits, but really like writing a whole set of lyrics for a song, throwing it out, writing a whole second, then finally getting to the third and then editing that one, really working that. When I say immature, I’m talking about something that’s immature is way more off the cuff; it’s way more point-blank, and it’s way more like actually what you’re thinking. Just the first thing that comes out of your mouth—it’s very basic, and it’s very to-the-point. For better or for worse, a lot of immature lyrics are really good. They’re really relatable, as long as you’re not too embarrassed to sing along.
AVC: Your albums typically have a rough sound, so in a way, you don’t need a big name behind the boards to capture The Thermals well. So what does Chris Walla bring that you couldn’t necessarily do without him?
HH: The thing is that Chris just gets the sounds that we like. We talk very little with Chris about what we want it sound like, because we just know what he hears and what he’s gonna get. And the way he approaches things is just from a really lo-fi point of view, but he makes hi-fi records. He just came up the way we did, always working on tape for things, always approaching the record in a real creative way as opposed to a real by-the-book way. He just has all these fun tricks and weird lo-fi moves that he’s doing, like a lot of tape and tape delays and weird effects. I feel like he’s super not-clinical in a way that a lot of other people as good as he is are. Like, he’s kept this lo-fi attitude even when he’s making hi-fi records. Besides that, he’s just so positive—he’s just someone who’s great to be around. This is the main reason we worked with him. He’s so encouraging. Anything you want to do, he’s down to try. He won’t shoot down any idea. He’s just down to do whatever.
AVC: It doesn’t seem like you’d work well with someone who wants to piece together songs on a computer.
HH: Noooooo, no, quite the opposite. We’re always recording with people who are in bands, and usually really good bands.
AVC: You were writing about love, but you’ve said this album is more about the dark side of love. Do you think it’s possible for you just to write a happy song?
HH: Yeah, totally. I have this other project called Forbidden Friends [that] Kill Rock Stars is going to put out next year. It’s a little dark; there’s a tiny little hint of something dark there, but for the most part it’s happy, poppy; the songs are positive and not too dark. [Laughs.] So I can. There’s something about this band specifically and the way I’m singing in The Thermals—because in the other band I’m singing way more laid back. It’s not so punchy. There’s something about The Thermals that demands a certain amount of seriousness. It’s not that I feel stuck in it, but I do feel there is a reason people like this band. We try to maintain what this is, and part of that is taking things seriously, or too seriously, or just being nuts about shit. [Laughs.]
AVC: The side project—is it folkier?
HH: I wouldn’t say folky, but it’s like the Violent Femmes—it’s like the first Violent Femmes record. Acoustic guitar, super-minimal drums, and bass, and a ton of percussion, but it’s up. It’s totally like that first Violent Femmes record. You wouldn’t call that “folky,” you’d call that a pop record because—the energy is up, but it doesn’t have the same energy as folk music.
AVC: Do you think it’s just easier in general for you to write about darker stuff? People tend to write more when they’re upset.
HH: I do write when I’m happy; a lot of times, those songs, they’re just not as powerful, or they’re just a little too light. I don’t want to do anything that’s too light and nice. I just feel like there’s plenty of that in music and the world, and it gets too fluffy. With the new project, what I’m trying to do is have something that is happy and positive but is not flakey, you know? There’s just so much flakey shit out there. [Laughs.]
AVC: It seems like The Thermals are perpetually touring. Where do you find time for this?
HH: I’ve just been cramming it in. I did like six days for this new project in August. If there’s any free time from The Thermals, I’m trying to fill it with other stuff. But really we did have a couple months this summer where we didn’t have to do too much. We were mostly doing art and all the technical shit for the new record. The Thermals has allowed us to quit our day jobs, so that has left a lot when we are home, there is definitely time to work on other stuff. Which is amazing, which was the goal for a long time.
AVC: How do you avoid burnout?
HH: I feel like as much as we do, there’s a million things that we’ve turned down at the same time. We’re just making sure that even if we’re doing a ton of stuff, it’s all stuff that we really want to do. We’re not going on support tours going like, “Oh God, why did we sign up for this?” I think that’s how we keep the energy and enthusiasm up, because we love playing shows. Any time we’ve done something that we’ve felt is stupid, then we just don’t do that again.
AVC: Like what?
HH: Every support tour we’ve done we’ve liked because we’re friends with the bands. But when you do a support tour for like seven to eight weeks, at the end of it you’re like “Fuck, this is ridiculous.” No matter who you support, you can have a great show playing to someone else’s crowd, but they’re still waiting to see whoever’s headlining. So it’s just shit like that that’s real demoralizing. But honestly we haven’t done much like that. We’re picky about what we do, so therefore we’re always happy about what we’re doing.