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The Thermals Come Home
Blank Club show is a South Bay homecoming for Portland indie stars.
by Steve Palopoli on May 28, 2009
Kathy Foster remembers when she first noticed Hutch Harris. They were both part of the Sunnyvale Music Club, a mid-'90s collective of scenesters from Sunnyvale and Cupertino. Foster was going to De Anza at the time, and her band was called Pistil. Harris was in Bunch of Losers, which got a gig at the Cupertino library, playing songs in-between the other bands' sets.
"His band was playing in the closet where they store the chairs," remembers Foster. "They were playing on their knees."
This was years before Harris and Foster would settle in Portland, Ore., and be discovered by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. It was years before Sub Pop would show interest in their project the Thermals, which didn't even really exist at that point. In 2002, it was basically a handful of four-track demos they were experimenting with. But not for long.
"Hutch and I were like, 'Oh my God, Sub Pop! We've got to make a band!" says Foster. "Sub Pop signed us after three shows."
Now the Thermals, who just released their fourth album, Now We Can See, are returning to the South Bay a bona fide success story. Their debut album, 2003's More Parts Per Million, was a fast and furious lo-fi masterpiece, clocking in at under 30 minutes and giving a first sampling of Harris' lyrical ability. Their 2004 follow-up, Fuckin A, was almost as breathless and far more thoughtful. Guitarist-vocalist Harris and bassist Foster (who have played with a succession of drummers) continued to develop on 2006's The Body, the Blood and the Machine, which pushed their previous flirtation with political subject matter to a level that can only be described as uncompromising on songs like "Here's Your Future" and "I Might Need You to Kill."
Now We Can See is even more mature, and while in some ways it seems to veer off from the direction of the last two records, Foster feels that it simply picks up where the last one left off. In a way, that's true, since "I Hold the Sound," the last song on The Body, the Blood and the Machine, is more or less about the apocalypse. "The world is over," Harris sings, and yet by the end of the song the protagonist still lives. What was left but for him to die?
And boy does he on Now We Can See —over and over again. The album features endless ways to kill and disintegrate the first-person-singular-and-plural protagonists, on songs like "When I Died," "We Were Sick," "At the Bottom of the Sea," "How We Fade" and "You Dissolve." It is also very likely the most morbidly upbeat album ever.
Some critics who loved the band's early records aren't pleased with the cleaner production on Now We Can See. Foster says they made a conscious sound to try to capture a sound more like '50s and '60s pop on their many demos for the record, but then ended it up taking it back around toward the dirtier, more frantic sound they are known for by the time they actually recorded. "It's funny, the record isn't that hi-fi," she says. "Only if you compare it to our other records."
But it's catchy as hell, and may take the South Bay expats to yet another level. For Foster, it's been a bit of a whirlwind. As part of Portland's on-again-off-again All Girl Summer Fun Band, she records for Calvin Johnson's K Records. With the Thermals, she's been on Sub Pop and now Kill Rock Stars. "Those were the three main labels I grew up listening to," she says. "You can't believe it's happening."
She also finds it funny that she and Harris spent endless amounts of time promoting and sending out demos for their previous collaborative efforts like their bands Urban Legends and Hutch and Kathy, which was more of a folk duo. It took her a while, even, to get into the new sound Harris was toying with when he played her the demos that would lead to the Thermals.
"We had been listening to the first Strokes album, and it reminded me of that. The songs were faster and noisier," she says.
Their efforts to raise the profiles of their earlier bands had been completely fruitless. But Ben Barnett of Kind of Like Spitting—who would also serve briefly as the Thermals' guitarist—was friends with Death Cab for Cutie's Gibbard, who liked the four-track recordings and began talking them up. Within a couple of months, their nonband was signed to one of the many labels that previously responded to their inquiries with deafening silence.
"The one band that people liked was the one we put the least energy into," says Foster. "The point is: don't put in any effort, and you'll get somewhere."
The Thermals perform Friday, May 29, at 9pm at the Blank Club, 44 S. Almaden Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $14. (408.292.5265)
by Steve Palopoli on May 28, 2009
MORBIDLY UPBEAT: The Thermals manage to make mortality sound optimistic.