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The Thermals

Soothing Noise

Aug 04, 2009 The Thermals Photography by Alicia J. Rose Bookmark and Share

Portland, Oregon’s The Thermals may dub their fourth release, Now We Can See, “post-power-pop” but that doesn’t mean they’re so over the ‘90s. In fact, they embrace everything from “Basketcase” to Pinkerton, on or off stage. Now with a new record label (Kill Rock Stars) and yet another new drummer (Say Hi‘s Westin Glass), Kathy Foster and Hutch Harris are making the festival rounds this summer. We pulled aside bassist Foster to ask some of our burning questions and what we got was slightly surprising: an “anti-Christmas” noise album may be in the works, the trio really, really loves The Big Lebowski and some of the new Thermals demos “sound like The Velvet Underground underwater.” Count us intrigued.

You’re originally from Sunnyvale, Calif. right? That’s funny because I live there now. How long did you live there? How did you like it?

Kathy Foster: I lived in the Bay Area (Mountain View and Sunnyvale) since I was about three until I was 22. I thought it was a good area. I thought I was really lucky because there’s a really good music scene going on there and I started playing in bands when I was sixteen. We put on our own shows and there was a collective that put on shows as well. We played at pizza parlors and dance halls or community centers. I feel like it’s a really supportive and fun scene and a lot of girls played music. I never felt like the guys weren’t accepting and encouraging. It was only 45 minutes to get to San Francisco so I would see a ton of concerts or go shopping. It was a good location because it was suburban, yet really close to the city. It’s also close to the beach.

Do you still have a t-shirt company? I checked out your Daydream Factory website and it seemed to be on hiatus.

I still have my website up but I haven’t designed anything new in quite awhile. I’ll get orders every once in awhile. For some reason I got four orders in the past month. I probably won’t print anymore. I’ve been recently getting more into art.

What mediums do you use?

I like paper collage and working with acrylic. I sometimes do spray paint.

Have you ever tried to get into any art shows in the area?

I had a couple art shows in the past years. One of them was at my friend’s bar [Tiga], where I DJ sometimes. What’s cool about Portland is that there are so many underground artists. There are tons of places that have art shows at places other than the traditional galleries we have. In all the cafes, bars and shops there’s art shows every month. It’s not intimidating to show your art. That’s what I liked about Portland when I first moved here for music. Everything creative that you do here isn’t in a competitive or intimidating environment. It’s really easy to talk to people about it.

From talking with artists in the area like, Mirah and The Decemberists, it seems that there’s a strong sense of community and everyone collaborates so freely with one another. Speaking of collaborations, what is your other band, All Girl Summer Fun Band, up to since Ari Douangpanya left?

There’s a ton of collaborating in the greater Portland area. [As for All Girl Summer Fun Band,] Ari played bass and she left [to raise her son]. Now we stayed as a three-piece with Jen [Sbragia] on guitar and Kim [Baxter] on bass. They also switch back and forth. We just self-released our third record [Looking Into It] last September. We played some shows last fall but haven’t done too much this year because Kim is having a baby this month. Those girls work fulltime, so we just do what we can when everyone has time. It works out for me.

Are there any projects that you’ve kind of put on the backburner while touring and recording with The Thermals this year?

I like to record my own music too but I just never have time to do it. Hutch, Westin and I have been talking about putting out a noise record. Hutch’s idea is that it should be an anti-Christmas album. We would put it out around Christmas time. On Now We Can See, there’s some noise that I recorded on a four-track. I did three different tracks with noise for half-and-hour long to just put in little places on the record. I really like doing that. It’s mostly feedback and I would be listening to it on headphones panning it different ways. Even though it’s noise, to me it’s kind of soothing. [Laugh]

It becomes almost white noise then?

Yeah, it’s like feedback but it doesn’t break.

Do you remember any specific tracks that you did that on?

There’s some on “We Were Sick” during the breakdown and some on “When I Was Afraid” during its third verse. It’s only in a couple places.

I was curious about the track titles, because many of them use the first-person plural, we. What’s the deal with that?

I know Hutch writes all the lyrics and he’s talking about and looking at humanity on the planet and how we’ve treated each other, the planet and ourselves. “We Were Sick” is sort of political and he described it as if [George] Bush and [Dick] Cheney wrote a punk song. They are talking about what they did really arrogantly and are almost proud of it. Many of the songs are about human arrogance and not feeling sorry for the evil things you’ve done. Also, many of the song titles have ‘we’ because since we are all human we all take the blame. We all do good and bad things. We’re not pointing a finger at anyone because we’re apart of it.

So when it changes to the pronoun ‘I’ on tracks like “I Let Go” and “I Called Out Your Name” is that sort of the everyman who dies?

I don’t know. I can’t really say from his perspective. He writes lyrics thinking about his own thoughts and experiences and writing fictional stories to go along with those. It’s almost like reading a fictional piece in the first person.

You did the production of Now We Can See with John Congleton. How much of him is on the record? Was he fairly hands-on?

He has some signature styles in past for being really wide and big. I think you can hear that on the record. He focused a lot on pumping up the bass and drum section. He wanted them to sound boom-y. He has a professional “big” style. I think this new record is a combination of our style and his. If we said do whatever it would probably sound even bigger but we kind of like things to sound raw. We both agreed to tailor the style to each song individually.

I know this was covered fairly extensively on the press cycle for The Body, the Blood, the Machine but tell me about your Catholic background.

I went to Catholic school from first grade until tenth grade and went to church every Sunday until I was eighteen. My mom wanted me to go to Catholic school more for the education than the religious experience. Outside of Sunday we didn’t talk about it or anything. My dad was a little more religious because he would read the Bible to us. My parents were divorced so I lived mostly with my mom. I felt she wasn’t totally with the religion side. What I got out of the experience was similar to what my mom got out of it. Basically, you should treat others the way you would want to be treated. As I became a teenager I started thinking about it more, the organized religion part became really hypocritical. Humans corrupt things. The teachings and ideas are good but people are greedy and lie. A lot of my family is really religious too.

Now, do you view yourself as more of a spiritual person and not a religious one?

My spiritual side of me leans towards more towards a hippie way of thinking. I think there’s an energy out there and Karma. I don’t have any solid ideas about anything. I kind of believe in ghosts but I don’t know if there’s anything after death. It doesn’t make sense to live your life to achieve a good afterlife.

The new album deals with death head-on. Have any of you had any near-death experiences or was it primarily a continuation of the last album’s theme?

It’s coming after the last record that finishes with the world ending. It’s not so much that the songs are talking about what happens after you die but someone looking back on their life after it’s happened. Also, the album discusses who you want to be with you when you die.

You once turned down a Hummer commercial that wanted to use “It’s Trivia” from More Parts Per Million. Have there been any companies that have given you offers after that one?

I think we got a request from Gilette. [Laughs] I don’t think there have been any other ones. We’ve done some video games and TV shows. We just don’t want our songs selling products. We’re spending all this thought and energy and writing these songs from our hearts. It feels really gross to hand them off to this company.

You played the bass and drums for the Now We Can See sessions because you didn’t have Westin Glass yet. How did that go?

I really liked it. I’ve been playing music with Hutch for a long time, even before The Thermals. The drums were my first instrument and in every band I’ve been in I’ve usually played them at least once. I’m really comfortable with recording with Hutch on guitar and me on percussion. We’re collaborating even more on songs now. We’ve been writing new songs with Westin and that will be really fun too. It will be awesome to get back to recording live as a three-piece.

When you’re recording demos are they on the computer?

They’re on a cassette four-track. We got Pro Tools in 2007, so we did some of the demos for the last record on that. We mostly did demos on four-track that were eight-track cassette. The computer was cool but we still like tape. We can just have the machine in the practice space and plug it in and record. With Pro Tools there are so many more things to plug in and much more equipment involved.

What are some of those songs? How are they shaping up?

I guess they’re a mixture of our classic songwriting style and trying to be more dynamic by writing some sparser songs with just bass and drums and the guitar comes in and out with a node-y line. I’ve been writing a lot more basslines, which Hutch likes. I did a few riffs on the last record and he would make a song out of it.

Do those demos have any lyrics or song titles yet?

We’ve been playing one song on tour. There are three songs that have lyrics and a couple more that are just music while Hutch is getting ideas for lyrics.

Is that new song called “I Can’t Let Go”

Yes. [Laughs] It’s the follow-up to “I Let It Go.” It turns out he couldn’t let it go. Some of the songs sound like The Velvet Underground underwater.

Is there anything the band does to cut through the mundane aspects of touring?

We listen to a ton of music and I bring along a collection of paper for collage work with Hutch. Sometimes I make postcards for people back home or we watch movies on the computer or I’ll read. I also just like looking out the window. We watched The Big Lebowski twice in a row. Westin’s been caught up with watching the Gangland series. [Laughs]

Before joining The Thermals, what was Westin doing besides playing for Say Hi?

He also went to school for architecture so he’s worked for some architecture firms. He’s also a really good artist. He does a lot of the drawings for the architects. He grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico and was in a bunch of bands there. He was ready to move on from Say Hi and moved down to Portland. A couple months after that, we started playing with him.



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