The Thermals will be opening for Gossip and Sonic Youth on Saturday night at Capitol Hill Block Party, and according to lead vocalist and guitarist Hutch Harris (pictured at right), they couldn't be more excited. Touring in support of their latest project, Now We Can See, their lo-fi, high energy, from-the-basement-to-the-mainstage pop-punk-fun-times sound is not to be missed. We chatted last night about their transition to Kill Rock Stars, why Portland's nothing like Seattle ten years ago, and how their next album will sound a lot like New Order.
How are you guys feeling about Capitol Hill Block Party on Saturday?
Really good. We just played Pitchfork on Sunday and it was really good, so we'll be playing a similar set at Block Party. Nothing particularly new, but a lot of covers. We have a Nirvana song, and got The Breeders and Green Day... We usually do play "100%" by Sonic Youth, but it's a little tacky to play another band's song when they're playing two bands after you.
How did your transition from Sub Pop to Kill Rock Stars come about, and how has it affected your production and touring process?
Touring is exactly the same since we have the same agent. Kathy and I manage the band, so a lot of the stuff we do has stayed exactly the same. Sub pop offered us a second contract, but... we love Sub Pop, we're still on good terms with them, but we were looking for something different. Kathy and I financed the record ourselves, so we had a finished record to deliver to Kill Rock Stars right away. We were on our own when we made it. And working with Kill Rock Stars has been great. We talked to a lot of labels, and Kill Rock Stars had just moved to Portland... there's a lot of smaller labels here but they've never had one strong indie label, so that was a big factor in our decision. A lot of labels come at us with a contract where they had decided all the terms, but this time we were writing our own contract and more looking for a label to sign it, and so Kill Rock Stars gave us exactly what we wanted.
What's going on in Portland that you're really excited about?
A lot of the Kill Rock Stars lineup is made up of Portland bands: Shaky Hands, Horsefeathers, Panther, and they just signed Explode Into Colors, they're really great, really good, they're coming out with a few songs than a full-length later this year. In Portland there's just a ton of music--a lot of bands come up here, and a lot of more established bands move here, like Modest Mouse and The Gossip. And then you have bands like us, The Decembrists, Blitzen Trapper, who are from here or lived here for a while. It's a cheap place to live and a good place to make music.
How has the economy affected Portland and the music scene there?
I mean, a lot of people don't have a job. I certainly wouldn't want to be looking for a job now. Portland has had a [high] unemployment rate for a while, even before things were going south. At the same time, you don't have to work as much. Rents are a lot cheaper. There are some things we've seen--Touch and Go Records went out of business--but you know what they say, sports and entertainment are the last things to suffer in a recession, since people will still spend the money they have going to shows. Selling records, that's different; people download records for free rather than paying for them.
Any idea of how that's affected your last release?
It's hard to say, but every record we've put out has sold more than the last one. I mean, I wish everyone would buy my records. People will say since they love music, they should be able to get music for free on download, and we get music from our publicist... I've downloaded a lot of stuff for free, but I don't go on a torrent and download whole albums. But you know, we grew up copying tape to tape. There's a long history of copying music, even going to cassettes. I mean, I got Run DMC's Raising Hell at a flea market, and that was a bootleg! Now you can get a perfect copy because it's digital, but even so some of the albums online are shitty compressed MP3s.
What's your impression of the Seattle music scene?
The history with the music scene in Seattle is way different than it is here, especially after grunge hit. The city was really picked over, bands blew up, and the scene crashed because it got a little commodified, and that hasn't happened in Portland. About ten years ago, the city just seemed really burned out, but then Death Cab came up, you know, and now people are really excited about music again. There was a downtime just because... scenes get fucked by the media, you get a lot of trashy people moving into town, trying to ride the coattails of other bands, and that's a big worry that people have about Portland: People look to what happened in Seattle, [with] lots of sleazy industry people trying to find the next Nirvana, but that really hasn't happened here. Grunge was so easily labeled, and the media tried to sell it to the nation and fit a lot of bands in. In Portland you've got a lot of bands, but no one sound you can package and sell to people.
Any favorite Seattle bands?
I haven't been keeping up as much, since when we play in Seattle we usually play with Portland bands. But my favorite Seattle bands are the ones who have been around for a while, [like] Death Cab and Minus the Bear. It's like in Portland: You come back from tour and there's a million new bands you've never heard of.
It looks like after this, you'll be heading to Europe for a while.
After this West Coast leg, we'll be playing a lot of festivals in Europe. We've already gone to England twice this year, which has been great. Usually we go once a year.
Have you found a difference between Europeans and American audiences?
There's not really a difference by country; it more varies by town and city. In Germany the crowds will get really rowdy, and in some towns people will be more laid-back, more analytical. We love Berlin, Amsterdam and actually we've been going to Spain a lot. Barcelona was really cool. And of course London and Glasgow too.
What are your next steps after Europe in August?
We've been writing a lot this year already, and we're gonna do another West Coast trip again in September, so hopefully just starting to record another record.
How is this record going to be distinct from your release in April?
There's a lot of bass--Kathy's been writing a lot of the new songs, so a lot of songs like "How We Know" where the guitar is just going to come in and out. There's an English feel to it, like really early New Order, not their electronic stuff... kind of like that and also kind of like the stuff we always we do, big rock songs.
We're really stoked to play Capitol Hill Block Party, we played in 2005... or 2006... and we got the see the Presidents of the United States and they were so, so good. One of the better shows I've ever seen. And to play on the same set with The Gossip and Sonic Youth... I mean, when we saw that lineup we were thrilled. The Gossip is great and Sonic Youth we've loved forever, obviously. We've never played with either of those bands before so it's really exciting for us.