With Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the Portland band’s New Jersey recording sessions last year, their latest album’s working title Desperate Ground took on additional resonance. Bassist Kathy Foster explains why.
BY ERIC SWEDLUND
Throughout the songs on The Thermals’ Desperate Ground (Saddle Creek), there’s a sense of danger closing in, of an impending moment that will test the very instincts for survival. That theme of fight or flight – or, often just fight – calls for an edgy, primal sort of sound, which fit perfectly for a band seeking to cut thing back to the pell-mell, punk-rock basics that they’d started with a decade ago.
The Thermals’ sixth album is a 27-minute burst of raw energy that explores the darker urges of human nature, cut with feelings of fear, isolation, defiance and escape. Yet guitarist/singer Hutch Harris, bassist Kathy Foster and drummer Westin Glass manage to make an album that never succumbs to the darkness.
“Hutch was watching a lot of Medieval movies and getting into these themes, Medieval themes, with swords and stuff. I wanted to get back to our earlier records the way they sounded. Energetic, faster songs, and it became a combination of those two things,” Foster says. “We just sped them up, shortened them and cut the fat and then Hutch stayed with this theme of swords and stuff and then it flourished from there.”
Like The Thermals’ past few albums, Desperate Ground came together with the music first, then lyrics from Harris for just a song or two, figuring out a theme for the rest of the songs to follow. “A lot of the songs started out in a completely different place than they ended up,” Foster says. “The songs we were writing early on were more epic sounding, bigger sounding, a little slower than they are now.”
But the band felt an urge to get back to the sound of their first LPs – 2003’s More Parts per Million and 2004’s Fuckin A – an explosive, brash and youthful punk. Once the lyrics of war and violence started flowing, the combination was irresistible for the band.
“It’s not commenting on one specific time or event, it’s just a comment on human nature’s ongoing obsession with war and violence,” Foster continues. “He wrote a lot of lyrics for this record. He’d write a set and then throw them away and write another set, just developing these themes of war and violence and how it always seems to be going on forever.”
Desperate Ground, notes Foster, isn’t a single concrete story, per se, but the songs revolve around the idea of one person against everything. “If you were cornered and you knew you were maybe the last survivor of something and you knew the enemy was coming and you were the only one on your side fighting, there’s this fear that comes with it. But each song starts out afraid and then has this turn in attitude where it’s like ‘Fuck it. I’m going to battle. I’m going to die.’”
The album’s opener “Born to Kill” sets the tone perfectly, with Harris singing from the perspective of a man unafraid to fulfill his violent fate: “Each final breath I breathe burns a bright fire inside of me / and it keeps me alive, keeps me alive!” (The video for the song, above, co-directed by the band and Portland-based filmmaker Jeffrey Rowles, fully captures the tune’s dark, violent, creepy vibe.) The songs continue with variations on the theme, ultimately suggesting that self-preservation and strong bonds of love are the reason are as responsible for human nature’s violent tendencies as any darker urges.
In “I Go Alone,” Harris sings of an impending doom so severe that his narrator sends his loved ones away, taking on the danger as a self-sacrifice to protect others: “Each night I dream of a war / each one worse than the one before / A cold dark force it hangs above / you have to leave, to leave me my love.” And that notion becomes more explicit in the album closer “Our Love Survives,” Harris singing that the greatest enemy is that which threatens to tear love apart: “Our love is true / it’s why we fight / what we defend.”
“Love is so strong, that even if everyone is dead it survives beyond human life and beyond all worlds,” Foster says.
It was the last song the band wrote for Desperate Ground, barely having it ready in time for recording. But as a coda, a song about love outliving the Earth, love destroying its enemies, manages to place all that violent imagery in a different context. “It just fits the story of the record. As we’re working on it, we’re creating a story even though we don’t know it. That came together because all these songs were about fighting and war and I told Hutch we should have at least one love song in here. It wasn’t planned, but it just worked out that it fit perfectly as the last song.
“Sometimes when you’re writing an album or a song, it doesn’t fully make sense until it’s in retrospect. It feels right and you write these words and the music, but you don’t understand the full meaning of it until after you listen to it in the end.”
The Thermals also managed to leverage the recording process itself into a greater sense of musical urgency on the record. Trekking from Portland, Ore. to record with John Agnello in Hoboken, N.J., the band stepped up the pace, ending the first day with rough mixes of two songs. The session started in mid-October, less than two weeks before Hurricane Sandy would hit land and wreak massive devastation on the Northeast.
“At that time we didn’t know about the storm. As we got further into recording, we started seeing the news of it. As it got closer, John took over and said we had to get it done and power through. We were supposed to be there another few days, so we made a point to get done early. We finished late the night before the storm hit.”
The last song they mixed was “The Howl of the Winds” — and with the storm closing in, observes Foster, it was an ominous coincidence. “It was really creepy. I think it affected the recording, it was this feeling that crept in maybe. Definitely the songs were a good scene for the storm.”
The studio was preparing for a flood as the band was wrapping up, Agnello and his crew moving equipment and gear and setting up gas-powered water pumps. The Thermals went to Agnello’s house a few miles away, waiting out the storm and listening to the record. There they lost power, but weren’t flooded.
The studio didn’t fare so well. Three roadcases of racks of gear, equalizers and compressors and preamps were moved to what everyone thought was higher ground, the one room that wasn’t flooded during Hurricane Irene. But Hoboken got more water than anyone expected and the gear was flooded.
To release Desperate Ground, The Thermals signed with Saddle Creek. Having befriended a number of the label’s Omaha-based bands over the years, the fit seemed natural for the trio.
So, with vinyl re-releases of their first three records marking an official 10-year anniversary for The Thermals, the band remains as loud, fast and catchy as ever.
“We’re just stoked to still be doing our thing,” Foster says. “We’re super happy with where we are and what we’ve gotten to do and we’re really happy with this new record and writing fun, energetic songs.”
[Listen to album track “The Sunset”]
Thermals on tour:
05.10 – Salt Lake City, UT @ Kilby Court
05.11 – Denver, CO @ Bluebird Theater
05.13 – Omaha, NE @ Slowdown
05.14 – Minneapolis, MN @ 7th St Entry
05.15 – Iowa City, IA @ The Mill
05.16 – Chicago, IL @ Lincoln Hall
05.17 – Ferndale, MI @ The Loving Touch
05.18 – Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Ballroom
05.19 – Buffalo, NY @ Tralf Music Hall
05.21 – Toronto, ON @ Horseshoe Tavern
05.22 – Montreal, QC @ Il Motore
05.23 – Cambridge, MA @ Sinclair
05.24 – New Haven, CT @ The Space
05.25 – Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer
05.28 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
05.29 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
05.30 – Washington, DC @ Black Cat
05.31 – Chapel Hill, NC @ Local 506
06.01 – Atlanta, GA @ Drunken Unicorn
06.02 – Nashville, TN @ Exit In
06.03 – Birmingham, AL @ Bottle Tree
06.05 – Baton Rouge, LA @ Spanish Moon
06.06 – Houston, TX @ Fitzgeralds
06.07 – McAllen, TX @ Thirsty Monkey
06.08 – Austin, TX @ Mohawk
06.09 – Dallas, TX @ Dada
06.11 – El Paso, TX @ Low Brow Palace
06.12 – Phoenix, AZ @ Crescent
06.13 – San Diego, CA @ Casbah
06.14 – Santa Ana, CA @ Constellation Room
06.15 – Oakland, CA @ The New Parish