Exclusive Interview

Punk Hurricane: The Thermals on "Violent & Scary" Sixth Album

Superstorm Sandy hit New Jersey as the punk trio recorded their new album, which, frontman Hutch Harris explains, is full of "natural disaster imagery." Eerie!
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Westin Glass

UPDATE: The Thermals just announced the new LP's title and release date: Desperate Ground drops April 16 via the band's new label, Saddle Creek.

For Hutch Harris, frontman of Portland, Ore., punk trio The Thermals, Hurricane Sandy was a very eerie experience. 

Not just because of the rising waters around Hoboken, N.J.’s Water Music Studios, where the band were living and recording their sixth studio album with producer John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Hold Steady). But because of the lyrics he’d written for the new LP: “There’s a lot of natural disaster imagery in the lyrics,” Harris tells Fuse, “so it was really crazy that the storm came then.”

“There’s a lot about death and destruction [on the album],” he elaborates. “And it was just so crazy that the storm hit right at the end [of recording].” And it hit hard. Angello and the band battened down the studio and retreated to Agnello’s Jersey City home. Power was lost and the band sat with Agnello and his family in the dark for the next four days.

“Entire blocks were flooded! In Portland, sh-t like that doesn’t happen,” Harris says. “It was so surreal!” 

After the storm settled, the Thermals had their new album complete: 10 tracks of searing, hook-laden punk, clocking in under 30 minutes. “It’s a short record,” Harris says. “It’s really concise. It’s like our early stuff in that it’s really fast, loud and quick.” 

Harris and co-writer/bassist Kathy Foster found themselves turning to the “old punk stuff we grew up on” for inspiration, “like the first Agent Orange record. The lyrics are all paranoid and there’s a darkness to it, but it’s really fast and fun at the same time.”

The trio—which also includes drummer Westin Glass—“took a long time writing this record,” Harris adds. “It’s been over two years since that last record came out. And we’ve thrown out a lot of stuff.” Lyrically, Harris touches on death and destruction, but fans shouldn’t expect a remake of 2006's dark, apocalyptic breakout The Body, the Blood, the Machine. “It’s not as conceptual,” Harris explains. “It’s violent and scary in the way The Body, the Blood was, [but] it’s like[2003's debut] More Parts per Million; there’s this lo-fi feel to it; the vocals are really distorted.”

As the material came together, Harris says it was Foster’s bass melodies that really shone this time. “When we were playing demos for people, they were noticing the bass lines; they really stick out. A lot of the melodies are coming from the bass. A lot of the catchiest parts are the bass lines, so those get stuck in people’s heads.”

The Thermals took the demos to Angello weeks before Superstorm Sandy and moved into a small apartment above the studio, where they’d watch Louis CK and The Mighty Boosh, or read the Game of Thrones books during downtime.  

But there wasn't much to be had: The Thermals tracked and mixed the whole album in two weeks, a pace that matches the album’s breakneck punk speed. Harris says the band “used mics that we used on early records” to get “this f-cked up, distorted sound,” which pushed Angello—known for layering track upon track of guitars (read: Dinosaur Jr.)—to adapt his recording style. 

“There are only one or two [guitar] leads on the whole album," says Harris. "I doubled up a lot of the main rhythm parts, but ever since The Body, the Blood, which has so many overdubs, we’ve been trying to make something lighter, something that moves faster."

He adds, "When we play this stuff live it’s going to sound super close to what’s recorded.” Prepare for a punk super storm on the band’s spring tour.

Check out the dates below.

3/01, San Francisco, CA @ Noise Pop 

3/02, Cupertino, CA @ Homestead Lanes Bowling Alley

3/07, Brooklyn, NY @ 285 Kent 

3.08, Clinton, NY @ Beinekie Events Barn @ Hamilton College

3/09, Hoboken, NJ @ Maxwell's 

3/13, Austin, TX @ SXSW

3/14, Austin, TX @ SXSW

3/15, Austin, TX @ SXSW

3/16, Austin, TX @ SXSW

3/18, Los Angeles, CA @ Echoplex 

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