February 27, 2014 in Features

Indie rockers the Thermals bring their DIY-fueled tour to the Bartlett

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The Thermals play tonight at The Bartlett.
(Full-size photo)

The last two times I saw the Thermals were wildly different experiences. In 2010, I watched them headline a late summer show at the Seaside Bar (remember that place?), which couldn’t have held more than a couple hundred PBR-swilling concertgoers. A year later, the Seaside gig a distant memory, I caught them in Seattle opening for Weezer, performing a nearly identical set list for a couple thousand people.

I bring this up for no other reason than to illustrate the virtuosity of the Thermals: They’re as comfortable on a shadowy dive bar stage as they are under bright stadium lights. They’re back in Spokane tonight for the first time since ’10, on the last leg of the tour for their most recent album, 2013’s “Desperate Ground.”

“We’re doing this super DIY,” said Hutch Harris, the Portland band’s frontman. “We’ll be driving in our old van. This tour will look like one of our first tours, except we’ll be playing for more people.”

Combining the fuzzy pop of Guided By Voices with the insistent rock hooks of the Strokes, the Thermals have been indie darlings since their debut album, “More Parts Per Million,” was released by Sub Pop Records in 2003. Critics gave the group notice for their twisty, politically charged lyrics (their ’06 album “The Body, the Blood, the Machine” tackled such issues as fascist government bodies and religious fundamentalism), but Harris practically winces when you bring up the term “politics” in relation to their music.

“We try to never be political anymore, because when we did, it stuck to us so much,” Harris said. “It’s not that I don’t like politics. I just don’t want the band to be known as a ‘political band.’ ”

Instead of running with an ideological conceit this time, Harris said the band’s approach toward “Desperate Ground” was an almost visceral one.

“We started thinking about making a record that would be like an action movie,” he said. “No politics – just something fast and loud and bloody.”

It is, indeed, a punky, punchy record: At just 27 minutes, it’s the kind of album that you’d want to put on both side A and B of a cassette tape so that you could listen to it twice in one sitting.

If you were to follow Harris’ “action movie” metaphor, the album’s lyrics are the suspense and the music is all shoot-’em-up climax. Although there are running themes that deal with, as Harris described it, “how human nature tends toward violence,” the songs also consider fate, destiny and creeping doom. In songs like “You Will Find Me” and “The Sunset” (“I am always alert / Although my enemies are few”), we can almost sense a wounded protagonist lying in wait for danger to find him.

Harris describes “Desperate Ground” as a throwback to the Thermals’ first record, which he recorded by himself in his kitchen on a four-track recorder. He even used the same cheap microphone to duplicate that first album’s scratchy, grungy vocal sound. “It’s definitely lo-fi for a studio recording,” he said. “It doesn’t sound expensive or shiny, but everything’s super big and it’s all right there.”

Now that this tour is more or less over (it began last April), Harris said the band, which he co-manages with bassist Kathy Foster, will immediately start searching for its next inspiration.

“A lot of the times what we’re trying to do is something different than what we last did,” he said. “So now I think it’s time to make something really wide and large and that has a lot of space in it.”


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