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BOTW Interview: The Thermals

This week has seen our current BOTW – Portland lo-fi indie trio, The Thermals – release their sixth album, Desperate Ground, and it’s a definite return to their raucous roots. Alex Cull caught up with the group’s bassist Kathy Foster for a chat about making it to the ten-year mark as a band, dancing onstage with The Flaming Lips, and how chocolate syrup makes for the best fake blood.

Compared to your last full-length, Personal Life, Desperate Ground feels like a far more rough-and-ready, grittier record. Was this an approach you’d always planned to take with this album? What inspired it?
We definitely went into writing these new songs wanting a different sound from our previous album, but the sound and themes developed as we were working on it. On Personal Life, we made a point of writing some slower songs and some that were sonically, more sparse, with more note-y guitar lines. So much of our discography is fast and power-chord driven, we wanted to mix it up! But as it turns out, we really love those fast, power-chord driven songs, and we missed them. At first, the new stuff we were coming up with was pretty heavy and epic. The more we talked about what we wanted the album to sound like, though, the faster, shorter and more energetic the songs got. We wanted to get back to the energy of our early albums. We wanted to write songs that were challenging and fun to play.

Much like The Body, The Blood, The Machine, it feels like there’s a definite plot linking the songs on this one. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
As the music started to come together, Hutch started to get lyrical ideas, and got the idea to write a record about war and violence, not about a specific war or specific era, but as themes that span all of human existence. We started to watch a lot of movies to get inspiration – Full Metal Jacket, Excalibur, Die Hard, Evil Dead – and the theme mutated into a story of a lone rogue soldier gone AWOL. A man trained to kill on command off on his own, alone with his own warped mind. Can he still control his own destiny?

It was produced by John Agnello, who’s worked with everyone from The Walkmen to Dinosaur Jr.; how was he to work with? What did he bring to the table?
He was super awesome and fun to work with! He has a great attitude and great energy; he has so much excitement and love for music. He works quickly and he captured our sound really well. He sets things up really simply, which is how we like to work: not a lot of fuss or extraneous gear. He’s really easygoing and supportive of whatever you want to do, which made us really comfortable. And that’s everything in the studio! If you’re comfortable and happy, you can focus and play well and have fun, and that energy comes across in the recordings. And he has a lot of experience with analog gear (he brings his own), which we prefer to use. We just had the best time with him.

It’s your first release on Saddle Creek – following on from working with Sub Pop and Kill Rock Stars in the past. How did you get involved with the label?
We’ve known a lot of the Saddle Creek people for a long time. We met Conor Oberst and the guys from Bright Eyes back in 1999 – Hutch and I helped set up their first Portland show. We remained friends and would stay at each other’s houses on tour even before The Thermals formed (Hutch and I played in other bands together). We met a lot of the Omaha crew that way. The music scene in Omaha seems pretty small, kinda like Portland – everyone knows each other, plays in each other’s bands, lives with each other and works together, and Saddle Creek releases it all. So, we’ve been friends through music for a long time. They approached us a few years ago, but it made sense at the time to go with Kill Rock Stars. They got in touch again for Desperate Ground, and it made perfect sense this time. We’re super stoked to be working with them.

Do you have any particular favourite bands on Saddle Creek – past or present?
Azure Ray is my favorite SC band. I love all their old stuff, and was bummed when they split for a while. I’m so happy they’ve been putting out new stuff. I also love the early Bright Eyes stuff, tt’s so raw and sexy. And Ladyfinger! Actually, Saddle Creek is a very sexy label; that’s probably why we fit in so well.

The first single from Desperate Ground, ‘Born to Kill’, has a pretty grisly accompanying video. Who came up with the concept for it?
We came up with the concept! We always have ideas for videos, but we’ve never attempted to make one ourselves, so we decided to go for it this time. It came together pretty quickly. My first idea was of a Unabomber type of guy, a crazy guy in a cabin, writing a manifesto or something, and then we just instantly brainstormed off of that. We came up with a few loose ideas and just went for it. As we were shooting it, we got more ideas and shot those. We did it so fast, too. It was shot in one day, in about six hours.

It must’ve been quite a fun video to shoot, surely? You must have got through quite a bit of fake blood?
It was so fun! It’s fun to get into character, but not have any lines; and its fun to get dirty and mean. Hutch really went for it. He was a great maniac! We went to a Portland nature park, and went into the trees, off the trail. We barely saw anyone; no one bothered us. We made sure to hide our fake guns if we heard anyone coming. Yeah, a lot of fake blood! It smelled like a Tootsie Roll lollipop! Jeff Rowles, who co-directed and edited the video, said the secret to making the blood look real is mixing in chocolate syrup!

You’ve just (last year) passed your ten-year anniversary as a band. Did you ever see yourselves lasting this long? You must’ve had to work pretty hard at it to keep together after all this time?
I’ve never looked too far into the future with it. I’ve just enjoyed being in this band, and everything we’ve gotten to do, and are still getting to do. I’ve just always wanted to keep doing it for as long as it’s fun. I feel so lucky that it’s lasted this long, and that we’re still having so much fun with it. Actually, we’re having more fun than ever! I feel we’re all really good at living in the moment with it and planning for the near future, but not worrying about much beyond that. It hasn’t been that hard because at the root of it all is strong friendship. We’re lucky to have all found each other: we’re 100% in it together.

What have been your personal highlights of the last decade as The Thermals?
The first year of the band (2002-2003) was pretty crazy. We signed to the iconic Sub Pop Records, which was a dream for us, after just 3 shows, and things took off from there. Our first tours were with Death Cab for Cutie, The Walkmen, and Hot Hot Heat and we went to Europe and the UK for the first time in our lives. We flew into Amsterdam, I’ll never forget that first night walking around the city, dazed and excited (and later, stoned off my ass and stuffed full of every munchie we came across!). We’ve been to Europe almost 20 times since! Also, that first year, we got to play Sasquatch Festival because someone cancelled, and ended up dancing onstage with The Flaming Lips in animal costumes, and then hanging out with them backstage. They were so cool! I remember being onstage and it was so hot that everyone took their animal heads off, and I was watching one of my favorite bands play from ONSTAGE. I couldn’t believe how much cool stuff we go to do that first year, and it’s been non-stop fun since! There have been so many highlights over the years: playing hundreds (thousands?) of super awesome shows; traveling so much; recording albums with Chris Walla, Brendan Canty, John Congleton, and John Agnello (all great experiences!); writing The Body, The Blood, The Machine with Hutch; Westin joining the band in 2008 (an incredible guy, I can’t imagine playing with any other drummer); going to China in 2010; being able to make a living playing in a super-fun band with my best friends.

After Desperate Ground is released on April 15, what does the rest of the year hold for you guys?
We play our record release show here in Portland on Record Store Day, and then play a few more Northwest shows after that. In May and June, we tour the U.S. for five weeks. In July, we go to Europe/UK for two weeks for some shows and festivals. We’ll be back there in the Fall (probably October) for a longer club tour. That’s what we have planned so far.

Finally, if you were forced to drop music and pursue a different career for the rest of your days, what would it be and why?
I always think about this and always have different ideas. I would want to start fresh and do something I haven’t done before. My ideas go all over the place: become a therapist? An actor? An artist? A boxer? Open a Thermals-owned bar or restaurant? Sell vintage clothing? Become a yoga instructor? Maybe all of the above!

- Alex Cull

The Thermals’ Desperate Ground is available now on Saddle Creek. You can order it here.

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