An Ode to The Thermals, the Most Reliable Band in Indie Rock
Frontman Hutch Harris talks about putting the beloved power-pop project to rest after 15 years and seven albums.
Photo by Natalie Behring / Getty Images
A lot has changed in the time the Thermals have been a band. Since the Portland indie rock powerhouse released their scrappy debut album in 2003, three different Presidents have occupied the White House; Arrested Development premiered, was cancelled, and resurrected; the Twilight series spawned four books and five movies; Pluto got demoted from planet to dwarf planet; and Kim Kardashian went from sex tape star to the world’s most famous media mogul. But through good and bad, The Thermals remained the same.
The band announced via Twitter yesterday that they had taken their journey as far as they could and would be amicably disbanding: “We traveled further, soared higher and played louder than we ever dreamed, and look forward to a new chapter in our lives, our art, and our friendship.” And while it’s relieving to see a beloved band lay their creation to rest on their own terms, it’s an absolute bummer to see this rock staple hang it up.
“For me, I was like, this is enough for me. We were at a point where we didn’t owe a record to any label. I didn’t want to break up the band knowing that we still owed anyone anything,” frontman Hutch Harris told me by phone, noting that bassist Kathy Foster has been working on a new project, Roseblood, and he felt it right to give it space so that people wouldn’t reduce it to a Thermals side project. “We didn’t want to do the farewell tour. I always feel like that stuff is so crass. I didn’t want to cash in on the band one more time before we broke up.”
When a band sticks around for over a decade, it's expected that they might experiment with their sound and push into new directions. Many longrunning acts have catalogs that spread across wide ranges of styles, genres, and identities. The Thermals were not one of those bands. The three-piece picked a lane and rode it hard. For 15 years and seven albums, the trio honed, and maybe even perfected, the art of power-pop. That’s not to say the band was a one-trick pony. Their sound differed ever so slightly from album to album, maturing with each new release, yet somehow never getting stale. It was truly impressive to hear The Thermals find new ways to expand and reinvent their well established formula.
“I always wanted to be a band like The Ramones or AC/DC, where yeah, every record is the same, but most of their records are pretty good," says Harris. "I always wanted there to be a real consistency from record to record."
To say The Thermals’ beginnings were humble is an understatement. Harris recorded the songs that would become the band’s debut album, 2003’s More Parts Per Million, by himself in his kitchen on a four-track cassette. And it definitely sounded like it. Hutch’s nasally vocal delivery over scratchy, tinny instrument recordings played back like an album coming through a landline. He didn’t even have a band to speak of. “I liked the songs so much right away and I really wanted to have a band that sounded like that. I didn’t want it to be my name. I knew I was making a ‘solo record,’ but I didn’t want it to come across that way,” he once said.
More Parts Per Million was released via Sup Pop Records thanks to a good word put in by Harris’ friends in labelmates Death Cab for Cutie. That year proved to be a peak for the indie rock boom, seeing the releases of landmark albums from The Shins, Ted Leo, The White Stripes, The Strokes, Metric, The Unicorns, and two different Ben Gibbard projects. Cursive also put forth their masterpiece, The Ugly Organ, on the same day. Riding this wave, More Parts Per Million carved out its own little space in the indie world. It didn’t swing as big as its contemporaries but it had as much personality and bite as any of them. It’s often been described as pop-punk, though that’s not exactly right. It was rock stripped down to its bare essentials. Each of the LP’s 13 songs centered around a perfectly crafted hook. Most barely cracked the two-minute mark, and yet were so immediately catchy that even upon first listen you could be singing along by the end.
Though Harris cobbled together a band and some proper studio time for 2004’s follow-up, Fuckin’ A, the quality still wasn’t very polished. Worlds better in comparison to More Parts Per Million, sure, but that wasn’t a particularly high bar. It proudly clung to the The Thermals’ lo-fi roots. But it was in 2006 that The Thermals released The Body, the Blood, the Machine and truly broke the mold. It’s hard to pinpoint what catapulted this record to their highest commercial standing, or why it’s almost unanimously the fan-favorite (as well as Harris’ favorite). Sonically, it was more of what The Thermals had been doing; it was just their most fully realized version, with help from producer Brendan Canty of Fugazi. For a band that had made a name for themselves on their ability to craft catchy hooks, The Body… was the catchiest, hookiest thing they’d ever made, a top-to-bottom perfect record with each song trying to be more infectious than the last. The single “A Pillar of Salt” might be the single best distillation of the band’s identity.
The Body… also benefited from landing at the right place, right time. It hit stores during the lagging back-end of the George W. Bush administration, when it became abundantly clear that America had dumped all of its resources and thousands of lives into two ongoing wars with no foreseeable end. Laced with subtle themes of fascism and overzealous Christianity, it was a political album that didn’t browbeat the listener with overt politics. Maybe in ten years, the album’s context will be lost, but at the time of its release, when Harris sang “I might need you to kill,” everyone instinctively thought of the President who once said, “God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq.”
“You feel grateful or lucky just to have gotten one record like that, that is so loved. So it’s hard to complain about it. It’s better to have that than not have any record that touches people that way,” Harris says. “We still felt good about the records we were making, but The Body, the Blood, the Machine was the peak and there was no getting back to that. So it’s like, how much longer are we gonna go on knowing we’d hit a clear peak?”
Not all of the new fans The Thermals picked up off the success of The Body, the Blood, the Machine followed them through the proceeding decade, but those that did were treated to four more wonderfully crafted pop-rock albums. On these records—2009’s Now We Can See, 2010’s Personal Life, 2013’s Desperate Ground, and 2016’s We Disappear—the band grew even more by learning to harness the power of Foster and her backing ohs! and whoas! that threw gasoline on an already blazing fire. On the title track of Now We Can See, Foster kicked in an “oh-way-oh-woah!” that didn’t just back up the chorus, it was the chorus. The result was one of the most instantly enjoyable songs the band ever recorded.
The title of their final album, 2016’s We Disappear, ultimately proved to be prescient. “It wasn’t what the title is about, but in my head I thought, this is probably gonna be the last record,” says Harris. The band had slowed their heavy touring pace over the years and, towards the end of 2016, wrapped up a few shows which they internally decided would be their last, but didn’t tell anyone.
The breakup of The Thermals feels like the end of an era for indie rock. They were a reliable constant in an ever-changing world. They never produced a dud or the dreaded mid-life crisis record. They didn’t hit a sophomore slump or make an overproduced, major label disaster. They never went more than three years without releasing a new record. As far as albums go, they were batting damn near 1.000.
“It’s sad for me. Part of the reason we waited so long to break up was because it was scary and we didn’t want to do it,” says Harris. “I’m 42, I’m not that young anymore. But no matter what changes the Thermals went through, it was always the same thing.”
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter.