The Thermals, three Fraggle rockers from Portland, Oregon, are coming back to steal your assumptions. They’re a distortion-spraying punk band that stitches the come-hither simplicity of rock anthems to the stickiness of pop hooks. They also write lyrics that take simple words and place them into complex puzzles. “We love the ’90s,” lead singer and guitarist Hutch Harris said with a wink at a recent show in Brooklyn, before launching into a Breeders cover. But don’t expect some kids simply flipping through the Alternative Nation playbook.
The band broke out with 2003’s More Parts Per Million, a gob-stopping collection of fuzzed-out basement tracks, featuring the anti-manifesto manifesto “No Culture Icons.” Since then, the Thermals have released two more records, said goodbye to two drummers and switched labels from Sub Pop to Kill Rock Stars, which is set to release the band’s fourth studio album, Now We Can See, on April 7th.
The band’s two constant members are Harris and bassist Kathy Foster; new drummer Westin Glass rounds out the trio just in time to tour for the new record. So how will Now We Can See compare to 2006’s The Body, The Blood, The Machine, a politically charged nightmare phantasm in which religion stomps over the state and the apocalypse marches in to a beat you can pogo to? Harris says the new LP follows up their last record, which ended in mass destruction. And while the band doesn’t consider Now We Can See a sequel, there are some Venn diagram overlaps. “We like to have a theme,” Harris says. “And for this one it was definitely death — or life looking back at death.”
Don’t call them concept records, please. “I feel like a concept is something that will weigh the record down and you’re going to have to know what it is to really get into the record,” Harris says. “We want someone to just enjoy the record and the songs individually without having to buy into some story.” Does Harris consider Now We Can See a political album, like the last one? “No,” he says. “But a lot of people will read into some politics there and that can’t be helped with us.”
Lyrically, Now We Can See is full of the paradoxes that make this band so interesting: there’s hardly a line of text that couldn’t be picked up by someone living 300 years ago. Harris says that he was inspired by Johnny Cash’s timeless constructions. “We Were Sick,” one of the poppier songs on the record, is actually about humans ravaging the planet: “We were sick. We were sick at the top. So far from where we started, too far along to stop.” When these same lyrics are matched with the band’s forceful instrumentation, the songs feel like a product of this very second.
Lead single “When I Died” might be moribund on paper (Harris says it’s about arrogance in the form of a man who wants to crawl into the sea and re-evolve as a fish), but that didn’t stop fans at the Brooklyn show who had memorized the MySpaced demo to throw their fists in the air and chant. Are they railing against arrogance? Are they arrogant? Or are they just psyched that the Thermals are pumping out the jams in front of them? Does it matter? “If there’s no contradiction or a sense of humor to it, music to me comes off as really self-important,” Harris says.