A conversation with The Thermals’ Kathy Foster about bass, Rocky and their first decade as a band (playing Union Transfer tomorrow)
This spring, Portland indie-punk trio The Thermals turned ten and released an album that’s got all the fuzzy scuzzy energy and aggression of their 2003 debut More Parts Per Million. Out last month on Saddle Creek, Desperate Ground is a ten-song set of racing, bracing power trio jams: Hutch Harris’ howling literary lyrics, Kathy Foster’s driving bass tones and Westin Glass’ propulsive percussion. When I caught up with Foster on the phone last night at a Cambridge tour stop, she compared the album to Die Hard and Predator – you know, the action movie vibe – a fitting parallel, since the label describes it as “an ode to irresponsible human violence.” We talked about the album’s lively movie-nerd music videos, the nuances of blending Harris’ lyrics with music and The Thermals’ first decade as a band.
The Key: At South By Southwest this year, you were playing a lot of More Parts Per Million because it got reissued on Sub Pop, right?
Kathy Foster: Right, it was its ten-year anniversary in March. We thought about doing the album in its entirety, but we had just decided to do sets that were a mix of that record of the new record. We re-learned all the songs from More Parts. I don’t know that there were any shows where we played every single song from that record, but we played a lot of it.
TK: Has that kept up into this tour?
KF: No, now we’re just mixing them all up. But there are a lot of songs from that first record.
TK: When I read that you were doing that, it took me a little bit by surprise. It’s like wow, ten years ago. I kind of still think of The Thermals as that cool band that I just saw at Macrock…in 2003.
KF: Yeah! [laughs] Oh my god…
TK: How has it been for you, does it feel like ten years?
KF: It doesn’t feel like ten years. It’s gone by quick. But then when I think about all the things we’ve done, it’s about ten years’ worth of stuff. But we certainly don’t feel ten years older.
TK: Is it different for you revisiting the material that you wrote earlier on in your bandhood?
KF: Well our new record has kind of the same energy to us, similar to the first few records. So we just noticed how ass-kicking it was playing the first record and the newest record together, it was a really tiring set. Especially for Hutch, ‘cause all the songs on the first record, there’s not a lot of rests in his singing. He’s kind of just shouting the whole time. And the new one, the songs are really fast and energetic, so he’s just like wooaah. He was out of breath a lot.
TK: Desperate Ground does have that feeling, though, it feels more raw. Not Fuckin A raw, but compared to how Now We Can See or Personal Life were polished, this one feels really in the moment and kind of hearkens back to that earlier sound. Is that something you were going for when you recorded it?
KF: Yeah! Its’ funny because they were both done in studios of kind of the same caliber with people who are really good at what they do – Chris Walla and John Agnello. Both are recorded so we can play them live and feel like nothing’s missing, so we don’t do a lot of overdubs or anything. I think it was kind of the nature of the songs on Personal Life that makes them sound more polished. They’re a little more spacious, we purposely wrote some songs where Hutch wasn’t strumming the whole time; he wanted to he wanted to play guitar lines. So I think the space in those songs makes them polished, we didn’t do anything to them to make them fancy. These songs are back to a lot of the simple strumming chords, loud and faster songs. We gave John demos of the songs that we made on four-track, and we feel like he just made a better-sounding lo-fi recording.
TK: That’s a really good way of describing it!
KF: And we were really into that. And kind of the same, he records very simply, not a lot of fancy stuff, and we got to work really quickly. We actually tracked two songs and Hutch sang on them on the first day, which never happens. Usually it takes a while to get set up and get sounds.
TK: Lyrics and themes are a very important part of The Thermals – they feel like they come from a very specific perspective, but they’re also written to be loose and open for interpretation. Are the lyrics a collaborative effort, or is it all Hutch?
KF: Yeah, that’s all Hutch. And we’re such close friends, we work together and have been friends for a long time that I feel comfortable giving him my input on it, and he’s comfortable accepting that. I feel like that helps him, not write the lyrics, but I’ll tell him “I don’t know how I feel about this line,” or “maybe there’s a better way to say this” and he kind of takes that and works harder on it. But also on his own, he works harder on the lyrics, typically he’ll write them over and over. On this record he wrote a whole song’s worth of lyrics and threw them away and started over. He works really hard on getting it down and I’ve always really loved his writing, and I’m always really excited to see what happens. It’s an exciting process.
TK: There’s also the music , which is such a strong compliment to the lyrics. Is there a part of the process where he sits you guys down and is like “Okay, Kathy, Westin, this is what I’m writing a lyrics about, let’s make music that goes to it.” Or do you not need to know exactly what it’s about?
KF: It actually doesn’t even start that way. It starts with us jamming and writing music. And then as we’re shaping up a song or two, he’ll start getting lyrical ideas. Sometimes he’ll start singing as we’re jamming it or practicing it, and then right away we’ll start getting a sense of the melody at least, or the singing. But it’s not like “What are you singing about?” right away; he’ll start getting an idea, start writing lyrics for one song, and he’ll like where that’s going and make it a theme, or he’ll write something else. And as it’s shaping up for first new songs, that’s when we start talking about it. It’s kind of this fun organic process.
TK: You’ve got some great music videos for this new record, most recently “The Sunset” – which, being from Philly, I love because it’s got the whole Rocky homage. In addition to a few other films. Are you fans of Rocky?
KF: Hutch and I had an idea to make a boxing video several years ago. And I had never seen Rocky, so we watched it. So there’s definitely inspiration from the frist Rocky, and Raging Bull, and the opening credits of Do the Right Thing where Rosie Perez is dancing and boxing. So all the training part of it, for sure, was Rocky…and in the ring.
TK: Did you film it just around Portland?
KF: Yeah, Hutch was researching what boxing rings were in Portland. And he found one that just opened a few months ago by this woman Molly McConnell, who’s a professional boxer. She opened her own gym a few months ago, so I got a private lesson from her, like a two-hour lesson. And that’s the first time I ever boxed or anything. And that was super fun, and tiring, and she showed me all the different punches and all the different and blocks. And we went over combos of punching and blocking, and we sparred at the end of it.
KF: Yeah, it was awesome. I was so sore for four days at the end of it. And then we talked to her about filming there. She and her wife run the place, and they were super nice. And they had the boxing ring that’s in the video, it was filmed in there for the training part. And the boxing stuff.
TK: Did any of it wear off between the lesson and the shoot? Or did you pretty much retain it?
KF: I feel like I remembered a lot of it. I wanted to do more -she gave fitness classes too, and there was a couple weeks between the lesson and the training – but I didn’t end up getting to train as much as I wanted to. I feel like I retained a lot of it, and I feel like I’m pretty athletic. I kind of get it.
TK: The “Born to Kill” video was also cinematic – it has the Reservoir Dogs thing going on. Do you guys have an interest in film on the side that you decided to bring to these videos?
KF: As we were writing this record, it started feeling very cinematic to us. The imagery we get from Hutch’s lyrics as we started talking about it, it seemed like an action movie as an album. It’s entertaining, it’s violent, it’s about war, but it’s not a statement about anything. It’s like if you watch Die Hard or Predator or something. It’s just kind of this violent entertainment. So we were thinking about that, it’s an action movie and stuff, and we thought we’d do that with the videos too – make little movies for the songs, since we were getting all this imagery in our head as we were writing. We’ve wanted to do that for a long time – we have ideas for videos, we joke around, but we never had the means to make it. If you want to work with a director, they usually want to just do their idea, and if they do your idea, it never turns out the way you pictured. We wanted to do our idea, and we had a friend in Portland who’s making his own film, he’s just getting into film, and we asked him since we knew he’d be willing to just do our idea. So he directed it, shot it with our other friends, and it worked out really well – there’s three of us, three of them, this small little team running around in Portland. We didn’t need to plan anything; “Born to Kill” is in this outdoor hiking park, we went off the trail and into the trees. No one was around, we didn’t ask anyone’s permission or anything, no one bothered us. “Born to Kill” was loose, we had some shots we wanted to get and a loose idea of a plot. That helped us plan more for “The Sunset,” which was more planned out.
TK: At the very end of “The Sunset” you’re running up steps. In Rocky, he runs up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art – what are you running up to? It looks like a subway station or an el train station, there’s a sign that says Burnside?
KF: Burnside is a bridge. Portland doesn’t have a subway, but it has five bridges. There’s a river that runs down the center of it that separates east and west. West Side is downtown, East Side is kind of where everybody lives. And Burnside is the center, it separates north and south. So when you come up the stairs, and you’re kind of in the middle of that bridge…so that’s actually the center point of Portland right there. We wanted to find a cool building like in Rocky, but we couldn’t find a place that had that many steps. [laughs] So there’s this esplanade, this long path that goes along the river where people jog and ride their bikes and walk. So where I’m running and doing situps and stuff, that’s right there. And then we went up the stairs, and it’s this straight, steep staircase, and then it’s cool that you can see the Burnside sign. It’s a very Portland thing.
TK: You’ve played drums in another Portland band I like a lot, All Girl Summer Fun Band. Is that band still active?
KF: We’re not super active. I don’t know if we’ll do anything else. When we made the last record, we became a three-piece – Ari [Douangpanya] had a baby, had left the band. The other two girls also had the kids. So everyone’s really busy and can’t really tour. Also, Kim [Baxter] started her own solo band, which also self-released an album that’s great. And I do a lot with The Thermals, so everyone’s busy. But I also started another band in Portland called Hurry Up, and that’s me and Westin who plays drums in the Thermals, and Maggie Vail, who used to work at Kill Rock Stars and used to be in Bangs. She plays bass and sings, Westin plays guitar and sing, and I play drums and sing a bit. It’s fun, super punk.
TK: What’s it like playing drums versus bass? Not only switching between rhythm section instruments, but different types of rhythm section instruments.
KF: It’s fun, drums are my first instrument. They’re the first I started learning when I was 16 until I got a guitar. I also got a four-track early on, so I’d record my own songs – which is where I kind of started playing bass, on the low e string of the guitar. And I’m not left handed, but I play left handed guitar and bass. In All Girl Summer Fun Band, we’d switch instruments around on some songs, and I’d take the bass and just play it upside down. I’d play it here and there, but it was never my main instrument. When The Thermals started up – that first record, Hutch played everything on it, a four-track recording where he made CDs for friends. That’s how it made its way to Sub Pop – our friend Ben is friends with Ben Gibbard, who was doing The Postal Service at the time, so he passed it to the label and they got in touch with us: “What’s up with this band The Thermals?” And it wasn’t a band, it was just Hutch’s recording. So we were like “Uh, yeah, we’re a band!” We made the band because Sub Pop asked about it. I initially thought about playing drums, but didn’t know if I’d have the stamina for it. So our friend Jordan played drums, and I played bass. At first I didn’t want to, because I didn’t want to be the quote-unquote girl bassist. [laughs] And then I decided okay, I’ll get really good at it. But I like the variety of playing multiple instruments, and I missed playing drums often, so I wanted to start another band where I played drums.
TK: One of my favorite Philly bands, Hop Along, is opening for you in Philly and New York. How did you connect?
KF: We didn’t know them, but since we weren’t touring with anyone, we wanted to be involved in who was going to play with us. Cause sometimes we get bands that don’t fit. Sometimes we get paired with these super mellow bands, and it’s like “Why??” [laughs] We want people to get excited about the show, not be put to sleep right before we’re going to play. So Hop Along came highly recommended by multiple people, so we’re excited to play with them and check them out!
TK: Any thing else you’d like to say?
KF: I’m excited to come back to Philly. We always have super fun shows there and this is the first time in a while that we’re not playing at the Church. So I’m excited to check out a new venue and hopefully people will be excited to come there. We’ve had some pretty crazy shows at the Church so hopefully people will bring their energy, cause we’ll be bringing ours!
TK: Awesome! Can’t wait.
The Thermals play Union Transfer Saturday, May 25 with Hop Along and Cayetana. Tickets and information for the all ages show can be found at the venue’s website.