On new disc, Thermals get ‘Personal’
Seven years on, band maintains sound, spirit
Since the release of their debut album, “More Parts Per Million,’’ seven years ago, the Thermals, who play the Paradise Thursday, have been a band in a seemingly constant state of flux. Over the course of five albums, the Portland, Ore., group has gone through four producers and at least as many drummers. But that hasn’t stopped them from remaining remarkably consistent musically over the course of nearly a decade.
“When we make a record, it sounds like us,’’ says guitarist and singer Hutch Harris. “We sound like ourselves. That’s something that we’ve worked on really hard, but also something that we’re lucky to have achieved. A lot of times it’s not about if you’re really good or bad. There are a lot of bands that are good, but they don’t sound unique.’’
“For better or for worse,’’ he adds, “when we do anything, it’s very us.’’
The latest example of the Thermals sounding like the Thermals is their new “Personal Life.’’ Like their other albums, it’s a collection of spirited, guitar-forward tunes that remain upbeat, even when it seems like everything is falling apart.
What’s different is the lyrical focus. The primary theme of “Personal Life’’ can be found in the title, with songs like “Not Like Any Other Feeling,’’ “Your Love Is So Strong’’ and “Only for You.’’ (“I’m Gonna Change Your Life’’ and “You Changed My Life’’ bookend the set.) Harris says that the band deliberately steered clear of previous concerns but didn’t realize where they would end up.
“We just knew that we didn’t want it to be about religion and we didn’t want it to be political [like 2006’s “The Body, the Blood, the Machine’’] and we didn’t want it to be about death or rebirth [like last year’s “Now We Can See’’]. We had done that enough on the last two records,’’ says Harris.
“When I sat down to write lyrics, I kind of found that I was writing all in one direction, so we kind of carried that theme through the whole record. But it’s never so premeditated when you’re starting out. It’s just usually a place we find ourselves at after writing for a while.’’
The thematic unity meant leaving out some quality material. Earlier this year, the Thermals released “Canada,’’ a sharp, exhilarating single barely two minutes long and barely three chords wide that celebrates a hopeful state of mind more than an actual place. It’s nowhere to be found on “Personal Life.’’
“It would’ve been so out of place,’’ Harris says. “We were making such a serious record that was about breakups and hard relationships, and then this two-minute bouncy, funny song about Canada. . . . It might have fit on some other record that we were making that was more light or funny. But really, that song had no place on this record.’’
There was, however, a place for Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, who over the last decade has made a name for himself as an in-demand indie producer, working with acts like Tegan & Sara, the Decemberists, and Mates of State. “Personal Life’’ served as a reunion of sorts, the first Thermals album he’s produced since 2004’s “(Expletive) A.’’ Even over the phone, his enthusiasm for the band is palpable.
“When people ask me what my favorite records are that I’ve worked on, [’’(Expletive) A’’] is always in the first two or three that I mention,’’ says Walla. “The making of that record was pretty manic. We did the whole record, mixes and everything, in maybe five days. And it was just this go-go-go-go-go sort of thing.
“I think they’re a little more considered at this point,’’ he adds. “There’s way less panic about it. Even when the record sounds panicky and dramatic — something like ‘I Don’t Believe You’ — at this point it comes from years of discipline and authority and practice.’’
That practice stretches back some 15 years, which is how long ago Harris first met bassist Kathy Foster at punk concerts. The core duo has held solid through a succession of drummers (including Harris and Foster themselves, who together have provided drums for three of the Thermals’ five albums).
But with drummer Westin Glass (who Walla calls “the best-looking man in rock ’n’ roll’’) settling in after 2 1/2 years and a new album about relationships, Harris insists that the Thermals aren’t softening just quite yet.
“There’s actually a lot more positive love songs [on previous albums],’’ says Harris. “A lot of the songs on this new record are very negative. So yeah, it’s not quite the pop sellout record yet.’’
Asked if that’s to be expected in years to come, Harris laughs. “Oh, there’s always time for that.’’
Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.