Posts Tagged ‘politics’

THE THERMALS interview

June 4, 2013

“This record’s about killing,” announces Hutch Harris emphatically.

A bold statement, perhaps, but The Thermals frontman isn’t entirely averse to heavy themes. In 2006, the Portland popsters’ third album ‘The Body, The Blood, The Machine’ – widely regarded as their magnum opus – depicted two young lovers attempting to flee a fascistic parody of America’s fundamentalist Christian right. They followed it up two years later with ‘Now We Can See’, a record told entirely from the perspective of the dead. Yeesh! And yet Hutch tuts at the very notion that thrilling latest effort ‘Desperate Ground’ might be anything so vulgar as a concept album.

“We try not to say ‘concept’. It makes me think of Yes or Styx – all that bloated 70s stuff. I don’t want people to think, ‘I really gotta know what the story is’,” he explains. “It’s too much of a burden on the record.”

There’s no plot to follow?

“No, no. We keep it intentionally vague, so it’s not about something specific. It’s just about humans and violence in general. Really we wanted the record to be like a film, y’know? Like Die Hard – an action movie.”

See, that’s where the new Thermals album differs from their most famous work. The Superchunk-y noise-pop of yore remains gratefully intact, but this time the lyrical thrills are far more visceral.

“We wanted to write something timeless. Something about how humans are always killing each other, and probably always will,” he continues. “I love 80s punk but there’s a lot about Reagan or Thatcher – go back to those songs now and it’s hard to relate, especially if you’re really young and you never knew those people. We wanted to write something that still could be relevant 20 years from now.”

Some have suggested that this makes for a somewhat simplistic political statement, an argument which leaves Hutch exasperated.

“There aren’t supposed to be any politics on this record at all. It’s irresponsible! There’s no morals!”

And this from the band responsible for one of post-millennial indie rock’s most explosive pieces of polemic in ‘The Body, The Blood, The Machine’.

“Man, I’ve been trying to get away from that for so long. After that record people started thinking, ‘Oh, The Thermals are a political band’. I don’t want that to be our thing. It’s fucking boring, you know?”

You don’t agree that songwriters are obligated to uphold any moral code to the listener?

“It should be exactly in between – not moral, not amoral. To me, one of the worst clichés in music is the anti-war song. It’s been done. We should be able to sing about war without having to say ‘war is wrong’, because we know that already.”

By this stage, dear reader, you might be forgiven for wondering whether there’s any room for optimism amidst the unforgiving frontiers of ‘Desperate Ground’. Fortunately, a chink of light appears at the death, in the form of ‘Our Love Survives’ – the album’s sole moment of romantic defiance.

“That was the last song we wrote for the record,” Hutch notes. “I think it works perfectly. I guess it’s optimistic because it’s about hope, and yet the record ends the way ‘The Body, The Blood…’ did – the world is pretty much destroyed, but love can survive. It might sound like a cliché, but it was a good note to end on.”

At the time of our chat, the band has just finished the video for forthcoming single ‘The Sunset’, with a rousing performance from bassist Kathy Foster as a Rocky-esque boxer. Hutch is audibly enthused:

“It’s a tribute to a bunch of different movies at once. I dunno if you remember [Spike Lee movie] Do The Right Thing – the end credits with Public Enemy, and Rosie Perez dancing with boxing gloves on… we decided to have Kathy doing that. And if you’re gonna do a video about boxing, you should probably have a lot of Rocky in there.”

Are you a fan of boxing in general?

“Y’know, I don’t love boxing, but… we decided Kathy should look like she knows what she’s doing, so we actually got her boxing lessons. It looks awesome. Kathy loved it, so I think I might actually take some!”

It’s a slight variation on the album theme…

“This one’s not as violent as the ‘Born To Kill’ video, which was a ton of blood and shit, where I get the shit kicked out of me. But this video is violent and the next one should be, too.”

For all this talk of violence, it’s easy to forget that The Thermals were distinctly less brash last time out. 2009’s ‘Personal Life’ LP was noticeably more morose than previous collections, relying considerably less on velocity and volume. It’s a path that Hutch was keen to get away from.

“That record [‘Personal Life’] was kind of like a breather,” he says. “It maybe ended up being softer and quieter than we’d intended, but it was different.

“Whenever you’re making something, you’re reacting to the thing you did previously. We didn’t want that to be the path that the band was on – like, we’re just gonna get slower and quieter… that would be terrible. So ‘Desperate Ground’ was a conscious decision to get loud and crazy again.”

Do you prefer listening to louder, faster music?

“I almost only listen to 80s punk! I listen to The Addicts a lot, and Agent Orange – ‘Living In Darkness’. I listen to that record more than anything, so that’s definitely a huge influence.”

The Thermals seem to have quite a lot in common with power-pop from that era.

Yeah, I feel like we sound so much like The Undertones. I never got so into hardcore because I need a really strong melody.”

It’s interesting that you prefer to align The Thermals with indie rock rather than punk…

“I just don’t want people to think of us and picture leather jackets and Mohawks. punk is such a weird word, it doesn’t describe us as people.”

Either way, this is certainly a louder, faster album.

“I feel revitalised by this record. Really excited by the band again. Some records I’m like, ‘well, I’m spent.’ I feel like this record is great and I could do it again.”

Looks like ‘Desperate Ground’ has plenty of cause for optimism after all.

(Originally published by The Fly, 03/05/2013)


Yes, it’s fucking political

August 16, 2011

Yesterday, an article by NME editor Krissi Murison appeared on the Guardian website bemoaning the lack of political music in 2011. The argument goes something along the lines of ‘isn’t it lucky that the NME had The Clash on the cover while there were riots going on – why aren’t there more bands writing about politics nowadays?’ Everett True has already written a pretty succinct response over on Collapse Board, so I’m not going to go overboard in my own musings. But since the original article still appears to be stuck in my craw, I’ll weigh in with some thoughts anyway.

Firstly, although it’s certainly not the same magazine I used to read in school, I have no beef with the NME, nor (by extension) with Murison. If anything she’s overseen a significant improvement in quality from the magazine’s dreadful days under Conor McNicholas – when a double-page photo spread with a few paragraphs of text could pass for a main feature. At least the writing seems to be the focus again, and it’s enthused and (usually) well-informed (certainly not always). There are elements of its content that I don’t particularly enjoy, and some of its misguided attempts to tap into localised scenes can go woefully wrong, but that’s the problem with outsider perspective, especially when it’s widely published. Thanks to the still-growing influence of the internet, and the increased stratification of popular culture, a magazine like the NME simply can’t be the authoritative voice that it wants to be. Perhaps recognising this, the self-aggrandising ‘we invented everything’ tone seems to have died down, and it’s concentrating on music again. Which, regardless of how on-the-money it is, is a good thing.

For all that, however, it still rankles that the editor of the NME can write an article bemoaning the lack of political grit in pop. This, lest we forget, is a music magazine that still publishes an annual ‘cool list’ – a pointless exercise in High Fidelity-style cataloging that has continually placed style over substance. Why do we need to know who’s ‘cool’? Who cares? One of the best things Murison could do for the ailing magazine is to axe that list. When our music critics start to concern themselves with such vacuous, page-filling dross as this, it’s a pretty definite indication that they’re not looking for anything below the surface. They’re as symptomatic of the lack of political pop as the performers are.

But wait – there is no lack of political pop. The article complains that there is no Clash to lead the charge – there are still plenty of punk bands writing political songs, if four chords and some informed shouting is what you want. Look at the folk-punk scene, poplated by the likes of Defiance, Ohio and Ghost Mice. Or, closer to the mainstream, there’s the likes of Against Me!, Gallows and The King Blues – personally I’d rather drink bleach from David Starkey’s tiny, pus-covered severed bellend than listen to any of those three, but nonetheless they’re pop and they’re political… that’s both tick boxes covered, right?

And naturally there’s plenty of other artists from a wealth of genres covering Murison’s criteria – again, Collapse Board has the best summary, which basically saves me the job of compiling anything (phew!). A curmudgeon (hello!) might question whether The Clash are really the best example of a political band in any case – their song most relevant to last week’s events (White Riot) is a clumsy statement at best. Cracking tune, like, but its point still seems awkward, even if its heart is in the right place. This’ll go down well with Clash fans, I’m sure.

The only real argument to consider is that there’s very little of the political in mainstream indie. Gone are the days when Manic Street Preachers would serve up dense polemic to rabid teenagers with scant understanding of what the lyrics actually meant. These days mainstream political rock doesn’t stretch much further than Bono’s sanctimonious blethering, which is unfortunately enough to turn anyone off the idea of charity. But isn’t mainstream society distinctly unpoliticised these days?

Granted, we’re seeing more and more protest against the ConDem government (the university fee protests, for instance), and whether you view last week’s riots as politicised or ‘merely’ political, there are signs that things are changing – basically, people are starting to give a shit. That’s a completely separate debate, of course, and the pages of an indie rock blog that no-one reads are certainly not the place to start it. But mainstream pop isn’t going to change unless society does, and it seems daft to expect pop to reflect anything other than its environment.