The Thermals' Hutch Harris had some small regrets. After 2010's Personal Life — a relatively stripped-down collection of mid-tempo tunes— he quickly realized that what he refers to as the album's "slower, cleaner, and more pretty" sound wasn't where the band's future lied. So he took action: The long-running Portland trio's latest effort, Desperate Ground (due out April 16 on Saddle Creek), finds Harris, bassist Kathy Foster, and drummer Westin Glass relishing in the more ferocious sound of early Thermals material.
Harris called from his Rose City home to talk about J.R.R. Tolkien-influenced German power metal, hugely successful pop-punk, and other curious influences seeped onto the band's new album.
"Kathy and I are from the Bay Area so Green Day were fucking heroes. No one should be surprised by that. Dookie is a record we always go back to as an example for how to make a record where every single song is so good. They're just really simple, really effective songs. They're not about showing off. There were a couple of times [on Desperate Ground] where I'll suggest a little bassline to Kathy and it'll be a little Mike Dirnt bassline. In the song 'She' from Dookie there's a couple little runs that he does; it's a call and response between what Billie Joe is singing and what Dirnt's playing. He'll sing a line and then there's this little bass fill where there's no vocals. So there's this song, 'He Will Find Me' [on Desperate Ground], where Kathy totally does that. And then on the second to last track 'Where I Stand' there's this little fill that's so Green Day. I suggested it to her and we all liked it, and then later that night I was like 'That's a Green Day trick!'"
"We wanted to make the record really cinematic. People's favorite record of ours is The Body The Blood and The Machine. To us that's a really cinematic record. It feels like you're in another world. It's this cool work of fiction. We wanted to make something like that. We wanted [Desperate Ground] to be like an action movie. It's not a drama. It's not about morality at all. This isn't a protest record. It's not an anti-war record or a pro-war record. This is entertainment. We wanted to make something violent and dark and really fun at the same time. It's a gritty, pulpy action film. Full Metal Jacket is where we get 'Born To Kill.' Die Hard was a really big influence. The story of the record is one man against an enemy and the elements. Then there's Game of Thrones, Lord of The Rings, I really just like those worlds."
Dragonforce and Blind Guardian
"There's these two bands, one is called Dragonforce and the other is Blind Guardian. We didn't know these bands until maybe four years ago. Whenever we'd have to drive late at night and our friend Jaime, who drives us on tour, was afraid she was going to fall asleep she'd put them on. We called it LARP-metal. With Blind Guardian a lot of the songs are based on Lord of The Rings and things like that. Their chops are fucking crazy. So it'd be like three in the morning and we'd just be like 'Jesus Christ!' We like to rock out, but that shit was fucking insane. One night I was falling asleep in the van and I was kind of dreaming while listening to the music. I sat up in the middle of the night and was like, 'Oh, this is really good!' It took a little while but it was totally beaten into me. I was writing this song a year later, and the structure of the songs and the chords I was using really sounded like a Blind Guardian song. I couldn't fucking believe it. When I first heard these bands, I really wasn't into it. We're huge Metallica fans and I like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, but I've never really been into chops or solos in general. They ended up being a really big influence and it was great. We're never going to end up actually sounding like those bands. So it was cool to get inspiration there because we can never end up being like a rip-off of those bands."
"Kathy's good about laying down a lot of rules for the record. We like to work in a really confined space. Setting a lot of parameters for a project is really good. It allows a lot of focus. Kathy said 'No slow songs.' Personal Life had a lot of songs with just bass and drums but Kathy said that we needed to be loud and fast and noisy. Also, recording on a computer is so weird because you can do infinite tracks. Having more options isn't necessarily good for creating. We did the first record on a four-track so you're incredibly limited to just four tracks. Limits aren't hurting you. It's nice to have options but you don't want too many. It's good to keep it way more simple."
"This record is about killing. [2009's] Now We Can See was about death and to me this record is about killing and violence. It's not about dying or being dead, but the killing that men do. It was kind of a long journey. We like to start with a theme. We don't make concept records, but I like the idea of a record as a total experience instead of a collection of songs that you just happened to write all at the same time. We started with war, but I haven't gone to war and I'm not a soldier. It became broader the more we wrote. I didn't want to write about exactly what's happening in the world today. There were so many shootings in the country this past year, but at the same time there's always shootings all the time. Last year seemed to be a really bad year. But people are killing each other in our country all the time. I wanted to distance this record from Columbine or the movie theater [in Aurora, Colorado] or Newtown. For us it was just a broader vision of the fact that people are killing each other all the time."