Not every band can say they fled the merciless grip of a natural disaster while tracking the songs for their next record, but that’s exactly what happened to The Thermals while they were in the studio with Desperate Ground.
While recording their forthcoming release (and their first in three years) in Hoboken last October, Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Jersey Shore just before their final sessions, forcing the band and their producer, John Agnello, to board up the studio and head for higher ground the night before the storm. “It was insane for us, because the lyrics are about death and destruction and burning and flooding, and just, like, cities crumbling, so it was crazy!” recalls singer/guitarist Hutch Harris. “We listened to the howl of the wind while we were mixing on the last song there, and it was exactly what was going on around us. The coincidence was too crazy.”
See also: Thermal Insulation
Desperate Ground may call upon some brutal imagery while invoking the emotional bloodbaths that erupt in between discovering love and confronting loss, but this tempest of a record is a revelatory one for The Thermals in that it hits a handful of milestones for the Portlandian lo-fi rock trio. To start, the tenth anniversary of More Parts per Million, their debut record, was this past Monday, and Sub Pop is re-releasing their first three records on limited edition vinyl to mark the occasion. Meanwhile, Desperate Ground is The Thermals’ first album with Saddle Creek, the Omaha-based label that’s been a home to Bright Eyes, Cursive and Tokyo Police Club. It’s also the first time they’ve had the chance to work with Agnello, who they’ve long admired since his work with Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth in the ’90s. For Harris, Agnello was the perfect production foil for exploring their distorted, imperfect tendencies in a high fidelity format.
“When you do everything on tape, you’re so limited by how many tracks you have,” says Harris, looking back on his time in the studio with Agnello. “I would sing the song and do three tracks of vocals and pick the best ones. With Pro Tools, we’d have unlimited tracks, so John’s idea was to set me up and I would sing each song 15 or 16 times all the way through. Every time I was singing it, it was like a real performance — it wasn’t just like, ‘We’re gonna cut in and get this one word!’ where you’re standing there listening to yourself sing. That’s such a phony way to do it. It’s hard to be emotional when you’re just jumping in to grab one word for a verse. The fact that he set me up so I could just sing and really perform it over and over again, it just made the vocal performance so much better. I think it really shows. I’m so proud of the vocals on this record more than I am of every other record we’ve done.”
Between the re-issues, the lucrative label developments and a record they can’t wait to share, The Thermals have a lot to look forward to, and they’re eager to start getting these new songs stuck in your head just as the older ones have been for the past decade.
“I feel like we’re just getting started,” says Harris. “We love the record we just made. These songs totally have the same energy as the old stuff, and a lot of people who have heard these songs totally get that. We feel really reinvigorated from making this record and we just always want to make something people will like and that we’ll like, too, and I think we really did it this time. If people like this band, they’re going to love this record. We’re huge fans of ourselves. We love this band. It’s not like we needed it, but it’s just a fresh start and we’re so stoked about everything we’re doing.”
The Thermals perform tonight at 285 Kent.