The Thermals Sing a Simple Song

Spilling it on recording, 'deadpan' delivery and rowdy crowds

Oct 4, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Let’s flash back to the summer. Westin Glass is sitting in his downstairs neighbors’ apartment. He pops in The Thermals’ forthcoming release, Personal Life, and awaits their feedback. Perhaps they listen to the whole record, or perhaps Glass skips around, touching on crunchy AltPop tracks like “I’m Gonna Change Your Life” and “I Don’t Believe You.” Perhaps he mentions that Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie produced the record.

At one point, though, his neighbors say something. “Well, you’re a better drummer than that, right?”

It’s mid-September, and Glass is laughing about the moment.

“I think a lot of people associate skill with show-off-y-ness,” he says by phone from Portland, Ore. “They thought that (bandmates) Hutch and Kathy had told me not to play more complicated parts, but that’s exactly what I wanted to play.”

He’s OK with simplicity.

“That’s definitely the philosophy that I believe is the best for drumming. Unless you’re doing a solo drum record, which,” Glass adds sarcastically, “I may do some day. If you’re making Pop music, the drums need to serve song and not get in the way, and be something that is really fun. The drums should almost be subconscious.”

Glass is the newest member of The Thermals, helmed by Hutch Harris and Kathy Foster, a seemingly inseparable songwriting duo. And new might be a loose word — Glass joined up with The Thermals around the time Now We Can See dropped in 2009, a good year for the band, thanks to the infectious title track, something driven by gang vocals (“Oh-way-oh-a-whoa!”) and a jangly guitar riff. He was still touring with Indie Rock crew Say Hi and living in Seattle when Hutch and Kathy were wrapping the record.

“I was playing with my own band where I played guitar and sang and wrote songs and stuff,” Glass says, “but I was just getting really burnt out. I was already thinking about moving down to Portland just for a change, so I sent an e-mail to Hutch and Kathy: ‘I’m a drummer, if you’re ever looking for one and want to get together.’ ”

In fact, they were looking for a drummer, and the connection was instant and funny.

“I was standing on the street when Hutch and Kathy came up, and me and Hutch were wearing almost the same shirt,” Glass recalls. “We both had this long-sleeve flannel button up cowboy shirt on, and me and Kathy kept saying the same thing: ‘Hi, how’s it going?’ It was the same phrase at the same time.”

In another phone call, I ask Hutch Harris about Glass’ arrival and the moment he knew this guy would work out.

“A lot of drummers just have a shitty attitude; they’re in a bad mood by default,” he says. “Westin’s the opposite. He’s positive and proactive about working on stuff.”

I press him a bit about recording the new record with Glass in the fold. The last two records — Now We Can See and The Body, the Blood, the Machine — found Harris and Foster playing all the instruments (including drums). Personal Life, though, “was a more traditional way of writing and recording, where the band writes and practices the songs and everyone writes their own parts,” Harris says. “We went into the studio and pretty much played it live.

“The difference was,” Harris continues, “when Kathy and I would get together, we were only hearing half the songs … we were fleshing out the songs as we recorded them, so we kind of never knew what the record was going to sound like until we finished. But with this record, there are almost no overdubs, so when we play these songs live, they sound exactly like they would on the record. There are some songs on the last couple of records that we don’t play live, just because too many instruments are needed to pull that off. Kathy wanted to do something more simple.”

Simplicity — Glass swears by it. He waxes on about aesthetics and tapping into the DNA of The Thermals, a trio hardwired for Indie Pop singalongs.

“After spending a year playing nearly 200 shows and learning all of these older Thermals songs,” Glass says, “I was really trying to get what happens where and why and the certain sensibility of the Thermals’ music. The other thing I wanted to do — make everything as simple as it could possibly be. I feel like, as a drummer, that’s so much fun.”

He nods to the styles of Ross Jarman from The Cribs and Fabrizio Moretti from The Strokes.

“They both have this style of drumming that I would call deadpan,” he says. “They’re just playing the song, they’re not showing off; they’re not doing anything that’s not crucial to the song. They have this minimalism about them. I think it really serves the songs well, and allows Hutch’s vocals to be the forefront.”

Was Glass “deadpan” on Personal Life?

“Every song had an 11-minute drum solo in the middle that Chris Walla chopped out,” the drummer insists. “I was a little bummed about that.”

Glass is kidding, of course. In fact, The Thermals love “the worst, dumbest humor we can think of — mostly it’s targeted at our tour manager,” Glass says. “Every time we go to Phoenix, Ariz., we go by this place called Tutortime, and for some reason Hutch just started saying it like some old Irish Catholic priest: ‘Too-tor Time. Oh, it’s Too-tor time, Cheel-dren.’ (Our tour manager) hates that so much. It’s so absurd it’s funny.”

Before I hang up with Harris, he reflects on recent dates in the Northwest.

“People just (get) extremely drunk and they sing really loud, and they make up their own parts — clapping parts or shouting chants,” he says. “Besides the Northwest, we only see this in the UK and Germany.”

He pauses for a laugh.

“It’s stuff that looks like they’ve practiced it,” Harris continues. “Like these chants — we don’t know what the hell they’re saying. It’s like in the middle of the song, a part that doesn’t make sense in the song.”

While Harris says he’s all about crowds inventing parts, he adds, “I’d like it not to be anything too premeditated. It’s better if people just get drunk and run into each other and sweat a lot and fall on the floor.”

THE THERMALS play a free show at Mayday Thursday with guests Cymbals Eat Guitars. Get show and club details here.