Although I slept through my freshman microeconomics course far more than I attended it, and thus am hardly an expert in such matters, I believe a band may safely be deemed "efficient" if it can make an entire album for six dollars (no matter how long it takes) or in five days (no matter how much it costs).
The Thermals, who hail from Portland, Oregon, pulled off the first trick with their 2003 debut, More Parts Per Million. It was recorded on a four-track in singer-guitarist Hutch Harris's kitchen over the course of three months, quite literally for less than the price of that fancypants coffee and ass-widening pastry you bought this morning at Starbucks. What did their six bucks buy? Six blank cassette tapes from Kmart. And the songs laid down on them were subsequently brought to Sub Pop by Ben Gibbard (of Death Cab for Cutie and Postal Service fame). The smitten Seattle label then proceeded to press thirteen tracks to disc essentially as-is, hiss and all.
The Thermals pulled off the second trick with their new release, Fuckin' A. Harris, bassist Kathy Foster, and drummer Jordan Hudson trucked up to Seattle's Avast Studios and recorded the album in a little more than three days, then mixed it in a little less than two with help from producer Chris Walla (who also plays in Death Cab for Cutie). Granted the experience set the Thermals back about 400 times more cabbage than the first album, but if you do the math, the grand total is still far less than most bands spend on one day's worth of catering or drugs.
The Thermals, Fred Armisen, the Brand, and the Jack Theory Trader perform at 9:00 p.m. Saturday, July 10, at Churchill's Pub, 5501 NE 2nd Ave. Tickets cost $10. Call 305-757-1807.
"Efficiency," of course, doesn't necessarily equate "quality." Ford had its Pinto assembly lines rolling like clockwork in the Seventies, never mind that pesky exploding gas tank. But there are no discernible flaws, artistically speaking, in the Thermals' indie-punk design. Harris's melodically stitched guitar chords clutch and rip like barbed wire on a fence-jumper's T-shirt, Foster's bass lines offer as much euphony as rumble, and Hudson spastically snaps his snare like a military drummer on crank.
"We like to do things fast and cheap," Harris says, laughing, via cell phone from a tour stop in Minneapolis. "It always comes out more immediate that way, which is what we're going for. What really only matters to us is what the end result sounds like, and so far that's the best way we've found to get that. But, I mean, we would go into some huge studio as long as it didn't sound too sterile, as long as [the music] came out good and loud and scratchy."
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Walla's heightened production makes Harris's lyrical outbursts much clearer than on MPPM, whose mike distortions rendered many of his lines indecipherable. He is often cranky: "Keep me dead and muted/Slap me 'til I'm stupid/I'm dying for your hand/I'd die to understand" he sings on "Let Your Earth Quake, Baby." But he is also an idealist: "We're past our sense/Past the consequences/We're past the fear/We're through the mirror," he sings on "Keep Time." And then, on the memorable "God and Country," he's just plain furious: "Pray for a new state/Pray for assassination/I can hope, see?/Even if I don't believe." Now there's some fresh fuel for the fire.
"I don't think of that song as controversial," Harris muses. "I don't really want to assassinate George W. Bush. But I like that it's shocking. It gets people's attention. It came out of feeling so hopeless because things are so crappy that, well, what's the farthest you can take it? It's just like, if you're real angry and drunk and screaming your head off, no one should take everything you say as the truth. They should take it as a burst of 'Argghhhhhhh, I'm just so fucking pissed off!!'"
Although the Thermals have just begun a tour in support of Fuckin A, Harris says the band is already setting its sights on finishing the next album by year's end. Which would make three discs in less than two years. Call them prolific, call them efficient, but the singer attributes it to a vague, if constantly lurking sense of dissatisfaction.
"There's no one point where you're like, 'Wow, I feel like I've really achieved something,'" Harris says. "You think the end of the process will be really gratifying, that when you get that finished copy of the album in your hand and it sounds good and you're happy with it, that that's the best part. But that feeling wears off so quickly, which is why you just have to keep moving and working and creating."