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The Thermals’ Hutch Harris on His New Album, War, and Pre-Portlandia Portland

Hutch Harris. Photo: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Portland punk trio the Thermals have been known to get political: Their 2006 album The Body, The Blood, The Machine, was all about Bush bashing. Their new album, Desperate Ground (out this week), is about war and death — but front man Hutch Harris says he’s not taking a political stance. “It’s not a pro-war record but it’s not an anti-war record,” he told us ahead of a show at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey, last month. What is it, then? We spoke to him to find out, and also got his thoughts on the Coen brothers and pre-Portlandia Portland.

I am assuming you still write your own press releases. This time you refer to the band as a punk trio from “pre-Portlandia Portland.” Carrie [Brownstein]’s a friend right? Are you suggesting Portlandia ruined something about the Portland experience?
We toured with Sleater Kinney a bunch and played at the show’s premiere in New York City. So we’re totally friends with the show. That wasn’t, like, a swipe at Portlandia. It was more a swipe at the hype of Portland. You know, Oregon has the highest suicide rate in the country, kids grow up super depressed in the north. It’s just a really dark place. That was more our bratty swipe at like, “We didn’t just move to Portland and we’re not going to capitalize on it.” But at the same time we are kind of capitalizing on that. Portland’s had a lot of attention for a while but it hasn’t grown to the point where it sucks. Like Seattle got so, with grunge, people totally overhyped it and it really kind of burnt the city out. We haven’t been burnt out yet.

I know you’re not as political as you used to be. Why is that?
For us, we wanted to stop being so political in the music because we were starting to get labeled as a political band. We didn’t want to be pegged as like, “This is a political band. If you want to go see this band they only talk about politics.” That sounds like hell to me. I don’t want to see that band! That sounds really tedious to me. If you only sing about politics, especially for a punk band, eh, it’s no fun.

So why make an album about war?
Because we’re always at war — always, always. If you were born in this country eleven years ago, you haven’t known a time when the U.S. hasn’t been at war. One day I just thought about it: It’s never going to end. What people have to be most afraid of are other people, more than the weather, nature, animals. Men are the most violent, scariest things on the planet.

Did you immerse yourself in war films or literature or the news while writing the album?
No, it’s trashier than that. It’s not supposed to represent real life at all, it’s just supposed to be violent. If there is a moral there, it’s not intended. So it’s not based on real life, it’s not based on real war. Because if I were to write something based on war, I would have to go to war — I can’t just read about war and then write about it; it would be dishonest. This is just a total work of fiction. I recently read an interview with the Coen brothers — I love the Coen brothers — and they said, “We don’t base our movies on real life at all, we base our movies on other movies, which we’ve seen.” Which I thought was great because it was not pretentious, not saying, “Oh, we know about the world and we’ll tell you about the world.”

The last song on the record is a love song, “Our Love Survives” — but it’s a glorification of lovers on a murderous rampage. How’d that come up?
That was the last song we wrote. It was three days before we were going to record the album; we realized we needed a love song because all the songs are all violent and kind of mean. And so I wrote it … and then it’s really violent and mean. But the band loved it. I was thinking about my girlfriend, who I am very much in love with, and a lot of it is putting yourself and someone you love in all this chaos, and then all of a sudden you get very protective. If you’re alone in the chaos, for me it’s like, “Oh, fuck it, I don’t care, it’s fiction anyway. If I die, whatever.” But if you’re with someone you really love, all of a sudden the stakes are a lot higher. Then I decided that the song will take this very arrogant tone: We’re not running from everyone, we are destroying the whole world. And to me that was really romantic. It’s kind of like Natural Born Killers or Bonnie and Clyde, like lovers on a mission who kill anyone that gets in their way.

The Thermals’ Front Man on War and Portland