Scorched Earth

Thermal reactors: Hutch, Kathy, and Lorin

Thermal reactors: Hutch, Kathy, and Lorin

The Thermals
The Body the Blood the Machine
Sub Pop

The Thermals—as in the type of nuclear fusion used in an H-bomb—formed in Portland, Oregon, in 2002. Their debut album, More Parts Per Million, established the group's persistent m.o.: roaring punk guitar, politically conscious lyrics, galloping tempos and chord changes (anchored by former All Girl Summer Fun Band bassist Kathy Foster), and the incensed but hooky vocals of Hutch Harris. Fuckin A, the trio's second full-length (and debut for Sub Pop), came out in 2004 to near-unanimous critical acclaim. Their latest, The Body the Blood the Machine, featuring the scorching production of Fugazi's Brendan Canty, was released by Sub Pop last year.

Taking a cue from the pre-Thermals days when they billed themselves as Hutch and Kathy, the two wrote and performed all the songs for The Body the Blood the Machine after the departure of original drummer Jordan Hudson. But what would've been catastrophic for another band barely affected their momentum, if at all: The Body is easily the Thermals' most focused release to date, both in terms of songwriting and the performances.

I spoke with singer/guitarist Hutch Harris about the new album from his home in Portland the day after the Thermals taped a performance on Carson Daly's show in L.A. "Kathy and I had worked on a bunch of different projects for the past 10 years or so...we just worked so long together that it's really natural for us." (Foster played drums in the studio, and also handled most of the bass duties, laying down the parts as overdubs.) The duo was joined briefly by drummer Caitlin Love for an initial tour after the release of The Body; they hooked up with permanent drummer Lorin Coleman in time for their current headlining tour, which will bring them to the U.K. and the European festival circuit later this spring.

Compared with life during wartime in earlier eras of rock—the flower-power consciousness of the '60s, the hardcore of the Reagan years—there's currently a dearth of politically conscious bands. The Thermals stand in stark relief; the new album builds on the scathing sociopolitical dissensions of Fuckin A, with the current zeitgeist regarding separation of church and state fueling the fire this time around. "I wanted to make a political record," Harris explains. "Christianity and Republicanism are so closely tied right now...if I was going to write about the government, there'd be no way religion couldn't be a big part of it." But Harris's politics are informed by a healthy ambivalence, as well. "I don't like the Republicans, but I don't like the Democrats very much, either," he jokes.

Harris's ambivalence also permeates his take on matters of religion on The Body. The interesting thing is that, though the album fairly seethes with anti-fundamentalist indignation, Harris's opinions come from having lived on both sides of the fray—a refreshingly pragmatic stance that's unusual in today's atmosphere of partisan bickering, and rare for what might loosely be considered "protest rock." Harris was raised Catholic and participated in Christian youth groups in high school: "I went to church every week, CCD, the whole deal," he says. You can almost hear a little fire and brimstone in Harris's frantic, pitched delivery, the way you could hear Rev. King's beseeching timbre peeking through Chuck D's flow in Public Enemy's songs. Harris is amused by my suggestion that his vocal presence might have an evangelical bent lurking somewhere inside it, agreeing, "Yeah—and it's totally irrational, too, which fits perfectly."

Harris's songs connect because they're firmly rooted in the personal, the nuanced, the situational, rather than the oversimplified blanket prescriptions of a Rage Against the Machine or a System of a Down. "It's really the point not to be preachy," says Harris. "You can't force someone to believe something," which applies whether you're Catholic League wingnut Bill Donahue, or just a singer in a rock 'n' roll band.

"Back to the Sea" displays the Thermals' balance of tempered discontent and blown-out punk bombast; it's both a protest song and a modest proposal. It's a clever, mischievous juxtaposition: an anti-creationist scenario set to a sly parody of Christian camp sing-alongs. "Two by two/Lord, we'll take 'em two by two/We lead 'em through the pouring rain/We'll lead 'em to the gas chamber/But not me/I'm gonna crawl.../back to the sea." The sonic effect is of an old big-block bomber outracing a nuclear firestorm to the edge of the continent—a tableau captured in the album's back cover photomontage, where flames loom ominously in a car's rearview mirror. The devolutionary theme is an old one reenergized with new conviction and new relevance: The world is fucked, and I want out.

But the album's nihilistic strains are also mitigated by moments of hope and redemption. "St. Rosa and the Swallows" is a notable exception, in some ways, to The Body's general cynicism about humanity, marked by the refrain "I will hold you tight, through the cold days and the frozen nights." Love, nuclear-winter style. "The record needed at least a couple moments like that, so that it wasn't just all doom and gloom," says Harris. Based on his girlfriend (Rosa is her middle name), the song is an unabashedly romantic ode that recasts the album's theme of turning away, "leaving your old life behind," Harris says, "leaving a really sad, lonely, scary life, and getting saved through loving someone, and being loved."