With the Portland, Oregon trio’s excellent new album, ‘We Disappear’ nearing its release, Hutch Harris takes a break on tour to talk about his penchant for writing songs on the subject of death, who would make his Celebrity death list, and why his funeral will rock more than yours.
Interview by Casey Bowers
Casey Bowers:Death is a constant theme in your music and while Now We Can See was almost exclusively about death from the viewpoint of the dead, and Desperate Ground was about the inevitability of death (either by killing or being killed personally, en masse, or death of spirit) when faced with war, while ‘We Disappear’ seems to be about the struggle to accept or escape death, in all forms. What do you attribute that to? Is it just an endless fascination with the unknown? Trying to make sense of that which escapes human understanding most?
Hutch Harris: I’ve just been this way since I was a child, endlessly curious about death.
I was raised strict Catholic, taught about Heaven and Hell at an early age. As a kid, the thought of eternal life scared me more than the thought of dying and not existing at all. At this point I don’t know if there’s any sense to be made or any understanding of how and why we are here, there’s just accepting our fate, the inevitability of death.
Casey:How much does that struggle weigh on you now?
HH: I never stop thinking about death, in case it wasn’t obvious. Death is a common theme in many works of art. It’s something we all have in common, something we are all afraid of, something none of us can escape. I tried to make the lyrics on ‘We Disappear’ less death-obsessed than on ‘Now We Can See’ and ‘Desperate Ground’, but once the Grim Reaper rears his ugly head he’s hard to shake. ‘We Disappear ‘is really a break-up record. I ended up comparing the death of the relationship to the loss of life itself.
It’s about people separating from each other, and then separating from life. We disappear from each other, and we disappear from this world. So yeah, I guess the struggle still weighs on me. I’m not as afraid of death as I used to be, but I do still think about it all the time.
Casey:And you’ve certainly tackled the subject of relationships on previous records, either indirectly throughout the band’s lifespan or directly on Personal Life, but for better or worse, The Thermals are the band who have tackled the subject of death the most and in a way that’s the most fun, endearing, and accessible to music fans. Who was that band or artist or writer for you?
HH: Um, obviously for better, why would it be for worse?
Casey:Well, people assigning labels that may misrepresent the band…
HH: Some people may not like what we do, but we do it well and we always stay true to ourselves and my original vision for the band, which is a celebration of all that is wonderful and terrible in the world. Civilized society is slowly collapsing, party while you can. I know that time is running out but I won’t feel sad about it now. I feel like most bands I’ve loved have sung about death in a way that wasn’t depressing, if not totally uplifting. The two that come to mind are Nirvana and The Cure.
Casey:Well, ‘The Great Dying’ has a Cure vibe going with its distortion-drenched dark sliding guitar part.It is a massive and beautiful bummer of a song. Was the stylistic departure an intentional and conscious decision?
HH: It might be a bummer but hey, it’s just the truth. We Disappear. Yeah, like I said, I love The Cure, they’ve been a huge influence on me for as long as I can remember. With ‘The Great Dying’ I was trying to write a very 90’s, true emo song. I think we pulled it off. It was a very intentional and conscious decision. We always know exactly what we want to do when we go into the studio to make a record.
Casey:On the opposite end of the spectrum, “Thinking of You” is even poppier and straight-up sweeter than anything off of Now We Can See or Personal Life put together. Was it necessary for a ‘Thinking of You’ to exist on the album, to balance out songs like ‘The Great Dying’ and ‘Years in a Day’?
HH: Yes, we were definitely trying to make a more balanced, varied record this time out. Our last record ‘Desperate Ground’ was intentionally over-distorted and claustrophobic. We wanted ‘We Disappear’ to be more like ‘The Body, The Blood’, ‘The Machine’ or ‘Now We Can See’. We wanted it to be a very dynamic journey that takes the listener to all kinds of different and interesting places, sonically and texturally.
Casey:The press for last album, ‘Desperate Ground’ made your close call with Hurricane Sandy sound like you narrowly escaped the reaper’s clutches and triumphantly cheated death. How much of that near-death experience or other close calls made you revisit the subject for We Disappear?
HH: Most press is overblown, as I’m sure you know. I mean, not the press for our new record – that shit is dead-on!
HH: It was definitely dangerous when we were in New Jersey during Hurricane Sandy, but I wouldn’t call it a near-death experience.
Casey:The riff off ‘Hey You’ seems like an inverted variation of ‘Queen Bitch’ and I first heard it a few days after Bowie’s passing. It was the first piece of new music I’d listened to since ‘Blackstar’, and it was comforting to realize Bowie’s influence and impact abounds and music after Bowie will continue to excite and rock.You largely took part in Bowie memorials on and offline, did The Next Day or past works influence We Disappear?
HH: Bowie was definitely an influence, he always is, and yes ‘Queen Bitch’ in particular. I do think that Bowie’s influence and impact will be felt as long as humans are still on this planet, listening to music. I know it sounds naive to say, but I honestly had never pictured a world without David Bowie in it until he died. He was always so much more than human, he seemed indestructible in a way. Although ‘The Next Day’ wasn’t an influence for me, ‘Hunky Dory’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’, and ‘Low’, just to name a few, are records that are always in my head and have been influential for me for years.
Casey:What is your favorite song on the subject of death?
HH:Back to Bowie, it would be ‘Quicksand’ from ‘Hunky Dory’. “Knowledge comes with death’s release”. I honestly hope so.
Casey:People may be uncomfortable with the notion of death but when it comes to ceremonies or events surrounding it, they have countless opinions – including music, so I have to ask, do you have a particular song, playlist or piece of music you want played at your funeral? Do you mind sharing?
HH: It’s funny, my dad is a musician, he’s a pianist and a songwriter. He is actually writing and recording the music to be played at his own funeral! He’s 71 but he’s in perfect health, nowhere close to death. He says it’s a fun project for him! I too would like my own music to be played at my funeral. Just every Thermals record in chronological order, which is incidentally, what I’ll be playing at my dad’s funeral as well.
Casey:Celebrity deaths come in 3’s. If you could pick your other two close proximity companions in dying, who would they be?
HH: I’ll say my bandmates Westin and Kathy. I don’t see how any of us could survive without each other, so it would make sense that we would all die in close proximity.
Casey:Finally, can you think of any better way for people to think about or deal with the subject of death than to sing and dance along to songs that celebrate being defiant in the face of it?
HH:I can’t think of a better way! What would be ideal would be is if we could all stop thinking about death altogether and just enjoy life. I do enjoy life, but I’ll never stop thinking about death.
Casey:Thanks for this awesome new record, Hutch, and thanks for your time.
HH:Thanks so much Casey! So glad you like it.
We Disappear will be released on March 25 through Saddle Creek and is available now for pre-order.
The Thermals are on tour now in the U.S.
For complete live schedule, go to www.thethermals.com/shows/.