Signing With Friends

The Thermals and Saddle Creek Records join together after years of being buddies

The Thermals and the Saddle Creek Records family go way back, so it's no surprise the Portland indie punk-pop band would release an album on the Omaha label.

The only surprise is that the match didn't happen sooner.

The Thermals started their recording career on Sub Pop Records, releasing their first three albums on the stalwart indie label.

When it came time to release Now We Can See in 2009, the band knew Saddle Creek was interested but they decided to work with their own hometown label, Kill Rock Stars.

"It made more sense then to go with the Portland label (at that time)," bassist Kathy Foster says.

After a second album on Kill Rock Stars though, the band was once again eager to work with a new label.

Harris says the timing was right to work with Saddle Creek, as the band's schedule was open so they could record and put out record when they wanted to.

Working with Saddle Creek also served as the culmination of a long-running friendship between Thermals' founders Foster and singer/guitarist Hutch Harris, Foster says.

"We're already friends with them," she says. "It's like signing with our buddies."

Those friendships began back in 1999, where Foster helped set up a Portland house show for Conor Oberst. Omahans and the Thermals continued to help each other out with shows and places to stay on tour. Foster's earlier band Urban Legends played in town even prior to the Thermals.

In 2006, the Thermals joined Omaha acts Cursive and Ladyfinger for an extended bit of touring.

But the deal with Saddle Creek wasn't just about working with friends, both the band and the label agreed to jump in right away and get the band's new album, Desperate Ground, out without waiting months and months.

"We wanted to get the record out as soon as we could," Foster says.

That mean from the time the band signed with Saddle Creek, both sides went to work. In roughly two weeks the band had a mastered record and album artwork ready for the new album.

As the band prepared for the release of the new album, Sub Pop Records also re-released the band's first three albums on vinyl to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the band's first album, More Parts Per Million.

"Both of those things were kind of in the works at the same time," Foster says.

Foster says the band's anniversary of releasing their first album was in their minds as they begun to work on material for Desperate Ground, their sixth album.

Foster says the band talked about getting back to the energy of the first few ones, after their fifth album Personal Life brought a dose of introspection to the table.

What the band ends up with on Desperate Ground is a nod towards the quick-moving, lo-fi pop songs of their debut but played with the touch of seasoned songwriters and musicians.

"It's a good combination of growth and what we started with," Foster says.

Revisiting the early recording helped Foster remember how it felt to make those songs, but the band was careful to not try just recreating it.

Foster says the Thermals' songs are all about finding that primary balance of skill and simplicity by finding the right combination of elements.

The band works on the music together, often morphing songs dramatically in the songwriting process. Then singer Hutch Harris will start working on lyrics as the song comes together.

"Hutch always writes really good lyrics," Foster says. "It kind of develops really naturally."

As is the hallmark of the Thermals' albums, the record has a politically-focused theme. This time, Harris talks about violence, wars and how it intersects with entertainment to become a human obsession.

"We always seem to be at war in some form or another," Foster says.

To that end, the band basically viewed the album as an action movie, packing the record's concise running time with plenty of exciting, hurtling moments of punk-pop hooks.

The band took the energetic tracks and a renewed taste for more loose, ragtag recording style to producer John Agnello, who the band met through the Hold Steady.

Harris set it all up on Facebook, messaging Agnello and asking if he'd be interested. Turns out Agnello was a fan and was stoked to work with them.

"You never know until you ask," Foster says.

As soon as Agnello and Harris got in touch, they exchanged phone numbers. Even before the band hit the studio, drunk texts between the band and the producer helped break the ice.

"We knew right away we'd get along with him," Foster says.

When they hit the studio, they set up quickly and began knocking songs out. By the end of the first day, the band tracked two songs complete with vocals. That pattern continued with the band recording during the day and Harris adding on vocals later in the day.

"We had a really good sytstem going," Foster says.

The Thermals w/ Pleasure Adapter play the Slowdown, 729 North 14th St., Monday, May 13th at 9 p.m. Tickets are $12. For more information, visit theslowdown.com.

posted at 10:52 pm
on Monday, May 06th, 2013

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