Although I slept through my freshman micro-economics course far more than I attended, 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 $6 (no matter how long it takes) or in five days (no matter how much it costs).
The Thermals, a band that hails 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' 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 those six greenbacks buy? Six blank cassette tapes from K-Mart. 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 pressed 13 tracks to disc 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, and mixed it in a little less than two, with help from producer Chris Walla (also of 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.
Thermals, comedian Fred Armisen, and the Jack Theory Trader
Churchill's, 5501 NE Second Ave., Miami
9 p.m. Saturday, July 10. Tickets cost $10. Call 305-757-1807.
Efficiency, of course, doesn't necessarily equate with quality. Ford had its Pinto assembly lines rolling like clockwork in the '70s, nevermind that pesky exploding gas tank thing. But there are no discernable flaws, artistically speaking, in the Thermals' indie-punk design. 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.
Above it all, Harris' nasal voice spews personal and political observations forcefully, like a chunk of steak flying from a diner's trachea, post-Heimlich. The threesome delivers tight, fast anthems that surge past far more quickly than their average two-minute length, yet lodge in the brain for days (in a great, grin-inducing way).
These qualities unquestionably come through with more sonic clarity on Fuckin A than on MPPM, but with no less urgency or passion. Bottom line: It doesn't matter what limited time or funds these guys have, or whether you stick them in a broom closet or the main room at Abbey Road; they'll still come up with fantastic, amazingly energetic songs that'll compel you to pogo, pump your fist, and sing along like a complete freak.
"We like to do things fast and cheap," Harris laughs 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, long as it came out good and loud and scratchy."
Strangely enough, the Thermals achieved that vibe on Fuckin A while working with Walla, who's not exactly known for roughing things up in the studio.
"Yeah, it's funny because Chris is not a total 'rock producer guy' at all," Harris says. "He usually does a lot more pretty stuff like his own band and Nada Surf and shit that's not anything like us. But he really had his ears trained to the sound we wanted to get and was good at scratching the whole thing up while making it sound fuller.
"Plus he had this energy and complete excitement about working with us," Harris continues. "He was so determined! All last year, he kept saying, 'I'm gonna do your next record, I'm gonna do your next record,' and we were like, 'Oookay!' And then it turned out he had five days free, and we were thinking we'd just go in and see what we could do. And the next thing you know, it was done."
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The heightened production makes Harris' lyrical outbursts much clearer after MPPM's mic distortions rendered many of his lines indecipherable. And Harris 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 peoples' 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 are just now hitting the road 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 the band prolific, call it efficient, but the singer attributes their pace more 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."