FIRST THINGS FIRST: The Thermals' new record Desperate Ground is about killing. Not death—killing. And right now Hutch Harris, the voice behind the album's murderous tales, is killing a vegan pizza at a Southeast bakery with drummer Westin Glass and his longtime friend and bandmate Kathy Foster. We're soon leaning in as Foster cracks open a box containing copies of the new record—on blood-red vinyl, of course.
Unlike the protagonists that typically occupy their songs, the Thermals are in a good spot these days. Since the release of 2003's More Parts per Million, the trio has gone from ramshackle indie-punk band to a lean rock 'n' roll machine. And Desperate Ground—the band's first on the Saddle Creek label—is their best since 2006's political screed The Body, the Blood, the Machine. It's a kick in the pants that'll kick in your teeth.
After runs on Sub Pop and Kill Rock Stars, the trio was label-less while recording the new material in New Jersey with producer John Agnello, known for his work with Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. "It was fun to make a record without a label," says Harris. "We like to keep an arm's length with labels," he says, adding, "we joked about writing our own contract and bringing it in."
But the Thermals wield that kind of power. You might not find a more charismatic and down-to-earth band. Harris contacted Agnello through Facebook, and the band—songs and concept fully fleshed—were soon in Jersey quickly laying down tracks and dodging hurricanes. (Sadly, Agnello lost some of his equipment to Hurricane Sandy, which touched land just after the band finished mixing the record.)
On Desperate Ground Harris again digs deep into the human psyche, this time to examine what drives a person to kill. Of course, while your gray matter ponders, your body pogos. Opener "Born to Kill" sets the tone for the next 26 minutes: fast and dark, with production that has the graininess of a snuff film.
That intensity carries over into their live performances. Road warriors that they are, the Thermals are already gearing up for tours of America and Europe. Coming off a handful of particularly rowdy shows at SXSW, Harris says their mission is clear: "You have to really go there and destroy it."