Category Archives: FEATURES

Japanese Breakfast: Creatively Unlimited


Japanese Breakfast’s sad songs say so much

When Michelle Zauner was in Little Big League, she concentrated on writing songs for the band’s albums. But it would sometimes take a year before they could tour, so she decided she didn’t want to wait anymore.

“When we went on hiatus, I wanted to share what I was writing with more immediacy,” says Zauner. “I decided to stop waiting for inspiration to strike and just go for it. In June of 2013, I told myself I’d record 30 tracks in 30 days and, at the end of the month, put out the result on cassette. Some days, I had 10 minutes to write. Some days, I had more time. I forced myself to maximize my creativity.”

The result was June, her first effort as Japanese Breakfast, a collection that took Zauner’s music in a more contemplative direction. She followed it up with two more cassette-only releases, Where Is My Great Big Feeling? and American Sound. “I like the raw, instinctual sounds you get on cassettes,” says Zauner. “To listen to them, you have to turn them over manually. It forces you to listen to the album as a whole piece of music.”

After making three cassettes, Zauner had almost 50 songs in her catalogue. “When I started Japanese Breakfast, it was still a rock band, but when I recorded the songs, they turned into something else,” she says. “With my co-producer, Ned Eisenberg, I incorporated sampled sounds and electronic elements.”

The end product is Psychopomp, a dark, intimate record that complements Zauner’s understated vocals with washes of ambient sound and waves of drowsy processed guitar. “In Jungian psychology, the psychopomp is the mediator between the conscious and subconscious mind,” says Zauner. “To some people, it suggests psychotic pop, which is what it sounds like on the surface, but if you look deeper, the music is really sad.”

—j. poet

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Shonen Knife: Pleasant Dreams


After 35 years, Shonen Knife is still playing music to make people happy

Blame the perpetual adolescence of her lifestyle. But after 35 years—much to her amazement—Shonen Knife bandleader Naoko Yamano is still firing on all punk-andgarage-infused six cylinders on the girl trio’s new Adventure album, featuring rollicking anthems like “Wasabi,” “Dog Fight,” “Tasmanian Devil” and the ’60s-chiming “Jump Into The New World.”

“Actually, I think I’ve gotten more rock ‘n’ roll than ever before,” says the Osaka native, who was once championed by the late Kurt Cobain. “Shonen Knife had a membership change in recent years, because women have to sometimes do parent care and family things. But I really wanted to continue the band, so I was lucky I could find very good new members. So my energy for rock ‘n’ roll is allowing me to continue.”

On drums, Yamano recruited Risa from the group Brinky. For bass, she convinced her sister Atsuko (the group’s founding drummer) to rejoin after five years away. And the singer still plays her two lightweight Daisy guitars onstage, one bright blue, the other shiny silver (“Their design and color are very pop and cute, and their concept is actually guitars for girls,” she says), plus her own pink-hued, self-designed Fujigen signature model (“The guitar neck is less thick, with jumbo frets, and the rear pickup is a humbucker, with a switch at the bottom, so it’s much easier to play,” she says of the limited-run axe, produced by the Japanese company a decade ago and now an auction-site rarity).

Lyrically, Adventure is just as glossy as Yamano’s instruments. “If I wanted to say something about political things, I would be a politician,” she says. “I just want people to get happy with our music.” On the record’s blues-scruffy “Rock‘N’Roll T-Shirt,” for instance, no introspective analysis is required as Yamano assesses her concert-tee wardrobe with a chirping “I like to wear them everywhere/They are my best clothes.” It’s a simplicity reminiscent of her longtime idols, the Ramones, which she honored by recording an eponymous album as the Osaka Ramones in 2011. It was produced by Goo Goo Dolls bassist Robby Takac, another band booster, who issued it—and several other Shonen Knife discs—on his Good Charamel imprint. “Robby is very punk,” she says of her benefactor.

As it did in 2010 at the request of then-curator Matt Groening, Shonen Knife will play this year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Britain, under the aegis of comedian Stewart Lee. Yamano only wishes her teenage daughter were more excited by such achievements. “She doesn’t like rock music, it’s very weird to her—she likes anime and manga instead,” she says. “I think rock music is gradually being forgotten now by young people in Japan.”

But Yamano has a personal method for keeping the music’s spirit alive. She plays tennis, several times a week, and catches professional opens whenever she can on tour. “Playing is very good for my health,” she says. “And after I started to play tennis, I never get tired after a show now. So rock ‘n’ roll and tennis go very well together—it’s a good match for me.”

—Tom Lanham

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Tacocat: Feminism Is Fun


Tacocat prefers to make you think while having a laugh

Tacocat’s new album, Lost Time, kicks off with “Dana Katherine Scully,” a tribute to the X-Files special agent played by Gillian Anderson. It has echoes of Brill Building pop, with a bright, bouncy Latin beat that makes it unforgettable. “We finished the album before they rebooted the series,” says bassist Bree McKenna. “Emily (Nokes, the band’s singer) is a huge fan. She’s always talking about The X-Files.”

“Scully” is just one of the woman-centric songs on the album. The band, which also includes guitarist Eric Randall and drummer Lelah Maupin, has spawned a new wave of feminism in Seattle, with its blistering energy, catchy melodies and arch, ironic lyrics. “I’m angry about a lot of things,” says Nokes, “but it’s better to make fun of the people in power. We laugh at them because their behavior is ridiculous.”

The quartet was inspired in part by the riot-grrrl bands of the ’90s, and while Tacocat has a sense of humor, the message it conveys is serious. “We write songs about being women,” says Nokes. “We sing about being in love, but we also talk about our bodies and relationships and what it means to be female. When we started playing punk clubs, there was a lot of young male energy in the audience—guys who’d freak when we said ‘tampon.’ Now we have men coming up to us saying, ‘Every time my partner is on her period, we sit together and listen to your song (“Crimson Wave”).’”

Lost Time mirrors the energy of the group’s live shows, but it’s also darker than their previous efforts. “I pushed myself when I was singing,” says Nokes. “We wanted the album to be louder, more serious and moodier than our last record but still fun. Even our moody tone is pretty much hot pink.”

—j. poet

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Yeasayer: Fables Of The Deconstruction


Yeasayer somehow managed to make its weirdest, most populist record

While it seems the rest of Brooklyn’s psych/pop class of 2008 seem to have either gone off the deep end (MGMT) or moved on to greener pastures (Vampire Weekend), Yeasayer has—a decade into its career—clung fast to its own out-of-time, deeply strange brand of music, somewhere in the space between Fela Kuti and Timbaland. The band’s fourth full-length, Amen & Goodbye, is its furthest-out yet.

In the four years since their last tour, the band’s three members—Anand Wilder, Chris Keating and Ira Wolf Tuton, who largely split songwriting duties—demoed tracks separately before decamping to upstate New York to record. Upon returning to Brooklyn, they enlisted Joey Waronker (Atoms For Peace, R.E.M.) to produce or, as they put it, “deconstruct,” what would eventually become Amen & Goodbye.

“Joey served as a really good lubricant,” says Tuton, “because by the time we got back to New York, we’d been doing this for a long time and there was motivation to finish, but it was fleeting. He brought a fresh energy, which I think helped us work at stripping the song structure down and building it back up.”

Along with Waronker, the band enlisted a formidable roster of friends and colleagues, including Suzzy Roche (of folk-rock legends the Roches) and Joe McGinty (formerly of the Psychedelic Furs), among others. Roche—a longtime idol of Tuton’s; he very highly recommends the Roches’ Robert Fripp-produced first and third albums—proves a revelation, her vocal turns (namely on the stunning coda to album highlight “Half Asleep”) each providing an uncanny counterpoint to the band’s own arrangements.

“Talking to Suzzy, it’s interesting because they never broke and became huge, but they developed an incredibly loyal fanbase,” says Tuton. “In some respects, I find some similar parallels between us. We’re not planning on becoming this huge band, but I think at this point, it’s amazing that we’ve found so many people and so many people have found us.”

It’d hardly be a Yeasayer album, though, without a laundry list of its own quirks, including a typically mind-bending album cover, courtesy this time of famed Canadian sculptor David Altmejd; and a trio of instrumentals, including the truly bizarre “Child Prodigy,” which consists solely of a harpsichord solo almost drowned out by stock applause. The band is well aware of the anomalies that set it so starkly apart from its contemporaries.

“I mean, if we’re going to engage in the world of making albums, then I’m much more interested in creating an interesting journey through the album than our best pop songs on side A and then getting worse and worse as you go along,” says Tuton. “Before making this record, we stepped back and said, ‘What are we? What are our strengths?’ We play to our strengths. And that’s what we’ve always tried to do, to maintain some sense of creativity and originality.”

—Möhammad Choudhery

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The Sharp Things: Golden Slumbers


With EverybodyEverybody, the Sharp Things complete their ambitious The Dogs Of Bushwick quartet

Ask Perry Serpa how many people are in the Sharp Things and the number ranges from 15 to one, not counting references to 40-piece orchestras and 21-strong string sections. The album credits for EverybodyEverybody, the fourth LP in the band’s The Dogs Of Bushwick series, list 18 players plus five chorale singers. But the New York City record-release show, on a bill with Mark Eitzel, was booked as a solo “Perry Serpa of the Sharp Things” event, due to logistical conflicts with other core band members.

“In a perfect world, we’d all be together all the time, and we’d have the money to support a seven- or eight-piece band on tour,” says Serpa from his Brooklyn home. But it’s not a perfect world, and the Sharp Things are a band in flux.

The Sharp Things formed in the late ’90s, although its genesis was in the childhood friendship between Serpa and drummer Steve Gonzalez. The band released three well-received albums of expansive chamber pop between 2002 and 2007, but then Serpa stepped back to reassess the band’s direction. The result was a “hyper-prolific burst of songwriting” of more than 40 songs in 2008 and early 2009.

The band recorded the basic tracks for all the songs and released the first installment of The Dogs Of Bushwick series in early 2013 as the album Green Is Good; the second, The Truth Is Like The Sun, followed at the end of that year. As the group was readying the third effort, Adventurer’s Inn, for release at the end of 2014, Gonzalez, who had cystic fibrosis, passed away.

“We stepped into the project, and we were gung-ho for definitely the first couple records,” says Serpa. “But then Steve passed between the second and the third one, and not to get too heavy about it, but we lost a lot of steam because of that. Understandably, there was a sort of collective depression. Personally, despite the fact that something sort of died inside, I feel he would have wanted us to finish it. And so, we did it.”

EverybodyEverybody is a wide-ranging song cycle modeled, in part, after the way the songs on side two of Abbey Road flow into one another. The band deploys chamber-pop orchestration judiciously (as on “Family Day At The Lake”), but, as on the other Bushwick albums, the group isn’t beholden to any one genre.

“Over the course of this quadrilogy—although that sounds really pretentious—we’ve really dabbled and immersed ourselves in the diversity of the songwriting,” says Serpa. “There’s songs that almost push the metal envelope. There’s songs that are really stripped down, really plaintive. Then there’s the more sort of lush, orchestral stuff that you found on our first three records. There’s the sort of retro stuff; there’s stuff that sounds like soul music; there’s electro stuff. There’s sound collages and interstitial stuff, especially on this particular record. We lost ourselves, literally; whatever we thought we were is sort of gone, anyway.”

EverybodyEverybody ends The Dogs Of Bushwick on an impressive note, and it concludes a chapter in the Sharp Things’ history. Serpa, who also works as a music publicist, has written more songs since that spurt seven years ago, including a series derived from Nick Hornby’s novel Juliet, Naked. For now, he’s taking a relaxed approach to EverybodyEverybody.

“Albums will happen when they happen; they fall together when they will,” he says. “They start to resonate with people at the weirdest time. I’m just going to relax on this one, take the industry hat o and just let it happen.” And he’s looking forward to the next period of the Sharp Things.

“Here we are, on to the next frontier, and God knows what that’s going to be,” he says. “I’m ready for it. I’m resigned to the happy fact that I’ll never stop making music until I’m put under myself. I feel good; I feel very positive about what’s next.”

—Steve Klinge

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Marisa Anderson: Turn On The Bright Lights


Marisa Anderson brings church and state together with a little pedal-steel improv

Nothing teaches you patience quite like walking across the United States. Marisa Anderson did just that in 1990, when she dropped out of college to join the Global Walk For A Livable World. So, it makes sense that the Portland, Ore.- based guitarist’s musical life has unfolded at an unhurried pace.

Singing hymns in Sunday school first inspired her. “That feeling has stayed with me throughout my life,” says Anderson. “I’m not religious, but I do believe in transcendence, and I believe that music has the wonderful function of helping us achieve it.”

She’s played in country quartet Dolly Ranchers and an eclectic improv ensemble, the Evolutionary Jass Band, but didn’t make her first album until 2009. “And that was only because Eric Isaacson at Mississippi Records demanded that I do so,” she says.

That year, Anderson tracked 12 guitar and lap-steel instrumentals for The Golden Hour, her debut solo record. In concert, she toggles between reverberant reveries, celebratory gospel themes and tense anthems like Spanish Civil War tune “Bella Ciao”; her between-song narration shows how the old stories relate to our current culture wars.

“I want to highlight the fact that these songs come from somewhere and are not a random aesthetic response or decorative choice of notes and phrases,” she says. “Those old church-and-state songs are beautiful propaganda, and they worked! I like to free those powerful melodies from their words and set them in motion into the future. Music is alchemy.”

Anderson’s fourth and latest LP, Into The Light (out in June), is a one-woman-band a air, constructed from layers of guitar, piano and pedal steel that often seem to be in conversation with each other. “The pieces are improvised and basically unmapped,” she says. “It’s important to me that each record I make propels me into uncharted waters. I don’t want to repeat myself.”

—Bill Meyer

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Primal Scream: By Any Means Necessary


The Scottish pop psychonauts in Primal Scream are back with their best in decades

“Most people in bands are usually smart enough not to say who their influences are. I was never that smart.”

Bobby Gillespie, Primal Scream frontman and full-time keeper of the faith, is on the phone from London to discuss the Scream’s new album, Chaosmosis. It’s—let’s not mince words here—utterly fantastic, easily the band’s strongest, most consistent release since the unhinged, speed-freak psychosis of 2000’s XTRMNTR. It’s also, like all of Primal Scream’s best work , a head-spinningly eclectic collection of sounds and infl uences, from floor-stomping Northern Soul to early-’80s synth grooves, spectral acoustic psych/folk to unabashed, unashamed glittering pop with a capital P. This is the Scream at its genrebending best.

From the cynic’s point of view, there’s always been the suspicion that the members of Primal Scream are little more than chancers, a motley bunch of musical trainspotters fueled by insane self-belief and a flawless record collection, a group that has spent most of its career teetering on the edge of stone-cold genius and utter stupidity.

“Aye, but see,” says Gillespie, “I used to always talk about my influences because when I first started doing interviews, I didn’t know what to say, right? So I just talked about stuff I loved. It was a way of avoiding talking about my own songs. Obviously I’m a huge fan … but it’s not like we set out to consciously sound like someone else, it’s just the history of pop music’s in our fucking DNA. The thing with this record is I just think it sounds like a Primal Scream record.”

This is most definitely a good thing. Primal Scream has always been at its most beguiling when the band soaked up its influences and managed to transcend them, embracing experimentalism along the way. (See Screamadelica or Vanishing Point as prime examples.) When these guys are lazy, jaded or uninspired, they’ve tended to drift down the retro-rawk route (Give Out But Don’t Give Up or Riot City Blues), where they’ve aimed for the ragged majesty of Exile-era Stones but ended up sounding more like a bargain-basement Black Crowes. Chaosmosis falls firmly in the former camp.

Recorded in London, New York and Stockholm, with help from Peter, Bjorn And John’s Bjorn Yttling (who also co-wrote three tracks), it’s a much more streamlined, focused a air than its predecessor, the relatively sprawling and indulgent More Light. This was a conscious decision, says Gillespie. “Our manager suggested, ‘Why don’t you write some singles?’ So it was a challenge, a good exercise in discipline.”

It’s pop but not as we know it. Delve deeper into the album, and behind the shimmering melodies lie a dark, twisted heart and lyrics that dwell on relationship breakdowns and emotional stasis. Gillespie insists it’s not based on personal experience: “I’m a happily married man, but I’m a writer, and the music just suggested that to me.”

Collaborations play a big part, as always, on Chaosmosis. In the past, the Scream, with credential-bolstering good taste, has corralled the likes of Jah Wobble, Augustus Pablo, Jaki Liebezeit and Kevin Shields. This time around, some of the band’s more seasoned fans might well raise a dubious eyebrow at the involvement of Haim and Myley Cyrus-endorsed Sky Ferreira, who both add admirably to the album’s overall pop sheen. Gillespie, however, has no time for musical snobbery, fans or no fans.

“Get them to fuck,” he says. “Really, fuck them. It’s like, I’ll apply Malcolm X’s maxim to rock ‘n’ roll, which is by any means necessary. It’s all about the art. Just like if I was a film director, it’s all about making a great picture and you cast a great actor for the right part to tell the story. And that’s what we do when we make records.”

There are some fans, though—let’s just say men of a certain age—who might be dismissive of such blatant pop acts.

“Aye, I know,” says Gillespie, “but I don’t care. We’ve always gained and lost fans. We’re making art for ourselves and putting it out, and if people get it, great. And if they don’t, fine. There’s nothing you can do about it. We refuse to be compromised by someone else’s lack of fucking vision. I mean, I don’t want to make the same record twice with the same fucking bunch of people. What’s the point of that?”

—Neil Ferguson

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Lucius: Grief Counselors


The ladies of Lucius find diarizing life on the road therapeutic

Holly Laessig and Jess Wolfe are on their way to a dance class. When they take Lucius on the road to perform songs from their latest album, Good Grief, they want to have a few moves ready to augment their vocals. “Our plan is to turn our stage show into an extravaganza,” Laessig says with a laugh.

The duo penned the record at the end of a grueling two-and-a-half-year tour to support their first CD, Wildewoman. “When we finished recording, we hit the road,” says Wolfe. “We’d never toured or been in a band before, so it was a difficult couple of years. You’re never home, you never have a full night’s rest, you don’t see your family, but you’re constantly surrounded by people. You feel like your life is in shambles. Luckily, since we co-write and travel together, we were able to talk each other through the difficulties and turn them into songs. Writing Good Grief became our ultimate therapy.”

The LP is full of smooth, mid-tempo laments that express the giddy highs and lows of life on tour, but the tunes could also be parables about the push and pull of personal relationships.

“When we got o the road, we had a bunch of lyrical ideas and voice memos of things we wanted to put on the album,” says Laessig. “A lot of it was so heavy that we decided to start with something o the wall that we could dance and scream along to. We wrote ‘Born Again Teen’ in one sitting.”

The track’s jubilant energy is a good balance for the darker melodies that make up the bulk of the record. “The songs cover the good and the bad, the heaviness and lightness,” says Laessig. “To keep the album from being too serious, this one has some comic relief.”

—j. poet

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The Lumineers: Songs From The Road


With Cleopatra, the Lumineers avoid the dreaded sophomore slump

“We had seven years to write the songs on our debut,” says Jeremiah Fraites, drummer, piano player and one of the songwriters in the Lumineers. “It was a greatest-hits collection, the songs that got the best crowd reaction, things we’d played for years and perfected. We didn’t have any money or time to record them the way we wanted to, so we were surprised to sell millions of records and get the Grammy nominations (best new artist, best Americana album).”

The band supported its eponymous first LP with three years of endless touring. Its songs appeared in high-profile TV shows, commercials and films, including The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1. When Fraites and his partners—singer/guitarist Wesley Schultz and singer/cello player Neyla Pekarek—started writing songs for their second album, they knew they had to produce something special.

“The pressure on me and Wes was cranked up to the max,” says Fraites. “We had to decompress from three years of touring and put aside our preconceptions of what an album should sound like. It was hard to get back to writing music, but the fear of a sophomore slump made us step up to the task. We wrote in a little rented house, and since we didn’t want anyone recording them on a phone and putting ’em up online, we didn’t play them live. Without the visceral experience of playing for an audience and seeing how people react, we had to dig into ourselves and put as much emotion into them as we could.”

The result is Cleopatra, a dark, solemn effort centered around Schultz’s vocals, with backing tracks dominated by sparse guitar and piano. Fraites’ drumming and Pekarek’s cello add ambient touches to deepen the emotional lyrics. “On the first album, everything had to be heavy and intense and start on a minor chord,” says Fraites. “We relied on a big drum set and lots of effects pedals. After years of touring, we know keeping it simple isn’t so easy. This time, there’s lots of electric bass and cello, for a subliminal low end that supports the music without overwhelming it.”

The songs often revolve around themes of loss, longing for home and memories of the past that are more poignant than nostalgic. “Touring brings up those feelings,” says Fraites. “Wes likes to write about the charades we perform when we’re running away from or running towards things. Some of the songs are autobiographical, some are based on people we know, but fictional or not, you can attach yourself to the ideas they represent.”

Fraites said they made a conscious decision to keep banjo and mandolin out of the arrangements, to move away from the Americana label for a more universal sound. “We want the music to speak for itself, with a lot of lyrical and musical ambiguity,” he says. “We don’t want people to know where we’re from, or what year the music is from. The first album was slightly folky, this is more chamber pop.”

—j. poet

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The Thermals: Disappearing Act


Death is never the end for kinetic Portland punkers the Thermals

Like a hummingbird, Hutch Harris always hovers in perpetual buzzing motion. Usually, what occupies most of the singer/guitarist’s time is his Portland alternative trio the Thermals, and its seventh set, the Chris Walla-produced We Disappear, took him two years to gradually, meticulously compose. He even turned down invitations from his old touring buddies Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein to appear on their locally filmed Portlandia. “They asked me to be on it a couple of times in the first two seasons, but I was always busy,” he says. “But I like to keep busy, I like to keep working, and I like to record. I like it a lot.

To that end, Harris—who has his own gadget-filled basement studio—was thrilled when he recently started getting some unusual extracurricular assignments. “Projects that came at a good time, when the Thermals had little breaks,” he says. Somehow, Amazon Studios discovered him through his publishing company and liked what they heard so much, they hired him as a composer for potential children’s shows. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. “I enjoy jobs like that, because it’s writing songs, and I love writing songs,” he says. “So, I’ll write them a bunch of different songs, and they’ll just pick one for each project, and I end up having a bunch of extra songs.”

So far, the shows have yet to be picked up. Harris penned a kinetic theme song for one pilot called Table 58 and an anthem for another, The History Of Radness, which was scored by ex-Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha and featured other rockers like Henry Rollins and—as the narrator—Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino. “It was about these kids in high school that have a band, so I wrote this song that the band played, and I have to admit it was pretty cool to see them play my song,” he says.

Punching the clock on kids’ programs has become a cottage industry for musicians these days, but the 40-year-old Harris says the Amazon leftovers won’t be compiled on an album: “Because they’re not even children’s songs, exactly—the stuff I write for them isn’t too far from a Thermals song. It’s just that the lyrics are slightly more positive than the lyrics I usually write. But they typically want a high-energy pop/punk song, just like the Thermals.”

We Disappear is that, in scratch-chorded spades. Opening on garage-punchy stomper “Into The Code,” it quickly settles into a surly Cheap-Trick-meets-Replacements scruffiness on “Hey You,” “The Walls” and “My Heart Went Cold,” an arena-rousing rocker revolving around the Joy Division tight rhythm section of bassist Kathy Foster and drummer Westin Glass. Thematically, it covers two grim topics—the frontman’s latest romantic breakup (he also dated Foster at one point) and the encroachment of technology on modern society.

And on dirges like “The Great Dying,” “Always Never Be” and “If We Don’t Die Today,” things grow more sepulchral. “If you look at our records, we’re always dying, there’s always lots of death happening,” says Harris. “When I was young, it used to scare the hell out of me. Now it doesn’t scare me in the same way, but I just can’t stop thinking about it—it’s just always on my mind.” Hence, he points out, the two key aspects he stresses in his writing. First, there has to be a concert-level intensity to the music. “That energy has always got to be there,” says Harris. “But it’s not easy to get—sometimes you’ll see a group that’s great live, but then you’ll only hear parts of that energy on their record. So, we’re always trying to stay excited in the studio and make sure we’ve got that.”

Lastly, jubilant-sounding Thermals riffs need to be candy-coating a sinister center. “Most of the bands that I grew up liking do that same thing, like Nirvana—catchy songs with really dark lyrics,” says Harris. Fans can listen to the Thermals on a playful surface level. “But it’s also cool to provide something deeper there, if people want to dig for it.”

—Tom Lanham

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