One could be forgiven for writing humans off as the shittiest species to ever reside on planet Earth, especially considering what’s gone down over the past couple of weeks. In Massachusetts, two bombs explode near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, wounding over a hundred, killing three, and then shutting down the entire city.
In Washington, D.C., a bill designed to reduce access to automatic weapons is shot down by the Republican-controlled Congress, despite tearful pleas from victims and survivors of massacres like the one in Newtown, Connecticut. Meanwhile, America is still at war overseas, the bodies on both sides piling up daily.
All this is understandably disgusting as far as Thermals singer-guitarist Hutch Harris is concerned. The first thing he’s happy to tee off on? That would be America’s fixation with guns.
“As far as people who want to keep guns in the hands of Americans go, I don’t know what could possibly change their minds,” Harris says, on the line from his Portland, Oregon, home. “Even if every one of their children was killed by a gun, I don’t even know then if that would change their minds. People are so incredibly stubborn about gun ownership. What’s interesting is that a lot of people don’t even ask questions. If you feel a certain way about abortion or gay marriage, you’ve been brought up to think one way about it, and nothing will change your mind.”
If one gleans anything from these observations, it’s that Harris doesn’t belong to the National Rifle Association, and probably didn’t vote Republican in the last election. That makes what he managed to pull off on the Thermals’ latest, Desperate Ground, somehow even more admirable.
In a furious outing that’s been favourably compared to the band’s 2006 classic The Body, the Blood, the Machine, the long-running alt-punk trio has made a record dominated by the themes of war and killing. What’s clever is the way that Harris, bassist Kathy Foster, and drummer Westin Glass make no attempt to judge those committing the violence and bloodshed in the songs.
“I wanted to be vague and misinterpreted,” Harris offers. “If stuff is too point-blank, it’s boring. It’s sick, but for this one I wanted to make a record about war, but I didn’t want to make an antiwar record. But despite that, in a lot of the reviews that I’ve read, people are seeing it as antiwar record automatically.”
That’s because they aren’t paying attention. Forget taking sides: short, sharp, and snarling tracks like “Born to Kill” find Harris singing from the perspective of someone at peace with the idea that he has an ugly job to do. What’s brilliant about lyrics like “The men I’ve ended/Not forgotten to me/I remember their faces as I’ve set them free” from “Faces Stay With Me”? Or “Now I feel free to kill/But I know my shadows they follow me still” from “The Sunset”? That’s easy: they are just as likely to be embraced by hard-core Iraq War jarheads as they are by Left Coast antiwar activists.
“There’s not supposed to be any politics on this record, and there’s no religion at all,” Harris says. “And yet all the reviews see exactly both things in the songs.”
Don’t expect him to set the record straight on Desperate Ground, though.
“When I go to a gallery show, I don’t read the artist statements because I don’t want to know what the artist wants me to understand, Harris says. “That’s like explaining things to a child. Art is supposed to be more ‘Well, what do you get out of this?’ ”
On that note, let’s start with the contention that Earth is full of shitty people doing shitty things to each other, because, well, that’s just the way it is.