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The Politics of Punk: Interview with The Thermals

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These days, numerous indie rock bands and musicians seem to have an ear for progressive politics. Indie bands are constantly showing up on lefty compilation albums and on lineups for music festivals and concerts that promote progressive causes. They speak out against Bush, they want you to vote, they think we should get out of Iraq, and they want to help fight global warming. You might even see them playing campaign events in the coming presidential election.

Few musicians, though, actually incorporate explicit political commentary into their music in a concrete way. This is exactly what The Thermals have done with their latest album, The Body, The Blood, and The Machine. To Hutch Harris, lead singer and guitarist of The Thermals, lyrics are the most important part of songwriting. This is why his lyrics are so political. Each song on The Body shouts political criticism, attacking those in power, and almost attempting to incite every other citizen to action. The tracks come together to form a solid album that’s purely punk rock.

Harris and bassist Kathy Foster combine provocative lyrics with fast-paced, multi-layered instrumentals to create an assertive sound that commands attention. They rock out—and hard. In an effort to continue their support of progressive action, The Thermals took time out of their busy touring schedule to talk with the Center for American Progress.

CAP: To me, The Body, The Blood, and The Machine gets to the root of punk rock—both with its tone and clear social commentary. How did you go about highlighting the subversive, antiestablishment ideals of old school punk rock?

Hutch Harris: Punk rock is about processing the evils of the world with intelligence, not how drunk you can get or how many tattoos you have. 

CAP: Why do you focus on religion in your commentary of U.S. politics?

HH: To me there’s no way you can discuss American politics these days without pointing to the connection with organized religion, particularly the Christian Right. Bush answers to the people who prop him up, the rest of the world can apparently go to hell.

CAP: In other interviews, you’ve spoken about the need to recognize the connection between the Christian right and U.S. politics, in terms of financial backing and how policies are made. How do you see right wing Christian groups influencing policies in areas such as abortion, stem cell research, gay rights, immigration, etc.?

HH: Easy. Christian Right gives money to Republicans, who then work to pass laws that the Christian Right favors.

CAP: How does faith play a role in your own life?

HH: I grew up Christian, I went to church every Sunday and attended Catholic and Jesuit schools growing up. I actually played an active role in my Christian youth group in high school, I went to a church camp and went to Tijuana to build houses for homeless families living in tents. I found so many positive things in Christianity, but eventually the hypocrisy of organized religion and my own lack of faith led me to abandon the church. I do not believe in God, but honestly, I wish I did.

CAP: What kind of feedback have you received from fans and critics on The Body?

HH: We’ve received an outpouring of positive reactions to this record. I am most pleased to hear from practicing Christians who feel the same way we do about Bush. I think people take us a lot more seriously now. I’m not sure they should.

CAP: Whose idea was it to use organs on this album? What was the motivation behind that?

HH: For “A Pillar of Salt” it was a line I heard in my head while Kathy and I were writing. I knew it would be best executed on a keyboard. The studio where we recorded TBTBTM, [called Supernatural Sound Studios,] ironically records mostly Christian rock. They had a classic church organ, it was too perfect, we had to use it.

CAP: Do you see similarities in other indie rock bands’ critiques of religion and politics? For example, The Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible seems to use instrumentals and lyrics in a very similar way to The Thermals in order to present commentary on Christianity. What is your take on such efforts?

HH: Yeah it does seem like everyone is jumping on our bandwagon. I wish them good luck!  No, seriously, I have heard that record but I’m not sure what the lyrics are…I would like to read them. When I’m writing music, lyrics are the most important part.

CAP: The lyrics in some of your songs speak directly to the political climate of our country. “Power Doesn’t Run on Nothing,” for one, has some provocative lines in it. For example: “Yeah we’re more equal/ We’ll move you people/Off the planet ’cause we need the fuel;” and then: “’Cause God is with us, and our god’s the richest/ Our power doesn’t run on nothing/It runs on blood.” This song seems to charge our government with a certain level of imperialism. Could you talk about the apparent relationship between imperialism, religion, and war that comes across through the lyrics in this song?

HH: I was picturing Dick Cheney writing those lyrics himself. This is a for-profit war, and it does run on the blood of soldiers and innocent civilians. These nuts we have in the White House right now will stop at nothing in their ongoing quest for power and money, even if it means scorching the entire earth. War kills, religion pays the bills.

CAP: What can we expect from your next album?

HH: The next album is going to be called Politics Don’t Sell Records, which is as stupid as it is true. You can expect another record of fabulous Thermals-style songs.

CAP: And lastly…when are you coming back to D.C.?!

HH: We should be there in October or November, stay tuned!  We sold out the Black Cat last time we were there, it was awesome!

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Allison Preiss (economy, education, poverty)
202.478.6331 or apreiss@americanprogress.org

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, energy and environment, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention)
202.481.7141 or tcaiazza@americanprogress.org

Print: Chelsea Kiene (women's issues, Legal Progress, Half in Ten Education Fund)
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi (immigration, race and ethnicity)
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or rrosen@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org