“Most people do their punk band first and then the mellower project comes later in life,” Hutch Harris says, recalling a conversation he recently had about the natural order of a typical musical career. The Cupertino native and founding member of indie-punk trio The Thermals ended up doing things the other way around—playing in the plodding, shoegaze-y Haelah, the bopping, indie-pop group, Urban Legends, and the indie-folk two-piece Hutch and Kathy (with Thermals co-founder Kathy Foster) before turning everything up to 11.
Fortunately—both for Harris and Foster, as well as fans of their solitary self-titled release—the South Bay-bred duo are revisiting the material from their 14-track 2002 album. Hutch and Kathy was issued on vinyl for the first time this April, and the pair will be hitting the road this month in support of the release, kicking off their tour with a hometown show this Thursday at Café Stritch.
Harris met Foster, who grew up in Sunnyvale, shortly after graduating from high school. They played together in two bands—first Haelah and later Urban Legends. As the latter group became increasingly serious, they considered moving to San Francisco, but ultimately opted to relocate to Portland instead. They’ve called the Pacific Northwest home since 1998.
“It was just much cheaper,” Harris says, reflecting on the decision to leave Silicon Valley. “That was the main reason. Even San Jose was too expensive.”
Not long after making the move, Harris and Foster began work on what would become Hutch and Kathy. Filled with rattling tambourines, wavering organ, bright steel strings and soulful harmonica bridges, they recorded Hutch and Kathy themselves, entirely on vintage reel-to-reel tape machines.
He and Foster took their time with the album, Harris says—laying down tracks over the span of two years, from 2000 to 2001. And while “it feels like forever ago,” the singer and songwriter says both he and Foster are very proud of the material to this day. “To us, that record holds up really well, just because we took so much time to get it right—to get it the way we wanted it.”
Shortly after finishing the record, the duo took their songs on the road—only to quickly return to Portland upon learning that Sub Pop Records was interested in a punky demo Harris had recorded using a different moniker: The Thermals.
It was a pleasant surprise, Harris says. He had recorded the songs in the brief span between the completion of Hutch and Kathy and the tour. In that short window he had managed to slip a copy to Death Cab For Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard—an acquaintance he’d made while playing shows in and around Portland. Gibbard, in turn, had passed the demo on to his then-record label.
“Sub Pop was actually emailing us while we were on that tour, which was crazy,” Harris remembers. “The Thermals weren’t even a band yet. It was just some recordings I had done.”
Harris and Foster hustled back to Portland to put a band together. The Thermals would go on to record six LPs, many more EPs, and a pair of live albums. Their third record, The Body, The Blood, The Machine, garnered critical acclaim from the likes of NPR, Pitchfork and The AV Club.
Harris says he and Foster are happy to be revisiting the material more than a decade since they first laid it down to tape.
“It’s quieter; it’s not as manic as those early Thermals records,” he says, noting that he can understand why musicians so commonly progress from punk to plucking at acoustic guitars. “We’ve been doing The Thermals for 13 or 14 years now,” says Harris, who turns 40 this year. “It’s nice to go back and do something mellow at this point our life.”
But neither Harris, nor Foster, have any plans to hang up their electric guitars or unplug their amps. After the Hutch and Kathy tour, Harris says there is definitely more Thermals music to come.
And when it does, he says the hometown fans can expect to see a local Thermals show.
“We always want to come back to San Jose,” he says, reminiscing about performing at various South Bay venues—including the Caravan Lounge, Los Gatos Outhouse and Knights of Columbus Hall in Cupertino. “The shows are always good. We would come here even if we didn’t have the hometown connection.”
Watch The Thermals’ “Pillar of Salt” from their critically acclaimed, The Body, The Blood, The Machine:
Hutch and Kathy play Cafe Stritch on May 14 at 9pm. More info.