Hutch Harris hesitated a bit when asked to describe the sound of his band, The Thermals, a trio from Portland, Ore. set to play Neurolux on Thursday.
"I would call it good, loud and fast," Harris said. "It's not exactly punk, but I don't like to call it rock and roll either. I guess it's like punk rock, but we're not exactly punk rockers."
The Thermals may not look like punks--Harris and drummer Jordan Hudson are clean-cut fellows, and bassist Kathy Foster is cute as a button--but their most recent record, Fuckin A, sounds like the fuzzed-out bombast of Nirvana served up in 12 blasts of adrenaline that average just over two minutes in length.
The result is one of the catchiest rock records in years. At a time when flashy, new wave revivalists and dour singer-songwriters are breaking out of the underground and into the mainstream, The Thermals are working hard to keep indie rock fun and furious.
"We like that punk aesthetic," Harris said recently from a grocery store parking lot between tour dates in Minneapolis and Grand Rapids, S.D. "I just like that dirty, crunchy rock sound."
To attain the proper level of crunch, The Thermals recorded their first album, 2003's More Parts Per Million, for just $60 in Harris' Portland basement. That effort came a year after Harris and Foster released a self-titled album under the name Hutch and Kathy that was 13 cuts of quiet, lo-fi folk-pop.
The huge dynamic shift between the two projects is not lost on Harris.
"Kathy and I worked almost a year on that (Hutch and Kathy) record. We took our time and got really into acoustic pop," Harris said. "But once we were done we wanted to do something different. We wanted to do something fun and something that we didn't have to think about too much. It was a natural direction for us."
For Fuckin A, the band recorded at Seattle's Avast! Studio with good friend Chris Walla of Death Cab For Cutie twiddling the knobs.
In a real studio, Walla expanded The Thermals' sound but made sure Fuckin A didn't stray too far from the shoestring-budget ruckus of the band's debut.
"We're taking small steps in terms of production," Harris said. "If we made 10 records and improved the sound a little each time, (a listener) probably wouldn't notice a difference from one to the next. But if you listened to the first and the tenth together, you'd probably hear it."
On Fuckin A, The Thermals' gigantic noise doesn't let up for a half-hour, and the end product is one of the best albums released in 2004. Feedback opens the record on "Our Trip" and the band keeps the pedal to the metal until the closing chord of "Top of the Earth."
Along the way, The Thermals conduct a clinic on catchy guitar-based rock. Highlights include the Pixies-ish bouncing bass line of "How We Know," the scorching political rant "God and Country," the hip-shaking love song "Let Your Earth Quake, Baby," and the album's best track, the soaring "A Stare Like Yours."
Lyrically, Fuckin A is stronger than More Parts Per Million. Harris' words are simple and straightforward, but visceral enough for themes to bubble to the surface, particularly on "God and Country," where he sings "Pray for a new state. Pray for assassination. I can hope, see, even if I don't believe."
Harris said he tried while writing Fuckin A to hang a thinner veil over the meanings of his songs.
"I think a lot of my lyrics in the past have been political, but I made an effort this time to make the lyrics more blatant and more understandable," Harris said. "I didn't want to make it too obvious, but I want people to hear what we're saying."
People are clearly hearing The Thermals' message, as critics and fans fawned over Fuckin A. And for a band that signed to legendary indie label Subpop Records after only six live shows, things are picking up on the road as well, Harris said.
"We just had an awesome string of shows where we had a bunch of people singing along and going crazy," he said. "It's nice to see the touring we've been doing paying off in the cities we've been to a few times."
Success has also brought a few offers of prominent placement in the worlds of film and television, but the band has so far used the same punk ideals that color its music when considering such opportunities.
"We've had some offers, but that's not something we aspire to. We want to keep the music separate from other things and let it stand on its own," Harris said. "We want to watch where our music goes. The less the songs are associated with anything other than our band, the better."
The Thermals play Thursday, Feb. 3, 9 p.m. at Neurolux, 111 N. 11th St., $3 cover.