Quit Your Day Job

Quit Your Day Job: The Thermals

Reporting live from SXSW, a/k/a the place where indie-rock dreams come true (or die in front of a half-filled room), I figured it made sense to present a longtime worker who not so long ago left his 9-5 gig. Yes, Hutch Harris, that ebullient, politically (and, turns out, caffeine-charged) vocalist/guitarist of the Thermals can also make a mean latte. And, well, coffee has a lot to do with More Parts Per Million’s breakneck BPM.

He and his Portland pop-rocker compatriots won’t be at SXSW this year, but while you sip some strong joe to stay awake for that late electro showcase, you can pretend they’re close at hand by revisiting “Here’s Your Future” from The Body, The Blood, The Machine.

A word of advice to bands working and wanting to escape: If you don’t pay attention to the lyrics, you can pretend it’s an anthem about how you’ll be sitting pretty in a job-free position next year. You know, “the future.” If you’re Jesus? Well, it’s cool to pay attention to the lyrics; the implications shift drastically.

STEREOGUM: I wanted to talk to you about your day job, about what you do at the coffee shop, how it overlaps with the band and this and that…

HUTCH HARRIS: Well, I worked at a coffee shop, but I don’t work there anymore. I used to. I haven’t worked since last July.

STEREOGUM: What did you do when you were there?

HH: I was a barista.

STEREOGUM: How long were you at the shop before you headed on?

HH: A long time … I was at this one for four years.

STEREOGUM: What was it that finally allowed you to quit?

HH: We’ve just been touring for so long. Really, it’s this tour that’s allowing me to not go back at all. Still, a lot of times, we’re just gone so long that I think I’ve quit, but then we take a break for a year like we did, and then I have to go back. But, I hope and pray I don’t have to go back — I really don’t want to go back — but I’m pretty sure I won’t be going back for a long time.

STEREOGUM: In the past, when you’d return, would you always go back to same coffee shop?

HH: There were a couple different ones I worked at…

STEREOGUM: From your time at these places, are there any coffee drinks you’re especially adept at making? An expert cappuccino, perhaps?

HH: I’m really good at it, but I hate it. [Laughs]

STEREOGUM I used to live in Portland, too. There’s that Borders nobody visits because they all go to Powell’s — I was in the history section for a while, making my little Noam Chomsky displays, but then they shoved me into the coffee shop. One thing I realized quickly is that I didn’t know anything about fancy coffee drinks. Especially on the West Coast, it seems, people are really serious about their coffee. I was amazed at how pissed off and particular people were about their skinny caramel lattes…

HH: Yeah, I wanted to kill all the customers all the time. I hate them. I hate seeing the same people at the same time every single day, and I hate seeing people before they get their coffee because they fucking look like shit. People roll out of bed, don’t even take a shower — they can’t deal with anyone until they get their coffee because they’re so addicted. So that would be the worst time to see someone.

The thing with Stumptown is that they’re so fucking serious. You know, Stumptown started training most of the other coffee shops in the city, whether or not they even have Stumptown Coffee, so you were constantly getting your nuts busted over pulling shots and shit like that. But at the same time, they pay you really well and you get health insurance. That’s the one bummer for me is that I lost my health insurance. For all that time I had fucking full coverage and dental, too. That’s rare to get for a counter job. So it’s hard to complain about a job that gets you that. I didn’t mind. I can get up early. I didn’t really mind working at the coffee shop.

STEREOGUM: They roasted their own beans, right?

HH: Yeah, they roast all their own beans. They have a spot on Division and 34th or something, where they roast all the beans there.

STEREOGUM: Has the job changed your relationship to coffee? I know when I was a kid and I worked on a blueberry farm, I couldn’t eat blueberries for a while.

HH: Yeah, yeah, I actually did stop drinking coffee, although I am making some really cheap coffee in the hotel right now. You know Stumptown … the coffee they serve there, besides espresso, they just French press it, so it’s fucking thick as mud, and it gets you fucking high. It really gets you high. It’s funny because — the one thing — when we started this band I have to say the coffee did have a lot to do with it [Laughs] because I would work these shifts that were 6 to noon. Because at noon you have the whole day to do whatever; and that’s when I would go write and record like as soon as I got off. Basically the songs on our first record were all songs that I just went home right after working super jacked up and wrote.

Eventually I started drinking tea because in a lot of ways coffee is really not healthy for you. [Laughs] It just really dries you out, and it makes it harder for your body to absorb nutrients and vitamins and shit like that … and it made me cracked out, too. Pretty much I just drink tea now. But I really like strong English tea, so…

STEREOGUM: Oh good, if it was herbal I was going to ask if The Thermals were going to start playing downer folk, slow little drone ballads…

HH: Yeah, it gets boring. [Laughs] No, I’m an up person by nature anyway, so I don’t really need something else. I mean, I smoke pot and it makes me feel like I’m cracked out, too, it doesn’t put me down. Yeah, whatever I’m using to facilitate the process, it doesn’t matter what it is. [Laughs]

STEREOGUM: As a touring coffee expert — which cities do you think have the best coffee?

HH: The sad thing is that Starbucks really does have the best coffee outside the Northwest. I’m sure there’s like specialty places in big cities, but when you’re just on the road and stopping in the middle of nowhere … it’s almost … fuck. You hate to say that. But even the owner of Stumptown, even he found it hard to hate Starbucks because they made so many people get into coffee tasting good, as opposed to just some brown water that’s just in a pot in the back of the gas station. You know? It’s crazy how many … I mean, Starbucks is kinda the poster child, even more than McDonalds, for over-franchising, but if it’s between that and a truck stop and you want coffee, you’ll go there. It’s totally good.

STEREOGUM: Actually, yeah, I held out for a long time…

HH: Me, too.

STEREOGUM: Then the couple times I went in, I felt guilty and embarrassed. I’d look around to make sure I didn’t know anyone. The other day I went into a Starbucks and didn’t think about it. When I realized that shamelessness later, of course I felt bad again.

HH: Yeah, friends would come to Portland and they’d go to Starbucks and I’d go, “Aw come on, what are you doing, you’re crazy, there’s a fucking million better coffee shops here!” But now I just say fuck it. [Laughs] Not in the Northwest, but when I’m anywhere else and … I don’t know … Like I said, I’m not really drinking coffee that much anyway.

STEREOGUM: Have you heard about the Starbucks record label?

HH: I know they do the exclusive CDs. I know fucking Bob Dylan did that one, which is really cheesy. Is that their label?

STEREOGUM: I think that was something different — now they have a full-on record label, signing bands, putting them out, etc.

HH: It’ll just say, “looking for bands, must sound like Dave Matthews or Norah Jones.”

STEREOGUM: Maybe they’ll have a showcase at CMJ with free scones. What’s your stance on flavored coffee?

HH: Um, no, I don’t like it. I pretty much just drink it black with nothing. But if the coffee’s really shitty you gotta put some … You know how gas stations … the machine that’ll give you amaretto mocha, or some shit like that, or like a vanilla Irish cream, or something? If you make a coffee and it’s really like dirty dishwater coffee, squirt some of that shit in it’s pretty good. Besides that, if you’re drinking something good, I wouldn’t put anything in it.

STEREOGUM: In your later-day coffee shop career did any Thermals fans come in and notice you working behind the counter?

HH: Yeah, so that got to be a lot of the reason why I didn’t want to work there anymore, why I was really happy to not work there. Just like … it was embarrassing, not because, like, “Oh, I’m working at this little coffee shop.” Not for that, but because it was an awkward situation to meet someone in, you know? It was just really awkward. When I’m working I just want to do my shit and not look at anyone, not have to talk to anyone. [Laughs] Sometimes it’s such a social scene. It makes you really annoyed when you’re hung over and you have to stand there with some coffee with a big smile on your face.

STEREOGUM: It’s always hard to say, but at this point, fingers crossed, do you think you’re done for good with working a day job? Or at least for the time being…

HH: For the time being, for sure, but you never know for the future. You could be 50 and back working there, but we’ll see. [Laughs] Nothing’s permanent.

The Thermals – “Here’s Your Future” (MP3)

The Body, The Blood, The Machine is out on Sub Pop.

Tags: The Thermals