Indie Rock and Standup in Portland with The Thermals’ Hutch Harris

hutchharrisMusicians are often thought of as self-serious crybabies, holding their craft to the highest imaginable standards and scoffing at anything that resembles fun. Often, that’s not the case, however, as many musicians moonlight with comedic output, and vice versa. From follow-worthy Twitter accounts to viral videos and other projects, we’re here to point out some of the most interesting crossovers between the worlds of music and comedy.

With 13 years of experience and six albums for labels like Sub Pop, Kill Rock Stars and Saddle Creek, there’s no denying that The Thermals are an established indie rock institution. The Portland trio’s blistering, punk-inflected musicianship and politically charged lyrics have made them a band to take seriously, but founder and frontman Hutch Harris also has a funny side.

After a lifetime of psyching himself out, the artist recently started performing comedy of his own. Here, he describes how he got over his nerves, what Portland comedy is like post-Portlandia, and how his music is getting in the way of his budding standup career.

The Thermals most recently released Desperate Ground in 2013. They are currently working on their seventh studio album.

Have you always had an interest in comedy?

Always. My dad took me to see like every single Woody Allen film when I was a kid. Eddie Murphy’s Delirious and Raw were huge for me when I was young. I was pretty much raised on sitcoms… I’ve always found comedy, and especially standup, to be the highest form of art.

When did you start performing comedy yourself? Do you strictly do standup, or are you involved in other mediums?

I actually got involved in the Portland comedy scene by performing at standup shows but not doing standup. I played a song at Midnight Ma$$, I illustrated while comics performed at Picture This… I was doing so many shows where I performed alongside standup comics, eventually I felt like I had to make the transition.

What was the catalyst to start doing it yourself?

I had been itching to do standup for years. I wrote and rehearsed and prepared, lurked the local Portland scene for awhile. I started going to open mics but not performing, just watching. I psyched myself out for awhile. I watched too many mics without going up. I didn’t think I could do it, or that I even wanted to. Performing at an open mic is really fun, but just watching can be misery.

Finally my friend, Portland comic Andie Main, told me about a mic at a moose lodge right by my house. Small, weird, no pressure. I had no excuse not to do it! I didn’t prepare, I didn’t write, I just got up and did it. The only way I was gonna be able to do it was to just get up and not think too much about it beforehand.

Did playing in a band lend you more confidence when you first started, or was it just as scary as everyone says it is?

It was terrifying. I’m used to getting up onstage, but doing standup is completely different from playing in a band. That’s one of the things I like so much about doing standup. It’s nothing like playing a song for people. The rhythm is completely different. You’re naked on stage. I’m an exhibitionist so this is very appealing to me. But yeah, I was really scared and nervous for awhile.

What do you get out of performing comedy that you don’t get out of performing music?

Silence. The silence when you finish a joke, whether it kills or bombs, is amazing to me. I don’t get that in music. When we play shows it’s just a non-stop barrage of noise. When I do standup I’ve really grown to love the beats between jokes. Standing in front of a room full of people telling jokes is amazing, but standing in front of a room full of people when it’s dead silent, even if it’s only for a few seconds, is amazing. There’s nothing else like it. There’s a really interesting power dynamic to it. Someone always has the power, the comic or the audience. One of the tricks to standup seems to be keeping all of the control, and not giving it to the audience.

In the Keep It Like a Secret video, you do a great joke about living in a TV show in Portland. Has the success of Portlandia contributed to positive or negative change in Portland?

I love Portlandia, they’ve been really good to us. The Thermals played the Portlandia premiere in NYC when the show first came out, it was one of the most fun shows we’ve played. Heather Graham was in the audience!

The thing about Portlandia is that they nailed it so hard, when I watch it sometimes I feel like I’m watching a documentary about Portland. So yeah, a lot of us feel like we are living in the show now. I mean, we are.

Further, have you noticed a shift in terms of whether or not indie rockers are willing to make fun of themselves?

What annoys me about a lot of indie rock is how pretentious and sincere it is. Or, faux-sincere. So many musicians take themselves so seriously. It’s weird because I find a lot of musicians to be very funny in real life, but when it comes to their art they don’t have much of a sense of humor about it. It can also be very hard to convey your sense of humor in music without it becoming schticky or stupid.

Have you found it easy to plug into a scene with likeminded comics?

The scenes in Portland, and LA as well actually, have been incredibly warm and welcoming to me. I love the DIY comedy scene right now, it reminds me of how the Portland music scene used to be. Comedians all love music, so I have that in common with a lot of comics. It’s funny how many comedians used to play music, or still do.

Who are some comics you look up to?

My favorites are Richard Pryor, David Cross, Louis CK… My absolute favorite comic is Chris Rock. I really love Amy Schumer, Anothony Jeselnik, Bill Burr, Kyle Kinane, Ian Karmel. Portland has an amazing roster of comics as well. Steven Wilber, Amy Miller, Barbara Holm, Adam Pasi, Joann Schinderle, Bri Pruett… I could go on forever with all of these lists.

Are there similarities to telling jokes and playing in The Thermals?

Yes. Anytime I’m onstage, whether with the band or doing standup, I’m saying stupid crazy stuff that some people like and some people don’t like. I always think that if you’re pleasing everyone you’re no good, and if you’re not pleasing anyone you’re no good. If you’re pleasing half the people and annoying/angering the other half you’re doing it right.

What would you like to accomplish as a standup comedian?

Look, I just came to get a few laughs and I already got a few laughs so I’m just about done.

I saw on social media that you’re working on new Thermals songs. What’s next from the band?

We are hoping to record a new album this spring, maybe get it out in the fall. These things always take longer than you expect, you know? We’ve been working long hours writing and rehearsing, which has been annoying cause I keep missing all the good comedy shows in Portland. Stupid music career.

Harris will be performing at Hot Tub in Portland tonight! Tickets are available here.

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