“Punk” is a tough-to-pin-down title that’s used to describe everything from fashion to anarchism, and even (on occasion) music. For Hutch Harris, the lead singer and songwriter for The Thermals, it’s a title that’s been used to describe almost every aspect of his life for the past 14 years. That’s because, over the course of seven full-length albums, Harris has achieved what many of us can only dream of — actual, hand-to-god, punk-rock street cred.
Which is why it’s no surprise — if we’re really calling comedy the “new punk rock” — that Harris would eventually decide to do stand-up. Even less surprising, if you’re familiar at all with The Thermals, is that Harris is really, really funny.
And being really really funny is something that I’ve always wanted to be. I’ve often entertained daydreams of becoming a stand-up comedian, or a late-night talk show host, but I’ve always been too lazy or too scared to pursue either. What if I fail? What if no one laughs? What if I end up going back, in disgrace, to my day job? That’s why I was relieved to learn that, like me, Harris was scared to do stand-up too (even if his day job is being a rock star).
I recently caught up Hutch Harris to talk about his life as a musician, a comedian, and a resident of Portland, Oregon.
So, I want to talk to you about comedy, but I know you best as the lead singer of The Thermals. What’s your history with the band?
The Thermals started in early 2002 when I recorded the first record on a four-track cassette in my old house. I worked on this kind of “project recording” for three months or so and I played all the instruments and wrote all the songs and it was pretty much that first Thermals record, “More Parts Per Million.”
We got the band together that year and then signed to Sub Pop in the fall of that year, 2002, and yeah that’s how it got started. And we’ve been a band for 14 years.
I actually had the good fortune to interview Jonah just a few days ago, and I made the mistake of asking “is Hutch trying to get into comedy?” And he said that you weren’t trying to get into comedy, but rather you were already into it.
Cool! Oh yeah yeah, I love Jonah. And it was super fun to work on that show, that show is great too.
It’s obvious from watching just that one scene that you’re no stranger to comedy. How did you get involved?
I’ve just always been a huge fan of comedy. The first four years that The Thermals were around we were on Sub Pop and at that point Sub Pop had started putting out a lot of comedy records. Actually, I think David Cross’ album was the first that they put out, and it came out like around the same time as our first record did. So we started doing shows with a lot of comedians. We did Tinkle which was David’s show with Todd Barry and John Benjamin, and Demetri Martin was on it and Eugene Mirman too, so we started doing a ton of comedy shows with really good comedians.
I’d wanted to do stand up for awhile and then, maybe like three or four years ago, you know, all the shows I would go to were bigger shows like Louis CK or Hannibal Buress, but I knew there was a really cool underground comedy scene in Portland. And I started checking it out about three or four years ago. I started slowly building up to it, just knowing that I wanted to do stand up.
And then about a year and a half ago I finally got up at an open mic and I loved it, it went really well, and I just started doing it all the time after that.
How did you prepare for doing stand-up your first time?
I didn’t at all.
I mean, I had written like a ton of stuff for awhile, and I would go to open mics, I would go to shows all the time, and I would go back and forth and think “alright I’ll get up next time” and then think “no, no, I’ll never do it,” and I was really scared to do it. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to like, I felt that I had more to lose because I had already proven myself with music, I felt like it was a bigger risk for me.
So I got to know a lot of comedians in the scene and they were all super nice to me, and so I started doing shows that were peripheral to doing stand up, like I was playing a song at a comedy show, Amy Miller had me on her show. Andie Main, in Portland who I’m friends with, had me on Picture This, which is a franchise show from L.A., and I was drawing while comedians were doing their routine.
I kept getting closer and closer, and Andie knew that I wanted to get up and I just kept not doing it.
And then she said, “Hey there’s this open mic right by your house.” And she said, “It’s at a Moose Lodge, it’s kind of out of the way, it’s really low stakes. This would be really good for your first time.”
And I thought, yeah that’s a really good idea.
But thinking about doing stand up made me so nervous that I thought the only way that I can get up there and do it was if I just don’t prepare, if I don’t write, if I don’t think about the stuff I’ve prepared, if I just get up there and do it.
And once I did it that first night, I definitely felt like I kicked in the door on my own fear. Because then I would still get nervous but it was just about getting over the hump of that first time. And then I felt free to keep doing it.
So it got easier after that first time?
I was still nervous for a good while, but yeah once I had done it the first time I knew I could do it and I knew I had somewhat of a knack for it and I was a lot less scared.
If you were to get up on stage, say, tonight, would you still feel nervous about it?
Okay here’s the thing: Yes I would. Because now I haven’t done comedy for like, a month, which is insane. It feels like I’ve never done it in my life and I’ll never do it again. When I started going to open mics and seeing the same people go up every night I thought “these people are crazy and these people are super addicted to this.”
And then I learned why you need to be that way. You have to do it every day or else you’re just not doing it at all.
So I did the Bridgetown Comedy Festival this year, which was like a month and a half ago, almost two months ago, and then I did some stuff after that. But then I got busy with The Thermals and traveling and I just didn’t do it, so yeah if I did it tonight I would be nervous for sure. I almost feel like my whole comedy career has crashed.
But I mean, it’s like a lot of things. You have to give yourself up to it if you’re gonna be good. I already feel like, I’m not even two years in, and I’m having a crisis with it. I mean, what am I gonna do? I either need to like, do it seriously — I don’t want to turn into one of those people who shows up to open mics and just kind of pops up maybe three or four times a year every now and then. Because you see those people, and they’re not good, and they say they’ve been doing it for four or five years and you think yeah but you don’t do it enough.
So I’m having a crisis, where I need to fucking decide. Because for awhile I was taking it so seriously. But it’s easy to be lazy and fall out of it, and I see that happen to people. As soon as I get a break, after that, I have to think “okay, what are you doing with your life.” Because I either need to just do something else or get back into it super hard.
Do you think you’ll ever get to the place where you try and mix music with comedy?
That I don’t want to do. I can see mixing it somehow — I have written funny songs and have performed maybe twice and played a funny song and I don’t really like it. I don’t want to be that person, I am not going to release a record of funny songs, because even though I like some groups that are musical comedy I just don’t want to be that. And I feel like the songs don’t age well at all.
I think it’s really hard to do, yeah.
It’s just not what I want to be. When Kathy and I did a Hutch and Kathy tour about a year ago that was the closest I got to mixing the two, like serious music with, you know, it’s not really anything unique. A lot of musicians do that, you play sing and you tell jokes, or you be funny.
One thing that would be interesting to do would be to mix it in one show, and it wouldn’t be The Thermals, it would be serious music and comedy some how, but it wouldn’t be funny songs.
You know, now that you mentioned it, while I wouldn’t say any of the songs from The Thermals are funny, they certainly have a certain wit to them, don’t they? Like, I was listening to one of your sets on YouTube and you have this great joke about how much you loved ’90s music in high school. You say that if there were four words to describe you they’d be “red, hot, chili, virgin.” And that really sounds like the cadence of a lyric from The Thermals.
[Laughter] Yeah, cool. I mean, to me it’s all just writing. I write in some capacity every single day, so it’s kind of all the same. One of the things that’s similar to comedy and music is that rhythm and timing, they are both incredibly important. So I tend to write on instinct.
And one way that writing lyrics and comedy — at least for me — is the same is I try to write a bunch of stuff and then see how much I can remove and still get your point across. Sometimes a joke is just too long, so how many words can I remove from the joke and have it still be funny. And the same thing with lyrics. What words are really necessary here, what words can we lose and still have an impact?
I think that’s just a good tip for writing in general.
Yeah, for sure.
But going back to Hidden America, I mean, you seemed to be really comfortable in that role. Writing comedy and doing stand-up is one thing, but is acting something that you’d like to pursue?
Yeah definitely, I love acting. Acting was a thing that I wanted to do before, like way before when I was younger, before I ever did music. I took a lot of theater and acting classes when I was a lot younger, like 10, 11, 12, and a lot of it is like learning to play an instrument or riding a bike, you don’t really forget.
But the thing about Hidden America that was really fun was that, you know, they had a script but it was really loose and we didn’t really have to follow it and it was mostly improv, and there were a couple of beats that we wanted to hit for every scene, or that Jonah wanted us to communicate. But it was really relaxed, the shoot was really relaxed, and I just felt it was at Sub Pop, where I had been a bunch. So it was super chill.
And I’d love to do some acting, but I don’t think it will ever be a thing where I get an agent and go to auditions, like that doesn’t sound fun to me at all. I don’t want it that badly, I’d much rather be on the writing side of things. Lately I’ve been working on a ton of screenplays and pilots and that to me it is just a lot more fun, and it’s the way I want to be creative…I’d love to be in something I wrote, and I’d love to see something I wrote get made, but you know, I don’t have to be in it.
It seems like Portland is really growing. It’s always been a great place for music, but I feel like comic books have really started to put down roots in that city. And of course, comedy is a big scene there. Is finding people to collaborate with easy?
Yeah, definitely, I feel super connected to it. You know, it’s a city like a lot of cities that are not L.A. or New York, there is a ceiling here, and people constantly move when they hit that ceiling. There’s a big turn over, a lot of people move to LA. But the scene is still thriving. It’s a really cool scene here.
I’ve actually been to Portland a few times. It is 100 percent a city that I’d like to live in someday but, you know, I just moved to Oakland.
Oh, you did?
Yeah, and I love it, but it’s hard not to feel guilty. I mean I moved out here for a tech job, so I’m basically the definition of gentrification.
Is that an issue in Portland?
It is, but not the way it is in Oakland. You know, I’m from San Jose, Kathy and I are from San Jose, and we would always go to shows in either San Francisco or Berkeley or Oakland, and it’s so crazy different to come back to Oakland and see what happened. And it’s so weird, you know, so much of Oakland was so sketchy. I’m talking like, the early ’90s, it was so different.
And it is a problem in Portland, but it is a problem in a different way because Portland is already just so white. It’s one of the whitest cities in the country, like a lot of the gentrification already happened here, like 10 or 20 years ago. But I mean, Portland is definitely way more expensive than it used to be. We moved here 18 years ago and it’s crazy different, it’s way more expensive than it used to be.
I would imagine that prices going up have a negative effect on the comedy scene.
It does, but it’s still cheaper than L.A. or New York or Chicago, so anywhere that people would leave this city for they’d be paying more. It’s a double-edged sword because at the same time it’s brought all these new people to the city and those people go out and they see comedy and music, I mean a lot of people who move here have money and they are largely creative types. I think Portland just experiencing growing pains right now because it’s just becoming way more major of a city.
So, you’ve been in Portland for awhile. And you’ve had this great career as a musician, and you have this new career as a comedian. And one of the things that I’m really interested in writing about is how normal people can do amazing things. So in going from one thing to going into comedy, what advice do you have? What would you say to someone who is trying to get into comedy?
I would just tell them to do it. Comedy is very hard to do, but at the same time, you don’t need money to do it. You don’t need anything. If you want to play music or you want to do comedy, with both of them you need to work for a long time before you’re any good at it, but comedy is different because you can just get up there and get on the mic.
So anyone really can just get up and do comedy. I do know that anyone can do it. Not well, but I mean, anyone can get up there and try.