Thor Harris Talks Thor & Friends (Out Now), Building His Own House, and Inspiration

Meredith Schneider

Austin, TX’s Thor & Friends is one of the most stunningly interesting bands you will have heard for some time, and I absolutely guarantee it. The trio was assembled by close to crazy random happenstance by Thor Harris after ending his years-long stint as a percussionist for Swans. His experience in the industry lent itself to his unique taste and sounds that are brought to the forefront in their debut album Thor & Friends, out today. We got to sit down with the man behind the madness recently in honor of the release, and this is not an interview you want to miss.

How do you like Austin?

I do love it. It’s a mixed bag down here. You come here very much? If you’re ever in town, come and see my house. I built my house myself. It’s a very special place. Its in central east Austin. There used to be this barrier of racism kind of right down the middle of Austin. The black and brown people lived on one side and the white people lived on the other. Because I’m neither, I moved to the brown side. A lot of wealthy, white folks overcame their fear and moved over here. The character of the neighborhood has been changing and I guess we’re all somewhat resistant to change.

During the course of building my house, I became a pretty competent plumber. So that’s one of my day jobs because, as you know, music don’t always pay.

I can’t see how cool my house is because I made it. I’m too close to it. I mean, if you write a novel it’s not for you to enjoy. You enjoy writing it, but it’s fulfilling for others. Or you make a painting and you have to see it through other peoples’ eyes.

I was just on Pitchfork Radio and two of those guys came over. It’s an awesome neighborhood, you can walk to some pretty good tacos. So they came and saw my house and loved it. But it’s pretty cool to live in a house that you made. But it’s also like, “Ugh. When are you gonna finish that?”

(He then launched into a pretty amazing story because he found out I was from Missouri, and his bandmate Jordan is from Booneville, Missouri. Some pretty rad facts about that place.)

So the election’s really scary, right?

It’s terrifying. Where are you going to move if either of them win?

I was thinking Canada. As much as Hillary is not someone I’d want to go on a road trip with, I think she’s going to be a great president.

You’re right. She will. So what’s the first song or album you remember hearing in your life?

Jackson 5, “I’ll Be There”.

Who introduced it to you?

My big sister. She’s seven years older than me. It was probably like 1969 or 1970 when she played that for me and instantly I gravitated toward soul and funk. Especially Motown. All that music kind of morphed as George Clinton started Parliament-Funkadelic and even The Commodores. Black music from the 60s and 70s was what really lured me into music. In fact it was a little difficult to embrace rock n’ roll after hearing the clear, syncopated sound of soul and funk. I did later get into Kiss, which is total meathead rock. But I love the costumes and stuff. And this was all in the course of a few years, though it seems like vast chasms of musical interests. From there I stepped into the world of prog rock in about 7th or 8th grade, bands like Yes and Genesis.

I’m 51 and I’m still a super voracious consumer of new music all of the time. Just recently I have gotten into doom jazz, especially this band called Bohren & der Club of Gore. They’re German, obviously. Lately, that’s the trip I’m on.

Did that inspire any of the music you guys have coming out in October?

I hadn’t heard them at that time. What really inspired the music that we have coming out on this first Thor & Friend record is, first of all, electronic music. Groups like Tim Hector and Aphex Twin have been playing strange instrumental music to large audiences for a few years. I’m really into Steve Reich and Terry Riley and Phillip Glass and Moondog. Simple, repetitive music that may slowly morph over a period of time. I love the hypnotic effects of that, just layer upon layer of simple melodies with a rhythm. It seems in that music – and certainly in our music – that there is no lead or solo or part. There are a lot of things interwoven like fabric, or like an open landscape with no particular subject.

When I spoke with Michael of Swans, he was talking about that idea of ambient music and slowly getting to a song. Did you get any of that inspiration from when you were touring with them?

Definitely. I’m still a Swan and I will gladly work with those guys again. Me and Michael send music back and forth all the time and he has turned me on to a lot of really good music, like The Necks. They actually opened for us in Australia and it was so inspiring to watch them play.

Michael is an amazing artist. I didn’t want to play loud music anymore and it was time for me to do something different, but I love those men and it was such an honor to get to play in that band. We had a great 6 year run of touring, but that band tours so much. I didn’t know when I opted out of this season’s touring that I was going to start Thor & Friends. I just felt it was time to do something different.

And it’s amazing because you’ve collaborated with a lot of different people over the last year.

Yeah, I played on Adam Torres’ record. It just came out. It’s a gorgeous, vast, desolate, lonely sound sort of folk record. I got the guys from the band Timber Tamber to play in Thor & Friends and we just made recordings with Jenn Wasner from Wye Oak. Not touring all the time is allowing me to work with a lot of different people.

Now, was there a moment in your life that led you to realize you wanted to pursue music?

It started so young. I played our piano when I was little a lot because I liked it, but I didn’t really know how. I started drum lessons at about 9 years old. I wasn’t great at school, so it was really the first thing that I was good at and felt passionate about. So yeah, that moment did happen but it happened really young. I almost have a tendency to take it for granted.

My mom grew up in the Great Depression, so there was a time in my late teens and early twenties where I was partially convinced by her fear of me living in poverty that I should pursue some other career at the same time as I was pursuing music. To some degree I did, but it wasn’t like some collegiate track. Dropping out of college was the best thing I ever did. I started working as a plumber’s helper and doing manual labor and blue collar work, which I really love. It’s incredibly satisfying.

Is there anything you do that you’re not good at? I feel like you’re kind of a jack of all trades.

I was never good at school. Memorization and regurgitation is not my thing. But yeah, my brain is more attuned to visual stuff which I think ties in to working with your hands.

Do you still get excited about new releases you’ve made?

This is kind of the first time I’ve put out a record where most of the responsibility falls on my shoulders. I’m pretty excited and truly proud of this music. I think that there’s this basic formula where you don’t ever make a record for what you think other people will like, but you make the record that you would want to discover and just go, “Oh, wow! I can’t believe somebody made this. I’m so glad! This is so good!” I feel like I’ve really done that here. We have a core trio, but I brought in other people that I thought had super interesting instrumental voices and kind of let them do pretty much what they wanted to do on the recording. So I left a lot up to chance but I’m really happy with the way it turned out.

So yeah, I have other ways of making a living so if no one buys the record, it’s kind of OK. But I do hope people like it.

We’ve only been a band for about a year. We formed because I did one solo show in Montreal and I found it terrifying to play on stage by myself but had already booked a solo show, so I got my girlfriend Peggy and a violinist friend named Linda to play the second solo show with me and that’s how Thor & Friends was born. Since then, musicians hear the band and ask to play in it. I can’t say no to someone who wants to be creative with me. When we tour all over the world, we’re going to have guests at each show – people I have known over the years – and in every city, the lineup will be a little bit different. The core of the band will always be us three, but there will be some variation.

That’s pretty cool. Kind of like a round table. 

I’m trying to stay away from bass, drums, and guitar just because I think they’re oversaturated in the last forty years or so. But Adam Torres is going to play acoustic guitar and there will be other similar elements.

When you think about people listening to the new album, how do you imagine people enjoying it?

Unlike Swans – which I think is better if you don’t have too much else going on – a lot of my favorite records fall under the category of sort of background music. You put them on, but you can still kind of be open to whatever happens around you at the same time. You can put this music on while you’re working in your workshop or doing your job or having sex or working out. Even having a conversation with someone. This music, in that way, is not very demanding.

Although, I think if you did listen to it in the dark, laying on the floor in your house alone, that could take you to a new, weird place to. Like the big, instrumental piece on David Bowie’s Heroes, you can have a piece that is just a mood piece that creates an atmosphere. That’s what I want this record to be. I want it to be like Brian Eno. Like when you take a hallucinogenic drug, it enhances the perception of the things that surround you. I want it to have that effect.

With all the music you’ve been making and everyone you’ve been working with, is there a piece of advice that you would offer to anyone?

There’s so much! You know I write those lists that are bouncing around on the internet like “How to Tour in a Band or Whatever” or “How to Live Like a King on Very Little.” So maybe I should make a list like that for young artists. I do have a couple of things right now though.

  1. When you’re young, give yourself a really grandiose nickname and spend the next few decades trying to live up to it. 
  2. Seek out your heroes and work with them, if they’ll have you. There’s no harm in asking Michael Gira if you can be in the Swans. That’s how I got in Swans. There’s no harm in writing Bill Callahan a note and letting him know if he ever needs help, you’re there. I noticed both bands had some personnel turnover, and I just asked. I know it takes a degree of confidence and not everyone is comfortable asking, but how the fuck else is it going to happen? There’s an awesome lesbian activist musician in Austin who, in the 90’s, had a certain Cassio driven band called The Gretchen Phillips Experience. I sort of stalked her and told her she needed me to be her next drummer. And that worked out. We are really good friends and we have a Joy Division cover band together. It’s called A Joy Division Cover Band. We don’t play together that much, but it’s really fun to play those beautiful, gut-wrenching, sad songs.

So what do you have planned for the rest of the day?

I just built a big, fancy door for my friend Katie. In wood working, putting the finishing on it takes a huge amount of time. So I’m going to do that. In a little bit, I’m turning my living room into a block printing studio. Block printing ink takes for-fucking-ever to dry. So every surface in my living room will have pretty paper with a gold hand stamped on it.

I’ll have a lot of weird, esoteric items for sale during the tour. I’ve been making solo, ambient records. We will have physical copies of those records, as well as a zine I made on clinical depression called “An Ocean of Despair” that we used to sell at the Swans merch booth. There are two other zines and a tour zine as well.

Anything else you’d like us to know?

Thank you for your interest. I’m really proud of this album. We’re already working on the second one. I hope people can connect with it in some way.

___

 

We have no doubt in our minds that they will. Thor & Friends is out now. Keep up with them here. (And follow him on Twitter. You won’t regret it.)

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