Swans Expat Thor Harris Gets by With Help From His Friends
When we catch Thor Harris at home in Austin, Texas, he’s not expecting our call. Figuring there must’ve been some sort of scheduling mix-up, we offer to call back at a more convenient time, but the former Swans percussionist is more than happy to talk. “I probably just forgot to mark it down,” he says as his dog barks in the background. “I’m good at some things, but organization and Internet skills are super weak points for me.”
The list of things that Harris is exceptionally good at includes: playing any instrument that can be hit with a stick (he specializes in drums, marimba, xylophone and vibraphone), carpentry (he’s built significant parts of his own house, including the entire second story and a spiral staircase that was made without the use of nails) and, coincidentally, making hilariously accurate lists. His “How to Tour in a Band or Whatever” and “How to Live Like a King for Very Little” listicles have gone viral several times over — not too shabby for a guy who claims to have poor Internet skills.
After playing with Swans for the last several years — including on their latest album, The Glowing Man — Harris decided not to participate in their ongoing tour so he could stay close to his 88-year-old mother and work on his new marimba-based musical project, Thor & Friends, whose self-titled debut comes out on October 7.
What was the initial impetus behind Thor & Friends?
Two promoters — one in Montreal and one in San Antonio — wrote to me and asked, “Hey, do you wanna do a solo show?” I wasn’t gonna say no just because I didn’t have a solo show. [Laughs] That would be cowardly. So, I said yes, but then I went to Montreal and did the first solo show and found it terrifying. I’d have these surges of self-doubt, like, “What are you doing up here? This is boring.” Because I’ve been playing for years with this super-intense band, Swans, but what I was doing was a lot more spacious and somber. So, for the next solo show in San Antonio, I brought my girlfriend, Peggy Ghorbani, who’s like a punk rock drummer, to play with me. I got Peg to play marimba, and then I played xylophone and vibraphone and sometimes marimba, and we made this music that sounded kinda like simplified Kraftwerk with no lyrics, or like some of Brian Eno’s ambient stuff, and I thought it was successful enough that I wanted to do that again. Then Sarah “Goat” Gautier joined us. She’s a really good piano player. So, now the core of the group is me, Peggy and Goat. But then we add people here and there; often a viola or violin player.
What inspired the project’s musical direction?
Well, I’d been touring with Swans for six years, and I knew that I wanted to do something different. Me and [Swans ringleader] Michael [Gira] share a lot of music, and a lot of the stuff we send back and forth falls roughly into the category of new classical minimalism. Most of it is from the mid-20th century, like Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Moondog. Charlemagne Palestine is something that Michael sent me recently. I really love that stuff, but I also love more composed-sounding stuff from electronic musicians like Tim Hecker and Ben Frost and Aphex Twin. They make weird instrumental records that are real repetitive and droney, but they’re finding a pretty big audience. So, I was really inspired by that stuff, but I don’t know how to do that. I’m mechanical, but as far as getting along with robots, it’s a very stressed relationship — me and computers, drum machines, sequencers. I’ve never found them to be that friendly. But I’m good at playing orchestral percussion instruments, and I’m mediocre at woodwinds and some other instruments.
Have you always been into electronic music?
One of my favorite bands in the world is Kraftwerk. I got a Kraftwerk eight-track when I was in seventh grade and just thought, “Man, I’ve found it.” And I was a classically trained percussionist, but I was a terrible student. I just wanted to be playing rock music and soul music, and I was really into prog rock when I was in my early teens. But some of that training did stick. So, I’ve been making these slow-moving, spooky, ambient records to little avail. Which is fine — I could keep making them for decades more, even if only 10 people heard them. But when I decided not to do the Swans tour this year, I did not know that I would form this band. I just stumbled upon it because those promoters asked me to play a solo show.
On the record, you play some instruments that you made yourself.
I built an electric hammer dulcimer that I play on the record, but I played that same instrument in Swans and Shearwater. I also built some tubular bells that are on the new record, and I think I’m gonna build a small electric harp to play in this group. I do want to build some more instruments. Right now, we’re sort of marimba-based, but I think over time I’d like to change that. It’s possible that we’ll be an organ and drum group at some point because Peggy and I both like to play drums. But I’d like to keep this band going for a while. I’ve never had the thrill and the terror of being a sort of bandleader.
When did you start making your own instruments?
I started when I was like 14 or something, with no clue. Early on, I started altering drums that I had to make more unusual instruments. My dad had died and we were surviving on a teacher’s salary, so we were not rich. But I wanted all these drums and weird instruments that I saw. I kind of already knew how to make things. I knew how to work in a wood shop and do some metalwork because that stuff was just in our house — my dad was a mechanical engineer. So, we always had tools around, and my brother knew how to do a lot of stuff, but he doesn’t have the patience that I do for working on stuff like that. He did give me some instruction, though.
Most of the album is instrumental. Was that something you had in mind from the beginning?
It was. Most of my favorite music is instrumental, but when voice is used, I want it to be just like another instrument. I don’t want it to have words necessarily, or have vocals be the main part of it.
Many of the songs on the record have a very cinematic quality. Does soundtrack work interest you at all?
Oh, man. It is my absolute fantasy. I love soundtracks. Have you ever heard the soundtrack to the movie Ravenous? It’s made by Michael Nyman, who’s sort of like Philip Glass, but a little less psychedelic, a little more conventional — and then Damon Albarn, from Gorillaz and Blur. It’s so beautiful. But yeah, I would love to get soundtrack work. And Peg, too — that’s a fantasy of hers. My idea for this record was to make soundtrack music for people’s lives. I wanted it to be something you could put on and do other things. I like a lot of demanding music, but I also wanted to make music that serves your life like a soundtrack. I listen to a lot of stuff like that.
Some folks might say that the record has a bit of a New Age quality. How do you feel about that term?
I know! I just started a new band that’s even more like that, mixing doomy jazz with New Age music. I’m gonna call it Dark Massage, like you’re getting a massage and it takes this foreboding, creepy turn and you’re uncomfortable. [Laughs] I despise a lot of New Age music, but I also kinda love some of it. I don’t mind flirting with that genre at all, but we can all remember going into, like, a snooty health food store and hearing that kind of stuff and feeling dirty. [Laughs] It makes you just wanna go on a killing spree. I don’t think Thor & Friends is going to be convicted of [being] New Age-y, but we’re not far from it at times.
You mentioned earlier that you decided not to do the recent Swans tour, even though you played on their latest album. I heard something about your mom’s health — was that a factor?
Swans is kind of the dream gig, but it was just time for me to do something different. And my mom is 88. She’ll be 89 on November 13. She’s a great lady, and she’s my hero. She lives three hours away, and I want to be able to rush down there if I need to. Swans tour for about 18 months on each record, and that’s a lot. Sometimes we’ll be gone for four or five weeks at a time, so I wanted to be around more for her. And then me and Peg started hanging out just a couple of years ago, and I was gone half of the time for the first part of our relationship. I pursued Swans to get that gig — it was my dream gig. I’ve wrestled with whether I’ve made the right decision by bowing out of this tour, but certainly I would not have made this new record if I hadn’t quit Swans. I was talking with Okkyung Lee, that cellist who toured with Swans a couple of years ago, and she said, “You may not know what it is, but you have to make room in your life if you want something else to happen.”
Why did you feel it was time to do something else?
Swans had become this thing that we were all relying on, but none of us knew it was going to get so huge the way it did. We were craggy old men when we restarted it in 2010. We were like, “Yeah, the kids are coming out now because it’s our first year back.” But then the next year was even bigger, and it grew like crazy. So, it was a thrilling ride, but it was time for something new. And I think Michael and everyone involved sort of feel that way, too.
I interviewed Michael Gira for this site several weeks ago. He had already announced that The Glowing Man would be the last Swans record with the current lineup, but then he told me that he planned to continue working with at least some of the current Swans members on future albums. Do you see yourself potentially returning to the Swans fold at some point?
Absolutely. I hope that Michael invites me to play on future Swans stuff. I need to do a different thing now, but he remains one of my major artistic heroes and I’d gladly work with him again.
A couple of years ago, you participated in a short documentary about clinical depression that was produced by the Mental Health Channel. How was that experience, and has it given you a different perspective on your experiences with depression?
In certain circles, it’s okay to talk about depression because I’m an artist and a musician, so people kind of expect me to be a little crazy. But when that [documentary] came out, I was astonished at how quickly it went viral on the Internet. I’m 51 years old, and I’m still amazed when something goes viral like that. I’m not talking a matter of months, but a matter of hours. The same thing happened with the list I made about how to tour in a band. People were coming up to me in foreign countries — because I was on tour with Swans at the time — where it’s maybe not cool to talk about mental illness, and they were saying, in hushed tones, that that little seven-minute film meant something to them. There is nothing better than I could do in my life than make someone who goes through that horrific terror feel a little bit less alone.
From what I can gather, your experience with depression was especially bad.
When I went through it, I thought I was gonna hold out as long as I could because I didn’t wanna break my mom’s heart, but I thought it would end in my suicide. Or I would just be the crazy relative who lives in the madhouse or maybe has to be looked after. I thought I was going down a path that I would never return from. I was 27 and I didn’t really know anything about mental illness or depression. The stigma is breaking down, yes, but is it gone? Definitely not. For a person who is told they have clinical depression and, “There is no actual cure, but here’s these meds that might help you. You just have to take them for six weeks and see.” And sometimes they don’t. I have friends who started dealing with depression as teenagers and the drugs didn’t work, so they got real turned off to psychiatrists. But every single night on that Swans tour, someone would say that that video meant something to them. As an artist, you wanna make something that people connect with. Well, this video did that so quickly. It totally changed my life more than I expected it to.
Was it a strange experience talking to people about depression every night on tour?
To some degree. Like I told my shrink, I felt a little bit nervous about the responsibility of talking to people about depression every single night. I used to work on a suicide hotline, so I know how to connect with people about that without overstepping their boundaries, but it is kind of a responsibility when you start talking about that kind of stuff. But I just wanted to put my experience out there and say, “If this is anything like what you’re going through, there’s a good chance that it’ll get better. Just don’t do anything rash.”
Working at a suicide hotline must’ve been incredibly draining.
It could be draining sometimes, but it was amazing. It was one of the weirdest jobs I ever had, but I loved it. I started maybe 20 years ago and worked there for four or five years — until I was about 35 — but it didn’t drag me down very much to listen to other people’s problems and then go home. But I do remember coming out of there sometimes and just feeling like the whole world was crazy. Then again, you can feel like that from watching the news or going to a shopping mall. There are many experiences from which you would draw that conclusion.
You mentioned your “How to Tour in a Band or Whatever” list, which continues to be popular several years after it was posted online. What inspired you to write it?
In that list, my voice is that of a grouchy tour manager who’s been on the road for way too long and is sick of all your shit. He’s sick of all these adults acting like children. It’s also all true — but I know that if I say those things to any bandmates, I’m gonna become this pariah. I mean, I’ve been straight-edge almost my whole life. There was a brief period in my 20s when I did acid and mushrooms and really loved them, but other than that short period, I’ve always been the sober one, the designated driver; the responsible one. I’m the guy who makes sure the van is packed at the end of the night.
You’re the band dad — or the babysitter.
Kind of, yeah. I’m never drunk at the end of the night, so it falls on me. But because I could never say those things, I started writing them down in this voice while I was sitting in the back of the van. Most of it applies to getting along with people, and it’s stuff your parents should’ve taught you. But you can’t come from a position of authority — you don’t want to become the parent because you’ve got to keep those relationships balanced within the band. Swans were mostly dudes older than me, but in a lot of cases I’m the oldest one on the tour, so I didn’t want to become the parent. I shared the list with my friend Chris Swanson from Secretly Canadian, who’s an old friend, thinking he’d give it to a few musicians and they’d have a laugh. But man, it just exploded. Again, I had no idea about things going viral on the Internet.
I wonder if any tour managers have printed copies of that list and handed them out to the bands they work with.
I know that has happened. And I know some younger bands who have printed it out and put it up inside their van. But I couldn’t do that, because people would be like, “Those are your rules, asshole, so fuck you.” [Laughs] But I know people have done it.