Purveyors of: Minimalist percussive ecstasy.
File next to: The Necks, Andrea Belfi, Ben Frost, Germaine Liu, Terry Riley
Playing: WL 702, Sunday June 12 @ Monarch Tavern. Get tickets here!
Thor Harris is a man who truly lives up to his name — when he’s not building houses or fixing plumbing systems in his hometown of Austin, Texas, he’s recording and performing with the likes of Ben Frost, Devendra Banhart, Shearwater, and of course, legendary aural assaulters Swans. As a percussionist and multi-instrumentalist, he’s stretched his talents far and wide, with his sounds and performances gracing a seriously diverse range of records and stages across the globe. Now he’s banded together with a fluid lineup of artists from his hometown to form his newest project, appropriately named “Thor & Friends.” We dive into the Tao of Thor Harris to discuss life on tour, minimalism, and most importantly, hand dryers.
In your guide for touring musicians (“or whatever…“), you provide a glimpse into touring life and some quasi-Zen advice for tolerating the ups and downs of being a touring musician. Being perpetually on tour, what sort of rituals do you personally find keep you most grounded throughout the turbulence?
That list really makes the rounds. Well, it seems that any time we are in some intense chapter of our lives, it’s easy to lose perspective that it’s only one act, not the whole goddamn story. Also when everything around you is unfamiliar, or not of your choosing, it is up to you to get what you need from the environment you are given. The balance of interdependence and self-reliance is to be constantly renegotiated. You need exercise, unprocessed food and time to calm your mind (however the fuck you do that). I will dare say you need exercise more than Facebook.
If at your job there is a person who feels toxic to you, you may need some kind of emotional hazmat suit. John Congelton taught me that term. How long do you feel comfortable in your emotional hazmat suit? These are tough questions. You may choose to wander into the wilderness and live on nuts and berries. But remember you are a social creature. Solitary confinement is hell. My friend Robert King of the Angola Three wrote a book about it. He has a countenance about him like no one I have ever met, warm, welcoming and spacious.
Think about how people must have lived 500 years ago. What was better then? What is better now? Make a mix for yourself. Adaptability and flexibility have to be practiced. Being a know-it-all will keep you from learning new things. Old people have much to learn from young people, as well as the reverse. Forget your dreams and live a life that exceeds them.
What was the question?
Whether it’s your 30-minute gong solos in Swans, or the subtle transformations of your newest project, minimalist sensibilities seem to be at the core of your approach and overall sound. What does minimalism personally mean to you and what sort of possibilities do you find come out of stripping things down?
You are so right. Minimalist approaches do often seem best to me. Well, here’s what happened. I was a good rock drummer by about age twelve. So I got really into prog rock (maximalism). I studied and practiced hard for all my teen years. I listened to King Crimson, Yes, Rush. I wanted to be technically capable of that stuff. Then it occurred to me that all that fancy frilly playing could so often just be really boring. I still love prog though. To this day, Bill Bruford is mine and Phil Puleo (other drummer in Swans)’s favourite drummer. I also feel that in the years that classical music was all about virtuoso (from about 1500-1900), it was boring. But then guys like John Cage came along and rebelled against all that.
Music is sort of this amazing journey that we’re all on together. Those of us who make it and/or love it know what needs to happen next.
I think people like Ben Frost, Lawrence English (Room40) and Tim Hecker are guiding us into a new chapter where audiences will listen to huge instrumental landscapes. Su Tissue has a piece called Salon de Musique, you ever heard that?
Sorry, what was the question?
In the video you were featured in for the Mental Health Channel, in which you help destigmatize conversations about mental health and the notion of the suffering artist, you spoke about the act of creating things being a very therapeutic process that helps balance your well-being and keeps major depression at bay. Whether you’re building electric dulcimers from scratch, wood- or metal-working, or playing music at ecstatic volumes, can you elaborate on how the creative process has had a positive effect on your life and well-being?
I have wondered often why people with violent mood swings so often need to make art. My cousin Carrie Barron wrote a book on the subject. It’s called The Creativity Cure.
When I connect with a beautiful thing or piece of music, I feel safer in the world and less alone. The ability for people to make such beautiful things is a specific type of intelligence. For me to help make music that means something to anyone is such an honour. It is just like building a pretty table for a friend.
Those of us who have battles with self-worth may be more driven for obvious reasons. Recognition from the outside world quiets the demons within. I also recently heard that once you are a master at something, say drumming, when you do it, you enter something akin to a deep meditative state. I’m still not very good at meditating, but I do think there’s something to that theory.
Making things in my wood shop gives my life meaning just as playing music does. The world around me is perfect as it is. Why do I need to build things and make music?
I’m sorry, what was the question?
What sorts of mediums or works of art outside of music have had an impact on you personally? By the way, did you ever get that copy of The Peregrine by J.A. Baker that Lawrence English was supposed to send your way?
I did get that book. Did you tell Lawrence to send it? I don’t remember how that all happened. I loved it. Connecting with a book, a painting, architecture, furniture, or music all feels similar. Someone spent their days making this thing, and now I humbly behold. Or maybe I encounter such a thing and think, “Wow. What a narcissistic pretentious boring prick.”
Once when Moondog was asked what influenced his music, he said “Silence.” Silence actually terrifies me. I need to work on that. I listen to music constantly.
I’m sorry, what was the question?
Anyone that follows you on social media is aware that you’re a man who truly appreciates utility. How did your (brilliantly practical and hilarious) Twitter fixation for hand dryers come about? It’s a goldmine for just about anyone in transit or otherwise.
Yes! I am constantly amazed and inspired by ideas and innovations that have made human life easier allowing us time to examine such concepts as fairness, compassion, and decency.
Living in public places has made me a connoisseur of janitor closets, commercial-grade fixtures, guard rails, loading docks and such. These are areas of cities that are shared by all of us, but are designed by a few young ambitious engineers just trying to make their mark on the world. His/her job is to convince us that he/she has built a better mousetrap, thereby legitimizing his/her work (salary).
Many people think the Xlerator is just too loud. The Dyson Airblade was recently found to be just throwing shit into the air and pelting us with bacteria and viruses. I don’t know. Paper towels seem like still your best option, all things considered. You could just #dryhandsonpants.
I do love social media. Twitter has led me to music jobs, sexual encounters, good espresso, and just sweet friendly people around the globe. My Twitter handle is @thorharris666.
I’m sorry, what was the question?
As a “drummer for hire,” you’ve worked with legendary line-up of collaborators in different contexts. It also seems that a lot of your collaborations came about in a very deliberate and earnest way — you’ve mentioned in the past that a lot of them involved personally writing letters to bands. What drives you to seek out collaboration, and how has working with such a wide range of artists impacted your own trajectory as an artist?
Wow! Yes, I have gotten to work with my favourite bands. In the case of Bill Callahan and Michael Gira, it started out as a letter. I am still employing this tactic, only now it’s on Twitter or via email. I highly recommend it to any sideman. The realm in which the sideman (and woman) calls the shots is in his or her ability to move around and play with lots of different people. I say don’t just stick to your own town.
Even before I had such a fat resumé, people were gracious. At the worst, you have complimented your hero. There is nothing to lose in asking for a great gig. I am trying now to convince Timber Timbre that I am their next drummer. Even if it never works out, at least they know I think they’re great.
I’m sorry, what was the question?
You’ve recruited a great (and seemingly amorphous) line-up of Austin artists for your newest project. How did your newest band endeavour Thor & Friends come about?
I played solo on a giant beautiful marimba and vibraphone. Simple repetitive melodies. I was trying to emulate early synthesizers like the ones used by Tangerine Dream. It was terrifying. I was riddled with self-doubt throughout the show. I vowed that my next “solo” show would involve several other people. My lovely girlfriend Peggy was a perfect candidate. She is a punk rock drummer and can learn and remember anything you teach her.
I played a few more shows, recruited a few more conspirators and made a recording. Then Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost asked us to come to New Mexico and make a record for their label LM Duplication. By that point Sarah “Goat” Gautier had joined us. John Dieterich from Deerhoof and Jeremy Barnes engineered and played on it. Heather played too. It was a magical time. It will be out in September. We now have a stellar Austin cast and are working on recording that.
It never would have happened if not for the encouragement of these friends.
And lastly, with summer festival season quickly approaching, what are some words of wisdom you can share with festival-goers this season? Maybe you even have a self-care suggestion or two for our very own Camp Wavelength?
Oh gosh. I don’t know. Y’all have fun. Hydrate. Eat only plants. You’re apes. Say, did you hear about Coachella being cancelled permanently? Maybe Bonnaroo too. Fun Fun Fun Fest is definitely dead.
— Interview by Johan Seaton