Features

Thor Harris

From Myth to Minimalist

With a warlike handle that belies his gentle nature, the larger-than-life god of thunder shuns aggressive musicality for the joys of ethereal and cyclical rhythmic patterns.

by Will Romano

The last person you’d expect to come to mind when thinking of the A-list Hollywood actor Jeff Bridges is the Austin-based drummer/percussionist Thor Harris. With all due respect to the celebrated Big Lebowski star, that’s just the way Harris prefers it.

At the New York City premiere of Harris’s latest musical vehicle, Thor & Friends, the percussionist exhibited a knack for bringing people together by breaking down the imaginary fourth wall separating audience and performer. While conversing with the largely seated crowd at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village, in downtown Manhattan, Harris beseeched concert attendances to compile an impromptu list of thespians turned musicians (and vice versa).

Someone shouts out, “Jeff Bridges,” jarring Harris’s memory and inspiring him to regale us with a fascinating tale of chance. As it happens, Thor once shared an elevator ride with the erstwhile “Dude,” who chatted up the drummer in search of a backing band. Apparently Harris had little interest in country- and blues-rock, and the interaction between the amiable indie artist and the Academy Award–winning celebrity abruptly ceased.

Had Harris been receptive, who knows? Maybe he’d grow accustomed to boarding private jets with trendsetters and sipping champagne poolside at posh five-star hotels. (Maybe he’d gravitate toward acting himself, and be name-checked in nightclubs?) None of this happened, of course, and you’re not likely to hear Harris complaining. Quite the contrary. He appears content exploring a variety of styles at every musical left turn he makes, crisscrossing the country in a van with his merry band of accomplished players—a surrogate family of sorts—and opening for artists such as Fat Possum Records signee Adam Torres and Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls. “Thor is one of those universal human switchboard connectors,” Palmer tells MD. “Colliding people from different scenes is one of his specialties.”

To know Harris is to love him. Astonishingly, even walking the streets of an outer borough of New York City, the La Porte, Texas, native greets someone with whom he’s acquainted. It’s been said he’s won gigs based on his “sensibility” as much as his drumming skills, which are considerable. In fact, Thor might represent the dawning of a new kind of archetype: the jovial, sage-like outsider, what with that flowing shoulder-length hair, a public acknowledgment of his struggles with depression, and the unforgettable nickname he earned when a former place of employment enjoyed a surplus of employees with his given name, Michael. The powerfully built drummer wears the reference to the popular hammer-wielding Norse deity as a badge of honor, like a conquering hero emerging victorious from battles both outward and inward.

As a percussionist Harris rose to prominence via his collaborations with a large cross-section of artists, ranging from freak-folkie Devendra Banhart and art-pop act Shearwater to baritone Texas-based folk-rocker Bill Callahan, Norwegian electro-poppist Jenny Hval, and, most notably, post-rock/prog-rock/no-wave scene veterans Swans, whose marathon live shows produce ritualistic fever dreams for the faithful while providing mentally and physically draining workouts for the band members.

Although heralded as “experimental,” Swans’ music seems to be much more cohesive, if not more psychologically damaging, than often credited. Prolific, propulsive, and emotionally stirring records, including 2012’s The Seer, 2014’s To Be Kind, and 2016’s The Glowing Man, challenge listeners with their hypnotic, cinematic, and often violent soundscapes.

Swans, founded in the early ’80s by singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Michael Gira, went into hibernation in the late ’90s. During the band’s dormancy, Gira formed the slightly folkie Angels of Light, for which he enlisted Harris as percussionist. In 2010, with Harris in tow, Gira resurrected Swans. Prior to Gira’s recent public statement regarding the group cutting down on touring, Harris flew the coop and now devotes much of his time to Thor & Friends, which released an eponymous debut this past fall. The bright, melodic, and minimalistic album features Harris on percussion and wind instruments; marimba player Peggy Ghorbani; multi-instrumentalist Sarah “Goat” Gautier; Deerhoof’s John Dieterich, who engineered the record and played prepared guitar and bass; Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeremy Barnes on accordion, mellotron, and drums; violinist/marimba player/vocalist Heather Trost; and Raven on electronics and bone flute.

MD was set to speak with Harris at Le Poisson Rouge, but soundcheck delays preempted our talk. We did eventually connect later that same week in Brooklyn, however. Over a burger dish and a bowl of granola we discussed Thor’s new career direction and the meditative qualities of repetitive rhythms.


A Circle of Friends

MD: The last time we spoke, you said you were listening to Steve Reich and Terry Riley. What is it about the cyclical, repetitive nature of the material composed by the minimalists that inspires you?

Thor: I think it comes down to this: Like Steve Reich, the music that Thor & Friends makes is really a bunch of simple parts layered onto one another. There are a number of parts that are not particularly important, which is sort of like ancient choral music, which I love.

MD: On stage it appeared as though you were conducting the Thor & Friends “orchestra.” How much input did the other musicians have on the band’s debut?

Thor: A lot of people offered input, especially Sarah “Goat” Gautier. My living room [in Austin] is set up similarly to the stage you saw at Le Poisson Rouge, with marimba, vibraphone, and xylophone. A lot of the time we’ll hang out in my house and we’ll play a simple melody on the marimba, and Sarah will play piano or marimba alongside me. The way melodies interlock, sometimes in different time signatures, makes it interesting.

MD: At one point in the show there were five musicians playing a single electric vibraphone.

Thor: Like piano, marimba, vibraphone, and xylophone are instruments that anybody can walk up to and make music with.

MD: On stage you were using two mallets in each hand. How did this technique evolve?

Thor: I learned to do that from watching videos of Lionel Hampton. Actually, to get into Angels of Light I lied to Michael Gira about my level of proficiency on the vibraphone. I did a bunch of woodshedding just to get onto the New Mother record [1999]. I didn’t even have a vibraphone then. I bought one for the tour. If there is one thing I can say to young musicians it’s that it’s great to become a master drummer, but we all know a master drummer who’s playing in his mom’s basement to no one.

MD: You opened for Amanda Palmer and backed her on drums during her headlining set. You also recorded new music with her prior to the final performances in New York. How did that go?

Thor: Amanda played piano and spoke a poem she wrote over a twenty-three-minute version of a Thor & Friends song called “Jordan’s Song.” Amanda likes things a bit more arranged and composed. I’m more from the school of the minimalists, in which a piece of music can hang for a long time on one concept or idea and change ever so slightly. That reminds me of a band from Australia, the Necks, that I like. It’s like a slow-morphing study, usually on one or two ideas. One thing their music does is change the way your brain processes time.

MD: That could describe the impact Swans has on listeners.

Thor: Yes. I think [a Swans show] changes the way your brain processes time too. That’s a visionary thing about Michael Gira. When we worked up the set in 2010, I thought audiences would be repulsed and leaving in the middle of our set. Couldn’t have been further from the truth. That live show was so violent and so long that, for me, it was like a boxing match for two and a half or three hours. By the end of that set I was just euphorically exhausted. I quickly learned that I couldn’t go to the hotel gym that night. I could just do that gig. I had to do a lot of weird things to survive that show. I had to play with pieces of PEX [cross-linked polyethylene plastic used for plumbing], because I was breaking so many cymbals.

MD: What inspired the Thor & Friends composition “Crusades”?

Thor: I love early music—European classical music in the Renaissance and Medieval period, before it all started to sound so uptight and became all about virtuoso [playing]. “Crusades” was mostly written by Goat. To me it sounds like early music.

MD: Is “Whose Fingers” an example of the band congregating around the electric vibraphone and recording with it? I’m curious how this track was constructed and recorded.

Thor: Most Thor & Friends pieces are layers of simple marimba parts. We have a room full of mallet instruments. Peg, Goat, and I make those pieces from improvs much in the way rock bands work.

MD: How did “12 Ate” develop?

Thor: “12 Ate” is my attempt to hide music-school dorkdom. The title is because it’s in 12/8. That’s such a magical time signature because it can be subdivided in so many different ways. Tons of African music is in 12/8.

Swans, Shearwater, Smog

MD: Swans uses three percussionists/drummers. How did you coordinate percussion with Phil Puleo and Bill Rieflin on The Glowing Man?

Thor: Phil and I became such good friends touring and recording together over the last six years. It’s nice having someone else play the beats, and just augment them and add to them where needed. Michael Gira wants everything to sound urgent and sped up. Phil is good at following that [directive], and I just tried to stay locked in with him. We did about half of the basic tracks live all together on The Glowing Man. The other half I just overdubbed. Fitting into an existing drum part is always an exercise in restraint.

MD: Did you know that The Glowing Man was going to be the final Swans album—well, the final Swans album with this configuration—before you recorded it?

Thor: We did know this was the final Swans record when we made it.

MD: How did this impact your playing for the record, if at all?

Thor: I don’t think that affected how I played on it. It’s important for me to be selfless in what I play. It’s a way of surrendering ego for the best outcome.

MD: You weren’t on Swans’ supposed farewell tour.

Thor: I knew it wouldn’t last forever, and I didn’t want it to last forever, either. Swans is a tremendous band, but it could have been more interesting if there was more give and take. When you saw us live it looked like I chose everything I was playing. But there’s a lot of control exerted over what everybody does in that band.

MD: What have you learned about running or leading bands from playing with Shearwater and Swans?

Thor: I’m trying to be a gentle and generous bandleader. I want to allow and encourage creative input.

MD: The Shearwater song “Castaways,” from 2010’s The Golden Archipelago, reminds me of Peter Gabriel’s groundbreaking track “Intruder.” Like Gabriel, did you intentionally avoid having cymbals on that song?

Thor: I’ve tried to cut back on how much I use cymbals. In Swans that was out of the question, because those huge gong and cymbal washes are what helped build those terrifying swells. In general, I try to play without a crash cymbal. It takes up so much space.

MD: What was your approach to recording with Bill Callahan for his project Smog?

Thor: I’m proud of my playing on the A River Ain’t Too Much to Love album [2005]. I thought I could get away with not playing drumset at all, just congas. I wanted it to be this almost invisible bed of music so that Bill’s voice would soar on top of it all. But after a couple of songs it was like, “I have to play drumset on this.” On [Callahan’s] Dream River [2013] I used an Osage orange clave with a wood kick drum beater on my left foot [pedal]. I was trying to eliminate metallic sounds wherever possible on that record.

Rhythm and Other Medicines

MD: When did you begin playing drums?

Thor: I started taking lessons when I was nine, learning to read rhythm. I know it’s been said a million times, but playing rudiments really does feel like meditation. Meditation does something to the way our brains work. It felt good to do these real repetitive things over and over, faster and faster.

MD: You’ve battled depression. Do you want to speak about this?

Thor: Always.

MD: Have you found drumming is therapeutic?

Thor: It’s definitely therapeutic. I don’t know enough about neurology, but I think [drumming] has a detectable change on my brain chemistry. Going into a meditative state [via drumming] helps my brain to either slow down, relax, or clear itself of something. When depression hit me at age twenty-seven, even though I had it my entire life, I didn’t have any idea what was happening to me. It was just a horrific nightmare. I figured I was going insane and the only thing to do was to kill myself.

MD: Was there a specific incident that convinced you to get diagnosed?

Thor: My first major band, Stick People, had just broken up, and I moved to San Francisco from Austin. I felt like Austin didn’t want me anymore, which I now realize was depression talking. Within a couple of months of moving I was thinking about suicide all the time. I called my sister and explained to her what I was experiencing, and she told me to go to a shrink, who said, “Well, you probably have depression; your sister has it. It runs in families. We’re going to try you on this med….” I didn’t have any faith that it would work, but amazingly it did. I didn’t play music with other people for a year. I was doing oil painting and thinking about how to kill myself. That’s all. Then, I don’t know, without even noticing, all the color started coming back into life and my sense of humor came back and I had this pure approach to making music.

MD: What’s that old saying? The best way out is always through…

Thor: …sadly, I don’t know if there’s a way around that. I don’t know if I ever would have come to the same realization without experiencing what I did.

MD: Sounds like you could have gone over the edge.

Thor: I do still visit the edge, but I don’t stay there for as long anymore.

MD: How do you combat depression today?

Thor: I’m on generic Paxil; few side effects.

MD: Your dad had passed when you were young?

Thor: Yeah, when I was ten. My dad died of cancer, but he probably had a disease called hemochromatosis—too much iron in his blood. It may have something to do with why the depression got as severe as it did. When you’re kid, brain chemistry is still so fresh that you’re still trying to build your roots. A lot of people who end up being diagnosed with depression experienced a traumatic loss before the age of thirteen. My dad was a tremendous loving father for ten years. I have to be really thankful for that. He was a mechanical engineer and inventor, but also loved to do oil paintings.

In my household there was a machine and wood shop. Growing up in this capitalist society, I was terrified about how I was supposed to make a living. What ended up preparing me for survival was all that time spent sawing, shaping, and sculpting materials.

He Picked Up a Hammer, and Saw

MD: You build your own instruments. At Le Poisson Rouge you said that Anni Rossi, one of the string players for Thor & Friends, was using a viola you made.

Thor: Those violas I built are based on one I made for use in Swans. I use mostly crepe myrtle for her violas. It’s a hard flowering tree. It grows well in central Texas, but I think it’s from China.

MD: Have you scavenged in salvage yards for metal to make cymbals with?

Thor: I made one gong out of stainless steel. It was so loud when I was testing it that I was worried about my neighborhood. I had on those hearing protectors for gun ranges when I was hammering it. [laughs] For Swans I made tubular bells out of thick-gauge aluminum tubing. I cut them to length and threaded caps onto the top. Those are the tubular bells I used for the 2014-15 Swans tour.

MD: You once told me that you wanted to record with a Turkish clarinet you picked up in Istanbul. Is that what we hear on the Thor & Friends track “Crusades”?

Thor: Yes, it is. It’s an instrument called a duduk. I have one of those, and I’ve been learning to play it for the last five years. As I started picking up different instruments, the opportunities broadened for me to work with different musicians. You quickly learn that your idea of what your career was supposed to be is not that important. It’s not as important as going to where the opportunity is.

MD: Do you use vintage drums at all?

Thor: I use a 1924 Ludwig snare drum, yeah. I thought it was stupid not to travel with a drum like that. That’s exactly what that drum wants—to be playing gigs.

MD: Can you explain or describe how you made your hammer dulcimer?

Thor: I have made about five of those electric hammer dulcimers. The first one was for Shearwater, then Swans. They’re made of a plank of Osage orange wood, heavy-gauge acoustic-guitar strings, autoharp pegs, and piezo transducers under the bridge for pickups.

MD: What was the first percussion instrument you built?

Thor: I removed the foam material from a Remo practice pad and wound up with a tunable, flat, drum-like surface. It sounds kind of neat. I cut a hole in the bottom of it with a jigsaw, I believe, and I attached it to the 4″ electric conduit elbow that I stole from a construction site. It was bent at a 45-degree angle. The finished piece was sort of like an Octoban that was curved. I could tension the head, and I added that to my little drumset, a Japanese kit called a Trump, believe it or not, that my mom had bought me. I started building weird things to augment that kit, because I was so poor after I dropped out of college.

MD: What’s the advantage to making your own instruments?

Thor: When you build or alter your own instruments you always end up with something unique. There are millions of people out there using all the same instruments to make music. My friend Lindsey Green has been building arch-top guitars at my shop. He’s really talented and precise. I’m learning a lot from him. He’s only been building wood things for a couple years.


Tools of the Trade

“I don’t have a drumset where all the pieces match,” Harris says. “If I’m playing on somebody’s record, I bring as many of my strange, mismatched drums to the studio [as I can] and just build the kit according to the needs of the specific recording. My live setup when I was with Swans was tubular bells, vibraphone, two gongs, one tom, a snare drum, three cymbals, a clarinet, a trombone, a homemade viola, and a homemade hammer dulcimer. For Thor & Friends I use a 4.5-octave marimba, a Deagan 515 electric vibraphone, a Musser 3.5-octave xylophone, and a Buffet Crampon clarinet.”

If Thor resembles his namesake at all, it’s in his boundless energy and his Herculean accomplishments, including his background as a plumber, sculptor, woodworker, illustrator, and instrument maker. Woodshedding has had multiple meanings for Harris throughout his life. He constructed his own funky abode and musical instruments from scratch. He began making instruments at the tender age of thirteen and, in later years, fashioned tubular bells, violas, and a handful of electric hammer dulcimers in his home-based workshop. “With the dawn of sampling came a greater variety of sounds,” Harris says. “But there’s nothing like hearing someone play a strange new instrument.”