Having spent five years as the touring percussionist for Swans, Thor Harris has launched a new, very different project called Thor & Friends. Heavily influenced by minimalist composers, the rhythmic instrumental songs are built around such instruments as marimba and xylophone. Other instruments and sounds come into play, often bringing an experimental edge to the music, but the compositions are never allowed to get too cluttered. The result is a catchy, whimsical sound that would appeal equally to those seeking out avant-garde music and those who are afraid of it. Thor & Friends recently released a self-titled debut album and are currently out on tour. In a phone interview, Thor discussed the project.
How did you come to start up Thor & Friends?
“I listened to a lot of electronic music, and I also listened to a lot of those mid-20th century composers like Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley. That music, the 20th century minimalist, is so beloved by almost everyone that I know, certainly the musicians. I wanted to do something like that, something hyponic. I wanted it to be instrumental. I was coming off of 6 years on the road with Swans, so I didn’t want to hear drums, bass, or distorted guitars anymore. I just wanted to hear clear sounds. I’d been playing vibes and woodwinds a lot. And so, I was attempting to put together either a solo show or a really small group.
“But as soon as my friends in Austin saw this group play, a lot of them wanted to be in it. Who was I to tell them no? I started saying yes, if someone wanted to come play with us. So now, if we play in Austin or New York City, the two places where I have a lot of friends who play music, the group is usually at least 10 people. But I don’t have to do much in the way on reigning people in; I’m really not a control freak. I’m kind of open to seeing what happens if you let people do what they want to do, as long as you pick the people somewhat carefully. So far it’s been really great. There’s no lead instrument in this group; it’s layer upon layer of simply melodies. With some of those melodies, we have people double on whatever instrument they’re playing. So often we’re just teaching the pieces to people hours before we play a show.
“That’s basically how this band started. And then [I worked with] Heather and Jeremy, from the Hawk and the Hacksaw; they are dear old friends. Jeremy Barnes is the drummer from Neutral Milk Hotel, and Heather Troost is a violin player in Hawk and the Hacksaw. They live in Albuquerque, and an excuse to drive up to New Mexico from Austin is always welcome. John Dieterich of Deerhoof was also available. He mostly engineered, but also played guitar and bass on the record. [Otherwise] it was really just me, Peggy Ghorbani, and Sarah Gautier, and we recorded it in about 3 days. These were songs that we had been working on live for just a couple of months, so this band has only existed for about a year. It was thanks to Jeremy Barnes, and they put out the record on their label which is called LM Dupli-cation.”
Had you considered doing this type of music previously?
“I hadn’t thought much about doing it, and I certainly hadn’t thought about touring with a group like this, something so non-vocal rock or pop. I’d been making these ambient records for a long, long time. The first one I made was called ‘Fields of Innards.’ I made that one around 1999. I had done shows around Austin with a group of instrumental improvisers, where it’s not jazz because there’s no solos but it is kind of slow moving, somewhat improvised music. But I think it was just sort of restless, nervous energy and my inability to sit still that led to it becoming a full-blown record with a tour to follow.”
As you’re always working with different people live, do you feel that this album represents the definitive versions of the songs?
“No, I don’t think there will be definitive versions. And with this band, I would like to release multiple records every year. We’re going to start recording our live shows more, and I think that different versions of the same songs may appear on future records, just because they are going to be so different, depending on the personnel. It is a compromise, because I can’t take everyone that I love playing with in Austin on tour. It’s just too expensive. And I can’t take everyone I love playing with in New York on tour either. But I think some of them are going to do several shows.
“Everything is based on marimba and xylophone parts. Although those will be the same as a live version of those pieces, we did utilize a lot of cool things in the studio. We won’t have a melotron live, and for most shows we won’t have John Dieterich or Jeremy Barnes. John Dieterich makes a lot of strange prepared guitar sounds. It will be a trade-off. We’ll have different people doing those kind of strange drones that John did on the record. I really look forward to it being pretty different every night. We will have at least 6 or 7 people on stage at any given show, because we’re touring with this great young singer called Adam Torres. I played on a record that he made last winter that just came out. So all of those guys from his band will be playing in Thor & Friends and then I’ll play drums in his band.”
I’ve heard that you also make your own instruments?
“I do, yeah. I’ve built a lot of percussion instruments. I’ve built some electric string instruments. I’ll have an electric hammer dulcimer with me that I built. In Swans, I played an electric viola that I built. I started building instruments when I was around 14 years old. I grew up in a house with a lot of tools, and there was a metal shop next to the dining room because my dad was such a tinkerer. He was always working on something.”
Are you generally looking to create a specific sound or just experimenting?
“People have been making instruments for tens of thousands of years, at least. So I’m usually looking to make a bigger or a lower sound; it’s based on some instrument that already exists, but I want a louder one, or I want bass one of those. Something like that. But they do not always turn out how you want, and some of them are just total garbage. There’s a lot of failure involved. When I was a kid, and well into my 30’s, I didn’t use any kind of guide; I sort of built these things by instinct. Now I have this great book by this guy called Bart Hopkin [Musical Instrument Design: Practical Information for Instrument Making]. There are a lot of tables and things in it that are pretty helpful. I built a marimba and for tuning the resonator tubes, there was a helpful table for determining the lengths of those tubes.”
Do you see Thor & Friends as your primary focus going forward?
“I am open to other collaborations for sure. Like Swans, I love those guys and would happily work with them again. I just wanted to do a lot of different things. People were asking me to record and there just wasn’t time when I was on the road with Swans half of the days every year. They’re doing a tour cycle right now that started a few months ago and will go for at least another year. So I didn’t know I was going to make Thor & Friends and that it would even tour. I do plan to keep it alive for a long time, and I want to keep it going. But there may be breaks from it where I tour with other groups. I never know what will come up, and I don’t have a clear plan for the next 5 or 10 years. But when there’s time, I’d like to keep this thing going and keep making records.”
Do you have any concrete plans for the additional releases you mentioned earlier?
“I’m not sure exactly how we’re going to do it. They may just be available on Bandcamp, but I would like them to be released. We also did a version of the Terry Riley piece ‘In C’ and we’re going to release that. I’m not sure how yet. It’s so strange, because getting music to people is in such flux right now. We have some demos from before we made the record with Jeremy and Heather; some of those are good enough to release. We might just start packaging some of those up. I would like a limited run of some kind of physical copy of these things. We might release them in different ways, and some things might not ever make their way to physical copies.”
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
“I’m really excited to play this music for people. We’ve played quite a few live shows already, and it’s’ pretty different from playing a rock concert. That can be terrifying, but it’s kind of gone from terror to actual excitement now. We had this one show in Toronto where we set up in front of the stage because we quickly ascertained that with the sound system and the soundmen we had available, it was not going to work out for us and the PA. So we all set up in front on the stage, kind of right in the audience. That show was such an experience for everybody. It was really intimate, the audience was 2 feet from us and we had to walk through them as we switched instruments. That’s when I knew that this wasn’t a rock concert; this isn’t what I’d been doing for a long time. But this was something different that I really thought could work, even in these rock and roll venues.”