An Austin hero: Thor Harris

We spoke to Swans’ drummer Thor Harris about his ongoing projects, art, books and his experience about depression struggle.

Interview by Ekin Sanaç, Photo by Aylin Güngör

Early Shearwater member and Swans’ drummer since 2010, Thor Harris is a hero living in Austin, with a garden filled with amazing sculptures created with his own hands. Triggered by letters he has written, Harris has collaborated with a number of different artists from Bill Callahan to Xiu Xiu. He utilizes his carpentry skill in the creation of his own instruments out of wood and his drawings are extraordinary. He has turned his depression into a solidarity with others that have live through similar things through various books, a documentary, and impressive work that brings together his letters and drawings. Currently working with his exciting new band Thor and Friends, Thor Harris is here to tell us his story.

When did you start drawing? What were your experiences of teaching art?

I have been drawing and sculpting since I was very small. Yes, I was a high school art teacher for five years. I loved making art every day with teenagers. Art is a hard thing to teach. The best you can do is encourage them and offer technical tips.

A Post Apocalyptic Tale of Friendship presents a collection of the drawings you have done while touring. Your surreal work is influential and provocative. How has art of drawing helped you in terms of battle with depression?

Those drawings are a stream of consciousness. As I wandered around the world with a team of mutants, I drew bands of mutants wandering through an indifferent and beautiful wilderness. I’m not exactly sure how drawing and other creative outlets help people with depression, but there are a lot of us doing it. I don’t think it is a coping mechanism. I think it is more of a byproduct of feeling things so intensely.

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We understand working with woods and various tools has been something that runs in your family. How did you start working with wood in the first place and around what age did you start making your own instruments?

Working with wood does run in my family. The tools were always around growing up. After the age of 10 when I started playing drums, I quickly began building and altering percussion instruments. I play an electric viola and electric hammer dulcimer that I built. I am building marimbas lately.

The story of you becoming a Swans member, and working with acts such as Bill Callahan or Xiu Xiu is very inspiring. You wrote letters to them. What did these letter say? Can you tell us a little about your story how you met with Michael Gira and started playing together?

I wrote a letter to Michael Gira, Bill Callahan and many others basically telling them I liked their work and would be happy to help. I met Michael on the Swans are Dead tour in 1996 or so. A few months later I drove a van full of strange homemade instruments and vintage drums to Atlanta to record on the first Angels of Light record. Needless to say I was thrilled to work with one of my heroes. Michael is a brave and inspiring artist. Working with him is not always easy, but he is a loyal and generous friend. I wrote a letter to Bill Callahan on a napkin and gave it to a realtor who had helped him buy a house. Bill is open to many approaches to his music. I am so proud of Dream River.

What’s the first difference you notice when you compare song writing and working processes of Swans and your previous band Shearwater?

Working with different song writers is one of the most interesting parts of my job. For a few years Shearwater was a real band. We each wrote our own parts and had a lot of creative input. Animal Joy was the beginning of the end of that band. Kimberly and I quit soon after that. It is now a one-man show. Michael is interested in your ideas, but he wants to tweak them to make them his own. In my opinion this usually makes the sound less dynamic. Small ensembles like these work best when each person is in charge of their own component of sound. This is why so many bands make their best work early on. First and second albums before one guy takes the reins are often more interesting and enduring. The push and pull of people working together is how most of our favorite records are made. I can and will work in situations with little or lots of autonomy. If I can make the thing better, I’m satisfied.

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You used to work at the suicide hotline, talking to people, being there for them, contributing to these people’s lives. How has this experience affected you?

Working at the suicide hotline was super interesting. Most of the callers were just lonely. It is interesting to sit in a tiny office in a big city in the middle of the night and listen to the thoughts of an anonymous lonely person somewhere else in the city. How did she get so alone? Where are her brothers and sisters? Did she used to have a mate? What happened? These people had stories, every one of them. I listened. All I could do was help them feel less alone. I rarely did much problem solving with them, though I had a database with all the social services, homeless shelters and mental health clinics. They had usually already been through the pathetic safety net system. Broken people come in all colors and economic classes.

Nowadays, are you involved in any sorts of work related to other people battling depression? Do you have people approaching to you who might have gone through or who are going through similar experiences?

I made a graphic novel called Ocean of Despair. Then I did a short documentary film for Mental Health Channel about depression. I was amazed at how many people came to me after the shows and told me that 7-minute film helped them. It makes me prouder than anything I have done to think I have helped someone struggling with depression to feel less alone. I can’t just reach into hell and pull them out, but I can tell sufferers that the pain won’t last forever. There are thousands of treatment options, and life after depression is richer and more beautiful. If for no other reason than seeing real everyday horror gives the survivor deeper love for life outside the toxic fog.

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Your book Dear God, brings together postcards written to all sorts of people from God to mom, presented with excellent art. When did you write these postcards? How did the idea of this book come to be?

I was on the road a lot between 1990 and now often wishing I had correspondence with dead people, ideas, groups of people too large to ever reach and people who would never interact with me even if we met. I didn’t really want a conversation in most cases. I just wrote the letters as they came to me. Morgan Coy from Monofonus Press had the idea to make them into postcards using images from different artists. I really do enjoy starting things and then handing them over to someone else to finish them. It takes trust. I have that. I truly do believe in people. Well, some people… Morgan made that book way more beautiful than I could have. Give someone something half finished and see what they do.

What are you working on currently? Please tell us about your Thor and Friends project and other plans for 2016.

I am about to make a record of my new band Thor and Friends. It is music based on the work of composers like Moondog, Steve Reich, Terri Riley, Phillip Glass, The Necks, Dawn of Midi, etc. Most of it is for marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, violin and clarinet. It is simple repetitive music made to work like meditation. The core of the group is Sarah Gautier (Goat), Peggy Ghorbani and me, but when we play live there are usually four or five brilliant Austin musicians on stage with us. Jeremy and Heather from A Hawk and a Hacksaw are going to help record and put out our first record. John from Deerhoof will engineer and hopefully play on it too. I just made a record with an amazing young singer/songwriter named Adam Torres. That will come out some time in 2016. Not sure what label yet. Swans record is about to be finished. It will be out in mid 2016. I want to play on a lot of different kinds of records this year. I really think that as a sideman or session musician, that is where satisfaction lies. Listening to peoples’ music and thinking of ways to add color. I do still love touring though, so hope to see you soon.

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