A Marimba in Every Pot

Thor Harris on Friends, Minimalism, and the Unknowable Audience

by Jedd Beaudoin

13 October 2016

Thor Harris talks about his new band, Thor & Friends. Or, as he puts it, "Awesome ladies playing marimba and xylophone."
 
cover art

Thor & Friends

Thor & Friends

(LM Duplication)
US: 7 Oct 2017
UK: 7 Oct 2017

“It was terrifying,” says Thor Harris, speaking from his home in Austin, Texas, his voice barely rising above the sound of an excitable canine in the distance. The terror which he refers to was inspired by a solo gig in Montreal in mid-2015. Though he enjoyed visiting the city, he was less inclined to continue being primary focus. The solution? “A huge band of awesome ladies playing marimba and xylophone,” he says.

Harris soon assembled Peggy Ghorbani and Sarah “Goat” Gautier for his new project. Both women contribute marimba with Gautier adding xylophone, organ, piano, mellotron and dashes of voice. From the start, he says, he wanted to celebrate the music of American Minimalism, especially composers such as Terry Riley, who emerged in the middle of the last century. There was room for Steve Reich’s work too.

“That’s the favorite music of a lot of musicians,” Harris says, “even classical weirdos really love that stuff.” He rattles off a list of further influences and inspirations including the Kansas-born eccentric Moondog and New York City-based performance artist Charlemagne Palestine. “It’s sort of like the punk rock of the classical world,” Haris says. “It threw away the old conventions and rules.” 

Minimalism takes inspiration in part from the hypnotic patterns of Indian classical works and modal music. Largely stripped of compositional ornamentation the music relies heavily on a consistent pulse and movement that evolves slowly. At times it appears that little if anything has happened within the frame of the composition because of the music’s deeply absorbing qualities. It is at the heart of EDM, Krautrock, and, at times, progressive rock.

The simplicity of that music was also reflected in the initial lineup of Thor & Friends which featured Harris, Ghorbani and a violinist who signed up for a San Antonio, Texas gig not long after the Thor solo set in Montreal. “As soon as we started playing shows the band grew really fast,” Harris says, “because there are a lot of musicians who want to play that kind of music. It exists a little bit in the classical world but not that much in rock clubs.”

Harris does, however, see more artists adopting these Minimalistic tendencies now and in the future. “I think because of what’s happened in electronic music over the last couple of decades, I think the rock audience does have an ear for it,” he says. He cites Ben Frost, Tim Hecker, and Swans, the band he spent five years recording and touring with, as examples of artists that have integrated the Minimalist approach into the rock realm. “They’re doing these long instrumental passages that sort of slowly and hypnotically morph and change over a lot period,” Harris notes. “And I love seeing that kind of thing live.”

Harris says that the Australian trio The Necks is among his favorite such ensembles. Though ostensibly on the line to promote his own work, he quickly dashes off some effusive praise for the Down Under unit. “They’re so good,” he enthuses, “their records are hard to find. I don’t even if they have a label here. But if you listen to ‘Hanging Garden’, ‘Sex’, and go from there. It’s super-rewarding and you can find it on YouTube. I think they started as a jazz group but they were also into that classical minimalism and they just started turning into these weird improvising machines.

“So, now every piece is about an hour long and totally improvised,” he continues. “But what separates it from jazz is that there are no solos and there’s no head like you’d hear in a jazz piece. It’s really hypnotic. I think there’s something very calming and pleasing in that repetition.” (He waxes equally enthusiastically about another Australian, Lawrence English and his Room 40 Records; the aesthetic, Harris says, is similar to his own, making for an even closer fit when English recently collaborated on a mix with Thor & Friends.)


Harris says that he’s not entirely sure when or where he first stumbled upon minimalism though, he notes, the work of Laurie Anderson/David Byrne alum David Van Tieghem was inspiring. Van Tieghem had played in Reich’s ensemble and provided some early inspiration as did Bill Bruford’s work. “He’s probably my favorite drum set drummer. I’m a huge prog rock fan,” Harris notes. “In Swans, none of those guys are into prog rock. Me and Norman [Westberg] share a lot of similar tastes. He’s pretty open-minded. Like, we really love acid house disco from the ‘90s, Black Box and Soul II Soul. But he doesn’t really love prog. I don’t know a lot of people that do. But I grew up on it and I love it.”

During a recent guest DJ spot on a radio station Harris played King Crimson’s “Frame By Frame” and reflected on the music’s connection to minimalism. “That has Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp playing these guitar figures that become complicated because they’re in different time signatures,” he says, “and I realized that those guys must have been fans of Steve Reich and Terry Riley and Philip Glass to have come up with that. So, I blurted that out on the radio, whether it’s true or not.”

The repetition heard in all of that music, he says, informs his approach when writing for Thor & Friends. Though he by no means has a percussion collection that would require several outbuildings for storage, Harris has a variety of poundable/beatable objects in his home and that’s where the pieces generally start.

Harris will begin with a repetitive pattern with Ghorbani adding to it followed by Gautier, a gifted pianist, throwing melodic ideas on top. “She’ll phase in and out and maybe I’ll change time signatures so that they loop around and meet each other again but at irregular times,” he says. A direct intention is to create pieces that soothe the senses.

“You know, I made these records, starting in about ‘99 that were very slow. I wanted to make the slowest music that I’d ever heard. I liked the slow, calming down of the nervous system that came with that music. I think the way we’re living is way too fast now. I wanted to make music that worked against that.” He points to the Fields of Innards album which recorded with sometime collaborator Rob Halverson as the quintessential example of the calming concept. “I made the record and it went by largely ignored. That was fine, I was busy being the drummer in other bands and I didn’t push those records very much. Then, one day I realized that there was this very busy music, like Philip Glass, just a busy patchwork of notes but it still calmed my nervous system. So I wanted to try that.”

The repetitive nature of the music, he adds, was fitting for Ghorbani. An acupuncturist by trade she came to music later in life but, Harris says, the hour of her arrival had little impact on her abilities. “She has this incredible brain and can pick up on any pattern and execute it over and over and over with great precision,” he says. “We’ve tried to keep that basic repetition there and not try to over-arrange songs.”

The band’s self-titled debut features a variety of solemn but uplifting pieces including the opening “White Sands” and its successor “Whose Fingers”. There’s even a childlike quality to some of the material, including “12 Ate” and the meditative “Jordan’s Song”. The instrumentation remains largely the same throughout the record.

“I’ve avoided drums to this point,” he says, “but I can see that changing. Maybe two or three records down the line we’ll add drums and synthesizers and organs and things. But right now I’m so madly in love with the marimba and all its giant possibilities.”

He says that he enjoys having a marimba in his home as it serves as a source of amusement for guests. “Everyone who comes in plays it,” he says, “even little kids.” He continues, “You know, in the 1800s there was a piano boom where they thought, ‘Every American house should have a piano.’ I wholeheartedly agree. But, man, having a marimba is magically. Nobody is afraid to approach it. You just hit it and it sounds great.”

The marimba remains at the core on the record, though Harris pals Heather Trost and Jeremy Barnes of A Hawk & A Hacksaw join in with accordion, violin and other instruments while Deerhoof’s John Dietrich adds a variety of stringed things including bass and guitar but castanets and special effects as well. The musicians have varied aesthetics and skills and Harris himself says that he sometimes feels odd dealing with classically trained players. “I’m classically trained but I was not a good student,” he says. “So there can be some dissonance at times. But I think they also appreciate my instinctual approach. I appreciate their headier approach because it’s not what I’m good at.”

Though many projects Harris involved himself within in the past, including Shearwater, have employed classical musicians, the current album and performance cycle sees the Texas-based musician rubbing elbows more often with those who’ve come more from the conservatory than the tavern. In the first half of 2016 Harris and band performed on a bill that celebrated Minimalist music. Dubbed “I Am Sitting in a Room”, the event was held at the Museum of Human Achievement in Austin. It saw Thor and Friends performing Terry Riley’s legendary “In C”. He’d first heard the piece performed by the Austin New Music Co-Op at an old church. “Something happened to me listening to that,” Harris says. “I felt stoned by the end. I’m not a stoner. I’ve never cared for marijuana but I kind of know how that’s supposed to feel and that’s what that piece did to me.”

He says he hopes that listeners will have a similarly positive experience with his music, though in the days leading up to the release of the Thor & Friends album he remained somewhat unsure of who, exactly, might be listening.

“The people I talk about music with are all into it,” he says, “but they all listen to tons and tons of stuff. But, going out and playing shows, we’ve discovered that kids like it. I think my mom, who’s 91, would like it. I don’t think that she would understand a Swans show. But I’m curious to see who comes out to our shows from now on. I think it’s really neat when something good is really easy to get into but it’s hard to know that from the inside.”


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