Music

What It Takes to Be Kind: An Interview with Thor Harris

Photo credit © Adam Harding (courtesy of Adam Harding)

There's still beauty to be found in the best of humanity, says the kindest guy in underground music, Thor Harris of Thor & Friends.

At a 2017 show in London, I had the pleasure of watching first Kite Base, and then Thor & Friends mesmerize an audience, but it was what followed that most struck me. Thor Harris came out front into the crowd and a queue formed. Over the best part of an hour, heading toward midnight on a work night, with long London commutes home ahead, I saw people wait just to get a hug from a man who exuded positive energy and human warmth. It's a memory of communion and connection that makes me smile to this day.

Now, in 2019, Harris has been chosen as Joyful Noise Recordings' " Artist In Residence" and has been keeping a furious pace with six LPs out or on the way, each restricted to 666 copies and set to emerge in a screen-printed wooden box set handmade by Harris. In the run up to the latest album by Thor & Friends — an ensemble consisting of Harris, Peggy Ghorbani, Sarah 'Goat' Gautier, and a shifting cast of guest collaborators — PopMatters caught up with the man who was briefly (and amusingly) banned from Twitter for an act of public service: explaining on video the proper way to punch a Nazi in the face.

Ellipse by David Zydd (Pixabay License /Pixabay)

PopMatters: Diving straight in, I've spent this past week listening to the casual and callous excuses people give for paying tech firms for access, rather than paying musicians for music. How does it feel from the inside looking out?

Thor Harris: It's the quandary of our times. I feel most people still want to pay artists. Bandcamp does more than any other platform in that regard, Spotify, though, is a complete parasite and Apple Music is the same deal. Music should be available — once we have anything anytime we can't go back — and I have to put my music on Spotify because I believe it's really good and I want more people to hear it. But couldn't half the fees they're making go to artists? Yes it sure as fuck could!

Instead, fractions of a cent go to the artist. I still work as a plumber and carpenter, which is work I actually love, but I also love that in that line of work I get paid a fair price.

And in terms of your musical line of work, where's the joy coming from?

Well, it's super-inspiring playing with Peggy and Goat, I love the music we're making in Thor & Friends. We've discarded all of the entrapments of rock or pop music, and we're using instruments that none of us are virtuosic at to make simple music that sounds beautiful to us, gentle music played fearlessly. The very nature of the band has grown out of the name.

These are strange times to be a sensitive, empathetic human being. But if a rehearsal or a show can remind us that there's still so much beauty, or we can give a sense of community to someone going through heavy times, then that's important to me.

It's also important to me that the players feel as good about the music as the audience does. Collaboration is everything to me at this point and I can hardly believe my good fortune. I've gotten to play with so many amazing people and it's all I can do to stay on top of the opportunities. Whatever the future holds is probably better, perhaps more horrific too, than anything I could imagine. So honestly, I don't give it that much thought.

My understanding is that the immediate future is pretty full in the best of ways when it comes to your music. For the new works from Thor & Friends, there seems to be quite a remarkable range of collaborators involved. How on Earth did you corral everyone?

The ease of recording on laptops has made it feasible to have all of these people contribute in the same way that friends show up and join our live show when we tour. What's compelling me to make so much music this year is that it feels like I've learned how to make this hypnotic minimalist music that invites all of these brilliant people to be a part of it.

Peg, Goat and I are doing a lot of the things we did on our first two records so the profound differences come through the contributions of people like Michael Gira, Norman Westberg, Jenn Wasner, Jamie Stewart… So many more.

There are two new Thor & Friends' albums that are coming out this year as part of the Artist In Residence boxset on Joyful Noise. The first one is called "3", and it was built from music we created then shared with various contributors, asking them to give it new life. Jeremy Barnes produced and mixed the results.

The other album is nearly done, Craig Ross produced and mixed it, and several of the pieces have been worked on in our live shows. I met Adam Harding and David Yow, who are on Joyful Noise, at a Swans show and played on the "Stranger" EP by Dumb Numbers. Then I did a tour with Yonatan Gat where I met Karl Hofstetter, Allison Durst and Jonathan Lee Horne from the label. They're all passionate music geeks, they love design and cool packaging — wonderful people.

I've always noticed you're full of praise for others, I'm wondering what you see as your core capabilities that have meant so many people seek you out as a collaborator?

I don't know if there is anything unique about my voice as a player, but I think I have a good ear for sounds. I love it when I hear a piece of music and am unable to identify how the sound was generated, I aspire to make those "what the fuck is that?!" kind of sounds! Building instruments, altering existing ones, playing them 'wrong', it's far more interesting than virtuoso performance.

Lately I've been building electric tongue drums, or slit drums, with piezo transducer pick-ups, and running them through effects pedals. The result is like a bass instrument, a bit like drums, but like neither exactly. Why would you play a nice instrument when a bucket will do the job?

Speaking of the wider universe of your work, I was really moved by your book, An Ocean of Despair [Monofonus Press, 2009]. It reinforced a sense I have about how my male friends talk with each other, but they rarely talk about how they really feel and where they're at emotionally…

Until the day I die, I want to do everything I can to help people with mental illness and mood disorders feel like they're not alone, that they have value in this society. Depression is painful in ways that I am far too dumb to describe, but when I was young I felt shame for being broken, for being a negative creep.

Now that I've gotten to know the world, I've realized that most people I admire are, in some way, broken too. Feeling alone is another cruel component of depression. Each time I suffer a relapse, I come back to the world with more compassion and capacity for empathy. Happiness comes and goes, but it's that contrast that makes the picture.

So, without wishing to intrude, is it OK to ask "Hey! How are you, Mr. Harris?"

I feel all ways. Since I quit touring with Swans my mum died. She was my best friend and one of the kindest people I ever knew. I miss her every day, but she was almost 90 and she told me she'd had a wonderful life and not to be sad when she went.

I understand now why we die and I no longer want to live forever. When I was young I did, then I wanted to die for a while. Now I feel more OK with the temporary nature of it all. When I'm kind I think of my mom — and I am usually kind, ask anyone.

And if I asked for the 'Thor Harris State of the World Address'…?

The horrors of the sixth extinction are visible every day but the world is still a very beautiful place and I continue to believe most people are pretty good. Now I know I cannot leave the world a better place, I just want to make music I enjoy and do my best to spread kindness in a world that got a lot stupider and meaner.

I wish there was more I could do to stop us murdering our Earth and each other, but I love my life, and the people, dogs and cats, who are in it.

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You might also enjoy the PopMatters premiere of Thor & Friends latest video, "As Above, So Below".

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