Always Riled Up: Protest Music For A New Era, Part 2 – the Thor Harris Interview

Known internationally for his work with Shearwater, Smog/Bill Callahan, the Angels of Light, Swans, and Devendra Banhart, Thor Harris is also a legendary craftsman whose woodworking skills are apparent in the handcrafted percussive instruments he employs – Monofonus Press

Our latest piece in this series on protest music and art is an interview with Thor Harris, he of the crushing soothing percussive sounds behind Blog faves, Swans, and lately more notorious for having been banned from Twitter for either a video on how to punch a Nazi (don’t do it unless you have to) or for images used on his profile. YMMV.

When we look at the earliest days of the 45th Presidency of the United States it’s hard not to reflect on the air of gloom, doom, and confrontational-ism that has settled in over the country. So in considering the general vibe right now there were (and are) many artists we wanted to speak to about what is going. In this installment we speak with a purveyor of some of the best percussion work in all of the ambient post-rock scene: Thor Harris. He has backed up musicians ranging from Bill Callahan (Smog) to Amanda Palmer and most famously, as a member of Swans. Of course, he has also recently become “twitter famous” for being banned from the service after posting a how-to video for punching nazis though the social media giant told him that it was for other content on his account.

We’ve seen so many people around the country and world who otherwise have avoided or simply not been overtly political in their careers or personal lives now stepping out particularly on the frightening intersection of white supremacy, creeping fascism, and the person who now occupies the White House. As the situation becomes increasingly untenable to many in the artistic community those people are raising their voices and using their networks to amplify their own brand and style of resistance. In Harris’ case there is Twitter where he, like so many others right now, routinely takes down, in 140 characters or less, what he sees as the malevolent forces at work who endeavor to destroy the environment, education, the arts all while building platforms for racism and hatred. Its this kind of urgency that appears not only in words but through his art. Harris is a man of no bullshit as you can tell if you have ever read his other viral pieces from the interwebs.

Thor and I had a meandering conversation over the course of an hour and more than a few technology glitches. Part of the focus, of course, was on his spat with Twitter but moreover we focused on the people who connected with the kind of messaging that has actually threatened, overtly and covertly, individuals across the country. “The strangest thing was that his [Trump’s] supporters were really offended by it. I’m not really used to it. A bunch of white dudes from the suburbs were threatening to put bullets in me.” That said, he has some hope from the episode. “At the end of the day I’m really glad it brought some awareness for these people about the horror that they’re bringing upon many other Americans.”

And yet, even with that awareness we talked about resistance and what it needs. When he spoke about it you could hear a person who is relaxed and yet simultaneously concerned, irate, saddened by it all. Resistance movements led by musicians and artists is not uncommon when we look at the history of such but it always takes more, the people who latch onto the message and pick up the banner. “Our resistance movement has to have all kinds of voices. It has to have elites and thugs like me.” And he, like many others questions how we arrived at this point openly wondering “How the fuck did we get here? We have a President who is completely incompetent in every phase of the job.”

Beyond the mere presence of an elected official, though, one has to look at the supporters that prop them up. This was a theme Harris returned to throughout our conversation. As a Texan who does not support the vitriol being espoused by those who voted for 45 he has a unique perspective. The voices speaking out in largely hostile territories are ones he believes we should heed while also noting that Texans are a little bit different. “They’re not the south, it’s its own thing but I did grow up around rednecks. Texans voted democrat until the civil rights movement.”

Here he highlights a crucial break in the psyche of the way people have voted on certain lines in the South, particularly in Texas. “Racism has been crippling this country and the Trump administration (and it) seems like a return to that ugliness.” He asked, “What does a New York businessman have to do with these Southern redneck hate-filled people? I think he’ll leave office in shame if not shackles before his first term is up.”

And more importantly, what do we do as individuals facing the harsh realities of the world where tension and hate run deep but no longer as an undercurrent that was easier for too many in this country to simply ignore in our rush to live our daily lives? For Thor and so many of us, that’s where the music comes in. “I found in music the opposite of what I had access to in a world that was far beyond the the rigid societal framework of everything around me. Music has that capability.” His escape ran the gamut from “a lot of Motown, Jackson Five, soul, funk, and prog rock” culminating in a profound affinity for Peter Gabriel’s earliest solo work and how he was able to meet Gabriel’s old drummer, Jerry Marotta, even having the opportunity to tell him how seeing the band live in 1979 “changed his life”.  It was that connection with music that gave him life.

Connections, making them, breaking them, and simply acknowledging that they exist, became a theme in our conversation. In a turbulent time Harris nodded to the necessity of making these connections possible and how he works through that in his own music. “I make ambient and instrumental music so my job is to shape sounds. The world needs angry music right now, too, but at any point the world needs calming soothing music especially in such a horrifying time when our democracy is being torn apart in front of our very eyes.” in direct reference to his latest project, Thor and Friends, which is more ambient chamber than the thunderous nature of Swans. When asked about the effect the next four years would have on music he said, “As the Trump years unfold I think it is inevitable that the art a lot of people make will be about the sad unfolding.”

Speaking of that sad unfolding, Thor does not only connect through his music but also through the environment around him. He is a firm believer in nature and so has clear stances in regard to moves already underway by this administration. “I agree with Noam Chomsky that the Trump administration is the most potentially disastrous and dangerous thing to happen to human life on Earth because we don’t have much time to solve this problem that we’ve accidentally created through the burning of fossil fuels but now we have a President who wants to dismantle the EPA.”

Speaking of how he’s seen some direct impacts he mentioned one of his former bandmates, “I was in Shearwater with a guy who worked for the EPA but left because of Trump and went back to teach college.” But he says that Trump’s apparent anti-environmental stance “doesn’t seem like anything sensible but rather some kind of revenge. I’m sure he’s had to abide by some kind of regulations that he didn’t like” in his business so is now taking it out on those agencies. He said “nature is very spiritual for me and is the wisest thing that we have access to.”

In taking his music to the Earth and how it relates to his experience as an artist he said, “I started out mostly being a drummer so I now have this minimalist classical group. I’m not that good at reading and writing music so what we do in Thor and Friends is layer upon layer of simple melodies but I’m really pleased with the way it’s going.” He says that their second album will be different from the first since they will have vocalists performing on it. No words but voices as instruments. Some of the friends appearing on the new album include Michael Gira, Norwegian opera singer, Stine Jenvin Motland, and A Hawk and A Hacksaw. He says that this project came about due to his need to do something different that gets away from the traditional guitar, bass, and drums setup. The soothing music for jagged times.

When we discussed the soothing aspects of music and how it connects with people the subject of depression came up, particularly a video he shot for the Mental Health Channel. “I didn’t expect that video to go viral the way it did. People in foreign countries were walking up to me and thanking me for talking about it. Every single night after a SWANS show I would come down and hug fans and some fan in a hushed tone would tell me that they were grateful for the video.” He discussed how depression made its way into his work. “I make these ambient records that are sort of the soundtrack to depression. It’s really slow moving, ambient music. Even still, there’s nothing I could have made that was as helpful as that video.”

In seeing how his music and his story have played a role in healing he thinks artists will have a huge impact on how resistance to this regime takes shape. “Creative people just aren’t down with this horrible fascist bullshit.”