Thor Harris strikes a different chord
Known best as a drummer, musician can wield a hammer or a hammer dulcimer with equal skill
Drummer Thor Harris' house, which he built himself, appears torn from the pages of a twisted fairy tale.
"Thor" is scrawled on a makeshift gate that opens into a yard patrolled by two friendly dogs, Chaka and Francine, and six cats. The house, partly hidden from the street by trees, was constructed mostly with found wood and other materials. The property is covered inside and out with art in various stages. There is the finished — paintings, sculptures and carvings — and the unfinished — oversized planks of wood.
A surreal tile skull tops a tree; a hand-carved spiral staircase, which Harris built without nails, stands in the center of the house and its polka-dotted pillars, stained-glass windows, miniature noose and a great stack of drums.
Tombstones, one broken and another discarded because of an error ("our dear love one"), flank the front steps — an odd touch, but one that is strangely fitting for someone who has channeled so much creativity in the face of darkness.
Dark past gives way to a new passion
Anyone who regularly goes to shows in Austin has seen Harris around. With his flowing, heavy-metal haircut and tank top, jeans and tennis shoes, the drummer for Shearwater and the newly reformed Swans has been a fixture of the music scene for more than 20 years.
Harris, 45, grew up in La Porte, outside Houston, and began playing piano at a young age before switching to percussion, which he played in the school orchestra. After high school, he attended the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles, a place that nurtured both his desire to play music and a taste for the strange.
"I would hang out with other drummers in these practice rooms, just showing each other things that we knew, and it was in the heart of really weird Hollywood, with super freaked-out street people and washed-up weird actors," Harris says.
Although Harris moved to Austin to finish his degree at the University of Texas, he dropped out and focused on performing. This is when Michael became Thor. Harris slung sandwiches at Thundercloud Subs, where the manager decided there were too many Michaels on staff and dubbed him Thor for his long blond hair.
In 1987, Harris founded new wave band Stick People with Craig Ross (whose long list of production credits includes Spoon and Patty Griffin) and Malford Milligan, who went on to sing with Storyville and Blue Monday.
The band enjoyed some fast success, signing a publishing deal with Sony, but, like so many other tales of music deals gone sour, it didn't play out as hoped and the band broke up.
"It was probably one of the worst things that ever happened to us; they gave us $25,000 and wanted us to write hit songs," Harris says. "Unlike today's indie labels, the Sony people were more than willing to tell us, 'We want you to write more songs like this,' if we had one song they liked a lot."
That experience prompted Harris to leave Austin for San Francisco in 1992.
Almost immediately upon arriving, Harris fell into a deep bout of depression, an experience he relates in a graphic novella, "An Ocean of Despair," published in 2009 by Austin's Monofonus Press. Depicting Harris as a skeleton, the book visualizes the level of isolation he experienced in vivid detail.
"I was going to murder the little blond-hair boy from Bayside Terrace," he writes of his decision to commit suicide.
His situation went from bad to worse when he took refuge in East Texas with his older sister, who had helped raise him after his father died when he was 10. A doctor prescribed a dangerous combination of antidepressants that led to a grand mal seizure.
After that, he found a different psychiatrist near Austin, who put him on a low dose of a different antidepressant. Gradually, he found his way back, managing his depression and taking solace in oil painting. "It was the one thing on which I could concentrate and focus."
The wall in the workshop in the rear of Harris' house is lined with saws and other hand-powered tools. When he's not on tour, he's back there woodworking, without the help of electricity. Harris has been building instruments, including a hammer dulcimer he uses onstage with Shearwater and rope-tuned drums (which were common in the 19th century but have mostly been replaced by drums tuned with tension rods) since he was 13.
The extra effort pays off musically. "You've got to sort of learn to make them work," he says of rope tuning. "It's a little more trouble and it's finicky, but it allows the shells to resonate a little bit more, and you get a little bit more low end. There are tons of perks."
At the end of "Oceans of Despair," Harris writes that he emerged from his brush with death with "a passion and immediacy" that he carries to this day. Judging by the way he lights up when he talks about making drums, that passion, which seems to permeate everything he does, is still with him.
Bandmate is an asset on tour
Harris is in what seems like a constant state of motion, whether he's drawing, building or making music. At the moment, he is probably best known around Austin as the drummer/percussionist for local indie rock band Shearwater, but his time with that band represents only one part of a long career that includes Bill Callahan, Gretchen Phillips and freak folk musician Devendra Banhart.
The most recent addition to that list is the influential and recently resurrected band Swans, which begin its 2011 tour in Austin in two weeks.
The group, led by vocalist and guitarist Michael Gira, began as purveyors of forceful post-punk during the early 1980s in New York, touring with the likes of Sonic Youth. They released their last album, "Soundtracks for the Blind," in 1996 before regrouping last year. Their latest, "My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky," is among the band's more accessible outings and has received a good deal of attention from critics and fans since its release last year. While Harris is a new addition to the band, he is no stranger to Gira, having been a longtime friend and member of his other project, Angels of Light. The two met in 1997, when Harris wrote Gira a letter.
"I wanted to approach them and say, 'Hey, I'm this awesome drummer, and if you ever need a drummer, you should call me, because I like what you do,'" Harris says.
Though such an introduction might be off-putting to some, Gira wasn't fazed. "I knew it would be great," he says by phone from New York. "I met him at a show during the final Swans tour in Austin, and his all-American kind of straight-shooter approach to life is perfect. We got along great."
This wasn't the first time, and wouldn't be the last, that Harris employed this strategy. He scored gigs with Philips, Shearwater and Bill Callahan using a similar direct approach.
"I went to (Shearwater's) very first show and thought that Jonathan (Meiburg) had a great voice and had interesting songs," Harris says. "At that time they were a real quiet acoustic band, and I told them if they ever needed a vibe player to call me." The vibraphone is one of the many instruments Harris plays.
Meiburg, Shearwater's lead vocalist /pianist/guitarist, did call him, and since then every one of their rehearsals has been at Harris' house. Twelve years and six albums later, Harris' presence has helped the band develop a widespread appeal that landed them a slot opening for Coldplay in 2008.
Harris' drum and percussion work is central to the band's sound, which, in addition to being much louder than it once was, combines ambient music with driving, operatic elements.
"He's a very interesting drummer," Meiburg says. "His playing sort of stretches out in improbable but very natural directions."
Gira echoes Meiburg, saying that Harris adds a different dynamic to his music. "He's a good asset, an additional bit of vocabulary to have, and I trust him, so it's great to give him a basic rough idea and then he takes it and makes it his own," he says.
Catch Shearwater live and you'll see Harris taking up a variety of instruments, including a clarinet. Meiburg said that he has never seen Harris tour with the same set of drums: "The rule with Thor is, put a drum in front of him and it will get played one way or another."
In addition to being a musical asset, Harris has a reputation for being a great tourmate with unmatched people skills. "Anytime you need a friend, you can always send Thor into a situation and he'll come out with one, whether that friend is someone he knew from a long time ago or someone he just met 30 seconds ago," Meiburg says. "I've almost never seen anyone respond negatively to him, which is a very powerful, magical ability."
He can also operate heavy machinery. Gira penned a song about Harris, "My Friend Thor," for the 2005 Angels of Light album "The Angels of Light Sing 'Other People.'" Among other things, the song relates how Harris saved the band members' lives while driving through a blizzard: "When we hit the black ice/Then Thor saved our lives/And you are my star/with your hammer, your drum and your saw."
Gira says including Harris in the Swans is about more than his drumming or driving.
"One of the criteria I use in choosing people is how we get along on tour, and how I view them as a human being, and how much I want their psychic energy, so to speak, on the record or onstage with me," he says. "Thor is obviously stellar in that regard, there's no question about it."