5 questions for Thor Harris

The Swans band member, multi-instrumentalist and writer is playing his first ever show as a solo artist in Montreal this weekend.

Thor Harris Swans montreal
Thor Harris

 Thor Harris has been playing music, painting, writing books and building musical instruments for the past three decades. He has toured and collaborated with Shearwater, Devendra Banhart, Jenny Hval, Lisa Germano and Amanda Palmer. He first teamed up with Michael Gira in Angels of Light and subsequently became a member of Swans when the group reformed in 2010. He’s also recorded several instrumental albums with Rob Halverson.

Earlier this week, he played with Ben Frost at Calgary’s Sled Island festival and also did a talk on depression based on his profile in last year’s Mental Health Channel mini-documentary series The Inside Story: Major Depression.

I had the pleasure to speak to Thor ahead of his first Montreal visit as a solo artist.

Pablo : What can we expect from your performance on Sunday?
Thor Harris:  This is my very first EVER solo show. Julie (Echo Beach) came up with the idea. I just thought it seemed so terrifying that I had to do it. Montreal is the world premiere of me playing music solo in front of people. I’ve been working on this for about a month. I’m mainly going to play marimba and vibraphone. It will be instrumental music like what is on some my solo records. Dana from Insect Ark will join me for some pieces but it will mostly be me. We used to be in this band Angels of Light together years ago, she’s a dear old friend.

I’m also going to read stories from my new book Dear God, which is a book of letters to different ideas. Like a letter to Believers, to my dad who’s been dead since I was 10, to rock ‘n’ roll, to Republicans and to actors advising them NOT to start bands.

P: You’ve collaborated with countless musicians from Shearwater to Devendra Banhart, Lisa Germano, Swans and Amanda Palmer. When people collaborate, a musical language blossoms — what have you learned from the many musical conversations you’ve had with all these musicians?
TH: Wow. (Pause). I think it’s funny because a lot of people play music when they’re younger and then get out of it. But those of us who stay in it get better at working with people. One thing I find as I get older is I am not trying to cram my ideas or my preconceptions into everything I do. I find that I am better at just serving the music.

You learn different stuff from everybody. Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu said that everything I did on that last Xiu Xiu record (2014’s Angel Guts : Red Classroom released on Bella Union) was nothing that he had in mind but he said he was pleased with it. Everybody is different.

I was mostly a drummer, but in the last five years in Swans, I’ve been playing drums less and less so I’ve gotten better at being that sort of auxiliary guy that makes all the strange sounds that kind of make you go “Wow! What is that sound?” I love that role.

I do I miss playing a drum set because of course the first band I ever saw was the Jackson 5. I grew up on funk and soul from the ’60s and ’70s — it’s like the loveliest music to me but I also love being that auxiliary person that gets to do all the fun weird sounds. Like Brian Eno’s role was in Roxy Music for a while.

P: I’ve read your article “How to live like a king for very little” and “How to tour in a band or whatever” pieces online. Very fun reads. Are you planning on writing another “How to” guide?
TH: Yeah! I’m thinking about writing a list of how to be a good friend because a lot people seem to fuck that up and you know there kind of are some rules. Those lists are the kinds of things we all expect of each other but it’s rarely written down.

P: What do you have lined up in the following months?
TH: Swans has one more tour and then we go into the studio in September. Yeah, that will be good. We’re doing that in El Paso in this studio called Sonic Ranch. It’s right on the border of Mexico — beautiful place. We recorded the last record there.

I’m also working on a couple of records in Austin. One is called Chain Letter. Me and several of my friends here are going to play some basic bass and drum tracks and then I’m just gonna send them to different artists, different people I’ve met or played with over the years. Giving them very little to no instructions, just have them play or sing whatever they want on the material and then send them back to me. We’ll do overdubs and mix it and then hopefully in a year or so it’ll turn into a record.

P: Last time you were in town was with Swans in February. Do you enjoy coming to Montreal?
TH: Man, I love Montreal, and I love several bands there. I’m sort of stalking several Montreal bands to try to work with them. One is Timber Timbre, I love that band and I’ve also been stalking Colin Stetson because I would love to do some instrumental stuff with him. I’ve got tons of friends in Montreal. I fucking love that city.
Thor Harris plays with Insect Ark and Echo Beach at la Sala Rossa (4848 St-Laurent) on Sunday, June 28, 9 p.m., $12

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