Thor Harris has a lot of friends. He’s made many of them over his decades-long career as a supporting musician for a wide variety of acts, including artists as disparate as Shearwater, Ben Frost, Amanda Palmer, and Bill Callahan. Since 2010, he’s been part of the revived lineup of the experimental rock group Swans, lending his skills as a keyboardist and percussionist to critically acclaimed albums such as The Seer and To Be Kind.
So it makes sense that Thor and Friends, the first major project to bear Harris’s name — and ostensibly to feature him as a frontman — is more about a sense of community than anything else. “There are no solos, there are no stars,” Harris says of the project, which released its self-titled debut album late last year. “It’s sort of like singing in a choir. No one part is that important. It’s a thing that you put yourself into, and you become a small piece of it. It’s like a bunch of threads making up a fabric.”
For Thor and Friends, Harris is drawing inspiration from mid-20th century classical music — specifically, the minimal music of composers Steve Reich and Terry Riley. The central instrument of the first album is the marimba, which all three of the band’s core members (Harris, Peggy Ghorbani, and Sarah “Goat” Gautier) play — though other instruments, including strings, keys, and vocals, also factor into the band’s constantly shifting sound.
In some ways, the album contrasts with Harris’s earlier work, which was typically in the realm of rock music. “For this band I wanted to get away from really loud stuff in terms of bass, drums, and guitar, and just see if it could be really powerful without all that volume and all those things that I know how to do pretty well,” Harris says. “I want it to be music that doesn’t demand your attention. Most of my favorite records are records like that. I’m really into ambient stuff. They don’t demand your attention, but if you wanted to put them on in headphones, you’d hear a lot of new, cool stuff that maybe you didn’t hear while you were listening to it while you were vacuuming.”
While Thor and Friends is divided into nine tracks, it doesn’t feature traditionally structured songs. Instead, it’s what Harris describes as “fairly aimless, hypnotic, meditation or trance music.” The album’s first track, “White Sands,” features an undulating, amelodic marimba part that is intermittently joined by ominous strings and vocals. It’s not quite tranquil and not quite aggressive — but it is mesmerizing.
The lineup for Thor and Friends is just as amorphous as the music itself. “I didn’t intend for the band to get so enormous,” Harris says. In addition to the central trio of performers, the group is often joined onstage by local musicians; at one point, Harris says, the group has featured as many as 19 people onstage, made up of friends that simply wanted to join in. “I just kind of say yes, almost always,” Harris says. “It’s really fun, having almost a different lineup every night.”
The sense of community that the Thor and Friends project fosters, Harris says, is just as important as the music. “Many of the people in Thor and Friends deal with depression, and playing that music is sort of like doing group therapy together,” he says. “If somebody wanted to play in that band, and I thought maybe the music would be a little better if they didn’t play, but I think it’s better for the person emotionally or spiritually to play, I want them to play. Of course I care what the end product is, but the getting there, the community-building, is just as important to me. And so far, the two have worked really well together.”
The group is continuing to mutate in the studio as well. The first album featured guest performers, such as the folk duo A Hawk and a Hacksaw and Deerhoof guitarist John Dieterich, and the group’s second album is slated to feature even more new faces. “For every Thor and Friends record, I want to add some new element, and on the second one, which is almost done, I added singers,” Harris says, noting that he hopes to emulate Reich and Riley’s tendency to use vocals “as just another instrument.” Vocalists that will feature on the album include throat singer Enrique Ugalde, Norwegian opera singer Stine Janvin Motland, folk singer Crystal Fulbright, and Swans frontman Michael Gira — the last of whom Harris cites as a “role model.”
Harris is currently taking a break from touring with Swans, though he says he will likely continue to work with the band “in some capacity,” even after Gira reworks the current lineup. There is, however, a subtle similarity between that band’s music and Harris’s work with Thor and Friends. Swans’ music might often be loud and punishing, but at its core it features a similar meditative spirit to Thor and Friends.
“We don’t sound like Swans, but I think there’s a lot in common,” Harris says. “I certainly learned a lot from Michael. … We do send a lot of music back and forth. Usually it’s in the realm of classical, mid-20th century minimalists,” like Reich, Reilly, Charlemagne Palestine, and Moondog.
Harris also cites electronic music as an inspiration — he mentions the instrumental, synth-driven music that forms the back half of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” as well as Brian Eno’s Ambient series. “I don’t know how to do any of that stuff,” he laughs. “I’m so stupid with computers, and even synthesizers. … But I love that music. I think that what I try to do with marimbas and xylophones and electric viola and whatever else I have around is, a lot of the time, emulating electronic music.”
He excitedly agrees with the idea that electronic music has served as a precursor to a resurgence of classical minimalism. “I think that is the chronology of it,” he says. “I think that it did sort of prime our minds for a return to a lot of other hypnotic, landscape-type music.”
That hypnotic, unconscious side of his music, Harris says, has yielded some bigger realizations about the creative process. “What I’m starting to understand, because I’m having to work not as a sideman but as the guy who decides how the thing takes shape, [is] that the music that comes out of you, you don’t really necessarily pick it,” he says. “It really is just a sort of conglomeration of everything you’ve heard mixed with your neurology and everything else. If you make a thing that’s sort of genuine to you, you don’t really entirely get to choose it.
“Being a sideman, my job was for many, many years — and still is, because I still work as a sideman — to come in and listen to the thing and go, ‘Okay, I get it, I see what you’re doing. I think I can make it better in this way. I think it would be better if we added this,’” he adds. “This is different. … I should have expected this, but it’s rewarding in a different kind of way.”
Thor and Friends will open for Explosions in the Sky at Iron City on Sunday, April 9. Doors for the all-ages show open at 7 p.m.; the show starts at 8 p.m. For more information, visit ironcitybham.com.