Swans' Thor Harris is a Man Unto Himself

We talked to the Austin madman about exactly he's able to beat the shit out of his instruments for two and a half hours every night.

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Nov 26 2013, 5:15pm

Thor Harris is a man unto himself. When he's not on tour or in the studio with one of the many bands in which he plays, you can often find Thor at his home in Austin, but it's a complete toss-up as to what you will find him doing. He could be woodworking or plumbing or painting something hilarious. Whatever he's doing, you can rest assured he's doing it the way that only he can.

If you've ever seen Thor in action with Swans, you know how hard he works to make beautiful, pummeling noise for extended periods of time. Gear nerds rejoice, for here is a look behind the curtain of the Great and Powerful Oz that is Thor Harris.

Noisey: For Swans shows, you have kind of a battle station over by Phil [Puleo, drummer for Swans]. Can you give me a rundown of what instruments you're using? I know some are homemade and some are not.
Thor Harris: On stage with Swans, I have a Deagan 515 electric vibraphone, a homemade electric viola with three strings, a clarinet, a trombone, several ordinary drums and cymbals, a little sampler, tubular bells, various gongs, a homemade ten string electric hammer dulcimer and a zurna, which is a double reed Turkish instrument of horror.

When did you start making your own instruments and what inspired you to do that? Are there any particular favorites that you've built? Any plans to make something new/different in the future?
I started building and altering drums when I was about 11 or 12. Our house had a machine shop and wood shop. Dad was a mechanical engineer and was always building things. Many were failures, but some sounded pretty good. I am more methodical now when building instruments. I am building some steel tubular bells now. There is a great book by Bart Hopkin on the subject. I built a 12" x 5.5" snare drum in 1990 that I use for live shows in most of the bands I am in. It's so good for live situations. I never get drums in my monitor. I think that is silly. In Swans, I don't even use a monitor because the stage volume is so loud.

Aside from the length of many of the pieces at a live show, the sheer volume of Swans is legendary. What are you using for amplification and effects? How many instruments are going through an amp as opposed to a DI or a mic? I would think there would be some serious potential feedback issues, but I haven't noticed that when I've seen you play.
To amplify the vibraphone, sampler, viola, and dulcimer I use a solid state GK with a 4/12 cabinet . Vibraphone runs through an Electro-Harmonix tremolo pedal. Dulcimer and viola run through a delay pedal. Those two tend to feed back, so I have to be careful where I stand to play them. Guitar players know all about that stuff, but it's new to me. Chris Pravdica, our bass player, helps me with amp matters and does all the sampling. That dude's a genius. He is in charge of robot interface for the whole band.

The music changes so much from the records to the stage and then it seems to constantly evolve over the course of the tour. Do you guys try new ideas at soundcheck, or do you sit down and discuss ideas pre-show? How much improvisation goes on?
Often in Swans, we are playing songs live that will appear on the next studio record. These evolve and we work on them in soundcheck much to the agony of anyone trapped in the job site. By the time we get to the studio, we have worked on them for months. There are sections in the large instrumental bits for some improvisation.

You and Phil have really physically demanding jobs to do in Swans. Do you have a particular regimen or supplement or magic spell that allows you to beat the living shit out of your instruments for almost three hours at a time, or is it an "in the zone" feeling that keeps you going, or both?
Playing that two-and-a-half hour set is an athletic feat, so I have to eat early in the day, stop eating by afternoon, no booze pre-show, etc. The muscle fatigue is grueling so I don't dare work out or lift weights during tours.

How did you get hooked up with Swans, anyway?
The way I have gotten gigs with Swans, Amanda Palmer, Bill Callahan, Xiuxiu, Ben Frost, and others was by writing them letters and recommending that they hire me. It's a great approach to working with your heroes. I still do that. I am currently stalking several bands who, in my narcissistic view, could use my services. As a drummer for hire, I don't really get to call the shots. Where I do have control is with whom I choose to work.

Thor is perpetually on tour. Go see him play. You'll be glad you did.

Matt Armstrong is the bassist for Murder By Death and has a decidedly less cool name than Thor. Follow him on Twitter - @battlebot