Thor and Friends – “The Subversive Nature of Kindness” interview

Photo by Conor Q Walker

“The Subversive Nature of Kindness” is the new sophomore release from Thor & Friends, a unique project founded by long-time Swans percussionist Thor Harris. Influenced by minimalist composers, Thor & Friends build their songs around instruments such as marimba, xylophone and vibraphone. On top of this foundation a wide variety of instruments are used, and on this album vocals also play a prominent role. The nucleus of Thor & Friends is rounded out by Peggy Ghorbani and Sarah “Goat” Gautier. When they tour, other collaborators join them depending on location.

How did the making of this album compare to the first?

Our plan is to add a new element for each record. I haven’t decided if we’re going to subtract anything. For this one, that element is voice. There was a little bit of vocals on the last one, but on this one, there are four guest singers and the voice is brought much more to the forefront. There are some pieces that don’t have voice, or not much. This record is not all about voice, but that is the element that we added this time. Michael from the Swans sang on it, and I read a sort of lukewarm review that thought his voice had been pitch-shifted, which it was not. That’s just how he sings. And there’s also a throat singer on there. His name is Enrique Soriah. He’s amazing. He trained in throat singing in Tuva and we met him in Portland. There’s an amazing opera singer from Norway, and her name is Stine Janvin Motland. There’s a folk singer from Austin named Crystal Fulbright. So, there’s a lot of voices on this record. The string arrangements are more developed. I don’t even know if I like this record more than the last one, but it’s certainly lusher and developed. If we consider each record a sort of experiment, that’s what this one is about, taking these pieces to a more developed place.

At what point in the creative process did the vocals come about? Did you have ideas for them going into it?

We did not think about the vocals first. We put down the tracks and then thought, “Ok, we have these four singers in mind; let’s decide which singer goes on which tracks.” So, while I knew the vocals were going to happen, they were an afterthought.

But did you go back and make any changes to the music once vocals were in place?

We did add more string parts after the vocals were on there, and I’m sure the vocals had an effect on that. I’m not a control person, I’m more like “we’ll see what happens” and just rely on my own wit and intuition do deal with it. By asking the right people, I feel it almost always works out. When Michael sang on the piece “Grassfire,” he just came in and did this bizarre auctioneer-sounding thing, and it blew our minds. So, I had no idea what these singers would do. We had already put the marimba, xylophone and woodwinds down. That stuff was already on there. Heather Troost and Jeremy did their parts probably in response to those bizarre vocals. I wanted voice to be just another weird instrument. That’s why there are no words on it, just voice.

How will the songs with vocals be adapted for live performance?

In some places, we will have vocalists, but our live show is very different from night to night because I have been touring for about 27 years and I have made a lot of friends all over the world. So, depending on what city you see us in, we’ll have guests. Usually, they are local musicians that we send the tracks to. I’m not concerned much with recreating the album live. The pieces are really rough drafts and they can be tweaked every night depending on what kind of players we have.

Does working with all these different people live have an influence on your albums?

Yes, definitely. We played with a couple of saxophone players in the last few months. That sound is so good with our band, especially baritone and bass sax. So, the next record will certainly have more of that, and I would not have just on my own decided that that instrument would be good for Thor & Friends.

Do you have any other ideas of things you’d like to add on future albums?

I think the next record may have more developed woodwind parts, but then again, we’re going to do a lot of touring in 2018, so I don’t know what we’ll add for the next record. Of course, as a drummer, there’s the thought of at some point adding drums, but I don’t know. We’ll have to see.

What is the significance of the album title “The Subversive Nature of Kindness”?

The horrible political situation that we’re in globally. I think that there is a lot of toxic masculinity in the zeitgeist right now. I have hated it ever since I was a kid. So, it’s a direct response to that. I’m disgusted by Donald Trump, I’m disgusted by the Texas government which is anti-women and anti-children. We have a broken foster care system. And I really blame privileged white men who have taken up the victim mantel and are once again terrorizing anyone who isn’t a privileged white man. And as a privileged white man, I am so fucking sick of it. On November 8, 2016, I had no idea that the backlash against having an awesome black president was going to be what it is. And I do think that a lot of what happened in that election was due to horrible things like gerrymandering and Russian interference. I believe in all that. As Manafort is being questioned right now, we know that had some influence. But I’m just amazed and appalled that anyone was dumb enough to vote for Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen or any of these fucking nationalist, shitty hateful people. For us to get more and more militant is just a horrible idea. I write a column for Talkhouse, and I wrote one that is a pretty good companion to this record, and it’s about kindness and how kindness can be misconstrued as weakness, but I believe kindness is courageous. I know the hippies said love is the answer already, but I’m here to say it again. I think the hippies were really on to something, and when the 80s came around, society took a really wrong turn with Ronald Reagan. I think we’ve still been living in the terrible resonance of that and I’m hoping things are going to change. Maybe with the millennials waking up from all this ugliness in our political discourse. I don’t know, but I have to be hopeful in the face of all this.

What are your touring plans for this album?

I did three shows in New York with Swans, and then Thor & Friends have a little Northeast and parts of Canada tour. Then we’re going to play some shows in France, Spain and Portugal in December. And then we’re going to let the records speak for itself for a few months; hopefully, people will get a chance to listen to it and like it. We’ll start touring a lot in the spring of 2018. Hopefully, that will include some of the European summer festivals.

For more info on Thor & Friends, check out our previous interview.