an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
About halfway through Thor Harris’s A Post Apocalyptic Tale of Friendship (2010), a mutilated and deformed figure hauls a shark-filled aquarium through a desert populated by wilted flora and equally grotesque disciples of this “Drifting Shark Church.” The rest of the book, a collection of drawings by the Austin-based percussionist, artist, instrument-maker, carpenter, and by all appearances, Norse thunder god, portrays a similarly bleak landscape, a complement to the encroaching “vast desert” he announced to the city in a series of signs and sculptures he posted around town in the midst of the recent record-setting drought, works of art that lead us to him. Yet this work is a “tale of friendship,” a happy story, a testament to Thor’s belief that whatever ends Austin may face – the effects of climate change, the deaths of Austin stalwarts, or the consequences of urban expansion and gentrification – the weird and creative forces that make up what he understands as the city’s spirit will persist in forms we would never expect, like that of the glorious drifting shark church.
An Austin resident since 1985, Thor is hard not to know if you’ve drifted through the city’s music and art scene. He’s currently the percussionist for Austin’s Shearwater and Nazi Gold, as well for the legendary Swans. He’s recorded a series of experimental and ambient albums with Austin producer Rob Halverson, and collaborated with Bill Callahan, Angels of Light, and countless other bands. He’s also the author of two ‘zines, the aforementioned A Post Apocalyptic Tale of Friendship and An Ocean of Despair (2009). He’s a local hero with long heavy metal hair and a genuine enthusiasm for the city and everyone he meets within it, a fact apparent within seconds of meeting him. His work dwells on images of death and rebirth, ends and beginnings, and in a lot of ways, the city that is his home. It’s hard not to hear the city in the soundscape his Fields of Innards conjures. He’s tied to it through the various bands he’s a part of. He’s even built part of it himself, building his own home in east Austin out of recycled materials found on the city’s streets. I met with him for tacos and talk at Mi Madres on Manor Road in mid-December to discuss Austin’s “spirit,” his work, and the end of it all.
Thor Harris: I’ve seen a lot change in the time that I’ve been here. The city, music, the clubs…it keeps on going. You can’t stop it. That’s my feeling about endings, even the ending of us as a species, because there is a vast desert coming quicker than we ever imagined, but that is what has to happen for new life. With clubs…I’ve been here since ’85, and I’ve just seen them rise and fall.
Sean Cashbaugh: I’ve only lived here for about five years now –
TH: You’ve probably seen a lot of turn over.
SC: Yeah, exactly. For instance, before I moved here, I knew Emo’s. It was a legendary space. Now, it’s way off Riverside. It’s very different.
TH: For me, it’s effectively dead. I mean, I’ve been to shows there and I think it’s a great venue, but it’s not what it was. It’s not Emo’s. Mohawk is kind of taking its place, and that’s fine… [Austin] is a good place. Musicians love this place. When I’m out in the world, even in Europe, touring and say that I’m from Austin, they’re like “Ahhh man…Yeah!”
SC: Austin seems really important in all your work. It plays a major role in An Ocean of Despair. There’s also A Post Apocalyptic Tale of Friendship: I can’t help but think that the deserts in that book were what you had in mind when you put up those signs around town. If something about Austin is ending, what is Austin in the first place? What does Austin mean to you?
TH: It’s a creative, friendly oasis in a sea of conservatism and armed – I’m from Texas, I’m a native – but it’s in a sea of armed hostiles. But, it’s also such a gem of smart people who aren’t uppity about being smart. I still love that Linklater film, Slacker, and I still think that sort of spirit is alive and well. What dies are the individual people and the clubs, but the spirit certainly stays somewhat the same….. Kelly? [TH sees someone he knows as she leaves the restaurant. They chat for a few minutes]
SC: I feel like that is quintessentially Austin – you see people you know all over. It can feel like a small town.
TH: To me, it still feels like small town, because I stay right here in the center, but even that [center] is sort of dissolving since the I-35 boundary is being pushed further and further…but it still feels like a small town to me.
SC: Yeah. My grandparents lived here in the 1940s. When I moved here my grandfather asked, “Where are you living?” At the time I was living near Burnet and Anderson, near the Drafthouse Village. He was like, “That’s not real Austin.” He basically called me a poser, but he described Austin as a small town too. I like the way you put it earlier: the “spirit of a city.” It won’t disappear, but it’ll change forms. Do you think that’s true?
TH: Definitely. The cast of characters changes, but they came here because their mentors came here and paved the way. Like, Octopus Project doesn’t sound like Butthole Surfers, but they certainly are here because, partially, the Butthole Surfers declared that you didn’t have to be a blues-rock band to make it out of Austin.
SC: The weirdo circuit begins.
TH: Yeah, and Roky Erikson, to go further back.
SC: That’s true, psychedelia started here in so many ways.
Thor: Yeah, it was this weird 1960s Austin-San Francisco connection. And now, I think this scene is so much more alive than anything going on in San Francisco.
SC: It’s like there’s something happening here every night. It’s really difficult to keep up. If I go to one thing on a Friday, it means I miss something later that night.
TH: I tell you what – don’t let anyone, not even your grandpa, tell you that you missed it, because you didn’t. It’s still here. It moves around, and I think that freaks people out. Yeah, you missed the Butthole Surfers playing at Liberty Lunch or at the Ritz, but there’s still freaky stuff happening. Like, I saw this band Marriage the other day. It’s five guys, sometimes they’re all playing drums. So good!
SC: You’ve lived here for about 20 years?
TH: Yeah, since 1985.
SC: Have you seen many changes, apart from the clubs, since you’ve moved here?
TH: Yeah. Tons. The city grows in rings. I don’t necessarily notice it unless I start driving out of town. The rings keep getting bigger and bigger. If you are in Amsterdam, they built that city with a canal around it, and it grew. So they built another canal. So now it’s just this big series of canals. All cities are like that. They just keep getting bigger and bigger. That’s how you end up with something like Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill: three cities that turned into one. Their rings kept getting bigger and bigger.
SC: Do you think that could ever reach a limit? In fifty years, could Austin and Dallas suddenly merge because the rings have gotten so big?
TH: Yeah, in some ways that kind of does happen. There used to be a lot more open land between here and San Antonio. Now there’s a lot less. New Braunfels got huge. It all sort of boils down to population explosion. I remember when we reached 6 billion. Now we’re at 7 billion.
SC: What about your relationship to the Austin music scene? It seems that you have your hand in everything.
TH: I love meeting new people, and I’m not very ageist, so I play with young people and people my age. It’s hard to find active musicians older than me, but I’m certainly open to it. You know, when I was younger I did play with people older than me. Well, there’s Swans. Michael is 58. I’m 47. That’s pretty great, being the young guy for a change. I might do some playing with David Longoria. I’m in Nazi Gold, those guys are 28.
SC: How was the show Friday night [Nazi Gold played at Beerland on 12/14]? I couldn’t make it.
TH: It was really fun. I saw three bands that I really liked. Sur, S-U-R, Air, and Marriage. They were all really good. Then we played, and released our new record. We’re going to start working on some new songs. Hopefully by January, at least half of our set will be new songs. I used to be a high school art teacher, and one of those guys was one of my students. I loved that kid from the beginning. It was like, “Man, this kid is going to be my friend for life.” I didn’t know we were going to be in a band together, but it kind of figures…He’s a sweet, brilliant dude. I can’t call him a kid anymore. I think he just turned 28 yesterday, so he’s all grown up. He was when I met him. He was just the eighth grader with a completely mature moral code. Where do you get that? Where do you even get that?
SC: Most adults don’t even have something like that.
TH: Yeah, he’s a great guy. Jeremy Steen. To me, we lose great people, but there are all these great people coming and growing up. There are all these new pieces that move into the puzzle. It’s sad that Biscuit from the Big Boys isn’t here anymore – I knew him – but I think he would feel proud of all the creative stuff that’s still coming out of this town.
SC: It seems like there’s always that endless talk about scenes ending, but inevitably, those voices get drowned out when scenes continue, just in a different ways.
TH: Yeah, that’s another thing. I don’t know if it has helped me, but I never feel sour about what is lost. It’s like gentrification. You can bitch about it all you want, but it’s an inevitable force of nature. They are making more people. The rich people will push the poor people out to the perimeters. It sort of happened in the reverse in the 1970s where the rich people moved out to the perimeters, and only poor people lived in the inner cities. The idea is still the same, you know, people displacing other people.
SC: That brings me to another question. Ideas about decay, depression, things ending – these ideas show up everywhere in your work. Is that related to an appreciation of things ending?
TH: It is. I grew up around at least some people, and I know this is still a true sentiment, who thought it was just me being a negative, depressed freak, but I really don’t think it is. I think it’s just me being observant. Death and decay is all around us all the time. Why not celebrate it? When I saw my first Day of the Dead parade, I felt like “Oh my fucking god, I have found my people!” A celebration of ending and rebirth, ending and decay! I think of it as compost. I think, “Man, this is going to make great soil. I’m going to make really great soil once I really start to break down. Some pecan trees are going to grow out of me, and make delicious pecans.”
SC: That would be a hell of an afterlife.
TH: I know, right. Maybe by the time I die you’ll be able to do it. Just slice me in half and put a pecan tree right in the middle and just let it grow, and then have some of my ancestors at least be able to have rights to some of the pecans.
SC: I really like that idea. It’s really beautiful.
TH: I know. I know that there are green funerals now. Hopefully, they will get a little bit freakier in the coming decades. There are certain cemeteries that allow green burials, whatever that is. I’m not even sure that is what “that” is. No casket I guess? Maybe they just bury you in a cotton sack.
SC: That would make sense. You’d become one with the earth.
TH: Yeah, my dad was buried in a really fancy steel box, and sometimes I think I should go try to dig him up, and see what it looks like 37 years later. I remember it cost us like four thousand dollars and I was just looking at it, thinking, “Man, this box….we just get to look at it for one day, and then we are going to put it in the ground. What then?”
SC: It’s like a time capsule you can never look at. Well, I guess you could.
TH: It’d be pretty weird. If I got caught I’d probably go to jail for….
SC: Grave robbing?
TH: Yeah…But this guy has been buried for 37 years. [Laughing] There’s no way!
SC: Maybe there’s a statute of limitations, so at a certain point you just become an archaeologist.
TH: Yeah, I want to see my dad’s skull. You should come over and see my house. It’s full of bones. The gate has bones and stuff in it. I guess to some people it seems scary, but I think to you and a lot of the kind of people I hang out with it’s pretty beautiful. It’s a little macabre, but I think it’s something that can be celebrated.
SC: Now that I think about it A Post Apocalyptic Tale of Friendship is a happy story.
SC: Look at all these awesome weirdo things going on amidst the deserts. There’s one image that really stuck with me: the travelling shark church. I’m not a religious person by stretch of the imagination, but I would totally go to a shark church.
TH: Yeah! You’d have to, right? If people were worshipping sharks out in the desert, you’d be like, “I’d drive to that. Where? Fuck yeah!”
SC: Forget the Discovery Channel. Shark Church is where it’s at.
TH: [Laughs] Yeah, a shark cult in the desert.
SC: What about the flipside, the idea of endings as beginnings? I think one that thing that has come up is that if things are ending, it’s so you can build something new. It reminds me of how involved you are in things, in the most literal sense: building your house, building your own instruments. Could you talk about the stuff you’re building? Are you working on anything right now?
TH: Today, just before I came here, I was working on this viola that I play in Swans. It’s a really rough instrument. It only has three strings. It’s made out of a piece of wood that I found on the street. I took it took it to a friend of mine who cut it up, and then I made this viola. Some kid will probably find this thing in the future and wonder what the hell this weird thing is.
SC: So when you die, you can become a pecan tree, which means you can become an instrument. That sounds like a great future. What do you see in the future for Austin?
TH: I don’t really want to say, because I don’t know what will happen. I know things have changed, and that they will continue, but I don’t know what’s coming up. The spirit of Austin will persist in some way. You can see it in the tech industry. Like, Twitter was started at South by Southwest. Technology people might have been attracted to this place because of the creative music scene. Creativity helps foster a creative community. The music was like the seed
SC: One cool thing about Austin is that there seems to be a variety of creative communities – tech companies, musicians, artists – and they all seem to feed off each other, and generate a creative space.
TH: That’s why I love to hang out with people so different from myself. I learn a lot, I would rather work with different people. It fosters something new.