Thor Harris is not running for governor of Texas in 2018.
Except, maybe he is.
“I’m told that if I really, truly wanted to be governor, I would need to start driving around the state campaigning right now and raising tons of money, but I have a new record coming out and I’m told I can’t win,” the beloved Austin music eccentric says with a laugh.
It’s late afternoon on a blissfully breezy day in mid-October, roughly a month before “The Subversive Nature of Kindness,” the second release from his eponymous project, Thor & Friends, is scheduled to drop. The album was created by a loose collective of roughly 20 artists and musical adventurers. Contributors include Aisha Burns from Balmorhea, Michael Gira from Swans and Jeremy Barnes from Neutral Milk Hotel. They move through melodic percussion soundscapes created by core members Harris, Peggy Ghorbani and Sarah “Goat” Gautier.
On the first Thor & Friends album, xylophones, marimbas and vibraphones cascaded in burbling streams. This time the waters are troubled. Dizzying rhythmic swirls pulse with anxiety as clarinets, oboes and violins emerge carrying cinematic melodies. There are voices in the mix, but no words, just haunted syllables that float in and out. With song titles like “Standing Rock,” “An Escapist Theme” and “Resist,” the album, written in the shadow of the Trump presidency, unfolds as a spellbinding sonic meditation on the potential for human evolution.
It’s a powerful musical work that aches with passion and begs to be heard live.
Still, in the two months since he thrilled music and pop culture blogs across the country with an 8-second video, shot from a grizzly-beard angle in front of a rainbow flag —“Howdy, my name is Thor Harris and I’m running for governor of Texas, ‘cause (expletive) this” — he’s met with the Texas Democratic Socialist Party and he has a friend researching the logistics of getting a spot on the ballot.
“I am probably going to pay the $3,500, or whatever it is, to register,” he says.
In truth, Harris doesn’t actually want to be governor. He thinks the Texas Democratic party should be grooming a “woman Hispanic badass candidate.” He’s just infuriated with the way the country is moving under Trump and the state of Texas under Gov. Greg Abbott.
While some artists shy away from politics, he leans in. All the way in. He uses his Twitter account to rail against the Trump administration’s positions on immigration, healthcare and tax reform and was briefly suspended from the social media platform in February after he posted a video tutorial called “How to Punch a Nazi.” He made his campaign video in August, in response to the bathroom bill, an ordinance designed to restrict the restrooms, locker rooms and showers available to transgender Texans. The measure failed to pass the Texas legislature this summer.
“That was never gonna become law,” says Harris, a lifelong Texan who grew up in the coastal town of LaPorte. “It was just pandering to evangelical hatefuls and it hurts my friends. So that’s why I made that announcement.
“We need a voice of reason. The men who run the state of Texas are children. They’re angry little impotent white boys with guns.”
Harris wasn’t born Thor. He picked up the moniker in 1986, when there were too many Michaels at the Thundercloud where he worked. But with his burly physique and long golden hair, the 52-year-old looks like he might have stepped out of the pages of a decaying volume of Norse mythology, an effect amplified by the quartet of mutts, ranging in size from Shih Tzu to labrador, who skitter around his feet vying for his attention.
Swaths of red, green and blue light spill through stained glass pieces set into wooden facades adorning the tops of the windows in the nook where Harris sits. With warm wood panels on the walls and an artful spiral staircase winding up to a loft, the home studio he built himself in East Austin, years ago when land in this part of town was cheap, feels like a mystical urban hideaway. (The humble abode is also home to six cats and Harris’ partner and bandmate, Ghorbani.)
For decades, the master carpenter/killer drummer has maintained a strong presence on the national music scene, providing rhythm for indie rock bands like Swans and Shearwater and the singer-songwriter Bill Callahan. He’s known as a generous teddy bear of a man, a mountain of muscle with a heart of gold who’s quick to dole out hugs and has helped countless artists by making frank videos about his struggles with depression. He’s the kind of guy who looks into your eyes when he talks and lights up when he finds a connection that links his life to yours.
Consequently, the music blogosphere exploded in February when Harris posted the Nazi-punching video.
He created it in response to a widely circulated video of a white nationalist, Richard Spencer, being punched during an interview on Inauguration Day. As Harris watched the video on loop “several hundred times,” something occurred to him. It wasn’t a particularly good punch. It didn’t land right.
“The whole joke of the video was: I really want to be a pacifist but I do enjoy watching this Nazi prick get his face smashed,” he says. “So if you do this, do it so you don’t hurt your wrist, and do it right. And film it so I can watch it a lot of times.”
He took some blowback for the video — he was briefly banned from Twitter when someone lodged an obscenity complaint against him for pen and ink drawings of penises that formed his background image on his profile. Some users chided him for encouraging violence and several self-identified Nazis sent him pictures of their weapons caches. One guy wanted to meet him on Sixth Street to fight.
Briefly, he felt like he might have gone too far, that the video might have crossed a line, but the white supremacist march in Charlottesville in August fortified his resolve to stand up to racism by any means necessary.
“Don’t paint us all as a bunch of snowflake pansies, because I am a liberal and I can probably can kick your ass. I wouldn’t want to, but I probably could,” he says.
As a middle-age white man who’s adept with power tools, he sees many ways that his life is not far removed from that of “rednecks who voted for Trump.”
“We respect self-reliance and the ability to build things,” he says. “I just want to be like a different kind of voice for an old white dude. We’re not monolithic. If you want to make this about race, I’m not fighting on your team.”
Harris is a big believer in community. He has to pause the interview halfway through so he can run next door to help his neighbor lift his 90-year-old father’s wheelchair onto his front porch.
“I live around a bunch of black kids and I repair their bikes and I blow up their basketballs and I built them basketball goals,” he says. “Part of that is because I know how to build (expletive) and I love those kids and they deserve it and their dads are working their asses off just to pay the bills.”
Harris, who doesn’t have kids of his own, also sees the broader resonance of these sort of acts. “For little kids it’s like, here’s this hateful white dude on TV who runs our country and we’re horrified of him, and white cops are shooting teenage black boys down in the street, but this guy’s kind of white, too, but he built this goal and fixes my bike.”
Which brings us back to “The Subversive Nature of Kindness.”
“There’s gotta be a way to, on the one hand punch Nazis when you need to, but in general exude kindness in the face of an increasingly mean world,” he says.
Musically, he’s made the leap.
“I played in Swans for six years and that music is really aggressive. It feels like it wants to hurt you,” he says. “The music that Thor and Friends make … it’s more soothing and inviting … the goal of it is to have, like, soothing effects on our neurology.”
The band’s rehearsals are largely improvisational affairs, sessions that Harris describes as “a good hang.” He doesn’t conduct the group. He brings players in and lets them to do their thing, allowing the music to form organically. The songs are deliberately repetitive in their composition. They encourage listeners and players to slip into a meditative state. The performances become a sort of healing ritual. An invitation to let yourself go, to open yourself to the deep well spring of emotion that churns below the surface.
“Cynicism is heavy armor that you may get tired of wearing,” he says. “It closes you off from the world as much as it closes off the world from you. It’s part of why I talk about depression in public — it’s a way of showing people I’m vulnerable, and that it’s OK to be flawed. It’s a laying down of arms. An acknowledgment that our lives are short and our situations are usually less than ideal. It uses compassion to connect us. The truth is, unabashed vulnerability — acknowledging what scares you —takes far more strength and courage.”
UPDATE: This article has been updated to correct a name of a band member.
Artist of the Month: Thor & Friends
Members: Michael “Thor” Harris, Peggy Ghorbani, Sarah “Goat” Gautier
Recordings: “The Subervsive Nature of Kindness,” digital release coming Nov. 17; “Thor & Friends” 2016