Inner City Sanctums
A look inside Shearwater drummer Thor Harris' handcrafted East Side home
I can’t see the street address when I drive up to local drummer Thor Harris’ house, but I know I’m at the right place. Hanging skulls and ceramic figurines float above jagged wooden fence posts thrusting up out of the earth, boasting sharpened tips that look like they’ve been whittled by some sort of gothic giant.
I quickly park and approach the foreboding East Austin lair, walking past Harris’ well-worn yellow truck, adorned with numerous decals and stickers, sitting on the curb (there is a small white label with the words "LIVE ANIMAL" pasted on the driver's side door). The intimidating and eclectic facade reminds me of something straight out of Jim Henson's Labryinth. I try to take in the impending doom of the foreboding aesthetic, but the only thing I can focus on is the suddenly overwhelming smell of mountain laurels.
I knock hesitantly on the front gate and, realizing it’s unlocked, gently push it open. A towering mountain laurel, heavy with their once annual blossoms, and Texas sage greet me as I enter a strange secret garden — quite the opposite of the harsh exterior. It’s like flipping a course, rugged leather jacket inside out to discover an impossibly soft suede lining.
“Austin is almost paradise to me. I love the kind of people who find home here. Genuine, unpretentious, smart people who don't like real jobs and have been on a few awesome acid trips.”
If you’ve spent any time in Austin since 1985 you might have seen Harris playing around town, with heavy hitters like Bill Callahan, Swans and Shearwater on a regular basis. But the critically acclaimed drummer from La Porte, Texas, is known for much more than being a driving force onstage. His passion for woodworking led to the creation of his two-story home in East Austin, and I had come to talk about his uniquely offbeat inner city sanctum.
The front door is open and I can hear voices and laughter from inside. Thor is standing in the kitchen working on an Etch-A-Sketch and talking with two of his childhood friends from La Porte. I’m hugged upon entry and Thor shows me his latest Etch-A-Sketch creation. “It’s the gate to Hell,” he says of the scraggly, fine-tuned spiral on the grainy screen. I soon find out that despite the threatening façade, the front door is always open and friends are usually passing through.
It seems fitting for Harris to guard his glowing garden and home with a bulwark of darkness. Behind the intimidating exterior is an easily flowing, open space full of good music, hard work, old friends and a neighborly spirit, but Harris, who suffers from depression, knows all about burning through the darkness to get to the light. Harris published a few graphic novels and ‘zines, featuring illustrations akin to the famed illustrator R. Crumb, in collaboration with East Austin’s Monofonus Press, including An Ocean of Despair, a chronicle of his 2009 downward spiral, which was a time characterized by suicidal thoughts, numbing anxieties and a dangerous prescription of antidepressants that caused him to have a grand mal seizure.
“I in no way think of that lost year as wasted,” he writes in Despair. “More like a horrifying trip though a wilderness of dementia from which I emerged fearless and irrepressible.”
He’s been through a lot over the years, but it’s hard to believe from his apparent and buoyed sense of awareness, or rather overt kindness — the most striking and distinct facets of his character. Since then, Thor’s spirit seems to be made of that sinewy, mystical stuff that can, of course, falter at times, but is ultimately and boundlessly resilient.
“The year I spent in the tomb of clinical depression gave me lust for life I never knew. Even before that I had a strong sense of community,” Harris says. “Austin is almost paradise to me. I love the kind of people who find home here. Genuine, unpretentious, smart people who don't like real jobs and have been on a few awesome acid trips.”
It took Harris seven years, in between tours and other projects, to complete the house, with the majority of the construction being done in the dead heat of Texas summer.
The high, vaulted ceilings of the two-story home, the wooden spiral staircase he created in just under two weeks without using any nails, and the stained glass arch of the front door makes it seem like an appropriate cathedral of sorts for the creative spirit who constructed it. It took Harris seven years, in between tours and other projects, to complete the house, with the majority of the construction being done in the dead heat of Texas summer — including tearing the entire roof off —so it’s even more fitting as a place of worship for Thor’s particular breed of spiritual dedication to hard work and the community of which he is a part.
He didn’t have a clear idea or “end vision” for the house when he started — “like most things I do,” he says with a laugh, “it just ended up working out.” He worked tirelessly, fixing odds and ends in between long, cross country and international tours. He wasn’t in any particular hurry. He liked to keep himself busy with segmented jobs, like installing the home’s solar hot water heater and implanting the mixed and matched jungle now found in his front yard.
“I’ve lived in freaky places since I was a kid. My room was always kind of weird and full of stuff. It was sort of like this,” he says, gesturing around the living room, which is filled with assorted art, maps of the world, black and white pictures of his dad (who died when Harris was 10 years old) and a snapshot of the original house (unrecognizable now without two stories or an elaborate front yard). Leonard Cohen albums are stacked in front of lunar cycle diagrams and natural light streams through every window, alighting on one of the two dogs and seven cats roaming around.
Harris wants to grab some lunch before the members of his latest project, Nazi Gold, are coming over to practice; they have a show that evening at the Mohawk. He suggests we walk over to El Chilito for breakfast tacos and after only a half block, I realize Harris is something of a neighborhood superstar. Not for drumming, but for the uncanny ability to never meet a stranger.
A young hipster on a fixed bike yells out “Thor!” as he zooms by, leaving his hand up in a wave of solidarity all the way down the hill. On the next block, an 83-year-old man chopping at a mulberry stump calls out to Thor as we pass. Thor practically ran to the curb to see what his neighbor was working on. (“Man, mulberries are tough!,” he says with a grin.)
Harris is something of a neighborhood superstar. Not for drumming, but for the uncanny ability to never meet a stranger.
I notice how everyone seems to glow when Harris directs the slightest attention towards them. Like our cashier at El Chilito when we show up for some migas — she has a sling on her arm and a bruised eye and cheek. Some might have ignored the apparent injuries, but Thor’s face transformed into a textbook image of empathy and concern.
“What happened to your paw?” he asks her. The cashier tells him she was hit by a car while biking a few days ago, but it was ok — she was healing quickly and the driver’s insurance was compensating her nicely. Thor’s face lit up at the news, as if her distinct good fortune was directly correlated to his day. “I’m glad you’re alive,” he says as we leave the window. The girl thanks him with a positively beaming smile plastered on her face — her spirits noticeably lifted. Thor’s odd golden light beam moves that quickly and with purpose, passing from person to person.
When we get back from El Chilito, Thor shows me his woodworking shop in the backyard, where he can be found most of the days when he’s home from tour. His father was a mechanical engineer and was always making and fixing things, so he grew up playing alongside his father in his wood and metal shops in the family’s garage. In addition to a worktable, framed with an encyclopedic inventory of wood working tools hanging on the walls above, there is a scrap wood pile that shifts daily with Thor’s productivity and inspiration. There’s hackberry, pecan and mesquite, which he prefers to work with.
Harris makes several of the instruments he plays here in the backyard, including Waterfones, wooden dulcimers, clavephones — all handmade from bodark and osage orange wood.
Thor acquires all of these scraps by driving around Austin and the surrounding areas, looking for any dead, fallen trees. He then takes the lumber to a local mill to get it sliced and then stores it, sometimes for years, in lumber racks in his backyard. Then he simply waits for inspiration to strike.
He makes several of the instruments he plays here in the backyard, including Waterfones, wooden dulcimers, clavephones — all handmade from bodark and osage orange wood. (The exotic, tough wood produces a bright, hollow, but springy sound when Thor raps them happily with a small mallet.)
“I’m very Zen about it,” Thor says. “If someone wants something or a specific piece, I just say, ‘Yes, please take it.’” It grows on trees, come to find out. Especially now, with all of the trees dying because of the drought.” But his method doesn’t really allow for a lot of choice. He just works with whatever is available. For instance, the drought killed off a lot of the area’s pecan trees, so he’s been using that more often all year even though he doesn’t prefer to work with it as much as, say, mesquite.
But regardless of the materials, he says it’s rewarding to be able to work hard and make beautiful things for his friends. (Right now, he’s making a dining room table with huge eagle claw feet for his brother.) He has done some woodwork for commission, but says “it doesn’t feel as good.” A few years ago, he was cutting some wood in his backyard on a table saw and the blade sliced his thumb pretty deeply. His friend, an ER doctor, came by after her shift and stitched him up, so he made her a table as a way of saying thank you.
It seems like he’s constantly giving back to his city and creative community, whether its offering a smile and a helping hand to one of his neighbors, drumming in the band of his former student or being an active member of his neighborhood’s housing association. And these aren’t thankless favors, in his mind; they are what help him get though the day. If you give a smile to Thor Harris, rest assured he’s going to give you a lot more back in return. And as Austin keeps growing, we’re going to need to as many people like Thor as we can get.