“When you leave Austin,” the saying goes, “you enter Texas.” The Lone Star state’s capital is different to the rest of Texas, and it wants you to know it. “We’re here because we’re not all there,” reads one bumper sticker. Stay a few days and you’ll encounter the city’s ubiquitous statement of intent: Keep Austin Weird.
It might all seem like a bit of a stoned guffaw until the truth of another tagline sinks in: a blue dot in a red sea. Austin’s Travis County votes Democrat in a fiercely Republican state.
A 1996 profile of Butthole Surfers’ singer Gibby Haynes described it as “the only town in Texas where heretics and heathens roam freely”. While it’s true other Texan cities are turning blue too as their populations become more diverse, Austin’s history of progressiveness is a point of serious pride for many Austinites.
As is the music scene. There are countless venues and rich histories from Tejano music and non-conformist country to honky-tonk, cosmic cowboy and psych rock. Janis Joplin was from Austin; so are Patty Griffin, Spoon, Stars Of The Lid and The 13th Floor Elevators.
I had a great time in this city. It’s possible everyone does: Austin is a good-time town. The Mexican food is excellent, and the BBQ too. It’s laid-back and outdoorsy, and Texans are criminally chatty.
The hospitality workers are sure surly though. I attributed it to the 90,000 people who swarm in and out for SXSW but the ‘tude continued after the circus left town. Then a local told me it’s because no one really wants to be working. Watch Richard Linklater’s 1991 cult film The Slacker, she said. That’ll explain a thing or two.
Thor Harris is a percussionist, writer, carpenter and full-time Texan weirdo. He ran for Governor earlier this year and has played with Amanda Palmer, Bill Callahan, Shearwater, Ben Frost and Lawrence English, though he’s best known for helping summon the thunderous hellsong of Swans.
I first met him in 2015 at Tasmania’s Museum of Old and New Art. My partner was drinking a cappuccino when Thor approached with a mutual friend. “Hey man,” he drawled. “Can I have a sip of your coffee?” A big ask, you’ll agree, but he was darn disarming. You knew he’d give you a sip of his if you needed it.
When I remind him he laughs at his own audacity. “I must have been real under-caffeinated,” he says, and offers me a coffee made from Ethiopian beans he roasted himself. I’m at the East Austin home Thor has owned for 20 years. “It’s paradise here,” he says. “There’s music and animals and food.”
Thor left Swans in 2015 and plays in Thor and Friends now, with Peggy Ghorbani (marimba) and Sarah Gautier (marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, organ, mellotron, and piano). It began as a solo project but he found it “terrifying and humiliating” to be on stage alone.
“I’d just been in Swans, which bludgeons the audience into submission, but I play gentle music. I’d be panicking mid-show, like, ‘is this boring?’ Swans was a dudes club, six grizzly old man. Which was fine, I learned to love the brotherhood, but I was mostly raised by my sister and my mum so I’ve always been more comfortable around women.”
Stop #1: Thor’s house, Blackland
People must use Thor’s place as a landmark. Democrat campaign signs sprout from the lawn and rough-hewn art is hammered to trees. Totems and bones and skulls leer from the nooks between branches. When you step onto the block it feels like the trees may close up behind you.
Barking dogs barrel up as I open the gate. A woman in what looks to be a Boy Scout uniform calls them off. It’s Sarah, here with her dog Sandy. She takes me to the back of the house, where Thor is working amid tools, lathes, cables, and wood, an array usually tucked away in someone’s shed. Not in Austin. Patio culture is big here and where possible, life is lived outside. He hugs me like an old friend.
“I told Goat we met in Tasmania,” he says.
“Who’s Goat?” I ask.
“Her!” He points to Sarah. “Her last name is Gautier so we call her Goat.”
Thor moved to Austin in 1985 to go to art school. He dropped out pretty quick. “I found all the weirdos in town, and the queers and stoners, and let them tell me what to read instead,” he says. Whatever book it was, I think, looking around the yard, he’s still reading it.
“I was a really good drummer and as long as anyone can remember, there were always bands in Austin,” says Thor. He formed an “avant-garde punk-prog-rock-funk-soul band” called Stick People and stacked shelves at the original Whole Foods store. “I was obsessed with nutrition so I was definitely into the movement. A lot of musicians and weirdos worked there.”
Inside, morning sun makes the ruddy wood kitchen even homelier. Thor built the house largely from hardwood collected after trees fell in storms. The dogs tussle underfoot, claws skidding on the floor. A Wye Oak record plays. “You want a hit of soy milk in that coffee?” he asks. After a week at a hotel, overlooking Interstate 35 and drinking from paper cups, being here is a deep exhale. I could curl up in a corner and sleep all day.
“Did you drink a lot last night?” asks Thor. In 2010 he published a list called “How To Tour Or Whatever”, which went viral. Rule number five was: “If you feel like shit all the time, drink less beer at the gig. You will play better and feel better. What are you… a child? Some have the endurance for self-abuse. Most don’t.”
He fetches some methylated B in liquid form and tells me to put it under my tongue. Goat watches approvingly. “It’ll help if you’re prone to depression too,” she says. “Like everyone I know, you mean?” asks Thor. The vitamins are Peggy’s. She’s an acupuncturist and nutritionist––originally from Iran, raised in Houston, now living with Thor.
Goat grew up in Austin but recently moved to Lockhart, about 50 kilometres out, where the rent was cheaper. In no city are changing demographics more hotly discussed than here, in one of America’s fastest growing towns. And in no part of Austin is gentrification more topical than in East Austin, which has experienced its brunt.
This area is called Blackland but “as usual,” says Thor, “artists and queers moved here too and for a while it’s the greatest community you ever lived in and then rich white people follow and the black folks move because it’s too expensive. Some have been forced out to Houston and some to surrounding areas like Pflugerville.”
They tour me up a spiral staircase to an open-sided room with two guest beds. Curtains billow in the breeze and you can see for miles. Thor reads my face. “Isn’t it awesome?” Over the fence is Mr Jimmy’s yard. He fixes lawnmowers. Well, he did. He’s 90 now. They went to his birthday party last September. “Our circle of friends is all ages,” says Goat.
You can see the University of Texas tower too. In 1966, after killing his mother and wife, former Marine and trained sniper Charles Whitman climbed the main campus tower and killed 16 people. It was America’s deadliest ‘lone wolf’ gun massacre at the time.
“There was no SWAT team or anything then,” says Goat. “On the radio they said ‘If you have a gun come to the tower’ so my drummer’s grandfather went. It’s where this insane thing originated, you know ‘The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun’. And it hasn’t really gone away.”
We go downstairs. It’s only March but it’s hot. “Peg made Thor install that air con,” says Goat. “The summers are when we dream about leaving. They’re harsh.”
“But you don’t leave?”
“California and LA are beautiful but the people aren’t the same,” she says. “Texas isn’t very southern. It’s more like the west but it’s kind of neither.”
“There are lots of conservatives and evangelicals in Texas but there’s also a spirit of defiance,” says Thor.
Swimming makes the summers bearable. “There’s a creek system that runs through Austin we call the greenbelt,” says Goat. “There’s Barton Springs, too, which is home to the endangered salamander. I went there once and one little salamander was out of the water awkwardly going over rocks and it was going to be smushed so I picked it up and dropped it in the water and, right as I did, this fish mouth come up and took it.”
“Damn,” says Thor. “No wonder you’re such a dark motherfucker.”
Stop #2: Thor’s street
“Let’s get tacos!” says Thor. Goat convinces him to take me in his truck. He convinces her to come. It’s Monday, midday, but no-one seems strapped for time. On the street the sun is as golden and indulgent as melted butter.
We pile in. Worn wood lines the inside panels and a smooth semi-circle is embedded in the wheel. Thatches of human hair flow from the railings behind. Maybe it’s the methylated B, but things have begun to feel pretty surreal.
We drive, and then stop. “How you doin’?” Thor hollers to two women with a wheelbarrow. It’s Lottie and Susan. They get talking. About a rose bush, about grafting a pear tree to a citrus tree and about Keeping Austin Weird. Lottie hands Thor a bouquet of parsley; he hands it to me. “We’re in the middle of the road,” I whisper to Goat. She shrugs. “This always happens.”
“We’re going to Mi Madres,” says Thor. “Wanna come?” They keep wheeling the barrow.
We drive by a row of squat brown houses. “They’re some of ours,” says Thor. “Some we own outright and some we’re still paying for.” He’s volunteered at Blackland neighborhood association since 1997, which rents out houses to vetted low-income families and senior citizens. He works on some of the houses and has helped create neighborhood gardens. No wonder he waves at everyone we pass, announcing their names to me like they’re celebrities I might know.
“You’re good friends with your neighbours then?”
“Yeah. Nobody minds if we play music, unlike in white neighbourhoods where they call the cops on you for making noise. Or for having a messy yard.”
Stop #3: Mi Madres
Mi Madres, an East Austin institution known for its Carne Guisada, is just a few streets away. We park right out front. No-one stares at Thor’s van. I guess he comes here a lot.
Twenty-eight years ago its owner, Mr Torres, worked at the Taco Cabana chain. Inspired by the cooking of his mother and grandmother, he opened Mi Madres. We see Mr Torres out the back. Thor slings his arm across his shoulder and everyone beams.
Goat has to leave to shoot a short film. Come back, she says, and we’ll go canoeing or to Goddamn Springs, where the water gets super cold. “Take her to Pease Park,” she tells Thor. “The wild flowers grow up taller than me and the lesser goldfinch is there this time of year.”
Two women finishing their meal, Heather and Shelly, join us on the dog patio. Thor’s pleased because Heather is a native Texan, which is “kind of rare in Austin”. He asks the waitress if she is too. She nods. “Me too!” he exclaims. Beams all ‘round again.
Me, I’m a little rattled. A group of glossy black birds called grackles are making a righteous din in our perimeters, eyeing the chips. The Austinites barely notice. It must be how foreigners feel in Australia when cockatoos screech in from behind. Like their head’s about to be torn off by a Mesozoic-era demon only they can hear.
Thor orders us migas tacos: a scramble of eggs, tortilla chips and cheese, and an Austin speciality. Again, talk veers back to politics. His brief run for governor, he says, was sparked by the “bathroom bill”, when the Texas legislature tried to force people to use the bathroom of the gender on their birth certificate. “It’s just hateful,” says Thor.
Late last year he told Austin newspaper My Statesmen that he didn’t actually want the job. The Texas Democratic party should be “grooming a woman Hispanic badass candidate” he said. But he did want to make a stand. “These people don’t care what bathroom you use,” he tells me. “They’re just sucking up to the evangelicals.”
The bill didn’t pass. Moreover, Shelley tells us about an Austin ordinance that enforces unisex bathrooms be built in all new public spaces. Nowhere else in Texas is this enforced and Thor is proud. “Austin is always real progressive and inclusive,” he says.
Heather isn’t so sure. “It’s changing,” she says. “Historically, Austin was a haven for so many people. For musicians fleeing Nashville, like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, who found acceptance here and made the Armadillo World Headquarters. The University of Texas was a haven for artists. The whole city felt like that.”
“It doesn’t feel that way anymore.” she says. “When I go to Thor’s place, it does.”
“I’m one of the original cancer cells of the gentrification of the East Side,” says Thor.
“No,” she says. “You made yourself part of the community. You make bikes for the kids and help your neighbours in any way. You know all of them and they know you.
“The problem is when people move in and build a house that doesn’t fit the surroundings and make no pretence of being scared of their neighbours. And their friends follow because, God it’s so cheap. And interesting. That’s the second wave. The first wave is folks like us, who don’t have much money and we can live there awhile because people are scared of it.”
Thor is nodding. “You know my neighbour, Ira, that handsome gay black dude, drives a bakery truck? He just moved because of the property taxes. His family had been there for decades.”
I pay the bill inside. It’s so cheap I ask the waitress, Delia, to check that it’s right. She sees Thor a lot. “He’s in a popular band I think, but I don’t know much about that. He’s always sweet and respectful and the people he brings in are nice customers.”
Stop #4: Pease Park
Back home, another coffee is on offer. Thor has to assemble a tricycle for a local senior today but, well, the day is long. I take some photos but assure him I won’t use them publicly. “You can,” he says. “People have. I don’t mind. There are two ways to be un-fuck-with-able. One is to be real private, like Michael Gira from Swans. The other is to be real public, to have no secrets.”
We collect Francie, one of Thor’s dogs, and drive to Pease Park. “You know this?” he says, pointing to the tape deck. “It’s the drummer from Neutral Milk Hotel. It’s great.” He hasn’t mentioned his own music all day, clearly more comfortable enthusing about others.
‘Bigger in Texas’ is no cliché when driving through the 350-acre university campus, so sprawling it has its own police force: the UTPD. We cruise by college radio station KVRX - its tagline: none of the hits, all of the time.
After quitting art school Thor made sandwiches at Thundercloud Subs. “They hired weird-looking people, it was part of their aesthetic. Back then that meant long hair, now kids have face tatts.” He met his tribe––“The people who rejected the rabid capitalism that America is.”
This car belonged to his mom, Norma, who died last year. “The thing I thought would kill me has left me alive,” he wrote. “Mom passed on her depression and … a huge bleeding heart.” He asks if I’ve seen his videos on depression.
“I have. Why did you want to talk publicly about it?”
“I felt ashamed of it and that was terrible. I wanted to break down the stigma.”
“Will you always have it?”
“I think so. That’s part of what I wanted to say. It doesn’t have to kill you, it’s a manageable disease these days.”
At Pease Park, I wander an installation made from dead saplings by artist, Patrick Dougherty, while Thor talks up a storm with some locals. They’re trying to remember where Eeyore’s Party happens.
“Eeyore? The donkey?”
“Yeah. A bunch of people took acid in the 60s and had a party in the park and it became a yearly thing. Like a Grateful Dead show with no Dead.”
Francie bounds up. “There she is!” Thor says, rejoicing as if she’d been gone for weeks. “She goes everywhere with me. She’s the oldest and I get this feeling, because my dad died when I was 10, I start dreading their deaths the older they get.”
He offers to drive me to my hotel on East Cesar Chavez Street. “You know he was the labour organiser right? He brought the migrant workers together in California, the grape growers who had real shitty work conditions. For a while there it was like ‘Boycott grapes!’ and I was like ‘Bummer. I really like grapes!’”
When Trump was elected in 2016, Thor and Friends were in the desert, recording. “We had to play in Tucson [Arizona] the next day. The crowd was just shocked. Shocked, upset, terrified. No one thought America was that racist or that dumb.”
It felt like end of times even in Australia, I say. “Being 53 years old,” he says, “I know we don’t have four years to waste delving back into racism and all this other shit. But I don’t think conservatism is going to be the dominant culture here much longer. When we overcome this current batch of horrible white men, things are going to change. It’s going out with a big ugly bang.”
Goodbye is imminent. He repeats some key hikes in Big Bend National Park, where I’m headed next. Blasts off some emails on his phone to a couple of friends in Houston, who he says I should hang with. Another hug. Looks me in the eye. “If you get into any trouble or need anything, call me OK?”
Kate Hennessy is a Sydney-based music writer. Follow her at @smallestroom.