In Conversation with Thor Harris and Cross Record

The friends and collaborators talk spirituality, death, the ethics of having kids, and Cross Record.

Emily Cross is the artist behind Cross Record, an Austin, Texas-based recording project; Thor Harris is a multi-instrumentalist and multimedia artist who’s played with bands like Thor & Friends, Swans, and Xiu Xiu. Also based in Austin, Harris contributed to Cross Record’s 2016 album Wabi-Sabi. In light of Cross Record’s latest, self-titled album, the friends and collaborators sat down to talk about — among much more — dogs, gods, and Emily’s new album.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Associate Editor

Thor Harris: Hello, suckers. My name is Thor Harris. I’m here with the great Emily Cross.

Emily Cross: Hello!

Thor: I played on one of your records

Emily: You did.

Thor: Well, Emily has a new record — it’s the third Cross Record record, and, um, it’s called Cross Record

Emily: [Laughs.]

Thor: It’s really beautiful. I’m really not very computer savvy, so as we go through this, I’m gonna ask you who played on it and how things got made. 

I know that Theo Karon produced it. I love Theo. We have a little bit of history — I’ve played on a couple of things with him. He lives in LA now, but he’s from right here in Austin.

Emily: He is, his parents live right down the street from me.

Thor: I’ve met them, they’re so cool!

Emily: Yeah, they’re really great. I met Theo in Chicago when we went to college together. He dropped out, which was smart.

Thor: I always think those are the smart ones — the smart ones drop out, right? 

Emily: Yeah, I finished. [Laughs.] But, yeah, Theo produced it; we kind of all, like, co-produced it together, but he was definitely an aggressive force of recording and producing. I love how his mind works. It’s very special.

Thor: Yeah, there’s some strange studio wizardry on this record. Who played drums on it?

Emily: Beth Goodfellow played drums, and I’ve not met her. We actually finished all the tracks, and then she played on top of it all, which I’ve never done before. I think it turned out great, but I don’t know that that’s the way that I would choose to work. It was just kind of a logistical thing. But she’s amazing, from what I know. We gave her basically no direction, and she just played over the tracks. 

Thor: That’s an interesting way to work. I’ve done some of that, putting drums on a piece that has a click track and I’m like an overdub. In the old days, that’s not how you worked at all, ever. It was bass player and drummer, and once you had those two down, and you moved on and overdubbed everything else. Well, the drums on it are great. 

So you quit drinking, and there’s a song on here called “Face Smashed Drooling.” That voice is so low — can you sing that low, or is it pitched down?

Emily: I can sing that low, but that is pitched down. I think what happened — and what happens a lot when I make music — is that I, for some reason, wasn’t satisfied with it, and then I was like, Well, maybe I’ll like it better if we just slow it down.

Thor: I heard that there was an Aphex Twin record where you could play it 45 [rpm] or at 33. He just said, “Play it at either one, it’s good at both.”

Emily: Wow, I love that! It’s weird — I think maybe a lot of people feel like this, but whenever I hear my voice played back, like, at normal speed, I feel like it’s too high. I don’t know why. Maybe the voice that I hear in my head is actually lower, somehow.

Thor: This makes me think of two things: There was a band in town, a super beloved band called the Fuckemos. Their singing was always through an octave pedal and pitched down.

Emily: On the record as well?

Thor: Yeah, on the record, and super good. You just accept that that’s the voice, and you don’t think of a little octave pedal. I think they used, like, a guitar octave pedal on stage, but all the time. The second thing it makes me think of is DJ Screw, who’s from Houston, and just changed the world by playing hip hop records way too slow. So brilliant.

Emily: I love it because it obviously changes the quality of my voice, but I, for some reason, relate to it more, which I already said. Also it feels like not myself, like a second person that is singer Emily.

Thor: Yeah, that’s maybe, like, 30 feet tall, or something. 

Emily: Right and, like, 30 years older, maybe.

Thor: Well, it’s so beautiful. There’s this cool rattling sound on “Put Your Shoes On, Leave my Castle” — what is that? It creeps up, and then it kind of goes into the background. I really love it. And it’s not particularly on beat!

Emily: No, it’s not at all. I can’t tell you what that is, because I don’t know, but I when I went to write this record, I went to Mexico for a month — mostly because it’s really cheap to live there for a month, and [it’s] beautiful. All I brought was a bass and an Elektron Oktatrack. Have you heard of those? 

Thor: I don’t know what that is.

Emily: It’s a sampler, which I don’t know what I was thinking actually bringing it, because I had no idea how to use it. I did not know that it’s, like, an insanely complex device that you need to read manuals [for], so I had charts of menus and shit on my walls, trying to figure it out. Anyway, it ended up being kind of cool, because I didn’t know what I was doing so I was just experimenting around and all these happy accidents happened where I would make these loops and strange samples with a lot of artifacts and stuff like that. So that’s actually in a sample that I had made, and I don’t know what that was from or what noise that was even. But it kind of reminded me of one of those turnstiles, like that noise, so I just left it in there.

Thor: On “I Release You,” there’s a thing that sounds like if you put cloth on the piano’s strings, it’s real muted piano.

Emily: That’s what it is. [Laughs.]

Thor: Oh, cool!

Emily: It’s felt.

Thor: That was a good guess, right?

Emily: Really good guess.

Thor: For all of you who don’t currently make music, it’s a super interesting time because, right now I’m recording this podcast with a little box that Peggy Ghorbani bought for me — I think it costs $120 — and me and Emily are holding two cheap mics that probably just got left at my house from, you know, 20 years of rehearsals happening, and a laptop, and that’s it. So that’s what a recording studio looks like nowadays. However, I do still record in some recording studios; it’s not that the recording studio is over, it’s just that there’s all these new, affordable ways to record, but you sort of have to learn to dance with robots. You guys are in for a treat when you get this album. 

“An Angel, A Dove” is in 7/8 or 6/8. or something — a weird time signature — but it really feels cool and it feels pretty natural.

Emily: The people that I collaborate with, I feel so indebted to, because when I approached them with my demos — I don’t know what I’m doing. I mean, I do intuitively know what I’m doing, but I’m not counting or anything like that. I’m not even using a metronome, and I’m in between keys and nothing really makes sense on paper. So I count a lot by feel, as opposed to what makes sense. So it’s a lot more difficult to figure it out into replicable song from a demo to the studio version or whatever. So I’m glad that you thought it felt good.

Thor: Yeah, it feels really cool. And what you’re saying makes sense, because I think somewhere in there, there were a few bars of 6/8 and I was like, Oh, my God, what is—? They must have just learned it, if you were just playing it sort of by feel; you might have thrown in a bar of 6/8 and they just figured it out. Who were the people that played with you?

Emily: My friend Andrew Hulett came to LA with me and Theo and helped a lot in the studio. He also did a lot of pre-production in preparation for going in the studio, so he actually was the one kind of deciphering all the time signatures and things like that, which I really found helpful. Then Theo Karon, of course, played a bunch of stuff and produced and engineered and whatever. Then my friend Ben Babbitt played flute and clarinet, and he helped to produce a little bit, specifically “PYSOL My Castle,” and played synthesizers and stuff. Then Beth did drums, and my friend Hannah Read did some things, too. I think she did some synth and possibly bass or something — it was all a blur. You know how it is.

Thor: Boy, do I. This year, I’m making six records for Joyful Noise,

Emily: Wow! That’s exciting.

Thor: Yeah, it’s like their artists-in-residence program. Last year Deerhoof did it, but there’s, like, five people in Deerhoof. This is just me.

Emily: Wow. So they all do six records?

Thor: I think [for] the Deerhoof guys, maybe it was five records. It comes out at the end of the year as a box set, and each of them come out every six weeks. So as they’re getting made, I’m just trying to write down all the names and who played what as we go, because at the end of the year, I will not —

Emily: You won’t have any idea.

Thor: No way. 

Emily: That’s very cool.

Thor: I’m just trying to include as many of my awesome, talented friends as I can. All the Swans are gonna be on it, and Jenn Wasner from Wye Oak is on it, and Carla Bozulich is gonna contribute something, [and] Jolie Holland. 

Two of them will be Thor and Friends records — one will be made of outtakes from the last record with different people playing on them to sort give him new life, and then one will be a totally new Thor and Friends record. It’s a bunch of music, but I sort of think once the year is over, that’s gonna be like my new metabolism. I’m just gonna keep expecting to make several records a year.

Emily: Wow, that’s so different from [me]. I make a record, like, every three years, it seems like. It takes me a lot of time digest and distill. I’ll play clarinet on whatever you want; I love playing clarinet.

Thor: Me and Emily both play clarinet. Emily’s gonna play on something on this box set of mine.

Emily: Can’t wait.

Thor: You know that song, “Sing the Song”? That’s in 7/4, and it’s real sparse. I don’t think you’re gonna have the answer to this question based on your non-answer to the last one: Did y’all have a click running?

Emily: I think in the end we did, because it’s so long and it’s only vocal essentially, towards the end. So if I remember correctly, I did have a click for that one. I think we tried it without and it just got too elongated and wonky.

Thor: Yeah, it is so sparse, but it’s in a weird lilting time signature. And then there’s a song called “I Am Painting” — is the voice pitched down in that one too?

Emily: Yeah, the quote unquote “lead vocal” is. That song, actually — Theo wanted to write a song for my record, and I told him, “OK, you can, but I can say no to it.” I had veto power. And so, that song, I almost decided not to have it on the record. To be honest, I still don’t know how I feel about it, but I’m happy it’s on there.

Thor: I think it’s great.

Emily: Thank you. I do like the — we called it the robot choir.

Thor: Yeah, I was gonna ask about the robot choir. Did that get sampled into a synth or something? Or into a sampler?

Emily: I didn’t do any work on that part, so I don’t actually know, but I think that Andrew and Theo did a lot of work on the computer drawing in the pitch somehow on a program on the computer. I don’t know anything about that, but —

Thor: I don’t know about that stuff either.

Emily: Then the vocal was actually my normal vocal in the studio that I recorded, and then I had to come home to Austin, and I didn’t like it so I re-recorded on my phone into GarageBand. Then I pitched it in GarageBand and I sent Theo several versions pitched and not pitched, and he just picked a pitched version. So that’s how it ended up like that.

Thor: I think it’s pretty beautiful. 

Emily: Thank you. And the lyrics on that song, they’re primarily all just taken from the other lyrics of the whole record. That was what Theo wanted to do. They were kind of just put in a blender and spat out as a different song.

Thor: I’ve known this about you for I think a couple of years, but I’m not sure what it means: Emily is a death doula. What is your relationship to death and what does a death doula do?

Emily: A death doula is a non-medical presence for someone who’s dying and their family. It’s mainly to be an advocate for a person who’s dying, cause a lot of weird stuff can happen when you’re at the end of life; there’s a lot of paperwork and things to consider that you wouldn’t normally think of. So my job is to just make that transition as easy and peaceful and beautiful as possible for everyone involved, especially the dying person, because I think a lot of people have very painful experiences and it could be avoided. It’s kind of similar to hospice, but it’s a continued presence that hospice just can’t provide, because I can be there across all doctors and hospice workers and family members, and really bridge the gaps there. 

I don’t really have a specific relationship with death. A lot of people who enter this field of work had someone really close to them die, and they had a bad death, and they want to make it better, or something like that. But I’ve just always been interested in mortality and thought I would be good at it.

Thor: My relationship to death has drastically changed just over the last few years. My mom died almost two years ago. I still — words are kind of the last thing to come to me, but just the way that it’s changing, the way I feel about death… I guess I feel far less attached to this world now that I don’t have a mom in this world anymore.

Emily: Yeah, that makes sense.

Thor: Some idea of eternal life just seems like something I’m less and less interested in. Like, why would I want that?

Emily: That’s what I think about when people are, like, talking about downloading their brain to live forever.

Thor: In the singularity? Yeah.

Emily: Yeah, or like cryogenics. Yeah, I feel the same. I feel like part of my purpose is to die.

Thor: Seems pretty well thought out.

Emily: Yeah, tried and true.

Thor: When I was young, I could certainly relate to wanting to never die. But I could tell that my mom was OK with it as she got closer and closer to the… golden gates? The pearly gates. That’s what they are.

Emily: I like golden too.

Thor: Golden gates, because you end up in San Francisco after you die. [Laughs.] Do you think you’ll ever make babies? 

Emily: No. 

Thor: Yeah, I won’t either. What are your reasons for not wanting to?

Emily: There are a lot of reasons to me. Basically, I just don’t I don’t have a good enough reason to have a child. I can understand if that would make someone mad to hear, but —

Thor: Does it make your mom mad that you don’t wanna have babies?

Emily: No. 

Thor: Good. 

Emily: I think that if anything, if I wanted to be a mother, I would adopt a child. I think that that’s just not what I feel called to do in life.

Thor: Yeah, I haven’t ever had that paternal urge. I hang out with little kids in my neighborhood all the time, and I really like ‘em, and with nieces and nephews, but, yeah, I don’t… 

Emily: Yeah, I love kids. It’s not that I don’t like kids; I guess part of it might be that if I had a kid, I know that would become my whole life. I would really just want to do a good job and dedicate my whole to caring for that child, at least for a period of time, and I just I don’t want to do that.

Thor: Yeah, that’s always been one of the reasons I didn’t do it. I mean, I’ve been on tour for the last 30 years, so when would I have had time to take 18 years out from that to raise a kid? I’m sure it’s wonderful.

Emily: Yeah, I’m sure it is too. But it’s so weird to me. Like Loma, my other band, has a song called “I Don’t Want Children” — and I didn’t even write the lyrics, I just sang the song. I’m not even kidding, I would get people after the show coming up to me and, without knowing anything about me or my actual choices in life, they would say, “You know, you might want to reconsider…”

Thor: Wow!

Emily: Yeah, like, more than once, which was shocking to me. I was taken aback because — well, for so many reasons [Laughs]. It’s amazing to me that that choice of mine, that they didn’t even know — they just assumed that I wrote that song — that they would take it so personally and feel the need to come and tell me that I should reconsider, because having a child is like crazy, amazing thing that I can’t live all the way without experiencing.

Thor: Yeah, I’ve had people say that to me too. I’m still not convinced.

Emily: What if they’re wrong, too? Can you imagine if you’re like, OK, maybe I’ll give it a shot, and then you have a kid and you’re depressed about it, or you don’t like it.

Thor: There’s no take backs. I was listening to this podcast called Ologies, and this one was with this guy Phil Torres who studies eschatology, which is the study of the Apocalypse. Which just means essentially: When are humans going to finally make ourselves go extinct? Because we know that’s kind of always been in our programming. I mean, we’ve done it on, like, Easter Island, and it seems like we almost did it with nuclear war back in in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and we might do it with the climate — it seems like we’re well on our way. We’re not at the beginning of the of the sixth extinction, were in the middle of it. We’re well into it. I think about that with the kid question, too.

Emily: Oh, yeah. I mean, that’s just a given.

Thor: Is somebody born today gonna starve to death or just live in a world that looks so unlike this beautiful one that we’re in right now? I don’t know. Maybe not.

Emily: But maybe. Also, there’s so many kids in the world that don’t have homes. I’m not hating on people who have children — it’s your own prerogative — but there are a lot of people who need love and care, and we have limited resources.

Thor: And dogs, too.

Emily: And dogs! My dog is actually like my daughter. I’m so happy to treat my dog as a baby.

Thor: Yeah. Me and Peg have four dogs and cats. It’s a good scene. Dogs are pretty inspiring to be around. 

Do you have gods? Or do you pray to anyone or anything?

Emily: Whenever I’m seeking guidance, I just say the spirit world, and that’s kind of like a catchall for me for whatever I don’t understand that might be there, or whatever is there that I can’t see, or maybe even myself in some kind of other dimension. I guess that’s not really a god, but maybe. 

Thor: I noticed this thing a few years ago in my own atheist self that sometimes I would have these thoughts like, The universe will provide, or something. Then I would just be like, Wait a minute: That’s sort of like a religion. Because if I really do have that faith, that some universe is looking out for me… I don’t know.

Emily: I just think it’s interesting. I definitely don’t know what is happening — no one does, right? — but when someone dies, for instance, and before someone dies, there are very interesting things that happen. Like, there’s a tangible thing that definitely doesn’t leave the room when someone dies. 

Thor: Really? 

Emily: Yeah. And maybe that’s part of myself, or something, that since I know that they’re close to death I’m imagining it. But it seems real. Also there’s this thing where, no matter what religion a person is, it’s a very common occurrence for them to see loved ones that have already died; there’s a certain set of things that are very common when people are dying, like they see people in the room that are lining up to, like, welcome them into the next life. Just interesting little things that are that just happen that make me think about, like, What is reality? It’s fun to think about.

Thor: Yeah, it is. My dad died when I was 10, so I’ve thought about death a lot for my whole life. I was not at all comfortable with it back then. Then, having lost my mom just a couple of years ago, I really had to take note of the differences in how I dealt with each of those and give myself a little bit of credit for having grown up a little in the 40 something years between those two great losses. I had really awesome parents, too.

Emily: I bet.

Thor: I was lucky in that way. 

I have another question: So, there’s a a dictator with the emotional maturity of a crazed 11-year-old rich kid without a conscience, and he’s running America. And then Europe is kind of abandoning liberal, socialist democracy and electing all these idiot fascists. And here we are making records. But when I listened to your record, I didn’t at all think, How frivolous to be making a record when the world seems to be falling apart. I kind of thought, Well, if the world’s gonna fall apart, this is a good thing for me to listen to. As I watch it all go up in a plume of smoke, I’m gonna want some new music to listen to. But that’s a question I kind of unfairly put to myself sometimes, like, OK, I’m gonna spend the day doing this or that, or recording, but shouldn’t I be blowing up pipelines or assassinating bad guys or, at the very least, working on the campaign of Bernie or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or keeping people from killing them? Do you have any thoughts on that? I mean, where me and Emily are sitting right now is I think, like, three hours from child concentration camps.

Emily: Yeah, literally.

Thor: That’s pretty heavy. And me and Emily are different ages, but we’ve grown up thinking about the Holocaust, and what would we have done? You always think, Well, I would have stormed those concentration camps and freed those people. Why aren’t I doing that? But we’re making records. Sorry, I just left us with bunch of unanswerable questions.

Emily: I mean, I agree that it’s kind of unanswerable. I think it’s something that a lot of musicians and creative people grapple with everyday. Certainly I think about it all the time, and, yeah, I probably have the same answer as you. I feel like this is, for whatever reason, what I’m gifted at, and people have told me that it’s helped them, so at least there’s that; at least it’s not being held in for no one to hear and help. Hopefully that can help someone else do good things, too. 

I think it’s important to have beauty and artwork in this in this atmosphere. If not, then I guess we would have the all the beautiful art that has already been created, but I think… It’s hard, because I don’t make political artwork, so I can’t even say that with my art I directly try to affect that either. But I think in my own small way, like with my purchases and things like that, that’s probably where I make the most impact. Just not supporting things that I think are awful. Part of me does think what I’m doing is not that important, and there’s way more important things I could be doing with my time, and I get down on that, to be honest.

Thor: Yeah, I’ve had that experience, too, but then I do think about how much music and art has meant to me throughout my life. And another thing is like, when I’m touring sometimes, I go through cycles of mental disease — dis ease. Even if I had a healthy brain, which I don’t, touring makes everyone a little bit bipolar; the highs are pretty high, the lows are real low. But occasionally on tour, I’ve wandered into an art museum and there’s nothing better that you can do for yourself than look at paintings or listen to music. I also think, there I was growing up in coastal Texas — what was the first thing that really spoke to me and made me feel not alone? It was, like, Jackson 5 records. That was the first inkling that I had that the world could maybe be an OK place, was my sister’s Jackson 5 records. I saw the Jackson 5 when I was, like, six years old. Blew my mind,

Emily: Wow, I bet. Yeah, it’s a complex feeling.

Thor: Yeah. Like you said, this is where your gifts are. I don’t even know that I’d be that good at blowing up pipelines. I mean, I might. Who knows?

Emily: I think that’s part of it, too. Obviously I don’t feel the urge to do those kind of things, or else I would be doing them. So part of it is following what I feel on an intuitive level is good for my life, and that is doing this. I don’t think I could do anything well that I wasn’t 100% into. Maybe if I grew up differently, or was exposed to something different, my life would be completely not like the life I’m living now. But it didn’t, so this is what I’m doing.

Thor: I think you’re doing great.

Emily: Thanks, Thor, I think you’re doing great too.

(Photo Credit: left, Jackson Montgomery Schwartz)

Cross Record is the recording project of Emily Cross, an artist, musician, and death worker currently living in Austin, TX. Her new self-titled album was released August 2 on Ba Da Bing! Records.

(Photo Credit: Jackson Montgomery Schwartz)