‘It’s hard for artists who have not broken through to believe in what they do’ A pre-LouFest interview with Robert Harrison of Cotton Mather
Power-pop bands come and go like fuses on a Vox amp turned to 11. They get hot, they get a single, they get a footnote in “Shake Some Action.”
And then there’s a band like Cotton Mather, who flared up in the least-likely land of Austin, Texas in the mid-’90s, released three excellent albums including one enduring masterpiece called “Kontiki,” and then, just when the world took notice, they were gone.
Or not completely gone. Founder Robert Harrison, a native son of Alabama who moved to Austin in his early 20s, has continued to release records under the Future Clouds and Radar moniker, spiking heady guitar pop with psychedelic tang and “Rubber Soul”-esque sweetness. Last March, at SXSW 2012, he reformed Cotton Mather for a show that coincided with the reissue of “Kontiki,” one of the most exciting and essential rock albums, not just of the ’90s, but of any era.
This weekend, St. Louisians have two chances to catch Cotton Mather on stage: Friday, August 24 at Off Broadway for a LouFest pre-party and Saturday, August 25 at LouFest proper. The reunited Cotton Mather will feature the classic “Kontiki” touring lineup of Harrison, Whit Williams on guitar and vocals, Dana Myzer on drums and Josh Gravelin on bass.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Harrison via phone from his home in the hills outside Austin.
Roy Kasten: Take us back to the beginning of the band.
Robert Harrison: Cotton Mather had many permutations. It started out as a duo, with myself and a cello player. At that point, I was new to Austin and rather new to music. My first impulses were to do something a bit in the vein of the SST bands at the time, pretty aggressive and angular. The cellist was a very arty, very capable player. I was more rhythmic and propulsive in my playing. The songs had odd time signatures, though I don’t know what they really were. It was a kind of jagged, aggressive band. I thought it was cool.
Then my writing began to shift over time. I discovered I had a knack for a different kind of writing, more melodic, with more harmonically familiar phrasings and strains. I could contain my sense of the oddball within that. It was an interesting evolution. Over time my friend Nat [Shelton] the cellist left and we became something that had never been heard on the planet before: two guitars, bass and drums.
That became Cotton Mather in the mid ’90s. We made our first record ["Cotton Is King," 1994] Whit Williams was in that version of the band, he stayed with me, and our friendship musically, especially, grew pretty close. We began woodshedding on material that would become “Kontiki.” The album was a reaction to the pressures of chasing the brass ring, the music industry, all the trappings that we were exposed to and found disappointing. It was a record we made for ourselves, to reclaim some passion and levity and enjoyment from the experience. We even joked that we would never put it out. But we listened and realized it was pretty good, and that maybe we didn’t need to record in big studios.
So you began recording in Los Angeles?
Not in LA, in Austin, with a producer from LA. He was a friend of ours, Dave McNair. We did tracks with him and they sounded great, but I don’t think we believed in it. It’s hard for artists who have not broken through to believe in what they do. They’re chasing shadows. I say that also about artists that I’ve worked with, who I’ve produced. They’re not really sure what they’re looking for, they haven’t found it yet, so that puts them in a distrustful place. They don’t know what’s missing.
I knew what we did with Dave was good, but it didn’t move me. These demos I was making out in this house in the country had some kind of spark. As I became more certain about that we dropped the formal studio recordings and put our efforts into the four-track and ADAT recordings. That became “Kontiki.” I took some time. We didn’t own the equipment and we didn’t own the house. We had to work after midnight when the house was empty. I think we found a voice quite quickly, a voice that we were able to continue to develop.
What was it like working with Brad Jones on mixing the record?
That was fantastic. I didn’t know Brad. We were on this tiny label. It was one guy, he put out a Badfinger tribute record, that we had contributed a track to, in 1996. His name was Darrell Clingman — who I’m not in touch with now; maybe he’ll read this and give me a holler — he offered to put out anything we would do. It seemed so absurd, but we were in such a reaction to doing everything we were told, we thought this is perfect. We would put it out on this little label called Copper Records. How more fitting could it get? He was a sharp guy, had good ears, but he had no resources. He recommended Brad Jones, and after Brad heard the rough mixes he was really enthusiastic, so I went with my grocery bags of tapes and ADATs to his doorstep in Nashville.
Only after that did he realize what a Herculean task it was going to be to assemble this into a record. I made this stuff under the assumption that I could put all these tapes back together. This is pre-ProTools. It took some magic. As Brad was doing that his production instincts showed themselves. He made little suggestions here and there. We were likeminded in our approach to music, at least enough that I trusted what he had to say. On tracks like “Vegetable Row,” “Camp Hill Operator” and “My Before and After,” what you hear is exactly what I brought him. He just pushed up the faders and mixed it as best as he could. Then there were songs like “Homefront Cameo” and “Spin My Wheels” where he made suggestions, and we moved the arrangement around and did some overdubs. I thought his contributions were terrific. We became good friends in the process.
I’ve read that you were going through a pretty hard time when you were working on the songs for “Kontiki.”
That comes up, but it tends to get over emphasized. It was a tricky time, but it was also a great time, a time of discovery. I think what you’re referring to is at that time I had just been through a death in the family. That’s hard for anyone. But it was also a difficult time for Cotton Mather. The first record deal, the first wave of Cotton Mather, had ended with a whimper. It was a flat time, a difficult time to tap the well of inspiration, but once I did, it really flowed.
Do you know how Noel Gallagher got a copy of the record?
I think so. My understanding is that maybe it was Gem Archer, his guitar player, or maybe one of the new guys in Oasis, Andy Bell, had read about it in Mojo. Jim McGarry, who was with the Rainbow Quartz label, called me. The record had come out in the states and did pretty well on college radio, but there were no records to sell, there was no retail presence, and it was pre-Internet so there was no chance of word of mouth to do anything. “Kontiki” disappeared rather quickly.
So, somehow Jim McGarry got a copy of it, loved it and reached out to me. He was so full of bluster that I initially dismissed him. I’m a retiring Southern guy and here’s this gung-ho New York dude. It tripped all the wrong switches. But after a while I thought, what the hell, it couldn’t hurt. I got back in touch with him, and getting to know him, and seeing that his passion was substantial and genuine, I thought, well yeah, let’s see what he can do. With limited resources, he ended up putting together a very professional campaign in England. “Kontiki” got crazy good write ups, people responded to it, and one of the fellas in Oasis picked it up. I’m told by a mutual friend who was there, I’m told it was a Boxing Day party, maybe at Ronnie Wood’s house, or some kind of crazy rock star thing, some place I’ll never be. As lore has it, they gathered around and decided it was great, and wheels began to turn. Noel, and Liam in particular, became vocal champions of the record.
Do you feel that was a blessing or a curse?
Not a curse in anyway. Here’s a band who had sold maybe 400 records in the United States, had toured, had put out a record I thought was pretty damn good. Even though we went with the most obscure label we could find, I thought it would do more than that. Here was one of the biggest rock stars in the world using his megaphone to bring attention to it. It was all a blessing. That became the springboard for Cotton Mather to catch on.
Unfortunately — and this is the only part you could suggest might be a curse — at that point things began to move quickly. We didn’t have a team or a structure or any money to handle that. We weren’t equipped for what came next. People thought we were a new band, but we’d been together since the early ’90s. We were tired. Whit and I had done it for a long time with little payback, and that takes a toll on your life. I think the Oasis thing, it allowed the band to sustain itself for another couple of years and put out a third record, whereas I don’t think we would have been able to.
You guys went your separate ways in 2002.
In 2002, Whit decided to step aside. From the start it was the chemistry and the sound of our voices and guitars together — that became the signature sound of the group. He decided in 2002 that touring wasn’t for him. At that point we gave some thought to finding a guitar player, but my heart wasn’t in it. I thought it was a good time to step away.
Cotton Mather has released some new recordings on the Euclid Records label. Are you working on a full-length album?
We had a big show in town in Austin over the summer. The guys were flown in to play Antone’s. We decided to lock ourselves in at my place in the country for about 10 days after that and see what we came up with. I’m in the process of sorting through that right now. I don’t know what the plans are. I’m still sifting through, but it sounds like some pretty good stuff. The band may have a lot more to say. If this record is good, we’ll put it out. If it’s not, I promise we won’t bother you.