High Cotton

Austin's Cotton Mather snaps, crackles, and pops

In a city like Austin, the so-called "Live Music Capital of the World," it's easy for a band to get lost in the shuffle. There are scores of clubs, twice as many bands, and every week it seems as though a new band is the darling of the scene, touted by the local press as Austin's Next Big Thing. So it's no surprise that Cotton Mather, led by singer-guitarist Robert Harrison, hasn't gained more notice in its hometown. Nothing about the band--from its name to its appearance--stands out. Except its songs.

Harrison, sitting on the spacious back porch of the sleepy South Austin home he shares with his wife, Jennifer, doesn't even look like a musician. Perched attentively on the edge of his seat, he looks more like one of the scads of young professionals the area's burgeoning computer industry has attracted. Nothing about his understated and polite manner betrays his status as one of Austin's most underrated songsmiths.

Likewise, the subdued nature of his home--set in a quiet neighborhood high above the buzzing traffic of Interstate 35, hides the fact that its garage was the birthplace of one of the smartest pop-rock albums released last year, Kontiki. A 14-song slice of '60s rock revivalism and contemporary pop songcraft, the album is a patchwork quilt of sources--Rubber Soul-era Beatles riffs, Byrdsian harmonies, Dylanesque phrasing--sewn tightly together by Harrison's knack for pop melodies. A self-professed "longtime rock 'n' roll fan," he proudly wears his influences on his sleeve. He's careful, however, to distinguish between influence and theft.

"(Writer) Harold Bloom says, 'Plagiarism is a legal term, not an artistic one.' We don't plagiarize; we try to process stuff and make it our own," Harrison says. "I certainly feel that the record does that. The only thing that disappoints me in the assessment of our record is that people frequently get caught up comparing it to a dozen bands. I think that's the easy thing to do when you review a record. 'It's like Guided By Voices, but with a twist of John Lennon and a Yo La Tengo kind of drum beat, all on its way to Memphis.' What is that?"

Even Harrison would have to admit that Kontiki is the kind of album that would have even the most steadfast rock critic reaching for his copy of Trouser Press or some other rock encyclopedia. Though the album's leadoff track, "Camp Hill Rail Operator," contains--as Harrison says--"an almost uncomfortable tribute to [Roger] McGuinn and [David] Crosby [of the Byrds]," much of the album's familiar, anachronistic vibe came from the recording process, not borrowed notes and allusions to other bands. By using old recording techniques--mostly because of Harrison's inexperience as a recording engineer--Kontiki has a rich, crackling AM radio sound, ragged around the edges but infinitely more polished than most home-recording projects.

"We did it on a four-track cassette and ADAT eight-track, and I did it all sort of submixing, which is the way people used to make records in the '60s," Harrison explains. "They just had a few tracks, so they would record a bunch of tracks and then submix it onto two channels. Frequently on the old records, that's why the drum kit is so faint, and you have a big, loud shaker. It's not because they said, 'Well, it would be cool if our drum kit was faint and we had this big, loud shaker.' The drums had just been submixed so many times that they kind of disappeared. But that creates its own aesthetic, and maybe you want to come back and imitate that."

Another big factor in the sound of the album was Harrison's near-encouragement of mistakes.

"We didn't sit around and worry about sounds or performances," Harrison admits. "If you have some decent songs, you've got some decent players, and you have something strong to say, the last thing you need to do is try and make it perfect. You're going to call more attention to the strengths by making it human. We made an effort to create chaos on every track, usually by having somebody play something they were absolutely ill-equipped to play. And usually that person was me."

Recording the album in Harrison's garage wasn't part of the initial plan. It only came about as a result of a couple of years of hard luck and missed opportunities. After the band released its critically acclaimed debut album, Cotton is King, on the Los Angeles-based indie label Elm Records in 1994, the label folded, setting off a predictable chain of events. Drummer Greg Thibeaux and bassist Matt Hovis quit the group, and the band's management flaked as well, leaving Harrison and guitarist Whit Williams pondering Cotton Mather's future. A moment of serendipity straight out of Spinal Tap intervened.

"We didn't do anything for a while. Then we found out our first record was doing stuff in Japan," Harrison remembers. "A university offered to bring us over to Japan and set up a tour. We got the band together with a couple of other players and toured Japan. We came back and started working on our new record."

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