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."
After a few false starts, the band nixed working in the confines of a small, windowless studio in favor of Harrison's small, windowless garage. Pressing forward with loaned-out gear and novice producer Harrison at the controls, the band began recording again--for themselves at first. Gradually, the project began to take on a life of its own.
"I think we had some inkling that what we were doing was disarming and interesting, and that it would have some kind of power," Harrison says. "[The demos] began to sneak out to a couple of my buddies, and they encouraged me to just do the garage thing because it seemed to have a raw kind of power to it that captured--for lack of a better word--the ethos of the music and of the band.
"Darryl [Clingman, owner of Houston-based Copper Records] seconded that motion and offered to put it out. Having gone through a big label dance on our first effort, and having been very soured by the entire experience, I was eager just to get something out, because it had been a couple of years."
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The wait was worth it. Rarely has a band been able to make such a leap forward creatively by taking such a technical step backward. The songs that made Cotton is King such a memorable work of quirky pop are still in place, but they are more mature, fleshed out by Harrison's attention to detail and growing expertise as a songwriter. "My Before and After," with its elastic guitar chords and percussive piano, is the best song Wilco never wrote, while songs like "Vegetable Row" and "Church of Wilson" prove that the band can handle American roots rock and British pop with equal aplomb. Harrison's wavery vocals skip over the top of the multi-layered tracks, seemingly always a step behind.
In the end, Harrison and crew have made the ultimate testament to making a tough situation (no money, studio, or technical knowledge) not only work, but work well. The album title, while strangely tropical, sums up the process perfectly.
"It (Kon Tiki) was a book that many of us were subjected to in junior high, about a one-man [Thor Heyerdahl] crossing of the Pacific and his heroic journey in a boat made out of leaves [the boat was actually made of balsa logs]," Harrison explains. "When I told my engineer friends that I was making the record myself--part of the joke is that you have to know that I almost blow myself up every time we play live--they thought that sounded pretty interesting. The whole thing had ridiculous written all over it from the beginning.
"Almost as ridiculous as a guy crossing the Pacific in a boat of leaves.