The kid wants to be an actor. But near the end of high school, he’s in a terrible car accident that badly injures him and disfigures his face. He retreats from the stage. He takes up the guitar, and in his first year of college, he hides in his dorm room and starts writing songs.
He comes from an academic family. Grad school looms as a possibility. But by the time he’s through college, with a degree in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia, he knows he wants to do music. Although born in Virginia and a graduate of its university, he grew up in Alabama (his father was an American History professor at Auburn), and after graduation, he moves back down deeper south with his girlfriend.
They try Atlanta, then Athens, Georgia. A sensible choice: it’s the 1980s heyday of R.E.M. and Athens is the center of the indie music universe—and Athens knows it. As exciting as it is, the place has also developed a Paris-in-the-1920s pretension and self-consciousness: too many cat-eyeglasses-wearing poseurs. Already gone is the sweaty art-punk wildness of Pylon, the true founders of the Athens scene (along with the B-52’s). Pylon had disbanded before the kid got down to Georgia.
To be sure, there are still plenty of good bands in town, and almost every night after work the kid goes out to hear them play at venues like the legendary 40 Watt Club. About a decade later, he’ll write a song about the place, “40 Watt Solution”, which he calls a “tent of wasps” whose habitués and scenesters are “raising up the victory flag / But not the cause.” In the music of his mind, the kid has already left behind Athens’ jangly guitars and mumbled lyrics about fields. The ragged and punkish energy of the Replacements and the Clash is coloring the songs he’s writing now—he’s made good on his vow to himself to write 50 of them his first year in Athens.
He and his girlfriend move to Austin: another college town, another music scene, but not as entrenched and self-regarding as the one in Athens. Not in 1989, anyway. A young filmmaker named Richard Linklater is about to make Slacker in Austin. The SXSW festival had only been established a couple of years earlier. That same year, a whiz kid who’d started handmaking computers in his dorm room at the University of Texas, then dropped out to start a business on a $1,000 bankroll, stopped calling his fledgling company PC’s Limited, and decided to rename it after himself. A decade or so later, Dell Computer will be one of the world’s largest PC manufacturers, leading Austin’s silicon-accelerated ascension into the national and cultural spotlight.
But at the end of the 1980s, Austin is still low-tech, cheap, experimental, shaggy, druggy, analogue. It’s Willie Nelson’s town. Country but hippy. Alternative but conservative. It seems that if Austin has a fresh sound and scene, it might be the “New Sincerity” subgenre that emerged with bands like the Wild Seeds, Glass Eye, and Poi Dog Pondering, as a sort of reaction against the new-wavey postpunk that ruled the first half of the decade in places like Athens.
But the kid is looking for non-scenes—for what isn’t there, not what is. He has this idea that there probably isn’t much old-fashioned roots rock in Austin. But what had come to be called New Sincerity turns out to be awfully close to roots rock, especially in the hands of somebody like Alejandro Escovedo, Austin’s musical prince to Willie Nelson’s king. The kid realizes they’ve got roots rock covered, and he feels a little foolish for having thought he’d brought something new to the place. Within a few years, Austin will tolerate almost nothing but roots rock, only it will be known as Americana, No Depression, Alt-Country, and “Y’Allternative”. By whatever name, it’s basically roots rock, and everyone will be doing it. Which means the kid won’t be.
With roots rock uprooted from his mind’s ear, he starts to figure out who he is musically. We can start using his name now: Robert Harrison. He starts a band (minus his girlfriend, with whom he has split up), which he calls Cotton Mather. His Religious Studies degree comes in handy there: Cotton Mather is a cheeky appropriation of the name of the notorious 17th-century Puritan minister who helped lay the groundwork for the Salem Witch Trials. Cotton Mather’s members include a cellist. Harrison recalls some of their experiments: “shaking a miked-up bowl of BBs or strumming a guitar with a hamburger.”
Whether or not they literally carried out these experiments, it is certain that the music he soon begins to write for them is not so experimental. It has a melody, verses, choruses, and so on. At some point in his youth, he must have absorbed the Beatles, as so many young musicians do without trying or perhaps even wanting to. Over more than three hours of interview time for the story you’re currently reading, Harrison never mentions the Beatles, not once. He doesn’t have to. He invokes them with virtually every song he writes and sings. His voice sounds like “John Lennon… with a head cold”, as he describes it years later. Although he considers himself basically a songwriter and thinks of finding a proper vocalist to sing his melodies and lyrics, at some point he realizes that his own voice is going to be the voice of his band.
That band’s personnel has evolved, as lineups generally do early on. By 1993, Cotton Mather includes Harold Whit Williams, a self-described “small-town yokel kid” who originally hailed, like Harrison, from Alabama, but not in a college town like Auburn. Williams grew up in Muscle Shoals, surrounded by church music. His first instrument was the mandolin, on which he mostly played bluegrass. But as he came of age, he moved to rock guitar, and after college to Austin, hooked by the musical energy there.
Williams and Harrison are introduced and quickly become like “weird twins who have their own language”, Williams says. Their shared guitar-speak interplay grows into a sound and sensibility that don’t partake at all of either Alt-Country or hamburger-strummed guitar. It’s pop-rock through and through, which no one else of note in Austin is doing (Spoon’s first album won’t come out until 1996). Cotton Mather is and will remain outliers, “defiantly under the radar”, as Williams puts it. And even though both he and Harrison will put down roots in Texas for decades to come, for his part, Harrison will never quite feel like a citizen. “I’m a slight but appreciative foreigner,” he admits.
Harrison and Williams add a new bassist and drummer to Cotton Mather. Cotton Mather lands an album deal with a Los Angeles indie label. They make an album with a name as cheeky as their band’s: Cotton Is King. “An industry record,” Harrison calls it in hindsight. “There was a producer, there were plans, there were conversations.”
There were Harrison’s songs, too, some of them very good ones, “but it was a different kind of songwriting,” he says. “Cerebral exercises. We were trying very hard to make it because that’s what you did in 1994. You had these lunches with the label who would dispense their wisdom. And we were just eager to do what we thought we needed to do in order to have success, to have a career, and to make art.”
In 1994, there was not only no Austin as we now know it, there was also no internet to speak of. If you were going to have a career and make art, you needed a record label. And you needed to make the album the label wanted. That album, in this case, is one that many bands could have made in 1994. In the measured assessment of one reviewer, Harrison’s “uniformly strong songs” were rendered “colorless” in production.
But that’s not the only or even the essential problem with Cotton Is King. A certain degree or quality of colorlessness—of one piece of art not distinguishing itself from a number of other ones—can actually broaden its appeal. The bigger problem is that in 1994 hardly anyone is making the kind of art Cotton Is King is. If they are, it’s likely to come out on little labels like Cotton Mather’s that are going to have trouble getting their artists much airplay, especially in the year when grunge hits its peak and then immediately self-destructs along with Kurt Cobain. The world’s rediscovery of Big Star hasn’t really happened yet. Alt-Country’s practitioners are cranking out album after album with titles like Still Feel Gone and Go Slow Down, Nowhere to Here, and Too Far to Care. The Elephant Six collective—in which, had Harrison stuck around Athens for a few more years, he might have found an ideal scene for himself and a comfortable musical home—hasn’t quite collected itself yet; and like grunge it isn’t going to last anyway.
But beneath grunge, which despite its indie origins was mostly a mainstream major-label phenomenon, lurks a legitimately grungy, more authentically indie alternative sound: lo-fi. Around the time Harrison starts dreaming up a second album in 1995—with Williams on hand but without Cotton Mather’s bassist and drummer, who have already left—it’s bands like Guided By Voices and Pavement that Harrison is listening to.
He’s also listening to a voice in his head that’s telling him he might be on the verge of quitting music.
Cotton Is King sells poorly, and then the record label that released it “shot their wad”, Williams recalls, and went right out of business, setting an unfortunate pattern for the band throughout its early life. It’s as if the album never even happened. Harrison is well beyond dejected. The first song he writes for what will be the next album, a wistful, Lennon-inflected tune called “Autumn’s Birds”, expresses his state of mind about the failure he’s feeling: “You gave the world your number, but the phone don’t ring,” he laments in the first verse; “You can say ‘The sky’s the limit’, but you’ll never be a star” in the last. When the next Cotton Mather album finally comes out a couple of years later, “Autumn’s Birds”, first in composition, will come last on the album. It’s Harrison’s final, forlorn farewell to music—practically to life itself: “Headed for an early heart attack… autumn’s birds are killing you.”
By now it’s 1996. Despite the failure of Cotton Is King, Harrison is recording new songs in a studio outside Austin that belongs to another producer, not the one who oversaw Cotton Is King. His name is Dave McNair. McNair is better suited to Harrison’s musical ideas, but Harrison finds that working with him is quickly turning into an experience like Cotton Is King. The music is headed toward product, toward colorlessness, toward hi-fi, and Harrison is getting frustrated again. He’s starting to understand that he needs to stop trying to complement his craftsmanly, even Beatlesque songs with a polished production approach. “It’s going to sound too good,” he remembers thinking. “And I’m gonna hate it.”
McNair is just as frustrated as Harrison is. They’re laying down crystal-clear tracks, and Harrison is driving him crazy with his resistance to them. But McNair has the presence of mind to recognize what needs to change: not that he should do something different with Harrison’s songs, but that he shouldn’t do Harrison’s songs at all. Harrison should do them himself.
“I remember [McNair] pointed to this utility closet in the studio and said, ‘Robert, I think if I locked you in that closet with a microphone and a four-track, you’d come out in a few days with something better than what we’re doing on this 24-track tape deck.’”
Harrison had in fact already made his own four-track home demo of “Autumn’s Birds” in the studio of another guy who “had given me the keys to this place and said, ‘This is called a compressor, here’s how it works, and try not to blow anything up’—because he knew I was remedial.” So Harrison took McNair’s advice. With Harold Whit Williams as his trusted accomplice; some aiding and abetting on drums and other instruments by a handful of Austin musicians with whom Harrison had built working relationships; a four-track recorder and his remedial skills for using it; and a scrounged up ADAT machine—at the time the cool new DIY recording technology, now a poignant relic of the 1990s, like grunge and lo-fi and slackers and desktop computers—he started self-producing his songs, the musical equivalent of Michael Dell self-producing PCs in his dorm room. And like Dell, Harrison did a lot of mad scientist around with electronics.
“I was very naïve,” Harrison says, “and so I was just kind of pushing up knobs and hitting buttons and thinking, ‘Oh that sounds cool.’” And if it sounded cool, it stayed. The process was like building a fort when you’re a kid: sheer invention and discovery and experiment; not until after you’ve built it do you perceive what you’ve made and whether the fort holds together. Everything was done on pure instinct, all for the fun (or the fu**) of it. No well-enough was left alone, and anything went. Anything but colorless—and with a compulsion to color outside the lines.
“I wanted people to see the paint on the speakers,” Harrison says. If this really was his last gasp, if his life in music was about to end, then he was going to leave more damage behind him than graffiti. It’s almost appropriate to say that he was going for broke, but the verb tense isn’t quite right.
“I was trying,” he says, “to break music.” Especially his own.
Some producers have to resort to dressing up their clients’ slight or amateurish compositions in fancy sonic costumes to make them record-worthy. Not so with the baker’s dozen songs Harrison wrote for the album that eventually acquired the title Kontiki. They were all structurally sound, melodically surehanded, and anchored in historical pop foundations—one song is called “Church of Wilson”, as in Brian (although it doesn’t sound at all like the Beach Boys).
In short, they were songs that could take a lot of punishment. Harrison started assailing them. He squeezed the daylights out of them with the compressor. He embraced distortion (which did not always occur by design). He took one song and subjected every track to a Leslie effect—except the one that should have had that treatment. Sometimes he sang too close to the microphone, or basically just shouted into it. Or he’d intensify his delivery by pushing his John-Lennon-with-a-head-cold voice up out of its natural range. If that meant he might miss the occasional note by a few millimeters, no matter: instead of re-recording the track, he might run it through an effects gauntlet or make it compete with other, mismatched vocal tracks. And above all, he pushed Harold Whit Williams’s inventive, inimitable lead guitar playing way up in the mixes—because Williams was, in the words of another soon-to-be collaborator, “an aural poet”.
Nor was Harrison shy about splashing paint all over these intentionally distressed creations. Kontiki opens with a snippet of pop-rock run backward, as if the album is bursting into the room through the out-door. The snippet immediately crashes right into the album’s lead track, “Camp Hill Rail Operator”, which puts the song’s curious title in the lyric’s very first line—Kontiki has already set sail before we have climbed aboard. When the song ends, the track doesn’t. Instead, an extended outro is overlaid with a few dozen seconds of Italian opera that Harrison had let his four-track capture one late night on TV, coincidentally in the same key as “Camp Hill Rail Operator”. It worked. It stayed.
On another occasion, he had recorded one of Kontiki’s tracks over the tape of an older Cotton Mather song from the early experimental days. A fragment of that buried tune—acoustic guitar strumming over which Harrison sings “stay calm till my planets align”—extended past the new track he had recorded over it. He liked it and left it on the album: it peeks up between two songs, creating a sort of palimpsest effect. A similar effect occurs during a chorus of the sneering, Dylanesque “Vegetable Row”, in which one vocal take seems to have been laid, or mislaid, right over the top of another, creating an auditory scumble that renders the actual words almost unintelligible.
The result of all this impasto, grattage, wet-on-wet bleed, readymade bricolage, and other essentially painterly techniques is something like Beatlemania if it were assaulted by the rival art movements that were active during the Fab Four’s time: the intuitive kinetics of late abstract expressionism and color field painting challenged by the hard-edged, ironic, Day-Glo irreverence and commercial critique of pop art. Despite the mournful, tender emotional template Harrison had set with “Autumn’s Birds”, and notwithstanding his ominous sense that he was nearly expired as a musician, Kontiki is an album of almost relentless invention, vitality, toughness, brightness, and irrepressible exuberance—a powder keg full of the joy of making music before its makers self-destruct. Harrison calls it “a love bomb”.
Despite Kontiki’s decidedly not-No Depression aesthetics, the album is very much of its place. The same descriptors apply to Kontiki as applied to Austin: low-tech, cheap, experimental, shaggy, druggy, analogue. So do the adjectives you’d apply to slackers: marginal, oblique, reckless, roguish, resourceful, thrifted, opportunistic, non-compliant, insouciant, immoderate, vandalistic, self-destructive, freewheeling, biting, garrulous, mischievous. Kontiki is an apotheosis of DIY pop-rock and an exemplar of its mid-1990s moment.
Yet Kontiki doesn’t comfortably fit anywhere in time or space, and not even entirely in its own skin. It’s not that it lacks confidence—on the contrary, it’s a tremendously authoritative and authentic statement of artistic belief and musical purpose. As Harold Whit Williams puts it, it’s “a very honest record” in both feeling and sound, made with what Harrison calls “no emotional filter.” But it’s a restless, unsettled piece of music. It might never have been finished at all had Harrison not finally found someone who intuitively understood what he was trying to do and could make sure it got done the way it should.
Harrison had bounced his four-track and ADAT tracks into complicated clusters and onto dozens of tapes, some of which he labeled with people’s names instead of sequential numbers. The system made sense to him but would be incoherent to anyone he couldn’t sit next to and explain himself. He needed a working partner who had the openminded patience to be that person, as well as the chops and the equipment to sync up the scattered tracks and make a workable mix out of them.
The one-man operation that was Cotton Mather’s latest recording label—soon to fold, like the previous one had—put Harrison in touch with Brad Jones, an up-and-coming producer, engineer, and solo recording artist (check out his excellent 1995 album Gilt-Flake if you don’t know it). Jones had begun to make a name for himself by producing indie flares like Jill Sobule’s unlikely semi-hit “I Kissed a Girl” (don’t even think about confusing it with Katy Perry’s boringly hetero song of the same name, released many years later). He had also co-produced the first (and only) Imperial Drag album with Roger Joseph Manning, Jr., late of Jellyfish. Jones had come away from that collaboration with a large bag of advanced studio know-how, not to mention a library of digital samples Manning had made with Jellyfish and didn’t want anymore: everything from Mellotron, which would find its way onto Kontiki, to the sound of Kiss’ Paul Stanley shouting greetings at an arena rock audience.
When Jones crawled into Harrison’s fort full of music, he found “a beautiful accident”, he says. “I was knocked out by the sheer creativity of what [Harrison and Williams] had done holed up in a cabin where they drank beer and recorded these weird and wonderful pop songs on an eight-track, often badly. Sometimes good-badly,” he adds, laughing.
Jones was especially drawn to “the breakneck pace at which these colorful weird lyrics come at you,” he says. He was an ardent fan at the time of both Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard and Game Theory’s Scott Miller, both of whom were never shy about writing chewy, challenging lyric sets. Jones’ studio was in Nashville, where he recalls usually having to listen to an endless and mindless stream of “country songs about a girl named Wendy, or sensitive journalling lyrics” from earnest singer-songwriter types. When he heard Kontiki, he thought: “Finally, lyrics that challenge me and excite the back part of my brain. I was excited to be working with words like that.”
It says something that Jones, whose role in bringing Kontiki to completion was almost entirely confined to sonics and engineering, responded so strongly to Harrison’s lyrics. They’re integral to the antic overall energy and feel of the music. Juicy lines abound, like the one in the chugging, radio-ready “My Before and After” (which would be right at home on XTC’s English Settlement) about the girl who “cracks the code on the Rosetta Stone / Says the word for ‘alone’ is ‘alone’.” Or “Homefront Cameo’s” “She’s made the bed three times today / Each a masterpiece in its own way” – an unimprovably concise and evocative description of a lonely homebound wife worthy of T.S. Eliot.
Harrison can also drop love bombs as precise and potent as anything from Revolver-era Lennon: “We had a fight I won last night, but who slept outside, girl? / But if I’m wrong, help me along / To give a bit and still look strong.” But it’s his more adamantine and obscurantist puzzle boxes that really draw you in, like: “Is this some sort of reverie / For the one-woman Jan and Dean heading for the crash? / Is she half who she oughta be? / Or an overdue prodigy whose unsolicited view of your present’s confused with her past?”
Marshalling Harrison’s dozens of tapes into a coherent whole turned out to be quite a bit more challenging than either he or Jones suspected, but in the time it took to determine that Jones could pull it off, the two musicians began to build rapport. As they delved into Kontiki’s tracks, Jones suggested opportunities for further treatments, additions, and editing. Harrison mostly said yes to these suggestions, re-recording a vocal track here, adding a marimba sample there (or, in one case, the sound of a child’s Fisher-Price toy). There was a lot of sonic wizardry involved in getting Harrison’s badly/bad-goodly/weirdly/naively recorded tracks into fighting shape for mixing.
Jones, who did most of those mixes, is modest about his contributions: “Lo-Fi sounds and doodads,” he calls them, along with the sheer technical work of syncing and stitching. “Be the scientist and let these guys keep being creative,” he remembers thinking at the time. Jones received credit as Kontiki’s producer when it was released in 1997, but he acknowledges that this was only a token of gratitude from Harrison, who had done most of the work—and the deliberate damage—before he ever met Jones. (The 2012 reissue correctly credits Harrison as the producer.)
For his part, Harrison has at the ready a detailed, track-by-track list of each and every one of Jones’s contributions. On some songs, Jones’s work was simply to do the mix, but mixing is no small task; and it’s conceivable that Harrison’s chaos of tapes might have been deemed too hard to turn into an album at all. Without Jones, Kontiki might never have come out. At least, not as we know it.
And when it did come out, it might as well not have. Or, as Harrison puts it, “the love bomb failed to detonate.”
Cotton Mather’s tiny record label pressed only about 1,000 copies of the CD and poorly distributed them. The case bore a sticker that called Kontiki power pop, which it really was not at all—here and there, perhaps, but merely incidentally, only as an echo of one of many genres from which Harrison was half-consciously borrowing. Nor did out-of-step Cotton Mather have a local following in Austin that might have built a groundswell toward success, partly because they weren’t really a band at that point, just Harrison and Williams and a four-track. Harrison did manage to get a proper rhythm section together, and they played some live gigs to maintain a semblance of a legitimate presence. Still, he says, “we were just kind of from somewhere else.”
Kontiki was named for the raft Thor Heyerdahl sailed across the South Seas in 1947—a vessel as ramshackle, and expedition as reckless as its namesake—and it appeared to be dead in the water. Somehow, though, the album made landfall in England. And what happened after that is the stuff of legend. Evidently, Kontiki came to be played at a party in the house of none other than the great Ron Wood, who on hearing it is reported to have marveled aloud, over and over, “Sounds like the fookin’ Beatles. Sounds like the fookin’ Beatles.”
Legend also has it that Noel Gallagher was at this party. He and his brother Liam were entranced by Kontiki; Liam later told GQ that he wished his own band had made it. By the end of the millennium, Cotton Mather were opening for Oasis in England. Kontiki was lovingly reviewed there. Harrison landed a publishing deal that bought him time to write songs for a third Cotton Mather album: “From a life in ruins to a lightning rod,” as he sings on the opening track of that album. Just when they seemed sunk, they had new life.
Except that Harrison had already finished their tombstone.
Kontikí’s follow-up, The Big Picture, was written and recorded in 1998 and 1999, after Kontiki had failed to connect with American airwaves but before it found new life in England. Harrison was under a cloud of “disappointment and exhaustion”, he recalls, “but we had to soldier on somehow.” To do that would have been hard for Harrison even had Kontiki already been buoyed up on English channels. Around the time he began writing songs for The Big Picture, the deaths of two people close to him struck: one was that of his father; the other, his musical mentor from his college days in Virginia, who OD’d in New York City where his career had flatlined. The Big Picture was initially conceived as “a synthesis of his story and my present emptiness,” Harrison says.
On top of these losses (or, imaginably, in part as a consequence of them), Harrison also suffered a mysterious, debilitating back injury. Perhaps the injury was in some way connected to the high school car accident that had ended Harrison’s theatrical ambitions years earlier. Whatever the case, it was so severe that Williams remembers Harrison wasn’t even able to get out of bed on the worst days.
It’s no wonder, then, that The Big Picture has what Brad Jones, whom Harrison enlisted to produce it, calls “more of a minor tonality.” Yet The Big Picture’s sonic palette plays against that tonality. While touring in support of Kontiki, Cotton Mather had added Josh Gravelin on bass and Dana Myzer on drums. Together, they formed a muscular rhythm section that changed the band’s character. And Williams says that he had grown into a more assertive and confident lead guitarist.
“By the time we made The Big Picture, we were a rock band,” Williams says. Harrison wanted to give the band room—and he wanted to be fully a part of that band himself, less yoked to the other side of the board as producer, not to mention that sitting there for hours on end caused tremendous back strain. He also wanted to give himself room to think a little more conceptually. That’s why he had Jones handle production duties—and he liked Jones, of course: trusted him, felt like Jones understood him, and recognized his formidable skills.
In Jones’s hands, Cotton Mather’s sound is, not surprisingly, more expansive and refined than that of Kontiki. The Big Picture was recorded on 24-track, giving it an aural depth and breadth appropriate to the longer and wider perspective of Harrison’s songwriting, and to the heavier rock vibe the band was now capable of creating. “It’s interesting that a shadowy, darker record with a hint of cynicism about the music industry”—two songs score direct hits against the biz—”would be played by this loud, brash, muscular rock band,” says Williams. And it’s precisely that tension that gives The Big Picture its unflagging, dense energy and its considerable staying power.
That isn’t to say that The Big Picture is a conventional rock album. Under Harrison’s ministrations, it’s treated with many of the same kinds of painterly effects that are so abundant on Kontiki. But they are less haphazard and splattery. They’re in service to a more refined result and more seamlessly integrated into it: for example, the Alan Lomax field recording layered onto the end of “Marathon Man” (which features some of Harold Whit Williams’s most searing guitar work); or the way the backing track from an older, unreleased Cotton Mather song called “Little Star” is so naturally deployed into the coda of one of Harrison’s new ones that it’s almost a surprise to discover it wasn’t intended that way from the start.
Another presence that complicated and lightened Harrison’s mood of disappointment and exhaustion and emptiness was the arrival of his first child, a daughter born in August of 1998. “Fatherhood snapped me straight out of the post-Kontiki fog,” he says. The Big Picture features some of his liveliest and most infectious pop songcraft, powered by “the joy a little girl brings,” as he sings on “Glory Eyes”, an infectious love-bomb that would sound totally at home if it came from the Gallaghers themselves. The album and its title capture the full contours of Harrison’s conflicted emotional landscape, contradictions of disposition, and complicated circumstances that combined to form The Big Picture—a title which “became a question,” Harrison says. “And the question was, ‘What’s next’?”
What was next was the end of Cotton Mather. And that end, unlike what became of Kontiki in England, is not the stuff of legend. It’s not even the stuff of theater. It’s just the stuff of life. There were business things external to the band’s control: “When everything depends / On what’s out of your hands / And from a temporary source / Comes a world of tributary worries,” Harrison sings on the elegiac “Ramon Finds Waterfalls”. And there were personal things they couldn’t overcome or ignore: injuries, deaths, births; relationships growing fraught. Williams says he simply didn’t want to keep going out on tour for weeks at a time, having to maneuver around a full-time job in Austin.
The effect on Cotton Mather was cumulative, complicated, and perhaps inescapable: if you set about making an album like Kontiki with the idea baked into it that it heralds your death as a musician, then maybe the death of you is what it inevitably is, even if the raft finds a temporary Oasis. The water there is not always life-giving. “Brothers, take this cup / Bring the faders up,” Harrison sings to his bandmates as the curtain starts descending near the end of The Big Picture; and a haunting, Erik Satie-like piano coda whose melody was “the only thing I heard in my head throughout that somber holiday when my father passed away,” Harrison recalls, provides melancholy exit music.
The Big Picture didn’t come out until 2001, two years after it was made. If Noel Gallagher loved it, he never said so. He might have had a hard time even finding a copy to listen to, because it was released as an import-only CD from somewhere in Europe (Harrison isn’t even sure exactly where). It soon went out of print—another obscure record label turned to ash—and, unlike Kontiki, it wasn’t deluxe-reissued after 15 years. Nor is it a scarce collector’s item. You can get a used copy on eBay for pretty cheap. If you’re reading this, you should, because on its own terms, it’s as good as Kontiki. If Kontiki is a raft on tropical waters, then The Big Picture is a big wide river as it goes over roaring falls.
Cotton Mather officially disbanded in 2003, and for a few years, Harrison quit music altogether, just as he thought he might do while he was making Kontiki. He took some time to raise a family (a second child, a son, came along). But then he formed a new act. He gave it another cheeky name—Future Clouds & Radar—and himself a dramatic costume change. He sported a dramatic beard and a seersucker suit that a magician or a mesmerist could wear, or even the metaphysical minister Harrison might have become had he stayed on the Religious Studies path and earned his ordination.
He assembled around him a huge cast/congregation of musicians and led them through a phantasmagoric double-album debut that traces a long arc of regeneration: from sleeping to waking, from death into life. It’s “an album of healing,” says Harrison, who wrote, produced, bankrolled, and released it himself—a vanity project in the best of ways, made even more on his own terms than Kontiki was.
And like Kontiki, it’s all over the place: idiosyncratic, unpredictable, visionary, intuitive, chaotic, and at times downright weird. It’s held together by Harrison’s characteristically well-hewn songcraft and trademarked by his unmistakable bag of sonic doodads and borrowed snippets (samples from Vivien Leigh’s Peter Rabbit are among the highlights). He also deploys his full creative energies as an orchestrator, arranger, and stage manager. The two discs are replete with string sections and horns and ukulele and theremin, and there is the occasional appearance of a cosmic cowboy. Instead of Lo-Fi, the chief influence is closer to psychedelia, but despite displaying Elephant Six trappings, Future Clouds & Radar wasn’t part of that collective, which was already done and mostly gone by 2007, when FC&R came out. As usual, Harrison was out of step and out of time.
The debut was followed, as Kontiki was, by a record Harrison allowed a set of outside ears to substantially shape. In this case, it was the esteemed and much-in-demand Dave Fridmann, who had done some remixing on The Big Picture. And had things gone as planned, Fridmann’s stamp would have been stronger than it ended up being on FC&R’s second release, Peoria.
“My goal was to do a record with Fridmann from start to finish,” Harrison says. What happened instead is neither legendary nor everyday, but rather one of those little mix-ups with consequences so disproportionate that they challenge notions of believable truth. According to Harrison, he thought he and Fridmann were to record Peoria in November 2008, only to discover nearly a year in advance of those sessions that “one of my interns miscommunicated with him.” (One can’t help wondering if the “intern” was Harrison’s then nine-year-old daughter.) It transpired that Fridmann wasn’t expecting to travel down to Austin to record Peoria in November; he was expecting Harrison to bring a completed recording to him in Buffalo to mix—in February, just a few weeks away.
It doesn’t matter very much if all parties involved would agree on this peculiar account. Nor does it matter that Peoria was not made according to schedule. Hardly any good art is. Worthy work is almost always either made too soon or finished too late, too quickly, or too slowly. In any case, Harrison was determined not to lose his suddenly imminent slot in Fridmann’s schedule. “Because Fridmann is booked so far out and there had just been this foul-up of communication,” Harrison continues, “I didn’t want to pass, and I just thought, hell, I better write a bunch of songs, record them, and have them ready in eighteen days to mix with Dave.”
After a few madcap weeks of frenzied writing and recording, with FC&R’s members participating in the proceedings like circus performers in and out of the rings, Peoria was mostly done. It is almost comically small in comparison to its elephantine two-disc predecessor, just eight songs, yet it manages to feel oddly expansive. Harrison had wanted the album to capture FC&R’s live sets, which “had a lot of segue music.” he says, with songs “morphing into one another and the music never stopping.”
Harrison & Co. didn’t have time to execute his through-written concept, but Peoria does bear some of it out. Two of its tracks are wildly elaborated and experimented on, like Frankenstein’s monster, with one musical idea lurching into another well past the seven-minute mark. A waltz called “The Mortal” suddenly careens into a herky-jerky, mad-scientist musical interlude before careening right back into itself a minute or so later; then it mutates into a postlude with an early-1970s-movie-soundtrack vibe, called “Mortal 926”. The final track, “Follow the Crane”, has a cinematic sweep that widens from one of Harrison’s limpid pop melodies—in 5/4 time—to a full panorama of world-building, with a proggish second act that could have been dreamed up by Yes in 1972. Then it follows the crane out of our world entirely: a choir of celestial voices (arranged by Harrison’s longtime collaborator Darin Murphy) and keyboard pads lift Peoria into an unearthly realm that seems to be a particular and abiding preoccupation of Harrison’s: The lyrics of two of his songs, separated by a decade in his catalog, make reference to “The Great Unknown”.
Of all Harrison’s albums, Peoria is the most thematically fixated on death. “Oh girl, your heart is a grave,” he sings on the opening track, the lilting “Epcot View”. Another track is called “Mummified” (“when you stare, girl, you bury me”); the title of another, “18 Months”, refers to the length of time the singer has been “buried alive”. The mysterious figure who “comes down from a cloud” in “The Mortal” may be the savior and/or, it seems, somehow also the early-era baseball pitcher Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown, here observed weeping as he performs a burial. And the closing track’s crane we’re invited to follow is a suggestive euphemism for death.
In other words, on Peoria Harrison was not only reaching high into The Great Unknown; he was also buried deep in his lifelong Religious Studies dissertation. What exactly his personal thanatology has to do with the album’s title we may never know. At some point before hurriedly writing Peoria’s suite of songs, he had made what he describes as a pilgrimage to Peoria, Illinois, a city said (apparently with a straight face) to be America’s test-marketing capital. Harrison went there seeking guidance from that “Delphic oracle”, as he characterized Peoria.
This account of the namesake album’s genesis sounds almost as farfetched as that of Harrison’s scheduling flub with Fridmann (whose mix, it should be duly appreciated, is excellent; he also did a little re-recording for Peoria with Harrison in Buffalo, as Brad Jones had in Nashville for Kontiki). And to make sure we can’t quite make sense of how Peoria informs Peoria, Harrison made sure to conceal from us whatever the oracle revealed to him. The song he wrote (or says he wrote—“everything we thought was deep turned out to be a lie,” he warns us on The Big Picture) called “Peoria,” the germinal title track intended to preside over the rest of the album, was left off of it.
It’s as though this curious omission augured the end of both creation and creator. FC&R never returned from Harrison’s Peoria of the mind. The project was a money-losing venture for him from the outset, and the FC&R roadshow was retired for good.
Cotton Mather, however, returned. It transpired that the Kontiki love bomb was, all along, improbably setting off little explosions, mainly thanks to the internet (the CD was out of print). Over time, the album generated an Odessey and Oracle-like appreciation society that enabled Harrison to crowdfund a deluxe reissue in 2012, outfitted with a second disc of demos, unreleased tracks, etc. Harrison persuaded Harold Whit Williams to strap his guitar back on, assembled a new rhythm section, and a retooled Cotton Mather played some live gigs in support of the reissue. As is often the case, that led to further interest and new recordings, starting with 2016’s Death of the Cool. A follow-up, Wild Kingdom, came out soon after, and there is now a limited-edition rarities collection, plus a reissue of the very first Cotton Mather release, pre-Williams, called Crafty Flower Arranger.
If Harrison follows through on his plan for Mark II of Cotton Mather, there will be more new music. His goal is to write and record 64 songs, each in response to an I Ching hexagram. This approach might sound pretentious on the face of it, but it’s essentially just Harrison’s version of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies: deploying chance operations as a creative prod, which is a time-honored tradition in many art forms. (The legendary modern dance choreographer Merce Cunningham, for example, was an adept of aleatory art-making—including habitual consultations of the I Ching.)
Nor is there anything especially oblique or chancy about the songs. In fact, latter-day Cotton Mather sounds simpler now than in its original incarnation. Lo-fi and its accompanying sonic doodads and studio treatments have been mostly (but not totally) left behind in the 1990s, with only judicious interference here and there. Generally unmarred by paint splatters or breakage, the essential sweetness and gentle faith that infuse Harrison’s songs are revealed. The love-bombing and the cinematic big-picture-painting of a generation ago have given way to a controlled approach, a modest framework, and generally straightforward results (and lyrics) that are closer kin to—who’d have guessed it?—Cotton Is King.
But in a way that isn’t at all colorless. Instead, it feels like Harrison and his bandmates are simply trying to make music rather than break it, comfortable with what they’re doing and with themselves. Rather than screaming for attention, the music is there to be heard whenever you’re ready, and it doesn’t matter if you never are: “It’s rock and roll, I don’t know how to quit,” Harrison sings in the cheekily titled “The Cotton Mather Pledge”, running his voice through a compressive digital effect that wryly summons Kontiki. But it’s only for effect, and it’s the exception, not the rule.
Williams wonders aloud whether much of the material on Death of the Cool and Wild Kingdom isn’t really solo Robert Harrison, who happens to be backed by “dudes who used to be in Cotton Mather,” Williams quips. But if today’s Cotton Mather doesn’t always sound like the band we once knew, and if the love-bomb urgency isn’t as high as it once was, that’s no wonder and no criticism. Harrison is well into midlife now. He has become an accomplished producer as well as a bandleader and songwriter, and he has settled into Cotton Mather as one of the varied things he does rather than exclusively who he is—even if he’s quite aware that the words “Cotton Mather” will appear in the first paragraph of his obituary. He’s still got his instantly recognizable Lennon-on-Robitussin voice, and Williams’s singular Gibson guitar tone and almost effortless-sounding fretwork are always right there when called on.
Like Cotton Mather, its founder is evolving, too. Harrison’s latest release is, finally, his first solo record. It’s a bit of a surprise that an artist who has always so assiduously followed his singular vision is only just now getting around to putting his own name on it. The album is called Watching the Kid Come Back—a canny wink in that title, coming as it does from a musician who’s been making comebacks for a quarter-century. The album is disarmingly easygoing and largely acoustic; it’s got slide guitar and a country-tinged, live-performance feel—with none other than Harold Whit Williams playing on a number of tracks—that sound not at all like Cotton Mather but quite a lot like it came from, well, Austin.
And who’d have guessed that? But it’s more like the Austin of Cotton Mather’s heyday, a place not so much gone as painted over. Yet to Harrison, the big picture he knew then is still plainly visible. He calls Austin the same “shambolic talent enclave” that it was when he arrived decades ago: a place that to him is eternally “nostalgic for tomorrow,” aka the Great Unknown.
“The cultural DNA hasn’t changed,” Harrison insists. “We’re still a place where anything goes, everyone’s welcome, and nothing really matters. Just the next taco.”
Maybe his music has always seemed out of time and place not because Harrison is some sort of inadmissible misfit excluded from the scene but because, as he puts it, “I live in my own time frame and world.” Maybe he’d still be that “slight but appreciative foreigner” he feels like in Austin no matter where he might have landed or might yet go. But no matter how settled and at home he feels, it might be best if the kid keeps having to come back. His best work often seems to happen when he slips onto the stage again through an unseen slit between the curtains, sometimes pushed through it by the uncredited stagehand we call accident—like the accident that disfigures a kid’s face and scuttles his plans for a life in the theater. But instead of making theater for a living, the musician he became has made theater of his life.