Been There. Done That. Doing It Again.
In a city like Austin, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle. There are hundreds of clubs, twice as many bands, and every week it seems like a new act is the darling of the scene. So it's no surprise that Cotton Mather, led by singer/guitarist Robert Harrison, hasn't gained more notoriety in its hometown. Nothing about the band -- from its unfortunate name to its appearance -- stands out. Except its songs.
Harrison, parked on the spacious back porch of the south Austin home he shares with his wife, Jennifer, hardly fits the typical rock-musician mold. Perched attentively on the edge of his seat, he could pass for one of the young professionals the area's burgeoning computer industry has been attracting.
Harrison's house -- actually, his garage -- was the birthplace of Kontiki, one of the smartest indie-pop efforts of last year. A 14-song slab of '60s rock revivalism and contemporary songcraft, the CD is a patchwork of sources -- Rubber Soul-era Beatles riffs, Byrdsian harmonies, Dylanesque phrasing -- sewn tightly together by Harrison's knack for finding just the right hook to hold it all in place. A self-professed "longtime rock and roll fan," he proudly wears his influences on his sleeve -- though he's careful to distinguish the sleeve from the rest of the shirt.
"[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," says Harrison. "I certainly feel that [Kontiki] 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."
Harrison quotes a supposed review: '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?"
Indeed, Kontiki is the kind of outing that should have even the most experienced rock scribe reaching for his copy of the Trouser Press Record Guide. Though the disc's lead-off track, "Camp Hill Rail Operator," contains, as Harrison says, "an almost uncomfortable tribute to McGuinn and Crosby (of the Byrds)," much of Kontiki's anachronistic vibe came from the actual recording process, not borrowed notes and allusions to other bands. With its dated recording techniques -- due mostly to Harrison's inexperience as an engineer -- Kontiki has a rich, crackling AM-radio sound, ragged around the edges but infinitely more polished than most homemade projects.
"We did it on four-track cassette and ADAT eight-track, and I did all sorts of submixing, which is the way people used to make records in the '60s. They just had a few tracks, so they would record a bunch of tracks and then submix it onto two channels."
Another big factor in the sound of Kontiki 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 Kontiki in a garage wasn't Harrison's initial plan. It came about as a result of a couple of years of hard luck and missed opportunities. After Cotton Mather released its critically acclaimed debut CD, Cotton Is King, on the Los Angeles independent 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 the group's future. Then came a moment of serendipity straight out of Spinal Tap.
"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 borrowed gear and novice producer Harrison at the controls, the band began recording again -- for themselves at first.
"I think we had some inkling that what we were doing was disarming and interesting, and 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 forsake working in the various studios and 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."
Darrell Clingman, owner of Houston's Copper Records, seconded that motion, and offered to put out the finished product.
"Having gone through a big label dance on our first effort and been very soured by the entire experience," Harrison says, "I was eager just to get something out, because it had been a couple of years."
In the end, taking such a significant leap forward creatively by taking a technical step backward works so well on Kontiki because Cotton Mather's quirky pop smarts are still firmly evident. But they are also 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 such as "Vegetable Row" and "Church of Wilson" prove the band can handle American roots rock and British pop with equal aplomb. All the while, Harrison's wavering vocals skip over the top of the multilayered tracks, seemingly always a step behind.
With Kontiki, Cotton Mather has made the ultimate testament to making a tough situation (no money, no studio and no technical knowledge) not only work, but work well. The CD's title, while strangely tropical, sums up the process perfectly.
"[Kontiki] was a book that many of us were subjected to in junior high about a one-man crossing of the Pacific and his heroic journey in a boat made out of leaves," Harrison explains. "When I told my engineer friends that I was making the record myself, 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."
Cotton Mather performs with Spoon at 10:30 p.m. Saturday, February 21, at Rudyard's Pub, 2010 Waugh. Cover is $5. That Gospel Sound opens. For info, call 521-0521.
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