Exclusive: Cotton Mather mastermind Robert Harrison talks to us about the making of seminal art rock album KONTIKI, his I Ching project, and touring with Oasis.
“We had the most interesting story of any band you’ve ever met. We have the weirdest story. We’re not going to other places, but we’re going to Russia. That’s so Cotton Mather. When we first went to Japan it’s because our song ‘Lost My Motto’ had become a fixture at the Japanese Denny’s all over the country. That’s our story.” – Robert Harrison, Cotton Mather
The story of Cotton Mather is indeed a strange one, following an unlikely trajectory from its origins as an Austin, Texas art-rock outfit through a still-obscure-yet-generation-shaking album, with fans among the Rolling Stones and Oasis, and following an extended break, a prolific return with music inspired by the I Ching.
Though he credits longtime members like guitarist Whit Williams and drummer Dana Myzer with being instrumental to the group’s sound, it’s fair to say Robert Harrison is Cotton Mather’s prime instigator. The frontman and songwriter founded the group, led them into a period of fertile power-pop brilliance, and in the years since their reunion has steered them toward a fairly unlikely renaissance as part of his I Ching project, which upon planned completion later this year will feature 64 songs for 64 hexagrams, Harrison’s reactions to illuminations from the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination text with its roots stretching back over two-and-a-half millennia to the Western Zhou period.
Those songs, as performed by Cotton Mather and Harrison’s other group, Future Clouds and Radar, can be found at ichingsongs.com, along with commentaries and other information. Harrison first discovered the I Ching as a member of Cotton Mather, though his interest in religion traces back to childhood. Using the name Cotton Mather – taken from a 17th century Puritan minister most renowned for his support of the Salem witch trials – traces back nearly as far.
“I was hanging out with my brother, and we were, you know, influenced by certain, you know, things that have some kind of chemical component,” said Harrison during a chat with Live4ever at SXSW last month. “We were in Baltimore, it was a beautiful spring day, but it was the day after my uncle’s funeral and we were feeling pretty blue. We got up and had a fun recreational day going to museums. And I told him, ‘Hey, I started a band…We have to come up with a name.’ And all day he was cracking me up with one idea after another, and he said, ‘Cotton Mather’ and I couldn’t stop laughing. I thought, ‘That’s the funniest name for a band I’ve ever heard. It’s just preposterous.’ He was referencing that I was a student of theology, and he knew I wanted to go to seminary. He was taking the piss.”
Most of what Cotton Mather – in this case, the band – did went against type. It began with how Harrison wound up moving from one college town to another.
“I moved here (to Austin, Texas), this was pre-internet, in 1989, from Athens, Georgia,” Harrison said. “I was dating this girl who was considering going to graduate school in either Philadelphia or Austin.I was playing guitar and I wanted to be in a band. And I would ask people in Athens, ‘Do you want to get together and play?’ And they’d say, ‘Not really.’ You know, they were so smug. They were so damn smug back in those days in Athens. And I can’t even get anyone to come over, and I’m writing cool songs.”
Over his time in Athens, Harrison made up his mind about where to go next following a random encounter in a coffee shop.
“I was hanging out in the coffee shop one day, and this girl with cat-eye glasses and super hipster clothing comes in,” Harrison recalled. “And she’s going on and on about this dreadful, abysmal place she’s just left, and it’s awful. And I thought, ‘That sounds pretty cool!’ I had to get away from this holier-than-thou scene where people are too cool to even talk to me. And I asked her where she was from, and she said, ‘Austin, Texas, but I’m moving here.’ And I thought, ‘I’m taking your place.’ So I went home and told the girl I was living with, ‘Well, if you go to Austin, I’ll go there.’”
Harrison had already done some pre-internet research about Austin, and it seemed like the place to be.
“I’d read about Austin, there was a little blurb about it in Rolling Stone, which is how we got all of our information back then,” It was about the New Sincerity movement here, jangle-pop. They were all R.E.M.-damaged. I thought, I’m going to move here and start the first roots-rock band in Austin. And I got here and went, ‘Hmm, I think that territory is well staked out.’ So I went the other direction and tried to do something like Fred Frith, just total off the wall, because there wasn’t a lot of arty stuff here. And I started Cotton Mather with just a cellist named Nat Shelton. And we made music that made your teeth hurt. It was a really grating and unpleasant experience, and we thought that was just terrific.”
Cotton Mather didn’t really become Cotton Mather until after they’d incorporated a rhythm section, and even then it took a bedside epiphany by Harrison to put the pieces together.
“One day I was sitting at the end of my bed and I picked up a guitar and started plucking out this song, the beginning of Georges Bizet’s Carmen. And it turned into this song, a pop song with hooks. And I thought, ‘Where did this come from?’ And I played it to the band, and it turned out they loved it…That’s when the sound came together, that’s when the personnel came together. Up until then it was just all over the map.”
The group’s debut album, Cotton is King, was released with little fanfare, but the turning point was still a few years away. First, the “Trip to India.”
“Cotton Mather had this pivotal moment, and we called it our ‘Trip to India,’” Harrison said, likening the experience to the Beatles’ 1968 spiritual journey to Rishikesh. “It happened in ’96. Our drummer Dana Myzer, who lives in London, he walked into practice one day and said, ‘Hey, everybody, there’s this cool thing happening tonight at the China Health Center,’ where his girlfriend Jenny was involved with acupuncture. ‘This guy is going to give a lecture about this thing called Qigong, and it sounds really cool.’ We went en masse, like John, Paul, George and Ringo to the Maharishi, and we sat at the feet of this guy who gave this demonstration. And I was blown away by what this guy was offering, which was ancient temple training. The guy who was giving the training was a direct descendant of one of the people who wrote the first book on acupuncture.”
Qigong is a holistic system of body movement and breathing, with connections to Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. It was another revelation that would eventually lead Harrison to the I Ching song cycle. But it may have also opened him up to create what would become Cotton Mather’s masterpiece, Kontiki. Released in 1997, the jangle-pop opus with roots in the Beatles, Byrds and Who, as well as more recent acts like Squeeze andNick Lowe, was like the group who put it together, the end result of a long and winding road.
“My friend Joe McDermott had a little place that he worked in for jingles and game music,” remembered Harrison. “It was out in Leander, Texas. I was the most rudimentary musician. I didn’t have anxiety about performing ever. I had anxiety about hooking up the equipment correctly. My nightmare was that I was going to be onstage and not understand how to plug my guitar in. That sounds so ridiculous, but I had this anxiety about anything to do with equipment. Joe, bless his heart, tried to tell me, ‘It’s not that tough.’ He tried to explain it to me, and to me it was like the parent in Peanuts talking. I couldn’t understand it. The first things we did at Joe’s studio were just garbage. We couldn’t work the gear.”
The direction for Kontiki, which was famously recorded on 4-track and Alesis Digital Audio Tape (ADAT) yet sounds like it was cut in Abbey Road, was almost stumbled upon by accident. But it might never haver happened had Harrison not first tried to record some demos at a studio called the Hit Shack.
“We did some demos for Kontiki in a studio called the Hit Shack with a guy named Dave McNair,” Harrison said. “And I frustrated the hell out of Dave. He’s a terrific world-class engineer. Dave, I drove him nuts. And he said, ‘You’re the kind of guy that needs to put himself in a room with a microphone. You’re like Beck. You’re one of those guys that will figure it out by yourself. I can’t work with you.’ It’s the nicest thing anyone ever did for me. He forced me to do it. He said, ‘Go find your 4-track.’ I ran into him a few months later and said, ‘I’m doing what you said. I’m trying this, and it’s kind of cool, but I can’t make things sound good.’ He said, ‘What have you got?’ I described the gear to him, and he said, ‘Just make sure all the lights are blinking. That means the gear is working. When the compressor’s blinking a lot, you’re using it right.’”
Harrison brought that philosophy with him to McDermott’s studio, but it wasn’t until he was abandoned by technology altogether that Kontiki started to come together.
“I did (album closer) ’Autumn’s Birds’ on the computer out there with a stupid MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) beat,” he said. “One day I was out there, and I’d recorded all this stuff for it. And it’s not much, I played that bass, and the bass part is just something to go along with the drums. It was done. And one day I couldn’t get his computer working and I couldn’t get the drum beat. And I listened and said, ‘Oh my God. That’s it. That’s a record. We made a record.’
After playing the song for friends who’d heard the Hit Shack demos and receiving a much more favorable response, Harrison realized he was on to something. And because it was Cotton Mather, it was something that wouldn’t make sense until it was finished.
“The working title for the record was Shooting Accident, because that sort of described our modus operandi,” Harrison said. “I remember when we were recording ‘Homefront Cameo.’ I’d started a drum loop. I had a computer at home that had…I forget, a super basic early digital recording platform, and I figured out how to do that and I created drum loops. I played an acoustic guitar, did a vocal, scratch vocal probably, and then Whit played that little blackface Princeton amp…The whole record is done with reduction mixes. And we weren’t making a record, we were making demos to send to a record label.”
Harrison said Kontiki was where he realized how important Williams was to the group’s sound.
“On Cotton is King, Whit had played mostly what I’d asked him to play,” Harrison said. “I’d scripted things pretty closely for him. He hadn’t found his voice, but he found his voice as a guitarist between Cotton is King and Kontiki. And boy, did he find it. I remember when Whit played the opening lick on ‘Homefront Cameo’ on guitar. I was looking at the speakers, and he’s in the next little room…and I hear this sound coming out and I thought, ‘My God, I am an unbelievable engineer!’ And then I realized, maybe it’s the guitarist. He’d figured something out, and it was magical.”
The album was completed in two stages, with the second phase moving into Harrison’s house after McDermott’s studio was relocated to his own home after the arrival of his baby.
“We finished the record at my house, and it was a magical experience,” Harrison said. “Everything we did on Kontiki, there was something going on with that record. I couldn’t not do it right. I’ve never had that experience before or since. It’s like someone else was making the record.”
Kontiki would soon make waves across the Atlantic, but it almost never made it out of Texas.
“I played it for this guy in Houston named Darryl Klingman, and he had this label called Copper,” Harrison said. “He’d put out one record, a Badfinger tribute. He came up to Austin and he listened to it. And he flipped. He just heard rough mixes that I’d done. He said, ‘It’s a moral imperative that I put this out.’ We’d already been down the music industry path and saw what that got us: Nothing. We’ve got no money, no one heard our first record, we didn’t like the first record very much. We did the thing that most new bands do, they take a lot of advice and people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing tell them what to do. So I thought, great. We’re doing everything backwards. We’re putting out a record we’re making on a four-track. Let’s find a guy that’s never done anything. Perfect!”
Klingman’s inexperience might have sunk Kontiki right then and there, if not for one inadvertently shrewd move.
“Darryl just didn’t have the juice,” Harrison said. “He had no way to get it out there. It’s just that he was a tiny label. But he had enough money to do one thing: He hired a radio promoter named Biff Kennedy, who lived in Philadelphia. And Biff got results. It started moving up the college charts, and then people started noticing the records weren’t in stores. He’d pressed like 500 copies or something. So it just died. And we got no press here. Nothing.”
The radio push got the band the attention of Jim McGarry, a New York-based attorney who also ran a record label called Rainbow Quartz.
“And he was very obnoxious,” Harrison said. “And he knows it. We laughed about that. I didn’t like him.”
But McGarry put the album out on Rainbow Quartz in England, and that’s when things started to come together for Cotton Mather.
“(Oasis touring and studio musician) Paul Stacy tells me that it was a New Year’s Day or Boxing Day party at Ron Wood’s house where somebody had Kontiki and they listened to it over and over and over with Noel (Gallagher) among them,” Harrison said. “And Paul says Ron Wood kept on saying, ‘It sounds like the fookin’ Beatles. Sounds like the fookin’ Beatles.’ So that’s how those guys got it.”
“Bastards! It was like the Beatles. I thought if that isn’t the best record I’ve heard in 10 years, then I don’t know what is. It’s one of my all time favorites.” (Noel Gallagher)
“I fucking wish it was ours. I play it all day at home.” (Liam Gallagher)
Cotton Mather were invited to support Oasis on three U.K. dates, an experience Harrison said was quite different from what he’d been led to expect.
“The Oasis guys were absolutely lovely to us,” he said. “I didn’t recognize the feuding brothers that I had been told about. I didn’t know who those guys were. I met two really delightfully friendly men who took us under their wing, and they certainly didn’t have to. They were following in a great tradition of bands who help a younger band or newer band up the ladder, as Britt (Daniel) from Spoon does. We only did three dates with (Oasis), and they were phenomenal. They really helped us so much, because their fans found out about us and they kind of built the foundation of everything we did after that. It was wonderful.”
Before playing with Oasis, Cotton Mather played a show at the Camden Falcon in London in early 2000.
“It was one of the greatest shows we ever played,” Harrison said. “And going back to my earlier anxiety, I knew Oasis was there to see us for the first time en masse, sans Noel who was sick. Our manager told us every label was there. It was a madhouse. Uncut (Magazine) had run a five-star review (of Kontiki). It was blowing up. And so there Oasis was…So I go running out onstage, and the last person I see before I get to the stage was Liam (Gallagher), and he said, ‘Have a good show.’ I run out there and all our gear is gone. There’s no equipment. The guys who worked with the other band removed all of our backline from the stage. So there I am in my worst fear ever, Robert Harrison, who is remedial at best at hooking anything up, has got to set up his gear correctly in front of a stomping crowd. Everything got super still and quiet and slow-motion, and it all worked out. And we played a pretty amazing show.”
Harrison didn’t meet Noel Gallagher until the first date of the Oasis tour.
“Liam came up to me and said, ‘My brother wants to meet you,’” Harrison said. “And he led me back down a corridor, and I thought, ‘I’m going to meet Noel, and I’ve heard they don’t like each other.’ And (Liam’s) got this denim jacket and a red bandana. And there’s Noel in a denim jacket and a red bandana. He thought I started the record on the wrong song, that it should start with ‘Private Ruth.’ He said, ‘I love that drumming,’ and I said, ‘That’s me. That’s why it’s so messed up, because I’m playing drums on it.’ He said, ‘I play drums myself. You should do more of that.’”
While Cotton Mather didn’t become drinking buddies with Oasis, they came to both love and respect them.
“Interactions with them were minimal because they were big rock stars and we weren’t,” Harrison said. “But the coolest thing is they came to the sound checks. And that is pretty badass. They came to the sound checks because they’re music fans. It was all about the music for those guys. And I assume it still is. From the sound of the records it still is.”
The sound of the records is an important concept for Harrison, one which was apparent in Cotton Mather’s best music, and which is still apparent in the I Ching song cycle. It’s a project that came together following a few Kontiki reunion dates after the album was reissued in deluxe form in 2012.
“When we put Cotton Mather back together for the Kontiki dates, I really connected with the guys,” Harrison said. “Especially Whit, who lives here in town. Dana lives in London and Josh (Gravelin) is in Minnesota, so it’s not practical to do much with them except on special occasions. I wrote a batch of songs for us to record on a new record, and Dana and Josh were in town for a show after Kontiki (dates), and I thought let’s record this. By and large it just didn’t speak to me. I’ve thrown away more songs than you can imagine. I have a very high standard. We would joke in Cotton Mather that we record songs and bury them in the backyard.”
Instead, Harrison brought the group in on some of the I Ching songs, some of which were released last year as Death of the Cool, as welcome a return in guitar pop as any in recent memory. That album was followed quickly by another Cotton Mather record, Wild Kingdom, due this month. Like its predecessor, as well as an EP recorded by the group with Nicole Atkins, the songs are rooted in the I Ching.
“Don’t be afraid of the I Ching (project),” Harrison said. “They’re rock & roll songs.”
Like the classic Rock & Roll sounds which found their way into the music of Cotton Mather, spiritual influences Harrison was drawn to in his youth are also a crucial piece of the puzzle.
“Something about the religions of China really rang my bell when I was a younger guy,” Harrison said. “And I thought something about it felt very familiar, particularly about Taoism and Confucianism…The way I look at it is if you throw a rock somewhere or you shoot an arrow somewhere, you may not see where it lands, but it’s going to have some kind of impact. And the same, I think, is true of a question. You ask a question, there’s a response.”
One question that’s thus far failed to produce a response fans of a certain Mancunian group have been clamoring for since they split in 2009 is: Will Oasis ever reunite? Harrison hopes they will.
“I would love that,” he said. “Because I really like the songs Noel is writing. I think he’s writing some terrific stuff. I went back and listened to the last record (Dig Out Your Soul) this morning to kind of refresh my memory.
And I think one of the things I like best about Oasis is Noel’s rhythm guitar playing. I think he’s criminally underrated as a guitarist. His guitar sound and his tone that he gets, and the way he plays, it’s just a very cool thing. And only one guy plays that way.
That’s the thing about guitar: You have a sound, you’re the only one that can do it. For better or worse. I’d be one of the ones voting for them to do it, just because I love that band. And having done this thing with Cotton Mather, I’m not trying to tell anyone how to do their business, but sometimes it works out better than you think. I love doing Future Clouds and Radar, but Cotton Mather does something that only Cotton Mather can do, and I need those people to do it.”