Strawberry Fields Forever
Inside the Star Apple Kingdom of Robert Harrison's Future Clouds & Radar
By Austin Powell, Fri., Nov. 14, 2008
Entering the living room of Robert Harrison's South Austin residence feels like stumbling through the looking glass onto the set of a children's television program. Purple curtains hang from antiquated gold rods on walls of sky blue, while two of Harrison's dreams spring to life from adjacent corners of the room: a pack of alpacas emerging from the ocean, overseen by a distant satellite, and a human body with a horse's head offering an apple three-quarters green and one-quarter red.
Everything's arranged to the point of perfection, from the rack of ties tucked behind a couch to the sculpture of Mozart as a court jester that smiles from atop an old piano that's detailed in varying pink-and-yellow patterns of stripes and polka dots, a design created by Harrison's daughter. The cascades of color cast an iridescent glow about the room, as if unlocking the imaginary crossroads of Dr. Seuss and the Beatles' psychedelic Pepperland.
"I've always felt close to childhood, and this room is an extension of that," smiles Harrison, perked up in a white corduroy chair, his shoulder-length brown hair tucked behind his ears. "Children have the ability to consider at all times the possibility that things might be perfect, and that's really the truth that we begin to part from as we get older. When people come into this space, that's the part of their mind that I invite them to connect with.
"It's hard to walk in and take yourself too seriously."
Harrison taps into similar dimensions as the leader of Future Clouds & Radar. The local quartet, completed by bassist Josh Zarbo, keyboardist Hollie Thomas, and drummer Darin Murphy, crafts kaleidoscopic pop enlivened by studio experimentation and expansive arrangements. With sophomore LP Peoria, released nationally last Tuesday on Harrison's Star Apple Kingdom label, the group widens its scope even further, unraveling a spectral and spiritual meditation on mortality, bent through a prism of its genre idioms.
"I'm happiest when I'm pursuing innocence and when I'm offering an avenue for other people to do the same," Harrison opines. "I enjoy the more decorative aspects of creation and putting things into a form that are going to mesmerize or intrigue me. Maybe that's the reason for my commercial failure. I never have a vision for how something is going to make a home for itself in the world at large."
The Big Picture
Harrison's always been guided by voices. He describes most of his childhood in Auburn, Ala., as a fairy-tale escape into worlds of his own creation, one later aided by the poetry of Shelley, Keats, and Byron. Harrison relocated to Austin in the late 1980s, taking up work at a local monastery where he befriended local children's entertainer Joe McDermott.
Under the alias of Cotton Mather, the infamous Puritan preacher from the Salem witch trials, Harrison began writing avant-garde music with a cellist. By his own admission, his compositions gave most people a headache.
"The city was quite different then," recalls Harrison, who received a degree in religious studies from the University of Virginia. "For better or worse, the Austin music community is very aware now that it's being observed on a national level, but that didn't use to be the case. It wasn't so self-conscious. You could do whatever the hell you wanted."
By the time Cotton Mather released its proper debut on Elm Records, 1994's Cotton Is King, the group had evolved into a standard fourpiece, churning out quirky alt-rock gems defined as much by Harrison's instantly familiar melodies as his tight interplay with lead guitarist and backing vocalist Whit Williams. The band's breakthrough second LP, 1997's Kontiki, primarily recorded by Harrison on a four-track for $400, proved a brilliant, lo-fi collage of power-pop and Rubber Soul, only a half-step behind the new wave of British guitar rock being ushered in at the time by Blur and Oasis. In fact, the latter's Liam Gallagher championed the album, reportedly claiming, "I wish we had made it; I play it all the time." Cotton Mather later opened for Oasis throughout Europe, Kontiki picked up a year later in the UK by the Rainbow Quartz label.
"England is a much easier market to crack," Harrison surmises. "If you knock over one town, you're done. Everything else follows. We made a big splash in London, and that was it."
Despite critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, frequent lineup changes and a lack of distribution here in the States prevented the group from breaking out of the American underground. Cotton Mather's third and final album, The Big Picture, was finished in 2001 but never properly released in the U.S., though Harrison now considers re-releasing the disc along with its predecessor through his Star Apple Kingdom imprint. Williams left the band two years later, sealing the group's fate for good.
"We were surrounded by a group of people willing to give us money to fail," Harrison says of his early dealings with record labels. "There were no villains, and there were no victims. There were just too many people trying too hard to find the magic key to unlock the solution of success. What I learned about myself is that I don't believe in those kinds of solutions, that there's a magic phone call that's going to come in that's going to change my life like a fairy godmother. My peace of mind is something that has to exist on its own terms."
All Things Must Pass
Following the demise of Cotton Mather, Harrison took a sojourn with his family into the Hill Country. Secluded by nature, he began to put a buffer on the past and contemplate the road ahead. For nearly two years, he didn't touch a guitar.
"I did a lot of soul searching," he concedes. "I had a lot of questions within my own spiritual quest about the worthiness and the intelligence of putting all my energy into the music business. ... I went into a long meditation on what I should do next. I considered all kinds of other vocational directions, and they all looked appealing to me."
In late 2004, Harrison began hatching the idea for Future Clouds & Radar, a loose collective of independent artists that could help bring his fanciful visions to fruition. He accumulated a short list of collaborators that included the Tosca String Quartet, Carrie Clark of Sixteen Deluxe, and the Summer Wardrobe's Jon Sanchez. Due partly to the discomfort caused by a recent car accident, Harrison started writing a fresh batch of songs on the ukulele, the melodic potential of the instrument further sparking his creativity.
"I realized I needed to do more than re-arrange the furniture; I needed to put a new coat of paint on the room," Harrison muses. "My goal was to create music that couldn't be boxed in, that had all entrances and exits available. I wanted to make a record and statement that this group will do whatever the hell it wants and get back to making the kind of experimental music I was first interested in."
Future Clouds & Radar debuted last year with a sprawling and eponymous double album, a magical mystery tour that sailed through seas of time, science, monsters, and holes. Ambitious but not overwrought, the 27-song collection showed flashes of the Flaming Lips' orbital bliss, the desultory brilliance of Big Star circa Third/Sisters Lovers, and the bristling eclecticism of Elvis Costello, with radiant instrumental interludes and tangents into glam-garage rock and pastoral psych-folk. Harp magazine heralded the band as the Debut/New Artist of Year and charted the album at No. 4 in its 2007 best-of list.
"The double record is a challenge, a real commitment for all parties involved," Harrison said over tea at Jo's Coffee last December. "I felt a renewed sense of freedom and celebration with music. This was a body of work that kind of revealed itself in one swoop. That's where we wanted to put the bar.
"There's an innocence to the experience that recalls a time when music was less about commodity and more about the actual process of discovery."
The Epcot View
Situated on the Illinois River, Peoria is widely regarded as the test-marketing capital of the world thanks to its balanced and eclectic demographic. The metropolitan area also serves as the metaphorical backdrop for Future Clouds & Radar's new album of the same name, bringing into question the worthiness of mortal accomplishment and mainstream acceptance.
Peoria was originally conceived as a collaboration with neurotic indie rock duo the Fiery Furnaces, but the plans were scrapped when a deadline for completion was imposed by noted mixer Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, the Flaming Lips, MGMT), who set aside six days in late February to work on the project. Racing against the clock, the newly minted FC&R quartet wrote and recorded the entire album in three weeks of marathon sessions at Harrison's home studio, a converted step-down garage and separate control room that's packed to the brim with vintage tape reels and amplifiers.
"The whole making of the record is a blur," admits Harrison. "I spent a lot of time in the mornings as I was waking up more or less in a state of prayer. It seemed impossible the way everything kept falling into place. It was like I went outside with an empty cup, and the skies just opened. It was a beautiful downpour."
From the gorgeous haze of "Old Edmund Ruffin" to the electro-shock awakening of skuzzy R&B in "Eighteen Months," there's an immediacy to Peoria unlike anything in Harrison's catalog, spotlighting some of his most expressive guitar work to date. The eight-song collection takes advantage of the long-player format, creating enough space for each reverie and rumination to blossom. Industrial instrumental "Mortal 926" exorcizes ghosts from the machines, while "The Mortal" channels John Lennon through a fishbowl of reverb that evaporates into a progressive beatscape of percussion and plucked strings. Fridmann's polish adds cinematic grandeur.
On a spiritual and philosophical level, though, Peoria gravitates toward The Dark Side of the Moon, at times sounding like Pink Floyd interpret- ing William Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood," particularly on the album centerpiece "Mummified." The eerie, seven-minute ballad slowly decomposes into a heap of nonlinear piano runs, lunar transmissions, and scribbles of guitar. Yet even when expounding on existential ideas or drifting into the ether, Future Clouds & Radar always radiate with transcendent splendor.
"I've been blessed with a certain psychic freedom and the ability to bring thought to form," Harrison concludes with a wink. "I swear this record can make you high."