February 1, 2000: Cotton Mather readies to take the stage at the Camden Falcon in London for a Chinese New Year performance.
The 300-capacity club is packed. Despite the cold English night, inside, the venue's cinder-block walls sweat with canned humanity. Bandleader Robert Harrison can barely breathe. Although Cotton Mather's second album, Kontiki, came out in 1997, effusive praise from members of Oasis and a swooning British music press have made this little-known pure pop combo from Austin white-hot.
"I thought if that isn't the best record I've heard in 10 years, then I don't know what is," Oasis' Noel Gallagher tells MOJO. "It's one of my favorites of all time."
After a meticulous sound check to allay his longstanding phobia of having "a Woody Allen-style meltdown" over onstage gear malfunctions, Harrison takes a meditative walk.
"I always walk away from the club and spend some time by myself after sound check," Harrison says today. "I went under this underpass and felt an incredible sense of peace just pouring over me. It was powerful."
After fighting his way back into the club, Harrison comes face to face with Liam Gallagher. Noel is home sick, but the younger Gallagher is highly complimentary. It hardly matters that most of what he says is indecipherable.
"The last thing I remember before going on was Liam patting me on the back," Harrison says. "Then we heard, 'Ladies and gentlemen ... Cotton Mather!'
"So we go running up and all the gear was gone. No drum set, no amplifiers – just three guitars and stands on a naked, bare stage."
Despite the venue having inexplicably broken down the band's gear after sound check, Harrison faces off against his fear. Summoning all the tranquility of his preshow walk, he calmly tells the crowd they're going to have to wait a little longer to see Cotton Mather.
"We played one of the best shows we'd ever played," says Harrison. "I haven't had that phobia since."
Kon-Tiki was the name of the raft Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl navigated across the Pacific from South America to the Polynesian Islands in 1947. The ramshackle fashion in which Cotton Mather's Kontiki originated is only slightly less tenuous than the voyage of its floating namesake.
"We thought that the only way we were going to make the trip was to do it ourselves," Harrison says of the album his Star Apple Kingdom label is reissuing on Valentine's Day in deluxe, two-disc form.
Cotton Mather played its first show locally in 1990 at the Cannibal Club. They emerged into a verdant guitar-driven pop scene that included Balloonatic, Hey Zeus, and Britt Daniel's pre-Spoon outfit Skellington.
"There were about three places to play and we all played them, all the time," says Harrison. "Usually it was just the other bands in the audience."
By 1994, the band's quirky, Beatles-esque pop contagions had earned it a minor-label record deal. Its debut album, Cotton Is King, fit the rubric of contemporaries like Matthew Sweet and the Posies, but it failed to break nationally. Which was fine by Harrison, who wasn't particularly fond of it.
"It sounds to me like I'm trying too hard," he admits. "I hear the sound of myself thinking about the way I'm singing. The lyrics are a little too clever."
Then the rhythm section left, leaving only Harrison and guitarist Whit Williams. There was some question as to whether Cotton Mather would continue. Harrison's mother passed away during the Cotton Is King tour, and the emotional aftermath changed how he thought about music.
"When you've experienced anything as heavy and life-changing as that, cleverness has no appeal," he says.
Around the same time, Williams began collaborating more closely with Harrison. The two began rifling through songs night after night.
"When we started working on the Kontiki songs, I felt like that's when I really came into my own as a guitar player," says Williams. "That's where we really bonded creatively."
Bassist George Reiff and drummer Dana Myzer joined in late 1995, just in time to tour Japan. A particularly triumphant show at Yachiyo International University outside of Tokyo helped bond the four musicians. Although Reiff and Myzer would depart for other gigs before Kontiki's release, this lineup recorded most of the album.
David McNair initially signed on to produce Cotton Mather, but no one was satisfied with the result. As frustration mounted, McNair took Harrison aside.
"He told me, 'You're one of these guys who needs to lock yourself in a room and figure out how to produce yourself,'" Harrison recalls.
Fortunately, Joe McDermott had given Harrison access to just such a room at a beat-up house out in Leander. Harrison and Williams spent hours hunkered down there, recording what they first thought were demos.
"I stepped back and he became this tornado," Williams says. "Twiddling knobs. Plugging and unplugging. Doing everything – mostly incorrectly."
Operating before Pro Tools and under the influence of Guided by Voices, Harrison recorded much of Kontiki on four-track cassettes, occasionally bouncing to ADAT and two-track DAT. Some basic tracks were recorded in Harrison's living room with just one microphone on the drums.
While "My Before and After" boasted a joyous transistor radio hook, "Aurora Bori Alice" channeled the psychedelic whimsy of XTC in Dukes of Stratosphear mode. "Lily Dreams On" captured Harrison at his most vulnerable.
"That was a very powerful session because the song was about my mother," Harrison says. "On the long drive home from Leander, Whit turned to me and said, 'Do you think it's too personal?,' and I said, 'Hell, no! If you're asking me that question, I think we're doing something right.'"
Released in November 1997 on Houston-based Copper Records, Kontiki neither set the world on fire nor made much of a splash in Austin. On a whim, the band let Rainbow Quartz reissue the LP in the UK and Europe late the following year. Then Noel Gallagher went on the BBC and told an international audience that his favorite new album was by a band from Texas called Cotton Mather. The locals eventually opened for Oasis on several European warm-up dates for its 2000 world tour.
"The first thing you think of [with Oasis] is headlines and punch-ups, but they're really generous guys," Harrison chuckles.
After struggling to get 2001's The Big Picture released (a reissue of that album is planned), Harrison ended Cotton Mather in 2003. Since then, he's continued to produce intricate pop tapestries with Future Clouds & Radar (see "Strawberry Fields Forever," Nov. 14, 2008). The Harrison-led collective's Peoria was one of 2008's best local releases.
Harrison decided to reissue Kontiki in part to relaunch Star Apple Kingdom. To finance the project, he enlisted online fundraising platform Kickstarter. Noel Gallagher, Britt Daniel, and Nicole Atkins issued appeals for investors and Harrison exceeded his goal by nearly $5,000.
"The campaign was great," he says. "We have fans who've been very generous."
Next up is a Cotton Mather reunion during South by Southwest. Harrison, Williams, and Reiff will perform with Kontiki touring bassist Josh Gravelin and pinch-hitting drummer Darin Murphy. Myzer, now drumming for London-based band Farrah, will (ahem) definitely maybe be there, too.
"Kontiki just keeps giving," Harrison says. "I'm very grateful for that little record."
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