THE HEXAGRAM MAN: Cotton Mather

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Robert Harrison returns with a new album from his old band, but he hasn’t exactly shut down Future Clouds and Radar, either—in fact, both outfits are now inexorably intertwined.

BY FRED MILLS

So there’s a guy in Austin, Texas, who we’ve been tracking pretty much since BLURT got started, and his name is Robert Harrison. At the time, he was fronting a visionary outfit called Future Clouds and Radar (go HERE for my 2008 interview him about the band), but all along, he had in his back pocket his former band, acclaimed ‘90s indie rock outfit Cotton Mather (about which, not so coincidentally, you can spot some of our enthusiasm HERE and HERE, when the band played our SXSW party in Austin).

So a brand new CM album, Death of the Cool, arrived recently, the first proper Cotton Mather studio release in over 15 years. It comes on the semi-heels of the 2012 expanded reissue of the band’s acknowledged classic, Kontiki, and it also marks a decided uptick in Harrison activity that, in addition to DotC, is slated to bring two more CM albums and one from FC&R. They represent his plans to write and record 64 songs for each of the I Ching’s 64 hexagrams. Tracks both from the new album as well as digital-only non-album material can be heard now via ichingsongs.com (additional non-album tracks forthcoming).

Meanwhile, below you’ll find the fruits of an interview I conducted recently with Harrison in which he discusses all this and more, additionally weighing in on the current status of Future Clouds and Radar, which despite that outfit’s relatively low profile the past few years is definitely not up on the blocks. As Harrison assured me, “I promise—no more hiatuses any time soon. Really liking this new batch of songs I’m gnawing on!”

For the sake of historical clarity, I’ve added a few questions from my 2008 interview with Harrison in which he talked about his career path that started with Cotton Mather.

BLURT: You disappeared from the music scene for a couple of years after Cotton Mather broke up. If you wait forever and then come back, people say, “Who?”

That’s right. And you know, the place I really noticed was when — Cotton Mather never really had much of a presence in the US at all, but we were known. So in 2002 when I pulled the plug on that, I disappeared for a solid three years before I started making any inquiries; I had started to do some demos and stuff in 2005. I began to put out feelers to labels and to people in the industry and I got not a single response. I didn’t even get a “Yes, send us some stuff…” The only person that responded was Geoff Travis of Rough Trade. He said, “Yeah, I’ll listen to something.” Because he remembered, although I knew he’d never been a big Cotton Mather fan so I thought he was a little bit of a stretch. But I was shocked that our currency was just nonexistent.

What’s your take on the band’s career arc? You were operating during a period where, initially at least, there was a lot of expansion of and optimism for the whole indie milieu. Was it a good experience for you?

Cotton Mather was a beautiful experience! Now, when you speak of them, there were really a number of bands within the framework of that. The first band, I’d started my music in Austin as just this guy playing with an avant-garde cellist, and we were playing this angular music that was [laughs] kinda hard to digest! I’m not sure what the goal of that was. But at some point I got a rhythm section, and we were all pretty much beginners except for the cellist. Then one time I started writing this song that was not so obtuse, it had verses, and choruses that were memorable, and people loved it. So I began to change direction and write songs that were a little more timeless and familiar and, frankly, a bit more generous. We retained our quirkiness, but within two years Cotton Mather had pared down to just two guitars, bass and drums, and a little bit more of a traditional garage approach.

The two most important lineups were, one, the first band that recorded the first record, the Cotton Is King record [1994]. That’s a poor documentation; it was recorded awkwardly and suffered from a lot of those failings that first records by baby bands can suffer from. We were biting off more than we could chew. And then the last band that toured and did the shows with Oasis, the shows in Europe, was put together to tour on the record Kontiki [1997], although it didn’t record that album. That band was just a lights-out rock ‘n’ roll band, a lot of fun; it was a sledgehammer, that one.

And in between there was a lot of shuffling around. The principal guy in Cotton Mather beside me was Whit Williams. He and I started playing together in ’93, and once Whit got in the group, the real signature in the group became what we were doing as guitarists and him providing the harmony vocals. That gave the group its signature sound for better or for worse — “better,” because it just sounded great; and “worse,” because it could be tagged as retro. And the downside of Cotton Mather was, without meaning to, we were painting ourselves into an artistic corner. We began to be seen as revivalists and that was not what my intention ever was. I thought Kontiki was a very experimental record, but because the way it was recorded on 4-track and ADAT, it gave it this old sound. People loved it, but it boxed us in.

But Cotton Mather, was a fun, fun band. Several bands! Always a good community effort and a lot of laughing.

You reassembled Cotton Mather in 2012 for the Kontiki reissue and several SXSW shows including the BLURT day party at Ginger Man. How were you received that week by Austinites as well as old-school fans with long memories? How did you feel Kontiki was received, overall?

The reception was really sweet. And I mean that in the best way. Our music had touched more people than we knew. Things really took off for us in Europe, and the U.K. in particular, back in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and because during that stretch of time we really didn’t have a functioning US label, agent or publicist, we just assumed that not many people here knew about or cared about what we were doing. Beyond our debut record, which was a misfire on all fronts; we had little support or advocacy in the U.S. And so a lot of our fans in Austin didn’t know about us until after we’d gone away. So it I found it quite moving to realize our records had reached more people than I knew.

When we walked into that first “reunion” rehearsal in 11 years no one said a word. We just set up, looked at one another, and I said, “Panama Slides”, and we started playing it as if no time had past. It sounded better than I remembered, because none of us has stopped doing this. I get chills recalling that moment.

So the band has continued to perform periodically as well? What is the current live status of Cotton Mather as well as Future Clouds? You do have a history of taking occasional sabbaticals.

I never intended to take a sabbatical from Future Clouds. I had to regroup after the economic calamities of 2008/9 because our label was one of the many casualties. I needed to tend the home fires and put my full attention on raising my children. There were some personal upheavals in my life which required all my energies be devoted to producing other artists so I could keep the lights on.

In the meantime, I’d written a few songs after turning to the I Ching for guidance. The idea first came to me when I was asked to write songs for someone I hadn’t met—Nicole Atkins—and was just looking for a starting place. After I’d done this a few more with some success I began entertaining the idea of doing all 64 hexagrams as a song journal of sorts. But it seemed so ridiculous and unrealistic. By last fall life had stabilized enough to revisit my own artistry, and so when I realized I’d already written 7 or 8 songs with this approach which had never come out (except for “California”) I decided to go for it. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life kicking myself for not doing it.

We started by finishing up “The Book of Too Late Changes” in November, and have been rolling since. At this point I’m just past the halfway mark in the writing. So to answer your question in a roundabout way about FC&R, my intention is to curate two proper Cotton Mather records from this body of work and one FC&R. They’ll stand on their own as records whether or not you’ve ever thought twice about the I Ching. Then there will be a fourth record of the best material that ended up homeless. Like a B-sides thing. Something tells me that one might be the best? Live performances will inevitably draw from both catalogues since both groups share musicians and are a part of this larger project. We’ll have a few select shows around Austin this fall and likely festival dates next summer. Probably not extended touring until the cycle is complete.

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You’ve mention “artistic guidance” in regards to the I Ching—would that be likewise for personal spiritual guidance at times as well?

I’ve had an interest in Chinese philosophy and religion dating back to college. In 1996 we had the opportunity to study a rarefied form of temple Qi Gong training being offered in Austin by a highly elevated master who is also a world renowned acupuncturist. We joked about it as Cotton Mather’s version of our “trip to India.” Dana’s interest was short-lived, but George and I went all in, and later Whit.

The effect of this energy training on what you feel and hear on Kontiki is immediate and distinct. There is a joy, a giddiness and effervescence to Kontiki that I know came directly from where we were at in the training. Later I met someone through Qi Gong who pointed me towards the I Ching, which I’d studied in college, and soon it became a steady companion in my life, helping me through difficult times as well as the day to day.

The I Ching doesn’t tell you how to live your life. It only offers you your coordinates, and shows you that based on those and your present trajectory, what you can expect to encounter. It’s not a religious text. It’s a rich and profound assessment of humanity, advising one on how to best navigate the temporal. And as such it gives perspective on where you are and what you’re presently up against. As artists we are reporting on our ever dynamic psycho-emotional situation, and so reaching for it fortifies my vocabulary. Emily Dickinson said as we age “the beauty steals inwards”. As artists in order to stay fresh and current we can’t try to write about the same things we wrote about when we were 23. The journey, if you’re fortunate, gets richer, deeper and better. I’m only using this as an artistic framework for documenting my experiences.

As you note, there is some personnel overlap between CM and FC&R for the proposed four-album project. When we talked back in 2008, you observed how CM was perhaps a bit more of a “dude-like” enterprise whereas you felt FC&R implied something more along the lines of a “community.” Has that perspective shifted any since then?

Well, it’s all now running along that idea of community we talked about in 2008. Both bands have been loose collectives, sharing many of the same personnel over the years, and I’ve been the constant. These are my closest friends and they are thankfully very patient with me. I’m really lucky to have them. On these first 25 songs the principals have been myself, Whit Williams, George Reiff, and Darin Murphy. We’ve also had great contributions from Dana Myzer, Josh Gravelin, and then both Kullen Fuchs and Hollie Thomas from FC&R- and a lot of other guests as well. With this much material sometimes it just comes down to who can come over that day.

What, then, in your mind would make one track get assigned a CM credit and another FC&R? Is there a philosophical/aesthetic dividing line? Certain songs like “The Book of Too Late Changes” and “Close to the Sun” are definitively CM tracks to my ears, although a couple others might’ve been released under the FC&R name and I wouldn’t have questioned it.

There is definitely some aesthetic overlap on the eponymous FC&R debut. I think “Hurricane Judy” for instance would sound at home on a Cotton Mather record. But as a rule I think there is a familiarity and immediacy about Cotton Mather records, whereas on an FC&R record anything might happen at any time. Both push melody to the fore, but FC&R is more about exploration. It’s dreamier and weirder. When I first started playing music in Austin I was aggressively, and Unsuccessfully, avant-garde—extremely raw and grating. FC&R allows me to reclaim that interest but blend it with something more refined and melodic.

Sometimes it’s about what material goes well together. As a whole though, this record is far more melancholy than anything Cotton Mather has released in the past. But that’s where I was at in my life. If you want to reach back for touchstones, it’s far more like Pet Sounds, or Sea Change. I like records that aren’t afraid to get reflective.

You released two Cotton Mather singles after the Kontiki reissue, “I’ll Be Gone” and “California”—wasn’t there supposed to be a full California album in 2014, however?

I’m not sure where that idea originated. But there was an attempt to track some more material around that time and I was feeling optimistic enough to suggest a new record was on the way. I didn’t like what we were getting, by and large, so I walked away from it. Sometimes my ideas are a little unrealistic.

As of this writing, how far along are you with the 64-song project, and are the plans to release everything on physical media, or will some remain digital only? Do you feel like you’re on track with whatever mental schedule you envisioned? Or do you ever wake up in the morning and sayto yourself, “Shit, I’ve bitten off more than I can chew…”

Everyday I wake up and say that but I probably say “God help me” instead because I don’t want to bum myself out first thing in the morning. Part of announcing it was to make sure it actually happened. But yes. We’ll probably take a recording break until after these September shows but I’ll continue to write and dream. I’m hoping this fall we can knock out another 15 or so tracks, and if that happens I’ll consider it on target. It’s largely down to the resources. If we are able to bring the second CM record out next Spring, we will. And another later in the year. So far we haven’t released anything I’d hesitate to put out physically—eventually.

One song in particular caught my ear, “The Life of the Liar,” which relates to the I Ching’s Hexagram 6, “Contention or Conflict.” And then on your blog, where you offer a song-by-song commentary, you have a photo of Richard Nixon and the notation, “Suddenly I love Richard Nixon and need him more than ever.” As a lapsed Watergate buff, I find that intriguing. Discuss, please.

Well as I point out in the commentary, I remember the delight my parents took in hating Nixon. He was such a perfect villain. But he was a villain who moved within the traditional rules of villainy and right now we have someone trying to rewrite all the rules and upend democracy. Nixon appears so benign in retrospect. Of course he was anything but, and it is the cynical legacy of his crowd that created the mess we are in today. One party is actually attempting to govern, for the most part, and the other just reacts to

preserve some bygone sense of what this country “used to be” But the point I’m making in the commentary is that the dark side of contention is that our opposition emanates from our own ego’s desire to be a Knight in shining armor. So it’s easy to get lost in the conversation … Like I just did… again.

Any other tracks you want to draw people’s attention to in particular?

Well, I prefer people make this discovery on their own, but since we have less time than ever to explore new terrain as fans, I’d like to point to the IChingsongs.com website. It’s the larger, fuller work unfolding, and not quite like anything else. A psychedelic portal ! Some fans I’ve spoken with assume that this is some esoteric mumbo jumbo. You know, the kind of barely comprehensible stuff Pete Townsend would carry on about when I only wanted to hear the songs. It’s not. The commentaries, aren’t me explaining the songs or pontificating. They’re little, reflections, writings and observations, related more to the readings than the songs and they’re a part of the work. And it gives you something cool to look at while you listen.

And mostly—there are a lot more songs there that haven’t been included on this first record. I was working with a session keyboardist who’d heard of the project. And after we cut a new track he said, “Hey man, that was some bad-ass rock n’ roll.” I said “You look surprised,” and he replied, “Yeah cause when Lars told me about this project, I figured it was gonna be some kind of Kitaro shit.” So that’s the downside of this undertaking. Lots of people ask for the check when they think you’re about to proselytize or beat them over the head with your grand philosophy. I’m just an artist and this is my latest undertaking. It’s happening now, and who knows whether it’s ultimately going to work. I don’t. But if the train derails it could be an amusing spectacle. Don’t just wait for the records. You’ll miss half the story.

As for individual tracks, I’m partial to “Candy Lilac”, because we cut it live to tape, vocals and all. I overdubbed a keyboard, vocal double, and Whit a guitar double in spots—and it was done very quickly. That’s what we sound like. Also “Queen of Swords.” I recorded that with Lars Goransson, who has helped me a lot with this record. We did it almost all in one night so it’s very focused. The next morning I added the xylophone and classical guitar. I like recordings that are made quickly.

As an aside, Google the name DeWitt Finely and read his Wikipedia entry. It’s central to the record, the cover art and of course the song. No one has bothered to do that and it’s interesting.

Lastly, the album is slated to come out on white vinyl on Sept. 9. Would this be your first full-length project to be released on vinyl?

This is our first vinyl release since the 1993 single “Payday”—which sounds so much better than the version on Cotton is King. I’m glad to have a later vinyl release date for DOTC because we’re able to build the release parties around it, and given how busy I’ve been writing and recording, I need time to remember how to be a live performer again. All records on vinyl henceforth!

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Photo credit:  Valerie Fremin. Harrison can be found at multiple kiosks on the web:

 www.ichingsongs.com
www.twitter.com/ichingsongs
www.instagram.com/futureclouds
www.starapplekingdom.com
www.facebook.com/starapplekingdom
www.twitter.com/starappleaustin
www.youtube.com/starapplekingdom

 

 

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