Yeah! Yeah! Yeah?

 

Somewhere between Revolver and Sgt Pepper, The Beatles recorded an album away from George Martin's steadying hands and their record company's interfering ways. Left to their own devices, John, Paul, George and Ringo scuzzed up their sound and threw in a bit more power chords and drum-fill attacks.

It was part electric-era Dylan meets untamed psychedelia meets early Who type of sonic assault. Not as commercially viable as their other albums, it was never released and was left gathering dust in a basement room in Abbey Road Studios.

That's what you'd like to think is the story behind a recently released album called Kontiki. Once out of a reverie though, the stark facts are that Kontiki is by an obscure three-piece band from Austin, Texas, called Cotton Mather who never sell any records and whom nobody has ever heard of. Last year they pressed up a few copies of the album and slung it out rather desultorily to an indifferent American public. It did nothing for them and the band went back to their day jobs

In the first week of March this year though, the album was released on a minuscule budget in Britain and Ireland. The first sign that something was up when one of the best independent records shops in Britain, Below Zero just off London's Portobello Road, sold 300 copies of Kontiki in a matter of days - Below Zero is only populated by a very rarefied crowd of real music-lovers. Tower Records in Dublin similarly sold out their allocation in double-quick time and there was the very bizarre sight of music journalists actually handing over their own money to get their hands on the album.

The reviews then started to kick in and "this is the best album the Beatles never made" was the general, joyous consensus.

Songs like Camp Hill Rail Operator and My Before And After soon became staples on the better radio programmes around town, with people openly wondering if that really was John Lennon on vocals and were these songs some sort of Beatles out-takes that had never been released before. Much as it may seem, it's not John Lennon singing on the album, it's a 30-year-old ex-Montessori teacher from Alabama called (unfortunately enough) Robert Harrison. In one of his first ever interviews, he has taken the time to explain who he and the band really are, to debunk some myths about what sort of music they are trying to create and to offer up this interesting nugget.

"I'm really glad that the record is doing well in Ireland, because all the songs on the album were written when I used to live there," says Harrisson speaking on the phone from his Texas home.

"About two years ago, my wife was working in Bray and I went over as well, so all of Kontiki was written in Dun Laoghaire. I really want to play in Dublin, I really want to bring these songs home."

A SOFTLY spoken, highly articulate man, Harrisson shows no sign of bemusement about the across-the-board ten-out-of-ten reviews his album is getting or even the unprecedented press comments (as in Uncut magazine) which go "Cotton Mather are the sort of band that Paul McCartney wakes up in the middle of the night and sweats about". That's pretty Wow!, isn't it? "It's immensely flattering" says Robert, "and a lot of people are going on about that and how I'm supposed to sound just like John Lennon. Maybe on one or two of the songs I do sound like him, but not on the whole album. "Sure, I hear the things that we're supposed to share with the Beatles, and I grew up listening to The Beatles, it's genetically imprinted on most people my age, but to me, and sorry to ruin any illusions here, I don't think the record sounds that British.

"I think it's very American and very rootsy and very typical of that left-field sort of music that Austin, Texas, where we now live, specialises in."

It's not just that Cotton Mather have produced an album that's firmly rooted in the 1960s classic songwriting style and is coming down with impossibly beautiful songs - check out Vegetable Row - it's more that half of the songs on it were recorded on a four-track machine, because the band simply had no money, and didn't even have a producer. Named after a puritanical Boston preacher, Cotton Mather have been going since 1995 when they released their debut album, Cotton Is King on a small, independent label and the record didn't even make it to be a footnote in alterno-American music - "it did nothing" Robert sighs - so it was a very broke band who convened to record Kontiki. "We did have some offers from record labels" he says, "and we would be put in a studio here or there to do some demos but it never worked out for us.

"At this stage, Cotton Mather must be the most passed over band in the world. The problem was that the record companies would try and get us to change our sound and we wouldn't do that so we just walked away."

"With all these multi-billion takeovers in the music industry these days, people were always very cautious of investing in us. There's a conservative set of rules at play at the moment and any sort of passion and daring is just ruled out.

"So we always ended up on these small indie labels where it would just be one guy in an office with a phone trying to get our record out there and that never worked for us. "With this album, we just pulled back from the music industry, there was no pressure on us, no `product orientation' and we just decided to celebrate that in the studio. "Because we had no money and the recording was basic, the record has that very 1960s feel to it, but not in a lo-fi sense and it's just a combination of that and the sort of songs I write which give it that feel."

There are just so many ironies about this record - how a songwriter from Alabama can kick Oasis (and how) out of the picture when it comes to capturing a certain style of music and how a man who now lives in Texas sings like a man from Liverpool (Lennon) who originally sung like a man from Texas (Buddy Holly). There's also the more obvious fact of an American band taking the "British invasion" sound, refining it, and selling it back to the British.

In a strange way it's all to do with Robert Harrisson's Alabama upbringing. "In the small place I grew up you could only get country music on the radio" he says, "so to hear rock 'n' roll we had to go out and get the records and not knowing anything, we got them all in the wrong chronological order. So we used to listen a lot to Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Arthur Alexander".

Who, of course, were the exact same people a young Lennon and McCartney were listening to in Liverpool in the late 1950s. "You know, some people say on certain songs I sound like John Lennon, but when I listen to Arthur Alexander, I realise who John Lennon modelled himself on, so who's to know?" he says.

Not that any of that matters when it comes to music as good as this. Along with compatriots Mercury Rev and Wilco, Cotton Mather are in the vanguard of an "American invasion", a musical movement that blurs the boundaries between past and present.

"There is a credibility in paying tribute to the people that have come before you" says Robert, "it's how you learn from that and how you react to it which is important." In Cotton Mather's case, it's pretty darn vital.

Kontiki is on the Rainbow Quartz label. Cotton Mather will be playing in Dublin in May. Stay tuned to Sleeve Notes on Fridays for exact details.