Future Clouds & Radar leader Robert Harrison wasn’t thinking about making a new album; he was busy teaching his band last year’s self-titled, double-album debut. The newly solidified touring lineup was still learning Harrison’s 27-song catalog when in late January the former Cotton Mather frontman got a call from über-producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Sparklehorse). The sessions Harrison thought he’d scheduled for June were set to begin in three weeks, and he hadn’t finished any songs.
So Harrison put on some coffee, moved into the studio, and barely slept for 18 days while the band created Peoria, a cinematic, eight-song, 35-minute meditation that blends hooks with haunting experimental clatter and ambient buzz.
“We wanted something that felt like one unified sweep from start to finish,” explains Harrison, while keeping an eye on the kids in his Austin home. “`It’s` about different looks at mortality and the struggle of spirit versus body.”
The album’s centerpiece is “Mummified,” a seven-piece tour-de-force that opens with the line, “She talks, and I am rapt, in my white suit, like a full-body cast.” Horns and piano push against the skittering electronic beat, swelling and swirling warmly around this cold center, sounding like the Flaming Lips planting one on Prefuse 73 while Sgt. Pepper’s plays a marching tune. “There’s room for both of us, on my sarcophagus,” Harrison sings as the song slowly disintegrates.
It was one of the first songs he’d written, and it served as a template for the rest of the album.
“After ‘Mummified’ I thought, I’m really intrigued with this mortality thing, I’m going to have the ticking clock and the drum machine running throughout,” Harrison says. “`Drummer Darin Murphy` is one of those drummers that really swings great against a machine, so we let that be one of the album’s unifying factors.”
Harrison had planned to collaborate on the album with friend Matthew Friedburger (Fiery Furnaces) before the Fridmann phone call altered the schedule. “We were going to be each taking turns, breaking the songs into little modules,” he says.
Though the time constraint effectively scotched that pairing, Harrison initially retained the modular idea with a suite of songs that he thought would open the album: the pretty, jangly “The Epcot View,” the slinky, piano-driven psychedelica of “Feet on Grass,” “Mummified,” and the grimy, horn-ridden garage stomper “18 Months.” However, when the band heard catchy, Big Star-ish opener “The Epcot View,” they insisted he add another verse, and each song grew distinct from there.
Released in late October, Peoria capped a busy couple of years in which Harrison returned to music after a self-imposed four-year hiatus in the wake of the Cotton Mather breakup. Started in ’91 after Harrison fled Athens for Austin (“I had witnessed the birth of indie-rock cool, and it was a pretentious, ugly beast”), Cotton Mather began as an angular outfit in thrall of New York avant-garde guitarists like Fred Frith and Bill Laswell before morphing into a garage-pop quartet reminiscent of Guided By Voices in its fuzzy Britpop melodicism. When guitarist Whit Williams decided to leave in ’03, Harrison shuttered the project while he took time to work on his karma.
“Sometimes everything around you needs to come to a screeching halt or collapse before you step back and realize perhaps you’re doing things a little incorrectly,” he says. “I was a little off where I needed to be, so I moved out to the country and had a bit of a retreat. It took longer than I first suspected it would. I just wanted to reconsider everything, and as I reflected and got better again, I decided, you know, I really do like rock-’n’-roll music, and I’m going to do it again.”
As Harrison recovered, spiritually and physically — he had lingering back issues related to a car accident some years before — he began to fool around with the ukulele. Not only was it lighter than a guitar and thus less taxing on his injured body, it sparked his creativity.
“By putting a new instrument in my hand that I didn’t really know how to play that well, I just had to rely on my imagination, and that’s when things got really interesting,” he says. “Harmonically and melodically I started feeling as if I was venturing into new territory. It was also a nice vehicle for singing and making up stories and words.”
These stories became Future Clouds & Radar’s self-titled debut. The song cycle isn’t quite a concept album, but it does offer an evolution that mirrors Harrison’s own. The first disc is darker, with minor-chord melancholy highlighted by the shadowy “Birds of Prey,” shaggy GBV-ish pop “Drugstore Bust,” and a psychedelic cover of Bob Marley’s “Wake Up and Live.” The wistful, hooky second half emanates ethereal glow and warmth, from the ode to low expectations “Build Havana” and jazzy soul-pop “The Great Escape,” to the elegant yet clamorous pop carriage of “Armitage Shanks.”
“It’s a celebration, but it also has a lot of pain in it, which you hear in the first disc. Then there’s kind of an awakening,” Harrison explains.
Though friends and colleagues tried to discourage him from making his debut a double album, Harrison was undeterred, feeling the songs fit too well together. Had he waited and released the discs separately, they would have sounded too much alike. And Future Clouds & Radar is less debut than a transition from Cotton Mather into something else.
“I hear a few of the ghosts of Cotton Mather in that first record, which is fine. We were bridging the two worlds … the songs seem to observe a more familiar formula. This one, I wanted to try and break the mold,” Harrison says. “When I ended Cotton Mather, I was looking for a whole new palette that has more of a contemporary and classical direction at times. There’s just a lot more flexibility in terms of what we can do now. We don’t feel like we’ve put ourselves into any kind of box.” Even if for the moment they’re preoccupied with that final, pine one. •
Future Clouds & Radar
Fri, Dec 5