An Interview With Simon Raymonde
Barcode Magazine, 2001
Hailing from Scotland, Cocteau Twins arrived to our musical shores in 1982, with their debut album Garlands. Since then they have never looked back. Arising from the Joy Division/New Order/Cure era, the bands sound is equally alternative, atmospherically moody and introspective, yet, through the mist they more often than not arousing feelings of euphoria and heart-rending emotion, mainly thanks to the supreme vocal talents of Liz Fraser. Fraser's voice is almost totally unique in the music industry in that she rarely sings 'words' in the lyrical form, instead preferring to interpret herself through the sound of a combination of letters rather than anything found in a dictionary. This unique style arguably enabled a wider scope from which to communicate herself, something which is perhaps demonstrated by song titles such as 'Pearly-Dewdrops' Drops', 'Frou-Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fires' & 'Ooze Out And Away, Onehow' (just a small sample), where the titles express a feeling as opposed to a particular song subject.
Cocteau Twins disbanded in 1996, after their final, and rather poorly accepted, Milk & Kisses album. Not their best, but against such a huge backdrop of superbly crafted songs, expertly delivered through Liz's vocals and Guthrie & Raymonde's precise, jangling, shimmering guitar based song structures, the band have carved out a unique style and, best of all, an awesome, consistent library of timeless songs. Whether Cocteau Twins will ever reform seems unlikely at this point, as Guthrie and Raymonde have moved on to pastures new, creating their own Bella Union record label to pass their experience on to new, unknown, experimental and creative artists.
We catch up with Raymonde to see how things are progressing three years down the road, and to reminisce a little on the Cocteau twins era.
According to some, It still appears to be uncertain as to whether Cocteau Twins will ever reform, my neck would be throttled if I didn't ask if any leeway has been made towards a re-union or if it has even been considered?
No, it's never been discussed. We all have many new and exciting things going on in our lives and CT is certainly a thing of the past as far as I am concerned.
What happened between the band saying that they have no idea what will happen in the future with and the sudden announcement you had split up? How could you be so definite that you would not work together again at some point?
Surely all split-ups are thus, in relationships and especially in bands. Things seem ok one minute and the next all hell breaks loose. I recall that we were all keen to try and make it work, but it was not a simple case of suddenly splitting up. Two of the members of the group had for the past four years NOT been in a relationship together having BEEN together for the previous ten or so, and there were a number of problems that this created. Some insurmountable. This again was NOT the sole reason for the split, but as Liz was the one who made the final decision to leave the band, it's fair to say, she would have the best answer as to why.
I am still intrigued as to why Liz Fraser never sang 'words.' Was this deliberate or contrived, or had she always expressed herself that way?
She did sing real words. Mostly all of on Heaven Or Las Vegas, all of Four-Calendar Café, and half of Milk & Kisses were all sung in 'English'. All of Garlands was, so this 'never' is not quite accurate. Certainly she was fascinated by language and words, and also bored to some degree by a traditional form of songwriting that she didn't feel altogether comfortable in. In hindsight, and with the pyschotherapists hat on, I'm sure we could all deduce that she was hiding behind the sounds she made, unwilling to reveal all about herself through her lyrics. Ironically, I think Liz was one of the most expressive singers of the past 30 years and in one 'nonsensical' line could reduce me to tears where conventional lyric/melody forms would not.
During the 80's did Cocteau Twins shun the high life and the parties? I have often read it mentioned that you are deliberately elusive, is that so?
Not really. We were so into the music, we spent most of our time on that, and we had a number of 'private' parties of our own! We were not really into the 'scene' in London at the time, though we had a small circle of friends and acquaintances of our own, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Felt, Dif Juz, Pete Wylie, Cabaret Voltaire etc, but we preffered our own company really. Were there any artists you particularly respected throughout the eighties, not necessarily musically? Not really. I liked the Factory set up, New Order etc, I always thought they seemed well sussed. I was into things like the Slits, Pop Group, early PIL. Music with an attitide and a certain social awareness, without it being militant.
Was there ever a point where the band would consider compromising their creative prinicples for financial gain?
I would seriously doubt that. I can only speak for me, and say that I loathe bands that reform whether it be for the money or not, so if we did ever make that sorry decision, I would be full of self-loathing for the rest of my days.
Being that you were a very creative unit, why do you think that technology was never a main feature of the Cocteau Twins, what held you back from expressing yourselves through that medium to a greater extent?
Not sure I agree there really. Technology played a big part in our sound and more to the point in our recording processes.We started off small with 8 track in 1983, then moved to 16 track in about 1986, then we bought a 24 track machine and built our first studio in 1988 for BBK, and then moved into our own bigger set up in 1990 for HOLV. Robin and I spent alot of money on outboard equipment for the studio, drum machines, samplers, all which we used to help create the sounds that we made. I guess you are perhaps trying to enquire whether we ever considered going down a more electronic/dance-based avenue. And the answer was no not really.
You seem to shun your early material, like so many artists. This tends to irritate fans who find that this is usually a period when artists are at their creative peak, even though they might not have the experience to communicate it effectively. Would you not agree?
Yes, of course. We're all the same. If John Lydon were to try and convince me that his latest stuff compares to Metal Box , I'd find that hard to stomach too, but we're all the same. We can't live in a time warp. When you just finished a new record you have to believe in it wholly, and you have to 'let go' of the older stuff to be able to move on and enjoy the new. Same with relationships, same with everything.
Do you feel that the Cocteau Twins have been responsible for the creation of certain genres of music, ambient for example, or are influential in any way, more to the point, do you care?
No I don't personally. And I don't spend any time thinking about it other than right now. All down the years, people have said we were an influential group. How this manifests itself I couldn't say, but one thing is certain, if I went round all day thinking what an influence I was, then I'd be a) a total wanker, b) horrendously conceited, c) fantasising again! Of course we can all theorise about what inspired this band and influenced these musicians, and of course there are going to be some people who found what we did an inspiration, as there were many people who inspired us down the years, but it is a temporary boost only. When someone cites you, of course it's flattering, but it sure as hell don't pay the bills.
You often suggest that Cocteau Twins were never appreciated by the media, why do you think you should have been appreciated by the media?
I don't think that's true. I think for most of our 'career' we were hugely supported certainly by the UK and US press. There was a bit of a backlash when Four-Calendar Café came out, cos we'd left the hallowed grounds of 4AD, which was not well received, but all-in-all if you look back through the years, we got a dead good press. And why should we have been appreciated by the media? Cos we thought we were excellent and shone through the shit that most bands came up with.
Do you feel that the media prevented Cocteau Twins from reaching the audience you would have liked to have reached?
No, a combination of bad business, our unconformist attitudes, relationships and stubborness prevented that. We were like fish out of water. In the studio we were kings and queens, but when we had to deal with the wider picture of management, labels, publishing, touring etc, we lost control to some degree, and all this ended up wearing us down.
Why was Bella Union label created originally?
To provide a home for all CT related releases. But soon after setting it up, Liz left, so we had to move on to working with some friends and stuff.
Working on the new label do you find that you miss the performance side of being in a band and do you miss that sense of belonging?
Kind of. I have played with other people and done some solo shows in USA, Mexico etc, but it didn't feel the same no. Through producing, I do get very close to certain people and bands though and that intimacy where creativity flows freely is something i am attracted and somewhat addicted to. And whether it's MY band or not, I still derive a huge amount of pleasure from the collaborative effort.
Everyone who has worked under a major label only seems to have bad things to say about the experience, now having seen it from both sides, with Bella Union, do you have more sympathy for the corporates behaviour?
No not at all. There are some great people who work in major labels but they can't really change anything. They can have their little phyrric victories, but cannot win wars. With Bella Union, while our resources limit what we can do, our imaginations do not. Anything, literally anything, is possible.
What can you do to avoid treating artists as product? When it comes to the crunch, can you run a successful business without doing so, and so far have you had any moral dilemmas in this respect?
Several questions there. a) treat them like people. Treat them like you would expect to be treated. b) Yes and no. You can do it, whether we can make it I can't say, but we are moral. We give all our artists 50% of everything we make.
Were there any artists that you immediately had in mind to entice from the very start?
No, not at all. We didn't think we were a proper label that anyone would take seriously, cos we didn't know what we were doing. But within a couple of years, we found that there wasn't a right way or a wrong way of doing things, just our way. Stick to your principles and all will be well.
What sort of artists do you look towards to represent the label, and how do you have difficulty in researching the whereabouts of new artist or do you hope they come to you?
Right now, I think we have the best roster of any label out there. Dirty Three, The Czars, Departure Lounge, Violet Indiana, Lift To Experience, The Devics, etc., all going to be coming out with wonderful new music this year that will finally show the world what great bands there are out there. We have no difficulty finding good stuff, no. But it's all down to personal taste isn't it? If it doesn't thrill and excite, then it's not necessary.
How different is running a label to how you imagined it to be?
Much harder. Never stop, always thinking, always plotting. No rest at all, so it's hard, but very exciting when things go well. Great feeling of achievement when one little thing comes off. Love working with new young bands, passing on some of the experience I have.
The artists you represent are undoutably highly creative, does it frustrate you that your audience is probably limited, as people still prefer to be told what to listen to as opposed to search it out from a label such as yours?
No. In time peope will wake up. You can't rush revolution.
Do you think it is finacially viable to be able to represent artists who have a small following, what are the difficulties in trying to promote these artists effectively?
It's very hard, so you have to be creative AND realistic and not expect too much of any one release. Don't put all the eggs in one basket. The motivation is not financial viability. We've always been gamblers, willing to risk all for a good idea, a good cause. Why change now? It's a struggle to get people to pay attention, but you do what you can, and my faith is knowing that when people DO get to hear this stuff, it will spread. All in good time.
Are you as enthusiastic now as when you started the Bella Union Label?
Oh much, much more so.
What hopes do you have for the future regarding the label and other personal projects?
I hope that we continue to grow steadily, that the bands start to make themselves some money and that we are still here in another year. I hope to finish a solo record at some point in this millenium, and work with as many talented people as I can stand!