Interview with Robin Guthrie
- By Pat Mannion and Brant Nelson
- Dewdrops Fanzine
We got a chance to talk with Robin Guthrie (of the Cocteau Twins) before their show on the Claremont College campus last April. Robin has decided to turn over a new leaf and begin dispelling that air of mystery that has surrounded him and the band these last few years, specifically regarding his battle with drug use. A very happy and confident Robin Guthrie sat down in the bleachers behind the nearby college baseball field, ate some of our homemade cheese bread, and told us what really happened…
“I tackled my drug problem head on. I was really sick, you know. Not long for this fuckin’ planet, really. I’ve come back a bit. and that’s basically what’s been making me change. I’m changing as a person, becoming a lot more open-minded to try things. I’m not locked into paranoia and fear. I’m not worrying so much about new drugs and being locked into this fear that doesn’t let me try new things.
“Like drummers for instance, that’s a definite example. I hadn’t worked with a drummer for years because I decided not to years ago. It’s just like I got locked into that idea: ‘We’ll never have one, we don’t need one. dammit!’ I used to just really convince myself that it was better without one. But, it added something to our live show, just the fact that it was different. A lot of things were different without really trying. It’s just, that’s the way it was. But anyway, we met up with the drummer after I got clean and we tried it and it was all right. I never would have even considered it if I was still using drugs. That would have been a lack of control. I like it now. It’s not a true live band as we’re still playing with tracks and stuff like that.
“I haven’t started fucking with the sound yet. I might decide that the Cocteau Twins need a change. Actually, it’s going to change—I can tell you it’s going to change radically. I don’t know how ‘cause I haven’t thought about it yet, but I feel open minded. I don’t know what I want to try. Getting clean after using drugs since I was about 13 or 14 has changed my life. It’s changed my perception. I don’t know what I want in my life. I mean, me and Liz don’t live together any more—since about nine months ago. I didn’t want that. I couldn’t actually get a life together for myself living with Liz, because we’d been together for 12 years. You know what I mean? Everything was like us. There was no Robin, it was like us, our friends, what should we do tonight. So things like me going out with the guys—that didn’t ever happen.
“So there have been a lot of big changes. I’m really like a teenager who’s experiencing a lot of things that people experience in their late teens—emotional development. And I love it! It’s quite exciting. I really don’t know what I want. I don’t know who I’ve been really, but I don’t know how to be anything else. I enjoy making music but I don’t enjoy making music that???, but I’ve come to accept all the trappings that go along with that like having a car and a home. I kind of got stuck in those ideals. And there have been wild changes, I tell you! I signed to an independent label and fucking hell, it turned into a major label! I just thought it would be cool to make our records the way we wanted to, not worrying about the marketing, not worrying about selling, not worrying about taking signals and giving people fucking jigsaws with the records and things like that! Everybody else thinks otherwise, and I’m left the only one thinking it’s a shitty thing to do. But the rest of the band likes it for their own reasons, so I’m happy to go along with them. But I still don’t like it! It goes against a lot of my own personal values. I’m the one who goes “no” all the time, and the two of them tell me I ought to do things. Like this ‘Tonight Show’ thing we’re going to do. What?! Why in fuck are we doing that?! I don’t want to do it. It’s really embarrassing, but everybody really wants to do it. It’s more than just me. I’m not in control in the same way I have been in the past.”
Who came up with the idea to do the Tonight Show?
Probably some promotions person somewhere. Some sort of moron, you know what I mean? The idea in the music business is to fit every square peg into every round hole they can find. To be honest, it was getting to be like that at 4AD as well. As the level of sales and success goes up the pressure to play the game comes up as well. The reason we went in and found a label in the first place was because early on we were repulsed by that side of the music business.
You’ve had a lot of experience over the years producing other bands.
“Not since I’ve been clean. It was something I used to get drugs. There were quite a few things I did I did to feed my drug habit. Most of the bands I’ve worked with have turned out good; and two or three bands that I’ve worked with, that you probably haven’t heard of, stuff never came out of it. And towards the end of my using I did a couple of jobs just for cocaine. Really, I gave no value system. It got me off of the idea of working with other people. I really am ashamed of myself, thinking that they had nothing to offer. I think I could be a good producer. I think I am, at times, a good producer. But there were quite a few when I just fucked things up.
“As soon as you get out of your band and move into production, you’re taken very seriously. I get paid half the rate that a “real” producer would get paid. Today I value myself more and I’m not going to let stuff like that happen to me anymore. I’ve got more self-respect.” Are there any bands you’d like to produce?
“I’m definitely going to produce some people before doing another Cocteau Twins thing. I really want to clear my head from this tour, which has gotten to be tedious. I would always keep that face up, like ‘Yeah, the tour’s going great. I really enjoy it.’ I could never be honest and tell people what was really going on, that I was not really enjoying it. I mean I could now; the show we just did in San Francisco about a week ago was really a fucking unpleasant gig! I suppose it was all right for the fans, especially if it’s the only show they’ve seen. But on a personal level it’s… I don’t know, I just want it to be fuckin’ better.”
Are you getting sick of the songs?
“I like our songs. But, I mean, I’m sick of some of the new ones, as well as some of the old ones. The songs that were chosen were okay, but it would be nice to have a week off, time to learn five or six new songs, and teach them to the band. That would nice. That would be a luxury. We haven’t got the time, so that’s that. Every day off costs us X-thousand dollars, and we’re losing money on this tour! I’m paying for it, ultimately, from my royalties.
“I mean, I don’t work for wages, but I do just as much work as everybody else. And I still go home when the tour’s over and there are bills to pay, rent and taxes. But the truth is I don’t have those 3-4 months’ wages like everybody else with a regular job has.
“If we just did a European tour, we’d save so much money and time and we wouldn’t have to go through so much heartache. But we’d let down a lot of people who want to come and see us in the U.S. Is that fair to them? I think I might be becoming a bit reasonable in my old age, ‘cause I used to think ‘Fuck the fans—this is what I want!’ You know? It’s only fair to the people that if we’ve advertised the show and they’ve bought tickets, that we should do the show. So am I being true to my music? Or what am I being true to? I don’t know. I’m trying to do the right thing. I always tried to do my thing—not the right thing.”
Are you doing any shows in Australia?
“No, we can’t afford it. To do seven shows in Australia we’d lose about $45,000. That’s too much to lose, but we’re losing far more than that in the United States!”
How old is your daughter Lucy, and what’s the silliest thing she’s ever done?
“Lucy’s four. Absolutely fucking gorgeous. [He shows us her picture. He’s right.] You should have seen her after Chicago, she got all her hair cut off. What’s the silliest thing? She came on stage with us at the sound check and just took the mic and sung a whole song with the band playing. Don’t know what song it was, but it was in tune. She was just “la-la-la-ing.”
Is it difficult having kids on the tour?
“I think it’s fantastic. Liz just sent her home. I miss her. I really miss her because it gives me a distraction and it means I’m not constantly worrying about fucking music performances!”
And how is it with Liz?
“It’s fantastic. I like it. On a good day me and Liz are really good friends. On a good day…”
Do you still call Mitsuo the “fat Japanese fuck”?
“No, he’s the ‘fucking Jap’ at the moment. ‘Where’s the fucking Jap?’ Mitsuo’s a gorgeous human being, but I just don’t understand it. He’s the enigma of the band. He speaks less English now than when I first met him, but he understands ten times more! He’s fantastic. That name calling is the sort of thing I used to really say and think it was funny when I was using drugs. I put people down and that made me really good. I just don’t live my life that way any more.”
You’ve obviously lost a lot of weight.
“I’ve lost 56 pounds since November. I’ve been fat all my life. My whole family is obese and it’s cursed me a bit. I have about another 30 to go and I’m finding that really difficult to do. But it makes me happy. Things like that in life can really hold you back. If you’re really hung up about being fat or being bald or something physical that makes someone not accept you as they should as a wonderful human being, with the pressure from society saying you should be thin or have hair. I’ve felt it more since I stopped taking drugs. I mean I wash now! I take care of myself.”
We’ve heard rumors, but where did the name “Cocteau Twins” come from?
“The Simple Minds, just before their first album, had a song called “The Cocteau Twins.” The name sort of stuck. Me and Will Heggie had sort of quit music for a while. Then we bought this drum machine and effects pedals and stuff like that to try something different. The name practically had no meaning to us at that time. I had a rough idea who Jean Cocteau was, but I was young! Apparently the song was written about these two gay guys who were into Jean Cocteau. Actually somewhere, I don’t know if I’ve still got it, but I had a live tape of the song. The tune of the song turned up on their first album and it was called “No Cure.” It had completely different words. This “Guthrie garbage” try no to do too much of that!” [Robin is referring to our answer to a letter in Dewdrops #10 where we referred to this same story as “Guthrie garbage” because we were sure that he’d made it up. Now we know it’s the truth! - ed]
Do you get a lot of fan mail?
“Nah, we don’t. Not like on TV where you see these mail bags full of fan mail. We get a few letters a week. I must be honest. I answered fan mail for years, then I stopped. If I read a letter, I really appreciate the sentiment usually. I don’t understand the person who’s writing it—to start to tell what the motivation is, not trust the fact that they’re just a genuine fan and really like it—cause I’ve never ever sent somebody a fan letter myself! I quite don’t understand that. That’s really quite sad. I’m trying not to turn my back. I miss talking to people who are really into us, people like yourselves.
“I’ve got about 20-odd people on my fan list and I’ve been sending them postcards. I’m just kind of getting back in touch with people. People who are into you. It’s not like reality. It’s like the movie “Spinal Tap.” It really is fuckin’ like that. Come in to our dressing room and I’ll show you the pieces of fuckin’ bread—they’re that size! And the pieces of cheese are that size! I swear to god! Every single thing in that movie—in one way or another—has happened to us.
“The funny thing is that in real life, touring can become a big issue. Something as trivial as that. It used to be when I was drinking, if the wrong kind of beer or champagne or whatever came around you’d freak out and fuckin’ send them out to change it. ‘It’s the wrong year, you fuckin’… ’ Because it would be such an important thing. You’re not connected to the real world at all, in any way, whatsoever. Everything in that movie is true. [Robin quotes from the movie…] ‘Does the fact that you’re only playing to this size of audience—and a few years ago you played to bigger ones—does that mean you’re losing popularity? … No, no, we’re playing to a much more selective market!’ I heard someone say that to me! Actually it’s because our record stiffed! That’s the reality. For the first time ever we’ve got a record that hasn’t sold more than the one before it. That freaks me out. I probably thought I was invincible. I’d taken our success for granted, probably, over the years. And it doesn’t make me feel good. It makes me feel kind of worthless and unwanted, because I get an awful lot of my self-worth from my music. People put my music down, and I take it personally. I think that they’ve put me down as a person. My rational self knows that’s not the case, that I’m an all right person. But it’s very easy if someone goes, ‘Hey you suck, man!’ just to go [shriveled up, dying noise].
“So our record hasn’t sold. I can piece together a lot of contributing factors to it. I think we’ve alienated our fan base on this one, or maybe the record company has. We’ve not serviced the people that do us real well in the first place. I think that’s got a lot to do with it. Getting new fans has been at the expense of losing our old ones. A lot of people weren’t even aware there was a new album out. People that had been following us. Because they move in the circles of independent record stores, coffee shops. They’re not necessarily the people that buy mainstream things and we’re not even getting into mainstream things. We’re fuckin’ nowhere at the moment. We’re not hitting your normal stores and we’re also not hitting that sort of subculture type stuff. Where are we hitting? Nowhere. That’s a major record company. Our record company is in pieces at the moment. We’ve done three records at Capitol and we’ve had three different presidents and three different fuckin’ sets of staff! We’ve just got a new president taking over who doesn’t really know what’s going on, but I met him the other night and I think we could do business with him, He’s willing to listen to any input we’ve got. Let’s face it I do know a bit about what’s fuckin’ made our music successful over the years. By not doing a lot of crass things! People have a bit of respect for that. I really believe that. And not being seen to just sell ourselves in a very cheap way. I think people tune into that and respect that because they wouldn’t do it themselves.”
We actually get a lot of fan mail addressed to you through Capitol.
“I’ll tell you what, you can keep all the ones with poetry! I don’t understand that. I think it’s really nice that someone’s taken all this time out. They love my music so much that they’ve taken a part of their life, put it in an envelope and sent it to me. I don’t know what to do with it! It makes me feel really worthless, like I should be doing something with it, but I just don’t know what to do with it. I don’t do this. I’m thinking about responsibility. It’s probably not really my responsibility. But it does half-make me feel shitty sometimes.”
Have you considered starting an official fan club?
“I’d like to have official everything, but I don’t know how to do it. I haven’t even got anybody to run my studio! We don’t come into contact with people. Because I don’t know anybody that could do the job. I’ve never come into contact with anybody who said ‘Hey I’ll run your fan club for you,’ so we don’t have one. Everything that we’ve got and everything we haven’t got is just purely by chance. We bump into people by chance. We don’t go out looking for things. We’ve never been that organised. I mean I’d love to be that organised. Our management is, god bless them, they look after us, but they’re obsessed with selling. That’s their job: to sustain us with income so we can carry on what we’re doing. I’d like to have someone work for me, but I just don’t come into contact with people. I mean it’s taken us 13 years to get a drummer!”
You actually have two drummers, right?
“A drummer and a percussionist. The percussionist used to play with Cabaret Voltaire. Mel is a close friend and Cabaret Voltaire doesn’t exist any more because Mel’s moved to Australia. The drummer actually toured with us in Europe in another band called Frazier Chorus. When I was clean for about three months I found out he was actually in “the program” for about eight years ‘cause he was a junkie as well. We met at a meeting and we just got talking. He told me all the horror stories of what I’d been like that on tour. It’s just like that. No great master plan. Nothing like that.
“The record company wants a plan from the management saying what were going to be doing in eighteen months time or three years time, and I don’t know what I want. Maybe in three months time I’ll decide I want to crack the rock-n-roll business! I’m sure I’ll find something, eventually. I hope I enjoy it, you know, because it’s really about enjoying yourself. I have such a privileged fuckin’ job. I can get paid—a little bit—to do something I really love doing. In a lot of ways I may have to make a decision to part with that just to keep my sanity, ‘cause I don’t want to turn into a bad product of the music business. Sort of a spent out person realizing what he should have been in the first place and now feels terribly bad about it, cause he didn’t. It’s a difficult thing, though. I’ve got commitments. I’ve got a studio and record contracts. I’ve got a lot of people working for me. If I decided to back out it would directly affect a lot of other people’s livelihood. That and I don’t know how to live my lifestyle any other way. I don’t have any money put away, anything like that. No savings whatsoever. I live pretty much hand-to-mouth. The money I take out of business pays for my life the way that I live it, which is not really extravagant.” ▣