Heel to toe to hair and hoof and it's head over heels and it's all but an ark-lark...

Interview with Robin Guthrie

  • By Martin Aston
  • MOJO
  • Dec 2011

What do you remember about 1982, when Cocteau Twins signed to 4AD?

“We’d released our debut album, Garlands, and it was a bit of a surprise to be asked to make another record. I’d already had my life’s ambition fulfilled. We were still living in Grangemouth, me and Liz [Fraser, singer] and Will [Heggie, bassist], but Will left after 46 dates of supporting OMD. My hat goes off to him for lasting that long. I remember chatting with Liz in a chip shop. She said, ‘Make the next album just the two of us, get money off 4AD and say we have lots of songs, and produce it yourself.’ I’d been a technically savvy teenager so I did, and we recorded Head Over Heels. I remember thinking, I’m really good at this…”

What music were you listening to before forming the band?

“My older brother was into Genesis and long hair so what better way to annoy your brother than going the opposite way? I adored the fast R&B of Doctor Feelgood and The Count Bishops, and then I heard the Ramones. Punk spoke to me even more because it was new whereas R&B was revivalist. I liked all the early punk—Buzzcocks, the Pistols and The Clash, before it all went commercial, when Sham 69 counted as punk. But my first ‘form-a-band’ record was The Heartbreakers’ Chinese Rocks. But I never looked good in leather trousers. I was never thin enough.”

What were the Cocteau Twins searching for in their sound?

“To make music with the energy of punk but with more finesse and beauty and that shiny and dense Phil Spector sound. I was trying to make my guitar sound like I could play it, so I was influenced by guitarists who made a beautiful noise, like Roland S. Howard of The Birthday Party. We followed The Birthday Party all over and it’s because of them that we sent a demo to 4AD. We sent the other to John Peel and he gave us a session. We didn’t have a phone so we gave him the number of the phone box down the road and wrote, ‘Call between five and six,’ and I’d wait outside. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that they’d ring.”

Was “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops” an early peak?

“Not at all. I thought the early recordings with Simon [Raymonde, who replaced Heggie in 1983] were very fumbly. We were trying to find our territory, and that only came together with the Blue Bell Knoll album. ‘Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops’ was a clinical exercise to get on Top of the Pops. Ivo [Watts-Russell, co-founder of 4AD] had asked for a single, to take us to the next level. We were fonder of ‘The Spangle Maker,’ which was the A-side of the 12-inch single.”

What did you think of Cocteau Twins’ contemporaries and rivals at the time?

“I never wanted to be in anyone else’s parade. But my sense of competition meant I couldn’t say other band were any good because that would be to say they were better than us. I had supreme confidence in us but really low self-worth. That’s drug addition in action. Early on, I liked Orange Juice and Felt, and New Order before they went disco. I love the Mary Chain and Sonic Youth, and Swans appealed to my noise aesthetic. My Bloody Valentine? They were just another little indie band to begin with. Lush interested me more because they could actually write songs and had ideas. But the more I got into Cocteau Twins, the less of a music fan I became.”

Any regrets?

“Signing to Fontana when we fell out with 4AD was our biggest mistake. We were 4AD’s flagship band so they put their money into other bands to help them catch up. Our contract was awful and we didn’t feel taken care of. But Fontana was a faceless, corporate wank entity, which pressured us into album-tour-album-tour, and we kept having to record extra formats for singles. Also, we never had a million-seller that we could live off. And always having ‘ex-Cocteau Twins’ in brackets after my name is a bit insulting. But our musical legacy was joyous. Even our dark and melancholic stuff sounds exuberant.”

When was the last time you listened to a Cocteau Twins recording, and what did you think?

“When I was remastering the albums in 2008. But I never listen to what I’ve done after it’s released. When I hear the odd Cocteaus track, I’m so happy I wasn’t in Kajagoogoo. The only Cocteaus records that make me cringe are the Twinlights and Otherness EPs (from 1995). Twinlights was acoustic and has violins and shite like that, and Otherness is pointless remixes. Neither was what Cocteau Twins was about, but I wasn’t in control then. I’d come out of rehab and I thought I should make the band a democracy.”

What are you working on now?

“I’ve just started a solo album. The last one, Emeralds, came out this year. I’ve just done the soundtrack for a film ‘Last of Our Kind.’ It’s my usual instrumental loveliness. People respond most to the human voice but I”m not a singer so the easiest way for me to convey passion is with my guitar. I’m just a big fucking emotional mess, really, so I use music as a sounding board to get that out.”

SIDEBAR: “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops” (4AD, 1984)

Liz Fraser’s euphoric vocal and speaking-in-tongues delivery, not forgetting Robin Guthrie’s Spector-style curtain-of-sound, has always evaded categorisation. Perhaps it’s best to imagine the Cocteau Twins’ music as a reaction to hometown Grangemouth’s petro-chemical wasteland, as they gaze forlornly at the Firth of Forth beyond. “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops,” their first attempt to write a single, saw them discard their earlier Siouxsie & The Banshees influences to reveal a unique musical intricacy. ▣

Interview with Robin Guthrie