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

“A voice, a few guitars, a bit of processing, and a hell of a lot of inspiration”

  • By Mark Prendergast
  • Sound on Sound
  • Jul 1989

Yes, that’s one way of describing the music that Liz Fraser (voice, lyrics, word melodies), Simon Raymonde (guitars, bass, piano) and Robin Guthrie (guitars, bass, drum programming, effects, engineering, production) make.

Formed in 1980 with Will Heggie instead of Raymonde, The Cocteau Twins found little joy in their native Grangemouth or anywhere else in Scotland. On the advice of The Birthday Party the group came down to London in late 1981 with demo tapes for Ivo Watts-Russell (of 4AD Records) and John Peel. Ivo gave them studio time, Peel became their first media convert. From very basic beginnings of rumbling bass, monotonous drum machines and dark treated guitars, The Cocteau Twins’ ace was Elizabeth Fraser’s voice—a unique instrument that played on phonetics and radical alterations in pitch to express itself. Almost immediately they became independent music champions, and by their second album, Head Over Heels in 1983, had achieved both national recognition and acclaim.

In retrospect, what defined The Cocteaus’ sound was Robin Guthrie’s impatience with derivative pop sounds, alternative or otherwise. No straight guitar riffs or bang-bang rock for him but music processed and re-processed in the studio until it was well nigh impossible to judge its source. With such an approach, and Liz Fraser’s uncompromising way with lyrics, they were bound to stand out from the crowd.

Simon Raymonde joined at the end of 1983, and from thereon such Cocteau classics as Treasure (1984), Tiny Dynamine/Echoes In A Shallow Bay (1985), Victorialand (1986) and Blue Bell Knoll (1988) would permanently cement their reputation, not to mention their friendship with American pianist Harold Budd, with whom they collaborated on The Moon and the Melodies in 1986.

Of course, The Cocteau Twins’ story is also one of abstract sleeves, camera-shyness, difficult interviews, and a sense of mystery not helped by a media constantly pouring a thesaurus of words over their consistently beautiful music. For myself, I kept them at a distance until the release of Blue Bell Knoll, their most forthright LP to date; one that showed an uncanny feel for contemporary sound possibilities without making even the slightest of concessions towards the mainstream. Impressed, I requested an interview and after three months of discussion was driven by 4AD Records’ gracious Deborah Edgley to The Twins’ new September Sounds Studio in Twickenham.

Situated above Pete Townshend’s Eel Pie complex, their new studio has everything that the group require. A neat control room looks out onto a large patio which faces the leafier aspects of the River Thames. It’s a sunny day in March and everybody is in good cheer. Robin Guthrie, a bearded bear of a man, shows me the small adjoining vocal and instrument rooms. A circular window similar to a ship’s porthole gives Robin a clear view into the vocal booth.

After cordialities are exchanged, lunch eaten and photos snapped, Robin and myself settle down beside the mixing desk, relish the sun streaming in through the French windows, and begin a discussion that will take up the best part of the afternoon. My first question relates to the sheer impressiveness of the new studio, particularly the wall of flickering effects units to the right of the desk, and how it improves on the last Cocteau Twins’ studio, a converted space on an industrial estate in Acton.

“Well, there’s a couple of recent additions, but not a lot because many of those units are like valve equalisers and compressors. A lot of people use them. On the last LP I flicked the entire mixes through the valve EQs, and that sounded alright. You see, it doesn’t really matter what any of the things are or what you read about them, because unless they sound good to your ears, they’re just pieces of junk.”

Guthrie spends much of the time spinning around in his chair, passing his fingers through his hair and beard, and talking in such a whispery low voice that he’s almost inaudible. Fortunately, his accent and spoken manner are aspects that become more understandable as the interview progresses. I ask him to point out some new bits of equipment and chat about them.

“I like this Lexicon 480L, a multi-effects processor. It’s a dual device with two completely separate units in there, so you can set up different reverbs and choruses. You can sample on it, too.”

Is that for your guitars?

“No, that’s for everything. This rack over here, at the end, is what we call the guitar rack. You’ve got a valve preamp and a Roland FC100, which I can use in conjunction with this GP8. All of these get put through the Yamaha DMP7, a digital mixer, where all my patches are stored. One recent thing is this Quadraverb unit that just came out. It does reverbs, delays, choruses and EQs all at the same time, instead of having to have four separate units. A lot of the sounds on our records are made up not by just, say, getting a piano, but by taking a piano and sort of messing about with it through all this type of stuff.”

Although he has quite a collection of guitars, Guthrie seems more interested in what they sound like once treated with effects. I have, to admit I have never considered The Cocteau Twins to be a guitar-based group.

“Well, once you start treating the shit out of them, it doesn’t really matter what the guitar was in the first place. What I find that’s important about a guitar is that it’s nice to play or nice to look at (chuckles).

“It’s all guitar music; we’ve never used synthesizers much. We just got our first synthesizer from Record & Tape Exchange for 100 quid about three weeks ago (laughs). You see we’ve never had any use for synthesizers—but that’s not to say our music is just made up of guitars and effects. That makes it seem really sort of shallow. It’s a case of messing around with a particular instrument and using it in a different way, or playing the same way but doing something different with the sound.

Making it more than just a straight piano sound or a straight guitar sound. More important than just the instrument side itself is the way the sounds are put together. You can get two instruments to make fantastic sounds but they might not go together. They’ve got to fit together as well.”

What of the keyboards on Aikea-Guinea and Tiny Dynamine, are they not synthesized?

“Well, there’s a piano in the background there but it’s all guitar really. I can play a guitar; I can’t play a keyboard very well. Simon can play a piano. We don’t strictly play any one instrument, just whatever we pick up. Generally speakin’, I do all the drums and programming and stuff but whoever picks up a guitar, or whatever, plays that. Sometimes I play bass and Simon plays guitar. Liz, she just sings.”

Guthrie is obviously enjoying himself for at every turn he laughs, smiles and chuckles with a twinkle in his eye. He talks about how “embarrassin’” it would be to play all his old records to his kids—work which he no longer has any time for. Back to the guitars: he refuses to show me his and Simon Raymonde’s collection of 30 or 40 Fenders and what not. It transpires that a Tokai Strat copy was used a lot on Blue Bell Knoll, and in the video for ‘Cico Buff’ he played a “glittery” Gretsch—just because it looked nice. With Guthrie’s preference for treating guitar sounds, I enquire of his interest in guitar synths like the Stepp DG1.

“They look silly. I’m very conservative in my taste in guitars. The thing about guitar synths is that if you start to take on a different sound, you’ve got to be able to think in that sound—like play your guitar and think you’re playing a piano. I can’t play my guitar and think I’m a trumpet player, so why bother?”

At 27, Guthrie has gained himself a reputation as something of a wizard when it comes to studio equipment. I ask him about his engineering background in Scotland.

“I got a job when I left school in Grangemouth, working with control instruments on an oil refinery. I got to know the ins and outs of how things work. So if I’ve got an idea to make a guitar sound like a bell, I can go and do it and get it to sound like I’ve imagined. If I’ve got to sit here and tell a producer or an engineer what I want, then whatever you get is their idea, not mine.”

At this point an Oriental gentleman pops his head into the control room. His name is Lincoln Fong, and he turns out to be Robin’s right-hand man when it comes to studio design. The perceptive among you will recognise his name from the last Harold Budd LP, The White Arcades (Land 1988), on which he did some engineering. In all, three tracks from that album were recorded at The Cocteau Twins’ old Acton studio—which brings me to the topic of studios as a compositional tool (a la Eno).

Guthrie: “We don’t write songs as such, right. We come in here, put down all our ideas on the tape machine, once! Then we mix it and that’s it! There’s no demoing or anything like that. We’re very sort of down-to-earth about it. A lot of musicians fantasise that there is some sort of artistic notion that goes into their music. I don’t understand that. To me, if it sounds good use it. I don’t think about it. When a lot of people hear music they then go and say ‘It makes me think of such-and-such’, as if that’s what we’re thinking about when we made it. But me, I’m just thinking of which plug goes into which hole!” (Chuckles.)

In the public eye there was a two and a half year gap between Victorialand and Blue Bell Knoll. Does that mean that more went into the latter’s recording than just a couple of quick takes?

“Naa, that’s ridiculous. How could it take two and a half years to make a record? This is what happened: Blue Bell Knoll was the first record that we made completely in our own studio. Previously, we recorded the backing tracks there and then went and did the vocals somewhere else and mixed somewhere else. Our last studio was about the size of this control room but with all of our equipment in it, you know. We had no offices, no kitchen or live room, or anything. The vocal booth for Liz was just something I knocked up myself. It wasn’t that dodgy… the roof only fell in once.” (He bursts into laughter.)

Given all your talents, could you, Simon and Liz knock out something acoustically at the drop of a hat?

“Naa, we could never do that. Each one of these Cocteau tracks—the guitar that you hear—is a recorded effect. It’s been done on 12 separate tracks and then bounced together—like chords made up from playing one note at a time. I can’t play that well and I’m really totally envious of somebody who can sit down with an acoustic guitar and write a song, or sit down at a piano and write a song. I could never do that. The studio is the only way I know how. I wouldn’t know a D flat from a B major!”

But you can take a piece of machinery apart and put it back together again to create a certain effect, right?

“No, that’s goin’ a bit far. What helped is that when I first walked into the studio I knew how to fix a module before I knew how to operate it. But now I’ve got rusty… All these different units, I like making them do more than the average person would. Take a reverb, for instance. Most people would put it on the snare drum; but me, I’d then put it through a chorus and then compress it, and just keep goin’. I’m not into this purist idea of what a drum machine should sound like or what a guitar should sound like. With me, it’s: ‘I wonder what would happen if I put this in there or in here?’.”

Casting an eye around the control room I spy quite a bit of digital equipment, yet Guthrie asserts he’s an ‘analogue’ person and points to the large Dolby Spectrum Recording noise reduction units behind me. “Basically, I can afford an analogue multitrack tape machine—I can’t afford a digital one. I’ve got DAT machines and Sony F1s and things, though.”

What of Eno’s production offer a few years back, I heard you were one of the very few to turn him down?

“It just didn’t seem right, you know. Especially when he heard some of the tracks we were doing. He reckoned he couldn’t do them any better or different, so what was the point? He seemed like a very nice bloke and everything—but I couldn’t really see the benefit. I mean he took U2 away from being a very bland rock band to being a different sort of bland rock band. I don’t know… it might have been interesting. I’m very selfish. I don’t like people coming in and messin’ about with what I’m doing.”

From your point of view, where does a piece of Cocteau Twins’ music begin?

“Putting a timecode on a tape, recording EBU at 25 frames. That’s where it begins! Well, I work on pure sound but Simon tends to work an awful lot on the notes that I’ve played. He’s more a sit down at the piano and play type of person—he loves playing. Playing is one of those things I do between thinking of a sound and getting it onto tape. Once we’ve made up a piece on tape, Liz comes in. She doesn’t just improvise; the songs are meticulously worked out. A lot of people think that, because they can’t understand what she’s singing, that she just comes in, opens her mouth, and that’s it. But she sweats over it more than I do.”

Cocteau Twins concerts have always been sporadic affairs: tours over the past seven years could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Notorious for using backing tapes, the group find it difficult to reproduce their studio creations on stage.

Guthrie: “It’s not so much that, it’s reproducing all the parts that I’ve played. On previous tours we’ve had to bring a record player to the rehearsal room and play our own records to find out what we originally played! Because you make it up, play it once and then it’s down on tape, you tend to think of the next bit and not how you played the last part. Also, I could never use a drummer because I’m so used to the precision and timing of a drum machine. And drummers make an awful lot of noise—imagine Liz trying to sing with a great big drum kit behind her. With the tape machine we use to play live, it’s us who’ve played the music on tape—it’s our performance. It’s not computer generated or anything. It’s not somebody else, it’s us.”

The drum machine on most Cocteau tracks always manages to sound like an authentic acoustic kit. For years I was under the false impression that real drums were in use and that Simon Raymonde or A.N. Other was responsible for the driving percussion sounds. But in reality it was all down to Robin Guthrie, one of the best drum machine manipulators in the business, surely.

“I started with a (Boss) Dr. Rhythm and just basically went through them all. We’ve got about 10 or 12 drum machines now. I like the MPC60—the Akai-Linn one, designed by Roger Linn who made the original Linn Drum. The MPC60 is very good. You can sample all your own drum sounds into it. It’s the easiest drum machine to programme, it’s got the best editing facilities on it, and it’s got a 99-track sequencer built in as well.”

The conversation drifts across such topics as the maturity of The Cocteau Twins from post-punk early Eighties rebels to studio sophisticates, the stupidity of the pop process, and above all Guthrie’s intense dislike of ‘message music’—particularly that of U2.

“I don’t have any regard for the way that they’ve gone about doing what they’re doing. I think it is very cheap and nasty and tacky. The manipulation of the public, all that flag-waving sort of business and everything.”

Back to the technical end, and a mention of the new Casio portable DAT recorder has Guthrie out the door and back with his model in a jiffy. He uses it to take mixes home and listen to them in the car.

Which brings us to production work. Guthrie has done quite a bit: for 4AD, for his friend Lawrence and his band Felt (notably the 1985 album Ignite The Seven Cannons, which produced the great Liz Fraser vocal track on “Primitive Painters”), and for Harold Budd—which turns out to be more of a friendship than mere professional engineering advice. What of the strange 1986 LP, The Moon and the Melodies, credited to ‘Harold Budd, Simon Raymonde, Robin Guthrie and Elizabeth Fraser’?

“I don’t know if it actually worked, but working with Harold is great. I think it turned out more like four songs that sounded like us and four songs that sounded like him, which wasn’t really the plan. We met him and he just seemed like such a nice bloke. I don’t care about the music he makes or the music that any of the people I work with make, because quite often it’s that you meet them and you like them, and therefore you want to do something. I liked Harold because of his very laid-back nature. He’s not visited us here yet but I think he’ll like it. It’s his style of place.”

The conversation is then taken up with how the sound of contemporary music is closely related to the settings on modern synthesizers and what particular instruments are in vogue. Guthrie advises that people shouldn’t dispense with the old units just because new ones have come on line. “No one piece of equipment does something like another.” Simple but perceptive advice. He goes on to say: “The good thing about the technology is that there’s more people making music. But a lot of them just want to go into a studio, make something quickly, and get instant results without ever learning how to actually use their instruments. These synthesizers in truth are very complicated; they have to be used and reprogrammed for new sounds. People don’t bother. They just use the presets and thus everything sounds the same. If they made synths that were more restricted, people would do more with what they’ve got. At the moment, there seems to be so much there that people don’t bother.”

At this point I ask him to talk about the new equipment that excites him.

“This one here’s called a DigiTech Smart Shift,” he says pointing to an effects rack. “That’s really exciting. It’s a harmoniser but it doesn’t set the harmonies at fixed intervals. You can tell it what key you’re playing in and what scale, and it will generate harmonies that fit.”

Guthrie then points out all his different equalisers and compressors: digital equalisers, valve equalisers and analogue equalisers all stacked one atop the other.

“I’ve got a really large choice. Loads of different sorts that all have different characteristics. It’s not ridiculous to have this many, because they’re all different.”

This marathon conversation then turns to the subject of a new album. When can we expect another?

“We’ve no idea. We just don’t think about that until we come in and do it. In that way each record we make is a statement of how we’re actually feeling at the time about making music. I’m not thinking about becoming more refined or anything like that, because it’s all about sounds that I create just pleasing my ear. If that means standing in front of a Marshall stack making lots of feedback noise—if that’s what pleases my ear—then that’s what we’ll use.”

I then turn the discussion towards the filmic quality of certain Cocteau pieces of music and mention the dreaded words ‘Ambient’ and ‘New Age’. Just as Robin gets going, Liz pops her head into the room and says in her sweet Scottish accent: “Howaye. Are yis doin’ okay?”, her total contribution to the entire interview! Only 25, her incredible singing voice is contrasted by her tiny physical stature. Yes, she is quite small and very shy. Ignoring Robin’s coaxing attempts to get her involved, she spends most of the sunny afternoon on the patio, playing with the dogs and enjoying the view. Anyway, back to an emotive Guthrie and film music:

“It’s a con! What you’re talking about is the ability to sit down at a synthesizer for, say, five minutes and by moving your fingers a little bit produce something that says ‘Oh, look. I’m art, man’! I’m not writing off all instrumental music, just the New Age stuff. Nowadays, if someone describes your music as ‘cinematic’, what they really mean is that it sounds like New Age music, and it sounds ambient, and therefore boring, right? It’s so easy to go into a studio and do a film soundtrack of the type we’ve been getting a lot of recently. All it is, is someone getting a synth with a lot of reverb on it and droning away. And that is a con, that is. We’ve not been offered a decent soundtrack yet and, personally, I don’t want to do a crap film to start with and then try and work my way up. If I was gonna do somethin’ like that it would have to be big and important and good.”

Simon Raymonde (the English member of the group) joins us to give his side of the story. He’s tall, well built and clearly spoken. The following is what Raymonde had to say for himself…

On what he brought to the group when he joined in 1983:

“Well, we spent a month doing the album Treasure and, because we never really spent any time properly in each other’s company, we were still getting to know each other. We’d only been friends for a little while, you see. We just sort of recorded loads of things and then the album came out. It’s like an unfinished record with probably two good pieces in there somewhere. It’s our worst album by a mile.” (Most people, myself included, think it’s their best!)

On what he plays:

“I played bass on that record and also live, but I could never think of myself as an artist. I just like playing things. I’ll have a go at anything; I don’t really think of myself as a musician at all. I like the piano, probably because I’ve got one at home. You know, Robin is just as good a bass player as I am.”

On his famous quote about guitars being only interesting with effects:

“I would say that’s still true, because if I go into the studio and just play the guitar into the amplifier, I’d be out of there in five minutes because it’s like a boring sound—I’ve heard it so many times before. But if you put some strange or interesting effect on it, then you’ll find a tune will come much more quickly.”

Things get really funny when I ask Raymonde what parts they played on the tracks “Blue Bell Knoll” and “A Kissed Out Red Floatboat” from their most recent album. Guthrie connects the CD player to the studio monitors and ends up ambling around the control room with a load of patchcords dangling from his neck.

On “Blue Bell Knoll,” the title track:

Raymonde: “I played the melody guitars on that. You can’t hear the tune as guitar but it is. Robin did all the basses and sequences.”

Guthrie: “I also did all the fuzzy guitars at the end; the feedback stuff.”

On “A Kissed Out Red Floatboat”:

Raymonde: “Robin played bass, the floating guitar, and the click track. I played acoustic guitar. I don’t remember how this one was started… I think it started with Liz. Yeah, we’d never done it that way before. We recorded a sequence and then Liz sang to it, with no music, and afterwards we put the music on. Yes, that’s right.”

What about your contribution to Harold Budd’s 1986 solo album Lovely Thunder, you helped him out on the “Flowered Knife Shadows” track, didn’t you?

Raymonde: “Well I recorded it and Robin mixed it. There was nothing to it. Harold just said: ‘Get us a good piano sound with a bit of delay’, so I set him up a delay. And for some strange reason he wanted to dedicate it to me on his record, which was very nice of him.”

At that moment I gave Liz a wave from the control room. She is still on the balcony contemplating the River Thames. Robin beckons her from the glass doors but to no avail. At least he tried. “She just feels intimidated because it’s a technical music magazine interview and she doesn’t know the first thing about anything like that,” philosophises Guthrie. Therefore, the questions I had for her are answered by Guthrie and Raymonde. What a bizarre situation.

I enquire whether she writes lyrics.

Raymonde: “Of course she writes. She makes all the melodies up herself. Robin helps her get the performance right and sometimes makes a suggestion with a harmony or something. Her job is very difficult because, usually, we’ve mostly finished the music beforehand, and consequently it’s full of melodies which we like, and that makes Liz’s part twice as hard.”

On her legendary self-consciousness about singing in public:

Guthrie: “I’ve seen her being so nervous and tense that she’s actually started singing as hard as she could but no sound’s coming out of her mouth, cos she’s so wound up.”

Raymonde: “The presence of other people can be a bit of a put-off for a singer, but I think the atmosphere of this place will be relaxing for her. I’m the same, even with Robin. If I’m working on something I just can’t concentrate with somebody else around. I need to have space.”

Guthrie: “Usually when Liz is doing her vocals, I just leave the tape in cycle mode and go to the pub!”

The remainder of the conversation revolves around Guthrie’s love of Roy Orbison, the solo American artist Kurt Ralske and his poignant Ultra Vivid Scene LP (released in 1988 on the 4AD label), how people are put off The Cocteau Twins’ music because of an old record (I mention my own disaffection for the group after hearing their turgid debut Garlands), their love for Southern Ireland and dislike of Belfast (bad gig experiences) and, of course, the flowery hyperbole of the music press whenever a new Cocteau Twins artefact comes out:

Raymonde: “I can’t understand why, once they’ve met us and realised that we’re a bunch of slob yoiks (sic), they don’t see that we’re not pretty and romantic, and all this.”

Dedication: This article would not have been possible without the kind help of Deborah Edgley, who moved mountains to make it happen. ▣