“And Then There Were Two”
- By Winston Smith
- 5-Nov 1983
Winston Smith gets double vision with the Cocteau Twins
Cocteau Twins (at present best band in the world, no contest) Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie are at home, busily trying to relax.
Many words spring to mind, contemplating their just-released second album, the magnificent Head Over Heels, but thinking things over, it’s clear that attempting to capture the record’s richly textured music in a net of glowing superlatives must, ultimately, prove a futile exercise.
So forget about “bewitching guitars,” forget the “incomparable, utterly spellbinding voice of Liz,” and forget the Cocteau’s “sheer gorgeous power—a near mastery of human emotions,” and instead just remember these people make music to send shivers down your spine.
There used to be three Cocteaus, but ex-bassist Will’s recent(ish) post-European-tour-with-OMD departure appears not to be something the remaining duo wish to comment on, other than Rob’s cursory, “It was a very harrowing experience.”
Big Robin is now himself in charge of more or less all studio instrumentation, while onstage, accompanied by his self-recorded backing tapes (bass guitar/drum-machine/everything under the sun) he continues to play the role of guitarist.
Also interesting, the Twins are part of 4AD’s This Mortal Coil project “a bringing together of assorted musicians from that label for one record” and the resultant EP, featuring Liz and Robin’s version of a Tim Buckley number, “Song To The Siren” (the only track they regard as anything other than a “fuck-up”) has received enough attention for it to have invaded Britain’s Fetid Fifty.
But they’re not happy, and appear increasingly concerned that the disappointing This Mortal Coil experiment will end up overshadowing, or worse, swallowing the Cocteau Twins. They’d prefer to forget the whole thing, so…
Head Over Heels
ROBIN: “I know people have said in the past that the Cocteau Twins are not the most spontaneous band in the world, because we use tapes blah blah… well, all the spontaneity was when we were doing the LP, because we went into the studio with no songs written at all, and we didn’t even know if we’d be able to write any.
“What would happen was I would go into the studio and write music while Elizabeth would be in the other room writing words, and she’d come in and sing them, every day for a couple of weeks… totally off the cuff.
“This is the easiest it is for us to be spontaneous. I suppose in a live context it’s not, really, because we’re going on with tapes, but then back in the far-off past, these tapes were actually spontaneous.”
Do you enjoy working live as a duo?
“It’s a completely different feeling altogether, to before. I find myself concentrating harder on what I’m actually doing, rather than on not falling over, which I think I did too much of before.”
“Oh at the moment, and for the foreseeable future it’ll just be me and Liz, we don’t want to go out looking for somebody new to play with.”
Still smarting from being described elsewhere as “wilfully obscure” in a live review of their recent sell-out show at London’s ICA, Liz ponders over the suggestion that it could be her bizarre (but completely uncontrived) use of the sound of the English language—rendering it largely incomprehensible—which invites such confused critics.
Stranger still, why does she suppose her rendition of “Song To The Siren” is, on the whole, easily understood, every word communicated with preposterous conventionality?
Is Liz perhaps subconsciously embarrassed by her own lyrics?
“I’ve thought about this before,” she muses in that characteristically gentle Cocteau whisper, “and I’m not ashamed… I mean, even in the studio there’s been words, like actually singing. ‘Peppermint Pig,’ singing about ‘runts’ and things (laughs), there’s definitely some words that are very embarrassing to sing. The words that are on the sleeve of the album (brief snatches of lyrics), there’s bound to be people who hate them, so it makes you really frightened, that might have something to do with it.”
“Basically,” adds Robin in equally delicate tones, “I don’t think we’re really forward enough for this business. We’re not extroverts, neither of us. I was thinking about this while we were doing the video [for ‘Song To The Siren’] because it’s such a clinical situation, getting this wee bloke with a tape recorder playing your song over and over and you’ve got to mime to it. Elizabeth was actually singing, but the fact is you see all these bands in their videos, jumping all about and going mental and dancing, well how the hell can they possibly do that?”
Liz: “A lot of these people are like that all the time, because they are exhibitionists!”
As everybody’s favourite Twins talk, they chuckle and smile at their own private gags, and pepper the conversation with stacks of little ‘fucks’ (pronounced—extremely Scottishly—‘fock’). It’s very nearly a nervous habit.
“You know those people you used to get at school who’d write their names all over the drawers,” fumes Robin, “in huge big letters, that really used to get on my tits, and people who go about with their name on their T-shirt or their car window, THIS IS ME, I’M IMPORTANT, it’s like show-offs, and I don’t think Elizabeth’s a show-off when it comes to her words, that’s all.”
Liz: “I’m proud of them, I’m very proud of them, but I’ve always said I didn’t want them to be a let-down to people, I didn’t want people to think, ‘Oh hell, I liked my version better’ (laughs), and even if people did like the words they’d get sick of them eventually, probably, and it just seems such a sad situation. I don’t want to sing about me anyway. Sod that! I have to distance myself from it. I don’t know whether I have to or not, but I do. Fortunately they come out making a sort of sense. They make enough sense to other people for them to actually… they can understand, they can see things, they have these mental pictures.”
Seems the problem is their collective ego just isn’t large enough. Liz becomes confused when put on the spot about her work because she simply can’t see why it would either warrant or need explaining. Not having had to think about it seriously before, she panics.
What goes on in your mind, Liz?
“It’s a total mess up there.” [She smiles in exasperation.] “Must need a good clean-out or something… it’s totally disorganized, you know?”
Do you get in a state over things?
“Yeah, I can’t do anything… I’m efficient, I mean I like to be efficient, I like working, believe it or not, I like working at things… No, I don’t like working at things, I like, sort of, psyching myself up so I’m going to be right doing something the first time.”
Robin: “When we’re in the studio, well, when we were doing the LP, she is the most disgusting person in the world to work with [sounds of embarrassed groans from Liz] because she goes into moods and has temper tantrums and goes into huffs; but generally speaking, from experience, the times that she did get really pissed off and angry, she’d get angry for about half an hour, trying to do one bit, and then all of a sudden, poomph! [Claps hands in ‘poomphing’ gesture] it’ll be perfect, she’ll just come up with something that’s really amazing, but she’ll still be crabby with that until the next morning, then she’ll hear it back and think [talking in wee Liz-type voice] ‘Oh well, that’s not so bad is it?’”
When the public shower you with praise (just watch as that LP scales those charts!) and when writers go all gooey-penned over you, does it in a way make things difficult? Do you start worrying about letting your listeners down?
Robin: “Well basically, to be perfectly truthful, we don’t do it for, er, The Fans, or to get a hit single, or to get anything, our music is for ourselves.
“I’m certainly very selfish. I used to think, ‘Will such and such like it, will it get good reviews?’ But I just don’t do that anymore, I don’t want to, I don’t want to be forced into the situation where you’ve got to worry about what people are going to think, that stifles things, it stifles talent, it stifles ideas.
“I think for the Cocteau Twins, if we were to suddenly stop and realize, ‘Look, we’re making people happy or sad, or pulling them through hard times,’ if we thought that, we’d just start making really shitty music, it’d affect us… If we started to try and make music to satisfy people’s wants or moods or whatever, we’d be really fucked, I just wouldn’t be able to do it if I were to actually consciously think about it.
“Unfortunately I think I’ve still got some scruples… about dishonesty, going on ‘Top Of The Pops,’ having record pluggers working for you and all that sort of thing, and that doesn’t seem to go down too well in the music business.
“We don’t do it to have hit records, it’s not the motivation at all. I mean, if it’s not too old-fashioned, I think I could see us being much more successful as an album-type band. Our music’s probably more relevant in an album situation, rather than in a throw-away single situation. It’s all geared nowadays for you to have one or two hit singles and then be forgotten. I’d just like to think that in a couple of years we’ll still be here.
“Personally my motivations tell me to make records, they don’t tell me to make videos and go on ‘Top Of The Pops’ and jump about like a prat. I’m not interested, and when it comes to that, doing interviews… we shouldn’t have to do interviews, the music should speak for itself.”
Would you rather not do them?
“I think so.”
Liz: “It’s always such a nightmare, a lot of the time I find I’m just glad to get it over and done with.”
ROBIN: “I think if you’re modest, that means you know inside that something’s special and good. What I can say of us is we don’t know that it’s, sort of, special or good. What we do is special to me, but I don’t want to jump about and push it down people’s throats. I’m quite happy with it being special for me, that’s that.”
What a Business
ROBIN: “It’s a way of life… It’s not like having a day job, but it’s a job in as much as it takes up your days and nights. I’m constantly aware of it. I get up in the morning and think about the Cocteau Twins, you know?”
Liz: “See, he’s different, he’s completely different from me, I can get away from it now, I make sure I get away from it, because I do need to.”
ROBIN: “I always think back to when I was 17 or 18 and, I dunno, the whole punk thing. I really had a good time then.”
Liz: “I’m really getting excited now because I’ve started thinking about what it was like…” [Hardly able to contain herself.] “I just wanna run ‘round the house!”
Robin: “I think the sentiment’s still there, the non-conformism is still there, even though it looks like we’re conforming with everything that we’re meant to conform with as a band, but the thought’s still there.”
Liz: “It did change my life, it made me a better person, and believe it or not it made me much more content, I just appreciate things more than I did.”
Would there now be the Cocteau Twins if there had been no punk?
Robin: “No. I think I’d be playing music somewhere, but it’s probably just be in a pub band or a cabaret band, I don’t think I’d be writing songs or anything like that.”
Liz: “I wouldn’t be excited about music, I’d be working in the Chunky Chicken factory, getting in the wages, buying a single every month or something.”
Heels Over Head?
ROBIN: “I’ve made it clear to myself that it’s not the sort of thing I want to carry on doing forever… I’d like to do some producing, that sort of thing, when I’m past it.”
A mischievous grin spreads over Robin’s face.
“I don’t think I’ll be past it until I’m about 24,” he deadpans, “or maybe 25. I think then I’ll be sorta pushing it, but I think there’s a couple of years in this old dog yet.” ▣
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