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

“Botanic Rites”

  • By Max Bell
  • Vox
  • Oct 1993

Three years after their split from spiritual home 4AD Records, the Cocteau Twins return with a new album, Four-Calendar Café, looking to eclipse the success of Heaven or Las Vegas and kill off those comments about Pre-Raphaelite pop…

Liz Fraser gazes wistfully across Twickenham’s sumptuous Pleasure Gardens, with its hanging arbours and wedding cake statues, to the Cocteau Twins’ September Sound studios, part of the Eel Pie complex. There is an agreeable view across the Thames but Liz is staring at her daughter Lucy Belle’s plastic bike. If Elizabeth raises her eyes, she can see Twickenham Bridge. Opposite her is Richmond Old Deer Park. Behind the studios is the abode of the Guthrie/Fraser household. If you’ve got to live in London, this will do.

“We’ve worked for it, mind,” Robin Guthrie assures me in that slightly reproachful tone the Scots sometimes adopt. “It’s been a long time. We didn’t just get a big advance and move in. We’ve worked towards this. Our living during hte last ten years was meagre on a personal level. We ploughed most of it back into making records.”

They were able to obtain a lease on the studio space from The Who’s old group captain Pete Townshend. “At a reasonable rate,” says Robin, confidentially. “He’s OK, Pete Townshend. His studio’s downstairs. He doesn’t bother us. Keeps to himself.”

Robin provides a guided tour, beginning with Simon Raymonde’s room—Raymonde is the third Twin, so to speak—where machines purr idly, then a guitar room where Mitsuo Tate—“Mitsuo works with us”—looks up from a program he’s, er, programming, and Liz’s room—“where she does her singin’ and bits and pieces.” This otherwise sparse room contains a rack of books, Meditations for Women Who Think Too Much is the nearest volume to hand.

“And here’s where I work,” says Robin, ushering us into the production room, obviously as please as punch. Big windows overlook Old Father Thames, framing the airy environment that helped produce Cocteau Twins’ new album, Four-Calendar Café, and its predecessor, 1990’s Heaven or Las Vegas.

By a strange coincidence, the Cocteaus find themselves promoting Four-Calendar Café in the same week their former label 4AD hold their “Thirteen Year Itch” week of concerts at the ICA.

The Cocteaus/4AD split in 1991 is put down to “a degree of frustration and personal mistrust” by label manager Ivo Watts-Russell, who agrees that, at one time, they defined the 4AD imprimatur. “I wish they still did, but I don’t regret cutting off the conflict and pain. Working with musicians is like relationships. Sadly, they go wrong. We all collectiviely suffered from not playing the game.”

There is no rancour, only sadness in Watt’s Russell’s remarks, while Guthrie is not being rude when he says that “4AD’s forte is discovering bands and starting them off. I don’t believe they had the same interest we did in sustaining our career. I’m totally grateful that they gave us a big start, most of our history. We’re in debt to them for that. The cut-off point came when their level of interest changed. They weren’t interested in what we were doing. We were very hyped up and enthusiastic for our last two albums and we met with a bit of complacency.”

Guthrie believes that the Cocteaus have shot themselves in the foot too often in not promoting certain records. He doesn’t want to be a cult all his life. “We’ve been in denial of success. I thought we weren’t hugely commercially successful but we’d done what we wanted artistically. But we have been commercial, simply because we’re still here today, making records like this.”

A lavish, star-gazing paradise of sound, Four-Calendar Café takes its title, and some inspiration, from the writings of William Least-Heat Moon, principally Blue Highways. But let’s not get too literal. Robin took Blue Highways along on one of his increasingly frequent marathon car journeys across the USA, though, according to Raymonde, he “actually bought the book at the airport.”

“The phrase sounded appropriate though,” mutters Robin into his beard. “I did a bit of that sort of thing. Loved it. Did some on my own, some with Liz. I get a big kick from driving long distances. I’m always blown away by the vastness of the United States.” Guthrie and Fraser hail from another big country, but a very small town: Grangemouth, on the Firth of Forth, or “Gran-gee-mooth,” as Liz pronounces it for fun. As teenage lovers in the early ’80s, thye fled to Falkirk, all of three miles away. “Exodus. Us and all our belongings… in our salad days,” says Fraser while Guthrie shuffles in his seat at the oval table in the conference room.

A bulky, big-boned chap, Robin emphasises his presence by wearing a Demis Roussos cap, the kind that goes with a kaftan. He’s sweating bullets and revealing why “Scottish people always congregate around stations like King’s Cross: it’s so they can get the train home at any time. They always stay in the nearest bed-and-breakfast to the station. It’s quite nice to visit Edinburgh and Glasgow now and then, but I’ve no burning desire to go back to our home town.”

“No, I’ve been there. I can vouch for that,” says Raymonde, who is sporting a rather natty Cat in the Hat t-shirt.

The Cocteau Twins’ ‘soundscapes’ have been romanticised many times but seldom understood. Their roots, which they are trying to escape, lie in waht they call “the old ways” and “the old behaviour.” It’s what Liz refers to as “a class thing” when asked if she likes the idea of opera singing. “I don’t know anything about it and I feel like I can’t get my foot in the door there. The ‘old behaviour’ tells me I can’t go into a shop and buy it.”

Past masters at musical camouflage, Cocteau Twins songs are studded with “Private! Keep Out!” signs so you can’t see the wood for the trees. Poke through the undergrowth on Four-Calendar Café—all is no what it seems. People who think the Cocteaus’ music is about hand-rearing orphaned hedgehogs with teat pipettes are not right.

“There’s definitely a bitta ‘atmos’ isn’t there?” mutters Robin. “I think we can go from saying absolutely nothing to saying too much.”

Raymonde and Fraser bat a tape box of the album between them. Most of the songs on it are intriguing. There is one called “Theft, and Wandering Around Lost” which seems to deal with rape or some other hideous violence. The observation is awkward, so is the silence, eventually broken by Fraser.

“Similar… mmm… sorry I’m not very… I’ve not… I’d like to tell people what the songs are about, but it’s as much as I can do right now to even write it down and sing it. I’m not in the space where I can talk about it but I did… yes, I got it out. I made this woman. I made it. Sorry about that… that’s that avenue closed.”

Robin intervenes. “I thought Liz wrote lyrics so she dind’ thave to talk about them in interviews.”

Simon isn’t sure. “That’s like saying you write a book, but don’t explain it because it’s all in the pages.”

Liz puts a stopper on the adrenalin. “I think that everybody is starting to caretake me, so thanks guys, but fuck off! I think I’ve got to go away now, I’m getting to excited.” With that, she walks out.

“You’ve done it now, haven’t you,” sighs Robin. When Liz comes back, further cloaks of revelation fall to the floor. Simon and Robin are discussing recent offers to ‘go unplugged.’ “It’s not something I wanna rule out at this stage,” remarks Guthrie, a ‘more haste, less speed’ type of chap.

“We couldn’t do it, because we can’t say ‘let’s play that song now’. We can’t remember them,” insists Raymonde.

“But first I was thinking about going to see a singing teacher,” says Liz. “I’m seeing a speech therapist at the moment, which is very helpful because that last album was really hard. I didn’t sing a lot on it. I don’t like the quality of my voice at the moment and I’d like to change it. I’m starting to hurt myself again, you can hear it when I’m talking. I’ve been getting quieter and quieter. It’s like Therese fucking Bazaar from Dollar at the moment.”

Throat operations—the singer’s worst nightmare—are unnecessary. “The speech therapist helped me get the sound out. It was stuck.”

A generalised discussion about admirable singers stops at Dusty Springfield. Fraser likes “people that everybody likes: Matt Johnson, he’s really good; Bob Dylan; singer of the Blue Nile; Bryan Ferry is always good—a top notch performer is Basil.”

Liz, who is a natural soul singer, doesn’t listen to soul music. “But I always mean to be soulful, as in heartfelt. Not like a big black woman.”

“Lizzie’s a small white woman.”

“I know my limitations.”

This small white woman grew up listening to her sister’s records—”Top of the Pops albums, The Tremeloes, Marmalade…”

Top of the Pops albums, see! Not by ‘the original artists’,” points out Robin obliquely.

Simon Raymonde has “inherited all the Dusty albums.” His father co-wrote ‘I Only Want to Be With You’ and ‘Stay Awhile’, monster hits in another age when rock’n’roll was adolescent, pop was in shorts and Denmark Street was Tin Pan Alley.

“He was a producer and arranger. He wrote one for Ken Dodd, a couple of really dodgy ones…”

“So it runs in the family then,” mumbles the Big Fella, out of the corner of his mouth.

“He had something to do with Frankie Vaughan’s ‘Green Door’…”

“Maybe he was behind it?” suggests Robin.

Simon has an even bigger claim to fame. “His dad was in some episodes of Hancock—now that is pretty good,” Guthrie reveals admiringly.

“Yep. He was in 16 out of the 45 TV episodes. Really early ones. He’s in ‘The New Nose’, ‘Ericson The Viking’; he’s in the one where Hancock plays the Greek Tycoon. He plays Tony the Barber.”

“Innit marvellous!” Robin does a Hancock. “Brilliant. My father died when I was very young. It must be really weird seein gyou rdad in a moving picture when he was still a young man.”

The acquisition of widsom is a theme bubbling in the cracks on Four-Calendar Café. “I’m very immature,” says Liz. “I wanna grow up. Maturation, that’s what it is.”

There is also the relatively lighter, if still odd, side of these Cocteaus in a song called ‘Bluebeard’. According to legend, Mr. Blue Beard had several—indeed, many—wives and murdered them all. His new wife Fatima discovered the room where they lay slain, awash with blood, but she got away. Gruesome stuff, especially as this Bluebeard character is Robin. “Are you the right man for me?” sings Liz insistently. Is she trying to tell him something?

“If I were writing the lyrics, they wouldn’t be so one-sided. Is she the best babe for me? I think she’s a bitch as well.”

“And we all laughed,” replies Liz darkly.

Complex affair, the whole man and the woman thing, but you could well learn something to your advantage in the Cocteau Twins’ full-colour, four-calendar café. ▣

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