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

“Cocteau Twins”

  • By Staci Bonner
  • Reflex
  • Sep 1988

“It’s alright for them to ask. Just as long as they don’t mind if we say no,” states Simon Raymonde, enigmatic bass player for the Cocteau Twins.

The Cocteau Twins will not be badgered by the press, record labels, agents, or anyone else for that matter. Simon, songwriter/producer Robin Guthrie, and vocalist Elizabeth Fraser—the trio that is the Twins—create their own world rich in dreamy sound/imagery refusing to conform to the conventions of the record industry.

Even their history is self-determined, every whistle-clean step of the way. In 1982, they hand-picked their record label, 4AD—a company that had corralled all that was gothically ethereal, with a catalog of bands including Bauhaus, Dead Can Dance, and Colin Newman Everything blossomed for the Twins quite easily—almost too easily. One demo tape was sent to Ivo Watts-Russell, head of 4AD, and the next thing they knew, they were signed.

With Britain’s celebrated radio host John Peel extending his considerable influence, their debut LP climbed the alternative charts. Virtually every release since then has been sugarcoated with laud and honor; superlative adjectives have been hurled at them by an adoring press. All three agree they are invisible to the public eye. Their flowery, beatific album covers—designed by 23 Envelope—are without photos. Their interviews are vague and unrevealing. How this evasive, almost uncooperative band has managed to achieve such undying devotion is a testament to either the general mysteries of the music world or the overpowering strength of their music.

Scotland was the birthplace of the Cocteau Twins, from which point they first generated their other-worldly recordings. Their first album, Garlands, was followed by a series of EPs, as well as tours with such bands as Modern English and The Birthday Party. Later releases included more singles, and the LPs Head Over Heels and Treasure—after which they bought their own studio in the London area, where they’ve lived for the last several years. During the last few years they’ve also released a compilation LP, The Pink Opaque and a chiefly acoustic release Victorialand—recorded by Robin and Elizabeth.

What followed next was The Moon and The Melodies—a collaboration with Harold Budd, a key figure in the development of ambient and electronic music and a contemporary of Brian Eno. This cooperative effort seemed ideal for a band whose ethereal sound appealed to fans of ambient music. “The project actually started out as a television documentary,” says Simon. “But when funding fell through, we all thought the material was too good to scrap, so we decided to release it as an album.” It was then that the confusion regarding the album began. “We never wanted it to be a Cocteau Twins album,” continues Simon. “We even went to great lengths not to use the band name. We just listed all of our names individually. Everyone made a big deal out of it. Everyone had this idea that it was a really serious album. It wasn’t. It was just something we wanted to do.” Continues Guthrie of Budd, “He’s not the classic serious musician you think. He’s just a regular fellow.”

This effort was conceived in the studio owned, built, and operated (even rented out) by the Cocteau Twins themselves. “We’re running our own studio as well as everything else,” Elizabeth proudly states. “That’s something a band doesn’t usually do.” Instead of the time pressures of alloted, paid-by-the-hour studio time, they now have their coveted privacy. Simon clarifies, “Whatever money we’ve made over the past few years we’ve just put straight back in to what we’re doing.” So, the mysterious aural effects generated through guitars and other processors are derived in their own private studio, where they have time to experiment with sound. “We don’t use keyboards that much,” says Simon. “We’re guitarists. Our studio is probably the only one that doesn’t have a big computer MIDI setup. We just don’t need that stuff to get what we want.”

Obviously, they’ve managed quite well so far. Robin’s account of their seemingly overnight success is a far cry from your average band’s tale of trauma and paid dues. “We’ve never really struggled, I’m afraid to say,” admits the robust band leader. “We made a tape with one or two songs, sent it to John Peel and then we said, “Let’s make a record.” It really didn’t occur to us there were an awful lot of others dying to make records. We were really too stupid to realize that. We just thought, well, obviously this music’s good, so they’re going to think so, too.” No killer instinct, no fight to the top or years of playing clubs, hoping for the day of discovery. Elizabeth adds, “We didn’t think it was hard at all. We just thought good bands got signed, and shit bands didn’t.”

Softspoken and yet unyielding, Robin Guthrie speaks the most and says the least. For example, try probing him about the origin of the group’s name, and Robin begins an explanation reluctantly, “It’s a long story. There were these two gay blokes who were into Jean Cocteau and they were known as the Cocteau Twins…” His voice fades off, and he does not want to continue.

Robin will divulge only so much information. However, he readily states, “If there were one thing I could change it would be the name…when we picked it, it was just the name of the band, and people started reading all these things into it.” Robin projects the feeling their name is sort of kink in the machinery, yet he invites just the sort of probing reflections the Twins appear to constantly shirk. As with almost all else, the relevance of the namesake is minimized. “It’s just one of those inconsequential little things,” sighs Elizabeth. Or is it?

The late Jean Cocteau was the author of the classic “Les Enfants Terribles,” a story of two brothers and a sister—ironically named Elizabeth—creating an alternate reality. Cocteau’s films and writings offer an ideal component to their musical interpretations. The connection is obvious once one sees a film like Beauty and the Beast or Orpheus—with their surreal imagery and offbeat moodiness—it’s difficult to term the association irrelevant.

Live, the Twins are charismatic. Guthrie describes their act as “forty-five minutes of panicking and trying to play all the songs right, while Elizabeth just stands and sings.” Yet it’s been a while since they’ve played. “It’s been two years since the last tour,” says Robin. “We’ve been so busy with the studio.” The thing Elizabeth enjoys most about touring is “Travelling. We usually go with friends, and it’s good to be able to spend time with them.” What audience reaction does their mood music elicit? “It depends upon where you are,” offers Robin. “If we play in Japan people sit down the whole time, but if we’re in London they stand up and jump up and down.”

Simon put the audience’s motive in perspective: “In America, it does seem that people go because they actually want to see the group, not because it’s an event. In London, you get a lot of people sort of standing at the back, trying to be cool.” “They’re more interested in each other than the band,” adds Elizabeth coolly. With the Twins, music comes first and they won’t have it any other way. Their live show is simple and to the point. The same is true of their special effects and artwork. Adds Simon, “It’s a distraction, really, from the music.”

For six years their music rose disinterestedly above the pavement, as if it were a large wet cloud dripping its pastel rain-like sound into ardent listeners. Now, like their labelmates Throwing Muses (who recently signed to Sire), they’ve signed to a major label, and are released in the U.S. via Capitol Records.

Consequently, they were in New York for a week of constant interviewing, generating press for their most recent effort, Blue Bell Knoll. This latest, and first American major label offering is nothing less than a glorious attempt at creating something where there is nothing—a new environment out of thin air. Music as environment is the Cocteau’s specialty. No one does it better.

Seated in their hotel room, the three fidget, exchange glances, laugh nervously, mumble among themselvees. They endure another interview, trying hard to convey it as the bane of their collective existence. I pose the obvious question to these self-proclaimed privacy mongers: do they worry about the inevitable demands of their public?

This is a question Robin is well prepared for, and he expounds on it willingly. “If they asked us to go to record stores to sell records, we’d say go fuck yourselves. They won’t ask us to do it, because they know that’s how we’ve been with other people.”

Apparently, there were no such pressures at 4AD—or anyone else—Simon explains. He counters Robin’s bluntness with straightforward logic: “It’s a very small company, and there’s only a couple of people to deal with, there’s only a few groups on the label. On Capitol, or on any major label, you are one of many, so they expect you all to do pretty much the same thing.”

Robin continues, “I don’t think we’ll have problems (with a major label). I think we’ll continue to do what we want. They’ll find out what we’re like. It seems like most people will do anything to sell their record. We won’t. But at least we’ll feel good about it.” The further the interview continues, the more I get the feeling these minimal responses are actually very measured and calculated.

If Robin is the informal spokesperson of the group, Elizabeth is their enigma. She transcends even language barriers, deriving foreign sounding words for lyrics and song titles. They are generated from some subconscious realm of her being, although she admittedly speaks only English. You won’t find “Athol-Brose” or “Millimillenary” in any dictionary. They just sound…well, the way words should sound—at least according to Elizabeth. She dismisses her esoteric vocabulary with, “There’s not that many words made up, really. It’s just bad grammar; bad diction. Don’t even bother yourself over it.” Again, the standard Twins line.

Her conversation is punctuated with discordant laughter. Her statements are vague and she adheres to the Twins’ golden rule of ambiguity. However, Elizabeth adds a tone of dissonance. Her singing seems cathartic—a cleansing of the soul.

Unwilling to jeopardize their music throught the verbal meat grinder, and the crass common denominator of a category or label, the trio declined to describe their sound, offering only “indescribable” or “impossible”. We don’t try to put our music into a pigeonhole; there should be bigger hole—and ostrich hole—to put our music in.” Robin Guthrie is constantly aware, even protective. Such insistence on refraining from stereotypes extends over their audience as well. “There isn’t a single type of Cocteau Twins fan,” Robin offers, indicating that one reason for going the major label route was for their fans. “Well, we didn’t have records out in the U.S., and people have had to shell out an awful lot of money to get them here as imports.”

Their following is dedicated, putting the band on a pristine pedestal, asking no questions. It’s been two years since the last tour, they receive little U.S. radio play and minimal club exposure. Yet the import LPs are still being snatched up. “A lot of people are like that with bands, when you still seem new,” Elizabeth says. They are almost self-deprecating in their refusal to admit there is anything bizarre or unique about them.

In noting the tenacity of their American fans, Robin replies, “A cult following just means ‘not very successful’.” If so, do they aspire to a large American following? Robin continues, “Basically it is the satisfaction of having our music available to people. Whether they buy it or not doesn’t matter. I think if people have the chance to hear it they might like it. If they don’t get that chance they’ll never know.”

The very act of signing to Capitol, trying for an American audience, is masked in denial. They refuse to admit to wanting to sell records. I wonder aloud how America will receive the Cocteau Twins, and Elizabeth interjects, “We are not going to slash our wrists if we don’t sell our records.” Robin is typically non-committal. “It’s not as if money doesn’t mean anything to us. Money is as important to us as anyone else…you’ve got to eat, you know. There’s this idea that if you do something artistic, you’ve got to be starving. I think it’s a lot of bullshit. It’s just that we don’t expect to sell tons of records. We don’t expect that at all.”

Simon adds, “It’s not the reason for doing it, right? Whereas I think for some people it’s quite high on their list of priorities, maybe second on the list of being rich and famous.” They love to distance themselves from others, to draw the line between their world and ours.

If making this music isn’t for money or self-glorification, then what about communication? Can their music be a way to transcend alienation and reach the masses through art? Guthrie admits some satisfaction in knowing that more people than ever before can hear their music. He simply acknowledges that fact and continues, “but no to the point where that is the reason we make it, we’ve very selfish reasons for that, really.”

Robin firmly says the music is “definitely not political.” Meanwhile, Elizabeth boldly states, “That’s not to say we’ve not got our opinions on things.” That doesn’t mean, though, that she wishes to voice them. Would they like to talk about their feelings on apartheid, abortion, politics? “No,” chuckles Robin.

Another component in the Cocteau Twins persona—be it manufactured or genuine—is their insistence on the creative process. “We don’t consciously change, ever,” Robin insists.

“We make it up as we go along,” Simon adds. “It’s just a natural way of working for us. We put a few things down and bang them out, generally by the end of the day. We don’t write songs at home and bring them in to record. It’s all done in the studio.”

This is one of the facets of the Cocteau’s world which cannot be questioned. I voice my doubts as to whether this can possible encompass Liz’s striking vocals. Doesn’t she experiment and change of her own will? “Well, she doesn’t just open her mouth and whatever comes out is all right—she seems to strive for something,” Robin mumbles, unwilling to deviate far from his conception of their creative habits.

I turn to the enchanting songstress herself for clarification, “…something, though I don’t know what it is. But it’s something,” Fraser adds, looking off into the distance. For one instant, her icy blue eyes appear to contemplate the mechanics, origin, and structure of her magnificent voice, not necessarily to be shared with the public, but for her own solitary comprehension. Then, quickly, she adds, “It’s the same as anyone else, really.”

But it’s not. The press, the audience, and the public want answers, and the Twins just shrug their shoulders, almost apologetically, but never wavering. “We’re pretty uninteresting reading, I suppose,” says Elizabeth. That’s all they’ll give the outside world.

The root of their appeal is their very refusal to cooperate—to conform to the egotism of the music business—coupled with the fact that the Cocteau Twins don’t really sound like anyone else. They throw up their hands and let the music hold its own, professing the same no-bullshit stance that endeared REM to the college crowd. They draw the line and that’s final, refusing entrance to their private world, denying explanations.

I ask Robin Guthrie if he has anything else to say. “No, we’ve got nothing at all to say, just to listen to the music, that is what’s important.” After all my cynicism is gone, and the questioning is over, they carefully leave no room for discussion, and the music is indeed all that remains. Asking Robin Guthrie about the Cocteau Twins is like pulling teeth. “Oh, please, let’s go to the pub. I’m fed up with this music shit.” ▣