“Dreams of Consciousness”
- By Chris Roberts
- Melody Maker
- 11-Sep 1993
Cocteau Twins, along with the Smiths and New Order, virtually dominated the ‘independent scene’ in the Eighties, creating over six (4AD) albums, a uniquely beautiful noise and inspiring some of the most over-the-top reviews ever seen in the British music press. Without the inimitable ‘Cocteaus Sound’, there would be no Curve, Cranes, Sugarcubes or Sundays. On the eve of the release of Cocteau Twins’ debut album for a major label, Chris Roberts speaks to chicken poxed main man Robin Guthrie and meets Liz Fraser, the painfully shy woman whose voice has enchanted and influenced a generation.
Robin is not here today. He is housebound with chicken pox, “covered in spots from head to foot, it’s fucking terrible. I got it from Lucy, the light of my life. Thanks a lot, bitch.”
Lucy—Robin and Liz’s daughter—is four years young. When I phone the calamine-covered Robin, she runs up to him and exclaims, “I’ve done a poo!” We’re suitably impressed.
Guthrie, notwithstanding his unfortunate condition, is displaying a fine sickbed telephone manner.
“It doesn’t matter what we do, it still comes out sounding like that,” he groans. “Whatever elements we try, we do it through our own grind—we did ‘Frosty the Snowman’ once, with sleighbells and all, and it still sounded like the Cocteaus. It’s a double-edged sword: it’s brilliant, but it makes it seem like all we can do. I’ve got no aspirations to be a musical genius or a force to be reckoned with—this is just a statement of where our heads are now. We know it’s different. I used to say ‘Treasure’ and ‘Garlands’ were shite…and they’re not, you know? I can accept that’s where we were at the time. I was just very scared of being judged. I always felt insecure in the music world. I’ve grown up. I like it, personally.
“We started quite young. I’m 31 and it seems like we’ve been around forever—so people tell me—but we did stuff when we were emotionally immature and fucked up and didn’t know what our place on the planet was. This feels more mature. Liz is confronting issues that have been on the back burner for a few years. And I don’t hang out getting drunk with journalists all the time!
“Fatherhood? Actually, it’s a good excuse for going home when you can’t do any work. It goes very quick. It seems like yesterday she was just a little baby. Before Lucy, we lived and breathed music. There was nothing more important than the Cocteau Twins. Now we have families, we realise the world could conceivably get along without our records. For the time being, anyway. It’s always with me, music—but I try to have a life, you know?
“Still, if fifty people like it and one doesn’t, that spoils it. That’s the kind of negative personality I am. I’ve consciously stripped the sound back a lot this time. I’ve had faith in the songs which I’d previously lacked. Usually, I put on millions of overdubs, tart it up to make it sound expensive, with frilly twiddly bits to make it sound like people who can play! I used to be insecure with the material, but the songs are there now, devoid of all that. You could say we’ve mellowed out, we’re trying to accept our space. I’m no longer a whirlwind of abuse, am I? We’re touring next year and I’d like to try something very different. I like my life any way.”
There are times today when I am intensely grateful for Simon Raymonde’s presence of mind. Perhaps even more so than the time we challenged for a 50/50 ball during a game of soccer and, one audible crunch later, he quipped: “Blimey, I know you like the Sundays, but that was ridiculous.”
For today, Cocteau Twins’ bassist is gently shepherding Elizabeth Fraser’s self-flagellating, perversely cyclical streams of self-consciousness into something approaching coherence. Liz’s way with sentences is akin to Pollock’s way with straight lines. If, as someone said, genius is the ability to hold two opposing and contradictory notions in the head at the same time, Liz is at least Einstein, more probably the Einstein Triplets. You keep wishing she’d relax, chill out. You also keep wishing you could marry a terminally ill millionairess and that zebras could hang-glide.
We are going through the (for Liz) painful process of A Cocteau Twins Interview because the trio’s seventh album, Four-Calendar Café, is released in October, preceded by a single, “Evangeline”, in a couple of weeks.
I ask what they’ve been doing since 1990’s Heaven or Las Vegas and Liz sets the dysfunctional tone for the day.
“We don’t seem to… I’m really scared, I’m really scared today. yeah. Yeah. Cos, y’know, it’s not the norm. And I don’t like change very much. I don’t adapt very well. Ha! Ha!”
Take the tape recorder away from Liz and she’s fine, as much like a calm grown-up as you or me, saying how much she enjoyed U2 at Wembley or “Mad Dog and Glory”, asking all manner of reasonable questions about Pet Shop Boys, “Map of the Human Heart”, do you want Marmite on your toast? (I do), etc. You know me, I venture, I’m not frightening. But evidently I am. It must be the big green monster mask.
Simon is sensibly explaining the difference between 4AD and Phonogram. The switch was “probably the least traumatic of all things…the difference is they talk to you when you go in.”
“I’ve not been in,” Says Liz.
“Have you not?” says Simon. “it’s nice.”
“I don’t really do anything, do I?” says Liz. “Is there a nice bathroom? Is it clean?”
“Is it just a fear of meeting all those new people?” asks Simon.
“No, I just don’t seem to have the time. Well—I’m a great procrastinator, one of the best. I always feel like I’ m getting ready to do something. So I’m using up a lot of energy getting ready. So it doesn’t feel like I’m doing nothing. Ha ha ha! Oh, I shouldn’t laugh, it’s not very funny.”
How do you divide time between bringing up baby and bringing forth music?
“I don’t. It’s just a mess. I think I’ve got a routine, but I guess I haven’t. Because I’m working when I’m at home, and I’m worrying about Lucy when I’m at the studio. I’m just…”
“It is a remarkable, admirable thing,” offers Simon, a father of two years himself, “juggling being a mother and working…”
“And having a relationship with someone in the band,” adds Liz. “It’s fucking exhausting, actually. I don’t find it easy at all. As you can hear on the album. If that comes over.”
“Just a little bit,” murmurs Simon.
Indeed the most instantly surprising aspect of Four-Calendar Café is that you can discern a large percentage of the lyrics. Thoughts and feelings are exposed in a manner not witnessed on the previous webs of fantasy-language and vowel-weaving.
“Hmm,” Liz debates with herself. “I needed to be honest with myself. I suppose it was pretty deliberate. But it’s never for anybody else’s benefit. It’s always for me. I’m very self-obsessed. I never thought I was, but I’m starting to realise I think the whole world revolves around me. Not Lucy. Me. Ha ha!”
I think most people feel that way.
“I don’t know…I don’t know what I’ll need to do next, but that’s what I needed to do. And so I did that. And now I’ve got to talk about it.”
Which means opening up a bit, letting people in on it (you)?
“Yes, but I always felt like I was doing that. Oh, I don t know how much time I spend analysing it. I’ve not got very far. These are about real people, real things that are happening, that happened, that will happen.”
The real people being you?
“Yes, among other people.”
The opening song on the new album, “Know Who You Are At Every Age”—is that a mother-to-daughter thing?
“That’s me being really angry and…’don’t do what I’ve done’.”
Anyway, Lucy can’t know “who she is” just yet…
“Oh, yeah! She’s got a very good sense of who she is. At three or four, they really start getting stuck in. Oh, I can’t remember who I was when I was four, no. I can’t remember very much. About my past. Not got too many memories. I was a late developer. She’s very independent.”
“You probably know much more at that age than you do as a teenager,” says Simon. “Cos you then get more and more information to contradicts what you thought you already knew. You get all this doubt and that’s the hardest period. At Lucy’s age, you’re all cocky and confident, stable in the home. Before school.”
Do the three of you spend a lot of time talking about kids?
“We don’t spend a lot of time talking about anything” says Liz. “I find it so hard. I feel really inept. That’s why it was so easy to make an album like, say, ‘Blue Bell Knoll’, where it was just all sound, and you can do what the fuck you want. I wasn’t getting caught up in the feelings about what I was singing, like I did on the new album. I think I must shy away.”
“Do you think so?” interjects Simon, helpfully. “I don’t think this record could be more blunt.”
“I go… I go quite near to being honest,” allows Liz. “But it was a tall order for me to not go for the easy option of just stringing a few vowels together.”
In “Evangeline”, you utter: “There is no going back/I can’t stop feeling now…”
“Ooh, you can hear it?! Mmm, I’m a pretty extreme person. And that’s an extreme thing to say. I mean, I don’t actually have to bare my soul and then edit it within an interview. If that’s what I mean. But, in a way, I feel like I’ve set myself up. I thought it might spoil it for people if they could understand what I was saying.”
You were worried the mystery might dissolve?
We decide to leave the analysis well alone after the following exchange about the song, “Theft And Wandering Around Lost”.
“Well, that’s what I’m feeling pissed off about at the moment,” says Liz. “I don’t know whether I’m heading toward fucking Suffragette. Y’know? I don’t know what’s happening here. I’m getting really paranoid…”
I remain patient. Simon remains patient. We remain patient. See how patient we remain.
“It’s about anything and everything, it really is. Because I’m so… angry. I sound like a victim. I do that. I think…we’ve all been victims at one time or another in our lives. That’s a role I can’t help assuming.”
You mean, as a woman?
“No, no. As a person. Well, as a woman as well. Oh, I don’t know—I find it really hard to follow up, to feel my feelings, as it were. Oh God, this is a disaster. I can’t… I have no sense of being a woman. I feel really neutered. So I’m really confused about what’s going on.” (Not for the first time, Liz cracks up in embarrassed laughter.) “Anything could happen! And probably will. I’m really sick of talking about me. I’m really sick of it. I know, it spoils the answers, it really does. But it’s excruciating. But not only am I private, I’m really secretive. And that’s my problem. Maybe I’m not self-obsessed. See, I don’t know what I’m talking about! I shouldn’t be allowed to speak! But there’s always medication. I’m just a very confused woman and I’m looking forward to not being so confused. What’s confusion? Fear? Right, that fits. I’m looking forward to not being quite so scared.”
One can only nod. really. To Liz’s eternal credit, I should point out that she is the first person to use the word “etymology” in an interview with the horrid frightening music press since, oh, maybe ever.
“I think I might enjoy it soon, really enjoy it, for the first time,” the various Lizzes are saying, back at the skating-on-soup session. “As soon as I work out what the fuck I’m doing. God, why I’m doing it is such a hard question to answer. Ooh, painful, painful, ooh, pain, pain! It’s fucking murder, that’s what it is! But, yes, I keep doing it. It’s going to be wonderful very soon. I’ve gone all dizzy.”
It must be the euphoria.
“I think it’s a way out. I think I’m in a mess, and I’m fucked, and it’s definitely a way out. There are so many good bits. If you just give yourself a break and let yourself enjoy it, it evens out, doesn’t it? Aw, I’m sick of being so extreme. I’m fucking fed up with it.”
“See, you’re just putting yourself down again,” notes Simon. “You’re incredibly creative and you just don’t realise it yet.”
“But I think everybody else is! I feel a lot of guilt about having had a kid, but I’m… doing the best job I can to bring her up to be healthy and confident about herself, and for her to be happy to have been born and to enjoy being alive.”
I’m sure you’ve kept very busy, what with one thing and another.
“Thank you! That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me! Hee hee hee! That’s a real compliment. Never mind, fuck, cor, you look slim. Ha ha! Aaiieee, I’ve gone really dizzy…” ▣