“East is East and West is West And Here the Twins Shall Meet”
- By Jennie Ruggles
- Addicted to Noise
- May 1996
They’ve been called ambient, new age, conventional and just plain weird. But what do the Cocteau Twins think about themselves?
“They do fabulous buns at their little tea house,” says Robin Guthrie munching on a monstrous American version of a finger sandwich in the oval office at Capitol Records. The guitarist and composer of the Cocteau Twins is telling me about a visit to Stonehenge, which apparently you can’t see up close even for the entrance fee of five pounds (about $8).
“What happens is there is a fence so if you pay the five pounds you can go to the other side of the fence. You get exactly the same view but it’s the other side,” says Robin.
“Was Julian Cope there?” quips vocalist Elizabeth Fraser from the head of the table. Her speciality is dropping little gems on the conversation and then guilelessly ducking out.
“Smoking a very large spliff?” adds Simon Raymonde. Contrary to previous reports, the red-headed (on this occasion) Simon is very forthcoming. Now he tells me that while Julian Cope’s new rock autobiography, Head On, is a good book, Cope is not at all a nice person. Speculation flies round that he may be a new ager—a sore point to the Cocteau Twins, since a common misnomer for their music is new age.
“That part of England (Stonehenge) is really strange,” says Robin, who like the rest of the band grew up in Scotland and records primarily at their studio in Twickenham, England. “There’s lots of crusties, new agers. People who don’t wash and defraud their social security, and you don’t want them bringing their caravans next to your house.”
Roughly shaven Robin is nearly impossible to hear, muffled speech made more unintelligible by a large silver ball that pierces the central frenulum of his tongue. One can judge the quality of the conversation by his pitch. While conversation circles the toilet bowl, Robin’s voice is barely audible, but if the subject turns promising he becomes slightly more understandable.
For talk of the Cocteau Twins oeuvre, Robin sits up. They have a few things to explain about the implications of the Twins contract with Capitol. Questions about their genre have been bandied about, mainly by critics who say their music straddles ambient and new age.
“Five years ago an ambient record and a new age record were very different,” says Robin pointing to their 1986 record with Harold Budd and Brian Eno, The Moon and The Melodies, an album which Robin has called “a turkey” and which is described in the Trouser Press Record Guide as “firmly entrenched in new age…” “Ambient records, I feel a lot are very palatable,” Robin continues. “New age records, I think, suck. It’s just a definition of terms, but that definition wasn’t even there ten years ago when we made The Moon and The Melodies.”
Fifteen years ago, when the Cocteau Twins made their first album, Garlands (1982), they were defined as neither ambient nor new age. Rather, the terms were largely personal, which paradoxically attracted a disparate set of fans to their music. The transcendent language of Fraser’s lyrics dispensed with conventional meaning, opting instead for lyricism and evocativeness, even if it seemed nonsensical. Lyrics suggested strings of words such as “chaplets see me drugged/I could die in the rosary.” But, since lyric sheets were never included, one couldn’t know for sure.
Album after album, the trio’s defining feature was the lack of traditional lyrics and the absence of any explanation. So naturally, when some lyrics showed up on 1993’s Four Calendar Café, there was talk that the Cocteau Twins had caved to convention. In 1996, what will people think now that Milk & Kisses clearly has lyrics for songs such as “Rilkean Heart?”
“It doesn’t concern me,” says Fraser fervently, her short hair accentuating a long thin neck held very straight. “It mustn’t be something that does concern me because it will affect what I do, and I don’t want to be affected by that, because it will interrupt whatever’s going on, and I guess I’m afraid of losing whatever it is that we have.”
“The great irony is we moved from 4AD, this sort of iconoclastic label and moved to this new arena and it just so happened that we were going through an awful lot of shit at the time that Liz needed to write about,” says Simon. “Coincidentally we happened to be on a major label at the time, and so people went ‘oh well that’s why. They’re on a major label, therefore she’s singing them lyrics because they want to sell records.’”
“Even at 4AD there was sort of gentle encouragement for Liz to sing lyrics,” adds Robin.
“Oh yeah of course,” says Fraser. “Equally there were people saying ‘please don’t do it any other way, otherwise it will be spoiled and what I get from your music will be taken away from me and I don’t want to lose it.’”
The mystery of the unknown lyrics combined with the simultaneously sparse and rich texture of the Cocteau Twins sound has always been compelling, and demystifying the music might be like seeing the little blustering man in Oz behind the Wizard. The concept that beauty is tied to the unknown dates back to the poet Rilke, who wrote at length about this idea. It’s an irony not lost on Fraser, whose song “Rilkean Heart” more openly refers to her personal terrain than ever before.
“Rilkean Heart,” from the upcoming Capitol release Milk and Kisses, is an expression of some of the “shit” that Fraser has gone through since their last album. Fraser and Robin, parents of six year old Lucy Belle, have split, a result of some changes that shook the foundations of their relationship. When Robin went into treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, Fraser also came face to face with unsavory parts of her life that had taken a toll. After some time, both of them recovered. Now Fraser says “I have much more of a sense of self. [In the past] I just gave it all away—just to any man in my life.”
Fraser’s conflict sheds a little light on the reason for her erstwhile secret language. “It makes perfect sense to me,” she says. “In retrospect I think I coped as best I could with being a human being in a world full of other human beings that I was disconnected from,” she says giving a slightly veiled answer.
As someone who is accustomed to conveying meaning without words per se, Fraser is skilled at keeping the words she chooses to use close to the chest. The Cocteau Twins are not unlike the Romulans of “Star Trek.” Both owe their longevity in part to their effective cloaking devices. So don’t expect the full annals of Liz Fraser’s growth in a book of self disclosure. The rumor that she wrote an autobiography to be called Service and The Trees summoned only guffaws all around the table.
Although the lyrics now tell more about Fraser, she is still keenly self protective, and especially when it comes to her art. MTV came to blows with the Cocteau Twins a few years ago when they made the mistake of demanding a copy of her lyrics for the “Iceblink Luck” video in 1990. The company was paranoid about backward masking of satanic messages, while Fraser was wary for other reasons. “I wouldn’t let them see the lyrics. I was paranoid that these lyrics would be duplicated, sent to various people all over the country.”
McCarthy’s ghost still lingering, the lyrics might have incriminated the band. But MTV would first have had to make sense of them, which anyone could see, is an absolutely ludicrous proposition. “Yes. I suggest to you, Elizabeth Fraser, that you did use the word ‘walnut!’” Simon pronounces in a booming voice of authority. The problem is mute, in any case, because Fraser is known to spontaneously change the lyrics.
One really never knew what she might be saying, and at times apparently neither did she. “I was making portmanteaus, a French word for when you take different components and mix them up to make a different thing out of them,” explains Fraser. “Often they’re transcendent sounds, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes I’ll see a word and I’ll love it so much I don’t want to change it. But I don’t know what the translation of the word would be and so I will use it with a little bit of fear in my voice just in case I’m singing ‘sausage’ and I’m offending a vegetarian,” she says laughing quietly.
“Well anyway, it’s true. If you play it (the song) backwards you can hear, ‘Other people. who fucking needs them?’” says Robin, who seems to be having some trouble being at all serious.
He gets serious enough though around the subject of death. “Yes I’ve been close to death, many times,” he says rubbing his face with both his hands, his voice hushed. “OD’ing and coming to and the first thing you think about is getting more drugs. That definitely takes you to a very spiritual place. It’s not something I want to go back to.”
Fraser watches Robin. While he talks, she is thinking of death on a more symbolic plane. “Recording, writing is full of birth and death, the whole cycle,” she says. “You have a birth, a death, and a birth again. I get a sense of that when we record and when a song is being written.”
Does this mean there’s grief when a project is finished? I ask. “Yes, there’s lots of grief,” Robin says glibly. “Usually from the record company.”
Cloaking devices on! By way of explanation for his offhandedness, Robin says they prefer not to disclose the details of their lives in tabloid morbidity because he says, “We don’t really promote ourselves, we promote our music. A lot of people use music as a vehicle to get themselves where they want to go.”
This is an oddity here in the US of A where the cult of personality reigns over rock and roll. Image and looks are part of the package and an element of the attraction.
The Cocteau Twins reputation for insularity is, to say the least, no exaggeration; a fact I’m well aware of since for years I scoured the albums in vain for any clues about these people. I didn’t even know what Elizabeth Fraser looked like until I finally saw a video in 1990.
“I don’t know what most of the people I listen to look like,” offers Fraser. The Cocteau Twins, who refused to sign autographs up until about five years ago, (“We didn’t want to feel like they [the fans] were less important than we are,” says Fraser) except that the cult of personality is not their cup of tea. To this end, they expect their fans might feel the same. They also hope the listener’s sensibility will expand along with the band’s. But alas, this is not always the case. Some traditionalists stick by the first album Garlands.
About this Robin says, “I’m much more tolerant now, but a couple of years ago if you had said that Garlands was your favorite I would’ve been thinking, ‘God you’re pathetic.’ Because the type of people who follow us, as we got older and grew, these people didn’t, and at concerts they’d still shout ‘Wax & Wane!’ I would think the world was passing them by a little bit,” he says mildly. “I’d like to melt down all the old records to make a new one. My old theory was you had to trade in all your old Cocteau Twins records to get the new one, therefore you move with the band and you don’t get stuck.”
Simon adds that if the band had not continued to grow, he would have thrown in the towel. As it turns out, the Cocteau Twins have never seemed stymied, stagnant or stuck. ▣