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

“Fraser-Guided Melodies”

  • By David Cavanaugh
  • Select
  • Oct 1993

Or, indeed, are they? “Fuck knows!” say the Cocteau Twins. The world’s least explanatory threesome return. New label, new album, new family togetherness. But it’s the same old Cocteaus. Robin (‘reliant’ no more), Simon (Venables man) and Liz (audible lyrics) just don’t know how their babies are made…

In the mangrove-treacherous dream-life of any rock band a period of disappearance is essential. Vb: to go away. To be unheard of for a couple of years. Have yourselves a hibernation, then come back stranger and stronger. When the Cocteau Twins do it they retreat here, to their own September Sound studio, down by the leafy Richmond stretch of the twining Thames beneath Twickenham Bridge. It looks like a house or doctor’s surgery; the rest of the building is Pete Townsend’s own studio, Eel Pie. The Cocteaus have found themselves some rooms with great views. Out of Robin Guthrie’s sun-splashed console you can see boats, barges, still water and river wildlife. A duck drifts up. Ah yes—quack—the Cocteaus…they’re not on 4AD anymore, are they?

Inside September Sound the three Cocteau Twins have assembled to do some press for the new album, Four-Calendar Café. Liz Fraser is having her make-up done. On first sight of her new look—a severe crop of the hair—you think, Ach, that’s a weird one. But than she turns round to greet you with big, intense eyes that illuminate not only her entire head but also that particular part of the room. Simon Raymonde, a Spurs fan and Venables man, is chatting about Alan Sugar’s dismal but, as they say, strangely compelling performance on Saint and Greavesie’s Sport in Question. He hasn’t renewed his season ticket. Robin Guthrie is fee-fi-fo-fumming out in the kitchen, his enormous figure topped with a fez-like Moroccan-ish hat. He returns to inquire gruffly: “So how do you want to do this?”

Four-Calendar Café is the Cocteaus’ seventh album (not including the one they did with Harold Budd in ‘86, (The Moon and The Melodies) and there has been an intense, unusual history to it. They did indeed take their leave of Ivo Watts-Russell’s 4AD in March 1991 after nine years, and signed to Phonogram’s interesting artists’ wing Fontana in 1992. In the meantime several fraught situations arose, including identity crises, family strains and drug clean-ups and the upshot is a new kind of Cocteau Twins song: a nebulous domestic tale. The Cocteaus are in the house—as opposed to in water or on the moon—and Liz is singing about her life. All three of them speak of the new album and this era—as one of rebirth, significant growth and injected life. You can hear it. And you can hear it most noticeably in the lyrics of Liz Fraser, who has bitten the bullet and come out with an emotional, painful and very honest set of words about her and Robin’s daughter Lucy, about her mind, her body and about Robin himself. “Are you the right man for me?” she sings on the wistful ‘Bluebeard’. “Or are you toxic for me?” It couldn’t be about anyone else.

“I’m very proud that she’s sung things that mean a lot to her,” Simon Raymonde says, out on the balcony overlooking the river. “I don’t know how much she’d tell you about them.”

“She’s doing a lot of soul-searching,” Robin explains a little later in Liz’s private vocal room. “She’s doing a lot of work on herself. Good. OK. We don’t discuss the lyrics. They’re Liz’s insides coming out on record, and I’ve got to respect her for that.”

On top of this is a surfeit of doubt and skepticism on their part about whether anyone is still interested in them. Difficult to interview, publicity shy, reticent and insular, the Cocteaus hesitantly agree to three individual chats, with a few nervy looks darting between them. “And don’t ask me about football,” Robin says bluntly.

The question of whether they’re neurotic or simply nervous doesn’t apply in a half-hour head-to-head with Simon. He’s the relaxed one, a clever, precise speaker, their sole Englishman, who joined in 1983 a couple of years into the band’s life and plays everything that Robin doesn’t. Early 30s (all three Cocteaus are slightly younger than you imagine—Liz is only 29) he talks about his band in a quizzical, humorously apologetic style, but agrees that Four-Calendar Café is quite some comeback.

“I love it,” he says simply. Unlike Robin, Simon can take a compliment without looking away and cringing, although there’s only so far down that road he’s willing to go. They never use words like “beautiful” and “delicate” between themselves.

“OK, that’s a hard one,” he says, and stops. “It’s funny, it sounds kind of corny, but a lot of it is unsaid. There isn’t a lot of, Oh that’s a beautiful sound, Robin. Because that requires a bit of analysis, to actually put it through your processes and come out with the words. Maybe when it’s mixed you can just say, That’s fuckin’ brilliant–it’s usually just basic yob language really.” He laughs loudly.

When the Cocteaus left 4AD they found themselves in a peculiar position: people wanted them. They had only known one record company; suddenly they were seeing what their fans had known all along—they were a special band who could induce love, awe and swooning even at top level. Insecure about their worth at the best of times, they started the album without really being too sure who wanted to release it.

Owning their own studio helped in that they could come in whenever they liked and work, knowing that even if the clock on the wall was ticking away, well, it was their clock and their wall. Soon, three years went by, in which Simon had a son, Stanley—who, like all significant Cocteaus-related happenings (Lucy; the last two albums) was born in September.

“Quite often over the last three years we’ve said do we want to put the album out now? No, it’s not ready yet. It’s maybe just missing a song, a certain mood. So you keep on writing until you get there.”

It sounds like a writing process that’s unhurried for years, then suddenly all-out panic for weeks. By the time Liz comes on the scene Robin and Simon have basically written 15 or 20 instrumentals, to which she adds melody, words and any number of bewitching voices. Fontana charitably gave them until May 1994 to finish this record, but they felt that was going a bit too far. “We’ve got to eat as well,” Robin says with a withering look.

These “instrumentals” were actually finished by the start of 1992, but Liz had Lucy to look after and various other matters we’ll get on to delayed the proceedings. They would meet in passing at the studio; Simon was dying to know if she’d written any words yet.

“You kind of don’t tend to say anything for a little while,” he says with a laugh, “and then, y’know, months go by—hello, how’s it going? (Fine.) OK, so you leave it for a little bit longer.”

Simon is clearly a big Liz fan. Did he know what she was singing in the ‘esperanto years’?

“Yeah, whatever it was. I suppose I was as unsure as the general public. It’s all written down and it all actually makes sense, but I’ve always thought that it’s very private and it’s very personal and I won’t push it.”

If he heard a word that triggered something in his mind, he would ask her if he had heard it right. Usually he hadn’t. (“But that’s part of the magic, I think, of previous records.”)

Have the Cocteaus ever reduced you to tears? “All the time. (Laughs) Not just the music.” You imagine Liz does the vocals on her own, secluded and with locks on doors. No, both Robin and Simon recorded her for this album, watching her on a monitor as she sang in her private room.

“If she’s just done a vocal and I’ve got this serious lump in my throat, she says, Right, I’m coming in to listen to it. I have to put on this act of being an engineer and not being actually involved with it—that was great. Top quality vocal. And really I just want to say shssssssphhhwww…”

This last word is the approximate sound of a man entranced. After 12 years, the Cocteaus have been brought together as people in the making of an album. Previously they had what Simon calls “a sort of rapport”; when they made Treasure in 1984 he barely knew the other two. Now they are practically friends, although, after 12 years, it’s amazing how little they know about each other, and how scrupulously they refuse to speak for each other.

“We are all very different,” he says firmly. “They’re unique. They do things in a very different way to me. But this record has brought us closer together. That’s what’s special about it, really. I still think we’re like a new band. I actually think we’re starting to make good records now.”

Robin Guthrie has what may well be the most unrecordable speaking voice in history. “Don’t interview him out of doors,” warned Simon. “You won’t pick up a word.”

Sure enough, the first thing Robin does when he slumps on to the floor of Liz’s vocal room—like a little school music room, with a piano and a cymbal—is bring the tape recorder to within centimetres of his body. “I know what I’m like ,” he says.

As undoubted leader of the Cocteaus, Robin is the least willing to speak on their behalf. A non-assertive speaker, every word is mumbled through his nostrils, eye contact is sparse and wary and when you add a thick Scottish accent that pronounces the name of the band’s singer as “Wuzh”, it’s almost a job for Ceefax subtitles. But his famous truculence is gone, and he seizes the chance to decriticise old Cocteaus albums and declare himself new, happy and back in the swing. The change in Robin is a vital one: after years and years on the stuff, he has given up drink and doing coke, and is ready to start liking himself and other people again.

More than any of them he had ripped the piss out of the band’s image. That artwork. Those reviews. “Rhapsodies bled of desire, songs that posit an innocent ineffable” (review of ‘Head Over Heels’ album, 1983). But today he’s pleasant and forthcoming, even if he does go back into his shell at the first sign of a compliment. Your album’s beautiful. (Oh er…mumble…cringe…)

“I find it difficult to listen to, but I realise that’s your opinion,” he says silently. “It’s just my conception of beautiful may be…dunno…something I was probably brought up with or something.” You’re all very different people…

“I believe so, yeah. Although me and Liz have er…evolved—heh—as a couple and sort of meshed with each other, in a very unhealthy way cos we’ve been together for a long time. I think this album is really—after all the changes that have gone on in my life—I think it’s really good.”

Cautiously, Robin agrees terms on which we can discuss the cocaine. He got cleaned up last year (it took a few months and, yes, he did have to go away) and that’s the change he’s just referred to.

“It wasn’t so much cocaine, it was just…obsessive things. I’ve got a very obsessive personality. I’m obsessive about my music, I’m obsessive about everything that I vaguely like. I was getting in situations where I was doing things that were against my values. Maybe that’s a nice way to put it. It’s difficult. I really don’t—I feel a bit vulnerable.” Is life better without it? “Oh, absolutely.”

Are you more comfortable with your past now?

“My head was very trapped in a… (sighs) if what I’m doing now is good, then everything I must have done before is crap. That was the message my head was telling me in the past. I’ve been very, very harsh on myself. I really beat myself up. But I’ve learned to live with them. I don’t listen to them, but I’ve done them. And that’s OK.”

It’s Liz time. Continuing the re-housing theme, this time we move to Simon’s room, and have one of the weirdest conversations imaginable. As our window into the Twins’ mystery, it’s odd that Liz seems unable to talk about it. She talks of identity crises, of feeling like a little kid in a 29-year-old’s body, fear of cheating her fans and the possibility that, by writing about her life as opposed to snow leopards and fluffy kittens, she must be growing up. Unbelievably fidgety, Liz begins sentences with brisk confidence, goes to pieces around word seven, apologises repeatedly, composes herself by holding palms outstretched sideways OM-style, says “OK, OK” to herself, laughs deafeningly like a bark being yanked out of a dog and asks you for another question, even if it’s just the same one.

“I had an awful lot of trouble with singing this time,” she reveals after a while. “I’ve started to see a speech therapist—I felt I had to do that because I find it so hard to sing, but I think it was more to do with what I was singing.”

Not only are the words distinguishable on Four-Calendar Café, they are the words of a woman in some sort of turmoil. Unsure of her family and mind, by the sound of it.

“I think it must be to do with the sort of person I’m going to be, do you know what I mean? That’s the only thing I can think of. And that’s amazing, if it is.”

Very hesitant to talk about the new lyrics, she falls completely to pieces attempting to say how they differ from albums like Blue Bell Knoll.

“Some of it has been… um…oh, I feel shame. HAH! HAH! HAH! Sorry! HAH! HAH! Oh, really sorry! Oh God, calm down, calm down. I always feel like I’m ripping the public off. I feel like I’m being really dishonest. Why? I don’t know. I don’t want to sound like a madwoman, cos I’m not a madwoman. I want to sound like I’ve grown up.” So you’re writing about real emotions?

“I’ve got to get honest,” she nods. But even that’s hard for her: “I get very self-obsessed because I know it’s the lyrics that are going to age. I feel like there’s this horrible thing hanging over me, where it’s going to be me that’s ruining the whole thing. Because I love the music so much and I just want to do it justice. It’s astounding, the music that they write. And I like it all. I think our biggest problem is that we thought we didn’t need to communicate. We never talked—we still don’t—we’re trying to start to talk about things to each other. We’re definitely behaving differently with each other, which is good. It’s really good. We’re all catching up with each other.”

Robin is sufficiently loose now to guide you ‘round his studio, where the album takes shape and crystallises. This is where it all happens. All the crucial faders and effects must be up in his head somewhere, so there’s no point looking for them.

He’s wondering how well the album will sell they’re used to Top Ten chart placings, but it’s been a long time after all. Top Three, you venture, Top Three without a doubt. Bet you.

“How much?” he asks. Er… well, 20 quid?” The big man holds out a meaty hand.

“Just send it to me care of here,” he smiles. ▣