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

“The Serpent and the Pearl: An Interview with Harold Budd”

  • By Dan Goldstein
  • Electronics & Music Maker
  • 1-Jul 1986

This is an excerpt from a longer interview with Budd, who collaborated with Cocteau Twins on a project that would become the LP The Moon and the Melodies in 1986. (Photograph of Harold Budd by Matthew Vosburgh.)

Harold Budd is more than just a leading light in contemporary American music. His work has a natural beauty which seduces the listener with tranquil progressions, delicate warmth, and skilful arrangements that use instruments as diverse as piano, marimba, and Synclavier II.

How did your newest collaboration—with the Cocteau Twins—come about?

Well, I have to admit that I didn’t know of the Cocteau Twins until one of the band members, Simon Raymonde, was using a piece of mine and Eno’s as a cover on an album. The piece was ‘Not Yet Remembered’, and it was going to be the Twins themselves who were going to do it, or that’s the story I heard. The publisher called me up and informed me about this, and said ‘they’re really a great group and I think you’d like hearing them’, so I called up a record distributor friend of mine in Los Angeles and asked if he carried the Twins.

He sent me a compilation cassette, so I don’t know what the album itself was, or the names of the pieces. But in any case, I was really taken with it.

Then in November they came to Los Angeles. We met and got along famously for a very brief time, and we started swapping ideas on a collaboration of some kind. They asked if I’d be free to do it, and I said ‘yeah, absolutely, anytime, just give me a shout and I’ll be there’. And here I am in London!

Have you spent most of your time recording?

Yes, basically. Robin has a studio in North Acton. It’s a 16-track studio and we do the basic tracking there daily, and then he’ll take it to a 24-track studio for transferring and mixing.

The music has been very improvisational. It’s working the way most people work anyway when left to their own devices. In this instance, everyone takes the blame and the credit equally, so it’s kind of composition by committee. It’s pretty apparent early on in a piece that something is happening and is ringing our bell. It’s a constant creative process in the studio, because nothing is written out. Very, very little is planned beforehand: it’s just a matter of laying some tracks down and seeing what works.

Some very strange pieces have come up, I can tell you. That’s really the thing about collaboration that fascinates me so much—the notion that you come up with music that neither one of the collaborators would have dreamed up if they were left alone. It’s something that’s absolutely unique to the collaboration. Consequently it’s not ‘pure’ in the sense that it’s not Cocteau Twins, and it’s not me: it’s an odd combination peculiar to the mixture.

Do you prefer that style of working to composing on your own?

It really depends upon the nature of the music. There is some music where I absolutely must make all the decisions myself, because I have a sense about its structure, where it’s going, and what I actually want it to sound like. I’m the only one who can make those basic decisions, and an input from a second party is kind of counter-productive.

But when you know it’s going to be a collaboration from square one, you go in with a totally different attitude. And of course there are two ingredients. Number one is the people with whom you’re collaborating; you must like them personally because it’s terribly aggravating work. Number two is that you have to like what each other person’s art is, with respect to their previous work, so that you just have a hunch that it’s going to work out. That’s the kind of trust that’s impossible until you actually put it on the line.

At the moment I take it that the music is purely instrumental. Will it have vocals on it?

Yes it will. I think Elizabeth Fraser’s put vocals on one song so far. Apparently, her method of working—which I totally agree to—is to take the instrumental tracks home and then compose the words and melodies. She works up something that’s comfortable to her and seems to work, and that’s her way of working.

You’re perfectly willing to accept that she will add another dimension to things that you may not agree with…

Yeah, sure. Because in a sense she’s rather forced to accept what I’m doing as well. It all goes back to that trust I was talking about.

Who seems to be coming up with the initial melodies?

We have eight or nine songs—well, pieces—tracked. The interesting thing is that the ones which I come up with tend to be pieces, whereas the ones that Simon comes up with on the piano are definitely songs—they’re structured that way. Mine frequently don’t even change key once they begin, or even change chord for that matter (laughs). Robin’s pieces tend to be somewhere in between the two, so I can’t say, really.

For the first three or four days I laid down a whole bunch of stuff we had to work on, and then I took a break and Simon began some, then Robin began some and now we’re back to the other way again. But it’s just going to be raw tracking—I will leave an awful lot to them. We have to see how it works out. It’s album length now, and it’ll appear as an album.

What instruments have you been using to make these strange noises?

Well, it’s somewhat restricted. I have a philosophy that one is obliged to use what’s there. You don’t need an awful lot of stuff, but you use fully everything that’s there. What is there now, insofar as my own input is concerned, is a Yamaha electric grand piano and a Mirage sampling keyboard. Robin of course is the guitarist, and Simon the bass player, although he does occasionally play the piano, rather well too. And there’s an awful lot of outboard equipment there which works very well. It’s what gives them the Cocteau Twins sound—it’s the stuff they use. Primarily it’s the Yamaha SPX90, which is absolutely incredible… an amazing instrument.

Read the full article online from its source.