“Head Over Heels with the Cocteau Twins”
- By Dan Goldstein
- Electronics & Music Maker
- Aug 1984
In a world of musical plagiarism and conformity, The Cocteau Twins stand out as a welcome spark of originality: their blend of metronomic rhythms, crashing guitar chords and beautifully treated vocals is as enduringly fascinating as it is instantly captivating. Dan Goldstein spoke to the band—now a three-piece once again—about how they arrived at their distinctive sound and how it’s maintained both live and in the studio.
The ‘alternative’ charts published in the weekly music papers have only one criterion for the inclusion of new releases—that they are distributed independently of the major record companies. The music itself can be as derivative, monotonous and unremarkable as its creators wish, but one band, The Cocteau Twins, make music that can rightfully be classed as ‘alternative’, since it contains few if any reference points to anything recorded by anyone almost anywhere in the world.
Since their first EP release—Lullabies—just over two years ago, they have dominated the above-mentioned charts with every new record they produce, and only an unwillingness to adopt the promotional attitudes of more “professional” outfits has prevented them from achieving wider acclaim, though their most recent single, “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops” made the Music Week Top 40 with consummate ease.
The band was formed about three years back in the town of Grangemouth, Scotland, and at its inception consisted of Robin Guthrie, guitar, drum machines and keyboards, Will Heggie, bass guitar, and Liz Fraser, vocals.
“We’d had no previous inclination to make music prior to the Cocteau Twins being formed,” Guthrie recalls, “so it was a new thing for us. I don’t think we were directly influenced by anybody. I can remember that at that time we all liked what the Birthday Party were doing, but I don’t think you can listen to our early records and honestly say that our music sounds much like The Birthday Party.”
After rehearsing a number of their own songs over a period of a few months, the Twins sent a demo tape to 4AD Records (“because that was the label The Birthday Party were on, and we didn’t see much point writing to anybody else”) and much to their surprise, the label’s MD, Ivo Watts-Russell, invited them down to London to record Lullabies.
The single was distinctive enough to attract the attentions of Radio 1’s John Peel, and the extensive airplay he gave it saw it into the alternative charts without much further ado.
The Twins then went into Blackwing Studios to record their first album—Garlands—for 4AD.*
“That was in the days when Blackwing was still a 16-track,” Guthrie remembers, “and we had both Eric Radcliffe and John Fryer engineering. We were very green then about how to go about recording, so Ivo did most of that work in the early days and went down as Producer on the records.
“Our songs were written in much the same way they are now, with myself and the bass player writing the music first and Liz coming up with the lyrics and vocal line afterwards. If you listen to Garlands, and in fact most of what we’ve released on record, you’ll realise that most of the main melodies are carried by the bass, while anything I do on guitar or keyboards is just something extra to fill up the space.”
Garlands is an unusual LP in many ways. The way the songs are arranged, structured, and produced sets it apart from just about anything else this writer has ever heard, and although the percussion lines are limited to some extent by the use of a DR55 Dr Rhythm (“We did actually have a drummer in the band for about two weeks, but he just couldn’t play in time” — Robin), the power of Liz Fraser’s vocal delivery—and the colourful intensity of her lyrics—are enough to send most newcomers reaching for the superlative.
Yet strangely, Liz had never received any formal vocal training prior to The Cocteau Twins’ formation, and has only recently been receiving lessons (from the same tutor who’s currently instructing Vince Clarke, of all people) on how to use her already excellent singing voice to its fullest.
‘Before we formed The Cocteau Twins, I’d never even listened to the way any other singers sang, and it’s only just recently that I’ve begun to appreciate them. I don’t base my singing style on any other singers: I just do what comes naturally.
“When the band started I began reading books a lot more, and I get most of my inspiration for lyrics through them. I can’t get inspiration from seeing things, I can only get excited by images—things that are conjured up.
“I think I’m also more interested in the way words sound and what you can do if you say words in different ways than in what the words themselves actually mean. I can’t really say which authors or books have influenced me—I can never remember names—but it’s really just certain groups of words and the way they sound.”
The period following the release of Garlands saw more than a little uncertainty surrounding the Twins’ composition and direction. Will Heggie left the band, leaving Guthrie with the task of writing and performing the band’s music single-handed, while a brief flirtation with former-Associate Alan Rankine—who produced the Twins’ next vinyl product, Peppermint Pig—pleased Guthrie and Fraser not at all.
Head Over Heels
Things took a turn for the better however with the recording of Head Over Heels, The Cocteau Twins’ second album for 4AD. Guthrie assumed a co-producer’s role (with John Fryer) as well as writing and arranging all the music, and instrumentally his endeavours were aided by the addition of some new hardware, in the shape of a Drumulator, several keyboards (including a Jupiter 8 and a Mellotron) and a Fender Jazzmaster guitar.
“It’s a nice instrument, a good guitar to play. But to be honest with the amount of effects and things I use, most guitars end up sounding much the same as each other. My basic effects set-up is a Boss pedalboard with Overdrive, Heavy Metal, Vibrato and Flanger pedals, and the signal then goes to a Roland Dimension D chorus unit and a Boss DE200 digital delay—and that’s just what I use live!
“In the studio, I’ll use whatever the particular control room has in the way of effects. Blackwing has got all the usual stuff, and recently we’ve been recording up at a studio near Edinburgh called Palladium, and they’ve got all sorts of gear, AMS delays, harmonisers, ADTs, you name it. What I also like about Palladium is the fact that they’ve got loads of different instruments you can play about with, which are all included in the price of the recording. It’s a residential complex… well, no,” Guthrie has a sudden change of heart. “It’s actually more like somebody’s house that’s been turned into a 24-track studio where the artists can live while they’re recording.
“Anyway, they’ve got a lot of different instruments up there, grand piano, synths, lots of different bits of percussion, and because we did some of Head Over Heels there, it ended up having a wider sound, with different sorts of instruments in it.
“I like recording up there, simply because all that gear is included in the basic price. If you want to record at a 24-track down here in London, it costs you fifty quid just to hire out a cymbal for the day, or so it seems.”
Head Over Heels also saw a refinement of the way Liz Fraser’s voice is captured on disc, though she herself remains blissfully unaware of the processes involved in getting her vocals sounding just as they should.
“I’m not really a very technical person, though I’ve got to the stage now where I know what an amp and a microphone are! And of course I know what sounds good on my voice…”
Robin takes over.
“…Liz likes to hear her vocals a certain way through the foldback when we’re playing live, so we have everything going through an ADT and a DeltaLab digital delay. Obviously there are effects on the vocals out front as well, but those vary from gig to gig because different PA companies have different racks of effects, which is why we try to keep the foldback sound consistent.
“In the studio I normally record Liz’s vocals completely dry, only adding effects at the mixing stage. That way you can go back to the beginning and start again if you want to change something.”
Song to the Siren
The Liz Fraser vocal performance that is best-known among casual listeners remains her rendition of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren,” which appeared last year on 4AD under the banner “This Mortal Coil,” an umbrella heading for a band that consisted of members of The Cocteau Twins, Modern English, and Colourbox. Liz takes up the story.
“Ivo had this idea of a single that became a version of a Modern English song, but he was stuck for something to put on the B-side of the twelve-inch, so he suggested we do “Song to the Siren.” He liked it so much it became more or less the A-side of the seven-inch and got a lot of airplay, but neither Robin nor I really like it much now. I think the vocals on it are very, very shaky, because they were recorded too quickly—I didn’t really have time to rehearse them properly.”
Given the chance, would she re-record the song?
“No, absolutely not.
“There’s going to be a This Mortal Coil album coming out this autumn, but I haven’t really been involved with it at all, though Robin’s played on a couple of tracks.”
Moving back to the Twins themselves, the band was recently restored to its original three-piece format by the addition of bass player Simon Raymonde, though as he relates, he more or less fell into the band by accident.
“I’d known Ivo for a little while, and met Robin and Liz through him. I leapt at the chance to record with the band, because although I’d been in various different bands before, I’d always thought of The Cocteau Twins as being one of the best around. In fact, I suppose if there was an ideal band for me to be in, then this is probably it!”
Raymonde’s contribution made itself felt instantly on “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops,” on which the Twins sound more like a group of musicians playing together where previously they appeared to be only a loose collection of overdubs, and which also saw the band take control over production exclusively.
“We’ve been doing some mixing at a studio down here that nobody knows about,” says Guthrie, his finger to his lips. “The guy who owns it doesn’t want anybody to know of its existence because he hasn’t got planning permission for it yet. But he’s got about £70,000 worth of gear down there, a 24-track machine, a Harrison desk and everything. What we’ve been doing lately is recording songs up in Edinburgh and then coming down here to mix them. It’s working out OK like that, but we’re hoping to get a home studio soon—probably based around the Fostex B16—so that we’ll be able to demo songs at home without having to write at a professional studio.”
Liz continues: “The way we did Head Over Heels was perfect, but it was a complete contrast to the way we recorded Garlands, when we had all the songs written before we went into the studio. For Head Over Heels we went in with nothing and wrote it all in the studio, but we don’t want to do that again, so we’re going to start writing songs again soon for the new album.”
And start they will, just as soon as Robin has found some new chips for his Drumulator (“it’s one of the very early ones, and I’m not sure whether the new sounds that are being developed for it will fit”).
Once complete, the album should be in the shops before 1984 is out, and I for one fully expect it to be as refreshingly different as its predecessors. Looking back on The Cocteau Twins’ already considerable past achievements, there seems no reason why it shouldn’t be, though the penalty for a band being both original and prolific, of course, is that a brief career can seem like one that’s an awful lot longer and more glorious, and the Cocteau Twins already have quite a history to live up to. ▣
* NOTE: Goldstein got this wrong. Cocteau Twins’ first record was the LP Garlands, recorded for 4AD in late 1981 and released in 1982. Lullabies was the follow-up EP, recorded and released later in 1982. At the time of this writing, the band were about to record Treasure.