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

“Heavenly Bodies”

  • By Clodagh O’Connell
  • Select
  • Oct 1990

How much of a gamble is the Cocteau Twins’ new album, ‘Heaven or Las Vegas’, and can you really imagine these ethereal spirits playing America’s tackiest nightclub mecca? After the spectral nursery rhymes of their last album two years ago, they seem intent on making their music more down to earth.

Exploding the myth of the Cocteau Twins is dangerously easy. Look for meaning in their kaleidoscopic soundscapes and Liz’s sensual Esperanto offers the imagination an infinite range of profundities. With their music hovering just outside the realm of comprehension, the Cocteau Twins are anything we want them to be therefore they can’t help but be sublime.

Look for echoing images in the individuals, however, and Robin Guthrie, Elizabeth Fraser and Simon Raymonde delight in making a mockery of the pigeonhole where they existed as fragile, moody waifs for almost a decade and which no number of press interviews proclaiming their normality has completely managed to dismiss.

“A lot of people expect us to have big wide capes on with black nail polish and things,” says Robin, a solid, bearded Scotsman more given to ironic humour than introspection. “Why should we be ethereal in the first place?”

“It’s just this thing about descriptive words,” agrees Simon, tall and athletic-looking. “I mean, you would never go and say, Hey we’re an ethereal band. It’s just the most ludicrous thing in the world. The music we make and the people we are don’t often seem to make sense.”

Two years ago ‘Blue Bell Knoll’ scaled the subconscious and sealed the Cocteau Twins’ fate. Like spectral nursery rhymes for the aurally dyslexic, the melodies of ‘Blue Bell Knoll’ soared over opaque pools of processed instruments, creating an entrancing flight of fancy.

Now there is their new LP, ‘Heaven Or Las Vegas’, and the Cocteau Twins have never sounded less like the soundtrack to someone else’s fantasy.

Lyrically, ‘Heaven Or Las Vegas’ heralds a return to earlier albums when Liz’s blissed-out hedonism was less wilfully imagination-led and still teased understanding, but these days there is a new confidence and forthrightness in her characteristic yin and yang self-harmonising vocals.

With much of ‘Heaven Or Las Vegas’ recorded during Liz’s pregnancy and after the birth of her and Guthrie’s first child last last year, both admit parenthood has brought some personal changes.

“It puts things in perspective,” says Robin in thick Scottish tones which years of living in London have yet to eradicate.

Liz agrees: “Especially when you’re pregnant. I’ve probably got settled back in my old ways a bit as well, but as soon as I got pregnant, I don’t know what happened, but I suddenly started to realise what things mattered and what doesn’t matter. Suddenly I had confidence which I’d never ever had in my life, which I consequently lost after I had the baby, because it’s such a frightening experience you lose it again and you have to start over again. But it does change you.”

With a clarity that is just as compelling as the exotic layers of sound on ‘Blue Bell Knoll’, ‘Heaven Or Las Vegas’ moves with sepulchral purpose through the eccentric pop of ‘Iceblink Luck’ to the emotional lustre of ‘Road, River and Rail’ which has all the poignant beauty of an ancient love lament.

Recorded in four months over a two-year period, ‘Heaven Or Las Vegas’ may be the Cocteau Twins’ most accessible album to date.

Taking a break from tour rehearsals in their Twickenham studios, the Cocteau Twins are in high spirits.

Simon’s marriage later in the week, the presence of Robin and Liz’s child, Lucy, a diminutive ball of energy in a diaper and red slippers, and a new monitor system delivered the night before, have banished any trace of the apparent edginess caused by earlier difficulties in the studio. Unable to get a childminder for the day, Liz spends most of the morning in the role of doting mother rather than band member while the other two settle down to discuss the new album.

“I think we’ve had it in the back of our mind that we wanted to play live again, so we though we’d make some of the pieces more like songs we could actually play live,” Robin says of the album’s sparser feel. “We’ve never actually sat down and said let’s make a record sound like this. In a way the closest we came was ‘Victorialand’. Me and Liz decided we were just going to do some tracks with just acoustics and voice as our limitations.

“They were actually the same emotions with making this record as they were five years ago. It’s just because you’re a different person five years on, your records are going to sound different. You’re living different places from where you lived then. You know different people. All these things go into making a record. I think it still sounds like the Cocteau Twins though. But it’s just the music is growing up as you’re growing up I suppose.”

“The only way you can judge it or we can judge it,” Simon offers, “is to say it’s the best one that we’ve ever done.”

“We like it better than all our past records,” Robin agrees. “That’s why we continue to make more, because if we made the perfect record we’d sit back and say, We can’t do any better than that. We think all our other ones are fucking crap. I’m slightly proud of a couple of tracks on a couple of them, but essentially I’m really embarrassed about what we’ve done in the past…”

“I like the last one,” Simon interrupts.

“Yeah,” Robin amends. “I think the last one’s good. I mean, ‘Treasure’ is just an abortion.”

“But it seems to be the one that people like the best and it’s probably sold the best,” Simon shrugs.

Relying more on the dynamics of the songs than past records have, ‘Heaven Or Las Vegas’ brims with the exquisite melodies which have previously saved the band, once branded ‘positive punks’, from being relegated to the ambient wasteland of New Age—an area the Cocteau Twins detest.

“It’s quite annoying to be called New Age,” Robin laments, looking rather disturbed the term has come up at all, “Most of the people who make New Age music are all about 50 and balding.”

“The music we make is different,” Simon adds. “That’s obviously in the context of the ‘Victorialand’ thing.”

“I find it degrading, you know?” says Robin, beginning to warm to the subject. “I mean, if you hear a record that is actually New Age music…”

“It’s muzak,” Simon finishes.

“It’s just a guy holding a synthesizer key down for ten minutes,” Robin continues. “And we get compared to that! I think that is really insulting. But if a person listens to this music alongside an ambient record and they get pleasure out of that then let them. You can’t choose which bin your record goes into the record stores.”

“You can be certain though,” says Simon, “that if you’re in the New Age section of a record shop you’d be alienating yourself from the vast majority of the population, because a lot of people would just walk straight past it.”

“I’d walk straight past it,” Robin grimaces.

“It’s for all the 30 to 45s with CD in the car,” offers Simon.

“People who are too old to play their Jethro Tull records anymore,” Robin decrees with a thinly disguised sneer.

Robin and Simon are 28, Liz is 26. Too young to swap 60s compilation albums with their contempories but, with seven albums and numerous EPs behind them, veterans of the independant music charts.

“A lot of the bands coming up right now just seem to be getting older,” Liz comments, airing what is obviously one of her and Robin’s pet topics.

“Liz was 16 when we made our first record and I was 19,” Robin explains. “You see all the Young And Exciting New Bands coming out and they’re all like 30.”

Hailing from Scottish industrial town of Grangemouth, Liz and Robin met at a nightclub and moved to London to pursue music after early demos to John Peel and 4AD’s Ivo Watts-Russell met with encouraging responses. Thus, says Liz, she was rescued from a probable career in the sewing factory where her mother and sister both still work. Simon, a London native, joined the Cocteaus in 1984 after the departure of original member Will Heggie.

With the release of each successive album, the Cocteau Twins have inspired ever more poetic ramblings of extravagent praise, and the band’s talent for creating a euphoric surrealism through their enigmatic word melodies has had some music press critics spouting theories of a kinship with higher powers and speculating on Liz’s ability to speak in tongues. All of which leaves Robin and Simon perplexed.

“A piece of music doesn’t just happen in a second,” Simon points out. “It evolves over a day or a week or however long it takes. It would be impossible to have some spiritual reason for it sounding the way it did.

“We don’t all do it at the same time. We’re not all in a room going bosh, and it’s some magic happening. It takes time. I do my bit. Robin does his bit. Liz does her bit.”

“It makes you laugh a bit,” Robin says. “But anything religious bothers me because that’s a dangerous territory isn’t it?”

“Sometimes it makes you laugh,” Simon agrees. “But sometimes it just makes you pissed off you know? There are days when you think it doesn’t matter what people say and you’ll laugh at it. On other days when you’re feeling more vulnerable you’ll think, Bastards!”

What about the widely-touted claim than Cocteau Twins music is extremely conducive to good sex?

“I don’t know, we should put it to the test sometime,” says Robin with obvious relish.

“It’s religious, it’s sexual, it’s spiritual,” Simon shrugs. “I mean, it’s anything you want at the end of the day, isn’t it?”

“We’re not trying to put across that you should go and fuck people in church…” Robin adds illuminatingly.

Simon: “But if you want to that’s absolutely fine.”

Liz leans into the tape recorder: “But remember to get the consent of your parents.”

The whole party momentarily convulses and Robin concludes the topic with an enlightened piece of advice about handcuffs which sends everyone into another brief fit of hysterics.

With the Cocteau Twins’ decision to use a sampler rather than backing tapes for their upcoming tour, the band is currently involved in the laborious process of listening to old material, trying to remember how they did it, and then attempting to duplicate it.

“The trouble is,” Robin sighs, “if we spend half an afternoon making up this guitar part and we get to be really happy with it, then in two year’s time when we want to play the song live we can’t actually remember what we played because we only played it once. More traditional bands, they practise their songs every seek and they know them inside out. We don’t.

“We don’t go into the rehearsal room and write songs and then record, we do everything in the recording studio. We start with a piece of tape and make it up from there, and at the end of the day we’ve got to turn it into something that sounds like a band playing in a rehearsal room.

“It’s kind of backwards. I’ve got a lot of admiration for someone who can just sit there with a guitar and write a song. I could never do that.”

Liz also admits to running into trouble with live performances, which demand perfect recall of lyrics that generally rely more on phonetics than standard sentences.

“It was just impossible,” she sighs when Robin mentions having to resort to “bits of paper” during their previous tour. “But it can work the other way as well. It can be quite easy to memorise sometimes if it’s not actual words.”

“She’s great with tunes though,” Robin interjects. “She’ll never forget tunes, even to the point where she knows everyone else’s tune. And she knows all the TV commercials. We’ll be driving along and she’s singing all the adverts. She’s very good at picking up things like that.”

“Yeah, well they’re really complicated aren’t they?” murmurs the object of praise, exasperated.

“A lot of people think that Liz just opens her mouth and does it,” Robin continues. “But everything she sings is precisely worked out. In the studio she’ll sing over and over again hundreds of times until she gets it right.”

Beginning in October, the Cocteau Twins’ first tour in four years will eventually take them to the cultural mecca for lounge lizards worldwide, Las Vegas. Robin had earlier dismissed the significance of the album title ‘Heaven Or Las Vegas’ as “just two more places where we’ve never been,” but greets the prospect of a sojourn in sequin city with more enthusiasm than might be expected from the man who once said, “our music doesn’t go well in places with plastic palm trees.”

The spirit of Elvis has won out.

“We’re going to play a hotel or casino or something, like Elvis did,” he enthuses.

“So two fingers up to the ethereal brigade,” Simon adds. ▣