“Mother of Pearl”
- By Steve Sutherland
- Melody Maker
- 26-May 1984
In the most un-confrontational and indistinct way possible, 1984 finds sonic voyagers the Cocteau Twins baffling DJs, luring major deals, and—in spite of themselves—locating a larger audience. “We’re just doing the music for people who like it,” guitarist Robin Guthrie tells Steve Sutherland. “We’re not three individuals standing there flaunting our wares.”
“I think it’s once in a blue moon that you read something interesting in a music paper.”
OK then, what’s interesting?
“I don’t know. It’s been a long time since there was a blue moon.” Watch the skies…
Every interview I’ve read with the Cocteau Twins has been, in one way or another, about how they don’t like doing interviews. I’m determined this one won’t be.
“You can only ask the same questions,” says Liz.
“It’s difficult, we get seen as awkward people who don’t have anything to say…sort of bigots,” says Simon.
“It always comes over that it’s not a case of we don’t have anything to say, but that we don’t want to say it, like we’re being rude or obscure or something. We’re not,” says Robin. “What you’re asking us is the same as if you were to ask us to analyse going to the toilet. It’s natural. It’s not something that’s down and planned and thought about.”
“What makes it so difficult, probably for you as much as for us, is that we really find it hard to talk about, y’know, ourselves because we’re private and being in a group puts you in a position where it’s difficult to be private, difficult to forget about all the hoo-ha that’s going on and just try to retain the kind of person you want to be and not what other people want you to look like or want you to sound like,” says Simon.
“It’s really stupid,” Liz sighs agitated, doing worried things with her hands. “It’s gonna be like this every interview. We won’t have thought about it because, if we didn’t start thinking about those things, we’d get really fucked up.”
“The trouble with journalists,” Robin decides, “is that they think music’s a competition, one band against the others.”
There are three Cocteau Twins here in their manager Ivo’s flat—Robin Guthrie, Liz Fraser, two lovers from Grangemouth (she sits on his lap), and Simon Raymonde, a recent addition to the family following the abrupt and traumatic departure of original bassist Will Heggie.
Robin wears winkle-picker boots, faded denim and a bootlace tie and has red hair and bad asthma. He’s overweight and speaks in a soft, congested Scots whimper that’s often (I think deliberately) hard to decipher. He’s annoyed that I once suggested in an interview that his guitar playing hadn’t gone much beyond the Banshees. He calls me lazy. He’s right again.
Liz is tiny, like a doll, warm and distant. She wears a stud through her nose and compulsively tidies things, putting magazines into neat piles, washing up teacups, picking hairs off the sofa, she’s effervescent with nerves and when she laughs she sounds frightened, though I suspect she’s only like this with strangers. I also suspect that it takes a long, long time not to be a stranger with Liz.
When she talks, it’s to herself as much as anything, and she repeats herself often, quietly as if as she says them, she’s discovering her words have a life of their own.
She once knew a kitten that died of leukemia and she sings in a way that makes me want to weep with joy.
Simon is bright and funny and watches Brookside and the snooker. He found a Dinky Toy London taxi at the bus stop the other morning and is pleased to tell me about it. The outsider-insider.
I think these Cocteaus would be happy just making records, no publicity, no nothing. “In an ideal world, yes,” Simon agrees.
“Gotta eat,” says Robin. “You can’t win anyway. If you keep a low profile, people start saying you’re enigmatic and all that sort of thing, which is totally false as well.”
“There’s always the possibility,” Simon decides, that one time you may do something and people will see you for what you really are instead of just imagining what you’re like.” I believe, in my blind infatuation, that I was struck by such a moment the first time I saw the “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops” video—stained glass windows, waterfall, an avenue of trees—simplicity itself, a new light, serene Gothic. Wrong, twice.
They shot the video in Virginia Water, at Holloway Asylum, a Victorian establishment for correction and experimentation. Now, mercifully, closed but available for filming for 50 quid a day. Adam Ant did “Prince Charming” here, though you wouldn’t have noticed. The Cocteaus shiver.
There are 2,000 rooms in this Dachau, too many for anybody to be bothered to clear out. The Cocteaus found the mortuary—still, they say, bloody. They found the lobotomy chair, the dungeons, the weird room where even the guard dogs won’t go. They found a wheelchair to push Simon around in and they found the records room where huge dusty books say stuff like, ‘Miss Mary so and so, admitted June 1840 following five suicide attempts. April 4, 1842, terminated.”
A security guard told them that when the place closed down, they found an old woman cowering in the shrubbery. She didn’t know why she was there, so they checked and discovered she’d been committed for being an unmarried mother 50 years before. A lifetime. No one was sure what happened to the child.
I choke on my serene Gothic. And…
“That video was terrible,” whispers Liz. “A disaster.”
It was supposed to be a surrealist film, not what they consider “a cheap promo, cheap and trashy.”
“People see something like that and make up their minds,” says Simon. “All this pre-Raphaelite business, it’s all made up, it doesn’t mean anything. Just because we had some stained-glass windows in it… That kind of imagery wasn’t intentional. We didn’t say, ‘Look, we want a lot of church windows and angels flying around it.’
“Maybe one shot would have been nice, but it dominated it. It was all sort of religious. We wanted something that wasn’t ‘The Cocteau Twins in 1984’ to go along with that single. It’s like putting a label on things, it isn’t very healthy.”
A Cocteau Twins song is like one of those leopard skin pattern shells you buy in shops at the seaside. It’s polished, its contours are smooth but wild and perfectly formed, it once served a function but its inhabitants have since moved on and it’s ornamental now, sitting in my room reminding me of when I found it. It’s an emotional souvenir, something small to the touch and massive to feel. It’s a private thing, something sacred to yourself.
To others it also means something, it stirs their own indulgent memories. The Cocteau Twins are the first noise I’ve ever heard that I don’t want to rush out and share. I’m happy keeping them to myself and I’ll never forget Head Over Heels for the first time, over and over while Valentino’s Blood and Sand flickered on the video. That’s mine. When I play it now, it’s always the first time.
But put a Cocteau song to your ear and you can hear tides like the sea, raging or calm, the crying of gulls windswept over cliffs, the crying of souls drowned or about to be. Pictures, fears, lives, livelihoods, way back and forward through the ages. It’s a friend, a provider, an enemy. It soothes, it kills, an existing energy that intoxicates and lets you know you’re alive. It tackles things known but unspoken, wells of emotion. Liz’s voice can be foreboding as a distant fog warning, shattering as crashing waves, gentle as the backwash scurrying across the same. Always beautiful…
“Timeless, I think, would be a word,” says Simon.
But then, pin it down to today and, I suggest, with a perverse twist of understatement, that the Cocteau Twins are reluctant performers. Robin and Simon lurk in the shadows, heads bowed in concentration while Liz switches, exposed in the spotlight, gazing into the middle distance as if transported by stage-fright from this world to the next, half scared to death, the way they present themselves…
“We’re not presenting ourselves,” Simon corrects me. “We’re just doing the music for people who like it. We’re not three individuals standing there flaunting our wares.
“We’re no actors,” Robin adds, tersely.
“We’re not those kinds of people,” Simon laughs.
I wonder if Liz really feels as she looks, desperate to escape any awareness of an audience by losing herself in the songs.
She sighs: “When you finish a song and you get ready to do the next one, then you remember the crowd’s there again. Or… it can be different. If I’ve got a whacking big light shining in my face, I can’t see anything and I can forget but sometimes it’s difficult to. I try, I have to,” she laughs.
Do the atmospheres of the pieces vary according to the occasion?
“Never trust a place with palm trees,” Robin states with some solemnity. “Our music doesn’t go well in places with plastic palm trees.”
In many ways, performing is like going through paces for the Cocteau Twins. It’s a chore. Because of the way they record—“We just do it. We just seem to do everything, make it up as we go along, a song a day”—they’re often strangers to their own creations, painfully retracing their steps to reacquaint themselves with their competitions note by note.
It’s especially hard for Liz: “I get nervous and my throat tightens and I can’t breathe so I can’t do anything.”
“We’ve gotta play these longish sets now, doing about three or four more songs than we feel happy with. Och, she’s just a little girl, isn’t she? She gets tired,” says Robin.
Can she articulate what she feels nervous about?
“Well… um… right, the audience, what they expect.”
“They’ve come to expect much more now,” Robin explains. “A year ago, we could walk on stage and be quite comfortable, play our bit and that was it, but now people have started paying to come and see us. It’s not us that’s changed in that respect, it’s people’s expectations. They just want more and more.”
It doesn’t help, either, that Liz’s vocal technique isn’t a technique at all. It’s impulsive, its strength wrenched from the threshold of pain, its ecstasy torn from torture. No one else sings this way and Liz has started to realise that, in order to preserve her gift, she must sacrifice certain songs to orthodoxy.
Reworking “Sugar Hiccup,” singing it sweet and straight, helps ease her throat from ruin. She’s also started taking vocal lessons with Tona De Brett, tutor to the stars (well, Johnny Rotten anyway).
I think she’s angry with me,” says Liz. “She’s getting really frustrated because I sing from here”—she shocks me by punching her precious throat—“and you’re supposed to sing from your stomach. But that’s just the way I sing, even if I hurt myself.”
The lessons aren’t a waste, though; Tona taught Liz to breathe properly, and that in itself is a confidence booster.
I wonder how she started singing at all?
“I asked her,” says Robin.
“Yeah, but why did I do it? Why? Why did I think that I might be able to do it?” Liz ponders.
How did it feel to discover the voice?
I was embarrassed of course. I can’t understand it. I haven’t thought about it. I’m thinking about it now and I’m baffled. I wasn’t pleased. I wasn’t disappointed; I wasn’t over the moon…”
“It was wonderful,” Robin recollects.
It’s funny how things can take shape and you just never know what they’re gonna sound like,” says Simon. “When we recorded earlier in the year, Robin and I would finish and we’d just be so excited about what it would sound like three hours later with the vocals on it. It was always a complete surprise.”
“When I enquire after the Cocteaus’ standards, Robin’s reply is no surprise: “If it pleases us.”
They’re thankful, in a way, that the video was only shown once, on Whistle Test. Not too much damage done. ONe more week with “Dewdrops” climbing the charts and it would have had to have been on Top of the Pops.
“Uh… we’d have been out of the country,” laughs Robin. “You’ve got to be sort of diplomatic. I don’t believe we’ve got anything in common with balloons and flashing lights. As soon as you’re on there, you just bring yourself down to the level of that programme.
“Can you imagine what it’s like miming to your own fuckin’ record?” Liz whispers. “With those balloons flying about and all those people who’ve never fuckin’ heard of you in their lives and they’re giving it the Sandie Shaws and everything… Oh dear! And it’s supposed to be filthy in that studio and it’s supposed to be so fuckin’ small and every fuckin’ band’s just hanging around waiting to do their thing—there must be some bitching goes on as well.”
The Cocteau Twins explained this to Tommy Vance live on the radio the other afternoon. He played their single. He’s been playing it all week. The wrong side. They had to tell him on the air!
“He lit about 70 cigarettes and his face suddenly became like flannel,” laughs Simon.
“And after we’d actually finished the interview, he was really embarrassed. He said, ‘You’ll never believe this, but I didn’t even know you were This Mortal Coil.’ Ha! Stupid Inglese! Oh dear! Oh dear!” Liz is sobbing with laughter.
But it’s no laughing matter. Most of our wonderful deejays were under the impression that last year’s independent success, This Mortal Coil, were the forerunners of the Cocteaus, not a side-line nurtured by Ivo. The hit song “Song to the Siren,” Liz and Robin’s reworking of the Tim Buckley song, is now something of an albatross, reluctantly sucking them into the mainstream. They were losing control. Everything about the Cocteau Twins is irredeemably separate. They’re so obviously an entity apart. Is it possible, with no gauge but themselves, to discern any change, progression, or direction?
“I don’t think we’ve got one,” says Robin.
It transpires that they work instinctively, Robin and Simon putting things down in the studio without premeditation, building up layers, breaking them down.
“Basically you just feel that something complements something else,” says Robin. “If it doesn’t, you just try something else.”
“It all ties in with what people are like,” says Simon. “Other people that think about what they do and have plans about their life, bands that are in the charts write songs for that reason. I suppose because of the people we are, doing things when we feel like doing them in normal life, we do exactly the same in the studio.”
The studio’s a joy to the Cocteaus. It’s here that, rather than expressing emotion, they escape in the act of playing. A guitar can change Robin’s mood. “How do you know why you played what you played? I couldn’t sit here any day saying, ‘Such and such is a sad song because my leg fell off that day,’” Robin’s being serious.
What’s Liz doing while the boys are playing?”
“I’m writing. I’m upstairs. They’re downstairs.”
D’you know what they’re doing?
“Just… through the walls.”
Liz only writes at such times, with no thought whatsoever for the tone or tension of what the others are doing. Her mind is totally enraptured by words, not just the senses but the sounds, everything about them. Her words are playful, pure, astonished and, mostly, indecipherable.
“That’s just like it is!” She cries. “It can be the print, actually seeing the word itself, the way it looks, the shape it’s making on paper… all those things.”
She says the words while she reads them, luxuriates in the shape they make in her mouth and the sounds they conjure up in her throat.
The songs just write themselves,” says Robin. “It’s like we’re getting manipulated or something sometimes.”
Liz agrees: “I was gonna say that it’s like… Who’s that woman? There’s this woman… And who’s that bloke? Oh, it’s Bach or someone. She’ll suddenly sit down at the piano and…”
“Is this a joke or something?” Robin snaps, cruelly.
“No it isn’t,” she snaps back.
“She’ll just sit down and come up with these… I can’t remember who it is? Who is it? Gilbert O’Sullivan? He’s not dead, is he?”
We all laugh and agree that it’s possible he’s been dead from the neck up since the day he was born, but I know what she means. Liz feels possessed of another’s talents, an agent for another’s gift. Does she know where the words come from?
“If I know we’re gonna be writing, I start reading. I have to read, that’s where I get everything from. I have to see the words. I’m never lounging about on the sofa and the film comes on… I don’t read so much now.”
What sort of stuff when you do?
“It helps if the book’s good. Uh… what am I reading? I can’t remember the last book I bought.”
“Fungus the Bogeyman,” says Simon.
“Oh, the Plop-Up Book—that’s dead good,” she laughs.
Liz gave Simon a copy of Fungus for his birthday and Ivo gave Liz a copy of The Magus for Christmas. This explains a lot. Presumably the songs mean something to Liz?
“Oh yeah, of course.”
There must be a certain pleasure, then, in the meanings being secret.
“Yeah. You’re not thinking you’re really smart or anything, but you’re pleased when other people think about them. That’s what they’re supposed to do. It’s supposed to happen for them, not for me.”
“It’s great to see people mouthing words that you know are totally alien to what they really are. It’s good because people are just fantasising and enjoying themselves,” says Simon.
What wasn’t quite so great was when their debut album, Garlands, was released in Japan with a lyric sheet compiled by someone who’d tried to discern the words from listening to the album.
“There’s not one line correct,” Robin gloats. “There’s only about, maybe, four or five words that are actually correct.”
“It’s so embarrassing,” says Liz. “I mean. That’s what people must have thought I fuckin’ wrote! Never mind… Never mind…” She sighs.
I like the Cocteau Twins—they won’t let Smash Hits print their song words. Communication, for them, is a tenuous thing. They recently met Eno to discuss working on a new album, talked a lot about sequencers and he left thinking they didn’t really want him to produce them. He was right, they didn’t. They were after a collaboration, so the project remains uncertain in that Cocteau like way.
“I wonder how much we’d get if we signed to a major?” Robin inquires, mischievously.
“Oh, about a million,” Simon replies.
He knows. His brother’s been hawking round a rumour that the Cocteaus are planning to leave 4AD, just for fun. No one balked at a million. Even so, they’re staying put. They trust Ivo, consider him a friend, and that’s the way they work, although right now, paying themselves a weekly wage, their funds are invested in a new studio and Liz and Robin are homeless, crashing at Ivo’s having been kicked out of their rented flat in Muswell Hill. If they signed to EMI, I venture, they could all afford mansions.
“Och, we’ll just get a deal in America and we’ll have loads o’money,” says Robin. “That’s what Americans are for, to be used.”
Robin always suspected that Americans were daft but now he knows—the Cocteaus played in New York last winter.
“They’re fuckin’ nuts over there,” Liz reckons. “They really laugh at Robin. He was a real sort of curio, they couldn’t believe his pointed shoes, they thought he was a freak and yet everybody, everybody there was going about with earmuffs on… not subtle—they were big teddy bear earmuffs, fuckin’ crocodile earmuffs. They’re over the top, those people. I can’t get over their clothes.”
“Crimplene,” Robin snorts.
“No one ever wore anything that fitted them. Honestly, honestly. The things you buy in the shops over there are either too big for you or too small for you—they don’t fit anyone. It’s incredible!”
“They’ve got incredibly bad taste,” adds Robin. “You always get the cab driver’s life story, his marital problems, everything.”
“They’re so talkative, it’s unbelievable,” says Liz. “It’s like a tape loop or something.”
She shivers. “I’m fuckin’ freezing in here.”
I offer my jacket, which she wisely declines, and I enquire about her dress—unusually white and long, not exactly Laura Ashley but, y’know, not punk. Liz says the last two dresses she wore were made by someone Ivo knows in Richmond who makes clothes out of old material.
“She’s got some things that she can’t wash or anything. They’re beautiful. They’re just incredible. When you’re surrounded by things like that it makes you feel really good.” I suggest that the notion of fashion is anathema to the Cocteaus. Simon had earlier dismissed the latest Cure stuff as “fashionable.”
“Can’t be fat and fashionable,” Robin tells me. Two days later I catch him staring into a mirror in the dressing room at the photo studio. “Who’s that fat bloke?” he asks and prods himself. “I don’t feel like that inside!”
“People who buy the newest clothes and all that kind of things probably need to because they haven’t got any other way of expressing themselves,” says Simon.
I’m about to ask Liz whether she always wears cardigans because she’s ashamed of her tattoos—one on each arm: “Siouxsie and The Banshees” and I couldn’t catch the other—but Robin butts in.
“Liz wears a pretty dress because it makes her feel more comfortable when she walks on stage. She could hide behind that almost… This is getting a bit Smash Hits is it not? We should be talking about the music.”
I tell them that, in a way, we are and they all retreat into their quiet smiles. Again. ▣