“No More Pre-Raphaelite Bullshit”
- By Andy O’Reilly
- Lime Lizard
- Oct 1993
Simon, what’s it like being the third member of a couple. Man, wife and bass player?
“I just find the whole couples in rock thing really difficult. The difficult thing is being on tour and going back to a single room and knowing that they’re going back to a double.”
Elizabeth: “Don’t you get a double room?”
Simon: “No, having someone with you! It’s not the size of my room that’s the problem.”
Elizabeth: “Oh.” (Pause) “Actually I’m curious what it’s like for you y’know, it’s weird for me sleeping with one of the band members.”
Simon: “Yeah, we really must do something about that. But it’s hard for me too, getting stuck in the middle of your banter, your disputes…”
Elizabeth: “No, what I’m saying is… do you know what it’s like only being in the band because you’re the guitarist’s girlfriend!!!”
Laurel, Hardy and Hardy’s girlfriend have been sitting around an eminently collapsible table for the best part of an hour now, being unethereal as fuck. It’s OK, they don’t start belching, vomiting and asking whether I spilt their putative pints. It’s just that they’re, shall we say, human. I mean really human. When Robin claims to be an alien we all laugh and don’t believe him for an instant. They’re fiery, frail, funny and very much of human flesh.
It’s a tall story, I know, so I’ll start at the beginning. The scene is a photographic studio in South London. Photographic studios are, as a rule, places to be feared by people in bands. South London, as a rule, is a place to be feared, full stop. Bright lights and boredom in a barn far from anywhere, and our three Twins are sprawled on sofas. Robin Guthrie is looking through ancient Vogues for stage clothes for Liz. These ‘stage clothes’ are of the Wendy James school of tailoring. Liz laughs, looks at Simon and me in disbelief, and gets ready for Robin’s next atrocity.
Fortunately boredom sets in, and Robin sets to walking around, looking mysterious and terrifying in shades. Simon and Elizabeth banter. Time for the photo session, which is a cross between musical statues (without the music) and a visit to the dentist. Except that Liz won’t play along. Jogging on the spot and then suddenly attempting to headbutt your boyfriend is not usual photo session behavior. Nor is laughing. Hang on, the bastards are enjoying this. Stop! Think of your image! Ethereal, unapproachable, arty, ethereal. You were on 4AD for God’s sake. You can’t have fun!
Robin: “We’re allowed to have fun. We did “Frosty the Snowman” for fun. We’ve got kids, y’know, and kids are into Christmas. My idea of Christmas is much more kind of Santa and snowmen and shit than Jesus, so that’s why we didn’t do a religious song. So there. We’re allowed to have fun!”
Simon (to Robin): “You’re saying it as if you don’t think anyone will ever accept that we’re allowed to have fun.”
Liz (sympathetically): “Haven’t you been having fun?”
Robin: “Alright, good point. But I like recording, mixing all that side of it. Of course it’s fun. We’re in a privileged occupation, being able to enjoy our job. A lot of people can’t do that. There’s bits I don’t enjoy…” (motions to tape recorder)
Simon: “You do though! You say that, but…”
Liz: “You’re enjoying it this time, aren’t you?”
Simon: “It’s just a myth that we don’t like all this.”
Robin: “So many of the things that revolve around this band are myths. That we’re from a different planet, for example. But it’s just that in the past we’ve had bad experiences doing TV and radio, so we’ve just thought ‘fuck it’, we’re not doing that. And then things change and you think ‘I just felt uncomfortable that day, but I could do that now.’ For me this is the year of just opening my eyes. I’m 31 now, which means I don’t have to justify what I said when I was 20. Over the years we’ve been very naive in holding onto our ideas. I mean, I still think we operate on a very idealistic level, and that we’ve held onto a lot of the values we started with. But not when it becomes a problem, like ‘I won’t do this because I’ve never done it, because I said in 1982 we’d never do it.’ Well, fuck off! I was a different person then. Maybe I’ve matured a bit. I’m damned if I’m going to be stuck with the same crap after all these years. We’ve had a lot of problems with interviews in the past. A lot of journalists have had a preconceived idea of what we were going to be like, so they can write the interview before they’ve done it. And in a few instances that actually happened.”
Robin speaks incessantly, impulsively and almost inaudibly. His shy, whispered monologues are frequently interrupted, but never derailed, by comments, suggestions and sometimes whole conversations from the other two. Liz will ask him to remove his shades so that she can see his eyes (he refuses), or tell him he looks tired or dehydrated (he’s hungry). He’s petulant, difficult and, above all an absolute obsessive. But he’s also shy, sweet, insecure and a real pussycat. Cocteau Twins mean everything to him, and he’s clearly their number one fan. It’s disarming to find yourself earnestly discussing your favorite Cocteaus albums with the man who made them. It’s also an alarmingly intense experience.
“I don’t think any record we’ve made has been worse than the one before, although I’ve always detested Treasure. Not because of the record, but because of the vibe at the time, when we were pushed into all that kind of arty-farty pre-Raphaelite bullshit. And so I was just really ashamed of that record.”
Simon: “Why did we let that happen?”
Liz: “Why did we?”
All eyes on Robin.
Robin: “We didn’t value our own opinion. We didn’t want to deal with it. But I’ve never been able to accept it in my own mind. And I’ve always been such a perfectionist. In the past I’ve been very guilty of feeling that if someone didn’t like my records, that meant they didn’t like me as a person. I don’t really have to bear myself up like that now.”
But he’s still obsessive, and still bitter. The reasons for the split with 4AD soon become all too clear.
“I think we’d felt somewhat constricted by them for the last few albums in fact,”—since Treasure perhaps?—“and I decided that their strong point is really in discovering talent and then working with bands in the early stages, giving them guidance. I really felt that we’d outgrown one another. It had stopped being a priority for them that we should be successful. It was just—“oh, another Cocteaus LP, let’s put it out. It’ll sell loads.’ And I really missed the enthusiasm. Because we always get really enthusiastic about every single record. For us every record is like the first record, and then for that to be thrown back in your face…”
“So now it’s nice for us to work for a company where there’s a bit more machinery, so we can try and get our music out to a few more people.”
At which point he asks me if I like the album. Like it really, really matters to him that I should say ‘yes.’ And, of course, I do, although I’m surprised at the choice of the delicate subtle and hardly immediate “Evangeline” as the single. I hint that this clearly wasn’t the record company’s choice for a single. “Bluebeard,” kind of Cocteaus goes C&W, might have been the smarter choice. “Evangeline” is hardly going to follow “Iceblink Luck” onto the Radio One A-list, now is it?
Robin: “Other peoples’ taste isn’t really our problem. We’re not going to make records for Radio One programmers.”
Liz: “And ‘Iceblink Luck’ wasn’t really representative of Heaven or Las Vegas. Like ‘Bluebeard’ wouldn’t have been representative of Four Calendar Café.”
Simon: “‘Evangeline’ was just what we wanted at the time, so that’s where the conversation ended until we started hearing comments and complaints from America, and you have to start analysing it.”
Robin: “The point is, we can’t make a record that everyone will like. We just have to be true to ourselves. But it’s interesting that we haven’t had the pressure yet from the big, horrible major, when we had shitloads of pressure from the small, really credible indie.”
So why the C&W twang on “Bluebeard”?
Simon: “It would be a lie to say ‘oh, we’ve been listening to a load of Hank Williams, and “Bluebeard” came out of that.’”
Robin: “Things don’t tend to influence us directly, but things do get through. To me ‘Bluebeard’ sounds nothing like Country music. It just sounds like us plying a twangy guitar. So it was really a guitar that created a song. A big guitar. It’s just that if we do Country it comes out sounding like the Cocteau Twins. If we do anything it comes out sounding like the Cocteau Twins.”
Simon: “Funny that. It’s just I find that when you’re in the studio over the course of a year you consciously don’t listen to a lot of music, because you don’t want to be influenced. All that matters is that whatever comes out of you is honest to the moment as you do it.”
Robin: “Everything comes through a filter. We, basically, are a filter.”
Four Calendar Café is diverse, surprising and far more chillingly atmospheric than the oversugary Heaven or Las Vegas. Like its predecessor, however, it is very much a collection of songs, ten separate canvases rather than one enormous overdubbed collage (like the serene, airy Victorialand or the buoyant, gorgeous, impossible Blue Bell Knoll). And there are stunning bursts of lyrics too. The babytalk of Blue Bell Knoll has passed through the phrase-spotting of Las Vegas into real songwriting again. I turn to Liz to inquire.
“Wow. It’s like there’s all the men over there, and then there’s me. I must sound like I’ve got PMT or something.”
Elizabeth Fraser’s speaking voice is a strong, vibrant Scottish explosion of sound, and sentences burst out strong, confident and controlled, although they frequently end in inexplicable attacks of self-consciousness and shyness But what’s most striking is that she really yearns to express herself, explore herself and do herself justice. Still only 29 (“that’s why I’m so immature,” she lies), having recorded Garlands at the age of 17, she gives the impression of just coming into bloom, just coming to full consciousness. Interviewing her is both thrilling and confusing: you never know whether to push her on (like Simon) or apologise profusely for her embarrassment. Yet she’s tough and self-contained; she’s just frightened (and excited) by her voice, by her ability to express herself.
“Up until a few albums ago I was still writing lyrics and doing everything the traditional rock way. But then I started getting into the sound more than the meaning and enjoying that side of it. And I went right down that path just so that I could have a really good time singing! And then it all went horribly wrong, it backfired and I realised I was going to have to stop doing that. So on this album it’s all lyrics. There’s nothing in there for effect. No sounds.”
So do the lyrics mean a lot to you?
“Oh yeah, they mean everything. That was the point this time, to make them mean something. I can see that now in retrospect. Back then, with the sounds, I thought I was being really honest, but now I think I’m being a lot more honest by writing things down and then singing it.”
Is it a kind of self-psychoanalysis?
“No, it’s not that. But I’m in my head all the time. My skills are such that I’m still clamoring to get a hold of the basics, just deciding what emotion it is I’m feeling. So it’s all a bit early for me.”
Was the baby a turning point?
“Yeah definitely. I don’t know how long it would have taken me to get to this stage if I hadn’t had the baby. It definitely speeded everything up.”
One of the most striking lyrics on the album is on “Theft, and Wandering Around Lost,” which revolves around the pertinent question “is this what my body says?” and answers, later, “my body’s my own, you know.” Is this some sort of feminist anthem?
“I’m not sure what that is at the moment. It’s just me being angry about an issue I’ve got to get hold of. It’s just an issue I’ve got to work on—stuff from my past. I can’t explain it because I’m so pissed about it, so angry. But I don’t know anything about feminism. Like, how can I be a fucking feminist, y’know? Like, femininity—I don’t know anything about that. I guess I just never learnt, I’m afraid.”
Simon: “You do yourself down. You probably know a lot more about it than you think you do.”
Liz: “I dunno.”
Simon: “Because your natural way is not to define things.”
Liz: “Well I’m bound to define it in a different way to how any of you would define it, because I’m a woman and you’re blokes. Blokes. But even that… It seems strange even me saying that I’m a woman.”
Robin: “Just a woman.”
Just a woman??!!
Simon: (sarcastically) “And that’s what that song’s all about.”
Liz: “What more can I say? Bit of domestic there. See, I don’t know what it’s about because I’m right in there. I just feel that I’m getting more and more into the centre of what I’m getting at, and I don’t know why that is.”
Is it an abuse issue?
“Yeah, there’s abuse in there, but it’s not just about that. There’s a lot more going on in there. ‘Cos there’s certainly a lot of optimism in there too and a lot of things I’m really, really happy about, that I’ve got to be grateful for.”
It’s a great statement, though. Previously, with 4AD, you were an artifact, something passively listened to. It’s great for you to say ‘I feel too. I hurt too’, so that we know there’s a living, breathing person behind the music, an autonomous, thinking individual.
Liz: “But I know this is really selfish, but…I don’t see how me suddenly singing about this is going to change anything.”
Robin: “We’re not trying to change the world, Maybe, though, we’re trying to change ourselves.”
Liz: “Or not even that. Maybe I should be doing what some other people do in my position. Especially as I’m a girl in a band. Just remind me! Just remind me! I’ve spent an awful long time trying to avoid the responsibility for being a human being, and for being a grown up human being. Erm, I’ve lost the plot now. I’m grasping at straws. I know I want to say something, but I’m not sure what it is yet.”
Liz: “No, I’ve just suddenly stopped. I don’t know whether I’m complementing myself of beating myself up here. No, I can’t. My self-esteem is just, phhh.”
Simon: “You’re beating yourself up now.”
Liz: “I know.”
But she’s still smiling.
Robin: What we have to say is important to us, but it’s not going to change the world. I used to feel that what I had to say was completely irrelevant. That I should leave speaking to people who were naturally articulate.”
Simon: “We did used to say, and I think it’s still true, that we’re not very articulate people.”
Liz: “I think that’s true though.”
Simon: “But that our records spoke for themselves.”
Liz: “That’s why I started singing words. Because all I’d been singing was a load of fucking vowels stuck together.”
Simon: “But that’s what you wanted to say. A load of fucking vowels! That’s what I want to say through my music. Awoo Ewee lyee and Owoo. I’m glad I don’t remember any conversations from around that time.”
Liz: “No, exactly. And that’s the sad thing about it. And that’s why it’s so hard to do an interview. I mean my communication skills are just so minimal.”
Simon: “No they’re not! They’re really good and you just don’t know it.”
Sorry Liz, but I’m with Simon on this one. In fact at several points I want to scream at them ‘you’re wonderful!,’ ‘you’re doing brilliantly!’ And at one point I do just that.
See, the electricity between these three is astonishing. Cocteau Twins, remarkably for a bunch of old (but still young) punks, are the least cynical people I have ever met. Open, honest and scarily enthusiastic, my abiding impression of them will be the fact that they care about their music to ridiculous, but wholly admirable extremes. Post-4AD, Cocteau Twins, in their (hopefully) eternal quest for truth and beauty (and Robin thinks they have at least a few more great albums, great statements left in them), are as important and political as any of today’s ranters and sloganeers. Unlike so many of their acolytes, the Cocteaus are thoroughly engaged in their music, and suffused with missionary belief in their music, if not in themselves.
Simon: “Have you noticed our music is never on cassettes or CDs with other people’s music? That’s because Robin assumes that if there’s anyone crap on there we’d better not be on it, because that would mean that we’d be crap as well, by association. What warped logic! Can you believe that?”
Makes sense to me. ▣