“Obscured by Words”
- By Jason Morgan and Diana Trimble
- Mondo 2000
- Oct 1993
Someone once called the Cocteau Twins music “the sound of the voice of God.” A quasi-religious cult ensued. The obscurity of the lyrics only added to the mystique of their sonic etheria. However, as this talk proved, in the inimitable words of Freud (or was it Groucho Marx?), “Sometimes a banana is just a banana…”
Elizabeth Fraser’s lyrics have all the hallmarks of great profundity. And though the band shies away from exegesis, something rather than nothing is going on here. thereUs real juice in these unearthly vocalizations. We think it’s all in the vowels. The pre-linguistic privatespeak of mother and child. The intimate conversations of pure emotion held before the acquisition of language. The lullaby.
Lallation. The imitative sounds a child makes in the effort to infuse language with meaning. Crooning. The sound of the soul’s yearning. Ululation. The Wailing Wall. The muezzin crying from his minaret.
And sound as the ultimate biological weapon. Dissolution of the old self. “You’re the match of Jericho, that will burn this whole madhouse down.”
Dada freed words from their definitions by rearing new words with flexible definitions.
Zang Toum Toum—It can mean whatever you want.
“More like a bottle of exquisite stuff, yes.” Penetrating the private language is half the fun.
Diana and I fought the wind on W. 57th street to join vocalist Elizabeth Fraser, husband/guitarist Robin Guthrie and bassist Simon Raymonde in the elegance of New York’s Parker Meridian Hotel.
I had prepared for this moment. Months of courting and logistical preparations. Long hours with really good headphones deciphering the lyrics.
We were apprehensive. We knew that nobody had been able to quarry them where they live. Interviews with them have always been abysmally unrevealing. As anyone who’s slogged through them will agree. Would we fare better?
Our angst was soon laid to rest by Robin’s big bear persona and Scots burr. Simon shared a common interest in old movie posters and who could resist Elizabeth’s baby blues (a bit unnerving,. those). Robin proudly flourished his pre-release copy of their latest Four-Calendar Café and saluted Walter Wick’s photocollage as being “like the inside of me ‘ead!”
Well, the insides of their ‘eads is exactly what we came for…
MONDO 2000: Lots of people over the years have told me that they love to have sex to Cocteau Twins records. Is this something you’ve ever consciously thought of? Being ambient sex soundtracks?
ROBIN GUTHRIE: [deadpan] Well, we do actually have sex when we’re making them.
M2: See, I thought so! Is it difficult to run the mixing board when…
SIMON RAYMONDE: Here’s something. The other day I was sittin’ around watching a mystery/thriller thing on the telly with an actor called Robbie Coltrane, and there’s this madwoman… her and her boyfriend go around killing these people and after they do it they have mad passionate sex. They start snoggin’ and gropin’ each other and one of our songs came on! [laughter] I just thought “There you go!”
ROBIN GUTHRIE: One of the people who plays in our band, you know, uses our music with the ladies, right?
ELIZABETH FRASER: Oh you’re joking! Oh my God!
SR: Which one?!
RG: I’m sure you know which one. He was most plastered last week and he said “I had this girl come ‘round. I had to go to track seven before she’d…”
EF: Oh, that is so gross!
RG: But it makes me wonder why we don’t like make some of the songs speed up towards the end, you know?
EF: Or why they’re not always like five seconds long.
M2: More to the point, yeah!
SR: And the bass parts, heavier.
EF: I think you should get a free cigarette with every album.
RG: [reflectively] I don’t think that we find it very easy to have sex with our records. ‘Cause we always, like, hear the mistakes.
M2: What about some of the psychedelic or drug associations that people impose on it?
RG: Oh, we never have anything to do with drugs.
EF: Huh?…Oh, I guess you can’t—you know.
RG: Well, there is an interesting competition at the arenas if you can tell which drugs were used on which records.
M2: What do you get if you get it right?
RG: Well, you get all my drugs! [laughter] That’s what you get. And you get a year’s subscription to Narcotics Anonymous. A month in the treatment center of your choice.
M2: But your music is so trippy and ecstatic. Is there really no psychedelic influence?
RG: Not completely. I was partly off my nut. I mean I was off my nut. A lot. An awful lot. Which is something I have to look at. And having done that, I’ll just say… I don’t know whether that’s a bad thing. I mean, there’s things that I’ve done when I’ve been off my nut which I don’t think I would have thought of otherwise.
It’s like the way you said, in the whole history of rock music there’s the influence of taking drugs to sort of enhance the listening. It’s well documented, a lot of people that took ‘era to make it. And then suddenly grew beards. It’s part of the whole fuckin’ thing.
I was really surprised. And I’m surprised in myself that since cleaning up… the music that we make is just a bit more “heady.” You see I was scared…I had a lot of fears I wouldn’t be able to make music without drugs. It took me about three months actually to just go and try it. And I was really surprised.
M2: Maybe it’s even better!
RG: Maybe it’s me that’s the problem. I got a bad time.
M2: Well I don’t know, I think you’re being too hard on yourself.
EF: It wasn’t just that. I mean, along with the drugs go all the other things where the communication breaks down. So then we’ll have tension. So it’s all the consequence of recording with a fuck-up, basically. I mean I’m having my own problems as well.
M2: Poor Baby!
SR: I should think it would be crucifying to think that you could never do music without drugs. That you couldn’t write anything that was worthy. Or you couldn’t write anything emotional or you couldn’t do it without the assistance of substances. I find that really, really worrying.
M2: I think a lot of people get caught in that trap. Even long after it’s ceased having any enhancing qualities, and is in fact destroying what they do, they still are under the impression that it’s helping.
RG: Yeah, they stop working after a while.
EF: The thing is, music speaks through emotions, and emotions get numbed when you take drugs. So it can only work for so long.
RG: [Capitol brings us tea] Got any coffee there?
M2: Well it’s always been my opinion that drugs open these certain areas of the brain that you’ might not otherwise access. And the lesson you’re supposed to get from that…
RG: …is that it only works for a very short time, and then you keep hitting on them, and then you start to plunge down to the insanity. And, you know…
SR: Totally so right. You can take all drugs once, and that should be just about enough. That’s how I feel about Ecstasy. They are brilliant the first few times you take ‘em. But then…
RG: You know, I mean, that was my natural state, and I was gonna get fucked up. Great, I just can’t do that. I can’t do it. I mean, I never had been able to try it only once. Insanity: repeating it, expecting it to be different.
M2: Do you mind my asking what your preferences were?
RG: Well, I’d take anything really. I mean, cocaine was my drug of choice. But I would just take anything after awhile.
RG: Tarantula Venom.
M2: What about other things as drugs. Like technology?
RG: Yep, I done that one.
SR: Well, you can use anything. It can be anything. Comfort, relationships…
SR: It’s really not necessarily about what it is that you take. It’s about why you need to take anything in the first place.
RG: I can loose myself in a computer. I can just zone out completely. I can sit there for fuckin’ days.
M2: What kind of computer are you working with?
RG: Well, I’ve just…I’ve got a computer at home. Just shut the whole world out. I just fuckin’ love my computer.
M2: So you’re just wonking away and Liz comes up, puts her hand on your shoulder and says “It’s OK, it’s only a computer.”
RG: Get back to lovemaking. ‘Cause I’m in love with this computer. Yeah.
M2: How do you feel about technology? ‘Cause obviously you have to use a lot of it to get that production sound.
RG: Mmmm, I like it. I mean it’s a distraction for me. You know, I used to use all the technology to fulfill my needs as a person. It was like, “I have to get more stuff.” Until I felt OK. So I went out and got every fuckin’ thing there is. All this motherfuckin’ houseful of equipment. Things that most probably we didn’t need… In fact I was wondering, you know. It’s not a very organic way of making music. We don’t all sit ‘round together and like, you know, jam.
M2: So you use a layering method exclusively?
RG: Yeah, well sometimes some of us have to work together on things just to meld. We do sort of do it together. We’ve been doing it together more recently.
M2: Didn’t you record this at the Boathouse? I’m a big Pete Townsend fan.
RG: Yeah, he’s a neighbor.
M2: So what’s the process?
RG: Well, the last half of it we were working together a lot, but the other half actually I was doing the night shift and he was doing the day shift. We would sort of cross each other on the stairs.
M2: [to Elizabeth] And then you come in when they’ve created the bed?
EF: Well, yes. Pretty much at the end. Yeah. I mean I’m hopefully writing lyrics while they’re doing music.
RG: Well, you always say that! You never actually have come by yet. You’ve said this in interviews for years but you never have actually done it yet.
EF: So what am I doing?
RG: Well, you wait around until the record’s just about ready to be released and then you sing on it.
EF: [under her breath] Well, that’s not the way it is really, but…
RG: ‘Cause all of a sudden we’re without any sleep and we’re sitting in this place with our computer with hands over the keyboard, the Pearlcorder up here waiting for us to say what the song titles are. Talk about leaving us to the last minute, you know. I mean, fuck!
M2: Do you write a lot just on your own?
EF: No, I never write the lyrics until it’s time to do a new recording. I only write when I need to. But, I hope to change that. I mean I do have problems. I seem to find it a little bit difficult, still, even at this stage, to, you know, admit to myself that I might actually be quite artistic and even good a writing lyrics and writing generally. And that I might have a natural aptitude for singing. But, you know, it takes a long time, I mean…
M2: Why are you so self-critical?
EF: Well, I think it depends…It very much depends on your upbringing…and the household that you grow up in…your caretakers…
M2: Was there music in your house growing up?
EF: Yeah, sort of. I mean we all liked it, and we all enjoyed music. I mean I grew up with my four sisters and my brother who were all into pop music.
M2: And could any of them play or sing?
RG: No, they steal and mug and rape, heh, heh…
EF: My mother was in a pipe band when she was a young girl. She was a drummer. And my dad played the accordion. Most people took a shit. But I thought he was great, ‘cause he was my dad.
M2: Was this in Edinburgh?
EF: We don’t come from Edinburgh. We’re from this grey town…
RG: [sotto voce] Twenty miles away from Edinburgh.
EF: It looks like Elizabeth, New Jersey. That’s what it looks like.
RG: Oil plants in Edinburgh. Simon went there once. Didn’t he?
SR: Horrible. Kept saying “Where’s the center of town?”
RG: He was there to shop.
SR: Every single house is the same. Every single street is the same.
M2: And they still talk about World War II to pass the time?
SR: It’s like a David Lynch, you know. I mean he’d go wild there.
RG: Yeah, it’s a bit like that.
M2: [to Elizabeth] So how did you get into singing and doing music? Was it chance?
EF: Chance, kind of. I met up with Robin. Well, eventually I spoke to Robin after going to this club about a year.
RG: You fancied me.
EF: No, I didn’t actually. You didn’t fancy me either. But you know, after about a year we sort of, we just got pissed. It was like New Year’s. You know, New Year’s and we just got so drunk that we spoke to each other. And then ‘cause he was DJ’ing at this place. And it was, you know, punk rock and all that stuff which we were both into. Robin was playing in a band at the time, but wanted to have his own band. And uh…and Bill and himself—Bill that was in the band originally, the Cocteau Twins—they were just sort of messing about on their own and asked me if I wanted to come along. Which I did. Because I was bored. Wasn’t doing anything else.
M2: And you’d had no idea before that you could sing? An inkling, perhaps?
EF: Uh, not really. I mean I had, you know. I told me I had a good voice and things and I did enjoy singing, but not in front of people. I enjoyed singing on my own, just being by myself, doing [laughter] housework, cleaning up me room.
M2: What is language to you?
EF: Language? I’ve got a lot of hang-ups about it because I guess I cheat. I’ve always cheated and tried to…I don’t know. I play these games with myself, I suppose, with words and rhyme. I guess I have hang-ups about maybe not being smart enough—which isn’t true. But, you know, it’s just another one of these things that I keep telling myself, when I fuck up…See it all ties in with how I cope with life, which is I haven’t really felt ready to take responsibility for being…
M2: A spokesman or something…
EF: Well, that’s the very last thing I profess to do. But let’s start at basics—you know, like human beings—growing up; a female; a mother; a mate; someone who’s in a band… You know, I still struggle with it but that’s been the way I’ve coped with it. And, you know, to put someone who’s not capable of communicating… someone that’s in a band and is supposed to sit down and talk about what they’ve been singing about… You know, on top of music, talk about personal things in an interview situation, and be, um, how do I put it…
EF: Yeah. It’s just a tall order, I think.
M2: Is that why you liked to play around with words and sounds? To obscure meaning?
EF: Yeah, but I really didn’t know that at the time.
M2: Do you think you’re deliberately ohscuring content?
EF: Yeah. I do. But that’s OK. It’s fine.
RG: It’s just a way of keeping people at length. I mean, I can identify with that because I’ve got so little fuckin’ faith in myself as a musician. The reason that I could’ve gotten so excited makin’ music the fuckin’ way I did was just to cover up the fact that I wasn’t actually playing very well a ‘tall. Actually you just take away all our effects pedals and you’ve got something that’s really fuckin’ crap.
M2: [noises of demurral]
RG: And I dunno, I mean… that’s why with this record, I didn’t consciously go overboard with the production. Didn’t really build the songs on all the layers and layers of overdubs like Blue Bell Knoll or something that’s just massive.
M2: Yeah, right.
RG: This time it’s just kind of like us. Stripped it back down a little bit, basically to songs and stuff like that. The musicianship I’m still not quite happy about. It’s just like I let it, just let it breathe a little.
I found that I can, fuckin’ really sort of unhappily make things claustrophobic with the production. Too dense. And it’s just like “Yeah, but there’s no fuckin’ song in there, really.” So we just try to experiment. I know that I can fuckin’ do it.
SR: I expect people who write “normal” lyrics don’t get investigated so deeply. But because you maybe hear one word here or there, it’s intriguing. Everything about our work…the sleeves have always been very vague and very—sort of, no specific images…
M2: No one stands in a field of wheat…
SR: We don’t give any information out on the sleeves.
M2: You preserve the enigma…
SR: We very rarely ever do anything on television. We’ve like done one live radio interview. Ever, over here! We’re not exactly the most visible and communicative group.
M2: Even when you’re communicating.
RG: You know, I think when… I don’t know, I mean, if I actually have found out a band or something I don’t know anything about…and I have to actually go out to the record store and sift through the records and then I come up with a band and I’m actually listening to the music, and I’m not hearing what it is. So I’ve got to use my imagination a little bit. “Oh, I love that band, I love them.” You know what I mean? I really, really…because it becomes a very personal thing.
M2: So then how do you feel about videos? I mean, I’ve always felt that videos just totally rob music of that exact quality. You can’t create your own internal movies.
RG: That’s exactly what I think about ‘em. What we’ve done with videos, recently, is try to take out all the storyboarding. Just try to show us through some film technique. I would like to try some more things but I’ve got a lot of fears around that. I mean, just handing your whole fuckin’ work over to somebody else that you don’t know and trusting them to fuckin’ come up with something representative.
M2: Are you a film buff?
M2: How about doing soundtracks? Is that something that you’ve been approached for? Or even want to do?
SR: Supposedly. Not much.
RG: Well, we’ve done some music for film.
M2: Porno films, right!?
SR: Not really. We got a song in “Mad Dog and Glory.” Ever see that? Bill Murray?
M2: And Uma Thurman, Robert DeNiro.
RG: I think that there’s a huge difference between having a song in a movie and actually doing a soundtrack.
M2: Would you like us to tell our readership—I mean those of our readers that may be film directors—that the Cocteau Twins are open to doing a soundtrack?
SR: If Scorsese reads your magazine, yeah.
RG: Well, soundtracks…something may happen, something may not. It would be nice.
M2: What about some more about language. You said that you play around with words and make up your own.
EF: Yeah, I mean I can. The catch is I can barely talk English, isn’t it? I quite like that. Combining words in different languages that I couldn’understand just meant I could concentrate on the sound and not get caught up in the meaning. And that was, you know…
RG: I think you still do that…
EF: I’ve not finished what I was saying, Robin.
RG: Oh, we are getting sensitive, aren’t we?
EF: But I got to have more fun because I was able to make up lots of portmanteaus, literally hundreds and hundreds of words. I was really into it…And so it just kept on getting bigger. It’s wonderful.
M2: Is it a little dictionary?
EF: Well, that’s how I got some of the words. And then I got to the stage where, I don’t know, something just came in. My life was a fucking mess. It was a bottle-of-dirt punk rocker. One said! And I just couldn’t carry on. I mean, it would have been so easy to do that. ‘Cause after Blue Bell Knoll, which was really the easiest, the easiest I’ve ever done to make a record… I just couldn’t keep going that way. I guess that was the start of learning to be aware of what was going on and what I was responsible for.
M2: Transcendent noises?
EF: I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that at the time. I’m just beginning to be aware of what’s happening through the work.
M2: What were some of your portmanteaux?
EF: No, I don’t want to say…
M2: Oh, those are Jas.’s favorite words. You don’t know how happy he is that you said that!
EF: [much laughter]
M2: Well I’ll trade you. Alertia: The tendency of the mind to remain in focus until acted upon by a more fascinating stimulus. [laughter all around]
EF: See, I find that mine don’t have any meanings. They’re not proper. Although I’ve got a great dictionary of them. It’s like the Cockney rhyming slang or something. Writers like John Lennon. Writers that just kind of made up their own portmanteaus that caught on and people still use them. They don’t mean anything, though, that’s the thing. You know all the transcendent sounds. It’s all sound all the way through.
M2: Have you ever read James Joyce?
EF: No, I haven’t really been interested, but I’m sure in time that I will be.
M2: It’s just like funny how seventeen volumes will come out and explain what it really means. When you put these together do they hinge around a vowel sound?
EF: Yeah, generally. Things that weren’t easy for me to sing. Like “ee.” When I’m singing out loud and I sing “ee,” my throat closes and it’s really difficult to me. ‘Cause it’s an extension of your speaking voice. I love S’s!
M2: Sibilance. Sssssss…
RG: Like, can we do that line again and take all the S’s out? Please?
M2: Those are the two worst!
EF: Well, they’re very dramatic in the headphone, yes. Great.
M2: Do you find that it’s the vowel sounds that trigger the emotional content?
EF: Um, yeah, because it sounds very dramatic. It does sound very dramatic…
M2: The wailers…the professional mourners of ancient Greece that trailed behind the processions. There was a particular style of wailing that they did to make the mourners feel increased grief.
RG: It’s just like Country & Western. Yeah.
EF: I think I said all the same things before that I did on Four-Calendar Café. I just didn’t know I was because I still hadn’t learned what was interesting—how many emotions there are or how many I might be feeling at any one time. Which I wasn’t able to do before. Which is definitely on Four-Calendar Café. And some of it was very painful. I know it started making me feel very angry…or sad…or grieving. Which aren’t the most comfortable feelings to have. But I enjoyed doing that because it’s a very courageous thing to do and it’s very good for me. And, I mean, I’m going to get…I was willing. I was willing to do that. And I had fucking problems when I used to do that…And I got so much more out of it.
M2: Well with vowel sounds, do you find that certain ones have a particular emotional content?
EF: Never, I’ve never noticed. I’ve never noticed.
RG: This is actually a heady conversation…
EF: Certain things have occurred to me. But, I mean, I’m in my head enough as it is without really…
M2: What you were saying reminded me of some of the Dadaist approaches to language poetry where they went on in that vein. And they were very insistent that there were no corresponding meanings—that it was just purely sound. And they said it was a code for something else and it wasn’t.
EF: Well, we’re not doing it to…
SR: You can’t please anyone. You’ve got to please yourselves. It’s very selfish. Liz didn’t write all that stuff for me. She wrote it for herself ‘cause she needed to do it. The after effect is what I’m not sure about—catharsis and gettin’ it all out there. I’m not sure that’s the motive of the music.
M2: What about playing live?
RG: It’s different. It’s a whole different sort of… I don’t know. My philosophy for playing live is I don’t really consider myself as a natural performer. I feel that the stage is not really my ideal kind of place.
SR: Standing there like a bit of wood… [laughter]
RG: Yeah, I was just going to say that we put together a live thing after the fact. It’s not the way most bands do. They jam together, then they record their performance…
We’re basically using more musicians than we ever did.
M2: So how did you find the other musicians that you’re working with on this tour? Is it just an audition process?
SR: The guitarist we’ve had like for a few years now. We did that through auditions. Or I did that through auditions!
M2: What do you look for in a musical/creative person?
RG: Somebody who you can spend time with. Fuck their talent. Fuck their ability. We’ve got to spend an awful lot of time with them.
SR: A bit of both. I mean I’ve met some pretty nice people and had them along to the studios to play along with the tracks who really couldn’t play. So initially the personality, and then if they can play and understand what the hell we were on about. It really isn’t the most difficult music to play. But a lot of guitarists, they don’t really have the sort of concepts of “caressing something.” It’s more like ARRR/ARRR/ARRR!
RG: A lot of people play too well, actually. Too much virtuoso technique and not enough feeling. They’re the ones who do the jamming.
SR: As soon as we go out of the room. We never ever jam and we don’t ever like go into the 12-bar blues. Even when we’re rehearsing we just play our songs and if we’re not playing our songs, then we go home. And I know there’s Stones and the Slits going down after we’re gone.
M2: “Momma told me, when I was born… !”
SR: “Stairway to Heaven”! You just dread that somebody’s walking past the room and they see the board “Cocteau Twins.”
M2: Do you miss having the vocal harmonies and have you ever tried to work with a backing singer or with a machine that can reproduce those?
EF: I’ve thought of it, you know. And I don’t like to do that. I’ve never really been interested in having backing vocals before. I’d rather do it myself. And I want to sing songs that I haven’t sang for God knows how long. Old songs which I do feel, I do have to, you know they’re my Hamburger Hills, you know I’ve really got to get over those psychological humps around those old songs. I’m trying to change my voice at the moment and it’s so hard to sing those old songs…I mean, it’s hard to sing them again without falling into my old habits.
M2: Well, we won’t ask what those were! What do you try to do with your voice now?
EF: Just use it properly. Not hurt myself. Just take care of myself. And, umm…
M2: Are you studying or coaching with anyone?
EF: Well, I went to see someone this time ‘cause I really got in trouble on this album. I was just freaking out all over the place. I stopped making a lot of sounds, you know. I was talking very quietly. I was just so afraid of getting loud again. ‘Cause I’m not really very loud on Four-Calendar Café. I just feel like I’ve lost touch with that side of me and I wanted to get back in touch with it so that I can have my quiet moods and I can have my moments when I can express myself in a very loud way as well. ‘Cause that’s good for other emotions.
M2: Yeah, I know exactly what you’re talking about. I’m always going back and forth with the same thing with my voice. It’s like, I’m supposed to be really careful, and never get hoarse, then fuck it, I want to scream. And then “Oh, shit! I’ve done damage!”
EF: That’s how it happens to me, when I was starting to get the singing out. You can’t really do that. I mean I don’t want to do that anyway.
SR: That’s how you got sent to bed.
EF: I need knowledge, I need information. I just need to know my way around my body. And she can help me and she can tell me what I need to know.
M2: Does she use a particular technique?
EF: No she’s just a… Although she can do various things. But, I’ll go elsewhere too. I’m going to go in a healing voice thing in a couple week’s time which I’m really looking forward to.
M2: What’s that?
EF: Ah, I’m not sure yet. She’s like a Mongolian chantress…
EF: Jill Purce.
M2: Oh, she does the Tuva throat singing. Rupert’s wife. Do you have to go away somewhere to do that?
EF: No, it’s just like a day, it’s just like a workshop, where there’s six people doing an hour long… thingumybob.
M2: What is the appeal to you of work like this?
EF: Oh, I’m still not sure that there is an appeal yet. I might go and think, you know, “This is not for me.” But it might be. It’s just an opportunity to shout.
M2: Primal Scream therapy?
EF: I like that John Lennon album, really. [Plastic Ono Band]
M2: Yeah, he got really into that for a while.
EF: But it doesn’t sound primal. He was just sounding pissed, you know. He was singing about things he was pissed about.
M2: How have things changed for you in respect to the record company? Now that Capitol is involved?
SR: Well there’s a dirty personnel change at Capitol.
SR: Yeah, we left 4AD in 1990.
EF: Not really.
SR: Not really. No, but I mean it’s OK, you know. Though it was pretty awful the last year there. Well, the last few years there.
M2: You were there for a long time.
SR: It was one of those relationships that just sort of died a death, really. Nobody’s fault, it just happened.
RG: What do you mean? It was their fault! [laughter]
SR: Would you like to go on record as saying that?
RG: [muffled sounds] ▣