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

“Polished Plebians”

  • By Rachel Felder
  • Alternative Press
  • 01-Oct 1990

“I believe that the prestige of poetry lies solely in what it offers that is unexplainable.” — Jean Cocteau

How do you begin to talk to a band like the Cocteau Twins? The bulk of their lyrics are 98% unintelligible; even as critics seem to marvel at the comprehensibility of—wow!—whole groups of words on Heaven or Las Vegas, the group’s latest album, you’d be hard pressed to decipher a few whole lines, let alone an entire verse, even on repeated listenings. Then again, it’s my theory that trying to decode the Cocteau’s lyrics is missing the point: the band’s records are about a joyous cacophony of layer upon layer of guitars, an often ill-suited drum machine, and Liz Fraser’s glorious voice, not about how the syllables add up or what the hell titles like “Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires” could possibly mean.

I suppose you could discuss the band’s history of frequently brilliant, ever elusive albums, like 88’s alluring Blue Bell Knoll and their sans-bassist Simon Raymonde Victorialand. But the Cocteau Twins—or the Cocs, as guitarist/producer/father of Liz’s child Robin Guthrie calls them—aren’t proud of their body of work. As Robin so delicately put it in a recent issue of the British magazine Select, “Treasure is just an abortion.”

So, before we get to the “here’s what they said to the tape recorder” portion of the story, it seems sensible—although most writers don’t opt to—to delineate the Cocteaus as a band versus Liz, Robin, and Simon as people. From the big, majestic, inchoate sound of their albums, you’d probably expect them to be ethereal aesthetes, more concerned with art films and intellectual poetry than, say, what’s on television or in the record charts. Let’s shatter that myth here and now: Simon wears jeans, loves the Pixies, hates American baseball, and is half-Jewish. Robin—big, teddy-bearish, very un-ethereal Robin—is crazy about Andrew Dice Clay and vintage Saturday Night Live and spends his free evenings in front of the TV.

“It is certain that my behavior is incomprehensible and that if I were to change it, I should throw the spiritual mechanism out of joint.” — Jean Cocteau

And Liz—who deserves a whole paragraph, if not several, on how different she is in person from any preconception you might have—has nothing distant or unearthly about her: she’s just a slight, delicate woman who giggles a lot. If you talk to her about typical interview things—the standard “how has having a baby changed you” sort of thing—you’d never know about her golden singing voice. She talks about everyday things—videos, clothes, her baby—and is, on the surface, the sort of young, buoyant mother who lives down the hall, always game for a friendly chat or a cup of tea.

But get her out of the music-discussion mode, and little, fascinating, almost subversive sides of her personality come out, just as sweet, multi-layered nuances of Guthrie’s production shyly sneak out when you listen to the Cocteaus through headphones. When I mention a type of British chocolate bar she likes, Liz rolls over in ecstasy, gurgling about its deliciousness. Wearing a cardigan sweater, she assigns a different sound to each button and then presses them in order, going through the noises like a sound effects machine.

I should mention, since I’ve never read about it before, that sitting on the hotel room bed next to Liz, I noticed a tattoo on her left arm, peeking out furtively from her short sleeve. Each time I stared, Liz slyly pulled the sleeve down. When she temporarily left the room, I asked Robin and Simon what it read. “Johnny Rotten,” Robin said. Believe what you will.

“Inaccuracy of journalists. The typewriter is dangerous; it depersonalizes texts that come from your hand, empties them out; makes them look dead.” — Jean Cocteau

The Cocteau Twins—those intrinsically un-rock ‘n’ roll, un-verse/chorus/verse, un-commercial radio non-twins—could probably tell you more about the British pop charts than your average pimply twelve year old who’s glued to his four-channeled telly for every single episode of Top of the Pops. When I ask them to confirm the rumors I’ve heard about Prince liking them (Did he want to manage them? Did he submit songs to them? Is he a fan?), I inadvertently open a bulging can of worms.

“I’ll tell you what he has done,” quips Liz. “He’s recorded these three songs and sent them to the girl who sings for Beats International [Lindy Layton, detail hunters amongst you]. What a fucking stupid thing to doooooooo.”

Which leads me to ask Robin what he thinks of another very trendy British dance band, the Soup Dragons, who he talked about in Melody Maker a few months back.

“A one-meaning play robs the theater of that accidental quality which generates its power.” — Jean Cocteau

“I wasn’t talking about the Soup Dragons,” he bursts out, a touch indignantly. “I was taking the piss out of the Soup Dragons.”

Quite deservedly so, if I may add. “Ex-act-ly,” he agrees.

“We shouldn’t mention them because they’re getting far too much coverage,” Liz scolds. (It’s good to keep in mind, nevertheless, the next time someone disdains the Coc’s elegant, languid sound as irrelevant, the Soup Dragons, in their old Buzzcocksesque incarnation, called one of their albums, THIS IS OUR ART USELESS, BORING, IMPOTENT, ELITIST, AND VERY, VERY BEAUTIFUL.)

But, to get back on twisted track, what happened with Prince?

“He wanted to sign us to his label,” Robin explains. “We said, ‘Up yours.’ We didn’t want to be second fiddle to Prince.”

But do you guys like Prince?

Says Simon, “Some. You can pick a couple of tracks off certain LPs. I don’t think early Prince is better than late Prince or vice versa. I think Love Sexy is quote a good record from start to finish, but there were some turkeys on that as well; but that’s Prince, isn’t it? I think that he’s appealing because he might do a suff record now, but you can be pretty sure he’ll come up with something good later.”

Although their records don’t particularly suggest it, the Cocs, both musically and as people, are very much a band; while other groups answer specific questions on a person-to-person basis (you know the sort: the drummer ponders their lives sound, the songwriter discusses lyrical content), the Cocteau Twins bounce replies off each other the way a row of buddies pass around a bottle of booze for each one’s allotted swig. And while this may make for personal bonding, it doesn’t exactly do your struggling rock writer any favors; trying to analyze and cohesively join one-line quotes is not what I’d call a dream assignment. So, before I botch it up, here’s a taste of the Cocteau Twins’ assessment of their musical contemporaries.

AP: Liz, what was it like singing with Ian McCulloch?

Liz: I didn’t really do it.

Robin: He’s an ugly motherfucker. She couldn’t actually get in the same room with his haircut. He’s absolutely mad about his hair.

Liz: He’s got a great face.

Robin: He’s got lips the size of fucking trucks, man.

AP: What about some other bands?

Robin: Are you trying to bait me?

Simon: You want us to slag people off.

AP: Actually, I’d rather hear about whom you like than whom you dislike.

Robin: So throw some names at us—go on.

AP: Kate Bush.

Robin: No, I don’t like her.

AP: Lush.

Simon: I don’t mind them.

Robin: I like Lush. I like the second EP [Robin produced it] because it sounds like they do. Their first EP, which was demos, sounds like shit—even though it’s the best songs they ever did. Go on, more names.

AP: Pale Saints.

Simon: I don’t like them, but they’re nice people. I’ve heard it all before.

Robin: Don’t like them. It’s all kinda gloomy.

AP: Teenage Fan Club.

Simon: I just heard them for about ten minutes the other day—they sounded quite good.

Robin: They sound a bit like the Pixies.

Simon: Like the Pansies, Pixies, that sort of thing. They’re not bad.

Robin: More names, more names.

AP: Okay, do you like the new Pixies album [Bossanova]?

Simon: No, I don’t think it’s as good as their older stuff. I like Surfer Rosa.

Robin: No, but I like the Pixies in general.

AP: The Stone Roses.

Simon: I think that “Fool’s Gold” is good.

Robin: I was their first fan ever. It’s true.

AP: Really? I don’t see you as a flares wearer.

Simon: You were the first Stone Roses fan. I remember.

Robin: I’m serious. About three years ago they were on TV about three in the morning and I saw them. They were brilliant. They were just like bums then, but they were fucking great. And then last year or whenever they came out again, they came on TV again, and they said, “Here’s the Stone Roses in their first TV performance ever,” and I’d see them a year before!

Simon: I was there.

Robin: All those masses of fans—I started it.

AP: What about someone like Madonna?

Robin: I liked her up until that song—what was it?

Simon: The one with the virgin and the Madonna.

AP: “Like a Prayer”?

Robin: Yeah, until then. I thought she was really great. “Holiday” was good. “Lucky Star” is a great record to me.

“Man is utterly confused by the fact that a truth can be multiple, and each time we examine that which has been proffered as truth, we are surprised by the lack of correspondence between what we see and what we have been told about it.” — Jean Cocteau

Even if you’re only vaguely familiar with the band’s earlier work, Heaven or Las Vegas stands out for its surprisingly deep and gutsy vocals (the little throaty yelp at the end of “I Wear Your Ring” is a good example, not to mention enough to get the small of your back tingling), near-optimism (which makes flashback listenings of their pre-Blue Bell Knoll work seem downright Gothic), and—I admit it—almost-intelligible lyrics. Let’s begin with Liz’s voice.

“I don’t feel it’s any deeper than usual,” she confesses. “I know I can’t sing as many notes [as before]; I’m not sure I can get any deeper than I used to, but I know I can’t get as high. It’s definitely a hormone thing.”

“The poet’s invisibility, covered up by visibility. Noise protects our silence. Lies and legends conceal us.” — Jean Cocteau

That “hormone thing” can be attributed to the birth of Liz and Robin’s first baby, Lucy Belle, who was actually in her arms for some of the recording sessions for the album (jokes rarely-serious Robin, “We didn’t have it in the studio—we had it in the hospital.”) While the baby’s birth has, as it would for any new parent, changes the couple’s lives, it has also necessarily changed the outlook of the band as well. As Lucy Belle now comes along for promotional and full-fledged tours, Liz’s spare hours are filled with everything from breastfeeding (“People make you feel like you’re doing something criminal and revolting,” she complains) to shopping for toys. And then there’s the question of how the baby’s presence will affect the band’s on-stage stamina night after night when tour time rolls around. “I think it’s going to be stressful because of the baby. Then I’ll have to keep away from her anyway because I won’t want to catch it [if she gets sick]. Really, you’ve got to look after yourself; you’re on contract really when you tour, you’ve got to be able to perform every day, and in order to do it, you’ve got to stay well.”

Although “what a great live band” may not be the first thing you think of when you hear a Cocteau Twins album, the band does (or at least did when I saw them on their last American tour) have the ability to transform whatever space they play in, no matter how grungy or cavernous, into a very specific, beautiful, almost classical space. (This is the live equivalent of the way “Iceblink Luck” sounds so oddly and irrefutably appropriate even sandwiched between Soundgarden and Bob Mould.) On their current tour, they’ve added two adjunct members, Ben Blakeman and Mitsuo Tate, to flesh out their live sound and leave them less dependent on tapes than during previous gigs. As Liz explains, “They’re not really putting any creative input into it; it’s not like they’re new members of the band. They fit in really well and they’re great blokes—they really are.”

“We picked them because they were mates as opposed to for their ability,” adds Robin. Simon confesses, “We didn’t know whether they could play until much later on.”

Choosing members on amicability may not be how most bands do it, but nothing the Cocteaus do is how most bands do it. If typical rock bands are a cheap, disposable, ball-point pen, the Cocteau Twins are an ornate, richly textured, broad-tipped fountain pen, making everything which comes from its nib gorgeous, often illegible, and slightly out of sync with its time. While supporting each album with a tour is a typical routine, the Twins stayed put after Blue Bell Knoll adn are on the road now just for the sake of playing live. As Simon puts it, “We are not really touring with the album; we’re just touring ‘cause. I know, because the album’s out, that sounds very unlikely, but it’s true. Halfway through the record, we thought, “Oh, we might want to play again soon.”

The more I listen to the Cocteau Twins—not just peripherally hear, but carefully listen to—the more I feel the need to “play [it] again soon.” Just when I’ve gotten all there is to get from a track, I put back on the headphones and catch a new weird sound (as on “Fifty-Fifty Clown”), an extra layer of Liz’s multi-octaved voice (“Wolf in the Breast”), or even just an added word that’s mysteriously clear. Similarly, just as you think you’ve grasped the Cocteaus as people, they slip in some completely bewildering comment (prime example, soon after Simon and Robin seem so eager to say only nice things about bands, Simon gleams, “This interview needs a bit of spice” and Robin offers some poignant negative reviews like, “Tina Turner should be shot—the fucking old bitch” and “Sting can blow me as well.”). And, to add to it all, the Cocteaus aren’t exactly enamored with the prospect of doing interview upon interview.

“It doesn’t get any easier,” Liz offers, “it just gets more tedious. It seems so weird, being asked the same thing. There’s only so much you can say, isn’t there?”

Does all this grasping for what the Cocteaus are about get us any farther than when we started? Maybe not, but it could be, as on a trans-European train ride or an old-fashioned cruise, that the mysteries of the journey are more interesting than the precise destination. ▣