“Really Twins Again”
- By Tim Rollins
- Music Monitor
“The expectations people have of you as a musician I find perhaps a bit scary. It’s kind of a big responsibility to be an ‘influence,” says the Cocteau Twins’ Simon Raymonde, hesitantly reflecting on his band’s assured inclusion in the history books of popular music. “We just used to think, ‘What do people want to know anything about us for, anyway?’”
Simon, who has played bass for the band during most of its thirteen year existence, has still not come to terms with the fact that, over the course of a decade, the Cocteau Twins have come to be regarded as one of the most influential non-mainstream groups still making records. Such successful acts as My Bloody Valentine and Lush, as well as a whole generation of quasi-ambient, layered sound-sculptors, all readily admit their debt to these pioneers of dreamy, atmospheric noise scapes.
“I suppose it’s really flattering but I try not to think about it a great deal. I’ve got more important things to think about. I mean, I’d like to improve what we do. At the same time, I can hear what we do in other people’s music. But a band like Blur, or something, you don’t expect them to be groundbreaking, you just expect them to be a laugh and their music to be quite fun. But some people expect the Cocteau Twins to be doing such great things all the time, and moving on. It’s like, ‘Oh, Liz has sung in this phonetic language and now we’ve heard her singing in real words, how come she’s not singing six octaves above human hearing and only available to canines?’ Sometimes I feel like people want so much. Perhaps it’s my own insecurities, I can’t say for sure.”
Those insecurities, it seems, run so deep in all three of the trio that one might wonder exactly how they ever managed to muster the confidence to play a single song, much less the drive to record and produce nearly two dozen albums and EPs over almost a decade and a half. But despite usually glowing critical acclaim and a steadily growing fan base, their surprising modesty is unshakable.
“Me and Robin, neither of us is particularly…you know, musicianly,” explains Simon, almost apologetically. “He says I am because I can play the piano with two hands! What we try to do musically is, we both bring something different to the whole picture; Robin’s brilliant with textures and sound, and I create a great bit with melodies and things like that. So when you mix the two things together, they create what we do.”
“The way we write, it’s kind of instinctive and organic, the way it all comes about. I think you [have a specific direction in mind] subconsciously, but what we very rarely do is articulate it with each other, because I think it would spoil it somewhat. As soon as you start thinking about it and analyzing it too closely, you could probably come up with 101 good reasons why not to bother. I think basically what you do is put whatever emotions you’re going through at the time into your songs. There’s not really a message behind each album, there are no themes. We have no songs when we go into the studio. We just turn the tape on and make up stuff as we go along. After a couple of months we stop, and that’s how we put an album together.”
At least that’s what Simon says. But despite their allegedly loose “jam-session” approach, one has to wonder if such meticulous perfectionists might be being just a bit disingenuous when in interviews they describe their art as “improvisational” or “organic.” In actuality, most of the Twins’ songs have been recorded not as a functioning band, but piece by piece, separately.
“It sounds kind of unusual, but we could write songs in each other’s absence before. I’d come in in the morning and start a piano piece or something and then go home and Robin would come in at night and finish his guitars on it or whatever.” And then Liz would come in later still and offer her theatrical, though perhaps obscure and otherworldly, vocals to the mix.
Add to this isolated, jig-saw puzzle method of recording the usual pain and anguish that comes with a failing marriage and eventual divorce, and one begins to understand the lack of cohesiveness apparent on a couple of the more recent albums. And through Robin and Liz’s difficult breakup, Simon found himself, figuratively as well as literally, right in the middle of it all.
“It was kind of nightmarish at times. That’s the beauty of it now, because we’ve been through it all and come out the other end, we’ve gone about as low as people can go and still come out still loving each other, sort of. Yes, it was incredibly difficult and I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t occasionally think, ‘Ah, shit! I can not cope with this!’ I just wanted to run away from it all. Being in a group, whilst on the outset seems a very glamorous thing, it’s also very, very stressful. It’s like being married to three people and it’s weird, it’s just weird.”
Against all odds, the Cocteau Twins have, in fact, made it through their rough times. With two surprisingly good recent EPs, Twinlights and Otherness, the band proves they can be as vital and interesting as ever. The first is sparse and less effects-laden; in essence, acoustic. The other is a collaboration of sorts with Mark Clifford (from the ambient-dub-chill out project called Seefeel), who helps breathe new life into two classic Twins’ songs, and puts a twist on two brand new ones as well.
“Really it was kind of an exercise, if you like, for ourselves. We thought, ‘We write nice bits of music, but can we write a song?’ You know, if you took all this stuff away, if you took all the effects off a minute, is there actually a song underneath? Four-track EPs are just brilliant because they’re like little experiments. You’re dipping your toe in a pool you don’t normally spend any time in. You think, ‘Well, look, I’d like to do something acoustic, I don’t really want to make a whole album of it, because people will think this is our new direction.’ With the Twinlights thing and the Otherness thing, we were able to do that and do things we don’t normally do. That’s a great arena for us. I want to put out two or three of these every year.”
And as if that weren’t enough, there’s the best news of all: A full length album called Milk & Kisses is due out on May 14. Immediately intriguing, yet true to the Twins’ well-crafted vision, this release will win new fans while not disappointing the old ones. In the grooves, amidst some of the usual noises and processing, one can hear a more confident, less contrived Cocteau Twins. For the first time, the trio has not over-complicated an album.
“On Blue Bell Knoll, we’d just got a 24-track machine for the very first time, and we filled up 23 tracks with just music. Liz would come in and say, ‘Where the hell am I gonna go?’ Since then, we’ve found the idea of space, that you don’t have to fill up every single available space with more overdubs. That’s where this record is different. There’s a lot going on, but there’s a lot of space, too. A couple of songs on Milk & Kisses we had already written full versions of them, electric guitars and drums and everything. Then we decided to strip them bare, and wrote different arrangements for them.”
Unlike on some previous projects, Robin, Liz and Simon are playing together again, in the same room, at the same time. On Milk & Kisses, they finally manage what they never quite could in the past: the subtle, indescribable quality of togetherness.
“I think what we do when the three of us come together is make something quite unique,” says Simon. “You know, I probably would’ve had a problem in saying that at one point, because I would have thought it sounded quite conceited, it’s because it does actually mean quite a lot to us. It means more than quite a lot, it means everything, really.”
“What you have to keep reminding yourself is, ‘Why do we do this? Because of the music and because of how important it is to us.’ It’s great that other people are into it, too, but that’s not the reason you do it. You do it because you can’t really imagine not doing it.” ▣