“The Cocteau Twins”
- By Mark Ellen
- Smash Hits
- 24-Apr 1985
So what are they like? Nobody really knows. They sell vast quantities of records but rarely give interviews, never appear on Top Of The Pops and avoid publicity like the plague. Mark Ellen meets the tribe that hides from man.
Sorry. Must have got the wrong address or something.
I’m surveying the hallway of a trim basement flat in Shepherd’s Bush in London. It is, supposedly, the residence of a member of a certain, you know, ‘underground’ group who are meant to be dead weird, hate giving interviews and refuse to appear on Top Of The Pops or generally behave like pop performers are expected to.
In which case, where’s the teetering mound of unwashed crockery? And the half-empty lager cans full of fag ends? And why isn’t there a Cure LP playing and some bloke fast asleep in the corner?
The place is almost alarmingly tidy. Positively scrubbed, in fact. I can even detect the evidence of recent home improvements—cork tiles on the kitchen floor, doors being renovated, an all- pervading smell of fresh paint. The immaculate neatness is interrupted, but only slightly, by a magnificent set of original Tin Tin comic book covers, each in a glass frame, and a clock fashioned from an explosion of umbrella-shaped, bright yellow plastic.
The owner, Simon Raymonde, looks however exactly like I thought he would. Both he and the equally friendly Robin Guthrie have the two unmistakeable Cocteau Twins hallmarks—a) sensible jerseys beginning to fray slightly at the cuffs; and b) haircuts that look like pot plants in urgent need of nourishment. They’re sitting on the brand new sofa, with petite singer Liz Fraser in between them, laughing a lot and waiting to be interviewed. Which isn’t something they do very often.
“Journalists,” they warn, “tend to be people who wear a t-shirt that sort of says ‘look at me, I’m much more important than all the people I write about’,” and are thus “not to be trusted.”
But go on, they say, ask us some questions.
But first a potted history (“all really boring”): it’s 1980—Robin, then a technician in a Grangemouth oil refinery forms a group called The Cocteau Twins (a line from an early Simple Minds song) with a bloke called Will who insists on wearing a duffle coat and bicycle clips. They rescue Liz from a life of sticking labels on whisky bottles, impressed by her mini-kilt, shaved head and total lack of singing experience. The only really major event in the next year, we all agree, is that Liz begins sewing Kentucky Fried Chicken bones to items of furniture—“oh no!” she shrieks, “don’t remind me!”—and glueing shells to articles of clothing. Their rare performances—bass, guitar, voice, drum box—attract suggestions that they’re “hippies”. They tour Europe with OMD, Liz and Robin start “stepping out together” (as they rather touchingly put it), Will leaves, Simon joins, Liz opts for leather mini-skirts and “hair like antennae”, they become regular fixtures on the John Peel Show—“he likes groups with girlie singers,” Robin grins—and they start making records for 4AD. The music is a gorgeous fabric of mysterious rhythm, embroidered with guitar, tapes and elastic vocal contributions from Liz, and it sounds—quite genuinely—like no-one else at all. The songe have “inspiring names” like “Persephone” and “Aloysius” and “Glass Candle Grenades”—“it doesn’t matter what they are or what they mean,” Liz insists, “I was just being completely selfish.”
And since then, some three years back, “nothing has changed.”
Nothing, of course, but their popularity. Their records sell in ever-increasing quantities—the last single “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops” sold over 100,000 copies—but they still stoutly refuse to promote them with the usual run of interviews, photo sessions and mimed TV appearances which, they say, wouldn’t give them enough control. “We want everything our way.”
With the result that reactions to The Cocteau Twins are always sharply divided. People either love them or loathe them. The former tend to go a bit limp at the mere mention of their name, gaze into the middle-distance and start rambling on about their ‘swirling sepulchral shards of sound that patter like raindrops against the windows of your mind, etc’; and the latter, as Robin puts it, say “we always come across like a bunch of moaning bastards that continually cut off all alleyways open to us and bite the hand that feeds us.”
So they can’t win. But wouldn’t it give people more of a chance to make their minds up if The Cocteau Twins appeared on Top Of The Pops?
Robin looks genuinely horrified. “We couldn’t do it! We physically couldn’t do it. Could you do it? Get up on that stage full of balloons and dancing girls and flashing lights and mime along to your record? You can’t do that kind of thing.”
“We’ve made videos,” Simon points out. “Why do we have to go on and look embarrassed when they could show our video?”
But if you want to get more people to hear your music, isn’t that the best way to get exposure?
“No, that’s not the way at all.” Robin again. “If you want lots of people to look at you and think ‘wow, he’s my hero, he’s bloody great’ and all that stuff, then you go on Top Of The Pops and get on the front of magazines and play the game the usual sort of ways.”
“The Top Of The Pops game is for now.” This is Simon. “Groups get signed last week and in three weeks they’re on Top Of The Pops and then they’re forgotten. I don’t see us being in a hurry.”
Do you feel you’d be letting some of your fans down by appearing on TOTP?
“No, that’s not true.” Liz this time.
“People presumed that, because we weren’t on, we hadn’t been asked. But when they found out we were asked—twice—and said no, a lot of people wrote in and said we should have done it. They liked us so much they probably thought we’d stand out and change the programme.”
So do you feel you’d be letting some of your fans down by not appearing then?
“What! They want us to go out and make prats of ourselves?” Robin laughs at the suggestion. “No, I don’t.” But they obviously don’t think you would.
It’s the records,” Simon insists, “that are the important thing. We just play the mu-sic.” He half-sings this last bit as if it were some corny radio jingle. “It’s bad that you have to have Top Of The Pops to promote records. You can hear them on the radio, you can hear them in the clubs. Why do people want more?”
But everybody knows TOTP is a dreadful programme—everybody watching it, everybody playing on it—they just accept that. So maybe The Cocteau Twins would stand out as something really different.
“No,” Liz smiles and shakes her head. “We’d say we don’t want balloons but they’d still treat us like every other band on the programme. Same lighting, same people throwing things at you…”
“…and we’re not like every other band on the programme,” says Robin. ” Top Of The Pops is for Howard Jones and things like that. Just because you sell enough records to get into the charts, doesn’t mean you’re obliged to appear on it.”
“The problem with The Cocteau Twins,” he decides, “is that there’s no handles on the music, nothing to grasp onto. No messages, no slogans. You can’t write about them like you can about The Smiths.” An evil grin. “You know, ‘I could go out tonight but I haven’t got a pair of trousers…’”
”’…a stitch to wear’,” corrects Simon. “So the result is that people write you off as being a bit weird. But that’s not fair. The moment you get written off as weird, a certain percentage of the people who liked your music will just walk away…”
“…and another percentage will think ‘hey this band’s weird!’ and come on in,” says Robin. “People think we’re sitting there thinking: how can we fool some more people this time? Let’s be all obscure! Look, for your article, why don’t you just put a picture of us in and then put—in big letters right across the page—WE ARE NOT WEIRD, RIGHT?”
Simon chips in. “People always say: why can’t we hear the lyrics? Why do the records sound like they do? Why? Everything’s why? It’s never, you know, thank-you for this. Thank-you for just the music. They either say we’re ‘strumming away blithely with our heads in the sand’—as someone did recently and I took to be a great compliment—or else it’s the ‘swirling sepulchral shards of sound that…’ how does it go again?”
…patter like raindrops against the windows of your mind, etc.
Liz leans back, laughing. “People want too much,” she says.
And what do The Cocteau Twins want?
“Just to be DAMN GOOD!” ▣