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

“The Cocteau Twins”

  • By Tim Tucker
  • Total Guitar
  • May 1996

The delirious dream pop of the Cocteau Twins makes a welcome return this month with the release of a new album, Milk & Kisses. Tim Tucker talked to guitarist and dream weaver Robin Guthrie.

The Cocteau Twins have never fitted in. Since their first album Garlands was released in 1982, they’ve been making uncategorisable music of astonishing depth and beauty, and they’ve continued to confound and astound with classics like 1984’s Treasure and their 1990 meisterwork, Heaven or Las Vegas.

The secret of their success is a sumptuous indulgence in the beauty of sound; great magical waves of noise crashing against a rock solid pulse, Liz Fraser’s heavenly vocal lines shimmering above it all like the sunset on a mythical ocean. Only the Cocteau Twins can make you talk like this.

Much of this sumptuous soundscape can be attributed to one Robin Guthrie, the band’s founder member and principle guitarist. So, how did a young guitarist in Scotland set about producing these extraordinary noises? “When I started playing guitar, when I was about 14 or 15, my other friends who were learning could pretty soon copy other people’s records, and pick up guitar lines and things. And I could never do that. So while they learned how to sound like other people, I got into electronics. I was building pedals, and wah-wahs, creating my own sounds.”

Despite his initial interest in creating his own electronics, Robin has long since dropped the DIY, in favour of a monster studio set-up that’s forever being added to. He has a collection of guitar and studio effects from the distant past to the near future, all of which makes the engine room of the Starship Enterprise look like the flashing light on the side of the Pink Floyd CD. Is this the biggest collection of effects ever assembled in one locatin? “Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine has a fair few too,” Robin points out. “He’s got some things I want, I’ve got some thing he wants.”

So with all this equipment, I wonder how Robin can begin to put together a sound texture for a particular song. “There’s not one single method,” he explains. “I don’t have just one rack of guitar equipment and that’s that. I only put together a rack when I go out on tour.”

But how on earth does he decide what to use? “Quite simply, you get something like a Gallien Kruger pre-amp, and it doesn’t matter what you do to it, it sounds like Gallien Kruger pre-amp. Multiply that by every manufacturer that does these things, and that’s how I get a lot of different textures. That’s the starting block, that’s the colour of the sound. I don’t believe that you can make something sound like something that it’s not.

So is it simply the experience of all these years using so many effects units that allows him to go straight to the sound he wants? “Yeah, but that can be a good and a bad thing. If you rely too much on sounds you know, you don’t try new things. I try not to repeat myself, so I very rarely store things in memory and I never use presets on FX units.”

Despite this experimental approach, there’s no doubt that his sound always has a recognisable Cocteau ambience. “Yeah, there are types of sounds that I’ll go for quite a lot, effects clusters that I particularly like, in a particular order. I use a lot of delays to create an illusion of space, because I don’t like using reverbs with guitars. I use harmonizers to create a sort of chorus effect, often with vibrato mixed in. I use distortion on virtually every song, which isn’t always obvious. A lot of it is subliminal, but when you listen to it about four or five times on the headphones, you hear things that you couldn’t before. It all adds to the atmosphere.”

Does this mean that the choice of guitar is less important? “The type of pickups are important, but the guitar itself is not so important. I’ve got a guitar built for me by a guy called Russell Fong that I’ve been using a lot. I’ve also been using an old Fender Jaguar and a Tokai.”

Writing Time

The secret of the Cocteau’s success isn’t all down to the sounds that they create, of course. They also have an uncanny knack for writing powerfully melodic material. Robin is characteristically modest about this. “I’ve got to the stage where I know where all the notes are on the guitar, and I can invert chords, and move chords about wherever I want them. Maybe better guitar players could play more than I do. I use several tracks to build up my guitar parts, and possibly a better guitarist could play all those parts in one.”

And how many guitar parts does he indulge in on average? “Whatever it needs. And then one more,” he laughs. Whether by accident or design, much of his fret work is not what you’d expect to hear from a typical guitar player. “There’s a track on the new album Milk and Kisses that has got a very standard major chord progression in it. And that’s a really outrageous thing for me to do. It’s more outrageous for me to do something fairly straight, than something out of the ordinary.”

But is this originality due to a particular practical approach to playing? Any secret tunings? “Not really. I’ve got two tunings, a normal one and an open G, and I’d say it was about 60/40 how I use them. I experiment with other tunings, but I find a way of playing in normal tuning live.”

If there’s a message, it’s that you can find your own way to make great music. Ironically, Robin was inspired in this by punk, a musical style which seems a million miles from the ambient aesthetic of the Cocteau Twins. But as Robin explains, it’s the attitude that’s important. “When punk came along, it gave me the impetus to say, ‘Fuck you, I can do what I want.’ It helped me out a lot. At the end of the ’70s, musicianship was frowned upon, and I really identified with that. You can’t sit and listen to a crap jazz record—if the musicians weren’t good it would sound terrible—but you can listen to crap rock records and get a lot from them because the level of musicianship doesn’t really matter. There are other way s of being creative.” And there are few bands who make creative music sound as attractive as the Cocteau Twins. ▣