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

“Velvet Opera”

  • By Alex Kakis
  • Offbeat
  • Oct 1988

The Cocteau Twins have, over the years, emerged as an enigma. You know the kind of thing, Victorian-like waifs who flutter through existence with little perception of the enormities of real life, lofty souls who’ve cocooned themselves in an artistic sanctuary where the only thing to do is jabber away in some romantic esperanto about how crap life is when you’re a sensitive blossom, etc. It’s a vision of heaven is it not?

Of course, one can’t help but let the image grow thanks to the Cocteaus themselves, who’re not averse to throwing in the odd catalyst every now and then. For example, not putting out an album as trio for over four years (Treasure was their last, Victorialand, which followed two years later was a largely acoustic affair between Robin and Elizabeth) things of a minor nature really! Still, the agony years are over and the devoted millions who’ve been waiting with bated breath (and going blue by now, one shouldn’t wonder) can heave a huge sigh of relief because the Cocteau Twins are back with Blue Bell Knoll—their most atmospheric, most beautiful, most wide-ranging and, damn it, might as well be hung for a goose as a gander, their best album ever. So let’s talk about it…

The Cocteaus arrive for this particular slice of verbal necessity (they aren’t exactly mad keen to do interviews) in fine fettle, dispelling myths and images by the coach load. Robin Guthrie, Elizabeth Fraser and Simon Raymonde look nothing like waifs and, what’s more, they appear to be talking English. It’s all very baffling. We adjourn to a drawing room in London’s tres poshe Portobello Hotel, the venue favoured by the Twins for interviews, lest the pestering press should come poking around their houses which, like almost everything else about the band, are PRIVATE.

It’s all very civilised. The waiter delivers coffee and tea and nods demurely but knowingly as Simon’s ashtray slides, ouji board style across the antique table top smattering the Axminster with grubby fag ends. “Er…oops.” Simon offers by way of explanation. “Er…best rub it in the carpet eh? That’s usually the way to get rid of it isn’t it?” Meanwhile Liz is clucking reproachfully at Robin who has large portions of his breakfast down his shirt front and his nose stuck into a Scottish newspaper featuring an article on he and his pals. He isn’t pleased. “Bloody Scottish git,” he rumbles in Scottish, as Liz makes a snatch at the tome and declares him “Rude!” So what have The Cocteau Twins been up to then? Robin balks at the suggestion that they’ve been out of circulation. “We’ve been working very hard actually. We’ve been making a record and building a studio and eating lots of ice cream and staying in bed all day.” he titters. “Seriously, though, we’ve not been playing and all that sort of thing because we’ve been doing other things.”

The Cocteaus have never, it would appear, been bothered with the idea of keeping a high profile. The life of single, album, promotion isn’t the life for them, which accounts further for the mystery they have, as a result, created around themselves.

Simon: “That’s because there’s more to life than behaving like a popstar.”

Robin: “We like playing , but it’s something you’ve got to feel right about doing. The whole thing is you’ve got to have a good time. And we do, as long as we don’t jump into it. Yes, I suppose it is idealistic of us but this shouldn’t have to be a moral thing. We just try to be honest to ourselves.”

This is a far cry from the money-minded music moguls we’ve come to know and, er, love isn’t it?

Robin: “Yes, but we feel very removed from that at times.”

Simon: “But we’ve created that situation for ourselves. If you don’t make it known how you want things to be you can find yourselves being pushed into anything.”

“It isn’t something we all sit down and discuss.” Liz explains as she pours tea and coffee for all assembled, “It’s just something we all have in common, it’s the way we all want it. That’s the only way you can be proud of what you do.”

Robin has been eyeing her carefully and prepares to make comment: “Look at that! You put the coffee in the big cups and the tea in the little cups, stupid! How could you embarrass us like this in front of people!” A furious five minutes ensues during which, tea cup etiquette is fully explored. Robin concludes, “I’m right, I’m telling you. Honestly, you can take Liz out of Scotland but you can’t take Scotland out of Liz! Heh heh!”

But back to business. So what does make a Cocteau beam with pride then? Blank stares all round and then…typically they all talk at once! Such is their way. Robin is only too aware of the band’s shortcoming as subjects for interview!

Robin: “Hold on, first we all keep quiet and she can’t get a word out of us and then we all talk at once!” As if by way of warning the second supernatural occurrence of the day takes place. The tray of drinks decides it’s time for it to go the way of the ashtray and guided by an unseen hand makes a swift dash for the floor! Huh! Rock and roll, eh?

Robin: ” As I was about to say, ahem, we’re proud of all our albums—at the time. Heh heh! We really like this new one now but in two years time we’ll hate it! A few years down the line you think, ‘Oh shit! All our records are such shit!’.”

Liz: “That’s why you make another one.”

Oh come on, do…

Robin: “It’s true, you like them all, but after a while you think they’re a real embarrassment because things change and you constantly get better.”

But what about music being a timeless piece etc, etc?

Robin: “Well I wouldn’t say that. What I’m saying is that people should throw away the old records and buy the new one.”

By now Simon and Liz are halfway between looking amused and amazed.

Liz: “You don’t throw away all your old records do you?”

Ah, she has him there…

Simon: “You keep all the records you like and still listen to new albums don’t you?”

Now Robin is truly “had”…or is he?

Robin: “Well, that’s other people’s records. I’m talking about our records.”


Robin: “The whole of Treasure, let’s face it, it’s a turkey!” His chums are looking as if they are now in agreement.

Robin: “We don’t really ever listen to our records but there’s a few tracks I have fond memories of but when I put them on I find the quality of the memory of the record was actually a lot better than the quality of the record itself!”

And what about Blue Bell Knoll? What will the band think of that in years to come? And, more to the point, what will Cocteau devotees think of it now? Liz: “Well, I do see what Robin’s saying. It would be nice if people could disregard the old albums and not compare Blue Bell Knoll to them. Treat it as something separate because to us that’s what it is. The thing is , you can never tell how a record will be received. Of course you’d like people to buy it but we don’t even know what sort of people buy our records anyway. Honestly, we have no idea.”

Far from being precious about their beloved music as some doubting Toms would have you believe, there’s a pragmatism about The Cocteau Twins that’s quite irresistible. They will tell you it’s because they are happy. And they are. But one listen to Blue Bell Knoll will tell you that the Cocteaus could, if they so wished, aim a lot higher than they do. So why don’t they?

Liz: “Musically, I don’t think we could be more accessible now without sounding completely like someone else and not like us. But we could be more accessible in the terms that more people could get to hear us.”

Robin: “You can look at it in two ways, either you make your music sound like everyone else’s which we can’t do or you can make yourselves more accessible- push yourself as a person. We’re just hiding behind our records, aren’t we? I mean, we are, aren’t we? We’re not pushing ourselves as celebrities. What would that achieve apart from making yourself look like a complete dickhead?”

So being a celeb and being a dickhead go hand in hand then, do they?

Simon: “Well, who on Blankety-Blank isn’t a dickhead? Apart from Les Dawson?”

Liz: “Les doesn’t do it anymore, does he?”

Simon: “No, it’s Terry that doesn’t do it anymore. He was too sophisticated. Like us? Huh! I don’t think so!”

Robin: “Oh yeah, we’re a really sophisticated band we are. I mean, we put the tea in the coffee cup.”

Simon: “I pushed the ashtray on the floor and Robin’s got all muck down his shirt!”

Robin: “Yeah, I’m the Bryan Ferry figure of the band.”

Liz: “More like the Sir Les Patterson of the band!”

As you can clearly see, it’s almost impossible to keep the Cocteau Twins on any one subject for more than a few seconds! But that’s all part of their charm. A charm that’s been given far too little credit in the past it would seem. Robin is right, they aren’t the best subjects for interview (although they’d make excellent people to have round for tea) they won’t sit still for one thing! And they’re far happier talking about their recent trip to America where they saw Bryan Ferry perform with a ham-fisted bunch of musicians at Radio City. And how they’ve all had a go on the art deco loos in the Empire State Building. And about eating vast quantities of McDonalds which all taste the same whether you’re in Scunthorpe or Los Angeles. And about the fact that Robin and Liz left their native Scotland because it was a toilet.

Robin: “We left Scotland because it was a toilet. We’ve pretty much lost touch with everyone there. Scotland is an awful place.”

Liz: “People will beat you up simply because they don’t like your haircut or because what you’re wearing is a bit different.”

So what do the parents of this two thirds of the Cocteaus think of their self-imposed exile, then?

Robin: “Ah, well that’s a sore point actually. Liz doesn’t talk to her family because they’re all complete psychopaths. Her sister actually tried to stab her one day.”

Simon: “Even I’ve lost touch with all my friends though, I suppose being in the Cocteau Twins is everything. You’re always doing something that’s connected. So we’ve lost touch with loads of people and Liz has lost touch with everything! Har har!”

Hmmm…no doubt it’s talk like this which started all that enigma nonsense, eh?

Robin: “Oh, God! I don’t know where that came from.” (He is looking particularly un-enigmatic for extra effect) “Hang on I’ll go and get my dark glasses and my cloak, shall I? Pffftt! Enigma! Actually, I’ve never really read an article yet that’s been accurate.”

Oh dear…

Robin: “Sometimes they write about Liz and it might be Liz but it’s not the Liz I know (and love… awww), I mean they always make her sound really witty and intelligent which she isn’t at all! Ha haaaaaaaa!” Liz laughs her delicious laugh. She’s being gracious for the moment but promises to give Robin a jolly good clump round the earhole when she gets him home.

Back to business then (again!). The Cocteaus have often been declared as the inspiration for many an imitator, but when confronted with the notion, far from rolling their eyes skywards, as if to say ‘yes, well it’s such a bind’, they can only look cheesed off and say, “Tush” and “Prurrbbbft” and other such noises of refute.

Simon: “Everyone says this but there aren’t any people copying us. What has probably happened is that at some point a band may have said they liked one of our records or something and the next thing you know, they’re Cocteau copiers.”

Liz: “Exactly the same thing happened when we said we liked The Flying Pickets, tee hee!”

And much to their eternal credit, they refuse to be drawn any further into the discussion. Well, then what about new age Music? (Snores all round.) There is, after all, much clatter from those who subscribe to this art but Offbeat probably isn’t the first to point out that the Twins have been achieving a better structured kind of thing for some time now without half the fuss.

Robin: “People try too hard really. I suppose that’s where we’re successful. We don’t try hard at all. The thing is with pop music, it’s all the same, there isn’t really anything new to add to it. We’re doing nothing different to anyone else, it’s just that it’s us doing it and we do it differently, er, because it’s us! Heeheehee!”

So how has their music changed over the years?

Robin: “It’s better.”

And, for want of a better word, more “open” perhaps even, less tortured..?

Simon: “It’s almost impossible to know how you got there, you don’t know what it’s going to be like until you get to the end almost.”

Robin: “That makes it sound like we don’t put any thought into what we do. It’s all very well thought out before we go into the studio but then things start really happening when you get in there.”

And how much of what happens is emotional as opposed to knob-twiddling?

Robin: “Well of course emotion is important, it’s got to be. But you can’t just go into a studio and say, right I’m going to be really emotional now. You’ve got to think about the technical aspects because you want good quality records and so someone’s got to physically twiddle the knobs as you would say.”

And how have you changed as people since you were fledgling Cocteaus?

Robin: “Aye, well, we’re all getting a lot older now, I suppose, and you get a lot more responsibilities when you get older. When I was 19, I was an arsehole. I remember when I was 19, drinking copious amounts of alcohol and taking drugs and staying up until three in the morning and if I did that now…well for a start, I just haven’t got the stamina.”

Is there anything you miss about those days?

Liz: “The naivety. I don’t like to think about how we’ve changed. I just don’t like it. At least I suppose I’m a lot less cynical than I used to be but I don’t know if that’s a good thing.”

Robin: “Liz used to be really naive and have no confidence in herself and she used to do things without really thinking. Now she thinks about what she does and so never gets anything done!”

Liz clocks up another punch he’s due. Simon is keeping stumm! So what would you have done if you hadn’t become superstars then?

Robin: “Simon would probably have been a footballer, I suppose.”

Simon: “Am I that predictable?”

Robin: “Well, yes you are, I’m afraid dear boy. Yes, Simon would have been a footballer, Liz would have been an air hostess and I would have been a fireman.” (NB: Only one of these is true but can you guess which? Clue: the last two are lies.)

Liz: “To be honest, I just got involved with Robin out of sheer desperation, there wasn’t anything else I bloody well could’ve done!”

But is being rich, famous and good looking all it’s cracked up to be?

Robin: “You don’t meet as many girls as I thought you would.”

Simon: “And it’s a bit too much like hard work. There’s a lot more involved in being in a band than just playing the music. Which is good in a way because we could do music 24 hours a day and it would probably send us mad. We do get really enthusiastic about it!”

Liz: “I agree.”

Robin: “So do I.”

Robin: “Ooooh well, I expect you’ll go home now and misquote us and when we read this it’ll sound nothing like us. Mind you I think people find us a real disappointment when they meet us. They’re expecting something special and all they get is us. Are you another disappointed journalist?”

Oh, ye of little faith, Robin, ye of little faith.

The Alternative Cocteau Analysis

If by cutting off your own finger you would have guaranteed wealth for the rest of your life, would you? Robin: “Too fucking right I would! I’d cut off anybody’s finger for guaranteed wealth…er…which finger by the way? How much wealth exactly is excessive anyway? Well, anyway, yeah, I would do it ‘cause I suppose I could afford to have it grafted back on. Oh…that isn’t part of the bargain eh?”

Simon: “I couldn’t do it. No way. I like all of my fingers.

Liz: (she’s been contemplating furiously.) “I would, possibly. Perhaps I could be given a little more wealth because my fingers are quite fat. Yes, I would if you got paid by the pound.”

If someone offered you 50,000 to donate to your favourite charity provided you eat a plate of worms would you?

Robin: “If they could be worms out of a Mescal bottle yes, otherwise no! Some bloody charity would have to come and get my stomach pumped wouldn’t they?”

Worms are quite harmless.

Robin: “No, I wouldn’t do diddly.”

Liz: “It does sound a bit gruesome…”

Robin: “We all know what these charities are like. No-one would ever get to see the money.”

Simon: “Well, I do actually do things for charity. I recently did a sponsored swim for someone because their mum has multiple sclerosis and I got a postcard saying what they’d bought with the money so it does help sometimes.”

If, by eating really horrible grub for the rest of your life you could save the whale, would you?

Liz: “That’s a difficult one. But yeah, I think I could do it. I’ve already given up meat, but I’m afraid I’m one of those chicken eaters. I’m at a low ebb right now but I will try to give up meat altogether.”

Simon: “I think I would, yeah.”

Robin: “That’s a bastard, that one. No comment. I don’t eat meat anyway so I’m already saving cows aren’t I? What if it was whales you had to eat? It isn’t? Oh well…what if er…no comment!”

You’re at a friend’s house with some other people you’ve never met before, when you notice a distinctly vile smell coming from the other room. No-one else seems to have noticed. What do you do?

Liz: “I’d have to say something in case people though it was me!”

Simon: “Yeah, I’d have to say something too, like er, you know that smell? Well it’s not me!”

Robin: “Well, it would really depend on what the smell was. If it smelled like there was cow shite on the floor I’d have to say so!”

An ant has laboriously carried a crumb along the garden path. Against all the odds it finally makes it back to the ant hill. Would you squash it for five thousand quid?

Robin: “She would.”

Liz: “Get off!”

Robin: “I would, yeah.”

Liz: “What have you got against insects? I tell you what, we had a massive insect on our duvet the other night.”

Robin: “Not as big as the one we had in our bedroom that time! It was so big we couldn’t touch it. We had to wait for our friend to come round and remove it!”

Simon: “I trod on a slug the other day. I didn’t have any shoes on, it was disgusting.”

Robin: “Snails are alright though—in garlic butter, ha ha ha!!!!”

You’re offered everlasting fame at the expense of another combo you greatly admire. Do you seize the opportunity?

Liz: “Everlasting fame? Yeah, that sounds quite nice.”

Robin: “That’s a pretty weird question to a someone in a group isn’t it? Well, I don’t know about that, but I’d shop Simon to the police for something he didn’t do for a fortune. Fortune but not just for fame.”

Simon: “Thanks.”

If you could wipe one memory from your mind, which one would it be?

Robin: “I’m sure there’s quite a few gigs we’d like to wipe from our memories.”

Liz: “I wouldn’t want to lose any memories because even the most horrible, horrible things contribute to who you are.”

Simon: “I wouldn’t mind forgetting the time I took my trousers and undies off and walked across the foyer of the hotel we were staying at in America. I did it for a bet.”

Robin: “I bet him a dollar and he did it!”

Liz: “One cheap dollar. You slag!”

If you could zap one person off the face of the earth, would you? If so, who would it be?

Robin: “The guy who wrote that horrible article about us.”

Simon: “Thatch.”

What about her family?

Simon: “What about them?”

Robin: “I was just thinking of Orson Welles in ‘The Third Man.” They were in Vienna and on this carousel looking down at all the people and they all looked like ants. If the people were that size would it really matter if one of them was zapped? You just distance yourself from the people you’re gonna zap and it doesn’t really matter.”

Liz: “Which wouldn’t be hard for Robin because he’s always telling us that he’s above everybody anyway!” ▣