- By Steve Sutherland
- Melody Maker
- 16-Nov 1985
How do you interview THE COCTEAU TWINS? Steve Sutherland, who considers them to be something like the voice of God, doesn’t know. Well, he sat down and talked to them for a bit, and this is what happened.
THE END: “In the best of all possible worlds,” said Robin, “this wouldn’t be happening.” Hold it right there. I’ve read this before. I don’t want any more.
No buts. I’m determined that this will not be another Cocteau Twins interview about how The Cocteau Twins hate interviews because that, after all, after hours of agonised silence and blank incomprehension, is all that anyone’s ever gleaned from this lot on paper. I won’t sit down and discuss this again. I won’t attempt to defend the pathologically rigid rigmarole of the rock’n’roll interview, nor will I perpetrate it further.
So what shall I do, Robin? What shall I do? And what will I get? Will I get anything? Or is there nothing there to get? Nothing at all?
“Well, we’re not divs but people make us out to be…we come over like…”
Yes, I understand that I don’t understand.
The Cocteau Twins make my favourite music in the whole wide world ever and, on November 16 and 22, they release two four-track EPs. I want to talk about them, but I know it’s no good. They want them well treated because they envisage a Cocteau Twins backlash on the horizon and they don’t think it’s fair. Just because they don’t fit in, folks think they refuse to fit in but it’s not the same thing at all. There’s nothing willful about The Cocteaus’ refusal to play along, they just don’t because they do what they do, that’s all.
Hey, they live on our planet, believe it or not. They eat, they drink, they see what we see and hear what we hear. It’s just that what they create when they’re locked away somewhere has no bearing on any of this whatsoever. My task, I suppose, is to reconcile this into some sort of sense but all I can come up with is intricate babble which, even in the act of praising, seems to tarnish the pure simplicity of what The Cocteaus do.
I’ll admit, at this point, that I was going to wax all wonderfully lyrical about the new Cocteau Twins stuff. I was going to construct some elaborate review of Tiny Dynamine (“Pink Orange Red”, “Ribbed and Veined”, “Plain Tiger” and “Sultitan Itan”), some glowing testimony to Echoes In a Shallow Bay (“Great Spangled Fritillary”, “Melonella”, “Pale Clouded White” and “Eggs and Their Shells”) but I realised that all I’d be doing was conjuring fantasies, evolving mythologies and warping expectations so, at the risk of encouraging accusations of lethargy and cop-out I say this: Buy these records, I think they’re brilliant. They exist.
Why am I squirming? Here’s my problem: The Cocteau Twins can’t talk about their music because there’s nothing to say and I can’t write about it because, as it’s instrumental with vocal impressions, all I can produce is mind’s-eye gibberish. And believe you me, I’ve said some pretty embarrassing stuff about this lot in the past. Stuff, incidentally, that I stick by.
“The things you’re allowed to write!” Robin’s smiling. “You went and wrote something about God in one of our reviews. You said we were the Voice Of God or something. I hated that. It gives people the wrong impression. It gives people your impression. If I read that, I’d think ‘No fucking way am I buying that!’
“And another time you said I hadn’t developed much further than some Banshees album and that we were too loud. That was insulting. The idea of three people totally stationary on stage with no affiliation at all to rock’n’roll making the loudest fucking noise you’ve ever heard kind of appeals.”
“And that thing you said to Robert Smith about his lipstick,” Liz is trembling.
“You said that Liz Fraser wants to know why you wear your lipstick like that. That was very naughty of you Steve, very, very naughty. I was so embarrassed.”
Contrary to common belief, The Cocteau Twins care. A lot.
The Unmentionable Mentioned
The Cocteau Twins don’t exactly scream at you to ask them about their sex lives or the colour of their socks so it all comes down to self-justification and that nebulous area where you’ve no idea what you’re talking about or what will come out and the smallest detail assumes the stature of enigma. Or…
Robin: “I’m still completely at a loss to understand what people want to know. I’ll tell all. We do tell all. That’s the thing. I can’t understand, what more can I say?”
Some minor hack from the NME spent seven hours grilling them last spring, searching for the Holy Grail, seeking to establish his own reputation as Raider Of The Liz Bark.
“He completely fucked himself up,” Liz laughs and laughs.
Simon: “He was so frustrated. He actually admitted he was getting nowhere. He’d obviously come with this plan of getting us softened up with all these questions about football and films and all the things we like that would make us think he was a really good bloke and then, wham!, in with the big questions at the end. What he didn’t quite understand is that there are no big questions and there are no big answers.
The Big Question
Why? Why do you sound like The Cocteau Twins?
Robin’s Big Answer
Robin: “It almost gets to the stage where you just want to turn round to somebody and say ‘Yeah, I’m really magical and mysterious, that’s what I think about myself. I’m weird and obscure and it rubs off on the music…’”
Simon: “Yeah, we’re religious, spiritual…”
Liz: “Would you like some tea or coffee just now?”
Robin: “There’s some tins aren’t there? I’ll have another beer.”
Liz: “You’ll want a fuckin’ straw with it next—get you pissed quicker.”
Robin: “Got any gin?”
Liz: “Um…er…NO! I distinctly remember you finishing it off last night. Don’t drink…”
Robin: “But I’m getting my haircut tonight.”
Liz: “Yes, I know. You’ll fall asleep and wake up with a skinhead—that’ll fuckin’ sort you out. You’ll never drink again.”
Small, very funny, and very, very shy.
At the photo studio, Liz is being made-up, having her face and hair done. By her side, by the mirror, is a notepad into which she jots every layer of foundation, every tint of eyeshadow for further reference.
“That’s typical,” says Robin. “Did you notice at home by the record player, there’s a piece of paper with instructions on it about how the stereo works, step by step. And by the video there’s another list of how to work it. And she wants to learn to drive—can you imagine that?”
Oh yes, a very Liz thing to do.
Fat, funny, delightfully sarcastic, he crimps his hair to stop it looking pubic.
This thin guy with glasses comes up to him in the Croydon Underground, brandishing a poster advertising the 4AD night and asking for an autograph. Robin looks him up and down, snorts his disapproval and begins to read it out.
“Xymox, is that us?”
“Wolfgang Press. Is that us?”
“Dif Juz. Is that us?”
“Well then, shouldn’t you be going to get their autographs?”
The bloke slinks off, bemused. Robin turns to me and says: “It’s bad enough when they want you to sign Cocteau Twins stuff.”
That’s a very Robin thing to do.
A genuinely nice and sincere sort of guy.
Simon was “disgusted” by the Banshees at Hammersmith Odeon. He’d seen them three or four times before and considered this “heavy metal”. Worst of all, though, he considered the encore “dishonest”.
That’s a very Simon thing to say.
Well, what was there left? The personality angle wasn’t paying dividends because, as the antithesis of all they are, it couldn’t. The enormous review wasn’t on either—all that verbiage trying to describe something defiantly inarticulate. No, I was left with flotsam, with various meets in various places, with circumstantial evidence. Whether it comes any closer to anything, whether it helps, I don’t know but anyway…
Meet one: Liz and Robin’s flat in Chiswick. Ground floor. Clean and bare with a Siamese kitten called Otto (after the punk in ‘Repo Man’) who bites and scratches and has never heard of house-training. No books about so no clues there. A record player. A video. Lots of videos. A photo of Lillian Gish in the toilet. The door handle comes off in your hand and you have to keep the lid down or the cat might fall in the bowl.
Meet two: Riverside for That Petrol Emotion.
Meet three: The photo session in Covent Garden. A small studio and a pint or two in the pub. (Liz is on cider and Babycham, fact-fiends.)
Meet four: Simon sees the Banshees at Hammersmith Odeon.
Meet five: 4AD night at Croydon Underground—very much the visiting stars. Robin hates it.
Robin: “You can’t push progression, you can’t plan it. Well, if you did, you’d sound really contrived. I’m just starting to realise now that there’s a difference between Garlands, Lullabies and Peppermint Pig but it was probably all very evident to someone who listened to it at the time. We’re so close to it, we can’t tell.
Their last album, Treasure, was the sweetest luxury, a placid lagoon of dreams after the exotic carnival of Head Over Heels. Ivo once told me that he discerned Heels being born of the love affair between Robin and Liz whereas where Treasure came from was a marvelous mystery.
Simon: “I can see what you’re saying but…no.”
If anybody around pop today is enjoying the fact that language obscures as much (and as well) as it reveals its intentions, it’s Liz Fraser. Her lyrics are noise games, not nonsense but emotion liberated from cliché. When she sings, my world moves and it means something beyond and without all the blasted, blighted baggage of linguistic nostalgia.
She uses words but the words never matter, their sounds carry the fullest impact, her voice—the most desolate ever recorded—cuts the crap but can’t avoid it. We can’t handle The Cocteau Twins, we don’t possess the critical apparatus to do them justice. It’s no big deal on their behalf, no deliberate setting themselves apart from the mainstream, no arrogant isolationism. It’s simply that the channels we stomp down to beat pop to a pulp and render it comfortable and comprehensible don’t lead us anywhere near The Cocteau Twins.
We don’t touch them and yet, still we try. In Japan, for instance, they’ve published lyric sheets with all the albums, even renaming Treasure at whim The Woman Who The Gods Loved.
Robin: “Tell me if any of these words are what Liz is singing, right? I’m not joking. ‘Let us rock you so / Rock you so good.’ ‘The wave of the earth has got me all fooled now.’ ‘Should have fixed it before it floated away.’”
Liz: “Oh that’s fucking disgusting…disgusting. They must think we’re a bunch o’ perverts or something.”
Robin: “Take this fish / Harder than roe / Who sauntered away.’”
Robin: “Julianne was first called a genius / Julianne a genius too / Our song is framed by a genius / Suddenly she got up and turned it on.’”
Liz: “Definitely drug-induced hysteria.”
Robin: “‘I don’t mend no fence.’”
Simon: “‘I’m a prisoner of the fence.’”
Robin: “Look at the sleeve notes. It says here that The Cocteau Twins are three girls, right? And that I sing all the backing vocals on the LP and that my backing vocals are ‘psychedelic but never freaky’.”
Liz: “Bloody hell!”
All the Things They Hate
Simon supports Tottenham Hotspur and owes me a fiver.
Crime and the City Solution—especially Roland Howard and his brother’s way of smoking fags. Dif Juz—“best group in the world”. Steve Martin—Robin’s got all his films plus albums. Bedazzled, a Sixties spoof on Faust starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore—“The best film ever” (Robin). Pale Rider, although Liz wanted to see Peter Pan. The Philadelphia Story, on the box recently.
Simon: “What a film.”
Liz: “Yeah, we just saw the end of it.”
Robin: “We saw the whole fucking thing! We saw it from five minutes after it started.”
Liz: “Oh, did we? I thought we only saw the end. It did seem to last for a long time though.”
The Jesus and Mary Chain.
Simon: “They’re so good.”
Robin: “Yeah, but their records are all becoming a formula. They’ve had brilliant tunes but they’re all Spector/Beach Boysy-type tunes with loads of feedback on top. “Just Like Honey” is the same, just toned down a bit. I’d like to mix one of their records…”
That Petrol Emotion: Robin would like to produce them.
Liz: “I want to go see them. I think they’re really great. I really do.”
Robin: “I had a ticket to see them once but it was too foggy and all the trains were canceled.”
So he decided to form his own band…
Simon: “Because you couldn’t see The Damned…”
Robin: “Maybe you could help us write a legend!”
All the Things They Like
Simon supports Tottenham Hotspur and owes me a fiver.
Rambo—“Rubbish! Have you seen it? There’s this bit where he comes out of this wall of mud and a few seconds later he’s clean. And the girl in the jungle with all the make-up on … I’ve seen loads of films lately which have been really good but the endings are just moralistic, patronising, telling the audience what the whole film’s been about. Ken Russell’s ‘Crimes Of Passion’ is just like that, it’s appalling, absolutely disgusting, like being at a dirty movie. The sex scenes go on for about 20 minutes and everybody else in the cinema was an old man with a raincoat over his lap—I was thinking “Hang on a minute, I shouldn’t be here.”
Desperately Seeking Susan?
Simon: “I don’t want to see it because I don’t want to like Madonna. I actually like not liking her, thinking she’s a real slagbag.”
Sigue Sigue Sputnik?
Simon: “They’re dreadful, abysmal. They won’t do anything will they?”
With a good producer, a Chris Thomas, someone who can hone down their eight minutes of noise to three minutes of melody…
Robin: “They look so silly. Mind you, for that sort of money, even you’d dress up, look silly and make bad records wouldn’t you?”
Mere Mortal Concerns
Robin: “It happened to us about a year and a half ago. It happens to everybody. You can’t do anything about it, you can’t deliberately stop and change. You’ve got to work your way through it.”
Robin: “It’s been good to learn about the music business this way, to learn about all the nasty little things that I don’t think we’d have learned from a major because we’d just have been exploited straight away. I don’t think we’d get ourselves into that situation now because we’re older and wiser. It actually seems quite an appealing idea to screw a major for as much as you could possibly get and then just do nothing because you know how corrupt the whole thing is and how everyone else seems to do it.”
Simon: “It’s all relative. These groups who get signed for 250,000, it doesn’t mean ‘We’re giving you 250,000, go and buy yourself a house and lots of cars.’ It means ‘Here’s a loan until you make your records.’ We don’t get very much money and the records sell.”
Robin: “We don’t take big advances and we recoup so we don’t owe anybody anything. I’d rather be in that situation. Funnily enough, Liz and my biggest form of income’s Garlands because it cost 800 to make so that recouped long, long ago. Our budgets for making records are ridiculously small, not ‘cause we’re mean or we rush things, it’s just that we don’t really take very long to do it.”
Liz: “When we were in Los Angeles, Robin found a…well, you tell it Robin.”
Robin: “No, you tell it.”
Liz: “We found a matchbook of the hotel John Belushi died in. Well, when we found it we didn’t know that but then we found out but Robin lost it.”
Robin: “That’s a Liz anecdote.”
The Cocteau Twins toured Japan this year, rode the bullet train, felt restricted by the cities and affronted by the Westernization. They also played in America where they were constantly asked when and why they formed This Mortal Coil and where, against their better judgment, they released a “Best Of” LP.
Extra-curricular duties include building a 16-track studio in Maida Vale, dismantling and relocating it in Acton, and producing Felt, Dif Juz and the Wolfgang Press.
Tiny Dynamine and Echoes In a Shallow Bay were recorded under no pressure and were never intended for release. The tracks evolved into two EPs because “When you do an LP, it’s like a statement of what you’ve been doing, a concerted effort. This is more complacent probably.” Robin laughs. “They’re not singles, there are no seven inches obviously, they’re 12-inches, they’re not long versions of anything, they’re not remixes. They’re just a bunch of songs, EPs in the old sense of the word. No one song is any more important than any other. People think we’re being weird or something but we’re not…”
There’s a collaboration on the cards between the Cocteaus and Harold Budd, the avant-gardist they met in America. He’s about to send them backing tapes and vice-versa and the cross-cultural experiment may well be filmed for Channel 4.
And What Will Never Be
The Cocteaus were asked to appear on Wogan but, much to their regret, it was turned down on their behalf.
Robin: “Obviously a revival, probably American. I can’t understand it. Everybody took the piss out of the Mod revival but nobody’s taking the piss out of this blatant Byrds revival. Everybody’s taking it seriously.”
So where does that leave The Cocteau Twins?
“In 10 years time, there will be a Cocteau Twins revival.”
If the process of interview is to ascertain some truth, to nudge some reality, to realise there really aren’t any answers, then I’ve failed. If the essence of this piece was to avoid an obsessive autopsy of The Cocteau Twins’ problematic relationship to the interview, I’ve let you down badly. It’s here, it’s inescapable and I’m circling, searching for something I can’t define, struggling to discover whether that there isn’t anything to discover is the big fact or just a conveniently mystical cop-out.
Certainly the people I met and the records I hear don’t match up too well, don’t fit. I’m speaking of what stubbornly won’t be spoken of and it’s the best I can do to tell you that, of all the outfits I’ve ever met, the lives of the characters of The Cocteau Twins are the least informative when applied to their music. And naturally, in saying that, I open two options, each equally inappropriate: they’re not fakers, they wear no masks, they hide nowhere, nor are they recipients of some mysterious muse, they don’t act as ciphers for some spiritual genius descending from the aether.
The Cocteau Twins just go and do and they don’t know why so why the hell should I?
(In) the Beginning (Was the Word)
“That was the shittiest interview we’ve ever done…”
“But we said nothing, talked about nothing…”
“But what are you gonna write about?”
Oh, I’ll make it up. I’ll write about you. I’ll think of something.
“But that means we’re in your hands, we’re at your mercy…”
Aha, well the hack always has the last word. This is it… ▣