Digging For Treasures
An uphill struggle to unearth the trade secrets of this enigmatic trio, the Cocteau Twins.
Richard Walmsley attempts to get to the heart of the matter with the evasive and persuasive Cocteau Twins.
I remember back in my school days reading Jean Cocteau's engaging novel about a brother and sister, Paul and Elizabeth, who spend the entire 100 pages eating balls of poison, tormenting their lovers and playing highly irresponsible games with loaded firearms; in short trying to preserve around themelves an atmosphere totally different from the one covering the rest of the planet. Some years later two similarly displaced individuals introduced me to the music of a certain Caledonian new wave band and the atmosphere returned. Was it simply a coincidence that they called themselves The Cocteau Twins?
The Cocteau Twins while never having shied away from talking to the press nevertheless appear to have an inbuilt defence mechanism when it comes to explaining the whys and wherefores of their music, perhaps rightly believing too much analysis would destroy their unique, almost fragile, chemistry.
Their history has been well chronicled, even if the press were slow to pick up on them. Times have changed and so have the group. Hailing from Grangemouth in Scotland Elizabeth and Robin split from original bassist Will Heggie, whose position has been more recently been filled by Simon Raymonde.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with The Cocteau Twins or their music, I should start by saying that they are essentially, a guitar band. Therefore why are you reading about them? Well as guitar bands go, they are extremely unusual, and the sounds they make are so far removed from U2, Big Country and others of that ilk, that people often imagine them using instruments far higher up the evolutionary tree than the humble guitar to create their music.
Briefly, their music could be described as an intricate foret of guitar textures, treatments and melodies shot through by the penetrating voice of their singer Elizabeth Frazer. Garlands, 1982 debut album on 4AD records, whilst bearing influences from The Cure and Siouxsie and The Banshees, nevertheless displayed remarkable originality, a quality that has flourished in their music ever since, rewarding them with a respectable and constantly growing following. Treasure (reviewed last month) their current LP, shows a considerable progression from the starkness and attack of their earlier material, using all the resources of the guitar and the recording studio to create songs distinguished not so much by melody or rhythm, as by their different atmospheric characteristics.
The guitar styles which are the hallmark of the Cocteau's music are mainly the creation of Robin Guthrie who, to all intents and purposes, is also the band's producer. The newest addition to the band is Simon Raymonde, who concentrates mainly on bass, but also contributes to the upper layers as well.
A bleak winter's day was the one ordained for my meeting with the trio, and as I climbed the windswept hill in Wandsworth towards our meeting place ominous clouds warned me that all might not be well. And, as my early questions echoed grimly around the room, I could have been forgiven for believing them; words, it seemed, do not come easily from the Cocteaus. The flow began with them telling me how they work in the studio.
Robin: "There'll just be the three of us in the studio, we won't use an engineer or anything like that. We don't go into the studio with anything worked out, it all just happens in there. So we use a Drumulator and we'll put down a guide drum, then basically compose a song — a piece of music around that. Then after it's done and it's obvious where the changes and breaks are, we'll go back and programme the drums for it properly."
So you don't demo your material first?
Robin: "No. We're goin'ta try. We've got a little studio ourselves. We've never worked that way before, but we don't see why we shouldn't try working like that."
So how long does a track take from start to finish?
Simon: "A day."
Robin: "That's not mixed, that's just recorded. We'll have another day to mix it. We record most of the effects, but we still add a lot in the mix. Everybody usually says, 'Oh the Cocteau Twins put all their sound through a Lexicon and that's it,' you know. It's not just a case of lots of reverb on it, I must point out, phillistines! No, it's quite complicated and we take lots of bother over it, and it's not easy and nobody could mix it and make it sound the same as what we do when we mix it, 'cause people have tried."
What studios have you used?
Robin: "We've been using Palladium (Edinburgh) and we wanted to mix down here (London) and we found that Rooster, apart from being well equipped, has got DBX which we needed."
Why do you choose Palladium, do you just feel comfortable there?
Robin? "It's not very flash. It's full o' instruments - piano, Kurzweil. It's got a Mellotron that's lovely - it's got hundreds of odd instruments lying about the studio, so you can be inspired by just picking up an instrument and starting to play it - something you don't know how to play."
Don't I remember you mentioning that those instruments had a lot of character?
Robin: "No, someone made that up; I don't talk like that. Anyway, I've changed my set up since then. I've minimised it a bit, I thought it was getting a bit over the top, so I just use my amp. I've got a new one, it's a Fender Tremelux, it's cute. And I've changed my Boss pedals. I use a Super Distortion And Feedbacker, it's a new one, it's dead good. It's mostly just time things. There's nothing really apart from the distortion that's any different to anybody else."
Searching for a change of emphasis, I asked Elizbeth how great a part she played in the actual treatment of her vocals.
Elizabeth: "I record everything in the same way. I don't have any control over him" (makes gesture in Robin's direction).
Robin: "I like sort a'over the top delays that don't seem like it. If you were to solo the voice and the delay you'd think 'Oh, that's really over the top.' But when it's in with the music it'll sound perfectly in time with another thing. Get the mathematics right."
I was somewhat concerned when I learned that the drum track on Persephone from the first side of Treasure, was by none other than John Bonham of Led Zeppelin... now I thought he was dead?
Robin: "Drumulator rock chips, which it supposedly is. Well that was something we recorded with the old ones, but we tarted it up and put the new ones in."
Calling all the tracks on the album names which have no apparent connection with the music, such as Beatrix and Pandora makes for confusion. It took a while, but I finally managed to get the name of a track right, and asked them about Donimo, the last on the album.
Robin: "There's even little bits of synthesiser on that..."
Robin: "No, there's synth as well; DX7."
Simon: "That track sort of developed over quite a long time..."
Robin: "That makes it sound like months!"
General laughter ensued.
Robin: "I just hate taking any instrument at all, be it a guitar or synthesiser, and not screwing it up. I mean we never use any sort of straight instruments really, I always think it's much more interesting to fuck 'em up. You know, stick it through millions of things and see what happens."
Featured on our cassette this month is an original version of Otterley, the second to last track on the album. I wondered whether that too began with a drum track.
Simon: "No, that one didn't. There was a click. It was an open tuning that began it."
Robin: "All there is on it, in fact I think this might illustrate what I mean by treating and mucking about with instruments, when you hear this particular version, all there is on it is two tracks of guitar, one track of bass and one track of percussion. We only used four tracks. I like to create a sort of space, but not through sort a' not playing a lot..."
Simon: "Yeah, you can say just as many things by not playing something in a certain place as you can by playing..."
His voice trailed off enigmatically.
Bearing in mind the last remark I began to sense a certain guilt at breaking the silences which were beginning once again to punctuate our conversation. Reticence can often be a sign of intelligence it it is true, but it does make interviewing uphill work.
Robin: "We're not very good at sort a' describing what we're doing, because we shouldn't be describing what we're doing."
When it comes to writing most of the musical ideas germinate in the brain of Robin, with melodies and lyrics supplied at a later date by Elizabeth. Working at home in his London flat Robin, constantly makes use of his Teac 4-track to lay down ideas, and the bands backing rhythms from the Drumulator which last year supplanted the Linn in the groups sound and live work. But the intrinsic noise behind the voice of Elizabeth is generated largely by Robin's guitar, used imaginatively to create an almost synthesiser-like wall of sound through use of chorus, distortion box and echo pedal almost inevitably set to a long delay time to give the music a dreamy, shimmering quality. In the studio everything is likely to get echo, reverb and Roland Dimension D — a sort of simulated chorus that embues the music with a sparkling quality and spreads it wide across the stereo field. Live Robin's used a harmoniser on a wide setting giving a doubling effect that spans a wide range.
Robin: "I mean basically I could sort a' talk to you 'till the cows come home about all different things we use to create our music but I mean, it's no different to what anybody else uses. I mean if you think about it, what we use is basically very rock and roll; I use Fender guitars, Jazzmasters and things like that. We use Precision bass, Fender amps, so just inbetween that there's a few little gadgets. There's no special custom made things, it's just plain old Boss pedals — it's just nothing different."
I began to get a siege mentality. "I'm not asking you to reveal some fantastic innovation..."
Robin: "There isn't any. There's a whole lot more to using effects pedals than setting up one sound and switching them on and off. I mean where have you ever heard a flanger that isn't either a fast chorusy sound or a big long sweep? Where have you ever heard someone using the manual button on a Flanger, tuning the flange to a note or anything like that? People just don't do that. There is a button there, it should be used."
Do you feel, then, that it complicates the music?
Elizabeth: "Yeah, that's mainly it."
Robin: "Well it's not our place, we just do it. We shouldn't have to explain it or anything, it's up to the individual. I mean there's no sort of trade secrets or how to get decent sounds. Quite a few times it's just by accident. There's nothing to it if you know what all the buttons do. Anyone can do it, lots of people do. It's just maybe the sounds I want are different from the sounds anybody else wants."
Simon: "You know, we think the music really is important, but we don't want to get in the way of it."
It's obvious that the Cocteaus derive a certain pleasure from being inscrutable nevertheless, it really does have some effect; they'd rather I listen to their music than talk to them, and frankly I'd agree!
Interview by Richard Walmsley