So You Say | Cocteau Twins
guitarist Robin Guthrie
Presenting a 'So You Say' special. Reader Philip Pendleton of Maidstone sent us a letter. He had some questions to put to Cocteau Twins guitarist, Robin Guthrie. For that matter, so did we. Tony Bacon visited a Cocteau's rehearsal and played quizmaster.
What guitars and keyboards do you use?
My main guitar is a Fender Jazzmaster which I recently acquired, it's a 1962. If you switch it to the "rhythm circuit" it goes very Gibson-ish, a mellow sort of jazz sound. With the main circuit in you've got the three-position switch as normal for a two pickup guitar, but it doesn't affect the rhythm circuit, which seems to be a combination of both pickups. I've used the Jazzmaster on most of the things we've done. When I was in New York they were about $150, very unfashionable guitars, but of course I didn't have a penny then. So I got this one in London for about £350.
The Fender Jaguar I have is a similar sort of guitar, released about five years after the Jazz. It was the most expensive Fender they'd ever made — the Beach Boys used them. It's much brighter than the Jazz, and I've used it on some of the new recordings.
I have a Vox electric 12-string, too, one of those "new" ones that was found a few years back in a factory in Italy, they've been untouched since they were made in the Sixties. It broke my heart having to change the strings on that, because they were original too! I've used that on a couple of rhythm things, but not up-front yet.
I've got a Gordon Smith, one of the most basic ones that looks like a Les Paul Junior — a lovely guitar, big fat frets, very Gibson-ish. That was the one I did most of the other records with.
I've also got a guitar with a Gizmo attached — that was the sustain device that Godley and Creme made. They don't make it any more. It was on a disgusting little black Ibanez, the Gizmo was worth more than the guitar. I used that on the last 12in, but I wouldn't use it live.
We've been getting some basses recently, too — I picked up a Shergold six-string bass which I haven't had much of a chance to try out, and an eight-string Ibanez bass. A Squier Precision, as well, that's lush. I've a couple of acoustics, a Yamaha 12-string and six-string.
We'll have to start using more guitars live, I think, because a lot of the things we've been recording have used different tunings, so we'll need them set up on separate guitars.
I don't reckon myself as much of a guitar player anyway, but I like setting up sounds. I never could get the hang of this playing business. I don't like new guitars, either — it's not guitar snobbery, they're just uncomfortable and you can't tell the difference between them.
If any of your readers should have them, I'm after a Fender Bass V and a Bass VI, the five- and six-string basses, which you can't get for love nor money. I want any pre-CBS Fenders that aren't Strats or Teles really, especially a 1948 Broadcaster. That'd be nice, but you'd want to keep it in a bank.
Keyboards? I can't play them either. On the new LP we've been using an Emulator a bit, and a DX7. We've used Mellotron quite a bit, for example on the "Sunburst" 12in: it belongs to the studio we use in Edinburgh, Palladium, the guy that runs it has loads of instruments. Some of those older instruments just have so much character about them.
We've dabbled in doing our own sampling for the Emulator. Usually the sounds we want involve multi-sampling, sampling for different sections up the keyboard, which takes a lot of time. We tried to sample the Mellotron on to it because it's so clapped out, the tapes must be 15 or 20 years old I suppose. But it took too long, so we ended up using the Mellotron again.
The Emulator we were using was MIDI'd. Elizabeth had been writing some tunes on glockenspiel, because it's an instrument she can play — well, she learnt to play it upside down, but that's another matter altogether. But with MIDI she could play it on the DX and into the Emulator's sequencer, and then get good sounds out of the Emulator, not just horrible synthesiser sounds. The DX itself has some nice "natural" sounds we've used, especially the bells.
I don't like synthesisers really. They're the last ditch. None of us are keyboard players, so it's just another way of making a noise.
A lot of the songs are in waltz time. Is that intentional?
That's because I program the drums on the majority of the songs, and they tend to be in 6/8 or 3/4, maybe 60 or 70% of them. So yes, it is intentional. I suppose it feels more comfortable to play to, for me.
On the first LP we used a Roland TR808, then went on to a Linndrum for a bit. We did the "Lullabies" 12in with that, horrible. Nasty piece of work. It just sounds like a Linn. Then we got the Drumulator, an early one, I think it's serial number 70.
We start with a very basic guide drum on the Drumulator. I've tried all the drum machines and that's the most straightforward machine to work with. Examples? Well, supposing you wanted to erase a particular drum from a song, on some machines that would take you ages. With the Drumulator it's straightforward. Tuning of the drums on it would be helpful, I suppose, but you could always varispeed them once they were on tape. I've got some of the new chips for our Drumulator — the "Rock" chips sound great. I'll stick with that machine.
After the guide, which will be something like bass, snare and hi-hat, without the song, the song will happen from bass or piano usually, and once the arrangement becomes apparent we go back and do the drums, triggered from the guide. The easiest way these days seems to be to record the drums on anything and then use sampled sounds.
Your second album, "Head Over Heels", was simply dripping with atmosphere, whereas the "Garlands" debut album was much harsher. Do you see the Cocteaus changing distinctly in the future?
"Head Over Heels" was the first one we produced ourselves; "Garlands" was almost the first time we'd ever been in the studio, so we were relying a lot on other people to help us. We're not the most articulate people, I'd say. So it's difficult to try to give somebody an idea of what you mean. We're getting there. If we don't change in the future there's no point in carrying on.
The best thing you can do in the studio early on is to say to the engineer, "Mic that up," if you want it — don't get talked out of it because it's noisier or whatever. Do it. If you've got half a mind about what you want, then you should say so.
Do you enjoy live performances — I know you prefer "one off" gigs as opposed to tours.
Tours are pretty much enjoyable apart from the actual playing. It's OK the first few nights, but then it starts getting boring. Especially as we use a 4-track tape machine live — unless you go and edit it every night you have to play things in the same order every night. On the 4-track we have drums in stereo, and occasionally piano or Mellotron, or whatever we need, on the other two.
We've nearly always used tapes, but I'm not interested in triggering stuff live. Too unreliable. That's not really from experience, but from fear.
What other guitarists or bands do you admire?
I don't listen to guitarists. I listen to songs, singers... I usually play to myself records from a few years ago. I don't think there's anything right now that's very inspiring at all. Music seems to be going through a low patch as far as creativity is concerned, or as far as my taste is concerned, anyway. In general, the reasons these people have for making music are not the same reasons as I have for making music. So many people seem to be in it for a quick hit and some money. I just enjoy making music.
Your guitar sound is very distinctive — do you use a lot of effects and different amps to achieve it?
Effects? Yes and no. Yes when we play live, but not really in the studio. Live, I go from the guitar into a powered Boss effects board, which has a Heavy Metal pedal, Overdrive, Chorus, Vibrato and a Flanger. I have the Chorus on nearly all the time, and I swap between the two different distortions. The vibrato and flanger I use as effects.
Out of there I go into an Ibanez 1000 harmonizer, usually an octave up. They're nasty if you've used an AMS, but for £300 they do the job. If you wind up the feedback you get a lovely sort of organ tone out of the guitar.
Out of the harmoniser it goes to a delay, either a Boss or a Delta Lab one, about 250mS. I prefer the Delta Lab one, but Elizabeth likes singing through that so I often end up with the Boss. Then that goes into a Roland Dimension D, which splits up the signal into a lovely spatial stereo. I've been using that in studios for years, it's like a subtle phasing, nice and sparkly. Out of that it goes into two Bolt combos, a 30 and a 60.
In the studio I tend to go straight to the desk, either from a Rockman or a Playbus, and then use whatever's in the effects rack at that studio. The AMS Delay is a favourite, I like a delay on each side plus a touch of harmonising.
This LP's gonna be covered in Quantec, which is a digital reverb with simulation of rooms stored in it. It ranges from a metre cubed, which sounds on headphones like you're standing inside a cupboard, up to millions of metres cubed, sort of the Taj Mahal or St Peter's. But the best thing about it is the Freeze button, so you can hit a note on guitar, hear the reverb, then freeze it with the button; then you hit a harmony note, superimpose on that, and build up a three or four note chord on the reverb. Then you put the chords on to different tracks as you go along, and then "play" the faders, bringing in the different chords. We used that on the B-side of the last single, "Pepper Tree".
Everyone usually says oh, all they do is whack up the reverb and that's it. But it's not as simple as that: some instruments have to be treated differently to others: snare drum and vocals need special attention. We're using three Lexicons and a Quantec on the mixing for this LP, that's roughly £28,000-worth of reverb. We've tried connecting them together to get that £28,000 sound.
Interview by Tony Bacon
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