Cocteau Twins on Blue Bell Knoll
Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie on the Band's "Golden Era"
Jan 21, 2014 Issue #48 - November/December 2013 - HAIM
When Cocteau Twins released their sixth album, Blue Bell Knoll, in 1988, critics hailed it as a major step forward for the abstract pop trio. But to hear members Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie tell it, the record wasn't so much a quantum leap as a natural evolution. Guthrie in particular sees the album as a logical next step after the band's previous work The Moon and the Melodies, which was a collaboration with American composer Harold Budd. He denounces the idea that the album was anything more than the result of a gradual maturation.
"What you're trying to achieve is more," he says matter-of-factly. "At first you're just trying to make a record, and then you're trying to make a really good record. And then you're trying to go further.... Blue Bell Knoll was a really important record to me. It really sticks as one of my favorites. Perhaps not because of how it came out, although it is quite listenable, but because of the experience of making it."
Formed in 1979 by multi-instrumentalist Guthrie and vocalist Elizabeth Fraser, Cocteau Twins added Raymonde to the fold after the third founding member, Will Heggie, departed in 1983. Their established style—a fever dream filled with distorted guitars, electronics, and Fraser's enigmatic soprano—immediately spawned a fan base. But Guthrie admits the he still finds it disappointing that the music in the early years didn't match his vision for the band.
"I just realized I needed to learn how to do all the production stuff myself," he recalls. "The first few records we didn't do it ourselves. It was, 'Oh, you don't touch the mixing desk; you're just the band. You're not allowed to touch that; you're just a kid. You'll break it.'"
Hungry for production autonomy (despite a meeting with producer Brian Eno, who 4AD hoped might produce Blue Bell Knoll, the band decided it was best to work alone), and having amassed a small collection of gear, the band put their savings into creating a studio. In a warehouse alongside woodcutters and window-makers, Raymonde and Guthrie built every element of their new workspace—from floor to ceiling—themselves.
There, without a ticking clock, Guthrie and Raymonde began their series of music experiments. Or, as Raymonde recalls, "sat around and dicked around with stuff for hours on end."
"We basically were plugging our guitars and pianos and basses into weird bits of shit that we bought and creating sounds out of which our songs came," he remembers. "Most people couldn't be bothered and didn't want to spend the time doing it. We could. We found it really fun."
Their misappropriated gear yielded thickly layered, hazy electronic landscapes. Among the most recognizable elements: an electric baby grand piano, reverb-drenched guitars, and a delayed drum machine beat. The titular album opener (which both Raymonde and Guthrie call one of their favorites to play live) sets the stage, a harpsichord-like piano line weaving a haunted ambience. Fan favorite "Carolyn's Fingers" swaps the piano line for a spiky wave of guitars and the closed-off melancholy for something approximating nostalgia, as rendered in Fraser's glossolalic vocals. The tone lightens further still for "For Phoebe Still a Baby," Fraser cooing an otherworldly lullaby over a sun-dappled ambient pop soundscape.
Guthrie and Raymonde recorded all 10 tracks, rearranging the final tracklist as they went along. Fraser would enter into the process when the songs were nearly completed, giving them names and often unintelligible lyrics.
"There were no outtakes," Guthrie laughs. "I'm Scottish. We're economical with these things. If there had been something left over I would have used it on the next record somewhere."
Raymonde fondly recalls the making of Blue Bell Knoll. While his band's history is dotted with turmoil, he notes that recording the album was a time of artistic prosperity.
"When you're able to look back over your career, and all the different records you made with all the different protagonists involved, it's easier to say, 'Yeah, that was a golden period, wasn't it?'" he says. "The drugs issues and relationship issues hadn't kicked into such a destructive level at that point. So we were still able to function relatively well.... I could definitely say, 'Yes, that is a period where we did some very good things.'"
For his part, Guthrie admires the enduring quality of Cocteau Twins' work, particularly Blue Bell Knoll. He notes that even with their limitations in technology, they created a body of work that has stood the test of time.
"I remastered these records a couple of years ago, and I was very impressed with the sound of them," he notes. "When I consider how I made them, when I take that into consideration, it's like, 'Fuck, that's pretty good.'"
Cocteau Twins would go on to make three more albums before disbanding in 1998 due to a combination of what both Guthrie and Raymonde refer to as drug and relationship issues. (Guthrie and Fraser ended their romantic relationship three years before the band came to a close.)
"Our relationships with ourselves, with each other, with our partners, with our record labels, all of those relationships were utterly dysfunctional," says Raymonde. "But the one constant thing that worked was those hours where we made music.... Not necessarily the hours we were in the studio—some of those were hideous. But when we were actually playing music or writing music or creating music, everything else was forgotten. It was our escape from the awful realities of life. You get to that point where you think, 'It was tough, but we got through it. We're here.' You sort of think you're going to go on forever."
Since the band's breakup, Raymonde has kept busy running Bella Union, the label he set up with Guthrie in 1997 that's the U.K. home to such acts as Fleet Foxes, I Break Horses, John Grant, and Lanterns on the Lake. In 1997 he released a solo album, Blame Someone Else, and in 2014 he'll release an album with Massive Attack vocalist Stephanie Dosen as Snowbird—his first band project since Cocteau Twins.
Guthrie has released a string of solo and collaborative albums since leaving the band, including several albums with Harold Budd (such as the soundtrack to the 2005 independent film Mysterious Skin) and various albums and EPs with Siobhan de Maré under the name Violet Indiana. More recently he's recorded a collaborative album with Ride's Mark Gardener.
Fraser has been notoriously press-shy since the demise of Cocteau Twins. However, she collaborated with Massive Attack on three songs on their 1998 album Mezzanine (including the iconic single "Teardrop"), and has long been at work on a solo album. In 2009 she released a single called "Moses," dedicated to the memory of Jake Drake-Brockman, keyboardist for Echo & the Bunnymen.
In 2005, the three members of Cocteau Twins discussed a possible 50-date long reunion tour, capped by a headlining set at Coachella. However, talks were cut short when internal strife resurfaced.
"I think, really, in reality, you can't just wipe away all that baggage with the waving of a large check," Raymonde muses of the aborted attempt. "I spent all the money in my head, and that was very pleasurable. That's all we need to know. I think it would have been ultimately distasteful. I don't think our hearts would have been in it at all. I think we would have lasted about two days into the tour. Or a week before, something else would have happened, and we would have ended up having to walk away and let lots of people down."
Guthrie remembers the incident considerably more bluntly, explicitly stating that the band's legacy should remain sealed in the past tense.
"Imagine if since you were 15 you'd been in an abusive relationship and you'd been ripped off, and you had been forced to do things you didn't want to do," he says firmly. "Imagine if you got away from there and someone said, 'Hey, do you want to go back?'"
Looking back, Guthrie goes on to express a certain disappointment that Cocteau Twins failed to define the decade in the same way that many other 1980s pop-oriented acts did.
"The Cure and OMD and stuff like that," he snips. "I was aware of [them] at the time, but they were this annoying fucking background noise.... Perhaps if our personalities were a bit more hipster we would have made a bigger splash. We were too busy making records to be hipsters. It must have been difficult, all the time that you have to spend being Morrissey, not making records. He had to spend all this time doing interviews and getting his fucking hair done."
Although they haven't found their way onto decade compilations with their peers, Cocteau Twins has forged a lasting legacy, with bands such as M83, My Bloody Valentine, and Sigur Rós all adopting elements of the band's ethereal bliss.
"On the surface, there are a lot of bands influenced by Cocteau Twins, whether we would like to admit it or not," says Raymonde. "That's fine. I can listen to them all, and enjoy them all on a surface level and say, 'Ah, yeah, I recognize that guitar sound.' Or, 'Oh, that's cute, that sounds like one of our old songs.' I can sort of deal on that level."
However, he notes that the band that he's found most in line with Cocteau Twins' spiritual inheritance, an artist that's signed in the U.K. to his Bella Union label, doesn't follow a similar sonic template.
"I find it really hard to go to a Beach House concert," he says. "I see the way people look at Victoria [Legrand]. It's like I'm revisiting what it was like to see a sea of thousands of faces look at Elizabeth, just madly in love with her.... I think it's really emotional, their music. I can't say I ever felt that about our own music. I never cried at our own music, listening back to it, unless I was so frustrated because I couldn't make it sound how I wanted to make it sound. I know that other people did find our music very emotional. Now I kind of understand that better."
[This article first appeared in Under the Radar's November/December 2013 issue.]
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