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Non-Prog Interviews

Robin Guthrie

Interviewed by Bruce Stringer
Interview with Robin Guthrie from 2008
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2008  Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.

I'd like to talk about the Cocteau Twins. I guess this is really odd timing considering I met Simon (Cocteau Twins bass player) just as you guys had broken up.
That was, like, ten years ago, or more.
MSJ: I was emotionally broken up about the whole thing.
Yeah, I wasn’t too happy about it myself, funnily enough! (laughs) But what you gonna do?
MSJ: Don’t get me started…!
Oh, no, no, no – you start. You were in London and you came to my old studio (September Sound) What were you doing there?
MSJ: I was casing the joint! Seriously though, I visited as part of the fan pilgrimage. I’d just arrived from China where I was stocking up on my Faye Wong collection.
You know, I wrote to her about three years ago and I said, "Hey, let’s do something again" and she didn’t even answer… (laughs) I was just, "Well, whatever…
MSJ: That’s a real pity. I understand she’s hit a few hurdles in her personal life. Have you heard all of her Cocteau Twins Chinese versions?
No, absolutely not. I knew very little about her. That whole thing was done at an arm’s length – there was absolutely no interaction between the artists. It was all record company.
MSJ: It doesn’t really create any chemistry though, does it?
Oh, no. You know at that moment when that was done there was enough chemistry problems in Cocteau Twins without that added dynamic.
MSJ: Now, Faye started off her Cocteau connection by doing cover versions of your songs, things like “Bluebeard” and “Know Who You Are At Every Age”.

Yeah.

MSJ:

They’re excellent versions – but not surprising coming from the new breed of Chinese language artists who could blow many western acts away. Towards the end she was using tracks that you guys hadn’t even released.

I don’t know the chronology of it but there were things that we’d recorded and Liz had sung the guides on and Faye came along and sung lyrics in Chinese to the guides that Liz had sung. At that point I wouldn’t say that the creative force of Cocteau Twins was firing on all cylinders. Me and Liz, as a couple, had broken up and both Liz and Simon had decided that they wanted to have much more input into what we were doing and it’s just not the way that we do stuff. There was a sort of balance of power in the way that we used to work and that meant that I don’t think those guys appreciated it. (laughs) But then Simon wrote an amazing solo record and that got that out of his system. It was like three chiefs and no Indians! There was a very careful balance we had that worked for a while and we progressed within that balance. It changed and then it stopped to work. For me, the last two Cocteau Twins records, the “Twinlights” thing and the “Otherness” thing, I think were nothing to do with what Cocteau Twins was all about. I couldn’t deal with it at the time so I just moved away.

MSJ:

When I met Simon, he was saying that you guys were working on a film score for a documentary.

I know nothing about that. Cocteau Twins never did a film score – ever!
MSJ:

But you did have a song on Judge Dredd.

Oh, yeah, great! (laughs)

MSJ:

…And The Doom Generation.

The Doom Generation one I was quite happy with but I’ve got absolutely no interest in movies with one track taken off an album and put on a movie. To me, there’s no craft involved in it at all. I’m interested in scoring movies for sure and I’ve done two. This getting a track on Judge Dredd is just a… That’s where a movie company owns the record label it’s signed to which does a deal with the manager and your song turns up on a shit movie. One has to hold what one does dearly, I think. In today’s world music has become so disposable. The imaginations we grew up with because we only had two channels of TV and the radio, or whatever. What we didn’t have were Playstations and the internet, mobile phones and ringtones and every other, you know… 200 channels of television. Kids are interested in a lot of multi-media things. I used to sit down and listen to a record, just sit there with my head beside the record player and just listen to it. When was the last time you saw a kid just listening to music? They just don’t do that. My kid sits with two computers in her bedroom, a hi-fi going and a TV in the corner. She’ll be having three different conversations on MSN with different people and be doing a piece of artwork in Photoshop all at the same time. It wasn’t like that when I saw her age. You’d go and get a record and just sit and play it. You’d play it over and over again, just listening to it – not doing anything else. That was, in some ways, defining. It gave you something to talk about the next time you saw your mates. It holds a different place now. If you’ve got teenage kids you’d understand.
MSJ:

In many ways technology has redefined the arts.

Now you get your Microsoft “Music for Simpletons, version 1.0” that comes bundled with your new computer and you can drag a couple of licks into a window and make something sound half decent. Then you put it on the internet and, at that point, it completely invalidates anything I or anybody else does. It sits shoulder-to-shoulder with everything else.
MSJ:

That’s just not right.

No, no. But I really believe that’s the case now.

MSJ:

Can we talk about something happier for a moment?

That’s not unhappy! It’s just an observation. I mean, I’m not in a position to make judgement. I’m not a grumpy old man about it. It’s just an observation. It doesn’t stop me aspiring to what I aspire to.

So you know I make my living from my music now. I don’t make my living from Cocteau Twins – that’s the really interesting part, that everybody just assumes that I’ve got big fat royalties coming in and I sit by the pool drinking margaritas. It’s not quite like that. I’m an active musician / producer / composer / whatever and I make my living there. You’d be absolutely appalled about how much money Cocteau Twins brings me every year. It’s not even enough to take my kids on holidays. It’s a tiny amount of money since they mid-priced all the records. That whole body of work from years gone… I could go on like this forever – don’t get me started!
Cocteau Twins is something that I’m proud of but I spend my whole time trying to convince people that that wasn’t really the best part of my life! I don’t look back very fondly to a lot of that period. I was much younger, much more stupid. I was a drug addict, I had a failed relationship with a child and I got screwed over by the music industry. Do I wanna go back there? Not really very often. So, I’ll talk about your re-masters then: yeah, I re-mastered those records. I hope to never hear them again! I mean, that’s the bottom line. I don’t listen to that kind of music anyway. I tip my hat to it and say that’s why I’m here now. That’s part of my story and everything like that but it just brings up a lot of bad, ugly memories. I’ve got absolutely nothing to gain by making up a story of how fantastic it all was or is, or anything like that. I’m not here to promote anything. It would be nice to have some nice soundbytes about how great and fantastic everything is.
MSJ: Okay, take us back to the beginning of Cocteau Twins in Scotland.

Well, we lived in a small town when we started and the two cities… I mean, it’s like, Glasgow and Edinburgh are so close to each other but they’re so far away from each other culturally Both have a really, really strong identity and they both have no regards for the other one. This small town is actually halfway between the two cities and when we started we found – and this is like 1981, 1982 – that we couldn’t get any shows in Glasgow because they thought we were an Edinburgh band, and we couldn’t get any shows in Edinburgh ‘cause they thought we were a Glasgow band. So we went to London and your fellow countrymen The Birthday Party were touring around and me and Liz were following them about as a band and we got to know them and we got to play with them and go on tour with them. And that was the first way that we could play in Scotland, actually opening for them. We had to go to London to get accepted by Scottish people.

MSJ: There’s been recent speculations about the quality of the digital re-mastering from 24-track master tapes versus 2-track masters, in regards the damaging of the original warmth and integrity of those recordings compared to the process of re-mixing as part of the digital clean-up process. You seem to have kept the musical integrity of the vinyl masters.

I didn’t want to capture the vinyl mastering. Mastering Cocteau Twins records was always a real headache because I would have the master tapes, the analog master tapes and I would be going to cutting rooms and cutting them again and again. Not just getting what I needed from it, so – for me, in a way – the re-mastering of the Cocteau Twins CDs was a no-brainer. I was always going to do it better than the original CDs that had been out. The CD mastering process has really come of age. I mean, it was really early when CDs came round in the 80s and Cocteau Twins had their CDs out straight away. I really don’t believe that, at that time, all this technology was up to what it is now. Another important thing to say is that I went back to the original analog masters, playing the analog masters side by side with the existing CDs before re-mastering. And it was like I had a big smile on my face as if to say, “Yeah, that’s what it was meant to be like”. You know, for me, I’ve never been a big fan of vinyl. When the CD came along that was a step in the right direction. My classic mastering story is the album called “Victorialand”, which I think was mastered, cut about 8 or 9 times and it ended up running 45 (RPM) ‘cause it was the only way to get the quality.

MSJ:

Are you talking about the original multi-tracks or 2-track masters?

No, no – I’m talking about the original 2-tracks. I didn’t go back to any multi-tracks at all.

MSJ: When you went back to re-master did you have any cringe-worthy moments or the old, “Damn, I could’ve done that better”?
Everything I ever mixed has been released except one track which I don’t even know where it is; hidden in the vaults at 4AD, or somewhere. It was an outtake from the “Heaven Or Las Vegas” album. Everything else I ever did has been released. I don’t do multiple versions of things. There are a few so-called alternative takes – some old things of Cocteau Twins been floating around on the internet but, generally though, they’ve been made from a rough mix tape that Simon took home to listen to, or something like that. I learned early on that if you gave people a rough mix by the time you did the proper mix people would be like, “Oh, but it doesn’t… Oh, but it’s not…”. But those sort of things did escape from my studio from time to time and they have turned up but the aim of the real deal is what’s on the record.
MSJ:

This particular song that was unreleased from “Heaven Or Las Vegas” – any particular reason why it wasn’t released?

Here’s a thought: anything that’s never been released has not been released because it’s not good enough. That’s the thing that people don’t understand. Do you want to hear those things or do you want to hear…? You know, why did we never have a live album? Because I’m just completely against live recording. Live is about being in the moment in a particular place. It comes then goes and that’s it. I have a great deal of difficulty explaining that to people. They may be artifacts they don’t ever got released because they’re not very good.
MSJ:

Was there ever any intention of putting bonus tracks onto the re-mastered CDs?

Well, the original CDs have bonus tracks. You have EPs and stuff stuck on them. You know, those albums are conceptually meant to be albums. They were never meant to have EPs stuck on them. Well, you’ve got, let’s say, 10 tracks and they run in a certain order and that’s really how you’re meant to listen to them. I mean, you’re not meant to have another couple of tracks tacked on the end. One of the things I spend a great deal of time doing is sequencing records because I think that’s a really, really important thing, the order the tracks are in. I mean, you have to make a journey out of certain songs. You have to start the thing in a certain way and you have to finish it in a certain way and you have to get there in between. So, just to have extra tracks tacked on… They did that on CDs when they first came out to get people to buy CDs and, of course, people new to the idea of buying the same shit again and again and again, like what they seem to be happy to do these days. You know, buy the box set, buy this, buy that…
MSJ:

Like buying the John Peel session on “Garlands”. Now it doesn’t seem like an album without it.

Ah, I just wanted to get back to the original albums. The original albums of ours you have to get on vinyl. Interestingly enough, had I been sequencing those records, they were sequenced for vinyl so each side works, in a way, like the CD works. Do you know what I mean? Do you see where I’m going with that?

MSJ:

I do.

I’m talking about the journey between the first track and the last track. Obviously on vinyl you’ve got two sides. You’ve got two little journeys, haven’t you? But the last track on side one on the CD it should be track 5 – smack bang in the middle. You know what I mean, but I didn’t want to change the running order.

MSJ:

No halfway journeys on CD!

Yeah, exactly. But, later on, I think from about “Blue Bell Knoll” onwards I was starting to do more. People don’t know, we even got released on DAT! I’ve got one sitting around. It’s got the little artwork and everything on it.

MSJ:

Regarding the recent releases of the Lullaby To Violaine singles and extended plays, have you actually sat down and listened to them in full?

Oh, yeah, when I was working on them but that’s it now. I got the finished ones, gave them a listen, put them away and hopefully never have to listen to them again.

MSJ:

When you moved from 4AD to Fontana, Capitol was there any pressure to become more commercial?

Well, that’s a really interesting question because ultimately there was but at first there wasn’t. At first, we’d left 4AD and made the album Four Calendar Café but didn’t have a label – and this is what goes against popular belief: that we signed to Fontana and then made Four Calendar Café and that’s the way that the record was reviewed. Every single review said, “Oh, since they’ve gone to a major they’ve changed the sound and done this and done that”!. The record was made prior to signing so it was the logical next record after Heaven Or Las Vegas but people didn’t like the idea that we went to that big label. Later on, I would say the pressure to be more commercial probably broke the band up. By ’96 – ’97, there was an awful lot of pressure. That’s why all those EPs and B-side tracks are all such poor quality, because it’s like, “We need another two tracks for next Tuesday, go in the studio”, you know what I mean? We’d just been on tour for three months and that was not a good time – I don’t wanna go back there.

MSJ:

Regarding your various projects, have you got a website set-up?

No! (laughs) I mean, you can find things. You might be interested, if you want to know what my life is really like, to go have a look at my web blog. I sometimes do it more than once a month, but it’s a once-a-month thing, if you just want to check up. I’ve been doing it for about two or three years now and that usually covers most of the projects that I’m involved in. It’s at www.robinguthrie.net, for your information. Records and things you can get from www.darla.com. You can download them from iTunes. Just go to iTunes and, if you search, you can find three of them in there.

MSJ: Tell me about touring with your solo show.

I’ve got a finite amount of resources here and I have no record company, publisher, promoter or manager. It’s quite sad, really, ‘cause it takes more than one person, you know, to…

MSJ:

Get the ball rolling?

Yeah. You cannot exist in a vacuum like that. I’m happy, you know, and I can’t ask for a lot. I don’t know if you’re aware what I’ve been doing for the last few years, but I’ve been doing a lot.

MSJ:

I know that you just released another solo album.

Well, I don’t actually have solo releases because I’m not part of a group! (laughs) I’ve had about five albums now, in the last four years. If you’re a Cocteau Twins fan you’ll know Harold Budd who we made The Moon And The Melody with. He’s in his 70s now and I made a couple of albums with him. I’ve done a couple of movie soundtracks and I’m doing a live soundtrack to a film that I made. So, you know, I’ve been everywhere – I’ve been to the US and in the last year South America three times  - I’ve got a lot of fans there. I’ve been all around Europe, a tour just coming up and I’m in New York next week and then I’m in Italy for ten days. So, I’m very, very active, it’s just that I’m not very visible. I don’t really know what to do about that. If somebody could come along and give me a record deal, that would be fantastic. I’ve got absolutely no idea about how to go about getting one. I’m so out of the loop when it comes to the music business.

MSJ:

I might have to call in a favor for you. So how did the “Continental” CD come together? Could you talk a little about the process behind making “Continental”?

Well, that’s not the first one. You know I’ve got another instrumental record as well, yeah?

MSJ:

Uh-huh.

Right, so I mean, that was in a way a logical conclusion. While I’ve been working with Violet Indiana, which is with Siobhan De Maré, she kept getting pregnant all the time. She got pregnant and we were meant to be doing, we were meant to be making another record and she was taking time out, then the next time it came up that we would make another record she got pregnant again. So, in 2003, I think, I made the first one that’s called “Imperial” and it was a kind of down-tempo kind of thing. I had a few instrumental concerts and things with a band. That seemed to be the way that it was working. Then I didn’t really think about it too much after that because I went back and did a Violet Indiana record, after that, which is a different discipline. That’s about song writing. In 2005 I did a rather interesting project which was I crossed the United States in an Amtrak train over about a 5 or 6 day period. From Philadelphia, I think we went down to New Orleans, then we went across to Texas and, while on that trip, I wrote lots of music, effectively with my little laptop and my headphones. When I got to Los Angeles I borrowed a guitar and went and prepared the guitar parts and I played that as a show. I did about an hour and  a quarters worth of music in 5 days and then learned it. Right after that, I thought, “Mm, I did a couple of really good tunes on that thing”. So, when I eventually got back home I went into the studio and picked out a few pieces. I had the first song on “Continental” and the last one from that session.

MSJ:

I was going to ask whether the first and last songs came from the same idea.

They came from that one little outpouring,

MSJ:

What was your main guitar on “Continental”?

You want the stock answer or the honest answer? The honest answer is: probably whichever one is lying about my studio with a new set of strings on it! (laughs) I could talk about guitars for a week. Don’t get me started!

MSJ:

Has there been any talk of an official DVD release of Cocteau Twins video clips?

No. I’m against it, personally.

MSJ:

Really?

Yeah. I can’t stand to see that record company make any more money out of my music and, secondly, I never really liked or wanted to do promo videos because I believe that it takes away from the music. It stops people from using their imagination. I believe that the music I’ve created is tactile, you listen to it. You close your eyes and make up your own pictures. With a pop video, every time you listen to that music afterwards you’ll see the images from the video. They’re intrinsically linked. The first time you see one it kills your imagination. It dumbs down your whole society.

MSJ:

Do you have a personal Spinal Tap moment you’d like to share?

Everything, everything in that movie’s happened! Everything in that movie happened to us and it’s also happened to most people that I know. Although I have to say my favorite Spinal Tap moment – if you’ve got a little moment you’ll like this – it’s a bit difficult to say without the hand movements but, you know the “Hello Cleveland” scene, yeah?

MSJ:

Of course.

Right, so we were in, I believe, Cleveland, but it could’ve been anywhere USA, and we’d just played our set and we’d come off stage. In fact, Liz and Simon had come off one side of the stage and I’d come off the other. Normally we would be playing an encore and go, “Which song will we play?” or whatever, then we’d go back on. So we were on opposite sides of the stage and we saw each other from the wings and waved and I went down the stairs and under the stage and came up the other side. But, meanwhile they’d gone down this corridor and went behind the stage and had gone to the other side. So we’d ended up on complete opposite sides of the stage. It was just so funny. You had to be there!

MSJ:

Let’s talk guitars. You mentioned in a 1997 interview that you were a fan of Elvis’s guitar players and the Link Wray school of playing.

Well, yeah. In my formative years of playing guitar - I really only started playing the guitar when I was about 16 and I was listening to, what we used to call at that time R&B, which is not the same as R&B now, obviously. And this was just prior to when Punk Rock came along, so it was that high energy rock sort of thing. It wasn’t too taxing on the fingers. You know, I couldn’t actually do it all but I had friends that were all into Led Zeppelin and if you don’t copy all these guitar solos… Well, I had no aptitude for that, whatsoever! But I get off on that energy and, then in about 1976, or whatever, you had The Ramones and people like that, and that’s what I got into. For a couple of years it was like, “Let’s play this punk rock stuff”. And in a strange, strange way it melded right into Cocteau Twins because I still played with an awful lot of energy but I started to be very frustrated that… To be honest, I was just young and really enthused by the idea of using all these effects and making the guitar sound like something different. You know, if I can’t stand out from all my friends by the way that I play I’ll stand out by the way that I sound. I couldn’t play as well as them but none of them could sound like me.

MSJ:

And it’s your playing, years later, that people are listening to and trying to decipher what you’ve done.

Isn’t that ironic? (laughs)

MSJ:

Would you agree that your layered guitars are incredibly complex in their subtleties?

Yeah, I probably would, actually. But it is not designed to be complex, it’s designed to be… Nothing! It’s designed to be the exact opposite of complex. If there’s something really complex in there I take it out. That’s because, the way my ears work, it’s as if I’m always simplifying. My role as a producer is my focus and if there are little things that sound complex for the sake of being complex I’ll get rid of them.

MSJ:

Seems like you’re playing to the song as opposed to, “Here’s the guitar solo” and then disappearing in the background or, likewise, the whole playing against the song just to stand out.

Can you count the number of guitar solos on Cocteau Twins records.

MSJ:

Hmm… None come to mind.

Well, there’s one on “Heaven Or Las Vegas”.

MSJ:

And yet, songs like “Bluebeard” sounded like that James Burton, rock-a-billy / country thing.

Well, I’m listening to Elvis not to listen to the musicians but I was listening to… I mean, goodness me, it’s probably a couple of years since I played any Elvis. I think the important point to make is that a lot of the references that I’ve had musically through the years have not been the obvious ones. A lot of the musical references that I’ve always had have never ever been evident in my music. The influence that Punk Rock had on me was very naïve, looking back, but it made me believe that I could do things the way that I wanted to. I see my kids doing the same now trying to rebel, you know what I mean: “I have to be so individualistic” and dress at the Emo shop and buy the Emo clothes to be individual. And I’m sure that’s exactly what I was and you are meant to be when you’re a teenager! (laughs)

MSJ:

You can’t blame the kids, can you?

No… You can smile. You can smile and say to yourself, “Thank <expletive> I don’t have to go back there!”

MSJ:

If someone arrived on your doorstep with a blank cheque and a contract to “get the old band back together”, what would it take?

What? How much? (laughs) It would take somebody nuzzling up to me and whispering into my ear very, very sexually for quite a long time to cajole me into doing it. It would take somebody throwing a very large amount of cash at me, as well. But the way they would cajole me into doing it… Let me just explain that I get to go on stage, I get to play some of my old songs – which I’m quite proud of and I’m going to play to lots of people and that makes them really happy. And they would tell me, “Listen, it’s only once, so it’s only like for a couple of weeks of your life and then you never have to deal with those people again” (laughs).

That’s what it would take because, quite simply, my life now is so much nicer. It wasn’t the funnest part of my life, you know. Looking back, it’s quite tragic. Rocky relationships and drug addiction and getting screwed by the music industry. It’s not really something that I cherish! (laughs) You know, it’s not a memory or a period that I cherish, even creatively speaking.



I mean, do I really want to go back there?



 
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