Interviews  |   Play Louder, July 2006

The Cocteau Twins may never have become as big as The Pixies or as name dropped as The Birthday Party but they are certainly the first thing that comes to mind when 4AD records is mentioned. And perhaps it is Liz Fraser's vocals that typify the group in themselves but it is certainly Robin Guthrie's heavily processed and chiming guitars that sum up the spirit of the label itself. Beautiful and inventive, his guitar playing seemed to form a bridge between post punk's sideways step into the new pop and the proto-shoe gazing scene of the late 80s. Guthrie's guitar sound (which guitarist earning his chops since punk broke can claim to have such a distinctive musical calling card?) was, and still is, unashamedly emotional, arty and warmly narcotic. But the band split, not before time, in 1996 and any chances of a reunion are slim - a source close to the band confirms: “They all love each other really but you know what it's like when you try and get these people who've known each other for that length of time in the same room. They just bicker. They can't get on. But individually they're all lovely people.”

And do you know something? Good. I for one (Pixies and Bauhaus aside) am fucking sick of these bands reforming. For the most part it's a sign of artistic bankruptcy. Your man Guthrie still seems to have a very full schedule. There are collaborations with John Foxx and Harold Budd this year but also there is this summer's celluloid and music multimedia experience.

We meet in a noisy bar at Brixton's Ritzy Cinema where they are setting up for tonight's performance which features a surprise guest slot from Kevin Shields. And then after PlayLouder gives away its appalling sense of Gallic geography (RG: “I live in Brittany.” PL: “You get a better class of rock star living in the South of France.” RG: “That's why I live in the North of France.”) it's time to talk to him about his Lumiere film - an interactive performance which takes in an animated, abstract film with Guthrie playing his trademark guitar from ambient to pop to deeply resonant drone rock over the top of it, including tracks from his recent album 'Continental'. When PlayLouder went to see it the night before, about ten minutes before the end, the player controlling the DVD frustratingly fucks up, making the film stutter and pause. The guitar player calmly plays on and is equally philosophical about it the very next day and is (it has to be said) nothing like the hard to handle man of indie legend.

Given the amount of time you've obviously put into the whole performance, you must find it frustrating when it fucks up.

“Obviously it's always frustrating when you do anything and then, for reasons beyond one's control (i.e. someone else fucks up) it goes wrong. But what am I going to do? Stamp my feet like a big girl or just try and get my way out of it. I can storm off or play more music. But yes, it is embarrassing.”

We did get to see three quarters of it uninterrupted...

“Yeah, but it does build to a really intense bit at the end. I made the film about two years ago and it had different music to it then and I played it around and it was shot to be about 35 minutes long, it wasn't really long enough to be a concert. That was at the start of me playing instrumental music. But as it went on I found I had all these different tunes that I wanted to use. So where it used to make a lot more sense musically from the way it followed on and linked to what was going on up on the screen, no one would really be able to follow it now. But as a journey perhaps it is only really relevant to me. I'd gone way too far up my own arse.”

I don't know about that...

“I think with all the music that I've ever done I've been working towards something interactive which is why I think a lot of people hold the Cocteau Twins dear because there isn't a message as such, no narrative, like in a Morrissey lyric. It's a canvas that people listening have to draw on themselves a little bit. It is more like reading a book than watching the film because you're doing some of the work yourself. The movie is completely passive. 'Lumiere' is completely open to interpretation. There are little characters in it; little things that provoke trains of thought but I've got no illusions about making cinema because I'm not trained in it. I'm not going to start making narrative based cinema that you can sit there and watch with popcorn because I don't think it would work.”

How are the films made? Is it shot on DV?

“It's shot on all different media really. A lot of it is photographs that have been animated. Some of it is Super 8, 16 mil, VHS...”

Is it scored or does it change on a night to night basis?

“A couple of pieces are improvised. We had a couple of nights that were very poorly attended so I just thought 'Let's hit record and get down some new songs.' What I might do with the film is score it again and do it in 5:1, which I've never done before.”

In a lot of people's minds you will be associated with pushing the use of what it is possible to do with guitars and analogue pedals forwards. How quickly back in your career did you embrace emerging digital technology?

“Well, I may have used a computer on stage last night but it was all played live, it was all synced and looped. I was using computers before I became a guitarist, they've always been part of my life. In the beginning, if you remember in the 80s, they weren't that good for manipulating sound. Sample rates were really low but when they came of age, I used them then. I use my computer to control all of my effects which is a bit of a luxury I guess.”

You may find this really nebulous but was there an element with analogue technology where it was better to be struggling against the confines of your technology and this was a more productive way of producing music than having the digital horizons to do anything?

“Absolutely. We were struggling but we had very little equipment to speak of in the Cocteau Twins. I wanted to make new sounds but I had very little in the way of resources. I believe people just make music by accident a lot of the time nowadays because you are given so many options by the software. I mean, I experiment as well, of course I do that but I do tend to go into the studio with an idea of what I want something to sound like. Maybe it is too difficult in some ways as well though. It is impossible to make a lap top your own in the same way that Jimi Hendrix made his guitar his own. With the Cocteau Twins we had no equipment but we spent a long time putting this pedal into that pedal, wiring things up differently just to see what it would sound like. We spent hours chaining things up in an unorthodox way. One of the first disappointments for us was the very first record. At that point we had a drum machine, a box that used to cost £80 and we put it through a guitar's fuzz pedal and it had a hard sound, like the sort of sound that the Beastie Boys used. But when we got to the studio to make our first record there were all grown ups there and they wouldn't let us do it. They said: 'All the needles are going into the red.' They made us clean it up. But you know, if you listen to live tapes from that time... holy shit, it sounds good!”

When I was reading the press release that they gave out at the cinema last night it described your music as a 'glistening garrison of balletic bells'. You seem to attract more purple prose as a musician than anyone else I can think of.

“(Snorts with laughter) That's fantastic man. These things do tend to attract a lot of adjectives. My favourite was 'Robin Guthrie's guitar cuts through like shards of ethereal light.'”

Well, I think you have to feel a little bit sorry for the music hack here when faced with either ambient or instrumental music.

“Without wanting to sound too pretentious (laughs again)... you shouldnae bother. Music is the sound of emotions right? That's how it works: something you hear makes you feel a certain way. That's enough. You don't need to write about it.”

Right. Best finish there then...

Interview by John Doran.