Interviews  |   Re:Gen Magazine, July 2006

If you are a fan of shoegazer music, Robin Guthrie, the founder of The Cocteau Twins, should need no introduction. The Scottish trio presented an original sound of ethereal beauty, driven by Guthrie's unique guitar sound, combined with Simon Raymonde's bass and Elizabeth Fraser's distinct (and oftentimes unintelligible) vocals. They paved the way for much of what is now considered shoegazer, creating music that reveled in its simplicity and focused on creating new atmospheres unlike anything else, inspiring the likes of The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine along the way. After 15 years of recording together, Guthrie's marriage to Fraser ended, and consequently so did the group. Raymonde and Guthrie started Bella Union records together, releasing a number of rarities and compilations as well as producing their own music. Guthrie started Violet Indiana with vocalist Siobhan de Maré, formerly of Mono, releasing the Roulette album in 2001, and two years later released Imperial, his first solo album. Besides that, Guthrie's also made a name for himself as a producer, not only producing The Cocteau Twins, but also working with the likes of Medicine, Chapterhouse, Lush, This Mortal Coil, and Republica, to name a few. Now with the release of his third album, Continental, on Darla Records, Guthrie speaks with ReGen to lay the past to rest and bring his fans up to speed on what his music is all about. The soft-spoken Scotsman gives us some insight into living in France, fatherhood, modern technology, and his opinion of Morrissey.

Let's talk about your new solo album, Continental.

Guthrie: I don't call it a solo album. I'm not really part of a group. You know, it's quite a strange thing to find yourself 10 years later still making a solo album when you're not part of that group anymore.

Okay, then to rephrase it, the new Robin Guthrie album. How would you say the music on Continental represents you as an artist and a person today, as opposed to your past material? How does Continental say, 'This is Robin Guthrie today?'

Guthrie: Since you came to MySpace, I think it's quite interesting that all the people who come to MySpace are saying to me, 'Hey, it's nice to see you're making music again.' And it's like, I haven't stopped making music for the last 10 years.

You've signed a four-album deal with Darla Records. Given your history, I'm sure you'd probably gotten offers from many more prominent labels. What was it about Darla that appealed to you?

Guthrie: I don't know, I've done the major label thing, and I just wanted to work with them.

You started Bella Union with Simon Raymonde, and the first two Robin Guthrie albums were under that label. Will Continental be released on Bella Union as well?

Guthrie: No, it's going to come out on RocketGirl in the UK.

Last year, you released a soundtrack album for the Gregg Araki film Mysterious Skin, for which you wrote the music with Harold Budd. How did you come to do the music for this film?

Guthrie: He just called me up. We've known each other for a while, but we've never met, and he's a big fan of the music I've done. He asked me if I wanted to do the music, and I said, 'Hell, yeah.' And yeah, it's a good experience, and it gave me a chance to work with Harold again. I haven't worked with him for a good number of years.

When was the last time you worked with him?

Guthrie: I think it was on The White Arcades or something. It was a long time.

How does making music for a film differ from making music for yourself? How does your approach to the music change?

Guthrie: It's different because you're not writing for four or five minute pieces. You're writing something that needs to fit the film. You're watching the film on the screen, and you're going to have a mark from the director saying 'You have to come in here and go out here.' There are a whole bunch of different considerations. Actually, I liked it. It brings something new to me.

How pleased are you with the resulting film?

Guthrie: I liked it. I was really happy to see it. [Araki] has matured. I mean, the rest of us have gotten a bit older, and he's a bit older as well, and I think it shows in his work.

So, about Violet Indiana, that was your project with Siobhan de Maré, the vocalist from Mono. Is this band still active?

Guthrie: Yes and no. We were always just a couple of people in the studio making music, and when we played that live, we had different people we played with. But because she stopped to have a child about two years ago, we haven't quite gotten back into it. But I haven't said that the group is over, and I just spoke to her about four or five weeks ago.

So it wasn't that the band broke up or anything. What was the transition like? Obviously, you'd worked in The Cocteau Twins, which was a three-piece, for 17 years, and then you went to do a duo with a different vocalist in Violet Indiana. What sort of changes in your musical approach did you go through?

Guthrie: Absolutely none. No, well...you know, The Cocteau Twins was my thing for all that time, playing live shows and raising a family, and then afterwards, I'd actually tried a few pieces of music for something other than The Cocteau Twins, and it sounded like The Cocteau Twins. It was wrong. And then I met Siobhan, and I was quite attracted to working with her, because for one thing she'd never heard The Cocteau Twins. She wasn't into that kind of music, so she wasn't coming from my area, and I said, 'I want to work with that.'

I do remember when I first came across Violet Indiana and the note said, 'The singer from Mono and the guitarist from The Cocteau Twins,' and I thought, 'That should be interesting; they don't sound alike.'

Guthrie: It's interesting, and it's nice to not hear, 'Hey, this sounds like The Cocteau Twins,' and it was what I had to do, because you can't replace someone like Elizabeth [Fraser].

Elizabeth did some vocal work for The Lord of the Rings, right?

Guthrie: Yeah. You know what, though? I get sick of films like that, because I've got kids, and you kind of want them to learn to read, right? And you want them to read books, and things like Lord of the Rings, and things that for generations upon generations have been getting kids to read books. And what's weird is that with those films, they don't read those books any more. Some of those books have dropped right off, they've gone right out with the success of those movies, especially in the last 10 years. And Harry Potter as well. Because when you read a book, it's really interactive. You know, you read the book, and you see your pictures in your head, right? And when you watch the movie, you're sitting there watching someone else's interpretation, and that's like my approach to my music. I like to make music that's like reading a book. You know, it's like music that you have to put your thought into. It's not just like music with a message, like some fucking Morrissey record, some guy whining away.

I take it you're not a fan of Morrissey?

Guthrie: Not really. He was just a random name really—I'm not not a fan of him—but I don't really care for that kind of thing. He sings songs with a narrative, with only one way that you can take his songs. There's not much room for ambiguity. You don't actually put as much into it from yourself, and the way that I see it is that the people that seem to really like it, it seems to really get under their skin.

Besides your work as a musician, you're also known as a producer, having worked with the likes of Chapterhouse, Lush, Republica, and Medicine, and those are just a few. How does producing another artist's work compare to working on your own material?

Guthrie: Quite often, the people I worked with were sort of new at the time, and they weren't really able to get their ideas out the way that they wanted. I just tried to help them with that, because you have to realize that a studio is a really intimidating place to work in if you don't know what you're doing. So, helping them to do that is interesting.

That's interesting that you say the studio is intimidating, because I've never heard it referred to in that way.

Guthrie: If you're new, of course it's going to be intimidating. because you don't know how to get the results that you want. It was intimidating for me, because I was like 18 or 19 years old or whatever on that first Cocteau Twins record. At the time we had a little drum machine, and in recording it was like, 'Oh, you can't do that, the levels are going into the red,' and I was like, 'Yeah?' This was a sort of pre-Beastie Boys sound, and it was a very powerful sound, but it's like that in the studio. You're learning and hearing a lot of 'Don't touch, don't touch the mixing desk!' But now I have the experience.

You seem to work primarily with female vocalists. Not to sound chauvinistic, but why is this?

Guthrie: Because there are more really good female singers than there are male singers, and when I say really good, I mean not just someone who can sing, but someone who has a really strong, identifiable voice. I've worked with a few male singers, and I think I do come across a lot more female voices like that. I do like male voices, and a guy I really like is Felix MacIntosh. He's got a great voice. But I do like female voices too, and they have a timeless quality. Usually, I don't know why, it just seems to be that way.

The Cocteau Twins were scheduled to make an appearance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival last year, April 30th, but it was then canceled. Why was it cancelled?

Guthrie: You're interviewing the wrong Cocteau Twins member, my friend. We had the big meeting, we got together, and it was the first time we'd worked together in seven or eight years, and we were really excited to do it. And then a few weeks later, we got the phone call from Elizabeth saying that she didn't want to do it. I really don't know why, because we were having fun and ready to play the songs that people liked and wanted to hear. I don't want do it forever, but it would've been a fun experience.

You currently reside in France. How has living in France affected your outlook on life and music, and how do you feel this is shown in the music you're making today?

Guthrie: I lived in London for a number of years, so I just wanted to get away from that, and I'll tell you what, I've been enjoying it. I wanted my kids to be bilingual. That was quite important to me, and I wanted to experience something else, and I feel like a child.

Where in France are you living?

Guthrie: Northwest. Nothing much happens there, so you have to make it happen yourself. I have a little studio there that I work out, and I'm really happy.

What kind of changes have you noticed in music as a whole, having been making music for well over 20 years now?

Guthrie: That's a very good question. When I was 15, I was really getting into music, something I always had. It was interactive entertainment. It was interactive because you could go pick up the record, put it on, play it...there was very little on the radio that I wanted to hear, or on TV in the UK, because we only had four channels. There was no Internet, no video games, all the stuff that kids have now. Music now seems to be a part of what kids are into, and there's so much more on the Internet and video games and DVD and all the different forms of entertainment we have now. Back then, you defined yourself by the records that you had, and that was the thing. Nowadays, music is so much a part of everything, with your telephone ring tones and MySpace and all these different things that expose you to way more, so music doesn't seem quite so important. It's become more affordable, and when you buy a new PC or something like that, or buy your Mac, it's got those programs on it so everybody can get instant results in making your own music, and it just doesn't seem to be as important as it was 20 years ago. My oldest kid is 17, and she's like, 'Dad, remember when you and mom used to make those big black things?' (Laughs.)

It's interesting to teach kids the importance of things. I mean, it is just fucking music, but it's very important to me because I really haven't done anything else. If I could paint, I'd be a painter. If I could write, I would be a writer. I've slowly but surely been getting my hands on a bunch of music that I used to like but I don't have on vinyl, but there's still those holes to be filled in.

There's also the new wave of nostalgia that's going on with a lot of music lovers today, people who feel like they need to find stuff on vinyl. Maybe it has to do with DJ culture as well.

Guthrie: It's depressing, isn't it? Most of the music you can't buy in Best Buy, so it's like if you want to be close to stuff that they don't get, then you have to find other stuff. You can go to places like used stores and flea markets or whatever. The other thing is that some music stands the test of time. Some music takes a while to be appreciated by fans, and it's interesting to me that people like The Cocteau Twins after so many years. We were a very marginal band at the time. We were not a very explosive band. We were a band that people had to set out to find.

That's probably where technology and the Internet helps today, because more people can look up history and then find the music.

Guthrie: And why not? It's weird because you see bigger bands and people who are really popular on MySpace, and then you have me...I mean, I'm real.

Your approach has influenced a lot of people. The way The Cocteau Twins sounded inspired shoegazer music, but you still have that very ethereal sound to your guitar playing. How did you come across this style?

Guthrie: I stopped being a proper musician. I came from punk rock, and I got into music when punk rock came along, and one of the things I forgot to do was to play properly. I found myself with all these ideas, but I just had my imagination I guess. I wanted my guitar to sound different from the way a regular guitar sounds, I guess. I just played to my limitations as a musician. I would like to be different, but everything I touch sounds like me.

At the time it was a new sound, and today a lot of people imitate it. Do you find yourself trying to approach the guitar in new ways with your music, or do you ever think, 'Now I need to find a new sound and try something different?'

Guthrie: No, I don't care. You know, it's something I could never see, and I like to see myself like an artist, and not a musician. I use the guitar and the studio to paint the pictures that I want to paint. It's not about being a musician, and there's lots and lots of variation in what I do, and what I'm trying to do is impressionistic, really. I try to create something for the mind and the imagination, and that's why I worked instrumentally as well, ever since the Violet Indiana thing. It was fun to do, but it's not really my main priority, the songwriting part. I wouldn't say it was a novelty, but that was a new thing for me in that situation, and now I just do what I do.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Guthrie: Just that Continental is not a continuation of the last record or the one before, but I am quite happy with it, and it has taken me quite a long time to get it out. I finished it about six months ago, so I'm happy to see it coming out now.

And I hope this will fill in the blanks for people on what I've been doing for the last 10 years, because I'm still making music, I've played live—I've played live an awful lot. I made a film about two years ago, a little animation film, which I did the soundtrack for as well, and I hope to come out to the U.S. as well.

Interview by Ilker Yücel.