Interviews  |   Tape Op #50, Nov/Dec '05

I first met Robin Guthrie three years ago. I was playing guitar with Seattle chanteuse Heather Duby and we were opening up for his band Violet Indiana. Needless to say, I was very excited, as I had been a Cocteau Twins fan for some time. The mere chance to see Robin play live was a thrilling prospect, let alone sharing the stage with him. Three weeks after the gig, I ran into him in a grocery store in Seattle - weird considering he lives outside of Rennes, France. He was on vacation with his family and I had a chance to spend some time with him. Later that year I paid them a visit when I was in France and we have stayed in touch ever since. Robin was born in Scotland in 1962 and began playing guitar when he was 15, inspired by the British punk scene of the time. When he was 18, he formed the Cocteau Twins with Elizabeth Fraser. They remained together until 1997, initially with bassist Will Heggie, but playing for most of their duration with bassist/instrumentalist Simon Raymonde. Since then Robin has spent his time writing instrumental music, playing with Violet Indiana, producing albums and both owning and running the record label Bella Union.

The last time we spoke, you were telling me about your latest project, which involved composing music on a train ride from Philadelphia to LA. Fill me in on the details.

I wanted to go to California because Cocteau Twins had pulled out of Coachella. A whole bunch of Cocteau Twins fans had spent a lot of money on plane tickets. I didn't feel any guilt about it whatsoever because it wasn't my decision to pull out of Coachella. But I did think that I might make some people happy. So I agreed to play a concert in L.A. the night before when Cocteau Twins would have been appearing. But I thought “How am I going to do that?” I didn't want to do what I usually do - I wanted to make it special. Slowly but surely the idea came together [to] combine one of the things I like the most - which is traveling - with some new music. I had a look around on the web, had a took at the Amtrak system and found out they had powered outlets and thought, “There we go. It will get me away from family responsibilities, I'll be able to work a bit and come up with some new shit.” I don't know why I hadn't thought of it before - [to] come up with things out of a constantly evolving, new landscape.

Did you have your own cabin?

It was little, a small room with a bed. But it was perfect when you've got a Laptop and you are trying to make music. You just shut the world out for 18 hours.

What software were you using?

Cubase SX2 a very, very minimal installation. I really limited myself on the number of plug-ins, instruments, and all that. It really trims the fat off of the songwriting process. I wanted to give myself restrictions. I put in an electric piano, two synths, an organ and some drum stuff. Nothing like what I've got at home. I knew I was going to write the guitar parts once I got [to] L.A. I was making karaoke tracks basically, something to play along with. That's pretty much how my writing process is most of the time anyway. The guitar is usually not the first instrument. But it's not always that way.

Are you going to record this stuff?

Well, my writing and recording process is so similar these days. Half of it was written already. I took my laptop home and dumped it into my main system. Then I've got the guitars to record and most of what I'd written for the show will remain. I'll tweak it and work it. but its basically the same. Some of it will be used in some upcoming shows some if it will remain instrumental stuff, some of it will become Violet Indiana songs and some of it will disappear.

Are you going to do something similar to Lumière - which I saw in Seattle last fall - and incorporate film and video with these recordings?

No, this is going to be kind of a follow up to Imperial [an instrumental album released in 2003]. I could have gone whole hog and done the travelogue movie thing, but this is not the time for that. I'm really happy doing my visual work without a concrete set of music with it. I always change the music I play with Lumière, or any other visual stuff that I do. I don't want to be doing a DVD - I keep it a special sort of thing. The only time people get to see it is at a concert - it's not something you can really become familiar with. I see this next record as being more of an aural sort of thing. That's not to say I won't do something different in the future. I just need to get some new music out there. That's the mother of everything I do. The rest are all tangents, really.

I think a lot of people feel that way.

I spent the last year really not doing a lot of new pieces of music. I've done a lot of concerts, I've done that Mysterious Skin soundtrack, which was just me reworking stuff from a year ago.

Interesting. Let's talk about your studio, September Sound.

Well, that closed a long time ago - seven or eight years now. I started the studio at home with a Revox 877 back in the day white I was still in Scotland. That's what we use for Cocteau Twins for our concerts. We used to record things straight on it and then moved on to different 4-track set-ups, and eventually to 16-track when the first half-inch 16-tracks first came out. I can cut the story short by saying it became four fucking studios. The key point is, we built a studio and did Blue Bell Knoll. It was a really punky, sort of grungy little place with carpet on the walls, but it had a vibe to it. At that point we had an opportunity to get a room at Pete Townsend's Eel Pie Studios, which was pretty much closed down at that point, I think. It was just one floor of a building, just one recording room. It was my private, personal domain. I was also producing other people and [it] seemed like a good idea to let other people use it. Slowly but surely it turned into a studio business. It really upset me. It was like, “If I leave something someplace I expect it be in that spot two weeks later,” but all of a sudden, people were in there fucking up my patch bay, rewiring things. It [was] no longer personal. Then to make matters worse, I eventually tried to combat that and took the rest of the building over and built one, two and eventually three more studios in order to retain a space for myself. But the overhead was such that we had to rent all of the studios to pay for the building and the staff. It became so frustrating that I couldn't do any of my own work. That's why we recorded the last Cocteau Twins album, Milk and Kisses, in a house in France. We rented a house and took a bunch of equipment over since I couldn't get into my studio at the time.

What equipment did you take with you to France when you did Milk and Kisses?

I think it was one or two ADATS and a Little Mackie desk. There was no software sequencing at that time, it was all hardware and I was using an MPC 60 MKII - that was all the drums and sequenced stuff like that.

No live drums?

They were all sequenced. I could play all the beats, but I was never, ever a good enough drummer in a million years to play on a record. I programmed them like that because I can visualize sitting behind the drum kit and playing them with my hands. That's how it developed, anyway. In the mid-eighties it was an infinite hi hat which could carry on like a three-handed drummer. I wanted to emulate the sound of a drummer - I didn't want to take the thing into electronica with eclectic sounds, and live we were using a real drummer. I wanted to retain a consistent feel.

You talked about how the studio evolved into a business. Can you tell me what it was like to be an artist running a business?

I am not an artist who is capable of running a business. I am totally useless. [laughs] There is nothing creative about running a recording studio. Its like running a fucking Starbucks - you are in the service industry. Where's the fucking sanctity there? Of course, I tried having a record label [Bella Union] and I see that as the same fucking thing. Its like selling cans of dog food and that's why you've seen me ditch those things in the last 18 months to 2 years. I said, “Fuck it. I am going to stay in the part of the business that doesn't really pay you, but it makes you feel good.”

Why did you close September Sound?

Because it was a money pit. We were having to run at 85 percent capacity just to pay the staff, pay the rent, stuff like that. And somewhat simultaneously, you saw the beginning of the digital recording revolution. That's when Radar, Pro Tools and things like that started coming out. I had Sound Tools, the precursor to Pro Tools. It cost me an arm and a leg and I used it on one record. It was a two track digital editor - I paid about two grand for a 500-megabyte drive. [laughs] I was an earlier adopter, but I wasn't sharp enough to see how radically the industry would change.

I really don't think anybody was.

Right. Now the barriers between professional and amateur recordings are completely blurred. It's available to anybody. I see myself much more as an amateur now than I ever was, and that's a good place to be. I make music in my spare time. You know, that's the icing on the cake. I've got a life to run, bills to pay, things to do. So when I get into the studio it's a much better time, really. I've had periods in my life where I was managed. It was like, “Keep Guthrie in the studio, get him to finish more tracks. If he needs another fucking kilo of coke, go get it.” Awful.

What were your early Cocteau Twins recording sessions like?

Garlands was us just setting up and playing live in the studio. Seven days and that was it. I had a few arguments with the tech people, but I didn't know what was going on. I didn't know what a producer was or what a sound engineer was. There were just a bunch of grown ups in the other room and that was it. [Laughs] The biggest argument was that we used to have a drum machine that we ran through a fuzz box, through a guitar amp and that's how we used to play live. So the drum sounds were more like the 8eastie Boys - more distorted, hip-hoppy drum sounds. And they wouldn't let us use it. They were like, oh its hitting in the red and I can hear some distortion on it. There were all these technical reasons why they wouldn't let us use it that way - which is why the drums just sound like an 808 which of course is what it was. It was still kind of different because at the time people weren't really using them for those sort of things

Over the years did you guys work with producers or did you just produce yourselves?

The first record was produced by Ivo. He was the guy in the studio with us because he was the guy paying for it. He was our sort of mentor at the point - he was like ten years older than us. He was a grown up. [Laughs] The first single we produced [“Peppermint Pig”] was produced by Allen Rankin, who had been in a Scottish band called The Associates, and for me it's still one of the most horrible things Cocteau Twins ever recorded. I don't know why it still bothers me because that was 22 years ago. [Laughs] But it still rankles a little bit because it was so not what that band was about. Anyway, then we went on tour and Will Heggie left 46 dates into a 50 date tour. It was then that Liz and I decided we were going to do the records our way. I was completely overwrought at first in recording studios. There were fights and knobs and everything and I didn't want to touch anything. But by Head over Heels, which was our second album, I produced and engineered the whole thing. I fell in with a guy called Jon Turner, who owned a recording studio in Scotland. He, in a lot of ways, was as ort of mentor for me. He actually taught me and encouraged me to touch the desk and try out the shit I wanted to try. Because of my background in electronics I understood everything in terms of signal paths and what not. But I had never touched the desk before. [Laughs] I would talk to him when I got stuck and he would encourage me when I went to try out weird things with reverbs - and I got to use Linn drums.

What tricks did you develop over the course of the years?

There's only one, fucking really. [Laughing] That big guitar fucking thing, isn't it? Actually I'll tell you what that is. As someone who works with a lot of people, if I am producing or working with a vocalist, it's engineering and recording the session to get the performance out of the person. I don't like sitting at the back of the room like a producer but being hands on to get the performance out of the person. Because quite often, that person will not be at their best in that alien environment with their headphones on.

So as a producer you are more hands on then?

Absolutely, but it's really just for the vocals. I'm really not interested in engineering the backing tracks, but I like to be there so I can talk to the band about the arrangements. I'd rather leave that up to someone who knows what the hell they're doing. Someone who has been in that particular studio is going to know a lot more about their mics and their room than I would. But the vocals are the absolute focus, the most important part. Because they can really suck in the studio and I have to make sure they don't suck.

I know you produced Chapterhouse and Lush - a lot of the shoegazing bands. Who else have you worked with?

I haven't worked with anyone for ages and the ones I have you probably haven't heard of. I think the last record I produced was like five years ago - Guy Chadwick. I've done a lot of collaborative things, remixes, and things like that. But I haven't produced anything in a while, which tells me quite a lot about my social skills. [Laughs] They don't want to get into a room with me. Once I got settled over here [France] - it took me about a year - I started to make all these musical decisions, trim the fat and whatnot.

So is the studio in the house or in the garage?

It's in the house. It takes up about two-thirds of the top floor, which was a really big room. I partitioned it off and now I've got an office, a live room, and a control room.

What's your setup?

I use Cubase running on a 3GHz Pentium 4 and a gig of RAM. It's on a network and I've got about a terabyte of hard disk space. I've got a MOTU 2408, but it's not my ideal choice because I run two Yamaha O2Rs slaved together. So the 2408 has 24 channels of ADAT and the whole thing is linked up digitally. There's not analog in there at all, except for my sends and returns, so if I want to use some nice compressors and some nice EQs I can do that. Effects-wise, I still have far too many of them to warrant having them. There are still a couple of choice pieces that I come back to time and again: The Urei 1178 and Tube-Tech EQs.

Let's get back to that big guitar sound we talked about earlier. It seems like a lot of people took that sound and really ran with it. Back in the early days, how did you get it?

My amp went to 11, man! [Laughs] That sound was not critical to any one thing. I found with a couple of the right pedals I could go anywhere and sound like me, which has more to do with limited playing skills and the chords that I make than anything else. It evolved from my frustration with being a really fucking mediocre guitar player when I was learning to play. A lot of my friends could play along with records and I couldn't do that at all. But what I could do was build the shit together and build tittle fuzz boxes and wah wahs from diagrams in magazines. I would build them inside my guitar to make noises and textures. I was really keen on effects pedals. This was the late 70s, and I would scrape what money I had together to buy flangers and analog delay pedals. It was a way of making me sound different than anyone else. Everybody else could play better than me, but nobody could sound like me. So, wind that forward 25 years [laughs].

Interview by William Bernard.