Interviews  |   The Times, March 2003

Robin Guthrie is ensconced in the bar of a Paris hotel, a Marlboro Lite gripped between his fingers and a glass of red wine close by. The man who is still best known for his epoch-making work, alongside Elizabeth Fraser, as the founder and mainstay of the Cocteau Twins, has made a new album, Imperial.

It's being released by Bella Union, the record company he co-owns with his former Cocteau Twin colleague, Simon Raymonde. Now living in Rennes, Brittany, with his French wife, two daughters and a small family of “standard-issue rock'n'roll” guitars, Guthrie has a home studio and an office near by from which he helps to manage the record company. It has signed up an unlikely gaggle of outsiders and trend-setters, including the Dirty Three, Kid Loco, Lift to Experience, Devics and Departure Lounge. If they got any closer to the cutting edge they would all fall off.

Yet Guthrie sounds like a spectacularly useless businessman. “If I was one of those people who was independently wealthy, I would give all my music away,” he declares. “I would put it on the internet so that anybody could download it and that's it. That's how I feel about my music. Unfortunately, reality bites and I've got a family to feed, so I have to sell my records. People who work in my office are enthusiasts.

They have to be, because the label doesn't really make any money for anybody that's involved.”

Although he's relaxed in his Gallic setting and converses fluently in French with the waitress, there is no mistaking Guthrie for one of the locals. If his loose-fitting shirt and unkempt mop of hair weren't enough to give him away, the Scottish brogue that is the legacy of his upbringing in Grangemouth is still pronounced.

He talks in a rather Walter Mitty-ish fashion about his love of relocating to new cities and cultures — Japan is next on the list, when he tires of France — and he makes an eloquent case for the sonic abstractions of his music, which he compares to an Impressionist painting where you can “see all the light and dark and shadows in your own way”.

However, the suggestion that the new album — crystalline guitar chords swathed in layers of rich, soothing echo — sounds like the Cocteau Twins without vocals does not impress him. “You've got Sherlock Holmes working with you now, then,” he says, witheringly, before explaining that he is now working in “a completely different sort of dynamic” to that of the Cocteaus.

While the Cocteaus' otherworldly music, by turns so beautifully soft and dangerously jagged, remains a touchstone in pop and an influence on subsequent musical models from the ambient noodlings of Aphex Twin to the trip-hop tones of Massive Attack, the group itself split up in 1997.

Guthrie and Fraser had been lovers for 13 of the group's 15 years together, but had broken up before the making of the group's past two albums. “We got ourselves into a right old state, mentally and physically,” Guthrie admits.

They had also been talked into leaving their independent record company 4AD and signing with The Man — in the shape of Mercury Records offshoot Fontana — an experience which further eroded Guthrie's confidence. “If people have given you lots of money, then you are under pressure to give them lots in return,” he says. “Where there's less money involved there's less pressure.”

Since then Guthrie has worked hard to eliminate that particular sort of pressure while playing with his new group Violet Indiana, featuring the vocals of Siobhan de Mare. He is quick to pre-empt any suggestion that this set-up might be a rerun of the Cocteau Twins with the “wrong” singer. “One of the reasons I was so keen to work with Siobhan is that she's at the opposite polar extreme from Liz. Siobhan has taken me to places I've never been before. It's almost scary it's so different.”

Now, at the age of 41, Guthrie finds himself belatedly releasing his first solo album. Imperial began last year when the guitarist wrote for an exhibition of 3-D photography in Seattle. He composed three tracks of installation music inspired by the subject matter in the pictures. Meanwhile, de Mare announced that she was pregnant, and it was decided that Violet Indiana would be out of action for a year or so.

With extra time on his hands, Guthrie was able to expand his ideas sufficiently to justify making a solo record. At around the same time he also took charge of remastering the first four Cocteau Twins albums — Garlands, Head Over Heels, Treasure and Victorialand — which were rereleased by 4AD to ecstatic reviews last month.

“It was very emotional going back to those albums,” he says. “It took me back to a certain place in time. The mastering process for CD was in its infancy when we made them. But they now sound as good as they ever will. You still can't make out a word that Liz is singing, mind you.”

Does he miss the presence of a singer and the interaction of being with a group? “It's more rewarding when you're on your own because you are putting yourself on the line completely. But I played a couple of concerts before Christmas, and because there was no singer, everyone was looking at me. I didn't like that. So much of what I do keeps me in the shadows, and I feel comfortable there.”

Interview by David Sinclair.