Simon Says #14: Being in Cocteau Twins
The magical music and the creative mechanics behind Simon Raymonde’s former band, Cocteau Twins, defy explanation – particularly by the band members themselves…
Looking back over some of the press cuttings from my Cocteau Twins days (1983 to 1997) in an attempt to jog my memory for a book I’m writing, it’s a wonder that people even dare to speak to me. I was quite convinced, for a period, that we were in fact not human at all, but had glided down on gossamer wing from some celestial plain. Interviewers seemed genuinely disappointed when we answered the door in clothes and not capes.
The perception and the reality were quite a way apart. While we could often be seen materialising from a cloud of smoke, it wasn’t our rumoured ability to apparate; it was when we got the munchies and needed to go and get chocolate, or when the roadie got carried away with the fog machine.
Certainly, imagery surrounding the band, initially anyhow, and our questionable decision to agree to film the Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops video in a church probably didn’t help. And the interviews… They were often funny to read, but frustrating for all, as our disinterest and unwillingness to discuss the making of our music tended to irritate those who wanted to discover how we came up with such a sound.
I guess, looking back on it, we had a fairly humble and modest appreciation of what we did, which – for a while, at least – kept us grounded. What was striking was that both Robin and Elizabeth were superbly talented, in very different ways, but both thought nothing of these gifts, and I found that utterly charming. Elizabeth’s voice should be a subject taught in school; and I have to herald the ears and vision of Robin Guthrie, who single-handedly defined the unique sound of the band prior to my arrival. He had a picture in his head of what he wanted it all to sound like. I am just glad I fitted in, and was able to contribute to that.
It felt natural being in the studio with Robin and Elizabeth, and the differences between us all were a strength. Why couldn’t we explain why we sounded like we did? To be brutally honest, we simply did not want to know! I think even early on, we realised that there was a chemistry there with the three of us, though in our first sessions for The Spanglemaker/Pearly- Dewdrops’ Drops EP we were definitely all feeling each other out, and the Treasure sessions – three weeks at Palladium studio in Scotland in August and September 1984, were a little stressful. We had told 4AD we had all 10 songs ready to record, whereas in reality, we had none. In all our 14 years of making music together, we never demoed or ‘wrote’ songs in a conventional way.
Robin and I arrived in the studio and turned the tape machine on, and recorded whatever came out of our instruments. We liked making stuff up as we went along, and the excitement of not knowing what you would do every morning when you arrived in the studio wasn’t terrifying, it was liberating.
Elizabeth worked in exactly the same way, generally on her own, but nearby. But as we neared the end of the three weeks, it did feel and sound like we weren’t quite finished. When the record came out two months later, there was a surprising reaction that baffled us, to be honest. The album was universally adored, and went straight into the UK Album Chart at No. 29, and stayed in the charts for eight weeks. Melody Maker called the band “the voice of God”, which was almost as daft as Robin saying it was an “abortion”; and while we knew we could do a lot better, for our first concentrated time together as a trio in the studio, it was a great learning curve.
But those questions kept coming thick and fast, yet we continued to play them back with a straight bat. We were scared. We knew if we started to analyse why something happened the way it did, it would destroy the magic and the excitement, so we refused to ask ourselves these questions and declined to answer theirs… and continued to arrive at the studio with nothing.
Once we had our own studio space, Robin and I agreed early on, that if the magic was not there after 15 to 20 minutes, we wouldn’t bother trying to force it, we would go bowling. There were two 10-pin bowling alleys nearby, and Robin usually beat me. We tried snooker, and Robin usually won at that, too. Darts, Robin usually won at that. But while all these leisure breaks sound idyllic, they were few and far between – because most of the time, the music came together in a short time. I really don’t know why. It’s baffling, but still I don’t think there has to be this constant, demanding ‘WHY?’.
Can’t we just sometimes let the magic exist and not question it? Did Sartre not suggest man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and then defines himself afterwards?