Divine Rapture: Simon Raymonde revisits Cocteau Twins' purple patch
As 4AD re-release Cocteau Twins' seminal albums Blue Bell Knoll and Heaven or Las Vegas, Simon Raymonde tells us what life in the fold was like during the band's commercial peak
Ever since Liz Fraser and Robin Guthrie ascended to another world from their Scottish home of Grangemouth in the early 1980s, a certain fear of interpretation defined and honed the Cocteau Twins' sound. This fear came entirely from the band themselves; while journalists had a descriptive field day in attempting to pin down their sound in semantic terms, the band themselves gruffly refuted lofty terms and pointedly refused to speak about what they were doing. Nevertheless, the Cocteau Twins appeared to arrive and thrive in their splendidly hermetically sealed isolation. The chiming splendour of Guthrie and bass player Simon Raymonde’s instrumentation provided an immaculate foil for the glacial purity of Fraser’s remarkable voice. And during a period when bands were increasingly looking to deconstruct the traditional rock idiom, Cocteau Twins did the same, albeit entirely on their own terms.
By 1988, they hadn't recorded a full album as a complete trio in four years. Side projects with Harold Budd and This Mortal Coil had seen the trio veer off into more overtly ambient territory but the arrival of Blue Bell Knoll in September of that year heralded not only a defining album of the era but also a spectacular work on its own terms, soaring amid a stately production with xylophones, glockenspiels and marimbas trilling through the sumptuous sound. Some twenty six years on, Simon Raymonde admits it was an unusually happy time to be in the Cocteau Twins.
“That whole period was incredibly fertile,” he says. “Even just before Blue Bell Knoll, with This Mortal Coil projects that I was deeply involved with, the Victorialand album [which Fraser and Guthrie recorded as a duo] and the Harold Budd collaboration, we were all super busy and – seemingly – fairly happy. Things seemed to be pretty good. We were at our most creative during that period, 1985 through 1990. And all the drug stuff hadn’t really come to the fore yet. The catalyst for it all was the studio we built in North Acton in an industrial estate with all these other small businesses, Dif Juz helped us build the studio inside this little unit. It was there that everything came together, and Blue Bell Knoll was probably the first record we made start to finish in our own place. We’d do bits and pieces elsewhere – we did some work at William Orbit’s house, the Tiny Dynamine and Echoes in a Shallow Bay EPs were done there and mixed somewhere else – but Blue Bell Knoll was the first time we had a studio with our own key and a front door we could shut and just get on with it. And that made a massive difference as the three of us were getting on and understanding what we were trying to do; it all gelled pretty well in that period.”
"Blue Bell Knoll was the first time we had a studio with our own key and a front door we could shut and just get on with it. That made a massive difference" – Simon Raymonde
The fruits of this increased level of control are evident listening back to the album now. Blue Bell Knoll showcases a band in complete control of their sound; the slightly hesitant motions of the Treasure era are abandoned in favour of a spectacular sonic blitz while Fraser’s vocals were always audible in the mix; their impenetrability became even more pronounced.
“What is interesting about Blue Bell Knoll,” reflects Raymonde, “is that it was our first time with a bigger tape machine and a bigger desk which was bigger than anything we had used before. It freed up the recording process enormously because, instead of it being restricting, in terms of ‘oh well, we need to leave some room for Liz,’ we had so much more space to put other instruments in. And I guess that was the beginning of the sound change, both those records do sound more sophisticated, or better produced, than the previous ones, and more lush sounding and more developed. And that was really down to our circumstances changing. It did affect the way things sounded. With this album, we did get to the point where we would fill up twenty odd tracks of music and suddenly think ‘Holy crap! Where’s Liz gonna go? There’s no room left!’ That’s in a way why the record sounds like it does. Because it’s very full, we used up every space of tape we could.”
“There was an element of freedom about the whole thing. It really felt like a period of creativity and freedom, we were all getting on great musically and socially, Liz and Robin were about to have a baby, I was about to get married, there was lots of joy around. Very productive! It was a really fun record to make.”
However, by 1990, the first obvious signs of distress behind the Cocteaus’ veneer were beginning to show. Despite the sudden familial responsibilities for all three members, domesticated bliss was not on the agenda. The band became increasingly brusque in interviews, with Fraser often appearing to be on the verge of some form of breakdown. At one point, Guthrie ordered fans to “burn down all the old records… you have to trade in all your own Cocteau Twins records to get the new one, therefore you move with the band and you don’t get stuck.” Conversely, the resultant album – Heaven or Las Vegas – was the band’s most commercially successful release with Fraser’s lyrics becoming marginally more intelligible and the band’s sound adapting a sweeter – edging towards poppy – atmosphere.
“When Robin and Liz had their baby,” explains Raymonde, “we all thought – well, Liz and I probably thought – that the drug use was gonna stop and a new baby in the house would make things better and they would play happy families for a while. That’s what we figured would happen but it didn’t really turn out like that. And it was a really weird time; while the music was amazing and great fun to be a part of, together Robin and I wrote some of our best tunes and separately too, he wrote a couple all on his own and I wrote a couple all on my own and when he added things to mine it made them better and vice versa. We were in a very good space musically but we were putting so much time and effort into the music, it was trying to mask all the other shit that was going on that we didn't want to stop and think about for too long. But the drug problem did get absolutely out of hand by the end of the recording of Heaven or Las Vegas and that obviously led to the rehab period which we moved into shortly afterwards.”
Heaven or Las Vegas is, quite simply, a magnificent album. Peppered with paeans to Guthrie and Fraser’s daughter Lucy Belle, the expansive sound developed on the previous record was now more muscular and more defined and often erupted in paroxysms of sonic euphoria. The title track encapsulated the band’s staggering confidence in arrangements and execution with a showcase Guthrie slide guitar solo and strikingly effective – almost funky – drum programming.
“The drum machine programming is all down to Mr. Guthrie,” admits Raymonde. “He has always been a frustrated drummer. And ever since we started recording together, from the very first drum machines you could programme, that was always his big obsession, that would be the first thing he would start off with. But to run you through the Cocteau Twins' recording process, we would get in the studio, have a chat about what sort of song we wanted to do: fast, slow, medium, whatever. Robin would sit at the drum machine for two minutes, put together some kind of pattern, we’d record it in a loop and then just plug guitars in – or sit at the piano – and jam. And then we would record it and that would be the song. And that’s pretty much the template for every Cocteau Twins recording from the time I joined until the end of the band. He wasn’t bad as a real drummer but he became an excellent programmer as a result of having that innate understanding of rhythm and a lot of his rhythms are hip-hop related if you think about it – certainly on Heaven or Las Vegas and even Garlands, there are some hip-hop beats. Even though the music is as far away from that as you could imagine, the rhythms do come from quite a dance-y place.”
But what was it actually like being in the Cocteau Twins in 1990?
“Well, my dad [arranger Ivor Raymonde] died during the recording of Heaven or Las Vegas,” Raymonde reveals. “I was only 27, I was still quite young and he was a very influential guy for me so that was a big blow but, looking back on it, having a major life event happening probably helped the record have that edge to it. You go from Pitch The Baby which is a joyous song about Elizabeth giving birth and having a kid and how amazing that is over to Frou Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fires which is my song and is quite miserable really but Elizabeth makes it beautiful with the lyrics. But that was just a melancholic piano song I wrote a day or two after my dad died. So, it’s got up and down, which is why the record works over the whole ten songs, it has light and it has dark and I think that’s good in a record.
“Looking back on it now – twenty four years later! – those are my two favourite Cocteau Twins albums. These two records sound both bright and well rounded at the bottom, deep bass sounds, and it felt like everything we put in there, you can hear. Whereas with the next two, the good bits are hidden. If I had to pick between them, today I’d probably choose Heaven or Las Vegas but tomorrow I might choose Blue Bell Knoll.”