Simon Raymonde, Cocteau Twins
Bill Cummings 30/09/2010
With 1980s week aproaching we threw out the question to our readers, what were the most influential alternative albums of the 1980s? And time and again Cocteau Twins albums 'Garlands' and 'Treasure' cropped up as having a seminal influence upon modern day artists.
Cocteau Twins have always been a threesome, founded in 1981 by musicians Robin Guthrie, Will Heggie and vocalist Elizabeth Fraser, in Grangemouth, Scotland. In 1983, Will Heggie departed the band and, in 1984, Simon Raymonde joined Robin and Liz. This lineup would be the de-facto Cocteau Twins until their breakup in 1998.
Defining the new progression on post punk for much of the 1980s, Cocteau Twins have been claimed as notable influences by such diverse artists as Prince, Madonna, Annie Lennox and Perfect Circle, not to mention bands such as Slowdive, Lush, My Bloody Valentine, Chapterhouse and Curve. Simon Reynolds, writing for Melody Maker in the early 90s, called the Cocteaus' music “oceanic rock,” which he describes as music “attracted to expanses (the sea, the sky, the desert, the tundra) in which self-consciousness evaporates as the borders of the self dissolve”
Their debut album 1982's 'Garlands' wove a dark at times unsettlingly sparse sound that incorporated shades of post punk (Siouxsie and the Banshees were their contemporaries) and dream pop headed by Elizabeth Fraser an extraodinary talent, her unique, stark yet exultant vocals snaked above Gutherie's screeches and the low throb of Heggie's bass.
By their third album 1984's 'Treasure', a strange haunting, affecting album, it's song titles and lyrics inspired by elements of literature, Liz was experimenting with a collection of ten mysterious, pseudo-mythological sounding names. Such as "Ivo" (an ode to 4AD label boss, Ivo Watts-Russell), "Lorelei," "Cicely," "Aloysius," "Persephone," and "Pandora." 'Treasure' further explored the etheral almost structurless Cocteau Twins world, intersperesed with flashes of fuzzing guitars, occasional stums, Simon's bass and Robin's ambient picking guitar creating a floating wash for the drum machine patterns. While Liz' vocals take on a new confidence at times delicate at others swooping and unearthly evoking melancholia, dreams and almost childlike nostalgia.
It's often cited as the height of Cocteau Twins achievements on record, but many some would disgaree variously citing other albums like: Head Over Heels, Victorial and >Four-Calendar Café as their creative pinnacle. Treasure's influence though is unquestioned one can hear the shadow of the 'Treasure' sound over elements of the work of modern dream pop acts and parts of the work of the XX, Esben and the Witch and Wild Nothing.
Since its 1980s week we sent some questions to the band's bassist Simon Raymonde the guy who first passed the first demos of 'Garlands' onto 4AD, he joined Liz and Robin in 1984, Simon helped shape the signature "Cocteau sound" until their break up in 1998—primarily with bass, guitar, and piano.
Raymonde went onto a well received solo career, spent time in the production studio with various contemporary artists and now spends his time working with and developing artists with his label Bella Union apparently so named in honor of the (Cocteau Twins) success and determination to stay together through difficult circumstances, to continue to make music that defied description and ignored prevailing music trends. Music that transcended boundaries into a realm uniquely their own.
Q: We're in the middle of 1980s week here at GIITTV, what are your best and worst memories of the 1980s, and do you think sometimes there is the tendency to romanticise a decade as time goes on?
A: Best memories, working at Beggars Banquet Record shop in Earls Court, underneath 4AD, and then joining Cocteau Twins, travelling the world and working with a talent like Elizabeth Fraser's? Whats not to like!!? Living in London and being able to go see the like of PiL, Pragvec, Scritti Politti, the Associates, Birthday Party, Wire, Joy Division, The Cure, was very special. At the time.
Politically and culturally I think as teens we were more aware because our lives were harder under Thatcher, and pre Xfactor and Xbox, we went out EVERY NIGHT even without money and still managed to have amazing experiences to see bands or to make music ourselves.
Worst memories? My Dad died in the 80s and that took some getting over. He was a massive influence on me, and I never got the chance to tell him that.
I don't really have a romanticised notion of the 80s over the 90s say because when you get into your late 40s, everything seems a fuck of a long time ago. I think today is the most important day.
Q: What do you make of the pervasive influence of 80s music (from shoegaze, Hip Hop and C86 to Synthpop) and production techniques on much of the current mainstream and independent music?
A: I think as fun as computers can be, musicians also like to play with buttons and push things and if you have grown up with pro tools as your first love, chances are you're gonna get bored and want to know how to programme an MPC60 or dick about on a Roland drum machine. The limitations of older gear are what make you create more interesting music I think. When you can do ANYTHING it gets a bit harder! Hearing a lot of the beats of today's artists, you can trace most of it back, but then there's nothing new in that. The shoegaze revival wasn't one people saw coming but the new music of bands like I Break Horses, Wild Nothing, I find far more exciting than the shoegaze bands of the 80s who I found quite boring.
Q: I was only born in 1980, but living through the 80s as a musician do you think the fact that especially in the early in the decade) that economically and politically it was such a time of struggle for many early on actually inspired some independent artists to really strive creatively as a outlet and an escape route from the dole queue?
A: Oh yes I was kinda thinking that on the earlier question. I think Paul Morley and Ian Penman in the NME were also influential as their writing was so inspired. You can't read a review now without a band being compared to another band. Penman and Morley rarely resorted to such lazy platitude.
There was a real energy to the music scene in the UK, not just in London, but all over with indie labels of great passion and desire signing amazing bands and every major city had at least one special independent label. That is missing now but i am sure it will re-surface.
Q: Do you have any favourite 1980s albums or artists that you still go back to?
A: Yes I love 1979 and the early 80s most, so Pop group, Slits, Cabs, Associates, Wire, Television, Talking heads, most of these groups helped create my musical history. And it was MORE than just the music, it was the spirit, the energy and the attitude. As with most GREAT periods of art and culture, there is no one defining feature. It is almost like moments of chaos.
Q Can you tell us about your time in your first group Drowning Craze and what did you sound like?
A: Working downstairs in the Beggars shop from 4AD and Situation 2 (run by Peter Kent), I guess I was in a good position to get our demos listened to at least! Peter Kent thought we were ok but we were instrumental and he thought we needed a singer so he found us a New York art student called Angela Jaegar to sing with us. We did one gig, and one recording session but then she had to go back to NY (she then joined Pigbag), so then Peter found us this lad from Chicago called Frankie Nardiello (now Groovie Mann from Thrill Kill Kult).
We were trying to do our own thing but we loved bands like Wild swans, Delta 5, Pop group, A Certain Ratio, 23 Skidoo and I think our sound was somewhere in the middle of all that.. Dave McCullough in Sounds said we were like a cross between harry chapin and moby grape via PiL. I had never even heard of the first two but subsequently like both so I guess that's good! We loved scratchy guitar like Fire Engines and the dub bass of PiL but we never quite got the vocals right, cos the guitarist and I who wrote the music were so focused on the music, we weren't particularly bothered! Till it was too late..
We released a few okay singles, the first was adored by Paul Morley when he gave it Single Of The Week in the NME I was chuffed and that was good enough for me. An ill-fated show supporting Divine at Heaven was the beginning of the end for the band and thankfully I joined Cocteaus soon after!!
Q: Is it true that you met Robin Guthrie and Elizabeth Fraser during work on the This Mortal Coil project? (that spawned amongst other things a cover version of Tim Buckley's "Song to the Siren" performed by Guthrie and Fraser)?
A: No, that isn't even close to being true! Don't know where that one comes from haha! I was actually the man (well boy, i was 19) who gave the original CT album master of Garlands to the 4AD boss Ivo Watts-Russell, when the band arrived at the shop(label) early one morning after coming down from Scotland. We weren't open yet but I took the tapes off them and handed them to Ivo. The rest is history. So then they became fans of The Drowning Craze, and over the next year or two, we saw alot of each other, me going to a load of their shows, in fact I travelled with Ivo to a number of the UK dates during the Head Over Heels tour and became good friends with the band during this period.
But I had my band and they had theirs and we hadn't intended to ever do anything together. But I worked part time in an 8 track studio in Camden at the weekends, and the boss was away one weekend so i invited Elizabeth and Robin to come and use the studio. They turned up and then Robin said "so have you got any basslines?". I was a bit confused. He thought I had invited them to the studio for US to write together, and I thought I was just going to make them tea while they recorded something! Oh well, don't look a gift horse in the mouth I guess and I had a little bassline going around at the time, and so we recorded it quickly, while Elizabeth went out for chips, and when she came back, we'd recorded the whole backing track around this bassline. She thought it was amazing, and sang on it there and then. That was the song Millimillenary which was released soon after on a compilation. A month or so passed and then Robin called me and asked me if I fancied coming up to Scotland to work on their next album. I thought that sounded like fun. So that's how I joined the band. This Mortal Coil debut lp came later and i was just as involved on that album as R+E if not more as it happens. I think I wrote and played on a bunch of stuff at Blackwing Studios, though yes their version of Song to The Siren was certainly recorded before i hooked up with them.
Q: How would you recount the progression in the Cocteaus' sound from when you joined through the various EPs and the first full-length Cocteau's record that you appeared on 'Treasure'?
A: Gosh I don't know much about progression. Any band in the studio as much as we were would be learning a ton and progressing every day so it's hard to say if my arrival made such a difference. I guess i have always had a very strong ear for melodies and counter melodies and i could play a little bit of a lot of things which may have helped me fit in very easily. I was just as happy with Robin playing the bass or me playing guitar, I wasn't bothered and I think for someone like Robin who had an idea in his head for what he wanted the band to sound like, he knew I was likely to provide more options than create more problems! ; )
What are you memories of recording "Treasure", and why do you think that the album seems to have acquired such a lasting afterlife?
A: I remember the doberman called Tess at the studio loved me. and we had awesome fried breakfasts every day cooked by the studio owner John's wife Anne. I remember it wasnt the easiest record to make and it seemed to us very un-finished. The problem, and ironically perhaps the beauty of the band, was that we never demo-ed anything and never had any ideas before we went into the studio, so the time there, (always a short time) was always stressful. We always told the label that we had 10 songs ready to go, so they'd give us some money to go into the studio but the reality was we had none. So the recordings were pretty much all improvised, and whilst this was fun and exciting, it was bound to be a little hit-and-miss from time to time. I am a very calm, easy going sort of chap so probably that helped see us through those tough times without too much trauma. I was surprised at the bally-ho that greeted Treasure cos it didn't seem fully formed to us, but it certainly is different. We weren't afraid to experiment and loved nothing more than getting a new pedal or piece of outboard and throwing the manual away so we'd not be using it the same way others would.
Q What do you feel you learnt from each other, being in the studio with the other members of the Cocteaus' and how did this shape your work on subsequent recordings? I read that you took a greater role in arrangements and the production as time went on?
A: Hmm, that's a difficult one. I learnt most from watching. We lent the studio out alot to other bands and I watched them too. I came from a school of learning that was based on 'if you push this button what happens?' and learnt by mistake. Once we had our own 24 track studio, there was SO much downtime, for one reason or another, that I had weeks months years to learn, and made my solo record thus. I loved recording Elizabeth's vocals, something I did more of in the last couple of years and that was an experience I will never forget. It wasn't ever easy of course, but that challenge is what makes for special moments. When you're working with people of such divine talent, you just go with the flow. I learnt that taking 4 years to make a record was insane for me, and that if a track took longer than a few hours to mix, it was either cos it wasn't very good, or the drugs were.
Q It may be an impossible question (is so I apologise!), but what album particularly stands out for you from the Cocteaus' cannon?
A: I suppose Heaven or Las Vegas is a great record and has some very special moments on it, but I do love Four-Calendar Cafe too even though I hate the sleeve!
Q:What's your favourite memory of playing live with the Cocteaus' in those early years?
A: We played Royal Festival Hall twice in the 80s which was something bands didn't really do in those days and we were the first band in a long while to play Sadlers Wells Theatre. I remember one show, maybe in Sweden, where Elizabeth went off stage after one song and never came back. Robin and I played the entire set instrumentally. That was funny. In Japan I remember walking into this auditorium packed of eager faces. We walked onto stage and started up with some tune or other and as it peaked to a glorious emotional climax and ended, the audience....remained entirely silent. Oh....Shit....We....Are....Fucked I thought. We looked frantically at each other (we had never bombed before)...we stood there for a bit, smiling nervously. We started up the next song and 10 seconds in, the whole packed audience stood up and started going mental, clapping and cheering. That was weird.
Q You took a break from the Cocteaus' to work on another This Motal Coil project, how was it returning for The Moon and the Melodies, (with American composer Harold Budd) and what kind of progression did the collaboration allow?
A I don't remember we took a break from CT, we just did lots of different things all at the same time. The Budd collaboration came via an aborted Channel 4 show which put musicians from different genres into a studio and filmed and recorded the results. Ivo, boss at 4AD suggested Harold Budd, cos of his work with Eno, and we met Harold and got on. We made that record up in 2 weeks. It was okay.
Q What is it about the working relationship between yourselves and 4AD that made it so successful was there an understanding between artist and label that you all enjoyed?
A: I am not sure. Certainly there were some lovely people there, Vaughan Oliver and Debs who did our press were adorable, but I cant pretend it was an easy relationship all the time. I don't think we were an easy band to work with, and I know a lot of people found us a right pain. After one dreadful BBC TV show we never got invited back by the BBC to do one radio or TV performance for about 11 years! I think 4AD were amazing at just letting the bands develop in their own time and only ever wanted to see them fulfil the potential Ivo saw in them. You cant ask for too much more than that I guess.
Q Are there any other plans to release any more Cocteau Twins archive material or has that avenue been exhausted?
A: I cant see that happening no..
Q You accepted a Q inspiration award a few years ago, do you hear any elements of the Cocteaus' sound in present day acts either musically(in post punk/ethereal/dream pop music) or vocally(with Liz Frazer)?
A: Yes I spose so, more so than I did when people used to say it in the 90s for sure. There are now some bands that do sound just like Cocteau Twins. Which is strange of course. But bands like Wild Nothing who take an essence of something and turn it into something of their own is of much more interest to me than a band that just sound the same.
Q What did you learn from your experience in the Cocteaus' and take into your future projects working in the studio with the likes of Clearlake, James Yorkston, Fionn Regan, The Howling Bells etc?
A;Well first off I only mixed Fionn's album and I only did a remix of a Howling Bells track I think. Records I produced like the Duke Spirit's first two records, the lift to experience LP, Stephanie Dosen's LP, Lucas Renney's solo debut, all would have benefited from my experiences I guess but what I learnt I couldn't really tell you? That a good producer is there to just help the band get what they want, despite what the record label may want!? I love working in the studio and had the most fun working with Nanaco on the much maligned Luminus Love in 23, with the duke spirit, with Lucas Renney, and on the Snowbird record.
Q Since setting up Bella Union label do you think your experience both in an act like the Cocteaus' and as a producer has given you a helpful insight into what it's like for an artist on your label? And what criteria do you use when selecting an act that will appear on your roster and release records under your imprint?
A Well I guess that IS the whole basis for Bella Union, and whatever attraction it may have for an artist must come from my desire to run a label that I would like to have been signed to myself. The only criteria initially is my gut instinct on their musical merit, but a long arduous process then begins, as I won't sign any band that I don't feel comfortable with on a personal level. We all put so much in to this, that working with people who don't appreciate that, that don't get the sacrifices, isn't worth it. I want this to be a family label and you can only do that with love. So first I must be totally in love with their music to the point of obsession, and THEN I must fall in love with them as people. You'd be surprised, both doesn't happen very often.
Q What current Bella Union projects are particularly exciting you right now?
A Of the current roster, with imminent releases, I Break Horses, The Walkmen, Our Broken Garden, Heidi Spencer, Abe Vigoda, Alessi's Ark, Peter Broderick, Philip Selway, etc and of course we have new Fleet Foxes and The Low Anthem records coming in the next six months so it will be a beautiful time.
Q Finally can you tell us about the proposed new group Snowbird that you've formed with Stephanie Dosen last year?
A: Stephanie and I are a couple and despite living together for 4 years and talking about doing something together, we hadn't managed it. Stephanie had visa problems last year and was sent back to the USA for a few months. While she was away, i would sit my laptop on top of the piano and record little noodles each night and send them to her in North Carolina. When I would awake she would have recorded these amazing vocals and sent them back via email. All of a sudden we had 12 of these noodles that were now more like songs. So we are close to finishing them now and will release next year.
Thank you for answering these questions Simon!
For more info on Simon's Bella Union label: