Robin Guthrie hates talking about The Cocteau Twins. The Grangemouth born guitarist and composer is sick of journalists asking him about the seminal band he formed with his then partner Elizabeth Fraser without even being aware of his umpteen musical endeavours over the last decade. Even The Cocteau Twins’ music, a fragile and ethereal thing, in which swathes of Guthrie’s FX laden guitars shimmered beneath Fraser’s other-worldly vocal swoops, becomes secondary. All they want to know about is the drink, the drugs, the break-ups and all the other boring stuff of rock and roll cliché that The Cocteau Twins should never have been about.
Guthrie can understand the interest. After all, for all that The Cocteau Twins public persona was painfully shy, between 1980 and 1997 they were one of the most important bands on the planet, who managed to take their opaque ambient atmospherics into the mainstream without even trying. It’s just that, with several solo instrumental albums under his belt, ongoing film soundtrack work, his occasional band Violet Indiana and a performance itinery that straddles continents, holed up in France with his wife Florence and their two children, Guthrie has clearly moved on.
“The way I look at it,” a still Scots accented Guthrie says on a break in his studio in an outpost of Brittany, “is I’m trying to get through life trying to shake off the brackets that still appear after my name. Maybe it’s me being a dour Scot, but I’ve grown up a lot, and when I look back at the Cocteau Twins, all I see is the debris of broken relationships and drug addiction. I don’t want to keep being reminded of something that happened 20 years ago. I want to talk about what I’m doing now, which for me is much more interesting.”
This is apparent from Guthrie’s two Edinburgh Festival Fringe appearances playing a live score to Lumiere, the impressionistic light-based film he made in 2004. Featuring a series of animated abstract shapes slowly morphing into each other accompanied by Guthrie’s instrumental soundscapes, Lumiere makes for an immersive and soporific experience, as anyone who saw it during Guthrie’s previous sojourns home will confirm.
“As a film it’s probably coming to the end of its useful life,” he admits. “Because I’m starting to get bored of it now and want to make a new one. Then again, I keep saying that and people keep offering me shows in exotic places. Its not a rock gig, though,” Guthrie stresses, “and works in a certain environment, and I’m not sure that’s one where people are drinking and chatting.”
One more addition to Guthrie’s current round of shows will be the presence of his young family, who’ll be hitching a ride with him in a camper van.
“They’ve never really experienced Scotland,” Guthrie says of the country he left a quarter of a century ago. “It’s not often I get a chance to travel with my family. I want my little girl to see my culture as well as her own in France.”
Guthrie has moved a long way since The Cocteau Twins split. In demand as a producer, in the late 1990s he worked with the likes of Republica and former House Of Love vocalist Guy Chadwick. He then formed Violet Indiana with singer Siobhan de Mar. The band’s first material, released in 2000, was “bombarded with negativity,” according to Guthrie. “People who liked The Cocteau Twins said it was too much like them, and was just The Cocteau Twins with a different singer. People who didn’t like it said it wasn’t like The Cocteau Twins enough. Violet Indiana would still be on the go if Siobhan would stop having kids,” Guthrie laughs, acknowledging how real life can get in the way of creativity. “What’s extremely gratifying for me now is that people are a lot more positive abut it.”
Guthrie’s first solo record, Imperial, was released in 2003, with four more following. More recently he’s been remixing work by contemporary classical composer Ulrich Schnauss, and this year alone has recorded and released two albums, After the Night Falls and Before The Day Breaks, with pianist Harold Budd. Budd first collaborated with Guthrie on 1985’s The Moon And The Melodies album, and came out of retirement to record the new work.
Guthrie is currently working on a film soundtrack for director Dany Saadia, a work he describes as “about coincidence, love and death. It’s very European, more Almodovar than James Bond.”
It’s noticeable that Guthrie’s most recent record releases have appeared on Darla Records in America, and Rocket Girl in the UK, and not through Bella Union, the label Guthrie founded with fellow former Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde.
“When I left the UK it was never going to work for me,” Guthrie says of his withdrawal from the label, pointedly declaring that “It doesn’t and never really did represent my musical tastes.”
Settled in France with his studio and family for comfort, Guthrie has removed himself as far away from the rock star circus of old as is imaginable. Without management or representation of any kind, he’s managed to become something of a renaissance man, writing and performing work solely on his own terms. It’s only other people, it seems, who can’t shake off memories of his old band.
“Any other artists,” he points out, “painters, actors, playwrights, film directors and even jazz or classical musicians, are all considered to get better as the get older. But if you’re a pop musician who had a big success when you’re 19, you’re judged by that for the rest of your life. I don’t believe pop musicians decline as they get older, and I’m not just saying that because I’m 45.”
The Cocteau Twins themselves came close to reforming a couple of years back when they were invited to play the Coachella Festival. Both Fraser and Guthrie said no at first, then, warming to the idea, said yes, only for Fraser to withdraw at the eleventh hour.
“As much as we like to think of ourselves as artists,” Guthrie says of the glut of band reformations, “I suppose we’re still entertainers, and if it makes people happy, then that’s okay. We all like a little adulation, otherwise it feels like you’re playing into a vacuum. Had no idea how successful we were until we broke up. My sole ambition in my teens was to make a record. There wasn’t supposed to be a second one, but we got all that adulation and cash, then it stopped.”
Despite Guthrie recognising how his first band’s music has touched people enough for them to now be regarded as iconic, any reformation now is unlikely.
“I’m proud of what I did,” he says, “but it doesn’t affect my daily life anymore.”
Lumiere, on the other hand, probably does.
“The one thing I’m not ever going to be able to control in my life,” says Guthrie, “is my music. I go in the studio, switch off my brain and let it happen. When I start thinking, it becomes compromised. It’s quite a powerful thing, knowing that you only have to move tour fingers on your guitar strings to change the expressions on people’s faces in the audience. I’ve only recently become aware of that, but I just have to let it happen. If there’s one thing I don’t want to be, I don’t want to be clever.”
Robin Guthrie – Lumiere, Underbelly, August 13-14, 11.30pm
The Herald, August 2007