Things have changed for Simon Raymonde, the multi-instrumentalist, co-songwriter and most forthcoming member of Britain's Cocteau Twins. After confronting ordeals ranging from soured label relations to the drug addiction of bandmate Robin Guthrie, Raymonde exudes a sense of inner peace and seems to feel safe while undergoing public scrutiny.
"We enjoy talking to people now," he enthuses. "Whereas before we couldn't understand why we would have to go through this process of talking. My mind would always say, `Well I'm not interested in what other people have to say, I just want to listen to the music'--which is true to a degree. But then I would catch myself reading an Orson Welles autobiography or something, and realize I'm interested in people's lives, too, as we all are. There are things to be learned from that."
The Cocteau Twins, Raymonde insists, finally are ready to be understood. It's been a long time coming, since rarely has a band been such a mystery--even to its own fans. The three Twins (Raymonde, guitarist Guthrie and vocalist Liz Fraser) have produced a vast collection of complex, beautiful music made all the more impressive by Fraser's unique approach to singing--multilayered, birdlike warbling of incomprehensible, sometimes meaningless lyrics. Even more quizzical, until recently, were the band's live performances: Rather than getting into the flow of their ethereal, refreshingly innovative sound, the players preferred to stand frozen behind gorgeous lighting arrangements.
The combination of this approach and the members' almost paranoid inaccessibility earned the threesome a reputation for art snobbery. According to Raymonde, this tag is quite undeserved, and had nothing to do with the band's decision to limit contact with the press. "We're quite inarticulate people, really," he confesses. "The reason we didn't do many interviews before is because most of them were just dreadful. We weren't really able to say anything. We didn't know ourselves, we didn't know what it was we wanted to talk about, and we never really thought about something before we were asked it."
That's quite a modest admission coming from a band that has directly or indirectly influenced countless others, including the Sundays, My Bloody Valentine, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Enya, Slowdive and Lush, whose early material was produced by Guthrie. These artists (sometimes derisively dubbed "shoe-gazers") owe a great debt to the Twins' pioneering sound--a sound that came to characterize both the band and its original label, 4AD.
The group, which got its start in Grangemouth, Scotland, originally consisted of Guthrie, Fraser and Will Heggie. Soon after forming, the trio relocated to London and began releasing records that sent critics into long-winded, adjective-laden frenzies (one writer called the band's sound "a fluid chunk of sultry passion"). Following Heggie's departure in 1983, Raymonde, who previously had worked with Britain's the Drowning Craze, joined the lineup. With his help, the Twins and 4AD embarked on a musical journey that increased each of their fortunes. By the 1990 release of Heaven or Las Vegas, there seemed to be almost no distinction between the band and its record company. The restrictions this state of affairs placed on the Twins gradually became intolerable.
"It seems everyone's hooked into little labels, little cliques," Raymonde says. "People need to have an identity, so they relate to a cross-section of bands or a movement, so that they can say, `Well, that's my cup of tea!' People did that with 4AD a lot, and while that was really cool early on, it did become more of a burden. It's very important for us to exist in our own right, and not to be lumped in with loads of other bands."
For this reason, the band declared its independence in 1992, leaving 4AD and switching to Capitol, which had been distributing the Twins' albums in the United States since 1988. Raymonde feels that this freed the Twins to conquer other demons on Four-Calendar Cafe, the first disc issued under the new agreement. The album is the band's most revealing and honest to date, thanks to sparser arrangements that allow more room for Fraser's self-proclaimed "real lyrics" to assume a front-and-center position. The recording is not as great a departure as it might seem at first blush--musically, it too closely echoes Heaven or Las Vegas to be considered a triumph--but it brims with confidence. Raymonde sees it as indicative of the changes in the bandmembers' lives.
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"What's gone on in the last few years is that we've all reached a level where we need to talk about stuff, to be able to grow up, experience relationships and to develop as human beings," he explains. "From Liz's point of view, she had an awful lot of making up to do. She's had a lot of stuff bottled up inside for years that she never let out. When she opened the bottle, it just all came flooding out. There's an awful lot of stuff there to talk about."
Some of that stuff involves Guthrie's addiction to drugs and his subsequent success at kicking his habit. This achievement, in Raymonde's opinion, has everything to do with the improvement in the Twins' morale. "[Guthrie's] cleaning up was really the key thing," he says. "After Heaven or Las Vegas, there was quite a big problem. It had gotten really bad for Robin, as low as it could get. After that last tour I probably would never have wanted to tour again, it was so desperate. The record was received really well and all that, but what was going on with us as a group at that time was just horrific.
"For at least a year we were telling Robin, `Look, you really, really, really need to get some help,'" he continues. "But you can't tell an addict that they need help--they need to make that decision for themselves. And when you've got children [Guthrie and Fraser have a baby girl named Lucy Belle], it all becomes that much more of a heavy thing. He was always so sad, so unhappy, that he realized after a couple of failed attempts that he had to get some help. Otherwise, he was probably going to die."
Instead Guthrie went into treatment, and now has been off drugs, tobacco, alcohol and caffeine for the past sixteen months. As a result, Raymonde says, the band as a whole has undergone a transformation. The Twins' live shows display a new vigor, and their interviews flaunt their willingness to discuss anything and everything. Favorite artists? Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, Television and Nirvana, among many others. Passions? Films, especially those by Lasse Hallstrom. The practical difficulties of being in a band whose vocalist writes and sings wordless lyrics? According to Raymonde, surprisingly few.
"Liz's lyrics are words," he says. "They just don't have any meaning. She chooses words because she likes the sound or the look of them." After noting that Fraser writes down her words in verse form, in a very traditional manner, he adds that he is as fascinated by the process as the group's followers are: "It really is quite extraordinary. I don't know how she does it. I always wonder, `How is she going to be able to do all those inflections and phrasing?' But she does. She's just an extremely clever girl."
Still, Fraser's much-ballyhooed decision to write actual lyrics, complete with standard, sequential sentences, doesn't mean that most listeners will be able to make much of what she's saying. "She just sings in a very unusual way," Raymonde says. "If she was singing `baa baa black sheep,' it would still sound weird."
Thank goodness not everything has changed.
Cocteau Twins, with Luna. 9 p.m. Friday, March 25, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax Avenue, $22, 290-TIXS or 830-2525.