Cocteau Twins - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
When the inevitable time comes for the soul to abandon the body for that elusive white light, the chances are good that the silken, heavenly choir of angels will sound a lot like Cocteau Twins. Conversely, if the soul descends into the fiery bowels of Hell; the accompanying soundtrack may also sound a lot like Cocteau Twins. As one of the staples of 4AD’s roster, Cocteau Twins spun avant-garde soundscapes from dizzying guitar effects, precise drum machine programming, and vocalist Elizabeth Fraser’s spacey, operatic melodies which were usually and notably sung in her own invented language. The band cultivated a devout fan base throughout their existence and their strangely gorgeous tracks frequently translated into measurable mainstream success –charting on the top 40 eleven times. As pioneers of the dream pop movement, the Scottish trio influenced a host of followers; from early-‘90s shoegazers like Slowdive, to post-rock bands like the Album Leaf and Sigur Rós –all while dancing to the beat of their own drum machine.
Named after a song by fellow Scots, Johnny & the Self Abusers, Cocteau Twins officially formed when guitarist Robin Guthrie and original bassist Will Heggie met Elizabeth Fraser at a local disco called Nash in 1979. The newly-formed Grangemouth trio was initially heavily influenced by the post-punk of bands like Joy Division and Siouxsie & the Banshees. Since none of the members were especially comfortable with their instruments, they built their sound around semi-gothic, effects-laden atmosphere that didn’t rely much on technical proficiency. As the introverted Fraser was uncertain of her voice, she wielded her voice as another instrument in the mix, usually singing barely decipherable, impressionistic yet evocative lyrics. Out of this serendipitous combination of necessity and insecurity, post-punk and atmosphere, they unwittingly pioneered what came to be known as dream pop.
Armed with an 808 drum machine, tape loops, an army of echo boxes (and other guitar distortion equipment); the trio recorded their debut album Garlands (1982) which was released on Ivo Watts-Russell’s 4AD label. Garlands was a huge success within the alternative world and Cocteau Twins released a follow-up EP, Lullabies (1982 4AD) just two months later. The Peppermint Pig (1983 4AD) EP followed and was the only Cocteau Twins recording produced by an outside source, the Associates’ Alan Rankine.
At the conclusion of the band’s 1983 European tour, Heggie abruptly exited the group. Though Cocteau Twins were now reduced to a duo, it didn’t seemingly hinder Guthrie and Fraser’s growth as songwriters. Head Over Heels (1983 4AD) followed less than a year later and its mix of guitar effects and Fraser’s increasingly self-assured vocal shadings set the template for the albums that would follow. Two of the tracks, the furiously gorgeous and industrial “Musette and Drums” and the saccharinely graceful “Sugar Hiccup” became Cocteau Twins classics. Although the band always toured, around this time they became more of a studio band with Guthrie spending seemingly endless hours producing and recording guitar tones and programming drum machines. Also around this time Guthrie and Fraser also became romantically involved and the ups and downs of their relationship would define the tone of future releases –although not necessarily in the way most would expect.
That same year, Ivo Watts-Russell invited Guthrie to participate in his dream pop all stars supergroup, This Mortal Coil. While recording, Guthrie met former Drowning Craze bassist Simon Raymonde and the two quickly formed a fast friendship. Raymonde joined Cocteau Twins later in the year. In Raymonde the band not only gained a bass player but also a producer and multi-instrumentalist who shared a like-minded musical approach with the other two. Once again a three piece, Cocteau Twins were primed to release their most critically-lauded album of their career. Treasure (1984 4AD) is considered by many fans and critics to be the quintessential Cocteau Twins album. Enchantingly dark and haunted with gossamer overtones that are mixed with an engaging sonic wanderlust and Fraser’s adoption of nonverbal singing; Treasure represents Cocteau Twins at the peak of their creative powers and they would never make an album in quite the same vein again. Always ones to push the envelope, the band never really returned to the sound of Treasure, opting instead to pursue other musical directions with varying results. Once released, the album was a top 30 hit and proved a huge inspiration to the likes of the Cure and other post-gothic bands of the era. Cocteau Twins remained busy throughout 1986 releasing three EPs, Aikea-Guinea (4AD), Tiny Dynamine (4AD) and Echoes in a Shallow Bay (4AD).
The band collaborated with instrumental composer Harold Budd for the inspired The Moon and the Melodies (4AD) in 1986. The album was released under the moniker Budd/Raymonde/Guthrie/Fraser and isn’t considered an official Cocteau Twins release. Ramonde spent the latter half of the year recording the second This Mortal Coil full length, leaving Fraser and Guthrie to go it alone again for the fourth Cocteau Twins full- length. Victorialand (1986 4AD) was another departure from the Cocteau Twins sound. Based almost entirely on acoustic instrumentation, Victorialand is the most intimate and pastoral album the band ever produced. Some fans gave the album a somewhat mixed reception but it remains some of the most adored bedroom music from the era for others. Cocteau Twins spent the majority of 1987 on hiatus but did manage to ink a deal with Capitol Records for U.S. distribution although they remained a 4AD band internationally.
Blue Bell Knoll (1988 4AD) represented a return to form for the band with all three members collaborating on the album. Graced with elaborate tape loops, Guthrie’s guitar layers, and the mouth music of Fraser’s vocals; the album spawned the classic Cocteau tracks “Athol-Brose” and “Carolyn’s Fingers”. They followed with another hiatus for the as Guthrie and Fraser welcomed their first child, Lucy Belle, in 1989. Although the Capitol deal expanded their fan base dramatically, Blue Bell Knoll only foreshadowed the success to come with their follow up album. Heaven or Las Vegas (1990 4AD) was the most commercially successful album of their career. Forsaking experimentation for streamlined production, accessible songs, and the re-introduction of intelligible lyrics; the single “Iceblink Luck” and the classic “Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires” exemplified their new direction. Heaven or Las Vegas would also be the last album the band would release on 4AD before international distribution rights were handed over to the Fontana label. Unfortunately, it would also be the last album to be recorded without serious inter-band turmoil.
Due to the success of Heaven or Las Vegas the band embarked on a mammoth worldwide supporting tour where, allegedly, Guthrie’s casual drug and alcohol use blossomed into chronic addiction that put a strain on the band. Guthrie’s substance abuse contributed to Cocteau Twins taking another prolonged hiatus and ended Guthrie and Fraser’s romantic relationship. After completing a drug rehabilitation program, Guthrie rejoined the band and the trio began sessions for their seventh full-length –this time augmented by second guitarist Mitsuo Tate. The sessions were fraught with in-fighting and Fraser would eventually succumb to a nervous breakdown before recording was finished. Four-Calendar Cafe (1993 Fontana) continued to streamline their sound, although the album is a much moodier and mellow affair than its predecessor. Fraser’s lyrics are almost entirely intelligible and mostly (and heartbreakingly) allude to the end of her romance with Guthrie. The straightforward tone of Four-Calender Café following their label change resulted in predictable accusations that the band had sold out. Critical reception was divided though it still performed quite well commercially. After another international tour the band would go on yet another prolonged hiatus during which individual members pursued various side projects.
Cocteau Twins returned in 1995 with two very distinct EPs. Twinlights (Capitol) was a return to the acoustic flavor of Victorialand, albeit with a more experimental edge. Otherness (Capitol) was an electronic remix collection recorded in collaboration with Mark Clifford of Seefeel. Less than a year later Cocteau Twins released their eighth and final album. Milk & Kisses (1996 Fonatana) notably returned the harder, experimental edge reminiscent of Head Over Heels. On most tracks Fraser’s vocals reverted to her unique, signature vocal style. Many viewed it as a return to form and the album again sold well but it appeared Cocteau Twins heyday was behind them. Anchored by a live drummer and second guitarist, the band’s subsequent international tour was a huge success largely due to rejuvenated and powerful live performances.
Following the conclusion of the Milk & Kisses tour the band reconvened to record their ninth full length album only to abruptly break up halfway through the sessions. Earlier that same year Guthrie and Raymonde had formed the Bella Union label which is survived the band’s dissolution and is currently home to many dream pop, indie rock and post-rock acts.
After the breakup Guthrie released two solo albums, Imperial (2003 Bella Union) and Continental (2006 Bella Union) He also formed Violet Indiana with ex-Mono vocalist Siobhan de Maré in 1999. The duo released their debut EP, Choke, via Bella Union in 2000 and wrote and performed the score for the film Mysterious Skin in 2004. Guthrie also collaborated further with Harold Budd and the band Apollo Heights.
Simon Raymonde, in addition to running Bella Union, released a solo album, Blame Someone Else (1997 Bella Union) which featured contributions from both of his former bandmates. He also went on to produce several bands, including James Yorkston, Archie Bronson Outift, Clearlake, the Duke Spirit, Fionn Regan and the Autumns.
Fraser has lent her vocals to numerous other performers over the years, both during her years with Cocteau Twins and after –including Massive Attack, Jeff Buckley, Orbital, The Wolfgang Press, Dif Juz, The Future Sound of London, Felt and Ian McCulloch. She has also performed on several film soundtracks, including In Dreams, Cruel Intentions, The Winter Guest and The Lord of the Rings. There has been much talk throughout the years of an Elizabeth Fraser solo album but, aside from a limited edition single, a Chic cover and her participation in an audio exhibit, little solo work has materialized.
A double disc compilation of Cocteau Twins material titled, BBC Sessions (Bella Union) was released in 1999, collecting the entirety of the band’s BBC performances. The following year, 4AD released the “best of” Stars and Topsoil followed in 2003 by the remastered releases of all six of the bands 4AD full-lengths. Fans were surprises when the band’s management announced Cocteau Twins would reunite to play the 2005 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California. However, just a few weeks before the band was set to perform, Elizabeth Fraser pulled out of the reunion. Cocteau Twins have announced no further plans to reunite.