Robin Guthrie - Biography
It’s a peculiar thing: by creating something thoroughly unique, by enticing an unheard sound, by coaxing something unfamiliar into existence, a musician can actually establish an entirely new genre. That’s what happened with Robin Guthrie. Through skill and happenstance, artistry and a touch of dumb luck, Guthrie picked up a seventeen-year-old girl at a discotheque, started a perversely stylish band, and tapped a previously unimagined zeitgeist. It took a few records to crystallize, but when Guthrie and that teen, the preternaturally gifted Elizabeth Fraser, finally defined their sound, the Cocteau Twins became the template for a lush and luminous sound that would take rock into startling, alien terrain, full of breathtaking elegance, dense, florid atmosphere, and impossibly gorgeous heartache. Simply put: Robin Guthrie made it cool for alternative, post-punk music to be inescapably, inconceivably beautiful, and an array of dream-pop bands owe him a debt, including My Bloody Valentine, Sigur Rios, and Slowdive.
The Cocteau Twins’ debut, Garlands (1982 4AD), trafficked in doom, indebted to the early Cure, Joy Division, and Public Image Ltd., but the follow-up, Head Over Heals (1983 4AD) showed distinctive glimmers of things to come. Gnashing guitar defines the aesthetic, along with Fraser’s incomprehensible yet exquisite vocals; both swim through oceanic depths of reverb. Even though the first albums were excellent, Guthrie was a masterful multi-instrumentalist, as well as an accomplished engineer and producer, and he was determined to elevate the Cocteau Twins above the rest of the post-punk pack. It didn’t take long. Treasure (1984 4AD) is the album that made “ethereal” a genre. It simply wallows in impossibly heavy guitar drones, vast washes of sound that convey brute strength and gossamer delicacy. The title track in particular is epic.
Victorialand (1985 4AD) continues in the experimental direction, as strings, acoustic guitars and Indian tablas provide an enchanted background, in which Fraser’s vocals can luxuriate. Guthrie subsequently arranged for the group to record with minimalist composer and pianist, Harold Budd. Budd, famed for his own work and his repeated collaborations with Brian Eno, was a prescient choice and the partnership produced a spectacular album, The Moon and the Melodies (1986 4AD). Three more albums would follow: Blue Bell Knoll (1988 4AD); Heaven or Las Vegas (1990 4AD); and Four-Calendar Café (1993 Fontana). Unfortunately, Guthrie’s drug use impeded both innovation and his relationship with Fraser, and the band veered towards conventional pop. After a final album, 1996’s Milk & Kisses (1996 Fontana), the Cocteau Twins called it a day.
Since then, Guthrie has maintained a consistent solo career, releasing his debut, Imperial (2003 Bella Union Records), and working repeatedly with Harold Budd on a number of excellent albums, including the soundtrack for the Gregg Araki film, Mysterious Skin (2005 Commotion), and two studio efforts, Before the Day Breaks (2007 Bella Union) and After the Night Falls (2007 Bella Union); both feature dreamy, lilting piano, and buzzing, ambient guitar. Guthrie also keeps busy as a producer. He’s recorded the Gun Club, Lush, Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ian McCullogh, and Ulan Bator; a Cocteau Twins reunion tour was recently announced, but Elizabeth Fraser withdrew at the eleventh hour. Most recently, Guthrie released Songs To Help My Children Sleep (2009 RocketGirl), an EP of lullabies. If anyone is qualified to pen a lullaby, it’s Robin Guthrie. Pleasant dreams.