With over thirty years as a recording artist under his belt, Robin Guthrie's iconic status is well and truly justified. Born in the Stirlingshire town of Grangemouth fifty-one years ago, Guthrie was one of the founder members of the now legendary Cocteau Twins in 1979. Having released nine albums and a glut of EPs and singles, the band finally disbanded in 1998.
Since then, Guthrie has been busily crafting a number of records under his own name, as well as numerous collaborations, production credits and film scores. His fifth and most recent long player, Fortune, came out at the back end of last year on his own Soleil Apres Minuit imprint. Prior to that, he teamed up with former Ride singer, guitarist and songwriter Mark Gardener for 'The Places We Go' single, a union which continues this winter as both Guthrie and Gardener embark on a full UK tour throughout the month of February.
Nowadays based in France where he resides with his long term partner Florence and two daughters, DiS caught up with Guthrie in his studio where he was putting the final touches to his rehearsal schedule for the forthcoming round of shows.
DiS: So, how are things with you?
Robin Guthrie: I'm very well thanks. I'm sat in my studio at the minute arse deep in wires and pedals. I'm looking forward to coming over to the UK next week; apart from the weather that is. We did some shows the other week in Istanbul and Tokyo which went quite well but the last one had a few mistakes so there's a few things that need tweaking. I always try to make the next live show a little bit better than the last one.
DiS: I've seen you play a couple of times before, most recently at the My Bloody Valentine ATP in December 2009 and the Club AC30 event a few weeks earlier at the ICA.
Robin Guthrie: That ICA show was the first time I ever played live with the other two guys that form the Robin Guthrie Trio now. We've kind of grown into it now, in a very organic way. It still has elements of technology in there but a lot of it is improvised. I like to try things that are deemed to be a bit advanced for your stereotypical live performance. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.
DiS: It does seem quite intricate, almost complicated at times. Is that where the two guys from Heligoland (Steve Wheeler - bass; Antti Makinen - drums) have an important part to play?
Robin Guthrie: Yeah, I guess. I mean, we've probably done a good twenty-five, maybe even thirty shows together now, so I think we've built up a good understanding of how we want to project the live performances. Part of the reason I wanted to do that was I'd been doing shows with my films which is fine except when it comes to playing certain types of venues. Playing conventional venues meant that people were standing up and chatting during songs which kind of ruins the mood both on and off stage. So I thought about doing something that was less introspective and more appropriate for those kind of venues. Certainly noisier anyway. It's a little more upbeat as well but at the same time just as intricate as it would be if I was doing everything myself against a backdrop of flim projections. I bought myself this fancy loop pedal so I can play everything back, and it's not controlled by my feet, it's controlled by my computer. I was going to post something about it on my Facebook page because people have been making comments on the internet claiming my guitar parts are supposedly pre-recorded which they aren't. Everything you hear is completely live. I'm recording myself all the time and playing along, and then the computer stops and starts things when I press the button telling it to.
DiS: Have you had an influence in choosing which venues you're playing on the UK tour, as some aren't exactly the most conventional?
Robin Guthrie: No, I didn't choose any of them. I mean, from my point of view I'm just grateful for the opportunity to play. I've been told some aren't necessarily the most obvious places to play, so I guess we'll have to see whether anyone turns up!
DiS: Going back to Steve and Antti, were they people you'd planned to work with in this context for a while now, bearing in mind you've produced a number of Heligoland records in the past?
Robin Guthrie: Definitely. I've worked on three of their albums now, and for me they're one of the most interesting bands I've heard in years. Antti only joined Heligoland a couple of years ago, but they were always my first choice as musicians when I decided I wanted to change the live show around. Again, going back to that ICA show, it was initially only meant to be a one-off. It gave me an opportunity to try something different and it worked really well. It brought an extra dimension to my music that I was unable to do myself. I also think they have a certain amount of empathy towards what I'm trying to do.
DiS: I guess it's fair to say that Heligoland have been influenced by your music both past and present. Do you see any similarities or parallels in how they operate to yourself?
Robin Guthrie: I'm sure they have a lot of other influences besides. I mean, some people say that what I was doing in the early 1980s was original but it wasn't. It was just my own take on things. Other people had been using effects pedals since Jimi Hendrix. It was more about the combination of Elizabeth's (Fraser) voice and the way I produced the records which made it sound unique. That shines through in a lot of things. It's not for me to just stand back and say, "Oh no, they're just copying me!" Music tends to work in cycles. Of course there will be similarities with the past in music that's being created today. I'm fifty-one now so there is a chance that people in their twenties and thirties may have been listening to my music when they were teenagers.
DiS: It must give you a sense of satisfaction; justification even; that your music is held with such reverence by so many?
Robin Guthrie: I guess, but there's still too many folks that just cannot let go of the Cocteau Twins. I mean, on one hand it is fantastic but on the other it's quite sad. It's nice to be afforded so much attention - albeit retrospectively - but it also really strangles me. I was speaking to someone after a show the other week and we got onto the set I'd just played but all they wanted to talk about was why I didn't play their favourite songs off Garlands! How can you compare the two? How can you compare something that was written thirty years ago to a new song? Sometimes I look back at what I was doing thirty years ago and I cringe. It's like any job or craft, the more you do it the better you get at it, and that's how I compare the music I'm making now to what I was doing back then.
DiS: How do you feel when people attach the term "shoegaze" to your music, particularly when bearing in mind the Cocteau Twins had been around a good decade before the phrase had even been coined?
Robin Guthrie: It's what they do, the music press. Five years before that we were called post-punk, then five years after shoegaze it was called post-rock. I don't really claim to have anything to do with any of those things. I guess we've ended up being a part of them. If somebody wants to call me shoegaze that's great. It's up to them, but from my point of view it doesn't really mean anything.
DiS: You were quite innovative at the time though, particularly in terms of creating atmospheric, layered sounds at that time?
Robin Guthrie: There was nobody else specifically doing the same as me but there were lots of people making interesting music back then. It's like I said earlier, I had my own particular take on it. You can say that about a writer even. Anyone can have a typewriter and several sheets of paper but not everyone is going to have the same idea in their heads of how that piece of script will finish up. The reason my sound is quite distinctive is because I wouldn't be happy just copying somebody else.
DiS: You seem quite dismissive of the music press. What do you make of the growing number of internet fanzines such as Drowned In Sound?
Robin Guthrie: I like Drowned In Sound. It's certainly on my radar and has been for a long time. I love that fanzine mentality writers used to have in the olden days. People tended to write with enthusiasm about things they really liked, which is something that sadly seems to be lacking in British music journalism these days. Nowadays they just get sent a pile of discs or files and are told to just write about them. I have a... I don't know if it's a bad attitude towards the press, but I've certainly gotten to the stage where I'm quite tired of it all. Sometimes it feels like I'm still having to justify my existence to some nineteen-year-old kid.
DiS: Have you ever had a review where someone's wrote something offensive or got it completely wrong about one of your records?
Robin Guthrie: Sometimes people get it, other times they don't. I do get very disappointed reading some journalist's take on what's supposed to be going through my mind while I'm making a record. And nearly every review ends with the line "...it would sound great if it had someone singing on it." Which is kind of insulting to me. I think it really invalidates the review if that's the best they can come up with.
DiS: Moving onto your most recent album, Fortune. It seems a lot more upbeat compared to Carousel or Emeralds. Did you make a conscious effort to achieve that when you first started making the record?
Robin Guthrie: No. I never set out with any intentions when I'm making a record. It just tends to reflect the moods and experiences that happen in my life at the time. I've tried to analyse myself many times and always failed! I don't tend to listen to that much music these days. I've got a house full of kids and dogs so I tend to prefer peace and quiet when I get the chance to be honest. With Fortune it isn't really any different to my previous albums to be honest. Again, it's a refection of how I was feeling at the time. That doesn't necessarily mean because some of the songs are louder and in your face that I was happier at the time. Some of the time I was actually quite tortured and twisted. I have real difficulty at times quantifying how my feelings and emotions are going to translate into music. I guess you could say Fortune is a more joyous record than its predecessor. Music is just like a diary. If some of my music sounds like I've spent two weeks in the desert it probably means that I have spent two weeks in the desert! I do a fair bit of travelling and I have this amazing piece of software which enables me to record myself wherever I go. Sometimes I'm at my most creative when I'm travelling, and I tend to travel a lot.
DiS: So what was your main source of inspiration for Fortune?
Robin Guthrie: Hmm, probably a feeling of "How the hell did I make this record!?!" There is an element of good fortune in being able to do what I do and have done for over thirty years. To get to where I am without any major mishaps along the way.
DiS: You're widely recognised for your experimental, and mostly instrumental works, but has there ever been a time where you've considered writing lyrics as a way of expressing yourself too?
Robin Guthrie: No. I think I started to make mainly instrumental music out of spite purely because I had all these people saying "Why don't you get so-and-so to write some words for you?!?" I don't necessarily feel the need for lyrics to be able to express myself through music. What I do is already complete without words. It's a part of me, it's complete, and also it is actually more of a challenge. As far as I'm concerned everything that I need for my music is already here. The last thing I want is somebody singing their bullshit over the top of my music! There have been occasions where I've worked with other songwriters and vocalists. The work with Siobhan de Mare as Violet Indiana and more recently with Mark Gardener are two examples where it's come together really well. But then I view that as working completely differently to how I'd compose something on my own. That is purely songwriting, whereby two people are sitting down together and actually writing a song.
DiS: Are you working on any new music at present?
Robin Guthrie: Not really. It's more about making sure these live shows are up to scratch to be honest. We won't be playing the new album in full. I've got ten years worth of material to select from and that's pretty much what the set consists of. Some pieces are more difficult to put into a live setting than others, but then that's why I've got Steve and Antti playing with me. The point in getting extra musicians involved was to try and do something different with what I already had. I only want to work with people who are prepared to touch the heart and soul of what I'm doing rather than just go through the motions every night. I've worked with people like that in the past so having Steve and Antti on board is like a breath of fresh air. As soon as we started working together something just clicked. It feels organic, whereas previously with other people it hasn't. I don't really want hired hands if I can help it. I mean, they're normally great musicians but their heart and soul isn't in it, and I think that shows in the performances.
DiS: With regards to Mark Gardener, you collaborated with him last year on 'The Places We Go'. How did that come about and would you work with him again in the future?
Robin Guthrie: Definitely. It came about because we knew each other, mainly through saying "Hello" after shows when Ride and the Cocteau Twins were still together in the early 1990s. He got back in touch a couple of years ago and we decided to have a go at putting some recordings together and the whole thing seemed pretty natural to be honest.
DiS: You've also worked with Gregg Araki on a couple of film scores as well as the '3:19' and 'Mysterious Skin' soundtracks. Are film scores and soundtracks something you see yourself becoming more involved with in the future?
Robin Guthrie: I absolutely love doing film stuff. It's a completely different world for me, simply because there's no room to get complacent or self-indulgent either. It's almost like having to be firmly in control of the beast! Constantly channeling it into something else. Working with someone else's visual dialogue is such an interesting and challenging thing to do. It also involves me performing to a different kind of audience from those that would normally be exposed to my music. I don't really have a profile in terms of the media or anything. I haven't really had that much interest apart from the ones you've mentioned. If people did get to hear my music through a movie or television commercial that would be great.
DiS: I'm quite surprised that film makers and screen writers aren't queuing up for your services to be honest. Why do you think that is?
Robin Guthrie: I don't honestly know. Maybe it's because I no longer live in the UK? France is as far away as Australia in some people's minds. I'm OK with it, but again a lot of it is probably generated by media interest, and I haven't had a feature in any UK publication for a good 10-15 years.
DiS: You've been cited as a major influence by numerous artists over the years. Are there any which you're particularly proud to have inspired?
Robin Guthrie: I don't actually go through my life thinking I may have influenced such-and-such a band. It's completely unconscious. It's a very difficult approach for an artist to take without sounding like you're copying it. So when people say they're influenced by me or my music - I don't really know what to say? If they're just fans then fair enough.
DiS: There seems to be a resurgence of bands from the 1980s and 1990s either reforming or returning from long-term hiatuses and playing shows or touring at this moment in time. Do you think it's a reflection on modern day music that so many people are clamouring to see bands from the past?
Robin Guthrie: I think it's nothing more than nostalgia. It's really no different to your mum and dad in the 1970s wanting to listen to Glenn Miller. Or me wanting to listen to T Rex. I find it hard to have respect for artists who only look back. They're constantly trying to recreate something that happened 20-30 years ago. Whereas I'm always trying to create something new and find I get largely ignored, yet if I said we were going to reform the Cocteau Twins tomorrow everyone would think it was great. I don't get that.
DiS: Would you ever consider reforming the Cocteau Twins? I'm sure you've been asked this question many times before.
Robin Guthrie: Offers have come and gone. I don't understand why anyone would want to see that? It was twenty, thirty years ago. Why would I want to get back in time? It's quite insulting really. It's as if I've just wasted the last fifteen years of my life doing this stuff. To some people, the only thing I did that was any good was thirty years ago.
DiS: With over thirty years worth of recordings in your personal archives, what you consider to be your most definitive body of work?
Robin Guthrie: It's hard to say really. I was touring the States last year and people were buying my album that had no idea I'd ever been in a band called Cocteau Twins! I guess I would have to say that I'm most proud of the music I'm making at the moment but at the same time the Cocteau Twins are still very, very dear to my heart. But what means more to me? Well, the music I've made over the last ten years simply because it mirrors some of the best times in my life with my family. The previous stuff has so many bad memories and too much hurt attached to it. I'd be a complete idiot if I was to say I want to go back to all that!
Robin Guthrie is touring throughout February and can be seen at the following venues:-
6 Nottingham Glee Club
7 Edinburgh Electric Circus
8 Aberdeen The Tunnels
9 Glasgow Mono
10 Newcastle Cluny
12 Norwich Arts Centre
13 Liverpool Eric's
14 Manchester Band on the Wall
15 York Fibbers
16 Halifax Arden Road Social Club
18 Cambridge Portland Arms
19 London Cargo
20 Brighton Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar
21 Exeter Phoenix
22 Bristol The Fleece
23 Leamington Spa Assembly
24 Birmingham Glee Club
For more information on Robin Guthrie visit his official website.