Robin Guthrie: ‘I’m not resting on my laurels’

It’s a cool November morning in Brittany and Robin Guthrie has forgotten to turn on the heating in his studio ahead of our conversation over Zoom.

Robin Guthrie. Picture: Florence Guthrie

It explains why he’s wrapped up against the chill in a scarf and lumberjack jacket, yet his greeting is warm and softly spoken, recalling how he has friends in Yorkshire and the city of Bradford had come up as an answer in the edition of University Challenge that he had watched the night before. “I’ve been in France for 20 years and I’ve not had a decent Indian (meal) since I got here,” he says, a little enviously.

That culinary shortcoming aside, the guitarist seems very much at home in France. It’s here that he and his family settled after the break-up of the band Cocteau Twins – an issue it becomes clear later that he’s not keen to dwell upon too much in interviews – and it’s here where he has made a succession of solo and collaborative records. Pearldiving is his first solo LP in nine years; a standalone EP, Mockingbird Love, is also out now too. More, he says, will follow in the coming months.

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“I’m going to be 60 on my birthday next year and I’ve got a lot of stuff stacked up in my head,” he says, explaining his sudden flurry of creativity. Where travel and visual stimuli have often inspired his previous instrumental music in the past, being confined to home, he had to focus on his internal world.

The loss last December of the American ambient pianist Harold Budd, his longtime friend and collaborator, initially left him “on the floor”, he says – “I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this any more’” – however at the turn of the new year, his feelings changed. “Just learning from Harold being there one minute and not the next, I thought, ‘I should just do this, what could go wrong?’ So I decided to clear out my studio and got rid of loads of things and just started afresh, writing and creating music.

“The first thing that came together was Mockingbird Love – when those four titles came together I thought, ‘that’s the one’ – and by that time I was thinking, ‘I’ve got music that I’ve done over the ‘last ten years that I’ve never released’, so I started putting those out on the internet for a week, stuff that had never found a home.”

Armed with a collection of “old school” analogue photographs that he’d taken on his travels between 2012 and 2017 – “My father-in-law had been a photographer and he’d got all these big old cameras, and I thought, ‘I want to try that’ and I got really bitten by it” – he found he had a rich source artwork to accompany future records. “It all (fell) into place,” he says.

Further EPs will come out in December and January. “I’m not resting on my laurels, and I’ve got quite a lot of laurels to rest upon,” he says, explaining that he no longer has the patience for traditional music industry release cycles. “The idea of (labels saying), ‘We’re going to release your record but it’s going to be in four months’, I can’t be bothered with that, and in the end you’re going to get like, no per cent off it. I can live for my music, thank you very much, if I’m not giving it away to all the intermediaries, all the distributors. I was looking at a 400 per cent mark-up on my CDs if they come out on Amazon. That kind of thing has nonplussed me and made me quite ambivalent about releasing music. My error being that there’s actually people that like what I do.”

The online platform Bandcamp has been his salvation because it allows him to “actually connect with fans and sell to them”, he says. “That ticks a lot of boxes for me, because I can literally make a piece of music in the morning and have it out there in the evening. That’s a possibility now, and I’ve never had the possibility before. If it seems like I’ve got quite a lot of releases coming, well, I do quite a lot and there’s not a six-month wait now for the next thing.”

Back in the early days when Cocteau Twins were on the indie label 4AD, album and EP releases were often close together, reflecting the band’s strong creative impulse; it’s something that Guthrie retains. “It’s quite anachronistic in this world making music the way that I do, for the reasons that I do, in the formats that I do,” he says. “However, being over 35, I don’t actually feel the need to make it all on vinyl because vinyl is not a novelty.

“I understand for younger music fans it is a novelty, but I was looking into it because people have been asking me to put some things out on vinyl and we’ve got to wait until June. That’s why I like the immediacy of Bandcamp.”

Music, he says, has often been a way of processing emotions “in the sense of it being cathartic”. “It’s just like any other...I’m not going to say a drug or anything like that, but something that makes you feel good.

“It doesn’t make me feel good all the time making music, it can be quite emotional, but there is that moment when you actually finish and you get it there in the studio, and it’s just like, ‘Yeah, that’s right’ and then the hugely disciplined part of me just takes over and goes, ‘Right, next’.

“It’s not that I’m not precious – I’m precious about everything – but I’m not so precious about anything because I just want to continue doing that. It’s a reflection of how I’m feeling. There are some melancholic tunes out there which undoubtedly have their base in some sadness or whatever I was going through. Isn’t that what everybody does with lyrics and singing? It’s just that this is my voice, this is the way I present myself.

“With the human voice, you can’t imitate that, you can try but it’s always going to be completely unique, but within music, I’m not the only person that sounds like me any more because it’s quite easy now because there’s all these cheap pedals and computers and things out there. But that’s not the point. The point is in the same way that singers are instantly identifiable normally, I would just like to retain that. The way that I play is important, the way that I make things is important. It’s not coming out of the inside of me through my voice, it’s coming out through my fingers. The way that I play is quite particular because my skills are somewhat limited in the old music department but I’ve got other qualities. That’s really evident from some of the music that I was putting together during the Cocteaus’ days as well, some of it seemed to be an awful lot more complex than it actually is if you were to dissect it and take it down to its parts. I’ve witnessed some really talented musicians playing some of my songs, I had somebody play all of my six guitar overdubs at the same time, how do you do that? I had to find the easiest way.”

He says he’s not like Harold Budd, who could “sit with a piece of music paper and write the notes without having any instrument near him”. Their collaborations, he says, reflected “two worlds coming together, crashing into each other and me going, ‘Please don’t play any more black notes, I don’t quite get them’. We just let each other do our thing, and that worked.”

The “laconic” Budd famously wouldn’t even have a piano in his house, Guthrie remembers. “He sold it and he bought a rug. He told me, ‘Robin, every time I saw that rug I thought thank God that f***ing piano is away.”

The guitarist sees common threads throughout his work. “I’m essentially doing what I’ve always done,” he says. “There is no cerebral element that says ‘I have to reinvent myself and come back as Tin Machine or something like that’. I’ve never had those ideas beyond doing something that I like right here right now, but there’s an evolution for me.”

When he collaborates with others, he says he “wouldn’t consciously work in a different way and say, ‘Let’s try an album that sounds like this or that’. I never speak about music with the people I work with. I don’t really have that kind of relationship with musicians, as it were, because I don’t know what they’re talking about half the time. But like I said, I’ve got other qualities that come together, it’s smoke and mirrors sometimes and it can make things happen and that’s good.”

2022 marks the 40th anniversary of Cocteau Twins’ first album, Garlands. As teenagers from Grangemouth, a town on the Firth of Forth dominated by the petrochemical industry, Guthrie says he and singer Elizabeth Fraser’s ambitions were modest.

“Our ambition at that point was just to make a record,” he says. “I was 19 and Elizabeth was 17 when Garlands came out and that was already us thinking in terms of that was what we wanted to do...The thought of doing a second record was never in our heads at all when we made our first album, that was the end of the road, we’ve achieved it, brilliant. And then things just started to unfold in front of us, like life does.”

He remains proud of the records he, Fraser and bassist Simon Raymonde made together. “I can look back with a more discerning view about what worked for the fullness of things and the way forward, what were little side roads, things like that,” he says. “Some of the little side roads are really cool as well, how could I not be proud of that? There were a million other s***ty bands in the 80s, if we sounded like them I wouldn’t be sitting here now feeling proud of what I’d done, but I was very conscious at the time of not wanting to sound like other people. I always had an idea of what I wanted to be like and it was the antithesis of what was in the 80s. If you’d got Duran Duran, Spandau Ballets, Adam and the Ants and stuff like that being what was popular, that’s exactly why we made the music that we did. Not because we were influenced by something else, but just using spite as an influence.

“I guess our influences were in the wind, you like something for a little while when you’re growing up then you move to the next thing. In the middle of the 80s and the 90s I started to discover music that was out long before I was born, or music that had been around in the 70s and I thought it was for hippies. With a historical context, you can listen to our music and assume where the influences came from, but I think in 90 per cent of cases you’ll be completely wrong. That’s not trying to be obtuse, it was just that even a lot of people that were around at the time didn’t get it.

“Liz and I surrounded ourselves with people that were huge music fans compared to what we were as well. Especially people that were working for the record companies. People playing with us always seemed to know and be interested in music a lot more than we were.”

It’s here that our conversation about Cocteau Twins comes to an end, with Guthrie saying he would rather focus on his present projects. “You do see a whole bunch of other artists out there that are my age or older and they wear their hair and clothes the same as they did when they were in their twenties, they’re trying to recapture a moment. I’m not trying to recapture any of that because it was a huge emotional clusterf*** that band that I was in, especially in the later years and it really damaged me for one. It takes a wee bit of time to get yourself together after all that. I suddenly found myself at 32 years old being basically homeless and penniless with no job. I was just like ‘How do I pay the mortgage? Who’s helping me here?’ Of course when the money stops the people that are helping you run to the wind.”

Hence, he says, he ended up “exiled” to France, a move had been “coming” for some time before he and his Florence made the leap around the turn of the Millennium. “I’d had a home in France when I still lived in London for a few years and there just came a certain point where I thought ‘I’ve got no job and I better downsize a little bit’. We wanted to move to the West Country but we couldn’t afford it, so we moved to France and life got very quiet, and that worked for me at the moment as well.”

Pearldiving and Mockingbird Love are out now. robinguthrie.bandcamp.com