The truth is not perfect: Robin Guthrie on the Cocteau Twins’ major label years

“Sometimes when I have to go back and look at that part of my life I get quite upset at the way other people tell the story, because I just can’t relate to it at all. I am constantly surprised by the ever-changing narrative of the story of my band.”

Robin Guthrie is talking about the Cocteau Twins’ difficult departure from 4AD and their subsequent switch to the major label Fontana in the early-’90s, which outwardly seemed odd – to many they were 4AD – but to the band simply felt like a continuation. “I find it difficult to make a demarcation line between the 4AD stuff and the non-4AD stuff because that’s a label, that’s not the band,” emphasises Guthrie. “We were on our journey doing one thing to the next and the next. There was this idea that by going to a major we had changed, but Four-Calendar Café was just the natural follow-up to Heaven Or Las Vegas.” 

“Perhaps in the earlier days there was a more pronounced evolution between the records than there was in the later ones,” he concedes. “Maybe I was not as experimental; I was trying to hone the best of the ideas that we’d had, so perhaps the later records are more refined. I always tried to shake up the way that we made records, like going to different studios and things like that. I think, perhaps, we didn’t shake things up enough.”

There were other things going on at that time that were affecting the Cocteau Twins more than a change of labels, however, namely drug addiction and the breakdown of Guthrie and Liz Fraser’s 13-year relationship. “For the first half of the making of Four-Calendar Café I was in quite a dark place and then I got coaxed into going into rehab for the first time by our manager,” Guthrie reveals. “Eventually I got clean, but I really regret talking about it in interviews because not only did it make a lurid story for the media, but it took the focus away from my work. I was perhaps a little naive to think that this episode in my life wouldn’t forever after follow me around like a bad smell. The irony is that although I had stopped taking drugs – that was the whole point – most people in my immediate environment hadn’t, which, given that we continued to work together for another five years, was sometimes a little challenging.”

With his new-found sobriety, Guthrie tried to “let go and not be a control freak”, opening up the band as more of a democracy. “It made me take my eye off the ball a little bit, when it came to being in control of what was happening. We had a particular way that we worked, but everybody was trying to work the machine differently and I was just like, ‘Oh yeah, you want to try something different? Go ahead’, and that ended up with those two EPs [1995’s Twinlights and Otherness], which, for me, seem to lack most of the essence of Cocteau Twins. Quite honestly, I’m a little embarrassed by those records, that they say Cocteau Twins on them. I think it all worked really well when I was a more single-minded producer and less so when I wasn’t.”

Apart from the personal and lifestyle changes that led the band to make decisions they perhaps wouldn’t have previously, the biggest change with the move to a major was the sheer amount of people they had to please. “Managers, record companies, agents, everybody wanted to have a say – whereas in the earlier years it was really just Liz and I,” Guthrie explains. “All of a sudden, there’s A&R people you’ve got to keep happy and management people you’ve got to keep happy; things were no longer as focused because there were too many other people to feed. Not necessarily financially, but egos to feed. Everybody will get on board with a project if you make them feel valued, which is something I never really knew. I had to learn how to be diplomatic with people from record companies, which tended to grate a little – hence ‘Robin being difficult’. However, I wish I’d been a bit more difficult and a bit more selfish. Part of me becoming less difficult was actually just me saying yes to people – and that was the start of the end.

“So, while many of the B-sides and extra tracks are a bit of a mess, the actual work that’s in both Four-Calendar Café and Milk & Kisses is really, really worthy. ‘Evangeline’, ‘Pur’, ‘Serpentskirt’, ‘Calfskin Smack’ and ‘Treasure Hiding’ are among my favourites.” 

We’ve asked other musicians, fans and associates to choose their favourites from this era, which stands up really well a quarter of a century on from the dramas that were tearing the band apart at the time. A critical reappraisal was long overdue before 2018’s Treasure Hiding boxset helped to shift the focus back to the music. As Guthrie concludes, ruefully: “I’d very much like to be able to look back at all of that stuff and feel proud of it.”