Writing Something Complete: An Interview With Robin Guthrie
The guitarist/composer behind Cocteau Twins talks about his return to film soundtracks and the effects that technology has had on his own unique songwriting process.
As the co-founder of shoegaze legends Cocteau Twins, Robin Guthrie has a well-deserved place in music history. The swirling guitar effects and intricate compositions on Treasure and Blue Bell Knoll were equally as innovative as the lauded vocal performances of his former bandmate Elizabeth Fraser. It all culminated with a masterpiece in Heaven Or Las Vegas. Seven years later, tensions between Guthrie and Fraser resulted in the disbandment of the band and the beginning of an uncertain new future for Guthrie.
The past 15 years have seen Robin Guthrie shift from innovator to iconoclast. Since the breakup of Cocteau Twins, Guthrie has released five solo albums (the most recent of which, Fortune, came out in 2012), started a record label with former bandmate Simon Raymonde, and has collaborated with the likes of Harold Budd and Ride's Mark Gardner, with whom he has an album set for release in the coming year. However, Guthrie's most high-profile collaboration may be with a director: along with Budd, he wrote and recorded the soundtrack to Gregg Araki's cult hit Mysterious Skin, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This year finds Guthrie joining Budd and Araki for another film, White Bird In A Blizzard, starring Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, and Gabourey Sidibe. For this film's soundtrack, Araki asked of something curious from Guthrie: to revisit his past for the film's music.
We sat down with Guthrie to talk with this unexpected trip back into his musical past, as well as what the future has in store for him.
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How do you approach writing music for films as opposed to writing pop songs?
That's a good question. To be honest, I don't really write pop songs these days, though the album I've done with Mark Gardner has quite a few pop songs on it. When I'm working on my own, I write music to please myself. I don't have any constraints to what I can do. When you're part of a movie, though, you have to help to tell a story. So, I speak with the director to get the idea behind the movie, and then he'll give me some scenes to write music for. There's a bit of mathematics involved because you have to figure out where a piece of music enters, when it finishes, what tempo it needs to be in. I guess it's easier with an ambient piece, but if it's in a tempo, you need to do the math first.
You kind of have to switch off your ego a little bit, too. If you look at the credits to a movie, you'll see that there are hundreds of people working on it, which is something I'm not used to. Usually, on the back of my records, it says 'Made By Robin Guthrie.' So I have to take that hat off and work towards what's best for the film and how the story is told. It's very different for me, and I think it's a lot more interesting. It takes me out of my comfort zone, and I get to work on things that I wouldn't normally work on. Things like commercials, short films: pieces that require a different sort of planning than an album.
I'd imagine that writing music without worrying about things like gearing a song towards radio would open up some new possibilities.
It's inspiring, as well. A lot of the instrumental music I've made is based on experiences that I've had, especially visual experiences.
A lot of your more recent work has been instrumental in nature. Is there something you prefer about writing instrumental music as opposed to music with vocals?
I like to think of my instrumental music as being complete. I've had instances in the past where people who reviewed my records said "Oh, it's really good. If only such-and-such was singing on it," and that just makes me really cross, because I think it's a complete work in its own right. A lot of the music I listen to is instrumental these days because I like being able to use my own imagination to create something in my head using the atmosphere and melodies. It's quite indirect. With so many songs that have lyrics, there's only one way you can interpret those works. When I write music, I don't want to be limited like that. And personally, if writing was my skill, I'd rather write a book than a song.
You worked with Harold Budd on this album.
Strangely, I didn't work with Harold on this one. We worked independently, although we have made a lot of records together in the past, and we have another one coming out soon. Greg Reckie called us in towards the end of the movie, and the budget didn't allow for me to fly out to California to meet with Harold or for him to come here. So Harold did his parts and I did mine and we put them together.
How does that collaboration work when you're in different parts of the world?
There's something fundamental in the way we work. We obviously communicate with each other, but we're also both sort of minimalist in our approach. He might be more minimalist than I am; he's got a way of making three notes last an hour. Something about his style, regardless of what we're playing, his style locks down perfectly, terrifically, effortless with what I do. I don't compromise when I make records with Harold, and he doesn't compromise, either. We don't cramp each other's style. There's a lot of liberty. It is more appealing to be making records with him. We've made a couple so far, and when we get together, we have a good time, and we do good stuff. Of course, things were a little different this time because we had to work so quickly, but I don't think that that had a bad effect at all.
You also had to remember that the film is a period piece, as well. For some of the pieces I wrote, I kind of had to go back and put my big '80s hair on. Greg wanted some of the music to have a feel similar to Victorialand [the Cocteau Twins album], so I thought, "I've done that before; I could do it again." You know, just make a pastiche of my own work from 25 years ago. But, with the film being set in 1988, I had to avoid the temptation to make things sound too modern. I didn't want any of my pieces to sound out of place in the film.
I noticed that some of the pieces, particularly the second track ("Brock's Theme") had that drum machine sound from the early Cocteau Twins records, where the guitars wash over the drum machine and it ends up not sounding like a drum machine anymore.
Yeah. It's fun to have a movie set in 1988 as an excuse to play with old things and get some of the old equipment out again. It's fun.
Technology in music, particularly with guitars and drum machines, has advanced so much over the years. How does that affect how you write songs in general?
That's a pertinent question; I'm actually in the middle of upgrading my studio right now. I've been using the same version of my recording software for four years and I just decided to go with the new version. I think it's good to refresh and use new technology as it comes along. You know, a new person who started out writing music with this technology isn't going to do things the same way that I would. They may not work things correctly or I might not work things correctly. It's interesting, for example, when you get computer simulations of guitar pedals -- which I use, even though I have all the pedals--I wonder about someone who never lived through the 1970s and 1980s and never heard those original sounds. I wonder how they would approach that, because it would be very different to my approach. I come to that software with a sound in my head, and I end up using, say, a delay effect the way I would use a delay pedal. But if you've got a kid who's never even seen a delay pedal, they could use that effect in a more interesting way, just by chance.
Conversely, I work that way with a lot of new things because I have this experience of how a lot of old things sound. On a track, I can take the same sort of tools used to make hip-hop or electronic music and I'll incorporate it into my own work by moving things away from the presets and slowing the tempo down. Over time, you start collect more and more sounds and styles that you can use. Ultimately, though, it's a double-edged sword, because everything I do ends up sounding like me in the end. Not much I can do about that.
What drew you to pick up a guitar in the first place?
I was about 16 or 17, and the whole punk thing was going on in the UK. That was the stuff. It was a way to get away from my boring job in an industrial town; it was all about kids getting away and doing something different. The guitar actually wasn't my first choice: I wanted to be a drummer at first, but I didn't have a drum kit. Then I wanted to be a bass player, but I didn't have a bass. I ended up picking up the guitar, and I wasn't a great musician, but it was an interesting time in music when a lot of rules were being broken. The positive energy that punk had, it was kind of naive, but it had a positive effect on someone who was young and naive like I was.
When I was 17, there was no fucking stopping me. That's how you are when you're 17: you don't think of the consequences, you just go and do it. With Cocteau Twins, Liz [Fraser] was 17, I was 19, and Will [Heggie] was 19, and we decided that we wanted to make a record with 4AD, so we did. When I think about that now, it's just ridiculous. It took years for me to realize that that's not how the music industry works. I still think it's amazing that I had that sort of self-belief back then.
Tell me about this album that you're working on with Mark Gardner.
It's held up at the moment. We finished it, and then I started working on a different project, and Mark had his first child, so we sort of took our eye off the ball. It'll come out next year. It's good; it doesn't like Mark Gardner and it doesn't sound like me (i.e. it doesn't sound like Ride or Cocteau Twins), so anyone who's expecting that will probably go, "What the fuck? This isn't a shoegaze record." It's definitely not a shoegaze record. It's a surprising record, I think. Mark pulled some things out of me that took me out of my comfort place, and I certainly did that with Mark. We've ended up with a record filled with songs and tunes and interesting sounds. It's a very buoyant record, very exciting. It's definitely made by two guys who have been around for a while as opposed to two new dudes. It's a good energy, you can hear the energy of us getting together for the first time. Regardless of what age you are, when you've got a new working relationship, there's an energy that comes through.