“[Instrumental music] is very visual. There’s no singer bleating something over the top of it, locking you into one way of thinking. It gives the listener space to put something of them into it, layering your memories which become intrinsically tied to it” – Robin Guthrie
To the erudite amongst you, the name Robin Guthrie will follow hot on the heels of one of Britain’s most revered yet modestly-discussed bands; the Cocteau Twins. In truth however, the Grangemouth-born Scot has come a long way since his 4AD days: a prolific composer who over the last decade has produced intensely personal instrumental works; collaborated with others such as renowned contemporary-classical pianist Harold Budd, and even scored the odd film here and there. Ensconced in his adopted home of northern France, he continues to reveal his collection of aural postcards to a dedicated audience. ‘Fortune’ – released in November on his own Soleil Après Minuit label – continues in the canon of ambient guitar sounds that have become his signature, with its ten tracks traversing very aspect of the emotional spectrum.
If conducting this interview was not nerve-wracking enough, having him ask me to “show us to a nice café” only added to the pressure. I played it cool, eluding him to the fact that I’d spent the preceding half an hour asking friends for help. We, along with his partner Florence, eventually sat down upstairs in the Little Shambles Tea Room and – sipping a double espresso – the tape began to roll. The burly Scot appears tired, having travelled from Manchester in the early hours following a packed house at the Band on the Wall. “I promised myself today I was going to eat healthily, but when you’re travelling it is very difficult – the promoter usually turns up at the end of the night with a pizza”. The guitarist chuckles, tucking into a grilled blue cheese sandwich as I muse over his return to our pokey little island. This tour has been Guthrie’s most extensive for some time: “It’s the first time I’ve been asked come to here with this many dates – a simple as that. We simply go where the concerts are offered, and we get a lot more in other countries than we do here, whether it is America, Japan or wherever else we’re popular”.
It’s a testament to Guthrie’s continued following that he is able to get full houses without real promotion, and ponders the notion that with the right amount of backing, they could step up the level of venue they play in. “We rarely get support from British media. The anomaly is that we’ve been selling out some of these shows – we were at the Band on the Wall in Manchester last night [14/02/12] and it was packed – but then we go to Liverpool and there are 20 people there”. Eschewing direct album promotion because “it takes a while for me to actually figure out how to recreate it onstage”, the trio will be drawing on a decade of material from 2003’s ‘Imperial’ onwards. Due to its rich and textured nature –all the parts often recorded by Guthrie – a gap has emerged between the songs on the record and those which can be worked into a live setting. “I like to keep things down to the trio, which means that of the hundred-odd songs we have, there are only really thirty that I can do”. There are no rearrangements, rather a series of loops played by Robin himself, alongside bass player Steve Wheeler and drummer Antti Makinen.
Our conversation soon turned to the music, and like myself, Guthrie remains imbued in the whole ‘experience’ of producing a record. Since ‘Imperial’, artistic continuity has been paramount, even down to fonts and numbering. “Working with 4AD and Vaughn Oliver, I took it upon myself to get involved with the artistic side of things. It took a while to get confident, but I thought ‘I’ve got a computer, I’ve got a camera, and it’s my record, why not’.” One would imagine that with such an elegant touch on his instrument, this is a man enamoured in theory and rolls of parchment. You couldn’t be more wrong. “I can hear it in my head and visualise where to put my fingers, but if a bass player were to say ‘hey, is that a D?’ I’d say ‘I don’t know! Is it?’” This is no false modesty, and the guitarist is acutely aware of his gift for arranging, recognising that he can exploit his ability to ‘not play properly’. “I really cannot play any other way. I’m good with one or two strings, but it’s a horror of mine to arrive at a party, there’s a guitar in the corner and someone says ‘give us a song!’”
Offering a glimpse into his creative process, Guthrie remains profoundly inspired by his surroundings while at the same time embracing modern means of ‘getting it down’: “I don’t really listen to music, it’s quite shamefully really! I’ll have it on when I’m making dinner – open a bottle of red and listen to some John Coltrane, but I’ve lost the ‘music fan’ thing that I had when I was younger.” To park up by the beach and sit with a laptop and a rollout keyboard is a synergising of two worlds symptomatic in his music – the natural and the ambient, colliding with the digital to create something distant yet surprisingly intimate. “Part of my process – I’m not sure you could call it a talent or skill – is turning what I see and experience into something aural”. He recalls the story of his album ‘Continental’ , composed on a train journey between Los Angeles and New Orleans: “It took two and a half days, just watching the world going by; it was hugely inspiring. When I arrived in Los Angeles, I borrowed a guitar from somebody and performed the whole thing that night.” His nonchalance is charming; evident that behind the tapestries of sound is a gifted arranger, a Dylan-esque craftsman, with an innate understanding of melody. Conversely, new album ‘Fortune’ was completed without travelling, a feat fraught with its own difficulties. “It became a challenge to live my domestic life and create something of that emotional depth – that’s okay though, because I’m sure the next one will be different again.”
Working with a musician of Budd’s calibre would be daunting for anyone, and Guthrie is no exception, but he is humbled by the experience. “I feel privileged to work with him; someone who touches the keys and is instantly recognisable”. Their relationship can be traced back to the 1980s, but their score for cult film Mysterious Skin is where, for me at least, their styles gelled. Guthrie cites this as one of his most challenging musical excursions because “he can play properly [laughs]. He’ll sit down in his house and just write manuscript perfectly. Now, try putting that in the same room as someone who doesn’t know what the black notes are for”. Their styles compliment one and other beautifully, Budd’s rolling arpeggios skipping like pebbles over Guthrie’s sustain. But the former’s age – now 77 – and experience can create worries. “In the studio you have time, but live we’ll have a quick soundcheck. I’ll think ‘hmm, this is in E – I can do that…but please don’t do any black notes!’”
Recounting a number of issues I addressed in my Sunday Essay last month, attention turns to record sales, and the impact on artists desperately trying to sustain themselves in an increasingly disjointed industry. “Sales are going up, without a positive gradient in terms of what the bands are actually making: people are beginning to reject iTunes and Amazon in favour of Spotify. People assume that because I’ve been doing this for 30 years I’ve made a lot of money, which couldn’t be further from the truth. People ask ‘why do you continue?’ To feed my family, quite simply: much of what I earned in the past [Cocteau Twins] has been signed away to someone else. I am very grateful for what 4AD did for me in my previous band, but the assumption that I’m still resting on it is wrong”. In our time of open-source outlets like Youtube, the volume of readily-available music has seen an almost Darwinian sense of competition emerge: “nowadays you can put something out on the internet, and it can potentially have the same value as something released on a label”. As the words leave his mouth he holds hands up – “…but that shouldn’t stop anybody from making music, because it is such fun”.
So where in this ephemeral world of iPhones and Twitter feeds finds room for an artist like Guthrie? It’s a tough question because ambient music, if you’ll forgive the pun, is always there; rock’s quiet unobtrusive friend at the party. He has managed to keep his foot firmly behind the door to the mainstream, casting a shadow on a new generation of bands lavishing money on their echo units. He will remain respected, but perhaps not pedestaled in the Eno sense. Before packing up and heading over to the venue, I asked Robin where he would be heading at the end of this tour: “as soon as the tour is done, I shall be off travelling again – taking a few trains, moving around America perhaps”. No doubt he will bring some more postcards back with him.
‘The Belles of Saint Andrew’ – Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALR0zyeEIMQ