Cocteau Twins’ Simon Raymonde on ‘Heaven or Las Vegas’ (which just turned 30)
Cocteau Twins' sixth album, 'Heaven or Las Vegas,' came out on September 17, 1990. A record that's just gotten better over the last 30 years, it's where the group took their signature sound -- Robin Guthrie's intricately woven, heavily treated guitars paired with Elizabeth Fraser's elastic, unreal, heavenly voice -- and brought it to the strongest batch of songs of their career. "Iceblink Luck," "Pitch the Baby," and the title track all approached pop, on their terms, while "Fifty Fifty Clown," "I Wear Your Ring," "Wolf in Breast" and the magisterial closer "Frou-frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires" brought their gothy grandeur to spectacular new heights. Simon Raymonde was contributing as much piano as bass this time around; Guthrie created sounds you didn't know guitars could produce; and Fraser's delivery was downright in intelligible for the first time in years but no less otherworldly. It all made for a beautiful web that cannot be pulled apart, like the blur of colors found on the album's artwork
As close to perfection as the album is, 'Heaven or Las Vegas' was made under difficult circumstances. Fraser and Guthrie's first child was less than a year old, and Guthrie was struggling with addiction, and Simon Raymonde's father, composer and orchestral arranger, Ivor Raymonde, died during the recording making of the record. Yet 'Heaven or Las Vegas' transcended the tummolt. 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell considers it to be the best album the label released under his reign, and it topped our Indie Basement Top 30 Albums of 1990 list.
With the album's anniversary, Simon Raymonde -- who now runs the Bella Union label (Explosions in the Sky, Beach House, Father John Misty, more) and makes music as one half of Lost Horizons -- was kind enough to share some thoughts and recollections on the album.
Read his words below...
Cocteau Twins' Simon Raymonde on Heaven or Las Vegas:
Newly settled into The Who’s riverside studios they had originally called Oceanic (an anagram of cocaine apparently), we set to work on our new LP.
It was a time of extreme emotions, Elizabeth had her first baby, my father died way too young, the drugs were beginning to become an issue we spoke about rather than pretended didn’t exist, and yet we were also becoming more confident as writing partners. Walking into a relationship in 1984 for Treasure took a little getting used to, maybe more for them than for me. Robin and I wrote the music and Elizabeth all the vocal melodies and lyrics. It was like extreme baking. (There was quite a bit of that as well!) We always tried to make the base as flavourful as we could, and Elizabeth filled it and topped it with her unimaginable delights. It seemed a good partnership from the beginning but for sure Heaven Or Las Vegas was the moment when we were all on the same astral plane at the same time.
It’s rare to find but on this album music would literally appear out of nowhere when we began our improvisations and we saw it through to the end. After my dad died, I couldn’t grieve properly and arrived back to the studio early the day after the funeral and began playing the piano and by the time Robin arrived, "Frou Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fires" was pretty much done, musically. On another day, I walked in mid-afternoon and the music that would become "Pitch The Baby" was almost ready. We mostly wrote together in the room at the same time during HOLV, as we did find that a lot of fun and inspiring, but such was the strength of the trust by then. I knew I could stay late if I was on the verge of getting something and record a basic framework and by the time I came in the next day, Robin would have added some beautiful guitars.
When we had 10 finished instrumentals, Elizabeth began her work inside the studio, though she will have been hearing bits and pieces outside in the lounge or wherever she sat to write lyrics, and probably had a vague notion of what we’d done. But she preferred to not hear too much in advance. Her improvisations and harmonic composition are in a league of their own. She sings from the depths of her soul, and that can be exhausting. So -- after 6 years of me being in the band -- that is the way we worked in 1990, having worked our shit out and knowing how to get the best out of ourselves.
“If it ain’t happening today, don’t force it, let’s go ten pin bowling” was our unwritten credo. And ten pin bowling we did go, often!
As the main “producer” out of the three of us, Robin became like Neo when he gets jacked into the Matrix, attaining some kind of extrasensory awareness, and with an almost superhuman power to concentrate on the tiny details needed to crack the code, or in our case, mix all these parts we’d written and turn it into something cohesive but also timeless and gorgeous to listen to. He really had incredible ears and an insatiable thirst for production during this period.
It was hard to function as a husband, father, friend or even a useful member of society during this period, because of all the non-musical shit that entailed being in the band, but so much did I love my work with Elizabeth and Robin that, despite the drama, it always seemed worth it. And looking back on the legacy of this record, I know now that it was.
Thank you Robin and Elizabeth for 14 years of learning and experience that I use every day and for the work we created together that will hopefully be there for people to hear should they ever stumble across it.
Back in April, Simon participated in a Tim's Twitter Listening Party for Heaven or Las Vegas and here are his track-by-track notes.
It’s just all guitars and bass my friend. And voice. Not a sausage more.
I think the minute robin and I finished the music for this piece, we KNEW it was special. We kinda improvised our music out of nothing, and if nothing was happening, we would go bowling...but thankfully not so often during this record.
One thing I can tell you is The Weeknd sampled "Cherry-Coloured Funk" for his song "The Knowing" from House of Balloons (2011), which is very lovely of him.
Pitch The Baby
beats baby...hip hop.. one that was fairly obviously inspired by the birth of Lucy Belle. Robin should take all the credit for the musical part of this song. I actually didn't like it that much at the time, but grew to realise the error of this thinking
one of my all time favourites. NO SYNTHS were used! We started with the drums as usual and we'd just gotten some new bit of rack gear (effects) and while robin was messing about with it i plugged a guitar into it so he could fiddle, and all of a sudden it started to sound gorgeous and i got this melody (the one that sounds like a synth), then he added more guitars etc and we adored it as an instrumental but when Liz added her vocals it was just divine.
Robin got a beat going. He’d bought a new bit of rack gear and he was fiddling with it while I played the guitar to help him mess with the sound. The melody came out of that and then we built it from there. Love this one to this day. Fresh and different. Took a couple of hours...
prince sampled this...like THE Prince! „Love...thy will be done”. He wrote it for Martika and it’s just about audible in that version but while this remained in his vault till his death his own version was later released and it’s much more obvious.
Heaven or Las Vegas
The title song was CLASSIC Elizabeth wasn't it. Her backing vocals are SOO UNDERRATED ...we knew the music was pretty good but when she came in and laid down that first vocal, oh man...the record is quite short like all of ours and only 10 songs, I am turning the vinyl now.
Robin was the mix king. A real sonic master. Before automation and such it was v different to how it is now. This was in our 28th year on earth. People in creative work often excel in this period of their life. I think we all brought our A game.
I Wear Your Ring
OK Side 2 starts with one of my fave ever CT songs I Wear Your Ring. still makes me cry like a baby this one. Wrote the music for this one, and froufrou foxes in the days following my father’s death But Robin’s drums, guitar additions and of course Liz’s singing make it so emotional. At 2.00 before the big key change there is this melody that sounds like it’s a French horn or an oboe. I can’t remember where it came from, cos we didn’t have any French horns but I love it so
I was so excited by the chords I’d created for the song the bass part just wrote itself. Turn it up loud and play along and the notes just fall into place. Robin was a maestro in the control room and it felt very natural and easy writing together during this LP.
Most people think we used synths all the time but we didn't. Robin just had a genius for sound and textures with guitars. I Wear Your Ring is based around a keyboard tho ; )
For a song title that literally translates to ‘Cunt politics’ it sure is a jaunty little piece of music.
Wolf In The Breast
defo one of my fave pieces.Also makes me cry a lot. Raymonde and Guthrie in classic bass and guitar combo. I like the ones where I play two bass lines like this. This kinda song writes itself. And Fraser at her ecstatic best looking back on the birth of her first daughter. “Laughing on our bed, pretending us newly wed, especially when our angel unleashed that head-I feel perpetual". AMAZING amazing. Still can't believe we did some of this stuff.
[regarding quoted lyrics] It’s funny -I thought everyone would know those. That’s what I’ve always heard them as. I may be miles off ; )
[regarding the bridge] Yeah particularly love that too. Again sometimes these moments just happen through Synchronicity. It took us a while to get that kinda telepathy going from when I@joins in 84 but by 1990 it was becoming special. Could feel it.
Road, river and rail.
This one is melancholy and again the classic bass and guitar writing combo. After Liz recorded her amazing vocals, we referred to it as Rod, river and reel. 'Through Paris, Brixton.' (In my head that’s one of the phrases. I might be wrong though. Just my interpretation) These little gems Elizabeth left us are all there. Even if you aren't sure what all the words are you still sing along and have a journey of expression and interaction that is so beautiful. she is beyond compound
Frou-frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires
The first day back to studio after my Dad's’s funeral, I was the only one there for a bit, and sat playing the piano. After an hour or so, I had something that I was keeping returning to. (the music for Frou-Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fires) Robin walked in and listened quietly. “Don’t stop” he said walking straight to the Akai MPC60 and getting his magic beats working. After laying the piano and drums down, we added his lovely textured guitars I think he also did the bass on this one as I was probably a bit emotionally drained from the piano. Hard to listen to now (he says with tears streaming down the face) but v proud of us for doing it.
B sides - Dials, Mizake the Mizan, Watchlar
What’s odd about CT is that cos we only wrote 10 songs for each lp we would always have to write b sides after. And they’d often be really good maybe good enough for the LP but too late to fit on. Try listening to Watchlar.That’s one of those /it’s on the bside of Iceblink Luck
Meanwhile, Heaven or Las Vegas sleeve designer Paul West has been sharing items from his archives, including mock-ups, alternate designs, font tests, posters and more: