Cocteau Twins’ vast influence lives on :: 24 great artists they’ve inspired
The term "dreampop" covers a lot of territory these days, from electronic music to acoustic guitars, but one thing's for certain: the influence of the Cocteau Twins cannot be overstated. Robin Guthrie's unique, heavily treated, cascading guitar style has been copied endlessly, but few possess his nuanced touch. Even if his style is imitated, nobody possesses a voice like Elizabeth Fraser's, which is capable of making the hair on your neck stand at attention, conveying emotion even when you can't understand a single word she's singing. Simon Raymonde, meanwhile, is a skilled multi-instrumentalist whose melodic bass style and piano arrangements were often that intangible other crucial element in their sound.
“The aim was to make music with punk’s energy but more finesse and beauty, and that shiny, Phil Spector sound," Guthrie said. "I was trying to make my guitar sound like I could play it, so I was influenced by guitarists who made beautiful noise, like The Pop Group or Rowland S. Howard.” Steve Queralt of Ride says Guthrie's style "set the blueprint for bands like us and is surely where it all began for Shoegaze."
The influence goes well beyond shoegaze and dreampop, though, touching R&B, punk, metal, folk, ambient, EDM, you name it. With the band's landmark sixth album Heaven or Las Vegas turning 30 this week, we put together a list of 24 artists who were clearly influenced by the Cocteau Twins, many of whom talked to us about the importance the group played in their sound.
With a cascading guitar sound and ethereal vocals, Slowdive's sonic debt to Cocteau Twins is instantly apparent, though they took the building blocks and made it their own. The band are admitted fans, especially guitarist Christian Savill who tells us his first exposure was single "Pearly Dewdrops Drops" which changed his life.
"The vocals and words were unlike anything I’ve ever heard," Christian says, "and the guitars seemed huge and mysterious. Then I found the records in my local record shop and found that the record covers were beautiful and their other song titles were equally as bonkers as the first song I’d heard. So many beautiful EPs and LPs came in a short time. I'd tape them and listen on my Walkman whilst wandering around Reading, feeling like I was in a different world to everyone else around me.
It was a time at school when everyone started talking about forming a band. Most of my school wanted to be in a band like U2 or Big Country, but me and one or two of other school weirdos wanted to be in the Cocteau Twins. I finally got to see them live just after their brilliant album Heaven or Las Vegas came out. I was lucky enough to join a band who had the same influences as me and we'd just been signed by Creation records. As I watched, aside from fulfilling that ambition and being mesmerized, I knew that without the Cocteaus I would never have joined a band."
And here's Slowdive singer Rachel Goswell on her relationship to the Cocteaus:
"I first heard the Cocteau twins at the age of 16 when a penpal sent me a cassette of Treasure. I remember going to bed and putting my headphones on and found myself immersed in the magic and wonder of their overall sound musically and Liz Fraser's unmatched voice. There began my love affair with their music which endures to this day.
Heaven or Las Vegas at the time was their most commercial offering to date. I loved and still love everything about this record. Liz’ singing was slightly more decipherable and easier to pick out words and sentences and it definitely had a slightly more pop sensibility, dare I say, around it. I still listen to this record now nearly 30 years later and it still stands the test of time. I was lucky enough when Neil [Halstead] and I were doing Mojave 3 to have the opportunity to support the Cocteaus at a relatively small show in London. I was overwhelmed, really, being in their presence and was far too shy to talk to them at that point in time, even though we were sharing a dressing room. It was for me a very poignant show. The simplicity of their set up with the three of them, but the enormity of their sound. Liz’s voice and Robin's guitar playing being all encompassing. How lucky I felt.
As the years have passed, Robin has become a friend and in recent years, with Slowdive back out in the world, we have met up in France at shows several times. Simon, of course, running Bella Union and with my involvement with The Soft Cavalry we have had many conversations on and off over the years. Liz remains the missing link. How I would love to sit down with her and a glass or two of wine."
The original UK shoegaze scene wouldn't sound the way it does without Cocteau Twins, even with groups like Ride who were always more of a psychedelic rock band. You can hear Robin Guthrie's guitar influence on tracks like "Decay" from Nowhere and "Sennen" from the Today Forever EP.
"For me, Cocteau Twins recorded some of the greatest sounds ever committed to tape," Ride bassist Steve Queralt tells us. "Take a listen to Simon’s bass on 'Cicely' or 'Aikea Guinea,' the drums on Treasure and, of course, Elizabeth’s spellbinding vocals on just about every Cocteaus track there is. It’s Robin’s shimmering guitars, though, that set the blueprint for bands like us and is surely where it all began for Shoegaze.
"There’s a fierce, tough edge to their early records which I grew to love the most. But my introduction to the band was through Victorialand, a largely bass and drum free affair, very different from their other records but still unmistakably them.
"I discovered Victorialand while working in an Oxford record shop in the late '80s. It had a pretty cover so I decided to play it over the shop system and immediately fell for it, flipping it over repeatedly A-side followed by B-side followed by A-side over, and over again. It was sometime later that a colleague kindly pointed out that this particular album played at 45 RPM and not the traditional speed of 33 which I’d been enjoying all morning. There aren’t many records that sound so good at both speeds but Victorialand did and still does today. Try it.
"So, from there began the journey back to Garlands through Head Over Heels and the EPs and then onto Heaven or Las Vegas. Heaven or Las Vegas was their final record for 4AD and in my opinion the last great Cocteau Twins album. It had a massive influence on our band at the time as we went into the studio to record Today Forever and Going Blank Again. Ride and many other bands would probably sound very different and some wouldn’t exist at all without this incredible band and the incredible catalogue of sounds they left us with."
"The Cocteau Twins' influence on Lush is obvious," says Lush co-leader Miki Berenyi. "Robin produced Spooky, and the Mad Love and Black Spring EPs, so our sound was moulded by the experience. But I find it tricky to list artists they’ve directly influenced because - to me - their genius lies in their unique combination of musicality, experimentation with guitars and studio effects, and Liz’s incomparable voice.
"Yes, there are bands that glide toward one or another aspect. Harriet Wheeler of The Sundays used to get endless comparisons with Liz at the time but it's obvious to everyone now that she has her own beautiful voice and style. Plenty of bands (including Lush) have ramped up the chorus and delay on guitars, but you need to see Robin at work in a studio to discover his tireless experimentation with guitars, pedals and other technological effects to recognise that it’s a lot more complex than that. And I’ve heard plenty of tracks that mimic the Cocteaus' sound and vocal style, but fail to include their beautifully constructed chord progressions, key changes and melodic hooks. Back in the day, Simon would sometimes get referred to as 'just the bass player,' an insult that ignores his vast reservoirs of musical knowledge, which he effortlessly incorporates into his music.
"So I guess my point is that the voice, the guitars, the songs -- they aren’t just simple blocks you can co-opt or fit together to recreate the whole. Each element is huge and deep and unique in and of itself. Many of us try and borrow a hint of one or two facets, but we’re really only scratching at the surface."
He's a huge star now who topped five Billboard charts at once back in April -- including the album and singles charts -- but when The Weeknd burst on the scene back in 2011, he was seen as an indie artist (that Drake helped break) with '80s dreampop influences. He sampled The Cocteau Twins' "Cherry Coloured Funk" on House of Balloons track "The Knowing." "I've always had an admiration for the era before I was born," he told Billboard back in April of this year. "You can hear it as far back as my first mixtape [2011's House of Balloons] that the '80s -- Siouxsie & the Banshees, Cocteau Twins -- play such a huge role in my sound. Sometimes it helps me create a new sound and sometimes it's just obvious. I'm just glad the world's into it now."
Robin Guthrie's style is so unique and distinctive (and copied), it's seeped into all corners of guitar music. Barney Greenway of grindcore greats Napalm Death told Louder Than War, “Our palette for music is huge...even stuff like the Cocteau Twins, which people might be really surprised at, but Mitch and Shane were huge fans of the Cocteau Twins, and so you can hear things in the music and you think maybe I can use that, if I kind of twist it, make it more abrasive.” Napalm Death's "A Bellyful of Salt and Spleen," from 2020 album Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism, has textural guitar-work amongst the punishing riffs and industrial power tools that you could imagine coming from Robin Guthrie.
"It would be impossible for me to overstate the effect Cocteau Twins' music has had on me," says superfan John Grant who records for former Cocteau Twins member Simon Raymonde's Bella Union label. "I guess I discovered them around '85. Hadn't heard sounds or singing like that before. The period which is closest to my heart is the few years which produced Treasure, Victorialand, Echoes In a Shallow Bay & Tiny Dynamine, Aikea Guinea, and Love's Easy Tears, but every single one of their albums has a period connected to it for me. Blue Bell Knoll was the backdrop to my year in Heidelberg in 1988." (John talked with Fraser about Blue Bell Knoll for it's 30th anniversary at Royal Albert Hall.) "I remember walking home from my job as a night porter at a small hotel at 6 in the morning through the misty autumn streets of that beautiful city and marvelling at 'Athol-Brose' and everything else on that record. It sounded so exotic. The incredible Heaven or Las Vegas and the underrated Four-Calendar Café accompanied me through my time at school in Germersheim, Germany. 'Know Who You Are At Every Age' and 'Evangeline' are breathtaking. Milk and Kisses came as I was settling back into life in the U.S. So yeah, their music has been a constant for over half my life and it continues to transform whatever landscape I happened to be surrounded by. For me it is timeless music. Right now it's the recently released HD vinyl reissues of Garlands and Victorialand. Off the hook."
“What I like is stuff that I can’t do. That I would never do," Prince told Rolling Stone in 2014. "Like the Cocteau Twins, I would never do that.” That doesn't mean he wouldn't sample them, though. Prince produced "Love...Thy Will Be Done," the first single from Martika's 1991 album Martika's Kitchen, and it features some throbbing bass and a gurgling synth loop that sounds a whole lot like Cocteau Twins' "Fifty-Fifty Clown" from Heaven or Las Vegas. The track, which Prince sent completed to Martika to add vocals, was also apparently recorded by New Power Generation for their 1995 album Exodus, with a more prominent sample, but did not make it onto the album. Simon Raymonde told The Quietus, "These days, your record label would likely have received notice from Warner or whoever and would have some deal done, but back then, sampling was quite new and no one really knew what the legalities were around it all, and to be honest we were just massively flattered that someone we really liked was into our stuff, so we never thought to ask for money or royalties. Prince liked Cocteau Twins so much that he was keen for us to sign to Paisley Park Records, but I think 4AD had their own plans that didn’t really include him, which was probably a good thing as Paisley Park went bust in 1994.” The Prince version was released in 2019 on Prince Vault release Originals:
The Cocteau Twins' influence on Iceland's music scene of the last 40 years is especially potent. It's almost as if Icelanders heard it and finally realized this was the aural equivalent of the spectacular natural beauty of their country, opening the floodgates to artists whose ethereal music flowed like their many stunning waterfalls and hot springs. With an especially transcendent, dreamlike guitar sound and a vocalist whose voice soars with lyrics sung in a invented language, it is hard not to compare Sigur Rós to Cocteau Twins. Thing is, the band claims they'd never listened to them. "When Sigur Rós was starting, we were always compared to Cocteau Twins and I really didn’t like that," frontman Jónsi said recently. "I hated being compared to anybody. Then I got really into Cocteau Twins like two or three years ago. They’re so good. I understood the comparison then." Not only that, Jónsi got Elizabeth Fraser to sing on a track on his first solo album in 10 years.
Cocteau Twins albums sold well but the biggest song to feature a member of the band is Massive Attack's "Teardrop," one of three songs Elizabeth sings on 1998's Mezzanine. It was a Top 10 hit in the UK -- and #1 in Iceland -- but entered North America's consciousness as the theme song to long-running medical drama House. (Though if Massive Attack founding member Mushroom had had his way, "Teardrop" would've been sung by Madonna.) But even before Mezzanine, you can hear bits of the Cocteau Twins (and This Mortal Coil) in Massive Attack's music, like on "Three" from Protection, and in the group's darker, gothier material.
Mike Kinsella (American Football / Owen)
"You, in love with the Cocteau Twins / You're bored with your boyfriend," Mike Kinsella sings on "Poor Souls" from Owen's 2002 album No Good for No One Now. Kinsella is a big Cocteau Twins fan and said in a Reddit AMA for new album The Avalanche that the band were "pretty influential this time around." You can hear that on shimmering Avalanche tracks like "On with the Show" and "Mom and Dead." Mike also included Heaven or Las Vegas' "Cherry Coloured Funk" on American Football's "Stay Home" playlist they made for us back in March, writing "My brain rewrites the lyrics to it differently every time I hear it. It’s like beautiful dream-induced Mad-Libs."
The Sundays were an '80s UK indie guitar band fan's dream, like a magical gene-splicing of The Smiths and The Cocteau Twins, though as Lush's Miki Berenyi notes elsewhere on this page, "it's obvious to everyone now that [singer Harriet Wheeler] has her own beautiful voice and style." Still, the Cocteau Twins influence was undeniable, with David Gavurin's style owing a little to both Johnny Marr and Robin Guthrie, and Wheeler's voice was indeed spectacular if entirely her own. 4AD's Ivo Watts-Russell loved The Sundays and wanted to sign them, but they instead chose Rough Trade (The Smiths' label) who released their fantastic debut album, Reading Writing & Arithmetic in 1990, the same year as Heaven or Las Vegas.
The Innocence Mission
With an atmospheric, shimmering sounds and the powerful, unearthly vocals of singer/keyboardist Karen Peris, Lancaster, Pennsylvania's The Innocence Mission -- who formed in the '80s and released their great 12th studio album in 2020 -- were compared to The Cocteau Twins when they weren't being compared to 10,000 Maniacs. They toured with the latter but admit to the influence of the former. "The obvious thing is that we were stunned by the voice of Elizabeth Fraser, and by the sweep and atmosphere of the guitars, of the music played by Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde," Peris tells us. "It was music that created its own world and was transportive. But also, it was as if Cocteau Twins brought about a cultural shift in some way, an embracing of music that would be impactful because of the magnitude of its beauty, and that did not need to conform to the music of the times but was its own. That was significant and inspiring to us and to our friends. I think there was a freedom in that, that could be felt by any other person who wanted to make music, in addition to the work ethic that one could hear clearly on their albums, to aspire to."
The Innocence Mission's sound mutated, softened and mellowed over the years, eventually finding a fan in Cocteau Twins' Simon Raymonde who signed them to his label, Bella Union.
From their beginnings, Baltimore dreampop duo Beach House have gotten comparisons to Cocteau Twins, who are an admitted influence on the duo. You could feel it especially on 2018's 7, on tracks like "Lemon Glow" (which is even a title you could imagine Cocteau Twins using). Simon Raymonde, the former Cocteau Twins bassist who runs Beach House's UK label, Bella Union, understands the comparisons. "I see the way people look at Victoria [Legrand]. It's like I'm revisiting what it was like to see a sea of thousands of faces look at Elizabeth, just madly in love with her," he told Under the Radar. "I think it's really emotional, their music. I can't say I ever felt that about our own music. I never cried at our own music, listening back to it, unless I was so frustrated because I couldn't make it sound how I wanted to make it sound. I know that other people did find our music very emotional. Now I kind of understand that better."
Anthony Gonzalez filtered his love of the '80s, from John Hughes films to bubbly synthpop and the gauzy world of 4AD, into a unique but nostalgic brand of danceable dreampop on M83's instant classic fifth album, Saturdays=Youth. There is more than a little Cocteau Twins influence on it, like on "Skin of Night" which has the high, gothy drama of the Cocteaus' Treasure. Helping Gonzalez achieve that sound was the album's producer, Ken Thomas, who engineered Cocteau Twins' Aikea-Guinea EP (and went on to work closely with Sigur Ros). Anthony has admitted his affection for the band: "I love Heaven or Las Vegas. I think it is one of my favorite albums from the ‘80s," he told American Songwriter. Heaven or Las Vegas is from 1990 but we know how he feels.
My Bloody Valentine
The two pillars of shoegaze guitar are probably Robin Guthrie and My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields who took very different approaches to make beautiful, unreal music with their instruments. Shields says that was entirely intentional. From an interview with Westword:
I saw an interview you did with Ian Svenonius on the Soft Focus program where you mentioned that your sound was more dry and up front, like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., as opposed to the Cocteau Twins.
Absolutely. Part of the thing that really attracted me to a lot of the American groups was a real sense of it being bands playing and capturing it purely on tape. There was rawness to it and up-frontness to it. British groups, in general, have a tendency to use more effects, be more studio-bound. Of course, ironically, me imitating the American sound, it was assumed that my music was studio-bound, when, in fact, I was consciously avoiding doing all of that. I like the Cocteau Twins, though. Fundamentally, the huge irony with the bands called "shoegazing" was that a lot of those bands really were into the Cocteau Twins. And they all used choruses, flangers and other effects pedals to create a certain kind of sound. Three pedals I refused to use in that era were chorus, flanger and delay. Everything we did was everything but that.
Still, you hear a My Bloody Valentine song like "Swallow," from the Tremolo EP, and you might wonder if Shields didn't have a similar goal in mind even if getting there by an entirely different route.
Explosions in the Sky
Post-rock is another genre that would probably not sound the way it does without the Cocteau Twins. One of the biggest bands in the genre, Explosions in the Sky, pulled from Guthrie's ethereal bag of tricks but applied them to an entirely different form, making stirring, cinematic, instrumental rock. In an interview with dmute, EITS' Chris Hrasky notes that Cocteau Twins (and Slint and The Cure) all played a part in post-rock's DNA, at least their brand of it. This was another case where the feeling was mutual. Simon Raymonde was enamored with EITS and signed the band to Bella Union in the UK in time for the release of their 2003 classic, The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place.
Venezuelan musician Arca's music is celestial and alien, seeming to come from an entirely different galaxy than ours, which is probably what attracted her to Bjork. Instruments are manipulated to the point where they are no long recognizable and on his more atmospheric tracks, you get some of that same feeling you do with the Cocteau Twins. Then there's Arca's 2016 track "Entrañas" which chops up Cocteau Twins' operatic Treasure cut "Beatrix" into bite-sized morsels and blends them with distorted beats as part of this disorienting, sometimes beautiful, sometimes grotesque, sound collage. She and Fraser may exist on different moons but they're orbiting the same planet.
The Sugarcubes / Bjork
Bjork is, of course, a hugely successful, totally unique artist. An influential iconoclast. But as a teenager in Iceland she was a voracious music fan. "I was 14, hanging out with people who were much older than me at the only indie shop in Reykjavik," she told The Guardian. "Everybody volunteering, to keep the tiny shop alive. We imported really accidental things – the big Cocteau Twins album never made it, but their fourth awkward album that nobody else knew about did. We’d be like: ‘We love it!’" The Cocteau Twins' influence on her band The Sugarcubes was undeniable, especially their 1988 debut, Life's Too Good. Just listen to the album's classic single "Birthday" -- the deep sea thrum of the bass, woozy layers of guitar, and Bjork's voice that soared and dipped with daring beauty.
"The Cocteaus are cool," Thom Yorke told VOX magazine in 1997, responding to a quote from an OK Computer review that called it "a shameless rip off of Jeff Buckley and The Cocteau Twins." Ed O'Brien added, "I was a huge Cocteaus fan. What Robin Guthrie does on guitar is amazing. They are an influence, but there’s no point directly ripping something off," while Jonny Greenwood replied, "I’m excited by that comment, the idea we can do something even approaching that."
As a band who have been referred to as "The Radiohead of metal," Deftones have unsurprisingly wide-ranging influences. To get a feel for just how wide that range is, just look at the many covers they’ve done, which include artists from all different genres and eras like The Smiths, Depeche Mode, Drive Like Jehu, Jawbox, Sade, The Cardigans, The Cure, The Cars, and more, and of course, Cocteau Twins. They’ve done an impressive, muscular take on "Wax and Wane" (from the Cocteaus' very gothy debut album, Garlands), and even outside of that cover, you can hear the influence. When Deftones are at their dreamiest and most atmospheric, it’s easy to draw a straight line to Cocteau Twins.
Wye Oak / Flock of Dimes
Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak and Flock of Dimes is a singer and guitarist who can wield her voice and instrument with both power and ethereal beauty. She's got a little of Guthrie and Fraser in her style, and she is a fan. "The first Cocteau Twins album I heard was Treasure when I was in high school," Wasner tells us. "It instantly captivated me; I had never heard anything like it. I don’t think I had really understood to that point the power of pure sound, devoid from any sense of literal meaning. It changed my approach to writing permanently." She goes on to say that Heaven or Las Vegas is "an all-time record for me, a hugely beloved and formative work. It’s one of a very few records that has lost none of its spark or emotional pull, even with countless listens over many years. I’ve tried to take it apart, to capture some of its essence in my own work, but it’s always eluded me. There’s some kind of magic within it that elevates it far beyond the sum of its parts. A true masterpiece."
Comedian, rapper, dance music producer, James Cordon bandleader. Cocteau Twins fan. "I was a huge New Waver, kind of goth industrial kid. Cocteau Twins is a huge, huge one for me, and The Sundays," Reggie Watts told Inverse. "I was mostly gravitating toward that kind of music because I love the darkness of it very much. And I had an amazing crew of friends that were super unusually good looking. It was like The Lost Boys, only half of them were girls, and we all got along together. We were all friends and went on vacations and adventures." Like Elizabeth, Reggie possesses a multi-octave range voice, and like Robin Guthrie he's a master of loop effects pedals.
Kelly Lee Owens
Before she started making ethereal electronic dance music, Kelly Lee Owens played in London shoegaze band History of Apple Pie, and you can hear echoes of the Cocteau Twins in just about everything she's done, including 2020's Inner Song. "The Cocteau Twins have been a huge inspiration to me," Kelly tells us. "From the dreaminess of each track sonically, to Elizabeth's voice. The way that the feeling comes before the words themselves in her lyric writing, pushed me to find that place in my own melodies." She adds, "There isn't a single track they've made that I dislike, which is incredible -- I don't think I could say that about every artist. The world they've created sonically I could inhabit forever. I'm immensely grateful for their art."
Montreal band No Joy make a brand of shoegaze/dreampop that can be both delicate/beautiful and pummeling/deafening, and to the former have definitely tipped their hat to the Cocteau Twins. "As a songwriter, I always created melodies based on feeling and filled in the lyrics as an afterthought," says bandleader Jasamine White-Gluz "When I discovered Cocteau Twins, it was a huge validation for me in this technique. Heaven of Las Vegas remains untouchable; production-wise it sounds like so many different eras at the same time, songs are deceivingly catchy, it defies genres. No one has come close to recreating a wonder like this record and I don't think ever will (so we should all stop trying)." Given the bonkers nature of No Joy's latest album, Motherhood, Jasamine is taking her own advice.