"I was the last person to see that there was a problem. I started to realize what the consequences of my actions were. I couldn't clean up straight away; it took me about six months. That was when it started to get scary for me, when I realized at first that I couldn't stop." — Robin Guthrie
Leaving Las Vegas behind—both figuratively and literally—the band returned to London, and embarked upon their own two-year journey of personal and professional upheavals and attempts at renewal. The LP Four-Calendar Café is the documentation of this very pivotal period in the band's now extensive history. The only sounds heard from them between Heaven or Las Vegas and Four-Calendar Café were "Frosty the Snowman," which was originally recorded for the Volume CD Magazine Issue 5 in 1992, and the Guthrie/Fraser version of "Be Still"—a song on the Peace Together compilation, which was a benefit album for Northern Ireland.
Simon explained "Frosty...": "There's a Christmas record that comes out on Capitol Records (the Cocteaus' US label) every few years. And they were trying to get all their bands to do a cover version of a Christmas song. I didn't think that's what it was at the time. I thought it would be like sitting next to Frank Sinatra. But in fact it would've been, y'know, Skinny Puppy, doing 'Merry Xmas Everybody.' Anyway they'd said, Would you do one? And Liz suggested—it must have been for a joke—'Frosty The Snowman.' Then Robin went, Yeah, good title, people will think it's a normal Cocteau Twins song with a title like that."
"Once we'd got the music down, I wrote down the lyrics on a piece of paper and said to Liz, Hey, look at these, and we were laughing away. As we were going through it I was listening to Liz's reactions and thinking, this is never gonna get done. She was going, 'He's a very happy soul'—me sing that?! No way, I could not in a million years... 'with a broomstick in his '—you've gotta be fucking kidding!'"
"I just didn't think she'd do it." [Volume 5, 1992]
...But she did, and "Frosty the Snowman," which eventually appeared on the very-limited release, Snow, with "Winter Wonderland," was a "Holiday '92" favorite, and can still be heard at Gap stores around the world at Christmas time!
Professionally, the band had found themselves a new home in the UK: Mercury's Fontana label. Capitol Records continued to provide support in the United States. Simon explained, "We had two record companies who came out to Brazil to attempt to sign us while we were out there [during the Heaven or Las Vegas Tour]. We'd heard about it and thought, Well if they want to come, let 'em come, you know. They'd be daft if they think they're gonna sign us just because they made the effort to go out to Brazil." But the band feel they had, in the end, found a suitable representative in Fontana. "It's been brilliant," says Simon. "They've not pestered us at all. They've had total respect for us and what we agreed at the signing of the contract and all that stuff and they've stuck to it which is really good." [Volume 5, 1992]
Four-Calendar Café itself developed along two main themes. (The title comes from a book by William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways, in which the author rates restaurants based upon the number of calendars they have hanging on the walls; if a restaurant had four calendars, it was pretty good. This fact has no bearing on the title; it's just incidental.) The first theme is that of a new beginning professionally—shedding the old '4AD cloak,' as it were—and the second is the band members' experiences of coping with a variety of ills—individual problems that at one point threatened the band's very existence. In the process of bringing Four-Calendar Café to life, the band members were very candid with the press regarding their personal lives and the events that precipitated the changes that were so obviously manifested in Four-Calendar Café's music. One major obstacle for the trio was Robin's dependence on drugs and alcohol.
"I was the last person to see that there was a problem. I started to realize what the consequences of my actions were. I couldn't clean up straight away; it took me about six months. That was when it started to get scary for me, when I realized at first that I couldn't stop. I had all the early warning signs when I was younger. I mean, Sid Vicious was someone I looked up to! Keith Levine was the cool one in PiL 'cause he was a junkie. Naturally, when it became me, it just seemed to fit the bill. But life is a whole different ball game when you're living it on its own terms, without a crutch." [Raygun, 1993]
"I tackled my drug problem head on. I was really sick, you know. Not long for this fuckin' planet, really. I've come back a bit. and that's basically what's been making me change. I'm changing as a person, becoming a lot more open-minded to try things. I'm not locked into paranoia and fear. I'm not worrying so much about new drugs and being locked into this fear that doesn't let me try new things." [Dewdrops #12, Summer 1994]
This determination translated into a much more subtle and lucid sound overall on Four-Calendar Café. Whereas previous records—most especially Blue Bell Knoll and Heaven or Las Vegas—were often quickening whirlwinds of density and obscurity, Four-Calendar Café takes a sober step to the side, and reveals a much gentler and vulnerably honest side to a previously enigmatic group. Rather than heavily processed, excessively multilayered songwriting, Robin and Simon opted for a more minimal approach by scaling the mixes back and relying more on the songs themselves. Nevertheless, nearly half the songs were recorded while Robin was still heavily under the influence.
"The strange this is was that it was the upbeat songs like 'Bluebeard' that were written when I was bombed. The darker shit came out when I was sober. Looking back, all the songs on all our albums were written in a state of disarray. It was just the drugs. I mean, my life was in a complete shambles at least a year after I quit drugs. You don't get well overnight. I've got no regrets about the past. In fact, I've got a lot of admiration for the work I did when I was off my nut." [Raygun, 1996] "I mean, there's things that I've done when I've been off my nut which I don't think I would have thought of otherwise. I was really surprised. And I'm surprised in myself that since cleaning up...the music that we make is just a bit more 'heady'. You see, I was scared...I had a lot of fears I wouldn't be able to make music without drugs. It took me about three months actually to just go and try it. And I was really surprised." [Mondo 2000, 1993]
"I've consciously been stripping things back," explained Robin. "In the past, I've always wanted one more overdub, one more melody, because I'm terrible for thinking that my music isn't good enough, so if I put in a few more frilly overdubs, then it'll be all right. If you take something like Blue Bell Knoll and strip away the overdubs, you'll find that there's not much there. On that album, the songs are made up of lots of little bits of nothing. These one's are more substantial. The ideas [on Four-Calendar Café]are more focused." [Raygun, 1993]
"I would mix something and then listen to it at home, in the car, then come back the next day, do some fine-tuning and move on before I changed my mind. And if I do change my mind, I'll go back and do it again. I like to take a fresh approach each time I do something. I don't build up a monitor mix while I'm recording and then tart that up and finish it. I like to strip the whole board down and start afresh, and just get into the sounds individually.
"It's difficult to know when to stop. This time I really disciplined myself and said 'Well, this song is okay. Let's not lose where it's coming from by tarting it up beyond belief'." [Mix, 1993]
As a result of this more disciplined work ethic, Four-Calendar Café features the broadest array of sounds, textures, and songwriting styles since Head Over Heels in 1983. There are still more familiar sounding songs, like the Heaven or Las Vegas-esque "Summerhead," "Pur," and the danceable pop of "Bluebeard"—a toe-tapper with country music influences—which is reminiscent of older songs like "Carolyn's Fingers" or "Iceblink Luck." But then there are the more emotional and quiet sounds of "Theft, And Wandering Around Lost," "Oil of Angels," "My Truth," "Essence," and "Evangeline," in which delicate guitar arrangements accompany relaxed percussion or looped keyboard rhythms. "Essence" harks back to Victorialand, while other songs like "Know Who You Are At Every Age" and "Squeeze Wax" set a new tone for the band, carving out yet another aesthetic for themselves.
This new approach, however, did not obstruct the band's perspectives on previous work when compared to Four-Calendar Café. "It wasn't just [the drugs]," suggested Liz, "I mean, along with the drugs go all the other things where the communication breaks down. So then we'll have tension."
"The thing is, music speaks through emotions, and emotions get numbed when you take drugs. So it can only work for so long." [All from Mondo 2000, 1993]
"It wasn't so much cocaine, it was just...obsessive things. I've got a very obsessive personality. I'm obsessive about my music, I'm obsessive about everything that I vaguely like. I was getting in situations where I was doing things that were against my values. Maybe that's a nice way to put it. It's difficult. I really don't—I feel a bit vulnerable."
"My head was very trapped in a...if what I'm doing now is good, then everything I must have done before is crap. That was the message my head was telling me in the past. I've been very, very harsh on myself, and I really beat myself up. But I've learned to live with them. I don't listen to them, but I've done them. And that's OK." [Select Magazine, 1993]
When asked about his feelings towards some of their older music, Robin commented, "Some of them work better than others for me. I'm just coming to terms with them. In the past I've gone on record as saying they were all shit, but I accept them now. I think Head Over Heels is good. Treasure is a bit iffy. Heaven or Las Vegas is all right. But I don't really listen to them. It's not my kind of music." [Raygun, 1993]
Perhaps the most obvious difference in Four-Calendar Café—especially to the seasoned listener—is that Liz's lyrics are suddenly, and often shockingly, clear. Not since Head Over Heels was it possible to grasp whole phrases in a particular song.
"That was the point this time, to make them mean something. I can see that now in retrospect. Back then, with the sounds, I thought I was being really honest, but now I think I'm being a lot more honest by writing things down and then singing it." [Lime Lizard Magazine, 1993]
"I've just recently realized that I'm a very secretive person, that I'm constantly covering up for myself. I'm only just realizing how much. I don't really know what's happening. I hope it doesn't mean that I won't allow myself to do more things like Blue Bell Knoll. I'd like to be able to do everything. You see, on that album, I was still expressing the same things. I was still feeling the same feelings, but I wasn't getting caught up in them. I was just feeling into a fucking microphone. I really was getting caught up in them on this album. It was very painful. And the lyrics aren't even that explicit." Perhaps not "explicit," but nonetheless revealing, and obviously quite personal. "Evangeline," for example, includes the refrain:
There is no going back
While songs like "Bluebeard" and "Theft, and Wandering Around Lost" clearly deal with demons related to love and sex, with Liz singing, on "Bluebeard":
Are you the right man for me?
And on "Theft...":
The man is an offender
"What I've got to do is get honest, to stop doing what I was doing. Unfortunately, and this is typical of me, I tend to go from one extreme to the other. To go from an album like Blue Bell Knoll, which is so heavily disguised and removed from reality, to Heaven or Las Vegas, or even more to this one, where everything on it is in English and it's all audible...it is extreme, I think. But it seems important for me to do that." [Raygun, 1993]
Like Robin, Liz doesn't debunk the band's previous efforts, including her own work, although her perspective has changed remarkably. "It's amazing though, yeah, I mean that's...I mean really the records are...a representation of our coping skills...and I think...I was very much in denial...and I think that you can hear that on the album [Blue Bell Knoll]...you know, not one word can you grasp...giving anything away... It just wasn't allowed..."
When pressed about her methods on past records, she explained, "What they are [pre-Four-Calendar Café lyrics], are words that I've taken from..maybe seen written down...in a language that I don't understand, and liking them...and maybe...making new words as well out of them. I mean I've got reams and reams of words that I don't have a clue what they mean, but...I wanted them because, I knew I'd be able to express myself without giving anything away." [NPR Interview, 1993]
"A lot of the stuff I was singing about then was all metaphorical. I wasn't talking like I am now. I guess it's back to how much personal power you feel that you have. Like, if I'm 17 and I don't even know when I'm hungry, am I tired, have I had any sleep—if you don't even know that, then how can you talk about lyrics that come from such an unconscious place? I always said, 'I don't know', and I didn't." [Alternative Press, 1996]
"The catch is I can barely talk English, isn't it? I quite like that. Combining words in different languages that I couldn't understand just meant that I could concentrate on the sound and not get caught up in the meaning."
"See, I find that [my older lyrics] don't have any meanings. They're not proper. Although I've got a great dictionary of them. It's like the Cockney rhyming slang or something. Writers like John Lennon. Writers that just kind of made up their own portmanteaux that caught on and people still use them. They don't mean anything, though, that's the thing. You know all the transcendent sounds. It's all sound all the way through."
"...[the dictionary] is how I got some of the words. And then I got to the stage where, I don't know, something just came in. My life was a fucking mess...and I just couldn't carry on. I mean, it would have been so easy to do that. 'Cause after Blue Bell Knoll, which was really the easiest, the easiest I've ever done to make a record...I just couldn't keep going that way. I guess that was the start of learning to be aware of what was going on and what I was responsible for."
"I went to see someone this time 'cause I really got into trouble on this album. I was just freaking out all over the place. I stopped making a lot of sounds, you know. I was talking very quietly. I was just so afraid of getting loud again. 'Cause I'm not really very loud on Four-Calendar Café. I just feel like I've lost touch with that side of me and I wanted to get back in touch with it so that I can have my quiet moods and I can have my moments when I can express myself in a very loud way, as well. 'Cause that's good for other emotions." [Mondo 2000, 1993]
"Evangeline" was released as the first single and video from the album, a move which surprised many. "Evangeline" was an unusual choice, in that it is more quiet and spatial—not very "catchy" at all—like, say "Carolyn's Fingers" or "Iceblink Luck" had been. When asked why "Bluebeard"—the more obvious choice for a single—had not been released first, the band had this to say:
ROBIN: "Other peoples' taste isn't really our problem. We're not going to make records for Radio One programmers."
LIZ: "And "Iceblink Luck" really wasn't representative of Heaven or Las Vegas. Like "Bluebeard" wouldn't have been representative of Four-Calendar Café."
SIMON: ""Evangeline" was just what we wanted at the time, so that's where the conversation ended until we started hearing comments and complaints from America, and you have to start analysing it."
ROBIN: "The point is, we can't make a record that everyone will like. We just have to be true to ourselves. But it's interesting that we haven't had the pressure yet from the big, horrible major, when we had shitloads of pressure from the small, really credible indie [4AD]."
SIMON: "It would be a lie to say, 'oh, we've been listening to a load of Hank Williams, and "Bluebeard" came out of that.'"
ROBIN: "Things don't influence us directly, but things do get through. To me, "Bluebeard" sounds nothing like country music. It just sounds like us playing a twangy guitar. So it was really a guitar that created that song. A big guitar. It's just that if we do country it comes out sounding like the Cocteau Twins. If we do anything it comes out sounding like the Cocteau Twins." [Lime Lizard, 1993]
After "Evangeline," the band released the limited-edition Snow—the previously-released recording of "Frosty the Snowman," plus a cover of another holiday classic, "Winter Wonderland." The notes simply said, "Happy Christmas."
"Bluebeard," the follow-up single, was released in early 1994, backed with two songs plus an acoustic version of the title track. A promotional video was also produced—one of their most ambitious ever—and features a great deal of computer-generated animation, with Liz "on the halfshell," among other visual surprises. In addition, the band made their first US television appearances with Robin making a very awkward—if not antagonistic—visit with MTV's "120 Minutes" (it was clear that the host had not prepared, and equally clear that Robin was not interested in meaningless chatter). The whole band—including additional guitarists and drummers—appeared live on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," performing "Bluebeard," a performance which gave viewers an idea of what to expect from the live performances to come: a tightly knit band with a powerful and confident sound, and Liz taking great liberties with her voice and lyrics...and guitarist Ben Blakeman in a dress.
In the fall of 1993, Cocteau Twins took the café on the road with another world tour supporting the album. In contrast to the Heaven or Las Vegas Tour, Four-Calendar Café featured—for the first time—live drums and percussion, with Benny DiMassa and David Palfreeman assuming those roles respectively. Mitsuo Tate and Ben Blakeman again added extra guitar to the live sound, and the whole band in general exuded energy and enthusiasm like never before.
Live selections included "Know Who You Are At Every Age," "Evangeline," "Bluebeard," "Theft, And Wandering Around Lost," "Summerhead," and "Pur" from Four-Calendar Café, with a variety of tracks from Blue Bell Knoll and Heaven or Las Vegas, along with older selections from Victorialand, Tiny Dynamine, Aikea-Guinea, Treasure and Head Over Heels.
Liz and Robin shared some of their thoughts on touring and live performance:
"...I want to sing songs that I haven't sang for God knows how long," explained Liz. "Old songs which I do feel, I do have to, you know, they're my 'Hamburger Hills,' you know I've really got to get over those psychological humps around those old songs. I'm trying to change my voice at the moment and it's so hard to sing those old songs... I mean, it's hard to sing them again without falling into my old habits." [Mondo 2000, 1993]
(Fans and band members had mixed feelings about Liz's vocal stylings during the tour, where many of the songs were all but unrecognizable vocally and lyrically. Liz subsequently explained that it was her way of breaking those "old habits," and working to fundamentally change her singing voice—an accomplishment which was obvious on later records.)
Robin added, "I like our songs. But, I mean, I'm sick of some of the new ones, as well as some of the old ones. The songs that were chosen were okay, but it would be nice to have a week off, time to learn five or six new songs, and teach them to the band. That would be nice. That would be a luxury. We haven't got the time, so that's that. Every day off costs us x-thousand dollars, and we're losing money on this tour! I'm paying for it, ultimately, from my royalties. I mean, I don't work for wages, but I do just as much work as everybody else. And I still go home when the tour's over and there are bills to pay, rent and taxes. But the truth is I don't have those 3-4 months' wages like everybody else with a regular job has. If we just did a European tour, we'd save so much money and time and we wouldn't have to go through so much heartache. But we'd let down a lot of people who want to come and see us in the U.S. Is that fair to them? I think I might be becoming a bit reasonable in my old age, 'cause I used to think 'Fuck the fans—this is what I want!' You know? It's only fair to the people that if we've advertised the show and they've bought tickets, that we should do the show. So am I being true to my music? Or what am I being true to? I don't know. I'm trying to do the right thing. I always tried to do my thing—not the right thing." [Dewdrops #12, Summer 1994]
When the curtain went down on the last performance on the Four-Calendar Café tour in 1994, it was anyone's guess where the Cocteau Twins would go from there. Many were surprised to learn that, following the tour, Elizabeth had a full-blown nervous breakdown. It was revealed that the process of recording Four-Calendar Café and then completing the tour—with Robin and Liz ending their 13-year relationship and Simon reaching the end of his rope over the constant fighting—nearly sent the band into another tailspin. "We got about as low as you could go, personally and emotionally," said Simon in a 1996 interview with Raygun. "We've come out the other end a lot healthier. Things are brilliant now." [Raygun, May 1996]
Subsequent months showed the band and the individual members appearing in a variety of side projects, including work with Medicine on a song entitled "Time Baby 3," which appeared on the soundtrack to the motion picture "The Crow". Liz did extensive recording with The Future Sound of London on their 7-track single Lifeforms ("I sang my heart out for eleven fucking hours on that record and all that is on it is something that sounds like a sample. It was good, but it could have been brilliant." [Boyz, 1995]); sang with personal friend Hamish Mackintosh on Fuel's Timeless EP; recorded a never-released tribute to Pink Floyd with the London Philharmonic Orchestra; rejoined old friends Moose on their track "Play God"; and collaborated with Scottish act The Bathers on their LP Sunpowder. Simon began work on his own solo project and Robin made a guest-appearance on The Veldt's second album, Afrodisiac, playing a scaled-back guitar version of "Bluebeard," cleverly entitled "Shaved."
In the "meta-Cocteau Twins" world, two of the songs from Four-Calendar Café were borrowed by Chinese pop sensation Faye Wong (Wangfei), who re-recorded her own Mandarin Chinese versions of "Know Who You Are at Every Age" and "Bluebeard." The friendship between the Cocteau Twins and Faye would continue—though they would never meet in person—and she subsequently recorded several more Cocteau Twins songs for her primarily Asian audience.
For the Cocteau Twins, Four-Calendar Café was not unlike passing through the eye of a hurricane, or perhaps a momentary moment of lucidity after a long drug trip. With Four-Calendar Café, the band at least tried to make contact with themselves, each other and their music in a new way, to make it a starting point for an entirely different attitude. Although in truth this proved to have been overly optimistic, the album still manages to stand on its own for what it is—undeniably unique and remarkable—and for what it represents to the band and the hundreds of thousands of listeners who made it the most widely selling album the band ever recorded. And while some have criticized Four-Calendar Café for being 'too light,' or 'too much like a self-help book,' Four-Calendar Café was, undoubtedly, a sort of healing process that introduced another new period that would be full of optimism and motivation. That motivation would lead to one, final burst of creative energy from 1995 through 1996, which would bring forth two EPs, a new full-length LP, two videos, four singles and a tour before the story of the Cocteau Twins, as we know it, would end.