It’s ironic and coincidental that on my way to interview Colin Wallace, my train passes through Wandsworth, still the South London home to 4AD, the record label of which he was such a central, yet unassuming figure during the 80’s. Yet it’s no coincidence that Cocteau Twins’ debut album, ‘Garlands,’ plays through my headphones this chilly December afternoon, for it’s the perfect soundtrack to the leafless trees, melancholy stillness and slate grey gloom.
I’ve know Colin for quite a few years now – we even shared desk space during our tenure at Rough Trade Records in the late 90’s/early 2000’s and have remained friends ever since. But Colin’s real story starts much earlier of course.
Glen : You were at school with Cocteau Twins, weren’t you?
Colin : Yeah.
How did you first encounter them?
Colin : I was a year above Robin (Guthrie) and two years above Elizabeth (Fraser). Robin was always in bands – a band called The Heat and a band called All This And More. They always covered this song called, ‘Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White’ (originally by The Standells). Robin’s brother, Brian Guthrie, was a promoter and he booked bands like Simple Minds, way before they broke through. They’d play Grangemouth Town Hall a lot – Squeeze played there too, Bad Manners – and Robin and Bill (Will Heggie, Cocteau Twins original bass player) would often support these bands. That was really Robin and Bill cutting their teeth. Robin used to DJ at The Hotel International (commonly known as ‘The Nash’) on a Sunday but not many people went because Robin would play The Birthday Party, UK Decay and stuff people couldn’t really dance to. But Elizabeth used to dance to it and Robin thought she was a really good dancer, so he asked her if she fancied singing. It’s a legendary story but it is actually true. So, they tried it but she would only sing in front of him. They rehearsed at Robin’s place and the only reason I got involved was because I had a driving licence. We’d all left school by this time and none of them could drive. They were going to a place called Strathaven to record the demos, so I drove them down there. But Bill and I were kicked out of the studio when Elizabeth was doing her vocals. I’ve still got the demo somewhere upstairs. They only sent out about 3 demos – one to John Peel, one to Ivo and I can’t remember who else. Within a week, Ivo phoned and told them he’d like to do a single with them. And then he phoned up again the next day when I was there and said, “Fuck it, let’s just do an album.” John Peel phoned as well.
My role became more and more the driver and helping them set up. I’d always been interested in music. There was a country rock covers band called Tawny that some of my friends were in and they’d play this pub and do Eagles covers – I used to help them put their gear up, take it down, etc. so I learnt a lot from them.
Do you remember the first time you heard Cocteau Twins? Was it a rehearsal?
Colin : Yeah, it was a rehearsal. They’d rehearse on a Saturday in this dilapidated town hall down by the docks in Grangemouth. Robin and Bill were both at college at that time doing a City & Guilds course. Robin worked at BP (British Petroleum) and Bill worked either at the ICI or BP. They studied all week but at the weekend, I’d go down there with the black hash and we’d just get stoned and drink cheap wine. It was a very pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon in Grangemouth!
I used to work in a women’s clothing factory – the most dead end job you can imagine. I finished work at five past five, had my tea, got the van and then we’d drive down to London. There were these really intense kinda coffee sweets that had the same effect as Speed. I used to take these to stay awake to drive – I’d often been up since 7 o’clock in the morning and then I’d be driving them down to London. The first time Ivo (Watts-Russell, founder of 4AD) ever met me, I’d fallen asleep with my head inside a bass bin. He thought I was dead.
I can’t quite remember whether they supported The Birthday Party at the Venue (in Victoria) before they recorded the album (‘Garlands’) or after.
Going to Blackwing Studios was quite special because I’d never been in a studio before. It had a really nice atmosphere. I met John Fryer for the first time. 4AD gave Robin some money to buy a proper drum-machine at that time.
Wasn’t there a drummer before that? John Murphy?
Colin : I don’t remember a drummer. That could’ve been at the embryonic stage when I wasn’t that involved.
Why did Will Heggie leave Cocteau Twins?
Colin : He left after the OMD tour. I wasn’t going to go on the OMD European tour because Ivo didn’t want to send 4 wet-behind-the-ears Scots who could barely speak English out on a tour of Europe. But Bauhaus were about to play their final tour and the Cocteaus’ then-tour manager, Pete ‘Plug’ Edwards had to go off on that, so I stepped in. The phone rang one day and it was Robin. He said, “Have you got a passport?” And I said no. So he said, “Can you get one? We want you to drive us around Europe.” And that was the best news I’d ever had.
The next day I went and told my boss at the women’s clothing factory to stuff his job. He asked me what I was going to do and I told him I was going to work in the music industry and he said, “Are you sure you want to do that? You’ve got a good, safe job here.” I just burst out laughing.
OMD were really lovely. They took all the equipment so I basically just had to drive the band, find the venues, take care of the money, etc. Plug gave me some tips on how to tour manage. He told me that the golden rule was, “Don’t ever piss off the headline band or their crew because they’ll just make your life a fucking misery.” I thought we were having the time of our lives, especially in Nice. I went off with the OMD crew and it was the first time I’d ever taken cocaine. Robin, Bill and Elizabeth were phoning up every police station and hospital because I just disappeared. I woke up in a bath in one of the crew’s hotel rooms. I had to drive from Nice to Strasbourg that day. I had the DT’s – I was shaking like a leaf. That was my introduction to the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.
And then, I don’t know what happened but I remember that at some point, when we were in Ipswich, all hell broke loose. Elizabeth used to go out and talk to the fans after the show, just being really nice but Bill thought she was trying to be some kind of popstar. I remember Robin and I were sitting in a square somewhere, eating a bag of chips and he turned to me and said, “If I teach you how to play bass, do you want to join us?” and I went, “Yeah, alright.”
When we got back to the venue, all the glasses and bottles backstage had been broken but the two of them (Elizabeth and Will) had their arms around each other, so we thought maybe they’d sorted out their differences.
Bill was a really funny guy and we always had a really good time but when we got back to Grangemouth, Robin told me that he and Elizabeth were moving to London and that Bill wasn’t coming, he’d decided not to go. He asked me what I wanted to do and I said, “I want to come with you.”
How old were you then?
Colin : Twenty-one or twenty two. My dad told my mum, “He’s only got ten pounds in his pocket! He’ll be back in a fortnight!” And I’m still here! It was the right move and I’ve never regretted it. I found it difficult to settle down in London and I did feel homesick at times but I was living the rock ‘n’ roll dream. People say it was a dreadful time for music but for me it was one of the best times ever. None of us were interested in the mainstream – Culture Club were just about to break – and there was all this New Romantic stuff going off but none of us were remotely interested. There was all this underground stuff going on – upstairs at The Clarendon, where we first met (the promoter) Richard Thomas and I remember it as a really, really exciting time for music.
Do you remember hearing ‘Garlands’ for the first time? What were your impressions?
Colin : I really liked it. I was quite astonished by the negative reaction it got in the press. If I remember rightly, there were all these Siouxsie references and they slaughtered Liz’s lyrics as well. I do remember her saying, “They’ll never do that to me again.” And that’s when she started thinking about a different way of singing and writing lyrics. I thought that was a really brave decision.
People tend to see Elizabeth as quite shy and demure these days don’t they? And yet there’s early Cocteaus footage where she’s almost confrontational and dancing around…
Colin : Beating her chest…I think in the beginning she was just trying to find herself. People always say, rightly or wrongly, that the worst thing that ever happened to her was that she went to Tona De Brett (famous singing teacher) and she started to take her singing more seriously. I thought she was always very experimental, always pushing her vocal style and Tona De Brett taught her different breathing techniques and stuff like that. But the more the band grew, Liz was discovering different styles and all that. She was a little punk girl at first. But she was growing up, discovering different fashions, buying “stage clothes” and stuff like that. ‘Head Over Heels’ was really where it all changed.
And that’s when they became a headline band? It was much better received than ‘Garlands?’
Colin : They recorded that album in Edinburgh…another record fuelled by black Afghani hash.
I’m quite surprised! I don’t hear that at all in that record…
Colin : Exactly! John, the owner of Palladium Studios was in his element because Robin was trying different things out – that was him becoming a producer. They had a bad experience with Alan Rankine (The Associates) over ‘Peppermint Pig’ and Robin said, “That’s it. Nobody else is producing us. I’m going to do it from now on.” I don’t know what happened with Alan Rankine. They (Cocteaus) were really big Associates fans. When I think about how productive the band were in the early days, it’s amazing. Bands like New Order and Nick Cave were doing albums but there wouldn’t be a single on the album. They’d do a single or an EP separate to the album.
And ‘Head Over Heels’ was basically about their relationship blossoming. Bill had left the band and it was just the two of them. John Peel played the whole of the first side of ‘Head Over Heels’ on his show and when he got to the end, he went, “God, let’s play the other side!” They launched it at the ICA Irn-Bru week. They only played ‘Head Over Heels’ and it got a lot of favourable reviews.
I think a lot of people don’t realise how pioneering Robin’s sound was at that time.
Colin : Totally!
‘Musette & Drums’ for example (from ‘Head Over Heels’) still blows my head off. It’s incredible.
Colin : Yeah, it’s epic. Robin was the first guitarist that I’d seen with all these different FX and foot pedals. And the drum-machine and the tape machine. It was extraordinary what he could do, live. I think he’s a very underrated guitarist. And he thinks he’s been overlooked in a lot of ways.
As a guitarist?
Colin : Everything. The last conversation I had with him, he said people just see him as “the drug taker from Cocteau Twins…” I said, “That’s bullshit.”
I’d disagree that he’s been overlooked at all. Perhaps his solo work but I think 4 or 5 Cocteau Twins albums are astonishing – some of the greatest records of the 20th century.
Colin : They were, yeah. I remember when they met Lincoln Fong, not long after they did ‘Treasure.’ Lincoln was working for Guerilla, which was William Orbit. Guerilla had this mansion flat in Maida Vale (North London) that they rented to Cocteau Twins, so that was basically their own home studio but that didn’t last very long because the neighbours didn’t really like it. Lincoln then became part of the furniture. He was always a godsend to Cocteau Twins because he’s a bit of a technical genius like Robin is. I’d never met anyone who could build computers before but Robin built me my first computer. He just knows it. When we used to go on tour he’d always know which way to go. The Berlin promoter came with us on the minibus. We got stopped at the border on the way to Hamburg and the Russian guards asked if we’d got any cassettes or anything like that. The Berlin promoter basically said, “You wouldn’t like it – it’s really depressing music.” In Hamburg, Cocteaus only played 20 minutes in a pizza restaurant and the crowd started throwing things. The place got burnt down. I don’t know if it was because of them or what but on the way back, the promoter jumped out to ask for directions. But Robin tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I know the way. If he’s telling people we’re depressing, let’s leave the cunt.” So, we drove off and left him.
It was great fun. Wolfgang Press would come on tour with us. There were no mobile phones so no-one could get in touch with you. We used to play ‘Complete Madness’ in the van and we used to love it, singing along!
Who else did you drive for?
Colin : Xmal Deutschland. They were really popular. They’d never toured properly before. Plug and I did that tour. In Edinburgh, we got a bottle of Jack Daniels and got absolutely hammered on our day off. Whoever was in the crew took his shoes off and threw them out the window and they landed on a roof. Wolfgang (Ellerbrock) from Xmal said, “Ah! So this is rock ‘n’ roll!” He’d never seen anything like this. He looked like an accountant. I think he’s passed away since?
I did a tour with Dead Can Dance. If I remember rightly, they supported The Fall at a gig, which was quite odd! I used to drive The Wolfgang Press and Dif Juz. I drove The Breeders up to Scotland to record their first album with Steve Albini in the front. Albini said he couldn’t wait to get to Scotland because of the food! He said, “I love stodge!” The drummer from Slint (Britt Walford) was drumming for The Breeders at that time. He was only 16 or 17. He was a really nice guy. Albini brought him along.
You became the warehouse manager at 4AD?
Colin : I was a delivery driver for Beggars Group. That was how I found my way around London. We were living in a mansion flat in Muswell Hill. Simon (Raymonde, Cocteau Twins) and I got busted when we did a midnight flit. The neighbour above us used to complain so we had to leave. We left and got stopped, randomly, by police and we got busted. Ivo paid my fine for me, which was really nice of him.
That was how I built my record collection. I would drive all over London to labels and Ivo would say, “Can you get me such and such record?” It was really good fun. I got to meet all the Mute (Records) people and Blast First. They were my favourite label around that time. That’s basically how I suggested that Albini produce the Pixies. That’s in Martin Aston’s 4AD book. I couldn’t remember but Ivo said that I was the only one who was listening to fucking Big Black.
4AD at that time had a really good reputation and then they put a record that’s atypical of 4AD, ‘Pump Up The Volume.’
Colin : Martyn Young (MARRS/Colourbox) is a complete genius. Only Colourbox and Big Audio Dynamite were doing that cutting up stuff and they both cut up the same Sergio Leone film, which was quite odd. They didn’t know each other. I remember when they were recording ‘Pump Up The Volume,’ I watched Martyn splicing the tapes together and I was fascinated, so I asked him how it worked. He said it was trial and error. (Affordable) samplers hadn’t been invented.
Ivo was looking for someone to run the warehouse and I said I’ll do it. ‘Pump Up The Volume’ was one of the first records I handled. I loved it. Ivo used to go to America and there were these radio stations that played hip hop and they’d tape them all and come back with these cassettes of these amazing mixes. They were extraordinary. It was the birth of hip hop and so I was already aware of this stuff. Ivo brought back the first Madonna album. Colourbox, I thought, were groundbreaking and underrated. But they didn’t fit in. Maybe 4AD wasn’t the right label for them? But I don’t think they would’ve had the freedom they had on any other label. I know they didn’t want Vaughan (Oliver) to do the sleeve (laughs) but I really like that sleeve. And the one with the horse’s cock. I was talking to Ivo recently and he said if Vaughan was still alive, he would’ve designed a mask with a big vagina on it! (laughs)
What do you think about 4AD’s legacy? People like me have perhaps rose-tinted views on labels like Mute, Rough Trade, Creation in the 80’s and particularly on 4AD. Why do you think it was such a popular label?
Colin : I think because it was an “art label.” It was an arthouse label. Factory was the same but different because they had an in-house designer that “meant something” and Vaughan was our in-house designer that “meant something,” so it had its own identity. Both of those designers had really strong identities. And both of those labels released amazing records.
Do you think once Ivo left, that all changed?
Colin : Totally. I like some of the stuff that came out afterwards. I like Grimes. The Scott Walker stuff. I wish we’d signed Scott Walker. Those records are impenetrable but I really like them. I was lucky enough to work with Scott, through Elizabeth and met him a couple of times. He was a lovely, lovely guy. That Scott Walker thing was a parallel to what Ivo was doing but I couldn’t tell you anything that’s on 4AD now. I think it lost a lot of identity. It wasn’t an arthouse type label anymore. It’s a completely different label now.
Some people cite the time when Ivo started signing American bands as when 4AD changed.
Colin : It did all change. I remember picking Throwing Muses up from the airport (the first time they arrived in the UK) to take them to their hotel and they didn’t understand a word I said. Until a taxi pulled out in front of me and I screamed out the window, “I hope your neck shits a hedgehog!!” and they went, “We understood that!” I remember them being fascinated by red post boxes and stuff like that. Their definition of England was through Charles Dickens. Tanya was 16 and Kristen was 17 or 18. David Narcizo was very young as well and Leslie Langston, the amazing bass player and amazing person….They were amazing to be around. They had a totally different energy to the British bands.
I remember that, around that time, bands were very static onstage and then the Pixies arrive and it was like they were trying to wake up the world.
Colin : Yep. The first time I saw the Pixies was in Massachusetts. I was staying with Tanya and her boyfriend. Throwing Muses were doing this gig in Providence, Rhode Island? Kim had to work late so she couldn’t play the gig. So there were just the three of them. You could tell they were going to be something special. That first demo tape, The Purple Tape, was really extraordinary.
You started your own label whilst you were at 4AD, Detox Artefacts.
Colin : Ivo asked me to do some negative A&R. He said, listen to the tapes, log them and send the tapes back with a polite letter. That’s all I want you to do. So, I moved up from the warehouse to a little room and that was my job. He said, “I don’t want to sign anybody. Just fucking send the tapes back.” Years later, I was working with Antony & The Johnsons and on the way to Oslo, Antony said to me, “You rejected my demo tape.” He’d kept the letter. It paid that I’d actually taken the time to write to him. He was really sweet. So Ivo basically said, “Why don’t you do your own little label because I’m worried you’re just going to get bored.”
And how do you look at Detox now?
Colin : I can’t remember very much about it at all! I remember Suckle because Frances McKee (ex-The Vaselines) became a really good friend. I liked the Suckle stuff. I knew nothing about The Vaselines. She told me about the whole Kurt Cobain thing. I had no idea. I just liked what Suckle were doing. It was a gentle, sweet little record. Very Glasgow indie.
You’re still very good friends with Ivo.
Colin : Yep.
I guess a lot of people don’t know very much about him at all, do they?
Colin : No.
What could you tell people about Ivo?
Colin : To me, Ivo is like my big brother. He looked after me. That’s why I always say that 4AD was like a second family. He took me under his wing and he looked after me. He tells me that he saw something in me that was similar to himself – a sensitivity. So, he always wanted to take care of me. Which is really sweet. He’s someone, to this day, who I can talk to about anything and he talks to me about anything as well. We still communicate on a regular basis. During the pandemic he was sharing music with me that he listened to when he was a teenager – John Peel’s show in the late 60’s. And he sent me over two Pretty Things album I’d never heard of that were recorded at Abbey Road the same time The Beatles were in there and they’re really amazing records. And he sent me Nils Lofgren’s ‘Grin’ record that I’d never heard. To me, it’s like the This Mortal Coil stuff. I’d never heard the Tim Buckley stuff until he asked Robin and Liz to do ‘Song To The Siren’; I’d never heard Roy Harper. He’s always been like an older brother who you can talk about records with. He’s a very, very gentle person. He’s an extraordinary man really.
Has he still got the lust for new music?
Colin : Not really. During the pandemic, he said he’d only been listening to music he had nothing to do with. I’m like him – I can’t listen to anything that was on 4AD. He and I invested a lot of time and effort into developing this stuff and the reason I don’t want to read the book (Martin Aston’s ‘Facing The Other Way : The Story Of 4AD’) is that I was there when everybody was bitching about it (4AD). I’ve had Robin bitching about it for twenty or thirty years, so I don’t really want to read about it. But I love Robin – though I haven’t talked to him for about three or four years….
What about Liz and Simon?
Colin : The last time I saw them was at Vaughan Oliver’s funeral. It was really nice to see them. Simon has done really well with Bella Union. Modern music doesn’t interest me much though. I’d rather listen to Radio 3.
Both you and I worked at Rough Trade Records. I feel it was perhaps the last of the golden age of A&R?
Colin : When I worked at Rough Trade, I couldn’t have been happier. I’d been working on my own, managing The Jesus & Mary Chain and helping Elizabeth leave Cocteau Twins. I helped to develop Rough Trade internationally. The atmosphere at Rough Trade at that time was brilliant. We had such a great time because there was such a lot of great music coming out. You were working with Low, The Strokes were just coming out and British Sea Power were just coming through. I thought it was really exciting.
I read a feature on Pitchfork recently that said A&R men need to listen more to their gut than the algorithm. I totally believe that. I don’t believe you can rely on an algorithm but if something makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, that to me, is more important. But I haven’t heard anything that’s made me that excited in about twenty years! The last thing that got close to that was a band called Broken Twin that Ivo had recommended. I really love that record. I don’t know if it’s just because you get older and we’ve become a bit tarnished by the industry?
How did you get involved with The Jesus & Mary Chain?
Colin : I introduced Scott Rodger to Brendan Perry because Dead Can Dance were looking for a bass player and he got the gig. Scott ended up tour managing people and he became friends with the people who managed the Mary Chain so he asked me if I wanted to help them roadie and drive for them. The first time I ever saw them live was at the Ambulance Station in ‘83/’84 before they signed to Blanco Y Negro, which was a squat gig on the Old Kent Road. They came on two and half hours late and they’d been drinking codeine upstairs and they screamed, “You’re all a bunch of fucking cunts!!” for seven and a half minutes. And there was a riot. They were signed to Blanco the next day. That was one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen in my life. It was so exciting…chaos. I loved the Mary Chain and I remember playing ‘Psychocandy’ to Mark E.Smith when I toured with The Fall and he really liked them too.
I drove for the Mary Chain a few times. They did a gig at the Barrowlands but someone slipped Jim (Reid) a Mickey Finn and he just kept kicking the monitors off into the pit and I had to keep jumping down to put the monitors back up and I was covered in beer and god knows what. The bouncers were holding the PA up. They said, “We had The Pogues in here last week and this is much worse!” It was Richie Thomas (Dif Juz)’s first gig with the Mary Chain and just before they went on, Jim put his arm around Richie and asked him if he was nervous and Richie said, “I’m fucking shitting it!” Jim said, “Don’t fucking worry! We’re shite anyway!” And then all hell broke loose.
William was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. He always had me in stitches because his humour was so dry – very Glasgow. So, I ended up doing a few gigs with them and that’s how I ended up having to give up drinking. I got alcohol poisoning in Finland doing a festival where William drank a whole bottle of Finlandia vodka, thinking it was the weakest vodka you could drink but it was one of the strongest. He was blind drunk. There were on at 4 in the afternoon and William thought he was playing the gig of his life but Scott had unplugged him. The gig was meant to be broadcast Europe-wide and they got paid ten grand for this but they played for about 5 minutes before Scott said, “Pack everything up – we’re getting the fuck out of here!” So, we packed up, scarpered back to the hotel. Red Hot Chilli Peppers were staying in the same hotel and William was trying to pick a fight with them. They were running around naked. It was good fun working with the Mary Chain.
Was their reputation as hell-raisers down to drugs and excess or were they just having fun?
Colin : I think it was just them having fun. Because they had a reputation of causing riots, people used to take advantage. They wanted to play good gigs. There was a gig at the Electric Ballroom (Camden, London) which descended into a riot and they were really upset about it because they wanted to be taken seriously. They were brilliant. Jim told me that they once wanted Lee Hazelwood to produce them. They bought him a ticket to come over but Rob Dickens at Warners kiboshed it. Warners didn’t understand them and they didn’t know what the fuck to do with them. I loved working with the Mary Chain but when I was managing them during that ‘Munki’ record, that wasn’t such good fun. William was in a very strange place at that time but I’ve tried to obliterate it from my memory.