My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields on the early days of the band, using synths and tape-loops
My Bloody Valentine (due this Monday, August 19, at the Ogden Theatre) started as a post-punk band in the early '80s, but by 1987, the group embarked on journey of sonic experimentation that resulted in some of the most influential music of the 1990s and beyond. The outfit's genre-defining 1991 album, Loveless, has proven itself a well of inspiration for countless musicians that followed across a spectrum of genres, not just for its enigmatic and visceral sound, but for the stories surrounding its production and the way it eludes simplistic genre classification even as a classic of "shoegaze."
After touring in support of Loveless, My Bloody Valentine effectively went on a sort of hiatus with its members joining other bands and Shields doing appropriately dreamlike soundtrack work for Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. In 2009, the act surprised many by touring internationally for the first time since the early 1990s.
Earlier this year, the band issued a self-titled album that picked up where Loveless left off and pointed to where the band would go next. We recently spoke with Shields about the new album, the early days of the band, the origins of the blistering middle section of "You Made Me Realise" and how the band is writing music in a more abstract fashion these days rather than its traditional songwriting style of the past.
Westword: A while back, you played in a kind of post-punk band before My Bloody Valentine. What got you interested in doing something very different from that, or do you even consider what you did in the early days of My Bloody Valentine distinctly different?
Kevin Shields: It was kind of a punk band, really. Then it was a typical post-punk band. We were playing punk covers and stuff in 1980. By 1981/'82 we were playing what was typical of the time, high guitar parts and funky bass, stuff that became quite popular again. Then we discovered a band called the Milkshakes, a British kind of garage band. We saw them live, and me and Colm Ó Cíosóig were going to do a fanzine, and we did an interview with Billy Childish.
The rawness and the whole feel of it seemed cooler and fresher in a weird kind of way than what we were doing. We went to the Cramps and got into the Birthday Party. There was a slightly '60s-ish kind of thing going on. It felt fresh and raw and a lot more similar to what we were doing when we were starting with the thrill and excitement of it. We started gravitating toward stuff that was a bit more with that '60s influence. It had a lot of these jazzy guitar lines.
The short of it was that we were just playing music for the fun of it. Then it became a little bit more conceptual and in a large way what was holding it back was some ideas and concepts we were pursuing. That got boring, and we started doing stuff just for the heck of it. In '87 when Bilinda [Butcher] joined it was just more a do whatever kind of thing. Then we quickly realized we didn't like a lot of that stuff when we played it live.
Then in '88, when we started doing stuff on Creation, it was just do whatever. It was like doing music and just enjoy doing it without any particular concepts. There were concepts, but it was more like rejecting things like the '80s sensibility and production styles. There was a lot of playfulness involved. That set us off to doing stuff we still like. The stuff we did from '88 onwards, I still like. Everything before that I find hard to like, and I would never really want to play it.
When you perform "You Made Me Realise" there's that section in the middle where it feels like you're very close to a rocket launch with all the air the system is pushing. What inspired doing that at your live shows?
It came from two different directions. Pretty much what it was is that we had a song in 1987 called "Claire." We would tour and play these kind of student venues and stuff. One particular place, there were these guy playing pool in the background, shouting amongst themselves and being quite loud and not paying attention. Before we played the song, I said to the band, "Let's just do it until those guys stop." There's a certain two-chord riff that goes on. After twenty or thirty minutes of that, it started getting under their skin. It was kind of fun to use music as a kind of waking up kind of thing.
We did the song "You Made Me Realize" and the middle section is more a kind of Sonic Youth-y/Beatles kind of mish-mash. It was only thirty seconds long. Then, in '89, we were in a studio which was attached to an art gallery. At night, it was an art gallery, and in the daytime, it was a empty. We pulled our amps into the large art gallery, and Colm and me basically made a huge noise for the sake of it for our own pleasure.
We just kept on doing it and doing it, and the strip lights were shaking, and the pictures were shaking, and everything was rattling and shaking. We just started giggling, and then we kept on doing it, and it was over an hour later before we stopped. We just found that something happened in that long process of sounds that took us somewhere else. We were like children, and we couldn't stop laughing and smiling.
In the meantime, the owner of the studio had been trying to get in for half an hour because he had heard the noise from half a mile away. He couldn't get in because we had locked the door, and when we finally stopped, we heard this banging noise and when we answered the door, the guy was extremely angry, but we were laughing so much and so happy that he couldn't really get angry with us. It was like we were on this crazy drug. So we started incorporating that kind of idea live, basically.
It transformed the feeling when we did it. It wasn't so much about noise; it was something that eventually put you into a sort of trance state. So we did that on tour and some of the longer versions we did forty minutes of it. Sometimes it would be about doing it until the whole room, basically, finally came in to it. It became less about that and more about how it felt on stage. Now, because it became a kind of cliché, sometimes we do only short versions. It's something that can be long, it can be short. So now it's totally free form and there's no concept behind it.
Sometimes it feels good to do it for a long time, and sometimes not. But on the other hand, it became something expected, and it became less about something transforming people and more like a spectacle, and now it's been freed up to be something that's two minutes long or whatever feels right. It's not about trying to do anything to anybody. It just is what it is on that day. Half of our songs can go to various lengths because that's how it is.
On your new album, the song "Is This and Yes" seems to have no guitar. Do you feel like writing a song like that is a departure from what you've done with the band? Is it sonically in line with or a development from what you've been doing in this band?
It was just something I did. I had initially intended to use horns and strings and make it more kind of a real, earthy thing. Then I just got really into the sounds that I used and how you can hear insects, crickets, in the background -- very weird, high frequency noises. When I first did it, I thought I would replace the electronics side with something more real, and then I just got into the sound the way it was and the feel of it. For me, it doesn't seem so different. I'm always messing around with keyboards. But there are no guitars.
Much has been written about the structure of the album and songs like "Nothing Is" and "Wonder 2" that seem very different from the rest of the album. Does that reflect any musical interests you've developed in recent years more so than the other material?
Not at all. I'll put it this way: The first track on the album was the last track that was recorded. They're all from 2012, and "Wonder 2" had its genesis in '96-'97, and "Nothing Is" is from that period.
To release this record you established your own label and went about it independently. What made that the best option for you at this point rather than releasing it through another label?
Mainly because we knew this record would be bought by people who liked us before and would appreciate having it. Anyone that would hear it in any other context would take it for what it was. I didn't really want to do the whole big promotion thing. I don't know; I just wanted to release it, and put it out there, and see what people thought.
The main reason for having a label is to have other people promote it, and working on it, and getting maximum sales, and whatever you want to call it -- do you know what I mean? That wasn't really the idea. It was more about owning it. We made it. We own it. And then we can put it out and people who like us can buy it. There was literally no marketing involved. It was just records coming out, and you can buy it here, and that was it.
Various distributors -- the people more interested in taking the record as it was -- were more like importers, as opposed to local record companies. They all want to put it on iTunes, and take their cut and all that kind of stuff. We didn't even want it on iTunes initially. But we will put it on iTunes just out of curiosity, as much as anything. Maybe some people would buy it that never would have bought it from our own label or the record shop. But we haven't done that yet, though we will do so in the future. The main point is that we got it out in the way we wanted it, and didn't have to do much but make an album. There was no real need for a record label.
Keep reading for more of our interview with Kevin Shields
In putting out the new record, do you feel like it allowed you to move forward as a musician?
Definitely. It closed a loop in time; it resolved or something. "Only Tomorrow," the vocal melodies, even though I didn't record them on tape, I always had those melodies in my head, changing and shifting a bit over time. But they were something that always stayed with me. And I always had something in the back of my head to finish that. But I always thought I should record a proper new record first and stick that on there.
But then in the process of actually finishing so much of what it is happened in 2011 and 2012 and all of the vocals and all of the overdubs and the melody lines and riffs and ideas, that was re-done. And I made up all these loops and layered them together and stretching it in the computer and stuff. I grew a bit tired of that sound, and that's why I brought Colm in to play over it.
I guess I'm trying to say that so much of what the record is from the past two years. But the soul of it, the heart of it, is from '96-'97. I'm just happy that it was something I could be proud of. I wasn't too sure until it was finished. I was just personally in love with lots of it. I find that that's all it really takes. I had a mini-love affair with every song. It's a mixture of a love affair and having a child or something. I feel this great responsibility towards letting it be born, hopefully, and giving it a life. So all of those songs had that quality.
Putting something like "Nothing Is" on the album, when I could have put a more melodic song in the same spot, I feel that it is in tune, weirdly enough, with the feeling I had in the late '90s of an impending sense of change. That something was coming or happening yet it never arrives feeling. Weirdly enough, I have the same feeling now. It wasn't just the story of me starting a record and then someday in the future I finished it.
It was the time and the synchronicity. When I wrote those ideas down it wasn't the right time. It doesn't fit and you can't relate to but when it comes back around you're in the same place again. Having a track like that on the record makes sense to me in a way that might make sense to a lot more people in a year or two.
Last year you did an interview with NME where you mentioned something about how the new album is influenced by The Beach Boys.
What it was is that back in '96 when it was starting, even before that before the band started falling apart, we got an early version of Pro Tools. It was a digital editing system they only use in mastering places now. At the time, though, we could have four stereo tracks and do digital mixing, cross-fading and stuff like that. I was very into those Smile sessions, and lots of ideas worked on separately and then bringing them together into bigger things.
The concept back then was to start working abstractly. Instead of writing a song, I just thought I'll play two riffs, and then I'll do some other stuff and maybe they'll go together. Besides the fact that I'm a lifelong Beach Boys fan, in a nutshell, that approach to making a record was an inspiration. The way it was finished in the end was -- say in the song "Only Tomorrow," the first time I heard it was when I edited it together, and I was like, "Oh, great! It really works." That one, I didn't even do rough edits; I was sure it would work. It was on three different pieces of two-inch.
Related to that, perhaps the same interview, was your talking about how maybe when you were working on the new material you had worked on it in an impressionistic way. What made that approach allow you to do that you hadn't been able to do in the past? Or have you always worked that way in a sense?
No, it's just like on Loveless: All the songs were basically recorded linearly. What you hear on the record is kind of how they were recorded. There was a start of it and an end to it. Some overdubs and vocals, and we mixed it. It was pretty clear what it was.
This one, it was more doing things abstractly, and we could work together sometimes. Then, you put more energy into each area without having to be conscious of the big picture, even though the big picture is floating around. It didn't matter if it worked or not because there was no "finished" version.
Working more intuitively and seeing how things work out?
Yeah! Yeah, I just wanted to break all the patterns I had developed with what I was making. Even though the record sounds like it does, it's because we're people, you know, with the same likes and dislikes. But ultimately, it was done very differently from the earlier records.
Some '90s electronica had some impact on one of the songs on the record?
It had less an influence than you might imagine. The one I think you're thinking of is the one that people say sounds like Stereolab or something? Because it has keyboards. I've been doing stuff like that since '81. I'd picked up guitar in 1980, and by '81, I really got bored with it. I got a synthesizer and a home studio and was messing around with that. Then I got more back into doing music for fun, and the guitar became more my instrument again because it's something that is obviously immediate and energetic. Then I didn't appreciate electronic music in the same way.
Electronic music became much more, by the late '80s, a genre. But to me, it's just music. I know that sounds a bit silly. I guess what I mean is that it doesn't sound progressive to me any more than something done with guitar. That can sound just as progressive. It has more to do with the phrasing and sounds and developing certain approaches to music. It's just like rock music. It's not particularly original or unoriginal. It's just music.
For people's curiosity, we're eventually going to start putting up streams of bits and pieces of music from where the band developed in the early '80s to now. Then you can hear how we were messing around in '81 because we were using synths and tape loops and those kinds of approaches. We appear to be way more progressive in that early context. But we didn't see it that way. It was always just an experiment and messing around. It was only in '87-'88 that we gave up on those ideas of a concept and just did anything. It just happened.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.