Interview: Kevin Shields
In the first My Bloody Valentine interview since the release of mbv, Kevin Shields speaks on the long and laborious process of recording the follow-up to Loveless.
By Ryan Dombal
On the night of February 2, as fans around the earth pressed play on the first new My Bloody Valentine album in 22 years, Kevin Shields was fast asleep. The rest was deserved. He was on tour in Korea at the time, and before he hit the pillow, he called his sister– who helped set up the band’s online store, which was rushing through a battery of tests to make sure nothing went awry– and asked, simply, “Can we release it now?” Then he zonked out.
“I woke up and heard about the website crashing,” he says, calling from the Irish countryside a week ago. Even though he was told that “some sort of super-triple-A rated computer bloke” wasn’t 100% happy with website trials that night, Shields pushed things through anyway. “I was getting more and more frustrated,” he says, thinking back to the time just before the album went up, “I really wanted this to come out.” Temporary glitches notwithstanding, mbv arrived, and, perhaps even more impressively, it did not disappoint.
The record’s bizarre journey began in 1996, when Shields started recording guitar riffs onto analog tape. “I was purposefully not trying to write songs with a beginning, middle, and end,” he says of the album’s early days. “I was trying to pull myself away from the part of my brain that makes things linear and toward something more impressionistic.” But a year later, with drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig, bassist Debbie Googe, and guitarist/vocalist Bilinda Butcher having left the band, the sessions were abandoned and My Bloody Valentine essentially ceased to be.
Those recordings gathered dust for nine years until, in 2006, Shields went back to them while working on remasters of the band’s previous material. “I listened to it properly and was like, ‘You know what? This is definitely way more than I thought it was,'” he says. The quartet’s subsequent reunion shows in 2008 gave him another jolt of energy. “I thought I was going to finish it in 2010, and be making the next record by now,” he says. “Then, two years later, I actually finished it.” The final album includes recordings from the 90s sessions as well as vocals, bass, drums, and other overdubs that were laid down in 2011 and 2012. “The main reason it got finished properly was because I had all these pieces in my head,” says Shields, talking about the unrecorded melodies that lingered in his brain for 15 years. “They didn’t leave.” Given the album’s open-ended creation– based on “feel” and extended, repetitive takes rather than traditional song structure– the mixing and editing process, which took four months toward the end of last year, was particularly crucial. “That’s when we began to realize what it really was,” says Shields.
Fittingly, our interview went through some twists and turns of its own, as it was originally scheduled for early February and then was set up and nixed about a half dozen times over the last seven months. Offering what might be one of the biggest understatements ever printed on this website, Shields says, “I’m a terrible bet when it comes to time.” Even so, he’s not apologetic for his unique brand of personal pacing. “No time felt like a good time,” he says when pressed on the various cancellations. “But if I want to do something with my heart, then it will always happen at some point– and it always does.”
“I think the album will make more sense in a few years–
that sounds pretentious, but it will.”
Pitchfork: Your music sounds blissfully unaware of the musical world around it and exists in its own space. Is that an overarching goal behind what you do?
KS: I don’t feel bound by the ebbs and flows of musical trends, or what’s happening with new music in general. I see what we do out of context. For example, a lot of the musical ideas that we started exploring in ‘88, like the emotional feeling you get through the bending of a note, weren’t copied from somewhere, though I remember thinking at the time, “I can’t believe I’m the only person who ever thought of this.” I always had a fascination with that sound. It’s a mixture of the idea that something could be going wrong along with the idea of bending constrained, Westernized music out of tune. I eventually found tracks [with a similar sound] by Soft Cell, or Talking Heads, or D.A.F., and thought, “OK, nothing comes from nowhere.”
But because I wasn’t copying an idea, and it just came from somewhere inside me, it felt like a birth of something that most people didn’t understand at the time. A lot of what the so-called shoegazing bands that came after us were doing was significantly different in mood, intention, and attitude, with just the superficial common elements of noisy guitars, soft vocals, and slightly rhythmic drums. The real quality of it, which was then expanded and realized with Loveless, was something that felt like it just came through me, like I was completely possessed by something. I still feel that with the stuff we’ve just done, and it’s something that takes time to really fall into people’s consciousness.
At this point, with music in general, especially modern dance music like Skrillex or even “Gangnam Style”, there are these bended, twisted synth parts; those feelings that we were exploring has become completely mainstream. I don’t think it came from us, but we explored it first in a lot of ways. It’s a strong element, so because of that I still think we have to make more records and maybe by then a lot more people will get it.
Pitchfork: Do you feel pressure to discover another type of sonic innovation?
KS: No. I’m not looking for it. And I didn’t look for it then, either. It just happens. It’s like most good things: If you happen upon them, to recognize it is enough.
Pitchfork: Were you at all fearful of tarnishing the reputation that built up around Loveless and My Bloody Valentine by releasing another album?
KS: No, no. Since the early 2000s, when I was playing with Primal Scream, I was like, “I’ve got to get back to doing my own stuff.” Making a record always seemed inevitable. From my perspective, [Loveless] developed a life of its own over time. But when it first came out, half of the reviews were like, “This is OK, but it’s not as weird as we thought it would be.” I remember doing one interview for a fanzine and the kids were complaining, like, “Why did you make a record that only sounds good on expensive hi-fis?” That was when the whole Britpop thing was beginning, and American grunge was taking off. In the mid 90s, there wasn’t a huge sense that people had really appreciated the record. In time, it seemed like people did, and I was just grateful and relieved for that.
When I started [mbv, in the 90s], people didn’t seem to care about it too much, and that was the spirit I tried to keep when finishing it over the last few years. I knew a lot of people who loved Loveless were going to hate some of this stuff, because it doesn’t bring you to the same place, and that felt quite freeing.
But I have to admit a reality does kick in over time, too. I could’ve tried to completely overshadow [Loveless] with this huge, expansive, double-album masterpiece, but that seemed really unattractive, because it would mean I wasn’t making music for the sake of music but rather making music in the context of other music. At the same time, it doesn’t mean I’m not going to try and do that some day.
Pitchfork: What was the thinking behind releasing the album on your own through your website?
KS: With the internet, it’s a total yin and yang: 50% good and 50% horrible. The good side is that we can release a record ourselves without doing anything– we just said we were releasing it on Facebook, and that’s what we did, and then people bought it.
The bad thing is most people who heard it didn’t buy it. We knew that was going to happen, so that’s why we put it on YouTube. Even I just listen to some bands on YouTube. I’ll think, “Oh, I quite like that, I should buy it someday,” but I don’t get around to buying half the stuff I liked. You wind up listening to one song that you really like 30 times on YouTube and then you’re done with it. That’s the way it is.
I have to admit we did price our CD a bit high because we really believed that buying the vinyl version with the CD and the download was so much better. The vinyl package was actually a really good value, and guess what, it sold the most. That’s been the great success of all of this: Vinyl is not a marginal format. For us, it was the main format. We had to make a lot more than we thought we would.
Pitchfork: How many copies of the album have you sold?
KS: I’m not going to tell you. It’s a closely-kept secret.
Pitchfork: But you’re happy with the number?
KS: I’ll put it this way: If we put it out on a major label, we would’ve had to sell 1.5 million copies to do as well as we will have done by the end of the year– people can work that [math] out for themselves. It was great to release the record without any industry interaction at all, but it also meant that it was a bit too expensive to buy, so we’re going to try to make it cheaper by working with various record companies in the future. In reality, there’s a limit to putting a record out yourself. When it comes to working with major record companies in the context of them owning anything, though, that will never happen. Ever. In my life.
Pitchfork: What were your emotions like once the album was finally online?
KS: Positive. There was a buzz going around amongst anyone that I played it for before it was out, mostly amused expressions and smiles. It wasn’t people chin-stroking and going, “Yeah, this is a seriously great piece of work.” It was more like: “What the hell is that?” or “That sounds ridiculous” or “That’s really funny” or “That’s beautiful.” It’s from the heart and it’s irreverent in certain ways. It’s got something that’s alive and free, it’s not bound down by ideas. It’s like the feeling of getting a new puppy– you love it and then you’re really eager to share it so you tell everyone to come to your house to look at the new dog.
Pitchfork: Many have tried to copy your guitar sound over the years but nobody’s gotten it quite right. Why do you think that is?
KS: Well, the Beatles and the Ramones are my two favorite bands of all-time, and when I was a teenager, I learned that in order to play guitar like Johnny Ramone, it takes a huge amount of physical effort. A lot of people at my school could play the “Stairway to Heaven” guitar solo, but they couldn’t play three chords of a Ramones song if their life depended on it because they didn’t have the strength or ability to do it. But all I did was practice that, and the style that I eventually fell into is more focused than people would actually imagine. There’s physicality and also nearly a meditative stillness to it. You have to be right there in the moment to do it, otherwise it’s just gratuitous chord-bending that sounds like nothing. And that’s why people who copy it don’t connect with anything. You have to be there to do it, you can’t be somewhere else.
Pitchfork: It feels like guitar music is currently in somewhat of a lull.
KS: Yeah. But everything’s in a lull, in it’s own weird way.
Pitchfork: What about electronic music?
KS: Oh, in America it’s really buzzing. But look at Daft Punk’s new album: They wanted to do something much more soulful, something that captures an element that’s not about what you can do with a machine. I’ll have to admit, I’m one of the few people I know who doesn’t go crazy for Kraftwerk, I always found them a bit too mannered. But I like electronic music. I saw Skrillex the other night. The first half wasn’t so great to me, but the second half was really good– more dubstep-y and broken up and crazy. I love when things bend out of shape. There’s a sense of freedom when you hear music like that. That’s why I love drum and bass music. When it first started, it was still elongated and experimental and always about the DJ blending things rather than focussing around a particular beat.
Pitchfork: Do you feel a kinship with what Daft Punk did with their new album?
KS: Yeah, I can see where they’re coming from big-time. The whole rebirth of feel is wonderful; I know it sounds silly, but the computer is a fool, and feeling is God. I’ve always quite liked Daft Punk. When I first heard them, I thought, “Oh, they’re really into that mid-range sound.” The French were always masters at mid-range. And I like the attitude.
There’s a lot to be said for how they marketed the hell out of that album, too. I would never be judgmental against trying to let the maximum number of people know that a record’s available. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. The way Daft Punk probably did it was cool because they seemed to have an awful lot of control over the situation. It felt like they made the record, and then said [to Columbia], “This is it– you just pay for the promotion.”
Pitchfork: Did you consider a more traditional marketing rollout for this record with more of a build-up?
KS: The whole point of this record was to put it out and that’s that, because it was unusual in the sense that it was started and then stopped and then started. I didn’t want to go on about it very much. I just wanted people to take it for what it was, so to give it its most genuine chance was for me to not be very involved in that process.
Pitchfork: Did you pay attention to the reaction and reviews?
KS: Oh yeah, I’ve read reviews! We didn’t do any press, but we hired a press officer to track everything and let us know what was going on. I buy magazines. I’m not floating around in my own universe. I’m interested in everything.
Pitchfork: Did people understand the album in the way that you intended?
KS: Yes and no. The whole idea that this album could’ve been made a month after Loveless was completely wrong. But I find it fascinating how people see it in three parts: the first bit’s a continuation from Loveless, the second goes off into something different, and the end is going into the future. But the irony of that is that the first track [“She Found Now”] was the last to be recorded, and it was the only one that was recorded completely from scratch, in 2012.
To be really honest, if we’re lucky, maybe people will eventually see it for what it really is: another really good record in the context of our other two records. When taken altogether, it’s the end of something, in a way. Moving forward, I still have an urge to create music that has the power and punch of the Who, and yet another part of me wants to make a pure-music record, where the musicality comes before the attitude and the energy.
Pitchfork: There’s so much youth involved in what a band like the Who did in their prime, though.
KS: I know. But even though we’re getting older, we’re tougher and stronger in a strange way. We haven’t crossed that bridge where we’re actually just old. Sometimes the tendonitis in my hands really hurts, and I’m thinking, “OK, I’m definitely old.” But then I just play through it and it’s gone. I’ve had tendonitis in my hand since ‘88. That’s half the reason why I wrote songs like “Soon”– so I could play open-chord versions of things.
Pitchfork: Do you regret how long this album took to come out?
KS: Not really, but what I do regret is not making more records at this point. As I get older, I realize a lot of the things I could have done– things that I didn’t think were so great at the time– actually would have been enjoyable. I do need to loosen up a bit, and that usually does come with old age. That’s the intention.
Pitchfork: Are there any older artists that you look to as role models?
KS: I don’t have a role model, but I certainly have always enjoyed Neil Young. I had the great pleasure and opportunity to watch him from the side of the stage on a couple of occasions, and his on-stage sound is incredible. They’ve got these huge speakers facing them, like a giant hi-fi. It’s not like normal monitoring systems. He only uses a relatively small amp, but the sound is everywhere. He’s somebody where my jaw starts to slack when I’m watching him.
Pitchfork: We recently ran a piece about the subjectivity of the listener, and how some people may prefer digital recordings over analog recordings now. Do you feel like that’s a personal thing or that there’s a kind of innate humanness that makes analog better?
KS: Well, if someone asked me, “Which is the correct one, the vinyl or the CD?” the real truth is neither, because they both change things in different ways. The very nature of limiting something from an infinite to moments in time creates distortion; analog recording methods create all kinds of distortion, they’re just not digital distortion. Digital might capture the dynamics of what I heard before it went to tape a bit more accurately, but on the other hand, when we’d switch from listening to the digital version to the analog, the change was so profound– the music would suddenly go three-dimensional, and it felt much more engaging.
Pitchfork: Is it frustrating for you to hear music on a low-quality format?
KS: Oh no, I get into the sound. For example, when I’m listening to stuff on the computer or through a horrible little speaker on my phone, and then I hear the real version with the bass and everything, I sometimes don’t like it as much. I definitely believe that any medium is viable in that respect. Then again, with analog, when you get to hear it, you’re like, “Wow, a lot of people never hear this, it’s a real shame.” That’s why I made such a huge deal that the vinyl record was pure analog. Oftentimes, when people cut a record from analog tape to vinyl, they digitize the music first; I did a little investigating and discovered that most vinyl records that I’ve ever heard were digitized before they were put onto vinyl. While that didn’t stop my enjoyment of those records, we made an effort to achieve a true analog cut.
Pitchfork: Do you have a lot of leftover tracks from the mbv sessions?
KS: There’s probably about three more [songs] that will come out sometime. The record could have been much more of a novelty record, in a sense, if I put some of the more chord-based songs on it. I think the album will make more sense in a few years– that sounds pretentious, but it will– and in order to have that impending feeling, I had to lose the song that was melodically very nice and pretty. It would have dragged the record toward a much more mid-paced, comfortable direction, and I felt less enthusiasm for that. But that song will be finished someday, because it’s worth finishing. There’s another one that’s more rhythmic-based, but again it just didn’t feel right. And there’s another one that was similar to [“She Found Now”] which didn’t make it, but someday it will.
Pitchfork: Are you considering any other releases at the moment?
KS: The next step is to make an EP of all-new material. I’m also going to re-master Loveless and Isn’t Anything and all the EPs in analog to make pure analog cuts, which has never happened before. And I hate to say this because we haven’t set it up yet, but we want to do a site where everyone who bought a record would be able to stream various other things we put up, like an old recording of when I first experimented with pitch-bending back in ‘81. People could get a clearer version of how we wound up where we did. It seems more mysterious based on the records that were released because it seems like we went from a Cramps/Birthday Party band, to a noisy Jesus and Mary Chain indie pop band, to what we became in ‘88. But if you hear what we did before that, you can see how we were just playing around. It’s not what it seems.
But the main plan for next year is to make a new record.
Pitchfork: You must know that people may be skeptical about statements like that from you.
KS: Yep! But they were also skeptical that we would ever release this record, or play another gig. Skepticism is only a time-based reality, and as an ultimate reality, it’s always wrong, because everything always happens. It’s semantics. Musically, I just think in terms of what’s next. There’s a lot of things I’ve always dreamed of doing, and I hope I get to them before I get too deaf.