Originally published in Arthur No. 7 (Nov. 2003)
Perfect Sound Forever
My Bloody Valentine’s fluff-on-the-needle sound changed rock music forever. Then they disappeared. Ten years later, MBV’s Kevin Shields explains almost everything.
by Hua Hsu
The story is not uncommon: someone—too old to have done so accidentally, too young to have known any better—creates something truly great but panics at the burden of what that greatness means. As singer, guitarist and producer for My Bloody Valentine, Kevin Shields was instrumental in defining the sound of a generation. Breathy vocal washes clashed with brittle walls of noise on the band’s two classic albums, Isn’t Anything (1988) and Loveless (1991), and though MBV’s dense, otherworldly sound was described as “dreampop” or “shoegazer,” it was always meant to conjure up much more imaginative spaces. “When you hear something and you don’t know where it’s beginning or ending, suddenly your imagination is fifty percent of what’s happening,” Shields explains. “The person listening is playing a huge role in what they’re perceiving, cause they’re allowing that part of their mind to be open.”
Saddled with the enormous expectations that Loveless brought, the shy, nerdish Shields seemed to dissolve into thin air. Was he apprehended by his own legendary perfectionism, sitting alone behind a console of knobs and sounds, striving for something unimaginably pure and beautiful? Had he soured from music altogether, or were the rumors about his drum-n-bass obsession true? Or, had he lost himself in the logical end of his hyper-inward music and found retreat in his own mind? The rare moments he would appear as an onstage guest or as a remixer only added to his disheveled legend.
In 1997, Shields joined bratty Scottish rockers Primal Scream and though he still remained reclusive, he at least seemed alive and well. This year, Shields contributed several new tracks to the soundtrack of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and he’s in the midst of remastering and re-releasing two discs of My Bloody Valentine rarities. Disarmingly charming, Shields sat down with Arthur and a plate of fries to talk about all of it.
Arthur: Can you describe your childhood?
Kevin Shields: I was born in New York, in Queens. I grew up in Long Island (until I was ten) in this place called Commack, your typical suburb-y kind of whatever, and I went to this horrible school called Christ the King—an absolute nightmare, I’m still suffering the scars from that! Then we moved to Ireland—my parents were from there originally. They had immigrated when they were young, they were teenagers (and) they just wanted to come to America. Then they wound up with five kids in the early ’70s and they decided to go back to Ireland.
Were your folks pretty Americanized at that point?
My dad became an American citizen, he was quite Americanized because he’d spent thirteen years or something here. He spent his whole young adult life in America. I lived here ‘til I was ten, so I had the same upbringing as any American. You see the same TV shows and Godzilla movies and read Eerie and Creepy and worry about evil kids with B.B. guns.
Was there culture shock when you got to Ireland?
Mmm, yeah. That was in 1973 and America was truly about 20 years ahead of the rest of the world. In some ways, Europe had things that were more…like they had the glam rock movement. I remember that summer here (in America) it was Three Dog Night—they were the big popular bands with the kids…at school it was that or people were into Led Zeppelin or whatever. Then we got to England and it was Wizard and Slade and Sweet and all these guys in makeup. That was quite radical, that was a huge inspiration to me. In the first few weeks of being in the country, I was already obsessed with pop music. I was always into music—even in America we had our own little fake band, playing cushions and miming.
What inspired you about glam? The theatrics?
There was a whole style of producing that music that was really quite otherworldly at the time. They all used the double-tracking vocal effect and big slap-back on the drums and everything was slightly mutated-sounding. It was all very John Lennon-ized, nearly all the glam records had that double-tracked effect. Suzi Quatro had this song called “Cat on the Can” or something and there were bits where she was screaming with the double-tracked vocals and I remember as a kid believing that she was really doing that with her voice and just thinking, “These people are amazing!” and my brother going, “No it’s all studio trickery” and I was just going, “No it’s not, it’s all real they’re really doing it!”
And so you started playing music around this time?
I started playing guitar when I was 16. I was asked specifically to play guitar to be in this punk band. I hadn’t really thought about guitar so much; I was thinking of bass the summer before. I was basically told, “If you get a guitar you can join the band.” So I got a guitar for Christmas and joined the band. We did our first gig six months later doing Sex Pistols, Ramones, Motorhead…those kinds of songs. That band broke up by the end of that year and we were in this classic post-punky Joy Division-kind-of…actually quite like The Rapture. Weirdly enough, our ‘81 band was insanely similar [giggles] ‘cause that was the thing that was going on then, everyone playing sorta-funky bass, play the guitar with an echo unit—but use the echo unit in a percussive way—and you’ve got this singer who does this thing over the top… that was what was going on then. I spent all of that ‘81-‘82 period being in that world somewhere between Joy Division and…not Gang of Four, I wasn’t really that into them myself. And then from there we just went to doing this Birthday Party/Cramps thing in 1983. Einsturzende Neubauten were a big influence. I got a (Tascam) Portastudio and the first My Bloody Valentine was based around the Portastudio, making tapes at home and then playing them and then jamming over the top of them live.
So you would jam over your own rhythm tracks?
Not drums….we would just have drone-y sounds, weird sounds. Colm [O’Ciosoig, who is still in the band] would drum and I’d play guitar and Dave [Conway, who is not] would sing.
In The Story of Creation, the video about Creation Records [see Endnote 1] that came about ten years ago, Alan McGee jokes about seeing My Bloody Valentine for the first time in the mid-1980s and describing you as a “crap anorak band”—is this the period he was referencing?
Oh, that came a bit later. That came in ‘86. We moved from the Cramps to…I discovered the Byrds and a lot of the British bands that were into that light sort of thing. But all of them, whenever they would play live, it was always quite tough. It wasn’t quite that Talulah Gosh…what do you call it?
Yes, it was like a real twee thing came out. But around ‘85 and early-‘86 in London…I went to see Primal Scream and they were in their very Byrds-y kind of…but really loud and very aggressive version of it. Not noisy, but hard. Not angry, but a fuck-you attitude. That was kind of cool. Then we went through our shit anorak/indie phase. All our lyrics and live gigs at the time were always quite intense. We had a concept—we used to pick very harsh frequencies on the guitar and make them really loud and people would be like “Oooh,” but we had these haircuts and sparkly tops. It was too conceptual, basically, which is why it was kinda not very good. It wasn’t until Dave left that we relaxed a bit and stopped being so conceptual. We were still crap for another six months but then we suddenly got good. We just dropped the concepts and did music in a more generalized way.
Do you remember the moment when you finally thought you were good? Did you suddenly just think, “Wow, we’re good!”
Yeah. Literally yeah! [Smiles] It was literally one moment to the next. We were touring and Alan McGee had seen us the year before and didn’t really like us and then he saw us again and was really surprised at how we’d changed. He was like, “Would you guys be interested in making a record?” He gave us four or five days studio time, we recorded five tracks, mixed them and just went “Shit. This is good, actually, for a change!” We realized something. It was good because we were letting ourselves be more Sonic Youth-y, more of our influences in a way. And somehow out of that came an original quality. And I think it was just the relaxing quality of it.
Which five songs were these?
You Made Me Realise (originally issued in 1988 on Creation). That was the EP we made after doing the gig with Biff Bang Pow! 
You once said “Johnny Ramone’s playing on ‘Leave Home’ is somewhere between stupid and genius. Johnny Ramone was the first guitarist who blew me away—he showed me that maybe I could do something with the guitar…After getting into the Ramones, my attitude became one of using that guitar as simply a noise generator. I didn’t have any ambition to learn the guitar; I just wanted to generate noise like he did.”
Oh that “stupid/genius” thing! I’m so embarrassed by that… But yeah, the Ramones for me were THE revelation. I was into punk but in Britain punk wasn’t such a huge leap…even though it was invented in New York it couldn’t be absorbed culturally in the ‘70s in America. Whereas in Britain—since we’d had all the glam rock bands, which in a way was kind of punky—the punk bands were immediately on TV. The Buzzcocks were always on TV, every band you would read about you would see on TV every week. Punk rock was a mainstream event from the very beginning. It wasn’t an underground thing, even though if you were a punk rock kid you would risk being beaten up, but as a musical thing it was quite mainstream…So I was into all that but then I saw a video for two Ramones songs. And suddenly I understood. This was in 1978. Suddenly I realized he wasn’t playing guitar—he was generating the sound. He was doing what he had to do to make that, but there was no “playing guitar” involved. My ultimate hated image was the ‘70s rock guy just whittling away [strikes pose of consternated guitarist tapping fingerboard] with his too-tight trousers.
So the noise generator—did it influence how you practiced?
I actually consciously didn’t want to learn how to play anything other than the two basic bar chords, so I just learned the two positions Johnny Ramone used and that was it. I absolutely didn’t want to become a guitarist in the traditional sense. In ‘81 this bass player came on the scene and he was basically playing funky, strange bass-lines…melodically it was impossible to play a chord with it. So suddenly I couldn’t play. So I would find a note and then another note and I played a very fractured style. And then I did these percussive things and I suppose that’s when I left that attitude of generating a noise, and I only really came back to it around the time of the Isn’t Anything period because the way I played the tremolo arm…it only sounds good if you have quite a clear track. If you have a lot of overdubs it actually doesn’t sound good, so you can only do it with one main, good sound, and it has to be really loud to hear properly. So I came back to that stage of cranking sound like this. [Pretends to strum while gripping the tremolo arm]. As opposed to playing guitar I was just cranking the sound. And that’s what happened—that’s the Ramones connection. What I did that was any good in the end came from the mentality that Johnny wasn’t playing guitar. Even though now I’ve learned that he was playing a lot more than I thought.
You also said something in that video where you describe My Bloody Valentine as having this “fluff on the needle” sound where things are a bit dulled rather than bright. You described it as music you had to look into, as opposed to coming out at you. 
Well yeah. In the ‘80s the production values got to the point where every record was basically: really loud snare drum with a lot of reverb on it, the guitars were clear and separated. It was kind of…it was…your imagination didn’t play a big role in what you were hearing. When you hear something and you don’t know where it’s beginning or ending, suddenly your imagination is 50 percent of what’s happening. So the person listening is playing a huge role in what they’re perceiving, cause they’re allowing that part of their mind to be open. But if you give something to somebody in a way that says this is where it begins and this is where it ends, people go, “Okay, now what?” Whereas, if you don’t say anything people start to think…it’s like if you were to see the brain in a brain scan, it’s moving differently. So by blurring the edges—or not trying to make them clear, cause people go through an awful lot of effort to make that really clear sound—basically it just made the person listening to the music half the experience. I think what the ‘80s were about was killing that. What we were doing was reintroducing it. I think that mentality was very popular in the ‘60s—Phil Spector’s approach, a lot of the Stones’ records were quite grungy, a lot of the Beatles stuff…all the best popular music of that era, there was a lot of depth to it. It just disappeared into this horrible flat…bass exists here, snare drum is here, bass drum is very clicky there. It was, I suppose, a really right-wing way of making music in a way. It was very, this is right and that is wrong.
Do you keep tabs on My Bloody Valentine’s legacy?
I think the main thing is, in Britain and Europe because of dance music, a lot of things we did got discovered by themselves. People in the dance world discovered the pitch wheel and learned how to use it. There’s millions of dance records that, if they came out in ‘92 or ‘93, people would say they just ripped us off. And now people know they’re not ripping us off, it’s just that people have discovered the pitch wheel and they’re experimenting with it. There’s this great hit by Royksopp and it’s all “byuuuu” [makes high-pitched drop sound], it’s all twisted and melted. But it’s not from us, you know? It’s just because it had to get discovered—that’s human nature to go, “What does this do?” and then do it to every possible thing.
As influential as My Bloody Valentine has been, it seems like people tend to overlook what it is you’re describing. When Loveless came out there was so much talk about you guys coming up with “dream pop” but those who followed were usually were just noisy guitars with a girl singing on top…
Yes, singing softly!
And it’s so different from what you’re describing. There’s no imagination to it…it’s as though people picked up on the “pop” part of My Bloody Valentine but not the “dream” or imagination of it. How does imagination or openness play into your remix work? Your Mogwai (“Fear Satan”) and Primal Scream (MBV Arkestra mix of “If They Move, Kill ‘Em”) remixes are incredibly dense and they certainly leave a lot to the listener.
I don’t know. At the moment I’m producing this band called the Beatings [not the U.S. band of the same name] and we’re going for these particular…they’re really…a bit like the White Stripes guy’s guitar sound where it’s kinda got a really serrated and raw and in-your-face sort of sound. It’s something you just can’t EQ, you can’t get a plug-in to make this happen. It’s very much about the sound from the amp and the way it’s played. I’ve just been experimenting with that sort of thing. I can’t explain it…[they’re] guitar sounds that feel like if you were to rub them across your face, it would really hurt. You can really see the rough terrain. The opposite of Nu-Metal. Nu-Metal is like taking something, putting it in a blender and it’s softened out. Even though I like some Nu-Metal bands—I like the Deftones.
Is your approach different when you remix someone?
The only thing I have is, I don’t add any new sounds. I just take what’s off the tape and process it and mess with it but I don’t’ add new drums or samples…it’s always fun for the band because they hear all the parts. For most remixes, most of the band aren’t in it, it’s just the singer and one main hook and there is other stuff—for the band it’s just vaguely interested. But when I was doing one mix you could seem them all like, “Hey that’s me, it’s just backwards and sideways!” They all enjoy that, so my relationship with all the bands—except for one, that was Placebo—is always closer after doing a remix. Whereas a lot of people do a mix of the band and it separates them from the band. But I’m not really into it [remixing] anymore.
Speaking of recent work, what’s with the rumor about the box set?
It’s basically not true. I’ve been remastering the old stuff—all the EPs and rare tracks—and we got four unreleased tracks. Two of them are from Isn’t Anything and two of them are from the ‘89 period just before we started Loveless.
You’re remastering all of it? Even the scarcer, mid-1980s stuff like Geek and “Strawberry Wine?”
No, all that stuff is…that’s another story. Just the good stuff on Creation. Like all the Geek and “Strawberry Wine”…we kinda like it but it’s still not far enough away. When we did that stuff on Creation I liked it when I did it and I’ve always liked it since. The other stuff we kinda liked it when we did it and we really didn’t like it at all afterwards. And then a few years later, ten years later, you go, “That’s okay actually.” But not really, d’yer know? I don’t have an association with that music in the same way I do with the stuff on Creation, which I still feel very close to.
Do you still keep in touch with all the other members of the band?
Are the old songs demos?
They were finished and mixed, we just didn’t release them because I didn’t like the way I sang, that was it.
The Lost in Translation stuff sounds great. What’s the story with “City Girl,” is it an older song?
No, I still write like that basically. [laughs] Can’t help it!
It’s very stripped-down. It resembles a full-on My Bloody Valentine song but it’s so bare…
I know, I know. The only good thing about that is if you listen to it and go, “Alright if you take that sound and then use a tremolo arm, would it sound more like it?” It takes people further away from the idea it was all effects and studio trickery. I think people can easily see the line.
Do you usually write songs on the acoustic guitar?
So it’s possible to have an acoustic My Bloody Valentine song?
All of them were, yeah. Except for Made Me Realise—that EP wasn’t because it was all done in the studio on the guitars we had. The vast majority of Loveless was done on acoustic first.
Wow, I can’t possibly imagine what “To Here Knows When” sounds like on an acoustic…
That sounds alright. [laughs] Funnily enough, that was my main bone of contention—everyone at Creation would always say that song was the one with a lot of noise but on the acoustic version it’s these really complicated chords.
[Primal Scream frontman] Bobby Gillespie seems like this would-be rock god, which is pretty different from how people perceive you. Many people find it funny that you’re in Primal Scream now…
I find it funny. It’s hard to explain. That group of people, I’ve known Bobby since ‘84 and we’ve kind of changed and developed musically and we wound up on the same label. They kinda know where I’m coming from, in a weird way, but on another level, as a group, half of them never even heard Loveless or any of those records and they don’t care about it. It’s kind of a good gang of people to hang out with, especially their friends. Their friends are more in the dance world and I rarely bump into anyone who gave a shit about anything I’ve ever done and that was kinda nice just to be some bloke. D’you know what I mean? Who’s that weird guy playing guitar? What is he doing? IS he doing anything? It was good. It was as opposite as you could get from the world I was in ten years before. It wasn’t even that long ago—more like ‘92-‘98, a six-year gap of playing gigs.
Another thing you brought up in that Creation video was how house and rap production were really shaking up how people understood the structure of music. You were saying this in 1990, right around when Primal Scream’s Screamadelica and Loveless were coming out, and they seemed radical departures for guitar-based music. How deeply did you get into house or hip-hop, either personally or as an influence to your stuff?
Just as fans. I would buy all the Public Enemy stuff when it came out, I was into whatever I could get from say ’88 to ‘89. By 1990 rap had started becoming huge. It wasn’t as big as people would imagine. Even though Run-DMC were really mainstream, you’d go into a record shop and you’d have a small choice of records. There would be no difference between an EPMD record and a Salt-N-Pepa record, it would be exactly the same level of respect. It just seemed so radical. It just seemed kinda absurd for people to be going jangle-jangle-jangle-ha-ha-dee-dee-dee doing these little pop-punk songs. You had the Beastie Boys selling millions of records and there was an imbalance between so-called underground music and the mainstream, which was truly crazy. It was more like being totally shamed, d’yer know what I mean, and thinking there’s no point in making music unless you can really fuck with it, you know?
In Britain there was a big drum-n-bass movement and that was the last thing I got really into. I got really really into it at one point…we were programming all this drum-n-bass music. We did our heads in. That’s what killed it all. To do that music properly you have to use the right kind of samples…a lot of the people who do drum-n-bass records will take two weeks to make a good track. You have to only approach it while you’re quite fresh because it really fucks with your head. It just got too intellectualized—the process—and we kinda lost the only spontaneity we had left.
By “we” do you mean the band or the larger drum-n-bass scene?
No, the stuff we were doing. The drum-n-bass community was constantly making these bizarre turns and then immediately go back to [beatboxes a stiff, generic rhythm]. You would go to a club and have this really experimental set and people would just watch…and then you’d have someone like Grooverider play the most straight stuff and everyone would just go nuts. It just homogenized into this very basic type of music that’s very similar. But around ’93-‘94, it was constantly going off in bizarre directions. You’d hear tracks on pirate radio and would just be mad. But then rock music went Britpop in England and grunge in America and the mainstream became really awful.
Was it hard to keep your bearings as band during this time?
From ’93 to ‘95 we just really immersed ourselves in this drum-n-bass-y type world. From there the band just fell apart, so that’s where we were at. Just watching mainstream music get really right-wing again. Around 1990 it seemed like music could just do anything and then it seemed to close down dramatically again.
Did any figures stand out to you during this period?
In the drum-n-bass world, when it was really at its most spontaneous and exiting, it was pirate radio stations. At clubs you’d get maybe fifty people and it was very volatile. It was sort of a crack scene with these people who were like explorers going through the scene—it was very weird. Grooverider, Fabio—I quite liked them. But you’d hear mad, mad stuff on the radio and nobody would tell you what it was, where it came from. I’ve still got tons of it. We used to record it, make cassettes. That was the really radical stuff.
You’ve spoken before about Hypnogogia by Mavromatis. How influential was that book on you and your work?
It was influential in the sense that he was the only guy who made attempts…there are no books about that subject in English other than that one…not only did he write a book about hypnogogia, he literally made all the connections to all other states of mind that are very similar…the theater brainwave state. The reason it was very interesting to me was because I spontaneously became…basically that’s what happened between ‘93 and ‘97, until I joined Primal Scream. Every night I would spend hours and hours in that state, tripping out basically—that was my main concern [during that time].
Was this when you came across the book?
I came across the book after a couple years of actually wondering, am I purely insane, or what’s happening here? For some reason I can close my eyes and have three-dimensional experiences.
Do you know how you got it?
No. But it became so all-pervasive that the inner world and outer world were so equally three-dimensional that I realized I was bordering on mental illness, so I had to get out of it.
Do you still have it now?
Not unless I want to.
Have you ever used a dream machine?
No but I would go into that state every night anyway. I didn’t need it. That’s another story! It was a four-year trip, basically.
Okay, last question—when’s the next My Bloody Valentine album due?
1. Creation Records was the storied British indie label started in 1983 by charismatic, if unintelligible, Glaswegian Alan McGee. Along with “discovering,” or issuing early records from, Primal Scream, Ride, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Felt, Teenage Fanclub and Oasis, McGee issued much of the MBV stuff of note, though his relationship with Shields is often described as that of the “girlfriend/boyfriend” variety.
2. C-86 was the catchall term for a mid-1980s micro-genre of UK pop known for being shy, introspective and jangly. Talulah Gosh, the Pastels (who Kevin has worked with), McCarthy (Tim Gane from Stereolab’s much more Socialist first band) and the Field Mice are all C-86 icons. The name comes from a series of compilation tapes issued by the New Musical Express.
3. Besides being a great-sounding string of words, “Biff Bang Pow” was a song by 1960s feedback-happy pop stars the Creation, whose name McGee would nick for his label. McGee, always a big talker, was in a string of terrible, Television Personalities-obsessed bands in the mid-1980s and Biff Bang Pow! was one of them.
4. Shields, on the MBV sound: “The sort of sound of things being a bit muffled—the fluff on the needle sound—where things are a bit dull(ed)—it mainly stems from the fact that people have gotten used to really bright, bright music because that’s the kind of music that initially comes across best on radio and TV. When we make records, we don’t take any of that into consideration—we haven’t yet. You wind up with sounds on records—the overall picture of the music…it fits in itself. You have to look into it as opposed to it comes out to you. Most music is made, constructed to come out, to attack you.”
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