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.