My Bloody Valentine's 'Loveless' is still groundbreaking after 30 years
On the 30th anniversary of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, AltPress is highlighting the innovative album by returning to the band’s 1992 AltPress cover story. Shortly after the release of their second studio album, the interview shed light on MBV’s experimental approach to music, something that catapulted the band to widespread success. The story delved into guitarist Kevin Shields’ philosophy behind the band’s lyrical and sonic tactics to expand the limitations of rock. In the conversation, Shields also touched on his view of other bands attempting to emulate their sound, how vocalist Bilinda Butcher incorporates imagery into her lyrics and much more.
My Bloody Valentine didn’t originate the noise-melody collision that has enthralled so many groups throughout the mid-’80s to the present (credit the Jesus And Mary Chain for that). But they have taken this approach further out than anyone so far, although Valentine guitarist/singer/songwriter Kevin Shields is too modest to accept this judgment. What he and bandmates Bilinda Butcher (guitar/vocals), Colm O’Ciosoig (drums) and Deb Googe (bass) have done is extrapolated the yin-yang qualities found in the Mary Chain, Cocteau Twins, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. My Bloody Valentine use distortion in the way that Rembrandt used light and shade, in the way that Hitchcock used suspense, in the way that Shakespeare used metaphor—masterfully and extravagantly.
Shields is as unassuming as his music is intoxicating. He emits none of the arrogance or flashiness of stereotypical rock stars. With his lank, unkept, semi-long hair and loose, bargain-shop clothes, plus his shy demeanor, he could easily pass for a roadie or a rock critic rather than the creator of some of the most sublime bliss rock of this lifetime.
Even though they have provided a wealth of inspiration, My Bloody Valentine aren’t exactly prolific. Since their inception in 1984, the band have released two full-lengths, two mini-albums and eight EPs. The gap between 1991’s Loveless had many fans and journalists wondering about My Bloody Valentine’s whereabouts. Although he is something of a perfectionist, Shields didn’t intend for three years to elapse between albums. He honestly thought My Bloody Valentine would finish Loveless within two or three months.
As impatience grew, rumors abounded that their former English record company, Creation, had nearly gone bankrupt funding the recording of Loveless. Shields forcefully denies this. “It’s rubbish,” he says. “They said it cost 250,000 pounds. It cost about 100,000 pounds, really. But we did spend more than 250,000 pounds since we’ve been on Creation on videos and other records. It’s a lot of money, but about 70% of that money was spent accommodating our time-wasting mentality. In the future, we won’t work that way. We’re going to get our own recording setup to cut out the concept of recording costs. Time will become a nonissue because no one will know when we started or finished. We’ll cut all that out and just work on music and definitely release records when they’re good.”
Does Shields feel he’s extending the boundaries of rock?
“Hmm. Difficult to say,” he says. “I honestly don’t know whether our music’s drivel or really good. I go through moments thinking, ‘This is different.’ Then I go, ‘Ahh, it’s not really.’”
Many critics and band members have expressed how innovative they feel My Bloody Valentine’s music is. However, before 1988, critics generally ridiculed the band or damned them with faint praise.
Shields relates that his band’s American record company is pretty happy with Loveless, although the group’s decision to designate the ominous, uncompromising “To Here Knows When” as the lead cut on the Tremolo EP stunned some staffers into silence.
He also fondly recalls when “To Here Knows When” entered Britain’s Top 40, BBC 1 Radio’s Sunday chart rundown had to play it. Imagine this utterly bizarre, eerie miasma of guitar distortion among all the program’s usual innocuous pap. To top it all off, the DJ accidentally played the weird ambient bit after the song proper because he didn’t know when it finished.
“That was really entertaining because they’re so nondescript, and it’s the biggest show in the country,” Shields says with a smile. “It’s a program that families listen to and people driving down the highway. I can just imagine people tuning in and wondering, ‘Where is BBC 1?’ They must’ve thought they’d got some pirate station blocking the airwaves.” Highway accidents likely increased that day.
Shields sees the biggest difference between Isn’t Anything and Loveless in the vocals. “On Isn’t Anything, except for ‘Sueisfine’ and ‘All I Need,’ all the other songs are one vocal, no double-tracking, no compiling. It’s very bare, no reverb, nothing. On Loveless, most of the tracks are between 10 and 18 vocals at the same time, all on top of each other. That dry, upfront vocal is gone.”
The Valentines’ lyrics are about extreme states of desire and the inability of language to communicate said states; they typically concern the paradoxical closeness of life and death, love and hate, and the lusciousness of sex, sleep and dreams. However, many listeners complain about the words being nearly indecipherable. Shields says this isn’t intentional.
“It’s a happy accident,” he says. “What stops people from hearing a lot of the lyrics is there’s probably preconceived formulas and types of ways of words going together that sometimes…when I’m singing something in really bad grammar, it doesn’t fit in a logical way. ‘To Here Knows When’ is an example. I always have nondescript lyrics in my head when I’ve got melodies in my head as well. If I was writing and trying to make sense, I would say to myself, ‘To here knows when…that means nothing. Can’t use that.’ A lot of songs have got that, but it feels like something, like maybe I’m imagining the song, and I’ve got a narrative to this mental idea. It’s a very patchy narrative, and that’s all people are left with.”
Butcher also writes lyrics for My Bloody Valentine (see “Only Shallow,” “Loomer” and “Blown A Wish” on Loveless). According to Shields, her words are more literal than his. “She’s a better writer. She feels more comfortable with the idea of creating imagery. Her writing’s not traditional, but maybe she rises to the challenge of writing lyrics more than I do. I just get away with it. I have my own criteria. It means something to me and I like it. It’s easy to sing. I think technically I’m a worse lyrics writer but no less meaningful, just less communicative.
“I spend more time on lyrics than any other thing often, but everything else comes very easy and lyrics don’t. They do when I actually write them, but I have to sit there sometimes for two hours in pain. The music dictates a hell of a lot. Lyrics don’t come naturally, but I want them to be worthwhile.”
Why don’t you print lyrics on the sleeve?
“Because then people will begin to read things into it and misunderstand and start taking them too literally. They’re more in there for sound.
“I don’t listen to lyrics, and I don’t read lyrics sheets. I’ve never seen the need for it for my enjoyment of music. I do firmly believe that for most people they’re liking of a song is mostly based on the overall effect of a song rather than the lyrical content.”
The complex studio wizardry that goes into recording My Bloody Valentine’s music quite often makes some songs very difficult to recreate live. One example is “Swallow,” in which Shields uses a sampler to transform a sleazy, belly-dancing number into a sinuously melodic song with a (seemingly) warped flute wafting over softly jangling guitars and bongos.
How do the Valentines produce all those crazy distorted sounds, which recall such odd instruments as kazoos and gongs as well as some things never heard before? Shields confesses that it’s all essentially done with the tremolo arm on their guitars, which they work in the way most musicians strum a guitar.
Listening to the last few My Bloody Valentine recordings, one senses that Shields is becoming restless with traditional rock song structures. “We’re gonna be a rock band for a while. Then I think by the middle of ‘92, we’ll become a little more adventurous. We’re in a bit of a rediscovery phase at the moment.”
Even their latest batch of complexly layered songs seem “too straightforward” to Shields. He calls it “baby music.”
“On one hand, my main interest is music that’s totally free as in no structural context, movements and keys. I’m still interested in house music and dance music in general. Also, there have been lots of good guitar-based bands — Jane’s Addiction, Nirvana, Mercury Rev. There’s still some exciting stuff going on. So I think we’ll just kind of develop. We’re not gonna turn into a jazz-fusion funk band. There’s not gonna be a major change in direction. At the same time, I have no idea.”
Those vaguely disturbing snippets of ambient free-floating guitar distortion between some of the songs on Tremolo and Loveless, is that where My Bloody Valentine’s future lies?
“Some of the stuff, yeah. Not all of it. We should release an album filled with that kind of stuff. Quite a few people would like it.”
The band obviously love distortion. But some people may consider the use of distortion a crutch to disguise ordinary songs. Shields denies that he employs it to make his compositions seem more mysterious.
“The electric guitar is a kinky, uninspiring type instrument without sort of overdriving it and making the sounds kind of rich. That’s inherent in the electric guitar. You wind up with a very overactive type music — doo doo-doodle dee. Or you wind up with a jazz-type thing, which is chord-based.”
You’re trying to create sounds that haven’t been made before.
“Yeah, but not always. Our songs have got a lot more going for them melodically than most people realize, simply because we supposedly lose the melodic feel because it’s too twisted. ‘Sometimes’ sounds acoustic, and it still has distortion. But you can hear the chords clearer. That song chord-wise is, in a way, not like a lot of our other songs. It’s less drone-based and has more definite hard chord changes. I often would like to have acoustic examples of what we do so people can hear more what’s going on melodically.
“I like distortion,” he continues. “It’s all part of the whole thing. I write all the songs pretty much on acoustic guitar anyway. They exist because of the fact that they work on acoustic guitar.”
The addition of distortion amplifies and enlarges the band’s sound. Instead of ending up folksy, it becomes unearthly.
As talk turns to My Bloody Valentine’s profound influence on the late-’80s/early ’90s bliss-rock bands, Shields’ modesty gushes forth again.
“I don’t influence the bands personally. The whole thing’s pretty strange.”
Do you feel flattered that many bands are trying to recreate your sound?
“I don’t really know if they are because a lot of them could just go tremolo-wild and go ‘oww oww’ to really overtake us. They’re not redoing that. I think a lot of people are inspired and can work within a certain area we’ve created, but in their own way. Slowdive, for example. They’re not trying to imitate our sound. They feel very much aware of the fact that they’re doing their own thing. Ride aren’t imitating our sound.”
So you’re aware of a lot of these bands. Do you like them?
“I don’t like them all. I’m not 100% sure about Chapterhouse. Something’s not right with them. Something’s getting me about them, something slightly cynical. They need a bit more energy.”
One fledgling British indie group, Midway Still, recently recorded a cover of “You Made Me Realise.” They turned the Valentines’ most volcanic song into generic trash, proving how difficult it is to equal the original. Yet, Shields admits he doesn’t feel particularly gifted. “Maybe I am. I mean, I don’t feel like I am. I’m no genius. I can’t create this prolific output. Think of what Prince does. Sure, his quality control is a bit off, but he’s just super-human. I’m very human, very affected by everything. I do have a reputation for being a bit kamikaze, suicidal. I’m not going to commit suicide, but as in I like to make a lot of decisions that really cut off potential for success. I won’t coax the listener into liking the song. I’ll give it to him, ‘There—don’t like it, fine. Don’t have to play it.’ I don’t know why that is.”
My Bloody Valentine are clearing ground for other people, then. Groups wait for the band to release music so they’ll know which direction to take.
“Well…God. I don’t know about that. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to work.”
My Bloody Valentine’s name is dropped in so many reviews and articles, one would think they’ve spearheaded a new genre.
“I know. We’re thinking we’re going to have a backlash purely on the fact that we’re mentioned too many times. Our music’s from so many things though. I mean, how much do you hear of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. in what we do?”
True, both of these American bands have inspired My Bloody Valentine, but the Valentines have expanded on their sound, taking it into much dreamier territory. Some of Sonic Youth’s music is dreamy, but they still seem to be following a Neil Young-type path. Their music’s best heard in that state right between sleeping and waking.
“The vast majority of music I listen to is in that state because you can hear it better. It’s very similar to smoking dope but less constraining. You lose nothing. With dope, you just gain a certain insight into the music, but you lose certain abilities to hear. Whereas when you’re falling asleep, you go, ‘I can actually hear these parts really well. I can go into real depth.’ The next day when you listen to it, you’re real cloudy, as if your senses are all squeezed through a little…reality. It’s all distorted and messed up. When you’re asleep, that’s all cleared away.”
At this point, the interview ends as the imminent arrival of Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis is announced. Apparently Mascis has driven all the way from Amherst, Massachusetts to New York City to sell Shields a Gibson Firebird guitar. To complete this meeting of great guitar minds, both Shields and Mascis proceed to pay homage to the vintage six-string—like something that would only happen in a dream.