In 1991 My Bloody Valentine released Loveless, one of rock's most innovative albums. Then...silence. What on earth have they been doing the last four years? In this exclusive, Simon Reynolds talks to leader Kevin Shields and finds a group mired in creative, personal, and financial crises.
During the almost four years since Loveless, every fan must surely have wondered: What the hell have My Bloody Valentine been up to?!
Rewind to mid-1992: MBV part acrimoniously with Creation Records, largely because of the three years and small fortune the band spent making Loveless. By October, the band has signed to Island in the U.K. and immediately embarks upon the daunting task of following up on one of the most critically praised and influential albums of the last decade.
In retrospect, we had, says singer/guitarist/aesthetic fuehrer Kevin Shields, a totally overambitious plan to find a premises, build our own studio, and get the record out by July 1993. We'd just completed the ten-month Loveless tour, and we'd all this nervous energy. Not sleeping a lot puts me in a manic state.
Spring 1993, and it was all going according to plan. The studio was completed. But just as MBV were about to commence recording, they discovered the mixing desk was defective, literally eating itself apart. It took a whole year, until May '94, before we had a new desk sorted and could start again. By then we'd lost all the momentum. The fun side of building a studio, thinking we could break the pattern of us doing things over a really long period, had gone.
Surprisingly, both of MBV's record companies--Island in Britain, Sire in the US--were understanding. Island have been bailing us out continually, they've already advanced us more money than they were contracted to. You rarely hear stories of bands being treated so well. In a way I've done a lot more harm to the industry than vice versa! Kevin notes wryly.
Nonetheless, by Christmas '94, MBV were broke again. In order to economize, the members had been obliged to move in the South London house which contained their studio, and were living as an unhappy commune. Isolated from the record companies, MBV were reduced to selling off unwanted gear accumulated during the decade of the band's existence. All this financial pressure, plus the band's gruelling aesthetic deadlock, combined to trigger an existensial crisis in Shields, what he describes as a meltdown.
The things I experienced were quite unreal. I've been totally out there. I can honestly say I've experienced everything Aldous Huxley wrote about in The Doors Of Perception. Drugs--specifically marijuana--played their part. Shields says a book called Hypnogogia literally saved me and made me feel sane. Hypnogogia is the term for that state just before sleep where you have brief surreal flashes of scenes, almost like cartoons. Reading the book (the author's name escapes Kevin), Shields found an explanation for his insomniac habits and aesthetic preoccupations. The author makes parallels between hypnogogia and all the other extremes of the human mind, mystical and drugged. Basically, there's a door to another type of consciousness and it's open all the time. Smoking grass, especially with the stronger THC content these days, makes you semi-hallucinatory, but mainly it simply enables you to stay awake when you're actually on the verge of dropping off.
As for the band's musical difficulties, they were complicated. Coming off the Loveless tour, Shields wanted to create something with the same impact and immensity as the notorious ten-minute, one chord middle eight of You Made Me Realise which climaxed every gig. He also wanted to distance MBV from their shoegazer imitators, who'd tried to emulate the band's drone-swarm sound using methods (flangers, chorus pedals, etc.) that Shields despised as facile. I was coming up with loads of songs, unusually complicated melodies--I have about ten hours' worth now--but few of them were the sort of songs that facilitate the ideas I wanted to explore.
For the real problem was that MBV were, out of habit, making one kind of music but getting off on something totally different: jungle, the fusion of hip hop, dub, ragga and techno that has since emerged from London's underground to become the most happening U.K. scene since acid house. Precocious as ever, Shields and drummer Colm O'Ciosoig were tuning into South London pirate radio stations in early 1993 and getting their minds blown.
When I first listened to jungle, it seemed full of possibilities in a way I hadn't encountered since hip hop. Jungle was like hearing that very early, very stark hip hop like LL Cool J--really raw and unpretentious, yet as out-there as you can get. Hip hop's main influence on us was that it reeducated us about rhythm; now jungle's reeducating everyone again.
But cast your mind back to Instrumental, the free 7-inch that came with the vinyl U.K. version of Isn't Anything, which Shields described then as a real acid-house track. (Ed note: also known as Instrumental B). Actually, it's really an uncanny prophecy of today's drum and bass jungle. Over a looped breakbeat sampled from Public Enemy, ectoplasmic guitar weaves through sublimely simple, poignant cadenced redolent of Erik Satie. Speek the track up by 30 bpm, and you'd have ambient jungle, five years before the jungle pioneer Foul Play released Open Your Mind.
As it happens, Shields prefers the raw-to-the-core ruffness of ragga-jungle and minimalist drum and bass, to the smoother atmospherics of ambient jungle. Mostly, I've been inspired by the way rhythms shift and inverse on themselves, the way there'll be ten different beats at once. But the point is not to have jungle beats with guitars over the top, it's got to be more oblique, just letting that influence seep in like hip hop did with tracks like 'Slow.'
There are other parallels between MBV and jungle: The oxymoronic mix of shattering bliss and panicky dread, the speedy on-rush of sensations. Shields sees jungle as part of the whole speeding-up process of Western society. And you can't have an escalated culture without more extremes of everything, positive and negative.
Talking of velocity, one of the bizarre rumors floating around during MBV's absence was that Kevin had decided that thrash metal constituted the most radical form of guitar playing on the planet, and accordingly MBV's LP was gonna be a thrash/jungle hybrid. Turns out there's a tiny grain of truth here: MBV are fond of the British TV metal show Noisy Muthas, and Shields went through a phase of liking the odd thrash track by bands like Sepultura. It did influence me, although I've worked it out of my system now. For a while I was combining speed-metal riffs with Valentines groove, but it wasn't coming from the right place. My head was too scrambled.
MBV's main problem with incorporating jungle into their sound was the amount of time it took them to program the rhythms. Now, after a three-month sabbatical and another cash injection from Island and Sire, the band have regrouped with the intention of knocking out a half-finished mini-album in a couple of months, before reembarking on the full-length sequel to Loveless. What makes Shields confident they can quicken the pace is their acquisition of a new, digitally-fluent member to handle programming, Alex Buess of Swiss jazzcore outfit 16/17.
With Loveless--an album on which the band experimented with sampling its own feedback, looping bass lines and drum patterns, etc.--MBV became one of the very first post-rockers (i.e., bands who combine guitars with digital technology, who abandon riffs for non-rock textures and dynamics). Now there are droves of 'em: Laika, Disco Inferno, Main, Bark Psychosis, Techno Animal, et al. What with post-rock, trip hop, and drum and bass, we're living through a golden age for a resurgent British avant-pop. Yet all the media coverage has been commandeered by the Britpop squad of Blur, Oasis, Elastica, etc.
From a sonic point of view, English music has gone completely backwards, Kevin complains. Everything is justified in terms of the past. Creation were slagged off for being retro, but they could produce something like [Primal Scream's] Screamadelica. The whole situation in Britain right now is much more extreme 'cause they're not even cueing off the most fertile things in the past. When people make a documentary about this era in the future, the people who are part of the NME/Melody Maker world are going to be seen as equivalent to the trad scene in 1963, he predicts, alluding to the early-'60s student craze for Dixieland jazz.
The only thing I like about Britpop is that it's brought about a confidence and excitement about being young. That buoyancy makes a pretty good platform to step off from. I'm hoping that out of all this energy will come a genuinely interesting breed of people with a bigger sense of what's possible, and they'll marry all the interesting developments in jungle and hip hop and everything. I sometimes think maybe we can't be the people to do that, 'cause we're too old!