KEVIN SHIELDS, LOST IN TRANSLATION AND A MY BLOODY VALENTINE PROMISE
by: Gregg LaGambina photography: Joshua Kessler
It's mid-winter in a university dorm room somewhere in the Midwest. It's 1991. The shades are
drawn, the door is locked, the room is lit purely for atmosphere (from a lava lamp, or a string of
Christmas lights), the chatter is the tentative type of new friendships barely a month old, and
the music that fills the room is "Only Shallow" from a new record by My Bloody Valentine called
Loveless. Someone explodes. "What the fuck is that word, man? You know, like when something just
doesn't seem like something else, but is something else? Like, it's so strong in what it is that
it, like, fucking busts out and actually becomes something else?" Someone says "synesthesia" and
looks around with the shaky confidence of a student who learned the word on a recent afternoon in
a lecture hall nearby. "Yeah! That's it, man. Fuck! I'm hearing this shit, but look around you,
man! It's in the air. I can see this fucking song. What is going on here?" Loving Loveless makes
you almost envious of the odd sort who's never heard it. Call it virgin envy. To paraphrase the
mighty Foreigner, nothing "feels like the first time."
After fairly inauspicious beginnings and a handful of mid-'80s EPs mired in derivative synth. goth
explorations that led to nowhere but the bargain bins, Kevin Shields, guitarist and ongoing leader
of the still in-limbo My Bloody Valentine, had a breakthrough. Isn't Anything was very much
something-call it the birth of shoegazing, but it's more than that. To those who've been
enraptured by My Bloody Valentine-those non-virgins-it's not an overstatement to point to the
Beatles' Sgt Pepper and MBV's Loveless as the only two records in the brief history of the art
form that are true innovations, landmarks. The only two records that bent the prison bars and
escaped convention, proving that something can be done with this simple Neanderthal thing called
rock. And 1988's Isn't Anything was to MBV what Revolver was to the Beatles: that last shy tiptoe
approach before the famed leap from the precipice.
After their leap, the Beatles soared for a few more years and few more albums, never pausing once
to let the experiment settle and the world to catch their collective breath. For Kevin Shields,
after Loveless, a wide gulf opened. Since 1991: nothing.
Well, almost nothing. He's done elaborate
remixes for bands like Yo La Tengo and Mogwai. An incarnation of My BloodyValentine has cropped up
on some compilations, contributing a cover of "Map Ref 41 North 93 West" for a tribute to Wire and
a song called "We Have All the Time in the World," (apparently a title taken literally by Shields)
for the obscure 1993 release Peace Together. In the last few years, Shields has also become an
unofficial member of Primal Scream, appearing on stage with the band around the world, popping up
as guitarist, engineer, producer and mixer on their albums. But according to him, he's just having
fun and doesn't want to be in a band. He's also recently built a studio and is producing the debut
from a band consisting of the actual carpenters who hammered in the nails, called the Beatings.
It's not Loveless II, for which enough anticipatory saliva has accrued to fill a small ocean, but
Shields has been working.
This year, Shields resurfaces on the soundtrack to the film Lost In
Translation. One of the four new tracks is "City Girl" (which sounds like an acoustic demo outtake
from Loveless), a song he calls "average" and "vulnerable" and released that way to. inspire him
to follow it up with some. thing stronger (sooner rather than later). But the song itself is a
hint, a whisper and might be enough to whet the palette for another decade-long wait.
He is a
careful speaker, soft-spoken. He turns back on his sentences as he says them, changing their
meanings and intentions on his way through them a second time. It's his way of talking and not so
much what he's actually saying that gives insight into how a tiny detail of anything (let alone a
song) can occupy him for small eternities. In this rare interview, Kevin Shields answers the
inevitable question of "will there be another?" and to discourage skipping ahead, his simple
answer is "yes:' But like so much of his story and the way in which he works, it's the details and
the journey that's most valuable. So take it from the beginning and read his words until the end
and be calmed at the start by the promise that yes indeed there will be another My Bloody
Valentine record. Someday, when both Shields and the world are ready.
Do you like to sing?
sing all the time for myself. You know, I've never stopped writing music. In that song "City
Girl:' I was thinking, "Oh my God, this is like harkening back to my most introverted days." And I
thought that was kind of ironic that this was gonna come out 'cause, you know, it's gonna be kind
of, well, I don't know, put it this way-it feeds into something that people already think about
me. So, I thought, "What the hell:' At least it will provoke me into putting some of our music out
as soon as possible, as opposed to having to explain myself all the time.
One of the instrumentals
on the Lost in Translation soundtrack, "Ikebana:' has this sort of modern flamenco finger-picking
and you're more associated with the wash of sound, giant guitar-chord thing. Are you still excited
when you pick up a guitar, or do you get bored with the sounds it makes?
No. I don't get bored.
That finger-picking thing was just insanely fragile-having to play it from beginning to end
without making a mistake, 'cause I don't really play guitar like that. I love acoustic guitar more
than anything, in some ways. When you're playing it, it's physically against you and you're
feeling it louder in a way than if you were at a really loud concert. That's the thing that people
don't realize about loudness-it's not so much about hurting people's ears, it's about making
people feel it. You can't just hear it with your ears. Rock music, for some strange reason, it's
been so controlled by establishment mentality. It's like, "Oh, we must have it at this volume" and
if bands play festivals, it can't be too loud. You can't feel the music, unless you go right near
the speakers. But 90 percent of the audience, they just hear this slightly wishy-washy airy-fairy
little sound. I suppose that what I'm really trying to say is that the gap between when you make
music and when you play music, and what unfortunately most people get to experience, is just still
What sounds interest you? Not particular instruments or musicians necessarily, but atmospheres,
keys, natural sounds, synthetic sounds...
I've always had a slight fascination with rhythmic
things. In a non-intellectual way, like when you're rewinding a videotape and you notice that it's
actually a pattern. There's like little patterns in it. It's sort of going, "duh-da-da, duh-da-da,
duh-da-da:' You know what I mean? You hear patterns in loads of things-everything. When I got into
drum and bass years ago, I kind of hit sort of...well, we melted. I thought we pretty much
destroyed ourselves. We tried to get an intellectual grasp on it by using computers to program
it. We got really subtle things that you can barely perceive.What I was trying to do was to marry
the kind of...do you know Neil Young's guitar sound when it's really distorted?
It's got a
ripple in it. Old Fender Tweed amps have got this great ability if you turn them up. If you play
like a C-chord or something, or a G, a real basic chord, it often ripples. There's a rhythm in the
distortion. In the same way, say, if you bend a note and it pulses. That's kind of what I'm
getting at. I still have a slight interest in that. It's not as strong as it was, but I had a
total obsession with that about eight years ago. It still has a lingering thing. If I hear
anything with a weird rhythm in it, any sound, it kind of triggers me. And when I played guitar, I
did a lot where I was hunting for amps and hunting for sounds so that every time you played these
chords they would have these ripples. We were trying to marry that with the drum and bass and that
really fast drum-type programming thing, so that the drums and the guitars were kind of rippling
in time. [Sighs] But anyway, that's all concepts. It didn't actually pan out in the end because
it's too difficult to do that intuitively. It's being a bit like Stravinsky, or something-pure
fucking intellectual conceptuality.
And you don't like that.
I don't. For some reason, it sounds interesting to talk about and it's
initially very impressive to listen to. You listen to it and you go, "Wow, what the fuck is that?"
And then somehow at the end of it, even after three or four minutes, you don't feel that sort of
magic feeling that you feel when you hear music that's made more intuitively. So, anyway, that's
pretty much what stopped me in my tracks in the '90s. I could talk concepts for fucking weeks.
That's how I managed to stay signed [to Sire Records] for so long. I'd go and have a meeting with
them and they'd go, "Well that's at least two album's worth of material:' And then they'd just
tolerate me for another year. Half of my concepts would come out in other bands. I would be sort
of predicting their future. And it was just me thinking too much, that's all. You can think as much
as you want, but a good bit of music is just good. And it has a life of its own, regardless of
Are you able now to get to a place where you're making music for yourself and
not thinking about other people's expectations?
I do and I always will and I always have. I do
music for my own pleasure. I went through a really weird phase where I would have a bunch of
cassettes and then when I would listen to them too much, I'd actually write more music just so I
could listen to it. I was basically creating my own music for myself, like a little feedback loop
that was just for me. I knew it was just for me and I knew no one would hear it and it was great.
It's a pretty terrible thing to say, but I actually love listening to my own tunes. They're
speaking from a deeper part of me to the more conscious part of myself, so it works best on me.
I'll do that forever. It's what keeps me sane.
You often speak of a fondness for the songs and the production of music from the '60s. Are you
excited at all by anything that's going on now?
All during the '90s, the whole grunge thing and
Nirvana, that was incredible, in a mainstream sense. It made music much more raw and an awful lot
of pop music now is a lot more raw than it was even in the mid-'90s. But then, that's still
ultimately corporate and kind of bullshit music in a way. But bands like the White Stripes-here [in the U.K.]
they've sold like a million records, which is a lot. In America it's good, but in this country to
sell a million records is incredible, especially with that kind of music and the way they recorded
it and it being really kind of raw. And the guitar sounds are great. In a nutshell, yeah, the
mentality of music... I like it now even more than it was three or four years ago. People seem to
value the spirit of the thing much more now.
Sometimes I feel like I'm just imagining it's get.
ting better because I hope it's true...wishful thinking...
No, I think it's happening. I think
sometimes music has a strange parallel with the world. I think the world is about to go through a
really bad phase. Well, put it this way: people on a political level and big business have been
working towards a type of coup. The world has sort of been taken over by big business. It's not one
country, it's in fact big business that rules the world now. And no one has quite grasped that. It
hasn't been quite understood. And all civil liberties will be eaten away at a speed beyond anyone's
comprehension. In the meantime, music's getting more and more about the spirit of it and the feel
of it, so a type of genuine counterculture--which isn't a marketing thing, but an actual real
one--I think it's just starting up on some level. It's to sort of balance out the nastiness. The
world is never entirely one way; it's always got a strange balance to it, even if it's not
apparent. So, I suppose what I'm trying to say is: as bad as the world's going to get in the next
five years, I think music is equally going to become quite relevant for good reasons. The soul of
music will be the most valuable aspect of it. But, I felt positive in the early '90s, all the way
up until about '94, and then I realized that by '95 it was pretty much firmly under control and
there wasn't too much happening. It was getting more and more conservative.
The scales have a way of tipping back quickly...
Yeah, and I think this time around, in a strange
way, the multinational companies, in succeeding at what they've been trying to do, they've also
successfully alienated a whole generation of people. I think there's going to be a new kind of
record industry that will come out of it as well. I'm completely convinced of that.
To counteract the massive consolidation of the corporations that profit from it...
being made on a multinational level that have got nothing to do with music. Companies are being
merged and closed down, so it's basically a big mess. It's chaotic and unreliable. Contracts are
so massively stacked against the band. In a typical major record contract that you sign, they own
your material, you pay for everything and you get a small percentage to cover the cost of paying
for everything. At the end of that, if you manage to sell a few million records, you're gonna make
some money. But if you don't, you won't and that's stupid. Because the fact is that any band could
live off selling 100,000 records if they're being paid for them properly. It's gonna dawn on
people that there's no advantage to them signing to these labels at all.
Do you ever feel any
resentment toward the idea of Loveless being this untouchable Holy Grail, or even toward people
who have helped elevate it to that status?
No, because people just read into it what they want. My
whole take on it has been this: 50 percent of what people have said about that record is an
illusion, right? And the other 50 percent of what I know is good about the record, no one's
noticed. So, it's neither here nor there what anyone says. And the fact that people know there's
something good about it-'cause there is something good about it, it's as simple as that-and that's
why I didn't make a record after that, because I didn't have that presence to do it. What's good
about it is the mood. It's got a single-mindedness that comes out in the way it's sung and played,
not the sounds. The sounds are not as important as you'd imagine. It's just Marshall amps and Vox
amps-that's all I used-except for maybe an Ampeg amp and a fucking strange graphic
equalizer-looking amp. But that's it. It's like really, really super basic. It all had to do with
the way I played guitar. It's got less overdubs than that White Stripes record. The point I'm
making is that what was good about it was that it had a very strong feeling that went through
everything. It was like being possessed by something and you're just a loyal servant. That's a
great feeling. It's very strong and powerful and nobody can fuck you over when you feel like that.
Three weeks into making that record, Colm [O'Ciosoig] the drummer, when we were doing the drum
tracks, he was homeless. And we asked Creation Records for a few hundred pounds for deposit on a
flat and they told him to fuck off basically. They got used to us living in squats and living for
free. The only thing "m pissed off about [chuck les] to be really honest, is the fact that if you
read about Loveless, they talk about the money we spent and how we nearly bankrupted Creation,
where in fact we spent half as much money than was ever claimed. The total figure was 140,000
pounds. That's still a lot of money, but it's not a big deal in the scheme of things. More
importantly, Creation bankrupted us in the first three weeks of making that record by leaving our
drummer homeless. And he had an American girlfriend who was being deported and he just wanted some
help and they wouldn't help him. He had a nervous breakdown and that's why he's only on three
tracks of the album. That's why we programmed everything. We had no money and no equipment. It took
me three months into the record to get a decent [Fender] jaguar guitar. I was borrowing one from
julian Cope's brother. There was that kind of really imbalanced situation. I think it's a better
record than just to be remembered for costing a lot of money and nearly bankrupting a label. So, in
that respect, I'm not annoyed at all at people who talk about anything that promotes the music,
even though I know most of it's an illusion, because most of what they talk about isn't true--all
the effects and overdubs and studio manipulation, it's just not true. It was a really simple
Is there any part of you that feels like you've been unfairly put into a position where
everything you do is going to be scrutinized...
No, it's cool. I mean, that's why I'm saying that
this track for the film...it's like taking a cake and throwing it into a football crowd [laughs]
and expecting it to stay half intact. It's not going to. I don't care. It leaves me open for
whatever, but that's all right. Because I've been in the position of having total praise [for a
long time]. It got to a really ridiculous level where it was the emperor's new clothes kind of
scenario where nobody would criticize us. And people were scared to be the one who got isolated. We
would get the odd criticism and that person would be totally destroyed by other journalists. It was
kind of funny for us, because we could see it was fear. Fear was actually keeping us in this sort
of uncriticized position. It was weird. It doesn't make you feel good about yourself or anything,
'cause you know it's all fake anyway.
Is there anything you'd like to say to the person who is still waiting with stubborn hope for the
day that My Bloody Valentine will release a fulllength record of brand new material?
Well, if the
world doesn't end before we're all dead, then of course there will be quite a few records. But if
the world ends in the next 10 years, who knows? I've actually built a studio and I put every penny
I have into it. The purpose for building it isn't so that I can produce bands, it's so I can do my
own music. But, I'm not rational. I don't go through time in a rational manner, so I can't help it.
I've done my absolute best and it doesn't happen. What I do know is that somehow what I intend to
do happens eventually-that sounds like bullshit, cause it virtually is, but it's the truth as well.
I intend to make a record, so it'll happen barring some total breakdown of everything in the world.
I can't think of anything that'll stop it.
Originally appeared in Filter Holiday 03 issue
Copyright © Filter Magazine