One of Creation Records' most influential bands, My Bloody Valentine, are short of label, but not of ideas.by Cliff Jones
Having just performed the last show of the triumphant Rollercoaster tour My Bloody Valentine have a few days off before trekking out to America for yet another series of dates. Since the release of their acclaimed album Loveless last year the band have been a constant touring outfit returning from a four week Stateside tour with fellow Rollercoasters Dinosaur Jnr only days before that month long UK jaunt kicked off. Although feeling the effects at present Belinda claims they enjoy touring in general and found the gathering of the clans on the Rollercoaster hard to fault.
Belinda: 'We loved it, I think it's strange working with so many people at the same time for the same thing but mostly it was easy. We swapped around who played before who everything which made it more varied and interesting to be part of. Things the size of Rollercoaster could come as a shock if you weren't a little prepared.'
Kevin: 'It didn't prove that much of a shock to us because we'd been touring with Dinosaur Jnr in the States just before. The only difference was that we opened for them in the States and it was the other way round over here.'
B: 'Generally we still find it fun because we can create a part of our sound live that we can't anywhere else. We don't get bored of playing the tracks live because we've only really learnt to play them properly recently anyway! You do something on record and then have to work out how you did it and how you're going to do it in front of everybody. The tracks from Loveless are still new enough to be interesting.'
The new LP, the band's second, following in the wake of a series of stunning EPs and the groundbreaking 1988 album Isn't Everything [sic] is a refinement of all the techniques painstakingly pioneered during the bands eight years together. Its release was marred by problems and recriminations from the bands former label and champion, Creation, who ploughed a rumoured £350,000 into the album before seeing any results. Was the album difficult to make and why did it take so long?
K: 'Loveless didn't take a long time because of the pressure to make this amazing record. We honestly thought it would take about eight weeks and we'd be done! About four weeks into recording we realised we couldn't make the record we wanted under the same conditions we'd done the others. We felt we had good material and we were being asked to do it in primitive conditions.
'We did all of Isn't Anything using transistor amps and just a few guitars, the Jazzmaster and a badly set up Japanese Jag. I had to borrow a MIDIverb off a mate to get all the reverse reverb sounds and it was a total hotch potch of things and ideas. People expected us to move forward but use the same techniques and work in the same way and it just couldn't be done. We made that album with crap equipment and I wanted to see what we could do with decent gear. Simple as that!'
B: 'The guitars weren't set up or anything. It was all totally new that way of working and very exciting but I wouldn't go through it again knowing what I know now.'
K: 'It was done in ridiculously cheap studios where they had these old 3M 24 track machines from the '70s where only 16 of the tracks worked at any one time and you had to keep changing cards and leads just to get a playback. 'Our imaginations went into overdrive after Isn't Anything and we started experimenting with valve amps and different guitars and sounds. It all started to open up and we needed to be given the right facilities to match. Basically we recorded all the backing tracks to Loveless in 1989 weirdly enough, except the one song Sometimes. All the drums, the bass and a few guitars were done in '89 and early '90. From then on we concentrated on making the EPs and came back to it later on. So for us the record is essentially nearly three years old.'
The series of EPs, You Made Me Realise, Feed Me With Your Kiss, and particularly Glider, with the revolutionary song Soon taking pride of place did more than anything to cement MBV's reputation as a band able to experiment with the traditional forms and employ both modern sampling technology, dance beats and guitars to great effect. The so-called guitar/dance crossover was a direct result of their matching of the two cultures as Belinda points out:
'We'd always liked Hip Hop and the better end of the dance scene. De La Soul, EPMD, those sorts of thing. We went to Raves and just started hearing great sounds that we thought we could use. I think it was quite a revolutionary step to take because up until then the two areas were still separate. It was never this big conscious thing to get rhythmic though. It was always there really. The beats we were hearing sounded good and we thought 'what if'. Could we put guitars with them?'
K: 'Now there's this huge network of underground bands and labels. Then, back in '88, '89 that wasn't so prevalent. You had to search the stuff out. Rap and stuff didn't have the same impact as it has now.'
B: 'I think Glider was the first thing we ever did that was liked by everyone. We were a little surprised. We knew it sounded good to us but we didn't realise what sort of impact it'd have.'
K: 'We'd done those sort of things before but never that obvious. There's a track called Snow [sic] on the Isn't Everything [sic] LP that hints at it....'
B: 'What about that instrumental?'
K: 'Yeah, we did this track that sounds just like Madonna's Justify Your Love but we did it four years before. Same beat, same everything! It's a Public Enemy drum loop actually.'
B: 'It was funny when Madonna's record came out. We couldn't believe it. Our record came as a limited edition single with the Isn't Everything [sic] album in 1988 so it was well before all of that. Isn't it strange?'
K: 'The point is though that we were thinking of the possibilities always. The whole idea of it being an indie band jumping on the bandwagon is wrong. We were doing it for a long time, it's just that it wasn't noticed by everyone.'
The influence that particular EP had on the music scene was obvious as more and more guitar bands got to grips with sampling technology, creating the hybrids still coming through today. Coupled with the very original use of the tremolo arm and reverse reverbs seen on the previous LPs, EPs and most recently Loveless, they had a dual impact. Modesty forbids Kevin Shields claiming too much credit although he says he finds it difficult to understand the attitude of bands who are obviously influenced by the MBV sound and yet claim not to be.
'Influential? It sounds weird but I suppose we have been to some degree.' Belinda looks at him and nods. 'The strange thing is that a lot of newer bands are in the same situation that we were in when we started out. In general most bands are pretty good about admitting to have listened to a few of our records but we really understand how annoying it can get to be constantly compared to someone else. When we were starting out with the Geek EP and then the singles and the first album it was like everyone was comparing us to the Mary Chain just 'cause we used distorted guitars and stuff. You start dreading the mention of them, almost becoming anti the band who, obviously, you really admire. 'You average band knows how much they've been influenced by what another band has done and what gets annoying is when everything, regardless of whether it sounds anything like that band or not gets thrown in with that comparison. So I know it's not a good situation but you have to give credit where it's due. 'We came out lucky because most bands were happy no namecheck us, there wasn't this whole Valentine backlash. There's one band around at the moment who I think definitely owe their sound it part to us, The Boo Radleys. They're friends of ours so I know this won't be taken badly, but they're sort of deliberately playing us down. They're saying "Oh we never were really that into the Valentines, it's more Dinosaur Jnr". I say, if they don't want to sound like us then they should stop using the exact same studio techniques that we taught the engineers who did our record! That's the problem. I mean our trademark I guess is the whole reverse reverb thing and that defines our sound. People had used that effect before but not as extremely as we did. It's on everything. It is our sound. That big sorta rumbly, breaking up almost sound was our invention. It makes me laugh when the Boos deny the influence and then go on and use that effect as a major part of their sound.'
What of their own influences as musicians? Do their strange sound collage techniques and hovering melodies have an earlier parallel?
K: 'We're not really musicians, we don't count the dots or anything so there's no specific musical plan to anything although we do spend time creating the sounds we want quite painstakingly. We're not geared up to being technically very proficient, we just try to do things individually. We haven't tried to write songs for a while now. It's no longer just a verse chorus thing for us so there aren't that many bands who went away from that form. The Mary Chain early on were an influence, their sense of hidden melody was always great.'
B: 'There's elements of melody in what we do always but we don't really work at trying to bring them out as the whole point of the song. They just sit inside the music, there if you want them.'
K: 'What tends to happen is people can't actually pinpoint the melodies. They can hear them in there somewhere and they know what they are, they just can't isolate them. That's the technique.'
B: 'I used to listen to Jimi Hendrix but I really remember rushing home from school to watch Marc Bolan on TV. Remember that Marc Show he did? He was really sexy and I loved the way he played the guitar. I don't play anything like him but the sounds he really got me into music. When I joined the band I couldn't even play a chord. Kevin just said "Right, play those two strings in this order", and he'd play something and I'd follow.'
K: 'I loved the Ramones, they were like this machine that played chords very, very fast. Nobody actually grasped the fact that The Ramones were a very rhythmic band not just this thrash monster. They made all their records really precisely.
'I suppose another early influence, especially on the Irish scene was Gavin Friday and the whole Virgin Prunes thing. The Prunes existed as this loose band who'd just go off on tangents and do weird things. They used things like string machines and all these crazy instruments but they were very liberating to anyone brought up on conventional radio fodder which was all that was about. For about two years in the early '80s they were the most amazing thing anywhere. Their moment was perfectly timed for us and we owe a great deal to their sense of adventure in music. They used to make a lot of tapes that they never released but got played on pirate radio stations and we used to tune in and get real inspiration. They were the prototype of what My Bloody Valentine are about. It was all about challenging what had gone before. They didn't do anything the conventional way and on top of it all they made great music.
The band formed around the nucleus of Kevin and Colm, the drummer. Despite having become an inspiration to many guitarists around the world Kevin Shields never saw himself as a guitarist. Belinda on the other hand showed a natural aptitude. 'The reason we got Belinda in was that she understood the rhythmic side to playing in a band. You'd play something and she'd play in time and with a sense of how it should all fit together. That's rare. We may not have been technically very good but I knew we had the right feel. When I started out I couldn't play either. I never really had any interest in the guitar. I thought if I was going to do anything I might play a little bass just because it looked easy. We were so isolated in terms of musicians and that sort of thing being in Ireland that we just made things up our way.
B: 'You took four months before you learned how to tune the guitar properly.'
K: 'I got taught to tune the guitars using the fifth fret guitar in tune with itself method. I didn't realise that you had to switch to the 4th fret for the G string. Everything we did was totally out of tune because I was playing bar chords and sounding that totally out of tune string all the time! The tapes are very funny. To give you an idea, if anyone came in and asked me to play a scale I couldn't do it. I don't know the first things about any of the theory, but then you don't make good music by following some old time chord book. Things have changed.'
Currently negotiating a new record deal what can we expect from the every changing Valentines in the future? 'Because Loveless was essentially done back in '89 it's been a long time since we've done anything really new. Recording again will be a really great experience just because we've moved on a long way from that. It's like the eagerness is back, the whole need to be creating is back. There's a few deals in the pipeline but we'll have to wait and see. At the moment all I want to do is recover from this bloody awful flu!'Hearty Sounds
By their own admission an integral part of the My Bloody Valentine sound is acheived using volume as a tool, creating intense sound collages and interwoven passages that blend and melt into one another. At their live gigs the sheer inte sity of the volume has led some to describe them as irresponsible inflicting deafness and hearing damage on the unsuspecting fan. Both Kevin and Belinda have suffered hearing problems with Kevin falling victim to Tinnitus,a persistant ringing or buzzing in the ear that is incurable and can make like unbearable for certain sufferers. Both, despite accusations, have a well-informed scientific understanding of noise,its effects and the threshold of damage.
K: 'It's a common misconception that you start siffering from Tinnitus or something because you've been to too many loud gigs. That's nonsense! Things like Tinnitus are caused by prolonged exposure to loud noises, persistant loud noise. It might be machinery or something. Short bursts of noise won't do that much damage. We have all our gigs tested by the environmental inspectors who bring their Decibel meter in and check noise levels. We rarely come in louder that your average tube train!
'I did the damage to my ears listening to mixes in headphones at very loud levels without giving my ears time to recover. It's the prolonged aspect of it all that'll mess you up. Walkmans will do you more damage than the occasional gig because the sound goes straight into your ears and doesn't get the chance to diffuse. People who go to a lot of gigs should wear ear protection, but once in a while will not cause you problems. There's this ill informed hysteria about it all.'
B: 'I had a puctured ear drum which fortunately they were able to put right but for a while I couldn't hear out of one ear and it was very depressing. On stage we all wear hearing protection and encourage anyone sees us regularly to do the same'.
K: 'Actually wearing hearing protectors allows you to hear the high frequencies better while you're on stage that you would if you just used none just because it stops the ear numbing under the pressure. Dinosaur Jnr have used protection for a long while now and a lot more bands and beginning to wake up to the problem.
'Volume is important in so far as our sound is this mix of harmonics and rumbles and stuff that you didn't get otherwise. The pressure, the physical excitement volume creates, is part of a performance and you can't destroy that. There are sensible and practical ways round these problems. You can't outlaw volume so the best thing to do is take appropriate precautions. The bedroom guitarist is at as much a risk playing for hours through headphones as we are up there on stage for an hour or so.'Bloody Technique
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of both Kevin and Belinda's playing technique is their unique use of the tremolo arms on their Jaguars and Jazzmasters. Hand in hand with the prominent use of reverse revern programs from the Yamaha SPX90 and the Alesis MIDIverb they achieve a characteristic sonic blurring that has become a trademark as well as a much imitated effect. Kevin is anxious to point out that far from being some concocted studio gimmick the combination added expression and subtly [sic] to their music.
'It moved us into another dimension really. We didn't have a trem arm until the You Made Me Realise EP. A friend of mine lent me his Jazzmaster and I started using it intially to simulate bending notes. It occurred that you could play chords and use the trem arm at the same time, 'cause the arm was so long, and get this amazing sound that wasn't like string bending but was much better, sort of chord bending! It was a revelation that helped us get away from the Mary Chain comparisons and gave us this drive to make more music. We felt we'd discovered something new and original so we wanted to use it a lot.
'People make this mistake by thinking we use lots of effects to get our sound. They're always asking what rack we use or whatever. That sound is purely physical. It's a movement, a manual moving of the strings. The short travel of the Jazzmaster and Jag trem that gives it that characteristic sort of upwards drone to the chord. We never pull the trem up, just gently ease it downwards so you get this drifting upwards until finally the thing's in tune.'
B: 'A hazy feel, sort of hypnotic and free moving.'
K: 'I do feel that, along with the reverse reverb thing was ours, we defined it. The trem's not an effect, its an emotional thing and using it's as important as what strings or what chords we play. It's part of the whole feeling, the essence of the song.
'When you use a lot of open tunings and you've got strings that are close in terms of their actual tuning to each other, say you use a drone chord, because of the tension slowly being altered any movement of the trem arm alters the pitch of each string by different amounts. They travel differently and that creates a real dissonance, a shaking, a blurring, pulsing effect. When you add distortion you start to get all the harmonics going against each other too and then suddenly resolving each other as the trem gets back to balance.'
The Valentines mainstay guitars apart from Belinda's spectacular blue six-string Surfcaster are Fender Jags and Jazzmasters. Apart from a liking for the trem systems on these instruments what draws them to these classic vintage pieces?
K: 'I love the look obviously but they seem to work all round as guitars. If you set 'em up right, the Jazz and Jag trems are really reliable. They feel tight, although we have a little give in the actual arm so it can be used while you're playing really easy. I make sure all the bridges on our guitars are really rough so they catch the strings as the trem moves.
'The bridges themselves have travel in them so if the strings actually move with the bridge rather than on their own over the bridge the thing stays in tune. The roller bridges and stuff just don't work well enough so we went back to the other extreme of no movement at all!'
B: 'That's the only thing wrong with my Surfcaster really. The trem's a and it's a diving one with a long travel so it's no good for those sort of effects.'