by Alan DiPerna
My Bloody Valentine produce a sound that is at once familiar yet unrecognizable.
Their guitars sputter and wobble like a melted data disk flung from an exploding
starship. But somewhere in the din, traces of human life are detectable -
pop melodies! It's like hearing pop music for the first time - the way a visitor
from another planet might hear it. If this seems like a hard concept to follow,
just go spin a copy of Loveless, My Bloody Valentine's first full-length American
The source of much of the Valentines' sonic adventurousness is a quiet young
Irishman named Kevin Shields, who is also the band's principal songwriter
and vocalist. He's a great sculptor of guitar tones, one of the new breed
of musicians who use texture more than technique to create vivid soundscapes.
It amounts to nothing less than a new British Invasion, a quavering, glimmering,
screaming wave of Marshall Michaelangelos like Ride, Swervedriver, Blur, Lush,
Teenage Fan Club and Kitchens Of Distinction, coming in the wake of "old timers"
like the Cocteau Twins amd the Jesus And Mary Chain. Right now, My Bloody
Valentine are being hailed as the vanguard of this shock force, much to Shields's
"There are certain affinities between us and some of those bands, but not
in the total sense you get with jazz people or even in certain rock styles.
None of us are playing a type of music that has a proper name, like fusion,
bebop or whatever. In the British press, My Bloody Valentine has often been
lumped with bands that use a lot of flangers, chorus pedals, pitch shift and
delay things - you know, people who are trying to make themselves sound weird.
We're not trying to be weird at all. It's all very simple. Ninety percent
of what we do is just a guitar straight into an amp."
Kevin recoils at the idea that there's anything artsy or contrived in what
the band does. "I'm often quite clueless about avant garde guitarists," he
confesses. "I started playing guitar because of the Ramones. I've got pretty
common tastes in music. That's something I've always been made aware of by
friends who are a lot more knowledgeable about cult-type bands."
Technically, Shields insists that things are often much simpler than they
seem on any given MBV track. Take that oddly "molten," wavering rhythm guitar
that is one of the band's sonic signatures. It sounds like aural entrophy
- the end of the friggin' world. But it's just Kevin, strumming with the wang
bar in his right hand, something he does most of the time he's playing.
"It's a Fender Jaguar- or Jazzmaster-type of tremolo arm that I've got taped
up so that the base of the arm barely goes into the body. It's very loose
and you can only bend down with it. I've got it in my hand so that I don't
actually feel it. I just bend subconsciously, really. It's reached a point
where I no longer think of it as an 'effect.' It feels weird not to have it
in my hand."
How does one become a wildly original guitarist like Kevin Shields? Kevin's
advice is to stop trying: "About ten years ago, I virtually gave up playing
guitar because I thought I could never do anything as truly different as most
of the guitarists I liked. You meet a lot of people who are obsessed with
originality; they feel it's unworthy to play anything that's vaguely familiar.
They think it's cheap somehow. I guess I fell into that. I gave up the guitar
in favor of synthesizers for a couple of years and then got literally bored
out of my mind with the idea of being original. It seemed like a tedious,
self-righteous thing to do. So I decided just to follow my whims, play for
a laugh, go out and jam on garage rock. That's how this band started."
That was in 1983, when Shields got together with drummer Colm O'Ciosoig and
a revolving carousel of other musicians. They began playing around Dublin.
"Initially we were kind of Cramps and Birthday Party-influenced," testifies
Kevin. "We went from that to being a bit more pop-oriented. We began to realize,
'Hey, this is actually a bit different than just playing garage rock for a
laugh.' But it wasn't a conscious thing, you see. It just happened. The sound
we're associated with now came together for the first time in 1988, on an
EP called You Made Me Realise on Creation Records."
By the time they recorded their EP, the band had moved to London, by way
of a short sojourn in Berlin. And the lineup had stabilized, with bassist
Debbie Googe and guitarist/vocalist Belinda Butcher joining Shields and O'Ciosoig.
"Belinda couldn't play the guitar when she joined the band," adds Kevin. "She
initially joined as a singer, and she just kind of learned guitar. First she
played really simple textured things - only a few notes. Now she essentially
plays what you might call 'rhythm guitar.' On the records I tend to play most
of the instruments, mainly because of the way we write. I tend to write the
music as I go along, and it's just easier for me to play it. We don't really
think in terms of whose part is whose when we're recording. Later on, we'll
arrange it for live playing and work out who will do what."
Shields is eager to dispel some of the myths associated with that evocative
My Bloody Valentine sound: "People always say, 'Oh, they must have hundreds
of guitar overdubs on there.' But there are actually very few. A lot of the
bigness of sound has to do with the fact that I use a lot of open tunings.
A lot of the chord progressions are quite basic, but the open tunings leave
a lot of room for odd variations of a basic chord. The open strings clash
against the others in interesting ways. Then we sing simple melodies over
the top. But sometimes what people mistake as lots of guitar overdubs are
just these inversions of the chords. Mixed in with the way I use the tremolo
arm, they create a sort of overdub effect."
As for effects, says Kevin, "There's no chorusing or anything like that.
But there's one very definite effect that I do use, and that's reverse reverb,
mostly on a Yamaha SPX90. It inverts a normal reverb envelope without making
the notes backwards. There are certain settings I use that, along with the
way I have the tone of the guitar set up, create a totally melted sort of
liquid sound. I don't use any of the original, dry guitar signal; it's purely
the reverb. When I use that sort of effect on guitar, that means there's one
guitar on the track. A song like 'Soon' has got three guitars. But the bulk
of the sound is just from one guitar."
So much for those backwards-tape guitar tracks you thought you heard on Loveless
or MBV's earlier American release, Glider. Another big misconception about
My Bloody Valentine is that they "bury" the vocals way down low in the mix.
Actually, Kevin maintains, dB for dB they're pretty well up there: "One thing
that tends to make the vocals sound submerged is that, eq-wise, I tend to
use a lot of the noise end of a guitar amp. From that, you get this airy kind
of hissy sound all around a lot of the music. Because that's there, I have
a tendency not to make the vocals overly bright, so they don't seem to stick
out. A lot of people might have the vocal and hi-hat at the top end and the
guitars below that, panned out to either side of the vocal, which has a slightly
extended high end to make it more present. I tend to put the guitars in the
same stereo image as the vocal, with the vocal sharing pretty similar frequencies
which merges the whole thing quite a bit. People perceive the vocal as being
quiet in the mix, but if you take it out, there's a definite drop in the level
of the track."
It should be obvious by now that this is no mere guitarist talking. Shields
plugs his axe into the biggest box anyone's ever invented: the recording studio.
He produces and mixes a good deal of My Bloody Valentine's work. Loveless
has gained some infamy from having been produced in 19 different recording
studios. But if Kevin Shields doesn't go for a lot of guitar overdubs or effects,
what the hell was the guy doing in all those studios? For an answer, one might
look to the hook on "Only Shallow," Loveless' opening track - that "elephanty,
shivering guitar bit," as Kevin calls it.
"That's just two amps facing each other, with tremolo. And the tremolo on
each amp is set to a different rate. There's a mike between the two amps.
I did a couple of overdubs of that, then I reversed it and played it backwards
into a sampler. I put them on top of each other so they kind of merged in."
Like many of the new British guitar invaders (including Ride's Andrew Bell
and Swervedriver's Adam Franklin), Shields likes to split his guitar signal
between a Vox AC30, for punch and definition, and a Marshall, for overall
grunge and roar: "Most of the guitar tracks are made up of those two amps,
with different microphones going onto four tracks. Sometimes the phasing is
weird, because the different microphones and different amps are so near each
other. Everything changes radically by messing with these slightly out-of-phase
guitar tracks on tape. I do that quite a bit."
Sometimes, Shields ends up reinventing the wheel as a result of his carefully
cultivated artlessness in the studio. Theres's the case of what sounds a heck
of a lot like a wah-wah pedal on "I Only Said," another of Loveless' tracks.
"What that actually is," Shields explains, "is a guitar through this strange
Seymour Duncan amplifier that's got a graphic equalizer preamp. I just had
1kHz really overdriven through it. So you get this honky guitar sound that
automatically gives you a wah-wah effect - especially when you use the tremolo
arm. But what really made it sound like some kind of wah pedal was that, after
recording it, I was bounced it to another track through a parametric equalizer.
And as I was bouncing, I was chasing chords and stuff like that, twisting
the eq knob in real time."
Geez, wouldn't it have been quicker just to hook up a CryBaby? If you're
Kevin Shields, probably not. There's more than a touch of the Cocteau Twins'
Robin Guthrie in Kevin's studio obsessiveness.
"In attitude toward sound, yes," Kev allows. "But not in approach. The approach
for me is very simple, minimal effects. Whereas the Cocteau Twins is based
on the idea of using effects as instruments. I think Robin Guthrie is quite
good, by the way."
And who can help also seeing a bit of Sonic Youth in Shields' use of alternate
tunings and Jags run through jacked-up tube amps? "I'm aware that My Bloody
Valentine is influenced by Sonic Youth," he acknowledges. "And by Dinosaur
Jr. But I'm not like Sonic Youth in that they use the idea of strings on a
guitar as something that's completely optional. They'll put steel wires on
a guitar instead, and hit them with drum sticks. Whereas my use of alternate
tunings just comes from the song side of it. If I wasn't writing songs with
them, I wouldn't do it."
And songs, in the final analysis, have always been what it's about. In some
distant galaxy, some three-headed beings are probably gathered around a methane
trisulfate campfire at this very moment, singing the latest intergalactic
pop hit. And it probably sounds not unlike something off Loveless.
Originally appeared in Guitar World, March 1992
Copyright © Guitar World