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by Danny Housman

I remember an argument between two friends of mine over whether or not we should go see the Ramones. Friend A seemed less than enthused. "I hear they're practically vegetables. They forget the lyrics and play the same two chords all night." Friend B considered a moment and said, "Cool!"

What we had, obviously, was two totally different ways of looking at things. The first guy knew he would be disappointed by the level of musical competence in the band, while the other accepted that whatever diminution in motor coordination had been ordained for The Ramones was alright with him. What's a few dead brain cells between a band and their fans? In fact, an advancement towards monochordism is perhaps the logical extension of the Ramones ethos (alright, they never exactly had an ethos, I just gave them one). Some bands improve over time, imagine how incongruous it would be if The Ramones did? They have always stood for a reckless celebration of decay, degeneration, and-- what was the other thing? You could easily be forgiven for wondering what the fuss in the alternative press over My Bloody Valentine has been about if you dropped in out of the cold onto their concert at the Moore on June 30. On the other hand, if you came with no expectations, and heeded the "earplugs - $1.00" sign, perhaps you dug the show as an hour's worth of noise so earth-shattering as to be therapeutic in a bizarre way. (Kind of like a sauna, it feels great--to get out.)

"Loveless" is a great album--neat, four minute slices of kinky melody and raw noise merging and parting like ultraviolet waves and particles--but its fun and originality were lost onstage. The patience and surrender demanded of a listener to sit through the concert and appreciate what they were doing was too much for some people, who went scurrying towards the door when it was clear that the twenty-minute finale, "You Made Me Realize," wasn't a horrible joke, or a technical mishap that just made everything sound like the loudest, most distorted guitar simulation of fingernails across a chalkboard they had ever heard. After forty-five minutes of pure distortion whose main source of differentiation was pre-recorded synth figures repeated from offstage, it was hard to hear the qualitative difference in the "tune." Though the lights turned against the audience were blinding throughout most of it, I remember the image of the drummer, Colm, blazing away at the cymbals with an expression of glee on his face. If I hadn't seen him, I wouldn't have known he was even playing.

I enjoyed the visceral thrill of the concert, but only to a point--reached and peaked at about twenty minutes. When I met frontman Kevin Shields afterwards, I was a bit wary, but wanted his answers before I wrote off the experience. And though my Spinal Tap-warning lights went off once or twice during our conversation--he was stoned, after all--following his interesting and somewhat twisted tale illuminates the underlying tension in the ongoing marriage of music and noise.

Did the music on Loveless and Isn't Anything evolve out of improvisation, or one person bringing ideas into the studio?

It was all made up in the studio, we didn't practice beforehand. It was all improvisation, in a sense. A lot of what you hear was like the first or second time it was ever played. I'd make up things, and if I found out later I'd done something really good I'd keep it. It felt like most of the tunes we put down a few hours after they were written. So it all felt very fresh. In that sense it feels spontaneous.

Does being in the studio help you write and concentrate?

Yes, I suppose it's the life I've had to date. I mean, basically, I haven't had a real room of my own, you know, for most of my life. I've always shared with somebody--my brother, and then when we left New York, we were roughing it in Europe so we shared with Colm, the drummer, and then got to England and we were squatting a lot. And then I've been living with girlfriends. I find that when you really want to get down to something, you've got to set time aside and say, "I'm going to work now."

Your lyrics are difficult to understand, impossible live. What does that accomplish for you? Is it done on purpose?

It doesn't feel on purpose when we're doing it. We treat the vocals, in a way, like another instrument, without trying to submerge them, or bring them out. A lot of people go to some effort to make the vocals articulate or heard, we just treat it like another instrument that has its place on the track.

What about your live presentation? It was impossible to tell when you were singing tonight [the vocal mikes may not have been working] and the lights were often completely blinding, so we couldn't see you. Also your hair completely covered your face. Is that the way you're most comfortable performing?

It's different every night, sometimes it's not as blinding. But all that kind of forces people to sort of not rely on... being able to be comfortable. It makes people aware of the fact that when they can see us they're being allowed to, you know what I mean? We're kind of controlling everyone's environment by the volume and the lights.

You don't want us to learn the lyrics and sing along?

People can't just sit there and watch us comfortably. They're made to be part of the whole thing, made to be aware of the fact that there's a thing happening, as opposed to watching it like you watch TV. TV doesn't blind you or deafen you.

So it's more of a thing, a happening, than just a gig?

It's a gig, but...this isn't how we want to do gigs, we want to take it a lot further. This is the very beginning.

What direction are you going in?

It feels like now we've played all these guitary songs, and I want to take it past that, because I can't see myself getting too excited about doing what we've done already.

What have you got in mind?

More dynamics. In a way, things like the last song are the beginning of new stuff. The whole noise thing is seeing how far we can take the idea, in a way educating people into the subtleties of all that--sounds. It's not just a big lot of noise.

Do you hear subtleties in that sound?

Totally, yeah, but we have to take it a lot further to make it accessible to people so they can get what's happening-- indulge things to draw people into what we think. Sometimes we do things, and it seems obvious to us, but other people can't connect with it, so it means nothing to them.

What is the difference between noise and music to you?

There's no difference. Just about every sound that we can experience implies a thing or a motion... something that's completely unmusical can still convey a mood. There are a lot of dissolving sounds out there that are completely unconnected. Everything is actually a big giant connection of... language.

Do people ever describe your sound as "angry?"

Oh yeah, but it's not pure unadulterated anger, it's kind of all emotions rolled into one. We only want to draw people into things, but we're not trying to tell them anything. We're drawing people in just to feel the same feeling, or at least to be put in a situation where they can get their own feelings out of something that lets you do that. Alright, superficially, people can just hear noise, right? Imagine drawing people in to the point where past that point they don't hear it as noise anymore, and they're completely in tune with what's going on inside it. If you don't draw people into that--you can have things going on but if it's too subtle--most people will block it out, concentrate on the superficial aspect. So to draw people into these things...

You have to overwhelm them?

Well, a mixture. First make them lose their sense of control, and then, make people basically... find melodies or bits of melody, bits of sound or rhythm. Make people aware that there's something to find, do you know what I mean?

I think so.

It's kind of hard to explain, but it's trying to draw people in as opposed to present them with an easy to assimilate package, or idea. `Cause a lot of people do that, they water down ideas to make it easy for people to understand, and on the other hand you've got people who make no concessions whatsoever... We're in a sort of a pop area, we're not jazz musicians where we can express everything through our musicianship, or out-and-out songwriting. We're a rock band, we're a pop band, playing around with... possibilities.

Would you like to take lessons, learn some technique?

Not really. I'd love to be able to play as well as my imagination can, but that's the way life is--you've always got one thing going on in your head, the trick is to sort of bring it out a bit.

How about Bilinda, is her experience similar?

She just picked up guitar because she joined the band. She joined the band as a non-musician, never been in a band before, she just started singing because she had a really good ear. Most people we tried out before her--it was a constant, conscious effort for them, too straining. With Bilinda it seemed really easy.

What's going through your head during the last piece? You want us to surrender to it?

It's that but it's also a stupid lot of noise.

Are you enjoying the sheer release?

That's part of it, it's a lot of things--it's not one thing--it's not done for any particular reason, it takes on reason in itself, that's the point of it. That's the only justification of it. It's something that can be what you want it to be. Very rarely can you get something like that.

Is it closer to self-assertion, or self-obliteration?

It's both. It's everything.

Originally appeared in Hype, August 1992. Copyright © Hype