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The Beauty In The Beast. My Bloody Valentine Strikes A Nerve

By Mark Kemp

"Welcome to God's own country," as a Texas state politician recently described his home on the range, "where the grass grows tall and the wind blows free and anyone who says 'income tax' gets their mouth washed out with soap."

"Have you ever been to El Paso?" asks Ann Marie Shields, sister of My Bloody Valentine guitarist/singer Kevin Shields, and the group's tour manager. Her voice is full of concern. "We drove through it yesterday. It's this big city that's completely poor, just totally devastated." Bilinda Butcher, the group's other guitarist and singer, is wedged between the Shields siblings, providing echoes. "Really poor," she says.

"I'd never seen such a place in my life," Ann Marie continues. "It was just unbelievable - all those tiny, run-down shacks."

"Unbelievable," Butcher softly repeats.

It's a Friday, around supper time, and the members of My Bloody Valentine are squashed together in a rental van and barreling down one of Houston, Texas', many endless, flat streets. They're headed to sound check at the Vatican, a cavernous, cinderblock dive located at the corner of Washington Avenue and Cohn Street in the central part of town.

Houston is the fourth-largest city in the U.S., and a hotbed of violent crime. Last year, 671 people were murdered here, sometimes for nothing more threatening than an awkward glance. Residents are so frightened they've caused stock in handguns and home security systems to soar; in fact, folks saying "income tax" in Houston are as likely to get their mouths washed out with a .38.

It's amid this eerie, violent Southwestern Americana that the Valentines will do a 45-minute set of otherworldly music tonight before a sold-out house on a package show with Dinosaur Jr. and Babes In Toyland. Two nights earlier, the Valentines stirred up so much energy at the Roxy in L.A. that kids were stage diving and slam dancing. That wouldn't be so odd except that My Bloody Valentine's sound is hardly music to mosh by.

Earlier in the day, Kevin Shields sits at a poolside table at the group's hotel, a glass of iced tea beside him and 70 degrees of Texas sunshine above. He's describing what it feels like to lasso a lifetime's worth of tension and spew it out to hundreds of people in a mélange of beautiful melodies and disturbing dissonance. Some folks, he says, just get out of hand.

"I'm not afraid of anyone coming on stage and personally hurting me because I'm big enough to take care of myself," he says, glancing off into the pale blue afternoon. "It's weapons I worry about."

"There's always a few people who really, really resent it," he says of the band's music. "Some people get really aggressive, angry, mad. They feel like we're a bunch of wankers who have no right to do this. They take it personally, as a massive insult. Sometimes I think, shit, anything could happen."

Anything almost did happen at the gig in L.A.. "I saw this big skinhead guy moving his way aggressively through the crowd," says Shields, who speaks and sings with an almost self-effacing gentleness, but makes his guitar yowl like a wounded beast. "I looked at one of the guys [in the band] and said 'Watch it, there's someone coming towards us!' But then he stopped about halfway through and stood there and stared. You just never know."

What sets off such intensely aggressive reactions is a song called "You Made Me Realise," the emotional and psychological breaking point of every My Bloody Valentine show. For about an hour, the group coils through a set of noisy, ambiguous songs, like "I Only Said," "Soon," and "To Here Knows When," all marked by simple, delicate melodies and hushed male/female vocals, and wrapped up in wavering layers of textured guitars and drums. The result is a sustained roar of glorious experimental rock, with tiny pop songs occasionally peeping in and out, above and beneath the haze. A barrage of photographic images, circles, and flickering lights are projected onto a backdrop scrim, adding visual punch to the musical chaos.

And then comes "You Made Me Realise," which, depending on the night and the mood of the band, is a five- to 20-minute onslaught of pure, unrelenting, confrontational, 100-plus-db white noise, exacerbated by blinding strobe lights.

"It seems like such an old thing to do; you know, to make a lot of noise," Shields admits. "But I think we take it way past the point of acceptedness. It takes on a meaning in itself. I don't know exactly what it means, but it basically transcends stupidity. For us it's genuinely..." - he trails off, glancing again into the hazy Lone Star sky - "...it's the most relaxing moment of the whole gig."

I had followed the Valentines to God's Own Country because they stood me up back in Sin City. It wasn't out of meanness; apparently, a tire on their equipment trailer had blown out on the way from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and the weight of the equipment had damaged the rims, delaying their arrival. The group spent the entire next day in L.A. searching for a replacement truck that was so weighted down during the trip to Houston that it puttered all the way all the way across the desert at less than 55. "It's been horrible," Kevin says. "But the good thing about it was that we were driving in the daylight and got to see Arizona and New Mexico. I'd never been in the desert before."

In the last two years the Valentines haven't seen much daylight at all. They've spent their time holed up in various London studios in the middle of the night recording their latest album, Loveless. The album took so long to record that Shields says, "everybody had completely lost faith in us." To be sure, the British music press was having a field day trying to predict what it would sound like. When the EP Tremolo came out early, as a teaser before the album, some felt the band had lost its edge. "We weren't trying to make the perfect album or anything," Shields says defensively, in response to an article that suggested the group had been trying to do that. "The reason it took so long was because we started out on the wrong foot and never got back on the right one. Right up until the last minute, we kept thinking we would be finished in a couple more months - two years of thinking we would be finished in a couple more months."

Like the group's live shows, Loveless flits back and forth between deep blotches of noise and wavering dissonance to light, whimsical pop melodies. The vocals are set way back in the mix - further back than ever before (which is pretty far back) - and function more as added instrumentation than as verbal communication. Not to say the Valentines don't communicate feelings in their music, it's just that it's mostly not tangible feelings. Still when Butcher hisses "Midnight wish/Blow me a kiss/Hoping I'll see you" in the song "Blown A Kiss," [Webmaster note: do you think those lyrics might be correct while the name of the song is wrong? Neither do I.] you can feel the longing, even as her voice snakes in and out of the drone. It's just not the sort of longing that can be summed up in a "Dear Abby" column.

"It's not like we're thinking, 'Oh, I feel really bad or angry and I want to make something that will represent that,'" Shields says of the group's songwriting process. "It's done more in a really unfocused kind of way. The only time it makes sense is when it all comes together. When I write lyrics, I take liberties with them, because I'm not particularly trying to convey anything to anyone in words. It makes sense to me and gives me enough conviction to sing the songs, but it doesn't necessarily make a lot of sense to other people. "That's what all our music is like," he continues. "It's ambiguous, but in an ethereal, flowy way. It's kind of see-through. And the lyrics are only as substantial as the impression you get from the entire song."

Kevin Shields is the quiet, sensitive type, almost to a fault. He has longish brown hair and calm, gentle features that are enhanced by a pair of wire-rimmed glasses he wears when he's not on stage. With his prominent nose, small lips, and an ever-so-slight overbite, Shields looks a bit like John Lennon - only prettier.

Born on New York's Long Island, he was uprooted at ten and moved to Dublin, Ireland, forced to leave a cozy American childhood behind and acclimate himself to a new, completely alien culture. "I remember very vividly the day we moved," he says. "When something that traumatic happens, you remember every detail. I'd left everything I was into as a kid. I had been really, really into things like Godzilla films and Saturday morning cartoons. Ireland had non of that; it was 20 years behind America back then."

It took time for Shields to get over his identification in the neighborhood as the American kid on the block, but he managed. For one thing, Ireland had English TV, which carried the popular music show Top of the Pops. "At that time is was suddenly completely blown over by glam rock," he says. "I hadn't come across that in America. When I was a kid in America the only rock bands kids were into were, like, Three Dog Night, bands like that. In England, even little kids were totally into glam rock, like T-Rex and even Roxy Music. Because it was glam rock. It was pop music. It was on Saturday morning TV. It was like cartoons. All the kids in my neighborhood were into, like, Slade."

By the time he reached his mid-teens, Shields had befriended Colm O'Ciosoig, a shy, wiry kid a couple of years younger than himself who played drums. The two both shared an interest in punk rock and thinking of themselves as rebellious. So like any other normal 14-year-old misfits, they formed a band. "We had a lot of different bands together," says O'Ciosoig (pronounced o-COO-sak), "a punk band, a poppy kind of band. But then we just started experimenting and wound up turning out total dirge music. Once we went out to this shopping mall and plugged into an outside plug and made a lot of noise on a Sunday afternoon. We thought it was pretty rebellious. It was actually quite funny. We ran away before anything happened, though."

In 1984, Shields and O'Ciosoig formed My Bloody Valentine, which was named for a B-grade Canadian slice-and-dice flick. Though the music on the group's first EPs (variously on the Tycoon, Fever, Kaleidoscope Sound, and Lazy labels) was much different from what the Valentines would become known for, their experimentation on those early releases contained the seeds of what showed up on their later Creation EPs, their first full-length album Isn't Anything, and last year's Loveless.

"He's a good kid," says Shields. "When we're out on the road or recording, he goes to this really great boarding school called Summerhill. It's so radically different from other schools that the kids are seen as kind of like a tribe, like a society of children. They actually have a vote on everything. They don't have to do anything, but they do vote, so there are rules. but they're amusing rules because they come from a kid's point of view. Like, they can curse, but you can't call anybody a cucumber if the children don't want you to."

A screaming comes across the club. Shields and O'Ciosoig are standing on-stage at the Vatican, working out the glitches in the sound system. On the walls surrounding them are graffiti from other bands: there's the Pixies logo in light blue, Nirvana in hot pink, and Primus is gaudy orange. Off in one corner, Kat Bjelland of Babes In Toyland holds a casual conference with her band, and in the mid-section of the club a group of Dinosaur Jr. roadies kick a hackeysack around. Shields stoops down to fiddle with an effects box and snippets of songs from Loveless blast out of the speaker columns along with shrill feedback.

Bassist Debbie Googe, meanwhile, is standing with Bilinda Butcher at the front of the club, as far away from the noise as possible, talking about Butcher's first gig with the Valentines. "She had to hold Toby the whole time," Googe says, laughing. "He wouldn't let her go. When it came time for us to go on stage, he just wouldn't let go."

Butcher, whose long brown hair is tucked casually behind her small ears, giggles. She's the quiet, sens

Originally appeared in Option, 1992. Copyright © Option