"Risque Business"a My Bloody Valentine interview by Shane Danielsen
Consider for a moment just what constitutes beauty. Does it have to be flawless?
Or can it arise, instead, from the telling imperfection, the blemish that defines
British band My Bloody Valentine clearly believe the latter. Virtually all
their work is built on that tension, veering between moments of sublime beauty
and jarring ugliness.
Riffs are fractured, chords are warped into strange new shapes, and individual
notes are distorted into banshee-like howls or gorgeous waves of sound. Rarely
have two guitars, bass and drums sounded so unearthly.
What sets them apart is their unusual willingness to experiment, to take
risks. For Kevin Shields, the band's chief songwriter and sometime vocalist,
the electric guitar is anything but and old-fashioned, rather quaint device
for noise and abuse.
For him it's a 'tabula rasa', the blank slate for an imagination that seems
bounded only by the limits of the technology available to him at any given
"That's true, but what gets overlooked quite a lot is just the business of
actually playing," says Shields.
"I mean, you can have all the expensive effects in the world there at your
fingertips, but unless you can actually play the instrument in a way that's
convincing, and imaginative in its own right, then they're wasted."
The basis of their sound has been say that it has a great deal to do with
Shield's constant use of the tremelo arm to bend notes, and an effect he describes
as "reverse reverb", something the band discovered a few years ago and have
since used with alarming regularity, giving them their shimmering, slightly
"We try to keep an edge to it," says Shields, "and not let it become too
ethereal and pretty. There's always the danger of just floating off into some
kind of sugary never-never land, making lovely music that ultimately doesn't
Not that they have an inordinate respect for traditional "song" structures.
The band pay only scant lip service to the conventions of rock music.
Shields explains: "All the songs are just a basic idea fleshed out, really.
Often the way the first note or chord sounds will determine the shape of the
"Once we find a sound that we like, we tend to write around that, rather
than trying to fit it into something we have lying around already."
Mostly their songs are best described as an ocean of noise, from which slurred,
echo-laden vocals occasionally break the surface, like great sheets of ice,
before submerging once again. Actual words are hard to discern, but that's
not really the point -- here, mood and texture is everything.
"It's funny," says Shields. "We're not trying to put any message across.
And most people tell us they can't understand what we're saying anyway.
"Yet, at the same time, we do take the lyrics seriously. We won't put some
absolute rubbish on top of a song just for the sake of having a vocal track.
"I think, ultimately, it just comes down to the fact that none of us were
particularly good lyricists when we started. We just did it the best we could,
and without necessarily worrying as to whether or not it fitted any kind of
standard lyrical framework.
"Yet Belinda [Butcher: guitarist and co-lyricist] would probably give you
another answer, because her style of writing is very different to mine. She's
much more interested in literate sets of words, and in visual imagery than
"Most of the words I use are very simple -- so much so that, as words, they've
been used to the point where today they have almost no resonance in themselves.
They're not colourful or associative at all. They're _so_ familiar, you almost
don't hear them. The meaning's drained out of them.
"I'm not a great lyricist," he adds ingenuously. "To me, a really great lyricist
is someone who shoots images at you until you get a whole picture.
"Whereas I'm trying to use what I call 'imaginative imagery', where the words
don't necessarily get in the way of the sense of the song -- which is communicated
more by the music than anything." He laughs. "That's my excuse,anyway."
Whatever, the reult is beautiful.
My Bloody Valentine play this Sunday night at the Phoenician Club, Broadway,
and Tuesday night at Sydney University.
Originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, Metro 15 November 1991
Copyright © Sydney Morning Herald