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"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 character?

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 moment.

"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 awkward sound.

"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 mean anything."

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 whole piece.

"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 I am.

"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