My Bloody Valentine: SPIN’s 2008 Feature, “It’s the Opposite of Rock’n’Roll”
This piece originally ran in the August 2008 issue of SPIN. In honor of the 25th anniversary of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, we’ve republished this article here.
My Bloody Valentine made a lot of noise in America in 1992. Figuratively—their album Loveless had become a critical sensation—and literally—with a spring tour of the U.S. that’s been rated as the second loudest in history. “Here in L.A., it’s a badge of honor to have been at their show at the Roxy,” says Brian Aubert of Silversun Pickups, just one of countless bands influenced by MBV’s neo-psychedelic bliss-blast. “The legend goes, it was so loud people’s shorts were flapping about from the sound waves. Their hair was rippling.” On each night of the tour, MBV climaxed their set with what they called “the holocaust”—the middle eight of “You Made Me Realise,” a chasm of one-chord cacophony the group sadistically stretched out for as long as 20 minutes, although it’s hard to be totally sure, with audience members losing track of time and, in some cases, consciousness.
After this deluge of din came a deafening silence. Sixteen years of it, a quiet that grew increasingly perplexing and frustrating for Loveless’ ever-expanding legion of fans. During that time, sales of that album, the band’s third, grew steadily (worldwide, it has sold 250,000 copies and counting), and the legend of its agonizingly difficult making swelled. So did rumors about the Irish quartet’s unmaking, their collective spirit shattered by the struggle to create a follow-up to surpass Loveless. A tarnished halo of mystique gathered around My Bloody Valentine’s leader, singer/guitarist Kevin Shields. This eccentric, driven perfectionist became alt rock’s very own Brian Wilson, grimly wrestling with a million-dollar Smile-like Unfinished Masterwork.
Now, long after most fans had reconciled themselves to the band’s utter extinction, in a confounding twist, My Bloody Valentine have re-formed, announcing a slew of tour dates and festival appearances on both sides of the Atlantic (including September’s All Tomorrow’s Parties in upstate New York, curated by Shields himself), as well as remastered reissues of Loveless and its nearly-as-fabulous 1988 predecessor, Isn’t Anything. But perhaps most tantalizingly, Shields has hinted that Loveless may just get its follow-up after all.
For a group that would change the face of alternative music and release arguably the greatest rock record of the ’90s, My Bloody Valentine spent a long time being mediocre. The band was formed in Dublin in 1984 by Shields and his drummer friend Colm Ó Cíosóig, and for four years, they eked out an existence on the British indie-rock scene, stacking up a substantial discography of singles, EPs, and one album (Ecstasy and Wine), all generally dismissed as derivative. Their sound bore the heavy imprint of the Jesus and Mary Chain, whose feedback-drenched ’60s-evoking pop songs and riot-ravaged gigs made them the sensation of mid-’80s Britain. Desperately searching for the next Mary Chain, the U.K. music papers latched on to any half-decent Xeroxes, and MBV briefly enjoyed a smattering of premature hype. In late 1986, I met the group for the first time, at a gig where they were second from the bottom of the bill: an amiable bunch, I thought, but decidedly retro with their Stooges-circa-1969 haircuts. Early the following year, an enthusiastic friend played me their single “Sunny Sundae Smile,” and there was a discernible improvement. At least they were now ripping off the cutting edge of the American rock underground, the blizzard-guitar post-hardcore sound of Hüsker Dü and Dinosaur Jr. But with alt America roiling with madcap creativity, it was hard to care.
The turning point in My Bloody Valentine’s horizontal trajectory across the U.K. indie scene came when they opened for another ’60s-influenced band, Biff Bang Pow! That group’s Alan McGee was boss of Creation Records, the label behind the Jesus and Mary Chain and later Oasis. When MBV dramatically outshone their headliners, McGee was convinced their potent mix of “pure noise and pure melody” (as Shields put it) meant they were the U.K.’s Hüsker Dü. Musically, a crucial shift had also occurred, with the departure of original singer Dave Conway and arrival of Bilinda Butcher, who now shared vocals (and soon a bed) with Shields. The latter had launched himself into intensive experiments with guitar texture, the fruits of which were audible on their astonishing debut for Creation, the You Made Me Realise EP. On the eve of its release in August 1988, My Bloody Valentine played a one-day Creation Records festival in the sweltering confines of London’s Town and Country Club. So high was the group’s standing with McGee, MBV were headliners, placed above even veteran Creation acts like Primal Scream.
A few months later, I got to interview MBV about their next Creation EP, Feed Me With Your Kiss, and imminent album Isn’t Anything at the squat where Shields and Ó Cíosóig lived, only a few hundred yards from the Town and Country. Back then, occupying abandoned buildings was less harshly prosecuted by the U.K. authorities; and squat culture, with its free rehearsal spaces, was vital to the country’s music scene. For young struggling bands, not having to pay rent meant they could pour their slim resources (often gleaned from claiming unemployment) into equipment. They could also afford to hang out and come up with ideas. “MBV wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if we hadn’t been able to squat,” Butcher said. “You need somewhere you feel free to make a noise.”
The building itself was pretty grotty. I remember the bizarre sight of the banister on the Victorian staircase just hanging there surreally in midair, all its legs having ben kicked during an out-of-control party. In a murky upstairs room, I sat in a shabby, moist armchair and talked with the group for about three hours. The members were incredibly soft-spoken—on transcription, Butcher’s faint and faraway tones could barely be extracted from the tape hiss. Listening to their music, you often wondered if a particular strand of high-end sound was a vocal harmony, a heavily effected guitar, or just an aural hallucination triggered by your ears being saturated by treble overload. It transpired that MBV’s lexicon of disorientingly innovative guitar tones came from Shields’ continuous sustained use of the tremolo arm (as opposed to the brief twinges favored by most guitarists) while he simultaneously strummed the strings frenetically, and from an effect called “reverse reverb.” The result was what the group variously called “glide guitar” and “the not-really-there sound.” Shields explained, “The thing is, the sound literally isn’t all there. It’s actually the opposite of rock’n’roll. It’s taking all the guts out of it—there’s just the remnants, the outline.”
In the years following Isn’t Anything, a legion of bands scrambled to uncover the technical secrets behind My Bloody Valentine’s distinctive sound. But what really matters is why that amorphous squall resonated with audiences at that point in pop history. Swoony oblivion was all the rage in alt-rock culture during the late ’80s and early ’90s. Underground rock groups of this era tended to mix Romanticism’s classic ideals of surrender and the sublime with late-’60s psychedelic impulses. What gave it a contemporary edge was the addition of a very late-’80s political fatalism and apathy. With conservatism in seemingly impregnable ascendance, many young people drifted away from politics and into inactivism, a dream-your-life-away resignation that grunge grrrls L7 would later rebuke with their 1992 anthem “Pretend We’re Dead.”
But it wasn’t death so much as slumber that emerged as the guiding metaphor for alternative rock, as if youth had gone into hibernation in hopes of waking up in more congenial times, with Thatcher-Reagan having been just a bad dream. In 1988, Sonic Youth put out their masterpiece Daydream Nation, but MBV had gestured at the idea the previous year with “(You’re) Safe in Your Sleep (From This Girl)” on the Ecstasy EP. Chatting in the Kentish Town squat, it became clear that a weird oscillation between sleep deprivation and drowsiness was key to MBV’s vibe. Isn’t Anything was recorded in two weeks with only a couple of hours sleep per night.
“Often, when we do the vocals, it’s 7:30 in the morning; I’ve usually fallen asleep and have to be woken up to sing,” Butcher told me. “Maybe that’s why it’s languorous. I’m usually trying to remember what I’ve been dreaming about when I’m singing.” Indeed, dreampop was one term bandied about to describe the horde of British bands—Ride, Lush, Slowdive, among many others—who modeled themselves in the image of Isn’t Anything. Shoegaze, however, is what stuck, on account of the way the bands avoided meeting the audience’s eyes. In the guitarists’ case, they had an excuse, since they were typically activating an array of foot pedals in a doomed attempt to approximate the Kevin Shields Sound.™
MBV were also highly influential in terms of their androgynous image. There seemed to be a subliminal sexual politics to their lineup, a gender spectrum ranging from butch-looking bassist Debbie Googe (gay, although she rarely talked about it) and regular-guy Ó Cíosóig to tousled Shields and willowy pre-Raphaelite beauty Butcher. On the records, it was often hard to tell the lovers’ voices apart. The androgyny seemed to run right through the sonic and emotional core of MBV’s music, with its paradoxical blend of force and tenderness, or as Shields himself put it, “an attitude of uncompromising strength yet, at the same time, a fragile sense of uncertainty.” That balance would carry My Bloody Valentine through the troubled creation of Loveless but, toppling toward doubt and despair, ultimately prove their undoing.
Started in February 1989, Loveless took nearly three years to finish, something unheard of in the limited-finances realm of indie rock. MBV ran through studios (a total of 18), engineers (16), and money, with an ultimate cost ranging from $230,000 to $500,000, depending on who’s talking. “I could see my label slipping away,” Alan McGee told me in 1999. “I’d even mortgaged my own house. In the end, I had to emotionally blackmail Kevin to get him to finish.” Shields, for his part, has consistently argued that the amount spent was much smaller and not that far from the norm for major indie-rock bands like Creation’s own Primal Scream.
The guitarist and his increasingly forlorn comrades quickly fell into a dysfunctional lifestyle, addled by a fatal combination of perfectionism and procrastination. Dick Green, McGee’s partner at Creation and a man whose hair would famously go gray overnight on account of Loveless-induced financial worry, recalled a nightmarishly endless litany of studios and tape and engineers and equipment, taxis and lots of food,” with the obsessive Shields invariably finding some defect tin the mixing desk and insisting on moving to a new studio. It was a time of emotional chaos in the MBV camp, too. Shields and Butcher’s relationship began to unravel (hence the title Loveless), while, according to Shields, Ó Cíosóig had a breakdown caused by precarious living circumstances (“A bad year of squatting in various places and getting evicted all the time,” Ó Cíosóig said).
It wasn’t all darkness. By 1989, U.K. pop culture was convulsed by the mind-bending sound of acid house. Most of the bands on Creation’s roster—a label infatuated with rock’n’roll decadence—threw themselves enthusiastically into the rave scene’s druggy vortex. “Me, Primal Scream, and the Valentines went to house clubs three times a week, getting shitfaced on Ecstasy and having these intense spiritual experiences,” McGee told me. My Bloody Valentine had been interested in dance music for some while. “It was the weird sampling in hip-hop records that inspired us to create eerie guitar effects in the first place,” Shields told me. (Probably an exaggeration, but as a statement of artistic intent, an honorable one.) The influence of hip-hop’s grinding grooves and house music’s hypnotic trance was plastered all over “Soon,” the lead track on the Glider EP, with which MBV broke their silence in 1990. On their next release, 1991’s Tremolo EP, My Bloody Valentine got into sampling. But rather than the recognizable quotes offered in rap and rave, they reprocessed their own guitar feedback, resulting in the amorphously wilting drone-tones of “To Here Knows When.”
Finally, in November 1991, came Loveless. Although hardly anyone outside the band’s immediate circle knew it at the time, Loveless was virtually a Kevin Shields solo album. Apart from Butcher’s vocals and Ó Cíosóig’s weird ambient doodle “Touched” and drumming on just a couple of tracks, every sound on the album originated from Shields. Googe stopped turning up after feeling “pretty superfluous,” and Shields built drum grooves for the bulk of Loveless by sampling the little bit of playing the unstable Ó Cíosóig had managed to contribute.
Released on Sire in the States, Loveless was the first time most American alt rockers heard the group and has subsequently become a touchstone on a par with the Velvet Underground 13 years prior. Recalling his mid-’90s shoegaze baptism, Silversun Pickups’ Aubert says, “It was scary and alien at first—I though my stereo was melting. The effect is like an orchestra of noise, and the almost inaudible vocals just sent chills down my spine.”
In late 1992, still buzzing from their wildly successful American tour, My Bloody Valentine readied themselves to make their fourth album. Shields was optimistic that they could break their bad habits and record quickly. Creation was not. McGee made the seemingly bizarre decision to drop his most highly regarded band, justifying it many years later with the wry comment, “It was either [Kevin] or me.” Undeterred by Shields’ difficult reputation, Island Records signed the group for a reported quarter-of-a-million-pound advance, which the group earmarked to build a recording studio. (They were signed to Sire in the U.S.)
“In retrospect, we had a totally overambitious plan to find a premises, build our own studio, and get the follow-up to Loveless out by July 1993,” Shields told me in 1995. But the mixing desk developed a mysterious ailment and by the time the technological glitches got sorted, the post-Loveless momentum had dissipated. By 1995, the band members were forced to move in together in a large South London house to economize and were even selling off equipment to raise funds. On top of the financial worries, Shields plunged into a psychological meltdown triggered by his incessant pot smoking. The result was strange visions (“I’ve been totally out there,” he told me) and paranoia. Stories later surfaced of the guitarist becoming a recluse, locked away in one room in the big house, which was surrounded by barbed wire and filled with cage after cage of chinchillas. Mainly, though, the drugs brought Shields’ productivity to a halt.
My Bloody Valentine were also conceptually rudderless, undermined by the very thing that had served them so well before: their openness to influences from outside the indie guitar canon. At one point they were besotted with thrash metal, but mostly they fixated on the post-rave genre of jungle, tuning in obsessively to the South London pirate radio stations that broadcast its fractured breakbeats and booming sub-bass. Inspired by how jungle’s rhythms “shift and inverse on themselves, the way there’ll be ten different beats at once,” Shields and Ó Cíosóig threw themselves into learning how to program drums with a computer, but the digital modus operandi didn’t gel with their more intuitive hands-on approach.
An album of jungle-influenced material was recorded, but eventually scrapped. “It was dead. It hadn’t got that spirit, that life in it,” Shields admitted in a later interview. To another journalist, he confessed, “I lost it….I reached a sort of stalemate with myself.”
By 1998, Island’s patience had run out, and it stopped advancing MBV further monies. For five years in the studio and a total of 500,000 pounds, the only publicly released output was a cover of a Wire track for a tribute album. By that point, the group had effectively disbanded. Finally, in 2001, Island formally released MBV from their contract. In the meantime, legally in limbo, Shields had embarked on a series of handsomely remunerated but lackluster remixes for sundry indie bands. He’d also joined his old labelmates Primal Scream, for whom he contributed production and guitar-noise expertise in the studio and surprisingly basic, glide-free guitar on tour.
Shields’ first high-profile flourish of creativity came with the four new tracks he contributed to 2003’s Lost in Translation soundtrack (director Sofia Coppola being a massive Loveless fan). Then, in 2005, he stood onstage with Patti Smith at the Meltdown festival she curated in London, daubing abstract guitar soundscapes to accompany her poetic incantations. Titled The Coral Sea, the two-CD recording of the collaboration was released in July. “My Bloody Valentine were my favorite new band,” Smith says, explaining that during her long retirement of the ’80s and early ’90s, she’d stopped following music. On her return to activity in 1996, a member of her band played Loveless. “Initially, I thought there was something wrong with the record. I said, ‘Did you leave it on the radiator?’ To me, their sound was the logical next step for rock’n’roll.”
Many other groups agree. The Edge cited MBV’s music as a major factor in U2’s drastic sonic reinvention circa Achtung Baby, while Smashing Pumpkins even hired Loveless engineer Alan Moulder to work on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. And in recent years, there have been threats of an imminent shoegaze revival. Aubert thinks it’s already here. “As we get closer to 2010, which is 20 years on from the original shoegaze, I hear more and more bands in our circle going for that blanket-type sound with calm vocals,” he says. “It’s like everyone’s done with the jagged, cut-and-dry dance-punk sound that comes from Gang of Four. Personally, I thank God for bands like My Bloody Valentine. They took a lot of bullets for us, paved the way for bands like us. They deserve to come back and reap some rewards.”
Yet while shoegaze’s return may be predictable, My Bloody Valentine’s—with Shields, Butcher, Ó Cíosóig, and Googe playing live together in June for the first time in 16 years—is far less or so. It seems unlikely that money is the only factor coaxing Shields back to the stage (although he isn’t interested in commenting one way or another at this point). Maybe the motive for the reunion is, well, motivational—a team-building exercise to work up the camaraderie and psychological momentum to finally complete the sequel to Loveless. Being the focus of all that white-hot adoration at shows could well galvanize the band out of a decade’s inertia. Indeed, in early 2007, Shields promised that the group was “100 percent going to make another…record unless we die or something.” Later that year, there were allusions to the contents of a new release: It would consist of a “half-finished album” from 1996 to ’97, material from 1993 to ’94, and “a little bit of new stuff.” It sounds cobbled together, distinctly lacking the epic scope and vision that Loveless II would seem to demand. But it would provide an element of narrative closure, rewriting the band’s story with a happier ending, possibly even pointing to a fresh start. I wouldn’t count on it, though. We’ve been here before.