illustration by alice rutherford
In 2013, My Bloody Valentine self-released a surprise new LP, 22 years after their critically acclaimed, fan-adored, awe-inspiring—and what many call a masterpiece—Loveless. But what exactly the band were doing during those years in between is a topic that’s provoked equal speculation and frustration, as well as lots of gossip and assumptions. I first met Kevin Shields, the band’s front man and Oz behind the curtains, in 1999, right in the middle of this “off” time. He was not at all how I imagined, based on years of rumor about him and his band. To me, this was a very gentle and unassuming person, who had a great capability for insight and an endless desire to talk about lots of fascinating things—far from your typical grunge-pop star, and even further from your flashy Brit-pop celebrity. I was happy to have a new conversation with Kevin before he started a tour with My Bloody Valentine. We speak here about future plans for the band, the real way digital and analog fit together, and what he thinks people still get wrong about him. They perform Sunday night at Desert Daze. This interview by Tiffany Anders.
I am interested in what you think the future of listening to music will be. Vinyl has made a big resurgence and I think that’s great, but as we said I love listening to music on my phone, too, and continue to do so.
Kevin Shields (guitar/vocals): It would be crazy not to—when you can just access something really quick, why not?
I’m amazed by the algorithms that come up. I use Spotify, and Apple Music, and just I noticed for the first time that Spotify was making daily playlists for me. The algorithm started to know what I liked, and I have to say it was pretty spot on. But I had to wonder … how much are we gonna just be fed things through algorithms? My playlist might have stuff from the past like Gene Clark and the Stooges, but what about generations to come if things are just …
Kevin Shields: … computers working it out for them. The only thing I don’t like about it—and it’s the thing I hate about Google—is that … Obviously, we all use Google because it’s the main thing and I often try and get away from it and try and use other things but they’re so terrible. [But] what I don’t like about it is it sort of corrals you into a little world, and you seem to only have access to things that it seems to think you want. And that is kind of isolating. It’s putting people into boxes. One of the cool things back in the day when you’d listen to something like John Peel in England or Ireland—he was on most nights for a couple of hours—it was cool to hear things that you never expected to hear or think about. That element gets lost by the algorithm concept. It sounds cool on one level to get something you’re probably gonna like based on what you’ve liked before, but on another level there’s so much stuff out there that people may never hear. Like some kid who’s into metal music will only hear metal music! [laughs]
It’s totally true! It felt weird listening to the Spotify playlist because they definitely were able to put me in a box. From everything that I listen to, they did actually kinda know me. It was really creepy and I had this moment where I thought, ‘Oh my God, is this how it’s going to be?’
Kevin Shields: It’s weird. Maybe that’s why I use YouTube. Even YouTube does that—you play a track on YouTube and then all the other tracks around it have something to do with that. I kinda like that cuz … if there’s a particular thing I’m curious about and then there’s all this other stuff, I’ll wonder, ‘Oh, what’s that? What’s that about?’ I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but I don’t like it if it’s the only thing. The whole curation thing where somebody plays stuff that they kinda like, it’s a bit broader because it builds a sense of community. You feel like you’re listening to music with other people even though you’re not with them—you feel part of something and that’s a basic human need in a way. In a weird way tribalism is a natural way of existing, but a tribe is full of individuals and different angles and stuff. Like what you were saying about Spotify putting together playlists for you … in a weird kind of way, you’re a tribe of one like that.
Yes! It’s very isolating and kinda lonely…
Kevin Shields: You know the stuff that’s been coming out this past year—that people who are on social media are actually more depressed. Facebook makes people have a lesser quality of life, not a greater quality of life, because even though it’s about sharing stuff and people liking what you do or your posts or whatever, the reality of it is there’s an isolation that’s happening. I think there will be a reaction against that. Our real instinct is to be a part of something, not just by itself. It would be a bit like if you went to a planet or an island and you can have anything you wanted or liked—but we don’t really know what we like, not really. We don’t really know what we like in advance. I think with a computer or anybody [who ]tries to target one person … it takes away from that thing. That ever slightly expanding reality, you know, where at least with someone like John Peel or DJing … That’s what’s good about DJing, about people listening to people playing music: it always throws up something you didn’t expect before, something you didn’t think about. That element, I think, is important. I think the future of the likes of Facebook and Spotify and all these things—the algorithm concept of targeting you with what you supposedly like based on your past behavior—is ultimately just a phase. It’s not the future, I don’t think.
I hope so.
Kevin Shields: I think it’s a cool thing on one level, but I don’t think it’s the future. I think the future is something else. That’s why gigs had a resurgence—people could go somewhere and feel part of something, and share something with other people. Part of the reason that happened is because of being marginalized by an algorithm.
I think people have needed to have music as an experience more—that’s why festivals are so popular.
Kevin Shields: Sharing it, that’s the key—not being isolated. Even having one person DJing or making a playlist, that still is sharing. When you know other people are going to listen to that same one thing, it’s like the way TV used to be in the past … When a good movie would be on or a good TV show, part of the enjoyment was you knew millions of people were experiencing it at the same time. With things like Netflix and the modern way of consuming movies and new series, Amazon and Netflix are becoming a world unto themselves by making their own programs and tv series. One of the reasons Game of Thrones was so huge was because it was on TV and people had to wait … although I think the reason people got into Game of Thrones was ironically because they found it on DVD or whatever, and people were watching the whole thing in one go. It was kinda amazing watching it like that … but I think the reason it endured a bit was because everybody watched the DVDs and they had to wait for the new series. There is still something kinda cool about people experiencing something at the same time. I think that element of things won’t go away. It’s an inherent need, really, and it’s a good thing—it’s a positive thing. It’s something that makes you feel more alive as opposed to some virtual world of your own likes and dislikes.
I think anybody that has a tendency to isolate themselves and something like Facebook are a bad combo. You feel like you’re checking off that social box without having to do the real connecting.
Kevin Shields: I’ve never had a Facebook or Twitter or anything. One was made for me, but I don’t even know how to access it, really.
It’s better that way.
Kevin Shields: Yeah, partly. Although I have to admit … because I live in the countryside and we don’t have any good computer connection, it’s really bad. It does put a real limit to that modern way of consuming things. I do have a sense of missing something but on the other hand … I don’t think I’m being a Luddite or anything but I do miss that kind of shared event-type thing. That’s probably why most gigs have a purpose, even though most gigs now are digital. Most of the desks are digital. A lot of people haven’t even heard analog sound. Unless you play guitar or just see small bands in small venues where you can hear a lot of the sound coming off the stage, you don’t really get to hear analog music very much now.
There is something that I think about often with you—there’s a bit of a 90’s resurgence right now …
Kevin Shields: I guess that was bound to happen after the 80s
Exactly, and the interesting thing is hearing new music of younger bands that may not have been around for the 90s. While I like some of these bands, the interpretation of what they think the 90s was is so strange to me—even what people remember about the 90s. People have their own ideas of what it was, and people have these ideas of what your music was, what the band was or who you are. What do you think is the biggest misconception?
Kevin Shields: I think that would be that I’m a perfectionist. That I work on stuff for a long time perfecting it. I might work on stuff for a long time, but it’s more like I’m capturing moments of spontaneity. Sometimes that can take a long time to capture them all together to make it work. But the actual process of playing and recording is usually reasonably quite rough. Like for example with Loveless is that everything on Loveless is like a take, like the first or second take—more often the second take. The guitar would be just played from beginning to end, all the vocals were just recorded, there were no drop ins. There’s no comping. It’s just parts recorded from beginning to end. All the guitar on Loveless is just takes, you know—songs starts and we play and then end, and it was usually two or three takes, I don’t remember doing four takes of anything, so that’s what you’re hearing. You’re hearing a bunch of performances in a way. The vocals, they were just like me and Bilinda singing from beginning to end. It’s funny—we just did that recently with Bilinda when she was recording some of the recent songs, and it took awhile for Bilinda to get into it. The engineer said, ‘Well, she can just start comping it—we can just start recording things and dropping it in’ and I said ‘No, just wait, she’ll just hit a certain moment.’ She did 16 takes in a row, and we played them all at the same time and they worked as one thing musically, and that’s a lot of what Loveless is—it’s basically between 7 and 12 takes from beginning to end played at the same time. I would often pick one vocal and think, ‘OK, I’ll make that more like the lead part’ as that one would have bit more treble or clarity to it. So it sounds kinda like one thing. There’s not particularly loss of consonance—from lots of vocals you’re just hearing one, really, so it would be one take from beginning to end, and then maybe ten below it also from beginning to end. That’s pretty much how everything is done. There’s no comping, really. It’s just stuff that’s played. That’s how I do everything really. So I guess that would be the biggest misconception. Even the last album where I purposely tried to work in a completely different way where I was recording pieces of music with the idea I would eventually stick them all together—still each piece of music is a bunch of takes. I guess that’s the main thing. I don’t kinda piece things together to create a perfect version—I might piece them together to make a whole song, but each part is done as one thing. That’s one misconception—that a lot of the records are recorded by some meticulous process, when really it’s just a few guitars played and then lots of vocals recorded and that’s it. And the overdub bits are played as one part. What you hear is what I played. Maybe I spend a long time balancing, but not even that long. Most of the songs on Loveless were mixed two days each—wasn’t that crazy. There’s immediacy to things that I think people don’t realize exists. It’s quite simple, really.
From listening to so much music, I get sick of things getting overly complicated now. I was looking for music for an ad I was working on, and I just wanted something that was simple and immediate, like ‘Lust For Life.’ The song is what it is, right from the beginning. There’s no long intro I have to sit through. People nowadays just put way too much into it, instead of just starting off with solid drums, good guitar riff … it’s weird how over-complicated people make things. Where are the solid rock bands that just bust it out?
Kevin Shields: I know. It’s weird because with electronic music, it’s been going on for such a long time that it’s nearly become the traditional music. I was checking out some—I’m not gonna say who, but you know … some kinda hip new multimedia electronic artist. And it was good. But on the other hand I was thinking … this music could easily be in the background of anything on TV and nobody would think twice about it. I’ve been thinking a lot about getting some synthesizers and doing more electronic music because its something I used to do. When I first got a guitar in 1980, I nearly gave it up in 1981 because I got a synthesizer. And then I got a PortaStudio and I was just making music with a synthesizer and PortaStudio a lot. Then after doing that for a about a year or so, by about 83 I started playing guitar again more. The first version of My Bloody Valentine was actually songs that we would start using a synthesizer and PortaStudio and then play live over it. And then we got more and more into the visceral element of just playing music and the synth disappeared and the PortaStudio disappeared. But I think there is something about the energy of just … you know, hitting something. Just doing it. There’s stuff happening and it’s not controlled by anything and there’s an appeal to that, even though you know when you hear a lot of bands playing guitar music it can get very boring as well. I think when there are rules, rules are boring … but they’re also cool because they force you to create something to bounce off. But they can also deaden things as well—I’ m not too firm about anything at the moment!
You’re doing a bunch of live shows—why now?
Kevin Shields: We just decided that we wanted to get going again. I had been writing a lot of new material, and it just felt like it was time to start playing again—really, it felt like it was a bit long enough. We’re more in a studio mode in a weird way. We started rehearsing recently. The band had been rehearsing since about the 16th of May and they had been working solidly since then and I joined about a week ago. I’ve been in the studio up until that point and took a break and taught them the new songs, and I’m hoping to get it together in time for the first gig.
And the Meltdown Festival first, right?
Kevin Shields: Yeah. I mean—we intended to start playing in the summer and then Robert Smith asked us to do the Meltdown thing and we were like, ‘Oh God, it’s a bit early …’ but basically he’s been asking us to do gigs with the Cure … I think he asked us to do the first gig back in 92. And we couldn’t do it—I can’t remember why. He asked us to do other things over the years and we couldn’t, and then when he asked us to do this, I was like, ‘You know what, we’ll just do it—we’ll just get together and try.’ I had been in the studio but I just thought it would be a shame not to do it.
It must’ve been 92 when I saw Dinosaur Jr open for the Cure here.
Kevin Shields: Really? Was that in that outdoor venue? I think I was at that. I think we might’ve been on tour with them? I don’t really know what happened but I do know I was there.
You mentioned that you’re working on new stuff—is it a new record?
Kevin Shields: Beginnings of new stuff, basically. First I was making an EP. We started about … oh, I don’t know, about a year, year and a half ago. Then I kept writing in the meantime and then around the past 6 months or so I started writing different stuff than the stuff we started with. So I thought, ‘What I think I’m going to do is make some EPs as opposed to just one EP.’ And the stuff we started about a year and a half ago will be more like the album that we finally do. I thought it would be a good time to put stuff out that’s relatively recent—stuff I haven’t been working on for a long time. So I guess the first thing that will come out will be a relatively short EP. Do an EP now in summer and then do another EP later in the year and finish working on the album stuff for next year. It’s good—even when we’re going to play live, I keep on writing new songs. Some of the stuff that we’ll do live we haven’t even recorded yet. I always wanted to do an EP as a concept but where it’s changed is the stuff that we’re going to put out first is more recent, and the stuff that will come out on the second EP will be stuff we’re going to perform live before we even record it. It’ll be a lot more like when we started. I just want to keep things more current and not getting stuck in really one thing for awhile—just see what happens. This first EP is more … I don’t know, gravitated to more song-type stuff? A bit gentler in a way—a bit less weird than the stuff I started with. Not weird but you know…
Kevin Shields: Warm—warm would be the word. It has a feel to it I thought would be nice to get out in the summer. When we finished back in 2013, I had been in the studio for most of 2012—actually I started in 2011, went on tour, went on tour, more or less until the end of 2013 and I had that typical slightly burned-out kinda thing. I had ideas, but all slightly fractured. It took until 2016, that I was writing different stuff again. And it just didn’t stop, really. So I thought instead of trying to control it, I’ll just put some records out. And with us performing songs not recorded, I thought, ‘I’m not going to control anything at the moment—just see what happens.’
I like that attitude. I think people spend too much time going over stuff and then you just get paralyzed.
Kevin Shields: There’s something about the world at the moment … things seem to be reasonably dramatic or changing and it doesn’t feel right to be somewhere for a year or two making a record then touring it for a year or two. That just seems so limited? I would rather be in a more current state, and just see what happens. In a way I’m not really planning it so much anymore. Of course I do have ideas and plans but I’ve learnt from a bit of aging they don’t work out, so there’s no point in getting too serious about them.
I remember you telling me that it was kinda pointless to buy new vinyl if the music was recorded digitally—you might as well listen to it digitally.