One of the most highly anticipated releases of the 90’s was the follow-up to My Bloody Valentine‘s Loveless, an album most people regard as the pinnacle of the shoegaze movement. (And which inspired the name of a certain local record label!)
But almost 18 years have passed with no follow up. Enigmatic frontman Kevin Shields kept busy with remix projects, and playing with artists like Patti Smith and Primal Scream. Then last year, shoegazers across the world lifted their heads with joy as the band reconvened and began playing shows again, including a performance at Coachella earlier this month.
This Monday, My Bloody Valentine are returning to Seattle after 17 years, playing the WaMu Theater. I had a chance to chat with Kevin Shields about reuniting after all these years, the next album, and the horrors of “fake jazz” and Peter Gabriel-style suits.
KEXP: We’re so lucky that Seattle was chosen to be one of the cities to see you. Why did you choose Seattle?
Kevin: We obviously intended to play there. When we played last time, basically, what it was, we played with Dinosaur [Jr.] in ’92 in America, we kinda supported them. And then we came back in the summer, and played with Buffalo Tom and Babes in Toyland.
KEXP: I know you’re very good friends with Dinosaur Jr. Was it inspiring to see them reunite and go back on the road and create new music?
Kevin: Well, especially since they were so good. That’s what was inspiring. Bands getting back together again, I mean, like most people, you feel a little cynical, do y’know what I mean?
It hasn’t been the case recently. In the past when bands would reform, it’d be kinda like a slightly crap version, and all the guys would be wearing suits, kinda like Peter Gabriel-style? Like, they all did in the 80’s? Everyone wore a dark suit and they’d all be very polite and kind of grown up, y’know, and they were only our age back then.
I saw The Stooges, and that was really great. And Dinosaur Jr. were amazing. And that was what was inspiring, the fact that they could be just as good as they were before, or better even, in some ways. So, um, that’s what we wanted to do. We just wanted to make sure that we were at least a bit better than we were before, but certainly never worse. We haven’t been, we know that. I don’t think anyone’s dared to say we were actually better in the past. I think it’s impossible because we didn’t have the right equipment so it’s absolutely not as good as it is now, do y’know what I mean?
KEXP: You’ve played some shows already, in London, a couple of New York shows, All Tomorrow’s Parties. Do you remember the first show you played, when you got back together with everyone after so many years? What was it like stepping back on stage again?
Kevin: What we did was, we rehearsed for about seven weeks beforehand. And we were working about six days a week, getting everything together. And then our first reunion gig. We didn’t think of it like that, we thought of it as a “continuation gig.” It was at the ICA [ed. note: the Institute of Contemporary Art in London], and there was no gap, it was just like, one day, we were in the rehearsal room, the next day, we were playing a gig. It all felt a little surreal because in the whole seven weeks, we hadn’t actually managed to play the whole set in order. We just couldn’t. We have a huge dysfunctional quality. The day before our first gig, it took us five hours to play all the songs. And then on the day of the gig, we played a gig. It was kinda great in that way, because everyone was going, “What’s going to happen? Are we just going to get up on stage and be some horrible mess?” And somehow, we just did it. I wouldn’t say “magical,” but it felt really good, y’know. We just realized that there’s something else going on, when we actually play, there’s kind of an energy that’s just there. We can’t make it up, we just have to get up. I know it sounds silly, or corny, but we actually have to be up in front of an audience to play at a certain level. We’re the worst band in the world at rehearsing. We don’t like rehearsing.
KEXP: Well, but seven weeks of rehearsing. That’s dedication!
Kevin: Yeah, but a lot of it was just buying equipment, and just getting all the equipment together. Just basically getting the sound together. ‘Cause what we didn’t do, is we didn’t re-create what we did on the last [tour]. Say, we went from the last gig we played in ’92 to the first gig we played last year, we didn’t have the same equipment. We basically changed our equipment; we had better amps, and better everything. So, it was a lot of experimenting, to get it right. Last time around, when we played, we didn’t have the right equipment, and it wasn’t particularly enjoyable. That’s what we were up to in those seven weeks. Basically, the ATP people lent us all the money to the gigs that we were doing in advance, so we could buy all the equipment, and uh, that’s what we did. We just [laughs] spent a fortune on equipment, I mean, it’s not like we’re that high tech, but we just felt like, “Let’s do it right.”
KEXP: It sounds the way you want it to sound.
Kevin: Yeah. So basically what we achieved is what we were trying to achieve back in ’92, but we achieved it now. We’ll play a bunch of gigs more, there’s not many. We’re playing none in Britain, playing a few places in Europe we didn’t play, and then America. The gigs that we do this summer are the last time we’ll play the set like this ever again. We had already intended by now to have new music, and new songs, but circumstances have meant that we couldn’t get together, so we’re just playing the same set as last year, pretty much. But the thing is, that by the end of August, that’ll be it. We’re just gonna draw a line under everything and that’ll be the end of that era… with a 16-year gap in the middle.
KEXP: So, I guess a lot is being made of the fact that the shows tend to be loud.
Kevin: Yep, yep. We do give free earplugs.
KEXP: That’s actually very generous!
Kevin: Yeah, well, to be honest, it doesn’t seem very fair to somebody, especially if they’re in the front, and they can’t quickly get away from where they are — not very nice to, y’know, hurt anyone. And the thing is, we’re not that loud most of the gig. Most of the gig is in fact, decibel-wise, pretty standard.
It’s just, it sounds pretty loud because the sound of the music has so much distortion. When you play it at that volume, it does tend to sound louder than stuff that’s cleaner, at the same volume.
And the kind of distortion that we use, it’s not classic rock distortion, or heavy metal distortion, it’s super-rich harmonic distortion, so it has a kind-of psycho-acoustic affect that sounds loud. But it does get loud at the end. And it does get right up to 120 decibels, even though apparently some people think it’s 132, but that’s the difference between C-rated and A-rated… that’s a different story… technical issue… The point is, we do get really loud.
And, at that point, if your ears are bothering you a bit, absolutely use ear plugs. I do! Not on stage, unfortunately.
KEXP: I was going to ask you about that actually! I’ve seen pictures from your previous shows, and it didn’t look like you were wearing earplugs!
Kevin: What we were wearing were in-ear monitors. That’s kinda even worse. It’s weird, it cuts the sound down, but then everything that goes into your mic goes into your ear. And it was a bit harsh. I have to admit, I felt pretty deaf at the end of the tour. But my hearing’s okay, it just took a while to come back.
KEXP: I had read, both you and Bilinda had kind of…
Kevin: We all do.
Kevin: Yeah, me and Bilinda and Colm. And various hearing damage. Y’know, that’s part of the…
KEXP: Work hazard?
Kevin: Well, a lot of them were mostly accidents. Y’know, hearing damage is accumulative, right? But, Bilinda’s particular problem happened years before we were even that loud, and it was a monitor that virtually exploded in her face. It was some technical thing and the guy didn’t know what he was doing. It suddenly came on at full possible volume, and the spike literally ripped her eardrum apart. It literally ripped it. Like bleeding ripped. And it never really healed properly. And that caused her to be partially deaf in that ear.
And the ringing in my ear came from being in the studio. The trouble with hearing damage is you can’t really locate what brought you to the edge. Like, it could be five years of minor damage that brings you right to the point where you do something a little bit more extreme, like, “Shit, I damaged my hearing.” Which tends to happen.
But, you know, we’re all right! I want to have decent hearing when I’m old… I do. And it’s like, for my age, I do have some damage and stuff, but it’s still relative. I often see guys at building sites, and you see the noise they’re making and they don’t have hearing protection. You’re just like, “That’s going to hurt you…” and people, in factories… so, it’s a bit tough sometimes, but it’s nothing, to be honest with you, compared to what’s out there.
KEXP: When you put it that way, clearly! So, you guys have been in the studio recently, working on your new album. Now, from what I understand, this is kind of material you guys started working on back in ’96, and that you’re now finishing?
Kevin: Yep, basically, when Colm & Debbie left the band, I started to make a record. And that was made in ’96 and ’97. Then the plug was pulled financially, and there was no more money for engineers, or anything, so, basically, I stopped. Went and played with Primal Scream for fun, but also as a sort-of semi-job for a long time. I was a live touring member of the band, and did a lot of work mixing with them.
And then, when I was remastering [Loveless] in 2006, I found a big pile of CD’s in a box, and I had listened to them, and I was like, actually that material is an awful lot better than rare tracks we’re putting on the compilation… y’know, for the re-issued stuff… so, I was kinda like, I really should finish it somehow, but quickly, as opposed to spending loads of time, ’cause if I spent loads of time, it would do my head in. So, that’s what I tried to do. And didn’t quite succeed this year, again. So, I’m gonna have another go in June or July. But it has to have a certain kind of momentum, cause what happened was, y’know, I’d sit there, and I’d spend a couple of days on a track, and I’d just be, “This is so finished in my head, I can’t really get some of the energy to actually physically finish it,” because I’ve heard the finished version in my head for about, oh, ten years. ‘Cause, all it is is like, the vocals, y’know, I always have them, I’ll never forget the melodies, and the overdub parts… all those basic bits are in my head, so, I know what they should be, more or less, towards about 80%. ‘Cause it never turns out exactly the way you imagine it.
But basically, I think I’ll get it finished in the summer. I mean, we’ll certainly finish and put it out, one way or the other. I just don’t wanna spend torturous amounts of time on it, because it would just damage it, do y’know what I mean? That’s what I’m mostly looking forward to is, this is why I really hope, desperately that I finish it up in June or July, because when we finish the gigs in August, that’s when I wanna draw a line under everything, and say, “Okay, that’s it, the past is finished, finally.” Of course, we’ll play old songs again, sure. But not in the way we are now, which is just all old songs from whatever decade it was. It’s kinda like, it’s been good, and it’s been especially great to do it, because we got to do it the way we always wanted to do it. So, that’s been really great. It’s a pity we’re not gonna get to some parts of the world that we wanted to.
KEXP: Next album.
Kevin: Well, yeah, but that’ll be different. The band will change, the lineup’s gonna change and everything.
KEXP: The lineup’s gonna change?
Kevin: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, basically, this is literally it, do y’know what I mean? When we finish with this… I mean, everyone else will still be in the band, but it’ll expand. It’s always been in the cards for that to happen.
Kevin: Yeah, we tried it before in the past. We had people play live with us and stuff. On the Loveless tour even, we had a flute player.
KEXP: That’s right, I had heard about that!
Kevin: Yep. So, it’s always kinda there, y’know, the idea to do something, we just didn’t want to do it, obviously now, because we’re just playing old songs, but when we do new stuff, I don’t know what’s going to happen. All I know is that everyone will be there. But there will be some other people, too. Probably. All I know is that I don’t want to have any kind of limits on anything. We’re doing what we’re doing now, and then when we finish this, I just wanna strip it all down again and see what happens. But it’s not like we’re gonna be messing around and spending forever, because we’re going to be playing ATP in England in December, so, in a way, we’ll be aiming for that, to basically play new material for that. But we’ll see. That’s the plan. Most of my plans never come true. But that is what the plan is.
KEXP: So, I know that with Loveless, you pretty much did all the instruments yourself, with some exceptions here and there. Is that kind-of how you’re approaching the next album?
Kevin: Kind of, yep.
KEXP: So, what about when you start doing new material?
Kevin: I don’t know. To be honest, I learned things playing with Primal Scream. There’s especially a period in that band, that was very enjoyable. And, what was interesting was, everybody in the band could play at a similar level, and sometimes what would happen is at the end of songs, it’d go into these extended… they’re not “jams”… ’cause y’know, jamming is more like, something rotten about jamming, I don’t know why, it can be really cool, y’know what I mean, as well… it can also be awful… but they were essentially that. It was just improvised pieces. And, I’d like to get some more of that in. Best part of twenty years of ideas I never really got to do anything with… So, that’s the only good thing about this, is that, um, I’ve got a head start, cause I’ve got tons of ideas that I haven’t used. That’s the only good thing about messing up so badly, y’know, is that you’ve got that at least.
KEXP: So many people out there are eagerly waiting to hear these new ideas! So, I know it’s been a while since the last album, but you have been busy in the studio, doing remixes for Primal Scream, Yo La Tengo, the Go! Team. Is that something you enjoy and would continue doing?
Kevin: It was interesting. It had a path to it. The first kind-of remix that I did was Primal Scream, and that was the best one I think I ever did. I had an approach doing remixes, which is I would only use the material that was on the tape, and I would just re-arrange it and re-process it and re-make it, but I wouldn’t add anything particularly. And I kinda stuck to that. And it was particularly enjoyable, I think, for the people in the bands to hear it, because they would recognize what happened. But for the general public, I think it was just a bit moderately interesting. And um, I don’t do that anymore. I wouldn’t say I wouldn’t do it ever again, but uh, I’ve got no plans to or anything like that.
Yeah, it was an interesting thing to do for a while. I think the last one was The Go! Team. And again, that was me being really selfish, because basically, there’s something about them I think is really cool, and basically what I did was I took two of their tracks and made it into one track.
And it’s not that different, it sounds like The Go! Team, largely. I kinda acted like I was in the band, and y’know I was just really enjoying the process, like how they make their records, and I just kind-of joined in. But that’s the last thing I did.
KEXP: One of the other projects that you did recently, that I don’t think a lot of US fans know about, because it only ran in the UK, was your collaboration with Patti Smith.
Kevin: Yeah, that was really interesting. Yeah, we did two or three gigs, and they were totally improvised, in the sense that, the first one we did, we talked for three hours about it, we connected, and then she made me very aware of what was going on, and I got the book and she explained everything to me… and then we just did it. Y’know, that was it, we just played live for an hour and recorded it, and that’s the record. And then we did it again. But that was so chaotic, we didn’t release that. Um, cause I really went nuts, basically, for lack of a better word, and it was just too, too crazy, but it was very interesting. We’re gonna do something with that someday, but not release it in its pure form. And then the third one we did, it’s just in its pure form where I restrained myself a bit. We released those two as a double-CD, the first one and the third one.
We never practiced or anything, we just did it. And that was what was cool about it. It’s cool to be in front of an audience for an hour, and basically improvise, but it’s not pure improvisation because Patti had the essence, but she would totally… 50% of what she would do was totally improvised, off the top of her head. She just used the book as, y’know, she just allowed herself to get into the spirit of it… because it was her purpose, it was for Robert Mapplethorpe, and it was just a really good, interesting thing to do. And I’m definitely going to work with her again, in some fashion. Definitely.
KEXP: You had never really done anything like that before, had you?
Kevin: No, no. I’d never improvised before, and it was melodic improvisation, as opposed to what Patti calls “fake jazz” improvisation, which she doesn’t like… Y’know, which is basically rock guys trying to be jazz guys, do y’know what I mean? And trying to do that kinda thing that jazz people do, except for… it’s not, it’s not good. We didn’t do that. It was basically emotion and melody and sound was the improvisation, but not kinda going, “oodlyoodlyoodlyoodlyoodly…” y’know what I mean, kinda weird noodly kind-of like, you play so many weird notes it doesn’t really matter, do y’know what I mean? I just prepared a bunch of guitars, with different tunings, and I just kinda knew, “Alright, these are roughly the kinds of chords that work with these tunings,” and that was just making it up, and on the recordings, you can hear me totally fucking up sometimes.