In the past few months, Kevin Shields nearly went bankrupt, as he pursued the seemingly Sisyphean task of making new, completely analog vinyl remasters of My Bloody Valentine's generation-defining albums, 1988's Isn't Anything? and 1991's Loveless. "When we started, I was borrowing money from myself when I should have been paying tax bills," the guitarist and vocalist, 54, tells Rolling Stone. "Instead, I was like, 'No, let's do this. It will only take six months.'" It wound up taking roughly two years.
It wasn't the first time he had to borrow money to fund his art. At various points in My Bloody Valentine's three-decade history, he and his bandmates have lived in squats and gone through penniless periods. Even as the band became one of the pioneering "shoegazing" bands, a group of late-Eighties British and Irish outfits whose music was so dreamy that they seemed to be hypnotised by it onstage, staring at their feet, My Bloody Valentine paid their dues. "Everything I have ever done has paid for itself," Shields says with confidence in his voice. "I've never made anything in my life that hasn't made money in the end. I'm not really worried." And, he adds, "A lack of money kind of helps in a very weird way, because we're not fighting over money because there isn't any."
Despite the appearance that My Bloody Valentine, whose members also include vocalist-guitarist Bilinda Butcher, bassist Debbie Googe and drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig, seem to have vanished since their last tour ended in 2013, with various members of the band exploring other pursuits, Shields reports the band is in a "healthy state" and has been working on a new, as-yet-untitled album due out by next summer. He's not sure how many songs will make the cut, but he's adamant that the group will be supporting the LP on the road next year.
The most cumbersome speed bumps in following up their 2013 comeback album, MBV, have been the vinyl remasters. The project has become an urgent cause for Shields, since he's battled bouts of hearing loss throughout his career. By his estimation he needed to make these reissues before his auditory range would become too limited to be of any technical use. "My hearing isn't gonna be really good in five years," he says. "It's a downward spiral from now on."
He'd begun sprucing up both albums, as well as some of the group's EPs, in 2006 for the CD reissues that came out in 2012 but found the analog remastering process, which started in the summer of 2015, to be far more arduous than the digital one. It wound up consuming him, along with his wallet, as he immersed himself in the editing process and auditioned mastering plants since each, he says, has a unique sound. Now that the reissues are available for preorder on the band's website with a targeted shipping date in January, the typically reclusive artist tells Rolling Stone,over the course of a nearly two-and-a-half–hour interview, he's ready to return to Bloody business as usual. Even if he's still parsing what he just went through.
"My attitude was, it's possible, so let's try it," he says. "I don't think I'll ever do anything like that again, because it's not financially viable."
Shields sees the irony in Loveless overtaking his life again. The album, one of Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest of All Time, took two years to complete and cost the band's label, Creation, a fortune that's become the stuff of rock legend. The remastering project cost as much as the original – "which is quite bizarre," says Shields – but he underscores that the original cost only about £140,000 (as opposed to the £250,000 figure that bandied about indie-rock rumor mills at the time it came out). "Plenty of other bands on the label spent a lot, and all bands on major labels spent double the amount," he says tersely. "To me, all the financial details seemed to overshadow the record's artistic qualities. Why is that an issue? Do you know how much the Beatles' and Pink Floyd's records cost? You'd be shocked."
But where those bands had unlimited studio time and bottomless coffers, My Bloody Valentine spent months in and out of studios between 1989 and 1991 with more than a dozen engineers and assistants attempting to realize the album. "A lot of people think Loveless was this long period of experimenting, messing around and going off in the wrong direction and starting again and all that," Shields says. "It wasn't like that. It was very focused from the very beginning. We just had this extremely bad support network at the time. We had literally no money, and I was literally homeless, 'cause we lived in a squat and we got kicked out. There wasn't even 300 pounds available for [Creation] to get a deposit for a bed or something."
To make matters worse, Creation broke from a distribution and manufacturing deal with Rough Trade at the time, leaving the label financially unstable. The band had obtained a licensing deal with Warner Bros. in the U.S. and were able to bring in some cash that way, "so it wasn't a terrible situation," Shields says, though the label wasn't paying the studio. "We were at the first studio for two months, and the tapes were confiscated during the process of recording Loveless three or four times, and back in those days it was quite stressful because there's no backups," he says. "It's just like, 'That's it. They have it,' just because there was no money around to pay the bill. So we started the record in a terrible place."
Creatively, it was a different situation. He'd gotten a vision for the Loveless sound in the first few months of 1989 and actualized it on his guitar by the end of the year. Where Isn't Anything? had signified an artistic breakthrough for the band, trading the jagged, confrontational sound of the band's early work with singer David Conway for clouds of impressionistic sound, Loveless presented Shields' new vision more holistically.
Beginning with "Only Shallow," Shields plays hefty, malleable guitar chords that seem to wilt and tremble around Butcher's vocals. There are hooks but no choruses – just a sense of mood, like the aura preceding a migraine but without the pain. Each of Loveless' 11 songs presents its own shade of melancholy, coated in sugary keyboards ("When You Sleep," "I Only Said") and dense layers of grit (the guitar in "To Here Knows When" is so phlegmy it sounds like a transmission between two radio stations). Each song is like its own unique meditation, and to Shields' ears the analog remaster is the best representation of what he heard in the studio, though he doesn't dismiss the previously released digital versions since they provided different lenses to the Loveless experience.
"Isn't Anything? is about humanness," Shields says, attempting to explain the moods of the records. "Part of humanness is otherness, and Loveless is more otherness. The humanness is in there in the soul, but it's not obviously particularly human. It represented an attitude, and I did realize it reasonably correctly."
In some ways, My Bloody Valentine has been Shields' journey into finding the ultimate sound. He was born in Queens, New York, in 1963 but his Irish-born parents decided to return to their home country when he was around age 10. He met Ó Cíosóig while in grade school and the pair began playing together in various projects before forming My Bloody Valentine in 1983. "The early version of My Bloody Valentine is what we became, which was basically fully experimental," Shields says. "It was based around a 4-track tape machine, and we would improvise over that. Then we were getting into garage rock and the band the Birthday Party and playing simple music."
From 1985 to 1987, the band became more aggressive, sounding a bit like the Cramps, thanks to frontman Dave Conway's dramatic vocals. "When we played live people would double-take, because on one hand, there were these quite poppy songs and played like a garage-band fashion, and we looked kind of funny with the haircuts and stuff, but it was quite painful to listen to," Shields says of their shows at the time, captured on the live LP The Man You Love to Hate. "We used to boost [the frequency] three-and-a-half kilohertz, which is a really horrible frequency to boost. It was all a bit sick, really, and a bit odd."
Eventually Conway left, and they settled into the lineup featuring Butcher and Googe and began exploring sounds influenced more by the Smiths, the Cure and the guitar of the Byrds. To Shields' ears, his playing on My Bloody Valentine's earliest records represented a "perversion of a guitar sound," meaning "it's extremely clean, extremely small and just noise – in a way not trying to be impressive." Creation Records head Alan McGee noticed the disparity between the poppy sounds of their '87 album Ecstasy and what they did live and offered them studio time to make something that represented their live sound better. That's when they stumbled on the mixture of aggression and atmosphere that would mark their later works, beginning with the 1988 EP You Made Me Realise.
"It was just us making music more as people, as opposed having a concept around it," Shields says. "And then I did develop a concept again very quickly." He laughs.
Since most music in the Eighties was coated in reverb and studio effects like chorus and extreme stereo sound design, Shields thought the band should go in the opposite direction. "My rules were no modulation, no big stereo panning, no trying to make everything sound like hi-fi," he says. "I wanted to make everything sound like it was coming out of a ghetto blaster, just aggressive and the way I actually heard music myself most of the time when I would go to small gigs.
"When you go to small concerts, it's not loads of bass and hi-fi sound," he continues. "It's mid-range noise with everything fighting to be heard, and it's very exciting-sounding and I didn't hear that in music so that's why our records became quite mid-rangey. All the shoegazing bands that came after Loveless were using old production techniques. There's nothing weird or different about most shoegazers' sound. There's a lot of great things about those bands but I didn't feel very connected to it."
Shields' big inspirations around this time were American bands: Dinosaur Jr., some Sonic Youth and, "particularly for me," Public Enemy. "The sound on the first two Public Enemy records were very mid-rangey," he says. "They weren't hi-fi hip-hop records. It wasn't music that was designed for an arena, and I loved up-frontness of that sound and the lack of attempting to pacify the listener with prettiness."
When My Bloody Valentine recorded Isn't Anything?, Shields' vision, much like Chuck D's, was to make everything as gritty as possible. "We didn't use reverb or compression on the vocals, so they were very raw and strangely intimate," he says. "I think a lot of people think the production on the album is bad compared to Loveless because it sounds so unproduced, but that was on purpose. If you listen to the stuff I did the year before, it was far more produced sounding."
As Shields played back the original Loveless tapes for his remastering project, he experienced a sensory overload. "The exciting part is that a lot of the guitars, hearing them just in the album opening, they're what I kind of thought they were when I was doing it," he says. "The sheer riffiness of that sound on the analog, without anything in the way, is quite special."
Ever since Loveless came out, Shields' guitar sound has been one of the most coveted in popular music. It resounds in unique places such as the fuzzy squelch of Billy Corgan's guitar on Siamese Dream (mixed by Loveless engineer Alan Moulder), the heavy dream state of Godflesh side project Jesu and the claustrophobic atmosphere of hip-hop group Dälek's 2007 LP Abandoned Language. Even Phish's Trey Anastasio is a fan.
The guitarists he looks up to most are Hüsker Dü's Bob Mould, the Cramps' Poison Ivy, the Stooges' Ron Asheton and his all-time number one, Johnny Ramone. "Guys like Johnny Ramone are like machines," he says. "They're like aliens. It's not the normal rock guitarist expressing his ego onstage, not that there's anything wrong with that. When you play punk-rock guitar or sounds-based guitar, it starts to become more about your ability to transcend yourself."
When he plays, he says it's from a meditative state. "You hear what you're doing and you are part of the sound," he says, "and what you're doing physically to achieve that, you have to nearly separate yourself from it."
His big guitar revelation came when his friend Bill Carey insisted he play on better gear for You Made Me Realise and lent Shields a Fender Jazzmaster – the type of guitar two of Shields' heroes, the Birthday Party's Rowland S. Howard and the Cure's Robert Smith, played. The whammy bar was set up in a way that he could make the strings shiver on the song "Thorn."
"The second I did that, something jumped inside me," he says. "It was the first time in my life I could express my inner feeling in a way that my limited skill level matched to. It allowed me to play in a way where I don't have to think about what I was doing, I just feel it. It was like a stillness or an emptiness, so when I would be recording I wouldn't really see myself as a guitarist playing the music; I would literally be making the sound I was hearing."
That stillness onstage dovetailed into a phenomenon the British press called shoegazing, though Shields says for him it was more about concentration. Everything he was doing was so physical, coupled with operating the heaps of effects pedals he'd acquired (he points to a Yamaha SPX 90's "reverse reverb" setting, which he'd discovered via a Bob Mould interview, as especially important) that he was just trying to get the sound right. The reverse reverb was extremely sensitive to pressure, so he had to play really hard to achieve the "totally liquid" sound he desired. "It was an expressive thing," he says. "Somehow I could express how I felt in my stomach."
In the beginning stages of Loveless, he continued to experiment with effects and discovered Roger Mayer's Octavia pedal, a favorite of Jimi Hendrix's that shifted the instrument's pitch into tinny stratospheres, a bit like a sitar, or into gut-gurgling lows. One day while rehearsing with Ó Cíosóig, Shields made the pedal sound like a bomb exploding.
"We were in this 16-track studio that happen to open out onto an art gallery," Shields recalls. "It was just me and Colm; he was on bass and I retuned all the strings so they were all really low and floppy. And we just turned it up and distorted it as much as possible to create this huge rumble. It was this immense sound, and we did it for about an hour. The lights in the art gallery were shuttering and it did occur to me that these paintings could fall because of the huge vibration. It just felt kind of childish and fun. After doing it we became sort of entranced. We stopped when it became too much, and we were just laughing our heads off. It was hysterical, a bit like an out-of-body experience. We found out that it had echoed all over South Kensington.
"The owner was about a mile and a half away and heard this crazy noise," he recalls. "He came to the doors, but we locked them, and this guy was outside for 40 minutes, getting increasingly angry. He was screaming, furious with us when we answered the door, but we couldn't stop laughing. He couldn't be mad because he thought we were crazy."
The band later attempted the experiment in the middle section of "You Made Me Realise," the music for which originally sounded a bit like the Beatles according to Shields, and including 20 minutes or so of noise to shake up audiences became a staple of My Bloody Valentine's set thereafter. It's something they'd previously attempted with a song called "Clair" – "We used to try and fuck students' heads up with it by never ending it to see if they would notice while they were playing pool," Shields says – though in the case of "You Made Me Realise," he figured it was something more physical that dovetailed into his Loveless vision. "It's where our mantra comes from," he says. "It's the idea that repetition is so overwhelming that you usually focus on the singing. But here you can't focus on it 'cause it is nothing." The band scaled back the section on its most recent tours, but before that would give out earplugs to as many as 50,000 people if they were playing a festival.
The senses are very important to how Shields experiences music. When he played the analog tapes for Loveless, he found that the experience triggered memories. "In songs like 'To Hear Knows When,' the guitar sounds even more … more," he says. "It sounds on the edge of out of control. A simple way of putting it is when you listen to the analog one for a while, then you put the digital one on, it sounds crap." The experience triggered memories of how he used to overpower tube microphones to get extra distortion for an effect a bit like the "searing, ripping" hiss and the subtle crackle of a fire, which he heard on early blues albums. But he also realized his memory of making the album was split in two. He had the sense of making the album – the physical act of playing – but also one of the finished piece, after he and engineers made digital edits to the music.
Replicating those edits – called digital crossfades, using computer technology of the time – would become the most daunting part of remastering Loveless. A half-second change would take a surprising amount of time to complete, as Shields and compatriot Andy Savours built their own edit blocks and devised mathematic formulas to cut the tape. (Isn't Anything? was much easier to remaster since it already existed almost entirely in the analog domain.) Creating these techniques and executing them took the better part of a year. Shields was adamant that it all be done analog – not because it's better, he says ("I preferred the digital version when we made it"), but because that's how he wanted to hear it – and ultimately he enjoyed the sonic adventure.
The final hurtle this time was in physical production. He found that manufacturers each had unique sounds. "If you go to a French manufacturer, it's gonna come across a lot softer sounding and warmer than if you go to a British manufacturer, where it's gonna come across a lot more high end," he says. They eventually settled on a German facility because it was the most accurate. Throughout the process he went through various test pressings and later realized that full runs also sounded different, so they began doing short runs of 100. "We literally have a few thousand records lying around," he says. "All experiments and failures."
When he was auditioning manufacturers, he found that many seemed not to care about the quality of their product. "When I played the original version from '91, it sounded more exciting than all these cuts that I was achieving now," he says. "[The companies] just make vinyl and they take advantage of the fact that 50 percent of people who buy it don't even listen to it. And the other 50 percent are only getting into it for the first time. So you have a situation where only 25 percent of people can even tell if it's crap or not." Repeatedly during the interview, he points to the Beatles' recent mono vinyl box set as one that was done right. (That said, he feels it may have fallen on deaf, or tone-deaf ears. "The average Beatles fan is a fool, to be honest," he says. "They couldn't tell the difference from a stereo or mono version.")
While he's quite happy with the new MBV remasters, he wishes the whole process was easier. "I do really admire people like Jack White just going off and setting up his own pressing plant," he says. "That's a great thing."
Now that the remasters are being produced, Shields is ready to turn his attention back to a new My Bloody Valentine album. The band had begun work on new music last year, recording at studios in London and Ireland in spells, and the last time they worked on the music was about two months ago. They'd originally intended to make an EP, but Shields got a new concept. "In some respects, some of it is a bit straightforward," he says. "The MBV album that we did in 2013 feels more meandery and not as concise. This one is like if somebody took that and dropped some acid on it or created a dimensional clash or something. It's more all over the place."
He promises the new music fits into the My Bloody Valentine universe. "Isn't Anything? is a kind of metaphysical record, very sexual, dealing with things like madness," he says. "It was a like a diary of when we were living in squats. And Loveless was more intimate. And the MBV record was a bit like the end of something. It had a sense of nostalgia and yet it moved somewhere, and it had a sense of impendingness and looseness at the end. It's about death and change and what's happening in the world, as I perceived it in the late Nineties, and nostalgia is part of that. There's an attraction toward niceness and warmth but the change is cold and a bit hard, and now the world is perfectly in sync. The record I am making now is not so much about death and change as freedom of the soul."
The main delay in working on the LP has been Shields' hearing. "My hearing feels like a scarce resource these days," he says. "I know if I spend three weeks recording guitars, it literally takes me about two weeks before I recover and coax my hearing back into good shape. It has been that way for a long time."
Because of Shields' interest in analog recording, the album will be the length of a standard long player (about 40 minutes) and could be six or seven tracks, depending on what fits. "It could turn out to be only five tracks," he says. "I hope not, but I don't want it to be a double album and I don't want it to be really long."
Songwriting is a continuum for Shields. When asked if he was still using ideas he'd come up with after Loveless, during the wilderness years between the band's 1992 tour and 2008 reunion, he says he's still playing around with ideas he came up with on Loveless' "To Here Knows When." "Until I'm dead, I will be exploring stuff," he says. "It's not like I have an idea that I realize and go, 'OK, that's done, now the next.' It's more like a thing you explore and realise."
Shields' other concern lately is getting the business of the band in better shape. Even when reflecting on how money has ebbed and flowed throughout his career, including his recent spell of being broke, there's a note of astonishment in his voice when he says, "We've lost houses of money because we insist on doing things in certain ways."
He'd like to see the band get a bit more structure on the business end sometime in the future. "In the next year or two, I want us to be getting a bit more sensible without compromising things, just to see if I can be more productive," he says. "We never had proper management, for example. People would often be surprised when they go backstage and there is nobody there, just the band. We're playing for 5,000 people, and people go backstage expecting to see people and there is no one, because we have a tour manager out front making sure our giant guest list gets sorted out properly so he's not even backstage."
One example of Shields' new M.O.: He says the band will definitely hit the road next year. "It helps make the album; it helps realize it," he says. "It's like with the MBV album; it would have taken another year if we hadn't booked the tour. It's no harm. It just means I go through a few months of hell. You work twice as hard, and that's OK."
When they released MBV, all they did was make a post on Facebook saying it was available. They didn't even have distribution in place. And while Shields says he has no regrets, he does want to do things differently. "I don't want to release the album like we did it," he says. "I want it to be more organised. I felt like we needed a manager, because we just react to everything. It worked well enough in the past, but I have to be honest. I don't do enough really to feel comfortable with the situation and I have been like that for a long time."
He recently collaborated with Brian Eno on a piece and found the experience inspiring, in that Eno had systems that encouraged spontaneity. "My goal is to be more open-minded and create a thing where I am not compromised by the open-mindedness," he says. "Sometimes open-mindedness is like saying, 'I don't care.' I learned from the Brian Eno experience you can completely care and still be completely fluid and open-minded."
When he looks at the big picture, though, he's satisfied with where he's at in life. Creating these remasters was an odyssey unto itself, and he's glad it's done. "I did achieve something that I always felt I would, someday when I had the time," he says, beaming. "And I did it." That fact alone has helped him reconcile the project. "People around me are a bit annoyed with me like, 'You have spent all your money doing this, and it's a calamity,' and I am like, 'I know,'" he says. "But I had to do it. I had to do it this time. I couldn't have done it in five years. I couldn't have done it."
Topics: My Bloody Valentine