"Not Doing Things Is Soul Destroying" - Kevin Shields Of MBV Interviewed
, May 10th, 2012 09:19
Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine pulls up a chair with Taylor Parkes and gives one of his lengthiest and most revealing interviews to date
It's hard to describe what it sounded like back then, you know. They were different times. It's not that there's no innovation now – of course there is, though it mostly comes from elsewhere – but for a short time in the late 1980s it seemed that every year a handful of rock records could shake you up, arrive with something new... and not just new-to-you, but something fresh and bloody, still quivering, something you weren't prepared for. This was the last clearly-audible gasp for guitar music with tunes, of course: Simon Reynolds' declaration that all those blindingly imaginative albums from '87 and '88 were in fact "rock going supernova" proved more accurate than anyone hoped. But those were the times – the end of the beginning.
This was something else, though. Really. My Bloody Valentine – a largely-ignored, little-league group from the dying days of the "cutie" cult, who'd trundled along for a couple of years singing songs called 'Sunny Sundae Smile', nursery rhymes with deceptively demonic lyrics which no one listened to anyway – turned up on Creation Records with a single called 'You Made Me Realise'. Everyone shrugged, gave it a spin, and... Christ al-fucking-mighty. Christ al-fucking-mighty.
And the funny thing is, we'd heard nothing yet. The galloping heart, the unbearable urgency, even that bit in the middle where it just kind of froze, tipped a gallon of petrol over itself, grinned and flicked the lighter... it turned out we'd heard nothing yet. 'You Made Me Realise' may still be the greatest pop record My Bloody Valentine ever made, but once the album Isn't Anything arrived at the end of '88, it was clear that there was something more: this was not a chance encounter between some indie also-rans and a barrage of horrible, marvellous noise. This was the work of the most outrageously original British/Irish band in years, an album which – at least at its best – seemed born from nothing, an unthinkable joy. People went crazy. Really. What could possibly follow that?
The answer – after what was considered an unreasonably lengthy wait, ha ha – was Loveless, one of the most celebrated albums of what we might call "our time". Opinions were split back then, as now, over whether Loveless really went as far and as deep as we might have expected, but in that yawning gap between the album's release and the band's reformation, this ceased to matter: what remained was a record capable of taking the faces off new generations, a message drifting in from what sounded like rock music's afterlife: no more shouting, no more posing, only pure untrammelled feeling. And in there, arguably the absolute high point of the post-punk era, 'To Here Knows When' – a track which brings me as close to tears as any music ever does, not because it "says" or "communicates" anything, but because it doesn't have to. What could possibly follow that?
Of course, until now, the answer has been "well... nothing." The long-lost sequel to Loveless has become a 20-year running joke. Almost everyone Kevin has met in the last half-decade or so (and indeed, the half-decade between Loveless itself and the band's original disintegration) was told the same thing: it'll probably be out "in a few months", "later this year", "soon". And still we wait... and still we wait. This time, though, there seems to be a new urgency and excitement to his claims, and if (as he says) they've completed eight tracks already, then holding one's breath – while still inadvisable – may at least, at last, be permitted.
In the here and now, anyway, are newly-issued remasters of Isn't Anything and Loveless - four years, almost to the day, since they were first released to the press and reviewed dutifully by The Quietus. There's also a compilation out: the band's four essential EPs remastered, complete with seven rare or previously unreleased songs. Reason enough to head for a crowded tapas bar in Camden Town, and spend the evening listening to My Bloody Valentine's elusive auteur discuss the noise... and the absence of noise.
The cloud of shaggy hair's gone grey, and he's wearing some professorial specs, but Kevin Shields hasn't changed much. Rather quiet and unassuming until you settle down to talk, at which point he's unstoppable: no one's idea of a ranter, but happy to speak at length about his work, his past, his present, his flaws, his strengths, his bugbears, his disappointments... when the tape goes off we manage another half-hour on two shared interests - the history of British recording studios and the horrors of dentistry – just for the hell of it. For someone so maddeningly prone to silence, the bloke can certainly talk.
And so: the full record of a two hour conversation with arguably the single most innovative musician from rock's last two and a half decades... even though, for most of that time, he's been unaccountably absent. Not any more, it seems. The absence is over, and here's the account. The man who wasn't there is back.
It's been four years since the remasters of Isn't Anything and Loveless first emerged. Have you done any more tinkering in that time?
Kevin Shields: Just a few bits and pieces. Well, basically what happened is the mastering place kind of lost them. So I had to put them back together again, and when I was putting them back together again I did them a bit better. But no radical changes that anyone would notice.
One interesting thing about the EPs is that they trace the development of the My Bloody Valentine sound. There's a very distinct progression from one to the next. To what extent was that an artistic development, and to what extent a technical one?
KS: Well it was both, I suppose. One of the most important things to begin with, around the time of 'You Made Me Realise', was that my friend Bill Carey - who used to be in a band called Crash with Kurt Ralske from Ultra Vivid Scene - he said 'you've got to borrow my gear', and one of the things he lent us was the Jazzmaster guitar. With the tremolo arm on it. And back in 1984 when I was in Berlin and really into The Cramps, I'd had the idea, imagine if you just constantly used the tremolo arm when you played guitar? So I thought "I must try this..."
So I'd been playing the song 'Slow', and previously I'd been using this reverse reverb which I'd read about in a Bob Mould interview - I used it all over the Strawberry Wine EP, but I used it the same way loads of people have used that stuff. In rehearsal I'd been playing really fast, like something off the [Birthday Party's] Mutiny EP or the Bad Seed EP, that kind of thing: a very fast strum with a slow beat on the drums. But I tried it with the tremolo arm and it was amazing, I'd never come across anything like that. I mean, I'd tried Bigsbys (standard tremolo arms) and they didn't agree with me at all, the guitar would go out of tune and stuff...
There's something unusual about the tremolo arm on the Jazzmaster?
KS: Yeah. The spring is similar to a Bigsby, but they go all the way round. A Bigsby only goes round to there, but on the Jazzmaster you can pull it right over, and hold onto it the whole time you're playing. So I modified it, I moved it round and put tape on it so it wouldn't go all the way in, changed the bridge so it was super loose, more part of your hand than part of the guitar. So if you let go it would practically fall off.
Actually, when I first tried it I thought "that's OK", but it wasn't really working. It was like an old rock and roll thing, like [Cramps guitarist] Poison Ivy, that sort of woooaaaaawwww noise. But I was really into hip-hop as well, and what I liked about that was that it used so many samples that were half-buried or muted, a real sense of sounds being semi-decayed, or destroyed, but then re-used. So I turned the tone on the guitar right down to see what happened... and suddenly it sounded great. Suddenly I had this... melted sound.
So the new sound began here...
KS: Well... by that time, live we'd become that kind of band anyway, we just hadn't recorded it. Live we'd always been much harder than the records ever were. The records were like playing games. They were conceptual, all the early ones, they had kind of sick lyrics and... it just felt like we were messing about. Then when Bilinda joined, around that 86-87 period, we were getting into Husker Du, Dinosaur Jr, Sister and EVOL by Sonic Youth... they put a different slant on everything for me. A slightly more melodic, more soulful, more beautiful element. And when Bilinda joined it all became more balanced. So we were happy with the You Made Me Realise EP because suddenly we had something we could play live. The difference between the record and what we were live was much less. And it was actually easier to play that most of the stuff from the Ecstasy record.
So for the You Made Me Realise EP we got five days in the studio. Which we were very grateful for, because before that we'd been given seven days to make a mini-album, that Ecstasy thing. But because of how we lived at the time - we were in squats and had a very transient, free life – we didn't rehearse too much. Even back then we'd write in the studio, just go in with the basic bare bones of stuff. But then we got two months to make Isn't Anything, in a residential studio in Wales. And the guy we were recording with was a good guy, Dave Anderson – he'd been in loads of interesting bands like Hawkwind and Amon Duul II, as a teenager he'd been over to Germany – so he gave us a crash course in Krautrock. We'd been listening to loads of it, but he told us all the stories about taking acid all the time, getting into all sorts of trouble... so lines were crossing in the right way, you know? And when we were making the You Made Me Realise EP I'd become consumed by a certain attitude... but to be honest it came out more on Isn't Anything than the Feed Me With Your Kiss EP, which was more the darker side.
The darker side?
KS: I mean, the band always sits between positive and negative, I guess, and that was veering towards the negative. A darker sound. People listen to the Feed Me With Your Kiss EP and say it's a bit more lo-fi than the one before, because I was becoming more conscious of high frequencies and - partly from the hip-hop thing - I was thinking "You don't have to keep putting all this top end on everything, making it all separate and bright." The '80s production value, basically. So the sound of that record is part of that whole attitude, which was solidifying around that time, but it's all low frequencies, not much top end.
Were you discovering a lot of new stuff as you went along in the studio?
KS: Yes and no. There was less technology involved than people imagine – most of the sound was just the guitar with the tremolo arm - but it was there to an extent. The You Made Me Realise EP was the first time we used sampling, the middle bit where it goes chhhhhhhhh – at that time there were these things called Bel delay units, and you could basically use them as samplers. You could put something into the delay and then play it, as a part. It's all over Isn't Anything. You could do things like put a little sound into it, and there was an arrow going up and an arrow going down, and we were sat there going "up up up up up..." There were no pitch wheels or anything, just up and down buttons which we sat there pressing frantically.
Then on Glider, that's a part of guitar and bass with a drum loop, then the rest of the sound you hear is all guitar feedback, sampled. Just hours of sampling feedback and editing it on the sampler, without a keyboard or anything... and on 'Soon' the vocals that go "ahhh" are sampled too. There's a song called 'Off Your Face', where the acoustic guitar is put through a flanger set to zero, so it's not really doing anything, it just makes it sort of digitised and damaged...
Then we got our first proper sampler, an old Akai, which were quite common by '89 because dance music had exploded. The Tremolo EP was where we really got lost in sampling. That's got loads of sampled feedback played on a keyboard, stuff from round that time... there's a song called 'Swallow', which has a belly dancing tape from Berlin, Turkish music, a sample just taken off the cassette. But I think we used technology much less than people imagine. Like I said, I was just fascinated by the sounds of things taken from the living world and made immortal, but kind of damaged or mummified in the process.
I remember having a bootleg of a David Bowie show as a kid - the last Spiders From Mars show. A really distorted audience tape, and it sounded incredibly powerful and unearthly. Then a friend of mine got the official album, which was recorded and mixed properly, and it was a terrible let-down.
KS: Yeah, this is it. Starting from 'You Made Me Realise', when we were mixing, I wanted something that sounded like it was going through one of those little BOSE PA systems, a big mush. That 80s production value - even on the records I liked, the Sonic Youth and Dinosaur records - even though they merged the bass and guitar, the vocals were so loud and the drums were so loud, it was just kind of rocky to me. It was hip hop that really shook me up – not dance music, because people forget that dance music back then was kind of shit. Just crappy house music. It was for having an amazing experience in a club on ecstasy, but there was nothing sonically interesting about it. I mean, I'd been into electronic music since I got into music. I got a synth in '81, and I gave up the guitar after about a year of playing it. I thought, "Ah, this is pointless, I'm never going to do anything different. It's all been done."
But that's when I really got into all the bending stuff - we were into DAF and they had a live drummer, but they were playing to a tape with a synthesizer drifting in and out of tune... really unsettling. When Jimi Hendrix did 'Wild Thing' at Monterey, if you listen to it there's a bit at the end where the tape goes all wrong, and it was one of my favourite live musical things, that footage... and the Sex Pistols, at the end of one of their songs it bends, the tape goes wrong. But that really stuck in my mind. Because tapes, cassettes, were such a big part of music when I was young, and whenever you'd hear music slow down and bend, it was like "oh shit" and you'd have to stop it and fish the tape out of the machine... But I had a fascination with the bending pitch phenomenon. So when I got that guitar which my friend lent me, which could do something other guitars couldn't, it was like discovering distortion for the first time or something, or echo: "Oh my God this is amazing, I can express myself at last..."
It's not just bending a guitar out of tune, it has more in common with... what's that thing where an ambulance goes by?
The Doppler effect.
KS: Yeah. It's pitch and volume... energy and pitch are related. What I do is hard to replicate if you just use a guitar pedal which goes up and down in pitch because it doesn't have the dynamic quality. It's not just bending the guitar in and out of tune, it became an expressive thing. Even to this day, the only way I can play like that is if I go still – that's why I'm relatively still on stage – because you can't play like that if you're jumping around the place. You have to be... not in a meditative state, but something close to that. Your subconscious takes over, and it just comes out like that. It feels... not like magic, but it's like talking or walking, you just do it. If you try to be conscious of it you become bad at it. That's the weird part, it became an expressive tool. And to work properly it has to be not just me playing the guitar but me becoming part of the sound.
That makes sense in terms of the themes of the songs as well as the sound – the sense of being disembodied, the loss-of-self. So many of those songs are about sex, but there's nothing carnal or thrusting about them. It's as far removed from Led Zeppelin as you can get.
KS: Yeah, because their sex songs were about wanting it. We were doing it! It's from the inside out, rather than the outside in.
That applies to a lot of things to do with My Bloody Valentine, doesn't it? For instance, people often talk about your music in terms of drugs, but maybe that shows a failure of imagination. There aren't many drug songs, and it doesn't really sound like music to be listened to on drugs. It sounds drugged, more than druggy.
KS: Yeah, well it definitely wasn't about drugs. Pot, maybe. But very few of the songs were even written when I was stoned. And we certainly never played or mixed or recorded stoned. Mainly because we were too tired. The You Made Me Realise EP and the Feed Me With Your Kiss EP, that was when we got really into sleep deprivation. We were into that all the way up to about 1990, when we got tired of it, literally. Me and Colm used to see who could stay up the longest - a lot of the music was done after being awake for 24 hours, and certainly the majority of those EPs were done on a couple of hours' sleep. We never had more than a couple of hours. Which created a kind of slightly manic, overtired condition, which when you're younger is a boost. For a few months, it's good. But then you burn out.
That was the thing though – it's not that altered states of mind weren't involved, they were, big time. I had some pretty weird experiences. But that's what it was, sleep deprivation. That's what happens when you don't sleep much. It brings the subconscious into the present world.
You can definitely hear that. There's a lot of feeling there, but not very much "emotion", at least in rock & roll terms – those records don't sound impassioned or declamatory, they're very blurry, but they're full of sensation.
KS: That's why the EPs have a different feel to the Loveless record, to me a completely different feel. We started sleeping again, and the sound changed. 'Soon' and 'To Here Knows When' are different versions on the EPs and the albums, different mixes. I finished the Tremolo EP early in 1991, and in a way that was the end of my journey with tonality. Loveless was brighter – not going so much in that direction of everything being blunted. And that's why those versions of those songs are different, remixed. They had to be, to fit into the album.
I was listening to the EP version on the way here, and it did sound different after all those years of listening mostly to the LP version. Less information.
KS: Yeah, that's right. There's only one guitar on the EP version of 'Soon', but on the album version there's another one overlaid. Actually, on the two versions of Loveless which exist, the original and the remaster, the 'Soon's are completely different. I had to remake it in 2007 – it's the original mix but there's this guitar layered on top, which I had to do again, and it's almost impossible to do. Much easier this time around because technology has improved, but it still took a few days because the guitar just didn't want to sit on top. If someone listens to them on headphones, you're going to notice a huge difference between the old version and the new, especially when it goes into the vocal part. So there are actually three versions of 'Soon'. But it's all about that guitar track.
Most experimental rock is based around improvisation, but My Bloody Valentine have always been quite structured, really - the wildness is the sound, coming out of the instruments - so I see how one different guitar track can change the balance.
KS: Every time we play a song it's going to be a little different just because of that. Which is why, contrary to popular belief, there aren't a lot of guitar tracks on those songs. Usually just one. They just sound big.
Because dubbing another over the top would fill in the gaps, flatten it out?
KS: Yeah, one sounds big and two sounds smaller. They fight with each other. Although the song I'm working on now, at the moment there's two, but I've come to like it like that... and I'm still trying to decide, should it be one or two?
It sounds like what you do in the studio has more in common with painting.
KS: Yeah, maybe. Because of the time we came out, when CDs were new, it allowed me to go somewhere I couldn't have gone when it was just vinyl, in terms of sitting down and fine tuning. In a nutshell, with vinyl – which I love – there's an EQ curve on all record players, on the phono input. It takes the bass and treble up and the mid-range down. If you listen to a record without that, it sounds wrong, it's all middle. That's what a vinyl record really sounds like, it's just mid-range. And you get an exaggerated version of that curve on cheap systems to make them sound more hi-fi, and then there's people who have their own systems with crazy EQ set-ups and whatever.
So when you're making a record, it's a hard thing... different cuts of the record sound different, the kind of vinyl has an effect. I mean, what the needle looks like is a snowplough, because there's always dust in the air and the grooves have all got shit in them, and the needle just throws all that out the way, ploughing through it. So depending on the vinyl and how heavy it is and how dirty it is, the needle can be dancing and jumping as it goes... so you get all those variations in the sound. But the CD pushed things more in the direction where people actually hear what you got on that digital master. Which encouraged me to go as far as I wanted in terms of fine balance, whereas if I'd been around in the '60s or '70s that would just have been pointless.
Like in the '60s, there was a belief system that no one can hear a difference of 1.5 db. And that lasted until the '80s, but now it's understood that people can hear a 4db difference. We all perceive music differently [now] to how people perceived music 30 years ago, because our brains have been trained. We listen in a different way, and digital's allowed that to happen. That's the positive side of it – obviously, it's also added a coldness and a hardness too, which is exaggerated by modern production techniques. But it's allowed me a lot of freedom.
So, going back to the time when you were recording these EPs, you were in squats...
KS: Yeah, up until halfway through Loveless.
Were you heavily involved in that 80s squat scene? Parties and so on?
KS: Oh yeah, we had great parties. We were famous for it! In '87 and '88... I wasn't necessarily the main instigator, but there was a big group of people, everyone was young – I was the eldest at 23, 24 – and we'd just have a party and a couple of hundred people would turn up. And that evolved into this thing where every weekend it would become a free house. And what's remarkable about that is, throughout all that time nothing ever got stolen. It was amazing. I've got no bad memories.
Even when we toured in those days, we'd have an open door policy backstage – by the time we were touring Loveless we'd have 48 cans of beer on the rider for whoever happened to walk in – and again, it was an experiment because people aren't used to that. And nothing was stolen! There was one incident where a girl accidentally picked up one of the roadies' coats, and that was the only time. Amazing.
A lot of things had started to go badly wrong by the end of the 1980s, but in retrospect there was still a lot of freedom, wasn't there?
KS: Yeah, the corporate control of things hadn't fully taken hold.
It seems like the last time that what would now be called "indie rock" was consciously and genuinely experimental...
KS: I used to know James Brown, the journalist, when he was a fanzine writer. I met him on a bus one day and he was a bit down. He'd just joined the NME, and on his first day a man in a suit came in and told them that NME was now going to be made more mainstream. Because they were trying to separate NME and Melody Maker, they were going to force NME to write about more mainstream stuff, while Melody Maker was going to be allowed to get less mainstream. You remember all that Arsequake stuff?
I certainly do.
KS: Yeah, by 1988 it was all about us and Loop and Spacemen 3 and AR Kane - Skinny Puppy on the cover - they had carte blanche. I think that gave a greater weight to the less mainstream music that was around at the time, made it seem bigger than it was. And in a way, because they didn't really know what they were doing, the Men In Suits allowed that to happen.
You don't want to know what happened when the Men In Suits came down to Melody Maker in 1996...
KS: Well, they don't know what they're doing, ever. At least at that time they created something which we benefited from.
Then, as things got a little less wild, we got that wave of supposedly post-My Bloody Valentine groups. Most of whom seemed to take the surface of that sound and apply it to something a lot less imaginative, a lot safer.
KS: I think a lot of it was because people got into the idea of it, the female energy thing, the perceived effects-laden guitar – and it wasn't, ever, we used no more effects than any blues player. I liked a lot of those groups as pop groups, and as people, but I guess I was a little resentful and annoyed... Well, not resentful and annoyed, but I just thought, 'people aren't getting this'. We were put in the same category as a lot of groups who in many ways I'd see as the antithesis of what we were about. Their production values, their attitudes, everything they were doing. The only thing we had in common was a certain basic... in the same way Herman's Hermits had something in common with The Beatles... No, that sounds a bit harsh. But you know, the Hermits had the harmonies and guitars, but really they didn't have much in common. And superficially those groups seemed to be doing the same thing as us, even though they weren't. And of course, Herman's Hermits were selling out stadiums in America in 1966 when The Beatles weren't. [smiles ruefully]
Do you feel that you've influenced a lot of good stuff? Or is there a bit of a space there?
KS: No, I've seen it in all kinds of music. All kinds. Heavy metal... less so folk music, but even there. Dance music, bands that you'd consider mainstream rock groups, U2 and Coldplay. The first Queens Of The Stone Age record, I was like, shit... I can see part of our attitude there. That lack of macho-ness... I'm not saying they were directly influenced by us, but if I was to look out and see what we were doing then reflected now, I see it everywhere. Some of the better appropriations of ideas that we had, they've turned up in music that has nothing to do with our sound.
I think we were definitely a bit ahead of our time though, in that we were synergising something that was going to happen anyway. It wasn't that these things were so influenced by us, just that that energy was being born anyway, and we were one of the first puppies out. I don't know if it came from us, but it came through us. But it was trying to get out anyway. Like a leak...
When you were recording, what exactly was the role of the other band members?
KS: Colm was always a very important musical partner. He was with me on it, even though I was leading it. He was getting it very quickly. That's why it was a bit of a disaster when everything went horribly wrong for him at the beginning of Loveless, which led to him not being on much of that record. But he still stuck with me - he only disappeared for a few months... he was the one who'd worry about how to use the computer and the sampler, which allowed me to be a bit more free-minded. And he could see what was good, quickly.
But I was writing the music and playing all the instruments, so I guess Debbie and Bilinda, playing-wise, never really had a role. But they didn't mind. Because it allowed the music to develop in a much more free way. If you're in a band and everyone's competing to have their parts heard, things don't happen, so that was the good side of it – there didn't have to be bass, there didn't have to be guitar, there didn't even have to be vocals. Anything could happen. It wasn't done in an egotistical way – I wasn't thinking "I have to do all this myself". But it's quicker to do it as you write it. If you have to write it and say "here, learn this" and then get a sound, it's too slow, it's not spontaneous. But it's quite common in the studio, a lot of bands, you'd be really surprised – a lot of people in bands don't play on their records.
And then it becomes its own thing when you play live. In our case it becomes a bit tougher, because Debbie's tougher in her style than I am, and Bilinda brings in a kind of garage rock quality, in a really good way. People very rarely hear our records and go "oh, the live version is so much worse." It's all balanced.
The sheer volume compensates for a lot of what's missing from the records.
KS: Well it's mostly all still there, but the balance isn't quite right because I can't control it onstage. That's what the volume makes up for – it fills the room to such an extent that any inconsistencies with the mixing are overshadowed by the fact that the whole room is saturated. So people's imaginations are dragged into the equation. We have to get that exactly right though, because it goes "Wrong, wrong, too quiet, too loud – oh, there it is." And bang. When the balance of things is right, a little window opens into your mind. But I kind of like that all the live recordings of us on the internet are totally distorted. It means people have to use their imaginations...
You can't get a feeling for 130db from an mp3...
KS: Well, it's not usually that loud. Part of it comes from how you measure decibels, actually. There's A-weighting and C-weighting: C is the whole frequency range, but for human measurement, and for legal measuring, it's A-weighting. So if you flip the button between them, it rises. If you're on 110 or 120, and you flip the button to C-weighting, it becomes 130 – so that's where that myth comes from. We weren't quite that loud.
Even on the "holocaust" section of 'You Made Me Realise'?
KS: Well I don't know, because sometimes the sound man likes to experiment. But I mean, the idea was never to rip people's heads off, or damage their hearing – that's why we gave everyone earplugs. I'm not going to put people in the situation where they can't protect themselves. It was funny buying all those earplugs though - we once bought 50,000 for one gig, for Coachella. We were going to buy 70,000 but they said "don't worry, because 20,000 won't take them no matter what." There's sort of a 25% element who are too cool or too uptight to take anything. "No, I'm fine, man."
Or else they want the full experience, tinnitus and all.
KS: Well, my God... I don't want to give anyone tinnitus.
So you were saying, Colm doesn't play on much of Loveless...
KS: Colm cracked up because he was homeless - they got thrown out of the squat they were in, it was October, getting cold, he was sleeping on couches, and then he got a really bad virus. His health was getting worse and worse, and in the end he just cracked up. It was a really horrible period for all of us, too much pressure. Creation had zero money – around that time Felt wanted £2,000 to make their last album and Creation didn't have it, so they went somewhere else to do it – and they couldn't pay our studio bills, so we had our tapes confiscated. That happened a lot... One night we were in some studio in Ladbroke Grove and we had to sneak them out in the middle of the night. The only thing I had going for me round that time was that I knew we were making a good record.
To what extent did the sound change as a result of Colm not playing?
KS: The drums became more functional. But the feel was still really important - what we didn't do was put them in a computer and quantise it. We went to huge lengths to make it not sound like a computer, we used loads of different samples for the cymbals and bass drums and snares, every tom hit is a different tom hit, we put movement into it...
But it doesn't sound like Colm, because he has this very distinctive style of drumming.
KS: He does, but what's weird is that the songs where he does play, like 'Only Shallow', they don't stick out that much. But me and Colm learned together, we learned how to play together, so it was very strange when he couldn't do anything. All the songs had been worked out while he was getting sick, and then when he got really sick he couldn't use his legs. So we had the idea to program the bass drums and let him play snares and cymbals on top. And we did it all like that, but then when I tried to overdub, it wasn't good. I didn't know whether I was playing to the computer or the live person, it just wasn't working.
So we took all that live playing he'd done and sampled it. He was already playing those patterns, but we recreated it. We'd had some problems with the engineer though... the first engineer walked out in disgust because we wouldn't listen to anything he had to say. We were trying to mute the drums so they didn't sound like rock drums, and he was saying "That's terrible, that's not rock & roll!" We said "Well, we hate rock & roll." He said "It doesn't sound natural." We said "That's exactly what we want." So he left.
Was that a common problem in the studio? People not getting it?
KS: Oh, it was ridiculous. Unbelievable. We'd been very lucky because those few months in Wales doing Isn't Anything with Dave Anderson, that's when things really worked. And then the rest of that record was done in eleven days in the shittest studio you've ever seen. It was a basement studio, really awful, but luckily, the guy working there didn't care. He just said, "Whatever you want to do, do it, I'll push the button." He was just sat there reading Lord Of The Rings. He didn't even mind when we broke his foot.
You broke his foot?
KS: The studio was so bad the speakers were up on the wall on a little shelf, so you had to stand up to hear them, and when I was doing the bass to 'Feed Me With Your Kiss', we turned it up too loud and it blew the speakers off the shelf. And he reached out to catch one in his hand, and by pure instinct he put his foot out for the other one and it landed on his ankle. So he couldn't walk the rest of the time we were there, he just sat there with his broken foot reading his book.
And he didn't get pissed off?
KS: Not really. It wasn't our fault his speakers were on a crappy little shelf.
But it was nice, overall. And we couldn't recreate that later when we were doing Loveless, it was terrible, which is how we got into banning everyone from the studio. If I can't work with someone I like, I'll work with no one. Alan Moulder came down, then later Anjali Dutt - they had more of a positive, supportive effect, and they were hired to work with us just so we didn't have to work with the studio engineer. But that early period was the nicest, because it was so easy. Everything was easy. Living in squats... then it got very difficult after that, because of circumstances being much less conducive.
Things did seem to unravel a bit around this time...
KS: We went from being in a free world to not being in a free world. I was going out with Bilinda and we'd moved into a council flat, with the most psychotic neighbours upstairs who would just throw everything out of the window, like the window was a bin – babies' nappies and everything. It was a Northern Irish man and a Cockney woman and they'd beat the shit out of each other every night... terrible stuff going on. So we went from having lots of fun to this world where we were getting a £70 a week wage from Creation – and back then the Enterprise Allowance Scheme was £40 – and our rent was about £50 a week... it wasn't working out. And we'd just turned down two major record deals and signed to Creation for 15 grand. So there was a general sense of "all I've got going for me is this good record."
Those terrible things slow the process down. Don't kill it. But they really slow it down.
They did that...
KS: Well also, if I'm not in love with a piece of music I can't work on it. It's like anything else you fall in love with. You might hate it, but then after that you'll love it again. You feel very connected. And if someone says, "hurry up", you say, "Oh, I'll go even slower now – really fuck you up. Do nothing, in fact." At least, that's what I did, certainly around the time of Loveless.
What were you doing instead?
KS: You might have seen pictures where Bilinda's playing a Fender Jaguar with an orange scratchplate. And no Jaguar's ever had an orange scratchplate, so people just assume we put it on. But it isn't... it's a tortoiseshell scratchplate. But for three or four nights in the studio I locked everyone out, and they thought I was working, but I wasn't. I was just really meticulously scratching the top layer off this scratchplate with a razorblade. That took three days. They were my least productive three days. Well actually, they were productive because I had something to show for it, but...
Does it seem like a very long time ago?
KS: Not really. Well, yes and no. Because I was doing My Bloody Valentine in my head until about '97, then I hung out with Primal Scream from '98 to 2005, which was a strange block of time. I was taking drugs – just recreationally, but... a lot. I felt like I was on holiday. I was exploring envelope filters and echo, things like that... that whole seven year period I didn't once play guitar with the tremelo arm, I refused to. Like when I did that music for Lost In Translation, they said "Make it like Loveless" and I couldn't. Didn't want to.
Then Patti Smith asked me to do a thing with her in 2006 (The Coral Sea) and we didn't rehearse, we just talked for two hours – I understood what she wanted to do, so I spent an hour remembering what I used to do, I did it and that was the record. And on stage was my third hour of playing guitar like that since 1997. And after that I felt I was in another mode again – shortly after that I did the remasters and then My Bloody Valentine got back together and started playing again. So it feels like that period between '98 and 2005 is over here, and the two bits either side join up. So even though it is a long time, it's like a continuation.
Do you ever look back and think 'I wish I'd done a bit more'?
Why didn't you?
KS: That balance of feeling, energy and ideas all together, it didn't happen that much. I'd love to find a way... in fact I'm hoping I can in this period of time, but I don't know if I will. That's the sad part. I'm trying to figure out a way of gaining control over myself. Trying to train myself, like a horse I can ride. Because I feel happier when I'm more productive. And I would like to be happier, so I'd like to be more productive. I mean, not doing things is quite soul-destroying...
But Primal Scream dragging me on stage made me less precious about that kind of thing, and Patti Smith had a role by making me play guitar like that again. I guess what I'm saying is, yeah... circumstances have a bigger effect on my life than any plan or plot I can create myself. I've got my own studio, just down the road from here. And in the ten years I've had it, I've only used it in three of them. The other seven years it's been empty. I feel quite sad about that.
But I made a few big promises to myself when I was a kid, about 17. And so far I've managed to keep them. I was discovering all this great music, and I kept noticing this pattern of bands making great records and then tailing off. I thought "I don't want to ever do that." If for some reason I can't make a great record, I won't make a record at all. Because all you get is a little bit of money, which goes really fast anyway. It's easier to do nothing and live on nothing than it is to do something and live on something when you're running around compromising.
It's better to do nothing than to do bad work.
KS: I think so. It's like, being on the dole is better than being in a shit job, so long as you've got an interest in your life. Because if you're in a shit job you don't really have that much more money, and then after a few years your will to live begins to dissipate. The idea that it's good to do stuff just for the sake of doing it, it's a myth, I think. It's a lie. It's a very 80s concept – everything, everything being about productivity. The whole underground was about that too: groups were always saying "do stuff, do stuff, don't just sit around!" Well, I don't believe in that. Even though I know it feels brilliant and I love it. I just... don't believe in it.
But I'm happy with what I'm doing now, with this new record. Half the people are going to hate it, I think, just like people hated Loveless after Isn't Anything. They did! People were always coming up to me at gigs saying "Oh, why's it so quiet, why do you have to have a really good system to hear it properly? Why does it sound like this?" Well, because that's how I wanted it. And I'm sure the same thing will happen this time. But I learnt a lot from the terrible experience of making Loveless, which was like a huge slow motion scream, you know? I'm staying true to it, not missing the point of things. Not losing the essence of it. Its good, now. It's good.
Isn't Anything, Loveless and EP's 1988 - 1991 are out now via Sony