Lost in Transmutation

Exclusive: Kevin Shields, the missing presumed lost genius of Irish rock, re-emerges to tell the truth about sandbags and barbed wire, the making of Loveless, early Dublin days with Gavin Friday, Liam O Maonlai and U2, and his Bafta-winning work on Lost in Translation.

Saigon. Shit, I’m still only in Saigon…

Okay then, Camden. And no, we’re not throwing Martin Sheen shapes in the mirror, but sitting on a hotel bed, poring over the case history, the dossier if you like, of the Colonel Kurtz of Irish rock ‘n’ roll.

We’re talking about Kevin Shields, the man behind My Bloody Valentine, whose two albums proper and various EPs have over the last ten years become regarded as masterpieces of psychotropic guitar music.

Kevin Shields, the man who brought Creation Records to the brink of bankruptcy before it was bailed out by Oasis; the man Alan McGee held responsible for his early ’90s nervous breakdown; the man who signed to Island, took the money and failed to deliver so much as a note of original music, and who over the next few years disappeared into a vortex of rumour and speculation.

Shields, they said, went AWOL in the search for the lost chord, became a victim of his own perfectionism, crumpled under the pressure of following up Loveless. Rumours circulated that he had become an overweight, depressed recluse on a par with Brian Wilson or Syd Barrett, holed up in his seven-room London home like some latter day Turner in Performance. Shields, they said, built a bunker studio, surrounded it with sandbags and barbed wire and refused to come out to play.

Shields’ career had been terminated with extreme prejudice. He was destined to become yet another footnote in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll, another warped genius who blew it.

Except it didn’t pan out quite like that.

Over the last few years, the ex-pat Dubliner surfaced again, mostly doing freelance production work with bands like Joy Zipper and Yo La Tengo, and more significantly, taking on remix duties for Primal Scream, culminating in a crucial production role on their brilliant but underrated last album. At Witnness 2002 he could be seen on stage with them, torturing twisted sounds out of his amp while the rest of the band slumped at their stations like diseased black bugs.

Then, late last year, word got around that the soundtrack to Lost In Translation, Sofia Coppola’s second film starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, would feature the first new music from Shields in over a decade. And sure enough, both the film and soundtrack garnered considerable plaudits, with Shields and the film’s musical director Brian Reitzell receiving a BAFTA nomination for their efforts.

So now, for reasons best known to himself, Kevin Shields is ready to break his radio silence. Discounting the odd Rolling Stone phoner and a recent audience with The Guardian, this will be his first full-length interview in some 12 years. Hot Press has received an invitation to meet the musician on his own turf, the studio where he recorded those four new pieces of music – ‘City Girl’, ‘Goodbye’, ‘Ikebana’ and ‘Are You Awake’ – for Lost In Translation.

That studio is located in a shadowy side street a two-minute walk from Camden Town. Until recently, its location made it a prime haunt for crackheads, mostly schizophrenics and homeless people, and only recently residents clubbed together and prevailed on the local police to clean up the area. Shields had an engineer quit not long ago, weary of running the daily gauntlet of verbal abuse.

Our instructions were to show up around eight in the evening and ring the studio or his mobile phone on arrival. No answer from either, but on closer inspection it appears that the barred gates barricading the studio lots from the street have been left unlocked. In we go, under a brightly lit arch emblazoned with plaques bearing unit numbers.

A knock on door number five results in the appearance of a pleasant-faced, bespectacled man with long fair hair, centre parted. Soft-spoken and dressed in the rumpled studio-rat garb of baggy jeans and layered shirts, he has the appearance of an art student enamoured of Teenage Fanclub. Kevin Shields looks a lot younger than his 40 years.

More to the point, he looks and sounds as sane as you or I.

The latest chapter in the Shields saga began, appropriately enough, a couple of years ago on the other side of the planet.

“Basically I met Brian Reitzell in Japan when I was on tour with Primal Scream,” the guitarist explains, once settled inside the studio. “He was playing festivals with Air, we were hanging out and stuff, and he was like, ‘If you ever want to do anything…’ And that was it really.”

I suggest that it’s apt Shields met Reitzell in Japan, given that Lost In Translation’s (dis-)location relies heavily on Tokyo’s blue neon bloom.

“I know, that was the weird thing,” he says. “Nearly a year later they just rang up ’cos they were putting the soundtrack together, and they had a My Bloody Valentine song already and they thought they should get me involved just to kind of bias the feel towards that (sound). Brian’s really smart about that and just thought maybe they should approach it like, ‘It would be nice if maybe you could do something as it pans across the cityscape.’ Before the film was finished I was getting scenes of Tokyo, no actors in it.”

We’re sitting on the same studio couch that Shields curled up on, guitar cradled in his lap, while recording much of the LIT material. All around us is the usual recording apparatus – mixing desk, effects units, banks of blinking technology, bags stuffed with wires, jacks and leads. There’s no live room as such, just a cubbyhole sized cubicle for overdubbing. Beside me on the sofa is propped a guitar bought from J Mascis for £250, worth thousands. Shields remains very much the guitar obsessive – later on, mention of Lou Reed prompts him to dig out and proudly display a pedal made by Pete Cornish, the English effects wizard who designs much of Reed’s hardware. “Lou Reed is so into sound,” he remarks, “very like Neil Young. Neil Young’s guitar sound has a texture that no one has. Those guys are into sound on a level that is way beyond everything.”

We’re each sipping a bottle of beer. There’s no ashtray, so Shields screws the top off a bottle of stale mineral water and taps his Marlboro Light into that. Over the next couple of hours, his voice rarely rises above a murmur.

We get to talking about Sofia Coppola’s approach to the role of music in film (it should be pointed out that the director was a hardcore MBV fan who spent entire days listening to Loveless over and over again). In the usual Hollywood scheme of things, the soundtrack is the last part of the production cycle, commissioned after most of the budget has been spent, but as Shields explains, the atmosphere of Lost In Translation was determined by the soundtrack selections at the earliest stages.

“This was a pretty unusual experience,” he admits. “They gave me the script before they shot the film, they were kind of as inclusive as possible, which is great. The whole idea was that the music was driving the film. Even before it was shot Brian had made all these CDs for Sofia; she was making a movie based on what she was listening to even when she was writing it.”

How did he feel about the story itself? Did he connect with Murray and Johansson’s characters on an emotional level?

“It kinda rang true for me,” he nods. “At the end of the film, it’s that thing when people say, ‘I know what you mean’, that feeling. Whereas with a Hollywood movie normally it’s more like a drug, it’s like Ecstasy or something, you’re just taken on a roller coaster of emotion and you’re crying and everything, and then two hours later you’re going, ‘What was the film about?’ In the end you forget about it, you just remember the concept, it doesn’t have a long lasting resonance.

“That’s where this film’s different… because Bill Murray’s in it, you’d have expected it to be okay, but in no way imagined it was gonna be so big. But I remember all the film festivals were turning it down, like Cannes and stuff, so it wasn’t like, ‘Oh this is a sure fire hit’.”

How did he feel about being nominated for a BAFTA Award?

“Well, that was just embarrassing, and I’ll tell you why. What happened was, all these awards, the film companies submit these things for nomination or whatever, and when it was submitted it didn’t mention Brian, they just decided to say it was just me initially when it was first announced, and that was a mistake and I was just embarrassed. I can’t take credit for a record like that. If I had done the whole soundtrack I might have been more comfortable taking the credit. So I actually didn’t enjoy the experience initially, I thought, ‘That’s a bit of a pain’. But y’know, they rectified it and it was fine.”

Did Shields see Coppola’s first film The Virgin Suicides?

“I never saw it in the cinema, I saw it on TV, but I liked it, I liked the fact that it was a fairy story, strange.”

It reminded me of Picnic At Hanging Rock.

“Yeah, it has that, sort of like a dream.”

And dreamtime is very much the territory Shields operates in. Fact is, here in the silence and seclusion of his studio, the hypomania of the music industry seems a long way away. One can easily imagine how he could become totally absorbed in methodologies closer to synaesthetiac experiments or a sort of sonic alchemy rather than the business of manufacturing hits – an equally exact but very different science. Does he ever feel like he’s wrapped up in some sort of arcane process, Isaac Newton with an amp?

“Sometimes it’s like that. Sometimes it’s as simple as just sitting here. I did most of the soundtrack sitting here, Brian was at the end of the stairs. That was actually the first time I did it like that, usually there’s a bit more of a process of imagining this music and using guitar overdubs and effects to achieve that, and paying an engineer just to be there. But with Lost In Translation it was, ‘If I want to make a record out of this, I’ve got three weeks basically and that’s it.’ That’s why it’s all so sparse.”

Okay, here’s the million-dollar question: if he can cough up four tracks in three weeks on commission, why not another album?

“No reason, I just didn’t feel like it for a long time. And then I started working with Primal Scream, and hanging around with those guys is so different from the world that I was in, they don’t have that precious thing. They don’t care who they have to bring in, they don’t go, ‘It has to be all me’, they just make good records and play good gigs, end of story. That is their strength, their lack of ego. The ego is in that they’re a good band, it doesn’t go past that. And with the soundtrack Brian was in charge, I wasn’t in charge.”

When Kevin Shields thinks back to the Dublin he started playing music in, he remembers a ghost town. Accordingly, he expresses much curiosity about the current domestic scene, heaping praise on everything from Gemma Hayes’ album (“proper melodies”) to Shimmy Marcus’s Aidan Walsh documentary, a staple on the Primal Scream tour bus. Walsh, it turns out, directed the embryonic My Bloody Valentine’s first video at a time when his CV consisted solely of a short film on the Community Games. Shields reckons the Master Of The Universe’s role as grandfather of Temple Bar has been largely unrecorded – he has vivid memories of Walsh marshalling dust-covered squat-punks in the construction of southside rehearsal studios.

Shields initial forays into music were in tandem with drummer Colm O’ Ciosoig in a short-lived band called The Complex. Here’s where we encounter some curious cross-pollinations: one of O’ Ciosoig’s early musical cohorts was a young cut-up by the name of Liam O’ Maonlai.

“He used to go to school with him, an Irish speaking school,” Shields recalls. “That’s how Hothouse Flowers started, the traditional music competitions, Colm drummed for the first heats of one of those competitions. Liam used to have trouble ’cos he was always a bit of a tearaway kid, his parents didn’t really want him hanging out, being in a band, and I remember him saying, ‘They just don’t understand – this is my life.’ When you’re 16 you kind of doubt it yourself.

“The thing was, it was quite interesting, he used to try and sing in a hard kind of voice, like John Lydon, but then whenever he’d have fun playing piano doing Elvis impersonations, I remember thinking he was really suited to that. When he was in a band with us, that was one thing, but always at a drop of a hat he’d be singing away doing Elvis. Then when Hothouse Flowers came out it made complete sense because that’s who he was, he was a guy who just loved that kind of singing rather than the post-punk thing.”

Shields, Ciosoig and a singer by the name of Dave Conway formed My Bloody Valentine in 1984. At the time they had precious few peers aside from local avant-garde mavericks such as Stano, although Shields is at pains to point out the influence, and later on the stewardship, of the Virgin Prunes.

“Basically we saw them in The Project, a series of gigs that they ran,” he remembers. “The whole thing was incredible. There wasn’t a drummer, really chaotic, and at the time I was a bit scared of them. But it was that performance that stood out for me.”

Later on, it was on the advice of Gavin Friday that the band bypassed London in favour of Amsterdam and Berlin.

“We used to see Gavin all the time,” says Shields, “so we just approached him on the street and said, ‘We’re in a band,’ and he basically told us to forget about London and go to Europe. He gave us this big list of names of contacts all over Europe, and that got us our first gig in Holland and from there we went to Berlin. Gavin basically saved our lives performance-wise because if we didn’t have that list of contacts… that kept us going for years; it made us really feel like a band. The Virgin Prunes were the thing that made us; it was that mentality of, ‘Don’t buy into that English thing of demo-ing and getting a record deal’. A really good thing.”

Holed up in the squalor of Berlin, then a creative hotspot that was home to the Nick Cave/Blixa Bargeld/Wim Wenders nexus – not to mention the legendary Hansa By The Wall studios – the band released a mini album This Is Your Bloody Valentine on the German Tycoon label before migrating to London, clinging onto the bottom rung of the Darwinian ladder with the squatters and drug addicts. They released the Geek! EP on Fever in 1986, its sound heavily in debt to bands like The Cramps and The Birthday Party. However, later that year, The New Record By My Bloody Valentine, recorded for Joe Foster’s Kaleidoscope label, registered the definite impact of the Jesus & Mary Chain. 1987 recordings for The Primitives’ label Lazy, including ‘Sunny Sundae Smile’, ‘Strawberry Wine’ and the Ecstasy mini album, exhibited a band struggling to find a balance between unadulterated noise and fey melodies.

But by 1988 three crucial developments had come to pass: the departure of Conway, the stabilising of the line-up due to the arrival of bassist Debbie Goodge and guitarist/co-vocalist Bilinda Butcher, and the band’s signing to Alan McGee’s Creation Records, then home to the Mary Chain, Ride and Primal Scream. The brilliant You Made Me Realise EP crystallised the MBV sound, a prismatic contrast of sensual melodies, glazed vocals and visceral walls of guitars, followed by another EP, Feed Me With Your Kiss. The debut album Isn’t Anything was even better, akin to The Cement Garden by way of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation.

And live, the ‘holocaust’ open-ended improvisational section of ‘You Made Me Realise’ was overpowering in its volume and intensity, combining free jazz implosion, industrial overload and Neil Young meets No Wave brinkmanship.

“Yeah, it was just pushing it, really like a Sonic Youth improvisation thing,” Shields says now. “Initially we started playing it live exactly the same as the record, and then we liked that bit and it got longer, and then it got to the point where at its most extreme it was probably 40 minutes long. The interesting thing was taking something that was like reality and messing with it to the point where it was so loud, basically people would imagine all sorts of things happening. It wasn’t just making noise with guitars; it was like an out-of-body thing.

“I used to watch the audience, and a certain portion at a certain point would let go of any kind of control, it was so loud it was like sensory deprivation. We just liked the fact that we could see a change in the audience at a certain point, and it always happened, every night. They were always very happy afterward, most of them. About a third of the audience would resent it, and two thirds would like it. On one British tour we actually had to hire a top security guy that ran one of those big security firms to be with us to interface with security at the venues, because the effects of this noise could also provoke the people who worked at the venue and they’d usually freak, there’d be a lot of threats, a lot of aggression, and taking it out very personally on the audience because of this noise. And I realised it was quite weird, but we actually had to protect the audience.”

It sounds like a huge anthropological experiment.

“It felt good, that’s all I can say. It wasn’t intellectual, because the intellectual concept would sound stupid: to make a lot of noise and at a certain point give up. It felt psychedelic, but only in the real sense, the sense that the inner mind has its own reality.”

So, the My Bloody Valentine sound circa 1989-91 sound was at once as sensual as hot breath on skin and as hypnagogic as falling asleep in a snowdrift. It also had purgative properties. When U2 were on tour in Australia at the end of the Rattle & Hum campaign, The Edge, then going through the disintegration of his first marriage, was apparently heard playing MBV at deafening volume in his hotel room most nights. Was Shields aware of that?

“Only when U2 did interviews and stuff, and they talked about My Bloody Valentine having an influence on Achtung Baby. That was kinda nice, ’cos I used to go to the Dandelion Market to see U2, I saw their final gig there. I remember when I was at school there were two bands at the time, U2 and DC Nien. At the time they were equal on a level of popularity. There were great pirate radio stations, a lot of weird advantages in Ireland, and when I moved to London it wasn’t the same.”

When I remark that the two main channels by which this writer had to access new music at the time were Dave Fanning and John Peel’s shows, Shields asks me this:

“Did you get all the bad reception with John Peel?”

Sure. And then you’d buy the record and wonder where all the cool effects were gone.

“Maybe that’s what happened, maybe that’s why I went for the sound I had!”

And so we come to Loveless. So much has been written about My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 album, there’s scant need to add to the accolades here. Suffice to say, over the last ten years it has become regarded as a sort of shadowy twin sister to Nevermind, and one of a holy trinity of Irish records – the others being Van’s Astral Weeks and U2’s Boy – that manage to evoke a part-imagined past through impressionistic, shifting perspectives. The most striking thing about Loveless now is not that it sounds utterly contemporary, if not timeless (largely due to Shields relentless pursuit of ‘new’ sounds), but how rich it is in melody. Clock the nagging hooks of ‘When You Sleep’ and ‘Sometimes’ – this was not art snob fodder.

“It’s a simple little record in a lot of ways,” Shields reckons. “It’s weird, the songs do have weird timings and things, but the textures come from the guitar tunings.”

Mind you, when Loveless was released, few touted it as a revolutionary record.

“We didn’t feel that, d’ya know what I mean?” he says. “All the bands like Ride were selling records… there was such a general sense of disappointment. We got dropped months later, so it didn’t feel like that. It’s weird because in this country it was pretty much ignored, it got really overshadowed by the Manchester thing. Screamadelica was the big record of the time – that record is so much of that era, it kind of helped bring a lot of people together of different tastes. The whole dance music world at that time was made up of all sorts of people before it became separated, it brought together people who were into electro in the 70s and 80s with people who were into house.”

Did Shields go through an Ecstasy period?

“I think everybody did at one point. For me, I don’t like that drug, it seems to… I felt robbed somehow afterwards, like it took something away in a way worse than any other thing apart from heroin. I’d die if I took heroin, I never will. I dunno, (with Ecstasy) I think the evidence is there: there’s very, very few albums that I’ve got from the late ’80s/early ’90s that are great albums, only about five albums that are really, really good. Chemical Brothers, the Aphex Twin… I think it’s because drugs like that kind of robbed people and brought on a lot of depression. It started off as kind of psychedelic and people thinking it would change the world, and it became corporate, all very controlled.”

Loveless was three years in the making, gave gainful employment to some 18 engineers, cost a quarter of a million pounds and all but bankrupted Creation. After it reached number 24 in the British album charts, Alan McGee let the band go. For a time the band lived off their own money out of a need to feel self-sufficient, until they ran out of funding and somewhat reluctantly made what Shields now sees as a Faustian pact with Island Records in 1992. There followed a frustrating period in which the band attempted to build their own studio.

“We actually did it really quick,” he says. “We got a deal in October. Two months later we bought a house, six months after that we built the studio… but the desk didn’t work! Island said, ‘Don’t build a studio, don’t build a studio, a lot of our bands have done it and it always seems to go wrong, it’s a really bad move, it’s a big black hole in costs.’ So anyway it all went wrong and they said, ‘Ha, told you so’. And they let us flounder for about six months and then they kind of went, ‘Alright, you’ve suffered enough, we’ll bail you out’.”

But the band had worse problems to contend with than technical hitches. When MBV finally got back to work, Shields found himself paralysed by the prospect of equalling Loveless.

“I was really angry and I just lost it,” he says. “That whole Island thing, we got the studio finished in spring of ’93, a year later we finally got a desk that worked. And then we ran out of money, so it was like back to square one, but we had a studio and a house. We struggled on another year and that was it, the band kinda split up.”

Now, the guitarist says he played up the mad recluse angle somewhat as a means of getting Island off his back. Still, when I ask if he would care to address Alan McGee’s claims that at one stage Shields had barricaded himself into his house with sandbags and barbed wire, he’s keen to play it down.

“It’s just exaggeration,” he says. “The sandbag thing was half-true, but it’s not at all what it seems. Our studio was a detached house and the live room kind of came out by itself, there was only a wall between the speakers and the outside. With the drums alone it was okay, but with the bass it really sounded like a band playing, and we wanted to soundproof the room. And if we were to build a wall on the outside there would’ve been big planning permission issues, so we had the idea to build this giant wall of sandbags on the outside, and it went at a weird angle, like a sort of pyramid. It did look pretty crazy, this huge wall of sandbags outside the house, but it was a cheap and easy way of doing it.

“The barbed wire came from the fact that in the front of the house was all these bushes and trees and stuff, and Bilinda and Debbie got a fright one night coming out ’cos a guy was in the trees and it was really dark, so we said, ‘Maybe we should put barbed wire in the trees in case there’s somebody in there hiding.’ So we brought it in, but there were local kids playing football there, and we thought the kids could get hurt, so we had to throw it away. But McGee had heard that I’d bought barbed wire and heard about the sandbags and put it all together.”

Does he get on with him now?

“Yeah, I mean we’d fallen out, but then when he sorted himself out he decided to ring everyone up again. That’s why he’s got friends.”

The only fruit of the Island era was a cover of a Wire track for the 1996 tribute album Whore. In the band’s eight years on the label, they’d spent a £500,000 advance on studio costs and engineers’ fees. After that, they were put on a retainer of £5000 a month. The last time label executives made one of their infrequent visits to the studio in order to extract some new music from the band, they suggested Shields sign on the dole. The guitarist reasoned the only way out of the mess was to effectively put an end to My Bloody Valentine.

“I basically had to leave the band, and they had the option to pick me up as a solo artist, but that would mean they’d have to give me a big advance,” he explains. “And after giving me so much money and then me giving them nothing, it was too much for them to pay. It was just reality.”

So that was it. Debbie Goodge went onto play with Snowpony and Colm O’ Ciosoig defected to Hope Sandoval’s band The Warm Inventions. Aside from a mooted box set including four unreleased tracks dating from the Glider EP era, the case is closed. For now. When I ask Shields if he and Bilinda can still work together he says this:

“We can’t be My Bloody Valentine, but not forever we can’t, it’s just for now.”

So technically they could reform?

“Yeah, y’know, we might do stuff again, but I want to do my own stuff first, I really want to put an album out.”

Yes, you heard him right. Kevin Shields is thinking about another album. In fact, he says he never stopped writing songs in all the time MBV were snarled up in contractual legalities; he just had no interest in releasing them.

And although he seems most comfortable discussing his future plans when the tape is turned off, it’s clear that working with Primal Scream and Brian Reitzell has resulted in a fairly fundamental change in Shields’ modus operandi. If before his Kubrick-ian obsessiveness led him down the rabbit hole of no return, now Shields seems to be making peace with the process itself, the more Neil Young-like approach of documenting the music as it happens, warts and all, rather than compulsively layering and reworking. When I run a CS Lewis quote past him – “The muse is most likely to come visiting when you’re sitting at your desk working” – he becomes positively animated.

“That’s it,” he says. “That’s exactly it.”

So, Kevin Shields never went anywhere. He was always right where we left him. Lost in London. Lost in sound. Lost in transmutation.

The Lost In Translation soundtrack is out now on Emperor Norton


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