It may be famous for its difficult birth, but Loveless was a technical triumph. My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields tells us the story behind their breathtakingly original album.
Since its release in November 1991, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless has rightly become regarded as one of the most sonically groundbreaking albums of its era and beyond. A dense, kaleidoscopic swirl of shape-shifting guitars and feedback, it’s best remembered for its opening track (and third single), ‘Only Shallow’, featuring the hypnotic, half-submerged vocals of Bilinda Butcher and the pioneering ‘glide guitar’ technique of band leader, producer and co-singer Kevin Shields.
Loveless offered a modernist update on psychedelia and even spawned its own musical genre, with the legions of shoegaze bands who used it as their aural blueprint. Over the years, it has been hailed as a landmark album and influence by the likes of Brian Eno, the Cure’s Robert Smith and Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan.
But the two-year-long making of Loveless between 1989-91 has also become fabled due to Shields’s legendary sonic fixations and meticulous ear for detail. Twenty-five recording studios were used during its making, as Shields left behind him a trail of burned-out engineers, exasperating his paymasters at Creation Records in the process. Even now, he maintains a role as the painstaking curator of My Bloody Valentine’s catalogue, recently overseeing all-analogue vinyl remasters of Loveless and its predecessor, 1988’s Isn’t Anything.
With the latter album, Shields first began imagining a sound that was completely at odds with the production fashions of the ’80s. “The standard sound of, say 1988, for most rock bands was clearly-panned guitars,” he remembers. “Mostly DI’ed bass guitar sounds. The bass drum was very clicky, the snare was very big. Drums using stereo as much as possible, keeping the vocals quite loud and clear.
“The sound that we were going for was more like the sound that we were hearing all the time, which was either hearing music through ghetto blasters or cheap record players or small gigs coming through Bose PA systems. All very boxy-sounding and meshed in.”
While Shields was influenced by guitar bands such as Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr, it was actually the Bomb Squad’s productions for Public Enemy that mostly informed his approach. “That drove me towards not just going into the sort of guitar-y world,” he says. “I was more interested in doing anything I wanted with the guitar because I was hearing really cool music made by hip-hop groups that were sampling stuff. And it was slightly out-of-tune a lot of the time. Because the whole thing about sampling back in those days is that people really started to mess with the key. You’d have stuff that was all slightly in different keys all on top of each other, and you’d get this odd effect.
“The overall mood of the time for me was that I was hearing a lot of music that you just didn’t really know what was creating that sound.”
Born in Queens, New York in 1963 to Irish parents who returned to Dublin when he was 10, Kevin Shields first picked up a guitar in 1980 and began recording at home two years later, using a Yamaha CS-5 synth and Tascam 244 Portastudio.
“There were only a handful of them around in Ireland,” he says of the latter. “It ran at high speed and it had the two parametric EQs covering the whole frequency range, which was kind of something at the time. My approach was as much about using the tape machine and the synth as the guitar. Nothing was favoured at that point. I appeared to be a guitar player years later. But really, from the start, I was coming from a kind of post-punk-influenced era where it was quite normal for people to do anything. It was quite an experimental period. The idea that you couldn’t do anything didn’t occur to me.”
My Bloody Valentine formed in 1983, around the core of Shields and drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig, and the band’s original singer David Conway. Initially their modus operandi was to record drums and bass in the Tascam 244-based Litton Lane Studios in Dublin, before taking the cassettes home to Shields’ home recording setup for overdubbing. “You’d always record a track when you were bouncing a track,” Shields remembers. “A bit like back in the Beatles days. You wouldn’t waste any opportunity to get an extra track.”
Acting on the advice of Gavin Friday (frontman of post-punkers the Virgin Prunes and U2 associate) to “get out of Dublin,” where MBV’s music was considered too noisy and extreme, the band relocated first to Amsterdam and then to West Berlin where they recorded their debut mini-album, 1985’s This Is Your Bloody Valentine, at SCS 8TK Studios.
“It had a Tascam 8-track of some sort,” recalls Shields. “The studio unfortunately shared its desk, which was constantly being pulled in and out for live gigs. We actually mixed the album in four hours, ‘cause we had a choice between waiting two or three weeks or mixing it there and then. The guy had to leave at six o’clock, so we were like, ‘We’ll just do it,’ and that was that.”
At the time, My Bloody Valentine’s sound was more of a Birthday Party/Cramps-styled hybrid of punk, rockabilly and garage rock. Relocating to London and adding bassist Debbie Googe to the line-up, they released two EPs (Geek! In 1985, The New Record in ’86), their sound becoming more akin to the Jesus & Mary Chain’s full-tilt noise pop. Their next single ‘Strawberry Wine’ and second album, Ecstasy, introduced new singer/guitarist Bilinda Butcher (after David Conway had quit to become a fiction writer).
With every release, they were growing more confident in the studio. Due to budget constraints, though, even when making Ecstasy in London’s Alaska Studios, My Bloody Valentine had to work quickly. “It was two studios actually,” Shields remembers, “and we were in the small studio right under a train station. I very much remember always stopping. You’d be doing vocals and you could hear the train coming before anybody else, ‘cause you’d have your headphones turned up. But that was cool. There’s a certain energy that you put into it when you know this is it. There are a lot of advantages to that.”
The breakthrough into the layered, mysterious sound that MBV would become famous for came when they signed to Creation Records for the You Made Me Realise EP in 1988, quickly followed the same year by the widely-acclaimed album Isn’t Anything. “Creation had put us in Bark Studios [in Walthamstow, North London] for You Made Me Realise,” says Shields. “We basically did the EP in about five days. We were happy with it, ’cause it was the first time we recorded with an attitude of, ‘We won’t be able to play this live very easily.’ The attitude towards the vocals was very much single takes. You just did one or two takes and that was it, and you used one or the other, you didn’t comp. We wouldn’t add compression. Especially around the Isn’t Anything time, we wouldn’t add any compression to anything.”
One other significant development was that Shields’ friend Bill Carey (from Creation band Something Pretty Beautiful) lent him his Fender Jazzmaster, which was to help the guitarist develop his trademark sound. “When we did the You Made Me Realise EP, we didn’t really have many instruments,” he says. “I had a Fender Sidekick 65 that I used quite a lot. They were transistor Fender amps and my friend had lent me his [Fender] Dual Showman valve amp. But I actually preferred the hardness of the transistor amps.
“Again, I think it was coming from the fact that what I was hearing a lot from the Public Enemy productions was quite a mid-range hardness. I didn’t know what it was but I just found that it seemed to work with using the transistor amp.”
In February 1989, My Bloody Valentine entered Blackwing Studios in London’s Southwark, for the preliminary sessions of what would become Loveless. Initially, though, their intention was just to quickly make a new EP. “Blackwing was cool, because it was in a big church,” says Shields. “It was slightly on the musty side. It didn’t have that shiny new studio appeal, but it had good, very solid equipment: Studer tape machine and Amek 2500 desk.
“I think we had 11 days or something and we felt that we could do an EP. We’d done half of Isn’t Anything in 11 days and so we felt well capable of doing an EP in that sort of time scale. And it just didn’t quite work out. But the one song that came from it was ‘Moon Song’ which came out on the Tremolo EP.”
In September ‘89, the Loveless sessions recommenced, moving to Elephant Studios in Wapping, London. “A pretty big live room, pretty low ceiling,” Shields remembers. “It used to a be a car park or something. But there was a sense of space because of the large size of the rooms and there was a good drum room there. They had some good valve mics, Neumann 67s.”
In Elephant, Shields made another sonic breakthrough when he realised that he could distort not only his amps, but the U67 itself: “When you drive the 67 mic, as well as the amp, but basically not put the pad on the mic, it has a certain sound. I do remember the engineer being quite concerned about it, but I really liked it.”
My Bloody Valentine made great progress at Elephant, recording 10-15 of 25 potential tracks, which they’d demo’ed on cassette. Disaster struck during the two-month Elephant sessions, however, when drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig, undergoing the threat of eviction from his squat and potentially facing homelessness, suffered a nervous breakdown.
“Everything just crashed for him,” says Shields. “So he couldn’t really use his legs essentially. We thought it was a good idea, since we’d worked out all the arrangements, to just program the bass drum so then he could play the hi-hat and snare on top.
“Then when I started overdubbing guitars, it just felt bad. You could hear that there was a lack of feel between him playing along with the programming. He wasn’t used to it, I guess. So we decided to completely program the drums, just sample everything and make it as live as possible. We sampled many snare drums, many bass drums. Beginnings, middles and ends of all the cymbals. The toms were made out of lots of one hits, two hits, three hits, so you could create any kind of roll.”
With the help of engineer Harold Burgon, Shields and Ó Cíosóig programmed the drum parts using Steinberg’s Pro24 software in the Atari ST computer, triggering the sampled sounds in an Akai S900. “It was very similar to what he would’ve played,” Shields points out, “just programmed, with the same drum sounds. The Akai was a good sound. I think that’s the thing that people don’t appreciate is that a lot of the digital stuff that was made in that era... the people who were creating the filters and everything, essentially they’d been listening to analogue all their lives.
“By the time we were finishing that, Colm was better. He’d kind of recovered. This all happened within this two-month period, and essentially we were like, Well, let’s just record [live drums] on some of these newer songs like ‘Only Shallow’ and ‘Come In Alone’. He also played toms on ‘Loomer’.”
Next, Debbie Googe’s bass sound was created using a combination of DI and amp sound and, significantly, a Vox Tone Bender pedal. “Back then, there were no bass fuzzes that you could buy in the shops,” Shields says. “When you normally plugged a bass into a fuzz pedal, it would just sound a bit thin. Our pedal was a clone that put a weird load on the pickups. You could even put a really thin twangy guitar sound through it and it came out totally full and big, because it was taking all the top end off somehow and then the fuzz circuit was just amplifying everything below 2kHz or something. Nothing over 2kHz was being properly represented from the guitar and was just created by the fuzz unit. So it just had this certain sound.”
All the while, Kevin Shields began to develop his ‘glide guitar’ technique, employing experimental tunings and use of the tremolo arm on Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar guitars to create pitch-bending effects. “The action arm is taped to sort of keep it from going all the way in,” he explains. “That’s so when I’m strumming the guitar, I sort of modify the positions of the end of the arm. If you pick up a guitar and start strumming it holding the tremolo arm, it’s gonna sound quite different than when you don’t hold the tremolo arm, even if you’re not bending. Because depending on how it’s set up, it’s actually moving all the time as you’re playing.
“I managed to set it up in such a way that it didn’t move so much unless I moved it. It’s super-loose. So it’s only my downwards pushing that would make it work, as opposed to just strumming it back and forth. If it’s not set up in a certain way, then that starts to affect the pitch as well. You just get a more wobbly thing that doesn’t sound right. It’s one of the reasons why I think when people first started to copy it, it wasn’t working, ‘cause they’d just pick up a guitar and play it with the standard Jazzmaster tremolo setup. It can work, but it rarely does. I figured out a way of modifying it so it became invisible really in my hand. It’s just more of a feeling thing. I wouldn’t even need to be thinking about it.”
Amps-wise, Shields variously used a Marshall JCM800 and what he describes as Elephant’s “Dan Armstrong half-valve, half-transistor amp.” Elsewhere, he began experimenting with the studio’s Vox AC4 and AC15 amps. “They were my first introduction to Vox amps and immediately I fell in love with them,” he enthuses. “I discovered that when you use open tunings and you have slightly odd-sounding chords that they really brought out all the harmonics of all the notes in a way that the Marshall didn’t.
“I’d read something about a Joni Mitchell tuning and I remember copying it. Or I could be getting confused and it was a Rolling Stones tuning, I can’t remember. But those two I do remember trying out. Mostly I’d just make a tuning up. Just kind of tune the strings until it worked and then start making a song on it.”
Another of Shields’s secret weapons was the reverse reverb patch on the Yamaha SPX90 multi-effects processor. “I discovered it back in ’88 when we did the You Made Me Realise EP,” he says “I’d used the reverse reverb before in ’87, but on the song ‘Slow’, it just dawned on me to put the full signal on, with the mix in full effect. When you played soft, it was very quiet, and when you played hard it got really loud because the reverse reverb effect in the SPX90 is essentially made up of lots of little delays that just get louder. It also has a thing called random reverb which was equally usable. So I would swap between them. I would just basically use whichever one appealed to me at that moment.
“I used the SPX90 for most of Loveless. The sound was basically a guitar into an amp, the amp miked up, into the SPX90 with the effect on full. It was a pretty clean sound on the amp. So I wound up with this SPX90 effect and I took that and fed that into a Marshall amp and that created the kind of distortion essentially.”
Meanwhile for the distinctive squalling riff on ‘Only Shallow’, Shields had something of a eureka moment with a ’60s Burman amp and Fender Showman. “I set them up facing each other with one microphone in the middle and both of them with the tremolo going,” he explains. “So the base sound of the thing was these two amps with the tremolos shaking at different rates. I overdubbed that, so you had four different rates of tremolo. Then I sampled it in the Akai and played it backwards, so it was backwards and forwards at the same time, and then played it an octave higher.”
While many engineers struggled to get their heads around Kevin Shields’s boundary-pushing (and sometimes equipment-endangering) techniques, My Bloody Valentine found one, Alan Moulder, who instantly got what the producer/guitarist was trying to achieve. Moulder was brought in to mix the Glider EP (released April 1990) and stayed on for more sessions for Loveless.
“Yes, he got us,” says Shields, “but he was also at a completely different level in standard than we’d come across before. Alan was the first person up to that point that we’d worked with who was completely in a different space. He was extremely positive and motivated and very knowledgeable and also very respectful of the fact that I knew what I wanted.
“I wanted everything very dry and he went to great lengths to record everything as dry as possible. He would always build tents around everything. Every guitar sound that was recorded always had huge blankets around [the amps] and everything we could to sort of dry it up and make it as upfront as possible. The reason for that was because of all the sounds I was using. When you use the tremolo arm, it adds a reverb in itself. It adds a sort of space and when you start having room ambience, then it gets weird.
“Essentially, when you use a tremolo arm on a guitar, the way I use it, it’s not only pitch bending, it’s also tone bending, ‘cause you get a totally different tonal response as the guitar is changing. Each string has a different tension so you’re not getting uniform tone change. The more room sound on the guitar sound, the more the little resonances just wouldn’t seem to be upfront. This became a big issue at the time. But Alan was just really good. He was the first person I came across I could really trust. I mean, we’d had good people before, but it wasn’t the same.”
Adding to the overall melange of MBV’s sound on Loveless were the various keyboard patches comprising of different combinations of feedback, flute and Butcher’s voice. “That was another one of our big things,” says Shields. “I like the pureness of flutes. Also, because of Public Enemy and the kind of samples they were using, I realised that when you make lots of guitar feedback and sample it, you’ve got kind of like endless sounds. So we made a big library of that. If we made a keyboard line, it would be kind of made with these guitar feedback things, then I would also mix a flute sample in there sometimes.
“We sampled Bilinda singing across the keyboard, so it wasn’t too Mickey Mouse. It was more or less in the tonal range, maybe three or four notes we’d share between a sample. So we kind of had a Bilinda/guitar feedback library, a Bilinda library and then this basic thing I used from the Akai library which was flute and oboe. They were my main things if I was using keyboard sounds.”
One of the stranger legends about the making of Loveless is that Butcher and Shields insisted on recording their vocals at Britannia Row Studios in north London inside a curtained vocal booth, so that no one could see them performing, and that they asked the engineer Anjali Dutt to turn down the control room monitors so she couldn’t hear the singers. Shield confirms that this is in fact true, while explaining his thinking. “I kind of had this weird thing,” he laughs. “Y’know the way in quantum physics that everything gets affected by the observer? Well basically I just decided that I didn’t want anyone to hear what we were doing.
“How we’d sing generally, we’d just sing a song from beginning to end. There wouldn’t be any kind of saying, ‘Stop... start again... drop me in there’. We weren’t doing any of that. It was just essentially, ‘Bring the tape to the beginning, roll it, we’ll sing it, we’ll do it again’, and we’d keep on doing that until we got tired. Anjali Dutt was recording us without hearing it. Just monitoring by seeing the meters.”
No vocal comping of takes was ever done either in the fashioning of MBV’s distinctive vocal styles. More unusual still, no compression, reverb or delay whatsoever was used. “Nothing at all,” says Shields. “Essentially I just had all of [the takes] running and subtracted ones that weren’t working, then gravitated towards one that would feel particularly good, and that became the lead vocal. The top end and all the consonants and the clarity would come from that. Then behind that is this kind of bed of around 10 or more. So that’s why it doesn’t sound particularly double-tracked. It just sounds like an odd sound, and the sound is created by the fading of the 10 tracks, but they all sound very similar.
“That was the sort of thing that me and Bilinda at the time did quite naturally. Once we learned the song, we would sing it very similar each time. It would be markedly the same. And we realised that even to get a double-tracked vocal effect was actually quite difficult, because they’d be so similar.
“Our big problem was because we sang reasonably quiet, all the esses, ticks and noises would be your main enemy. Especially painting the picture, you don’t want the esses. Taking a vocal and compressing it wasn’t ideal, because it would just bring out those problems a bit more.”
For the mixing of Loveless, My Bloody Valentine settled into The Church, North London, working with engineers Darren Allison and Dick Meaney. “We needed somewhere with 48-track and they had excellent monitoring at The Church: this Boxer system by Neil Grant, and [Yamaha] NS10s. Alan Moulder had gone on a bit of a mission to find speakers that weren’t as flattering as NS10s. ‘Cause NS10s are extremely flattering for guitar music. So when I was mixing Loveless, Alan had bought these Acoustic Energy AE1s. Basically I used them and NS10s and then the Boxers. It was a good setup actually.”
Given the extreme noise elements of Loveless, it’s perhaps surprising that Shields had a very specific limit to how loudly he monitored while mixing. “Not that loud,” he says. “With mixing, I find that my ears start to compress around 85dB. So while I record loud, and monitor loud at various times, most of the time when I was mixing, it would be sort of around that 84dB area. I could do a trick after a while. I found that with a dB meter you could turn music up and I could literally say, ‘Right, stop,’ and it would always stop around 84.
“If I was mixing consistently at 90dB, say, it would sound surprisingly different to me if you heard it really quiet. It’s different when you’re working with a lot of bass and treble, but when you’re doing a lot in mid-range, it doesn’t benefit from blasting the speakers so much because you’re getting conned. You think it’s way more exciting and forward-sounding than it really is.”
Shields remembers that ‘Only Shallow’ in particular was a relatively simple track to mix. “I found the track sheet and there’s only three main guitar tracks on it. I kind of panned them, that one was quite stereo. ’Cause that’s the thing, I would use stereo just on a whim. I wasn’t against it or anything. Half the tracks have stereo and half don’t. ‘Only Shallow’ was literally two main guitar tracks that were panned and a guide guitar which I brought in for the last verse. Then there’s four tracks we used for the main guitar [riff] thing when it comes in.”
During the mix process, Shields would often experiment with varispeeding the two 24-track tape machines. “‘Only Shallow’ would be a really good example,” he says. “It was slower than it wound up because we sped it up a little bit, from 30ips to 32ips, to help Bilinda sing it comfortably. So when I was mixing ‘Loveless’, I would just decide exactly where I wanted the pitch to be — just randomly go, ‘That sounds good.’ Some songs it would be close to where the vocal really was. Some songs, like ‘Come In Alone’, it was the opposite. It’s me singing but it sounds like Bilinda because I’m actually pitched up. I just let the music dictate the pitch it would be and then the vocal just became this varisped vocal.”
Other important features for Shields on Loveless were the transitions between tracks, meaning that he effectively mastered the album at The Church, as he put together the segues in an AMS Audiofile digital audio editor. “We did the stuff back then with DAT machines,” he says. “It was the DTC-1000. Terrible convertors and all that, but it had a sound. We recorded the mixes onto the DAT and then played them from the DAT back into a Massenburg [GML 8200 Stereo Parametric] EQ and then into the AMS Audiofile. The Massenburg has kind of a phase phenomena going on, and that’s partly why it sounds really good. If you use it twice in a row, you get a certain sound that’s actually quite difficult to get any other way.
“The AMS Audiofile was just like a big washing machine with a tiny screen. All of the crossfades were just Crossfade 1-10 and you just picked one. One of the big things for me with Loveless was the way it flowed. We spent quite a few days, probably a week, just getting that exact flow correct.”
For the all-analogue vinyl remaster of Loveless released earlier this year, Kevin Shields gave himself the task of recreating the transitions between the tracks entirely with tape edits of copies of the original half-inch two-track masters. “Andy Savours, the engineer I was working with, did lots of trial and error,” he says. “He found the best way to do it was you essentially get two pieces of tape and you put them on top of each other, and basically just do the edits on both tapes.
“The edits that were really hard were the short fades. The AMS Audiofile fades, program 1 or 2 or 3, they were actually only like a half second, but they had a definite curve on them. So we had to do these kind of triangular tape edits — you just cut a huge triangle in the middle of it, so that means that left and right fade in at exactly the same time.
“We spent a year achieving the perfect flow again in the analogue domain. We achieved that thanks to Pro Tools, because we could work everything out in Pro Tools and then we would just use mathematics to measure everything. We basically did all the legwork in Pro Tools and then literally went, ‘OK, what would that mean if you turned that into a tape length?’”
The vinyl masters completed, Kevin Shields has now turned his attention to two new My Bloody Valentine EPs — one to be released this summer; a second to come next spring. The story of Loveless isn’t over yet, however, with Shields planning to create a double-album vinyl version at some point in the future. Given the amount of time and dedication he’s given to the album down the years, has it ever felt like pushing a boulder up a hill? “Yep,” he laughs. “It didn’t feel like that when we were working out all the edits and stuff, ’cause we were in control of that. Cutting it was really painful because you’re dealing with all these variables.
“At one point we were just going in a circle. I was trying to do it at one cutting place and it was just too soft-sounding, and I was sending it to two different pressing plants and neither of them were the one I wound up with. They both were to varying levels changing the sound in ways that I didn’t like. Both of them were subjugating the mid-range but one was adding high end and one was very nice sounding but the high end just wasn’t there. We went with Optimal [Media in Germany] and suddenly we were getting test pressings back that weren’t messing with the sound. Then it was just a case of perfecting it.”
One of the things that listeners say about Loveless is that they hear something new in it every time they play it. For Shields, there is no greater compliment, since that’s exactly how he intended the album to be. “The very nature of the way it’s mixed,” he says, “it allows your imagination to sort of play a certain role in the mix. If you mix things in a way that they share a lot of frequencies, your brain plays a role. Also the bending, the constant pitch changing means that it’s difficult for your brain to sort of remember that. You’re always hearing something different every single time.”
The vinyl remasters of Loveless and Isn’t Anything are available at www.mybloodyvalentine.org.