Print the Legend: Kevin Shields and My Bloody Valentine

This is a post by associate editor Blake Madden

This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
– Mr. Scott, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The legend of Kevin Shields is one of a tortured genius, a Salinger-like recluse incapable of handling the spoils of his one masterpiece, My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 album Loveless.

In order to produce this swirling, warbling, mutated mass of melting guitars, the story is that Shields bankrupted labels, fired engineers willy-nilly, even shut his own band members out of the recording process. Then he disappeared into obscurity for two decades, clearly driven insane by his own obsession and micromanagement. It’s a cautionary tale of the dangers of rock excess: A megalomaniac addicted to volume, rather than the typical drugs and alcohol.

It’s a legend that like many, is filled with half-truths and bad information.

Any discussion of the band My Bloody Valentine or Kevin Shields, their enigmatic frontman and mastermind, is bound to include some mention of the word “legacy.” Loveless, after all, taught 10, 000 kids how to play guitar. (Incorrectly, some might add.)

Shields complicated the discussion this year, when My Bloody Valentine released their third album, m b v, 22 years after Loveless. The legend of Kevin Shields had to be rewritten on the fly. We see plenty of geniuses go to the brink, but how many of them actually come back?

When m b v first came out, it was too big for me to process right away. I couldn’t yet think of anything coherent to say about it beyond “of course.” Of course My Bloody Valentine would release a genre-defining album in Loveless, disappear for two decades, and then reappear with a new album as if nothing happened. Of course we would know or hear nothing of the album until it appeared before us fully formed and out of the blue. Of course it would take me a while to decipher an album that arrived carrying so much old baggage under its arms.

The Evil Genius at Work: Kevin Shields live with My Bloody Valentine, 2008 (Photo by Flickr user NRK P3)

The Evil Genius at Work: Kevin Shields live with My Bloody Valentine, 2008
(Photo by Flickr user NRK P3)

The baggage was mine though, born out of those stories invented about Shields in his absence. When I saw My Bloody Valentine at Showbox Sodo in Seattle last Wednesday, that baggage began to fall away and history melted. Mixed in among songs from Loveless, their 1988 debut album Isn’t Anything, and the handful of EPs that make up the entirety of a near 30-year history, the songs of m b v sounded like more mature versions of what Shields was doing 22 years ago. They had more polish and self-confidence than their younger counterparts. They took their time and carried the weight of age with pride. In comparison, the earlier tunes screamed and stamped their feet, clinging to a youth they no longer had.

In context, you could hear a clear and natural evolution to the band’s music- what other bands might do in less time but with more albums. I saw no unhinged geniuses on stage that night, just a band in good spirits supporting a new album.

Maybe Kevin Shields just likes to take his time?

This was the thought I had listening to the m b v songs live at Showbox Sodo, and again when I listened to the album later on. Could it be that Kevin Shields just keeps a different- or nonexistent- schedule than the rest of us? Does he begin projects already knowing that they could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few decades?

Shields confirmed as much in a rare 2013 interview for Pitchfork: Pieces of m b v were recorded onto analog tape as early as 1996, but shelved when the band disintegrated soon after.

After several years playing guitar with the band Primal Scream, Shields unearthed the material in 2006: “I listened to it properly and was like, ‘You know what? This is definitely way more than I thought it was.'” When My Bloody Valentine reunited for touring in 2008, Shields endeavored to finish the album. The final m b v album contains recordings from 1996, 2011, and 2012.

Just think about that for a second: Kevin Shields finished an album 16 years after he started recording it. What are the odds that any other modern musician works that way, let alone that the end product turns out any good?

But the fact that Shields could communicate with his artistic self from 16 years prior in order to create something cohesive is a story that has received far less attention than it deserves. As always with Kevin Shields, the legend gets printed while an even better story goes undiscovered.

Guitar fanatics obsessed with Loveless usually imagine infinite overdubs by Shields in service of the album’s titanic sound, when in fact there were only one or two tracks of guitar per song, performed in a very specific way.

Meanwhile, Shields gets little credit for his extreme tinkering with the drums on that record, which were sampled from individual hits, then looped and mixed in with the real drum takes due to a severe illness that descended on drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig during the making of the album.

And what about the other stories- the ones that paint Shields as temperamental, unable to cooperate with others, unable to accept limitations, or commit to any sort of deadline?

While there is a thread of truth to those accusations, when we look at the same stories from Shields’ side, we see an artist dealing with substandard living and recording conditions; engineers who blatantly told him he didn’t know what he was doing and refused to help him do it, and analog tapes he had to steal from the studio in the middle of the night in order to make sure they ever saw the light of day.

The recording of Loveless did savage the coffers of Creation Records, the band’s label at the time, as they were unfamiliar with just how meticulous Shields could be in the studio. And while Shields did record most of the instruments on Loveless himself, this aspect of the recording was far less a source of drama within the band than the legend makes it out to be.

The Album that Almost Wasn't: Loveless

The Album that Almost Wasn’t: Loveless

The legend of Kevin Shields is concerned with quantity– the number of guitar tracks, effects pedals, and amplifiers used; the number of years the recordings take; the number of dollars spent on them. Shields himself is only concerned with quality– the effort and attention needed to create those huge, bending guitar sounds via playing style; the frequencies that help or hinder the sound; the ability to work in conditions and with people that are conducive to realizing a specific vision. The legend says Shields almost single-handedly sunk Loveless, while Shields says his faith that Loveless was going to (ultimately) be a good recording was the only thing that kept him going in the face of collapsing label and technical support, dragging his analog tapes from one studio to the next.

Despite the tension around him, though, Shields never felt any internal pressure to put out an album before it was truly finished. He would rather not make a record, than disappoint himself by making a bad one, as he said in a 2012 Quietus interview:

“… 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.”

That should be the real legacy and legend of Kevin Shields: An artist whose persistence in realizing a vision lasts longer than his current attention span. An artist whose ideas are often down, but never out. Someone who finishes what he starts, even if it takes decades. Someone whose lack of compromise comes less from immaturity, and perhaps more from its opposite: an acceptance of the passage of time and the natural rhythms of life.

Aspiring artists should see Shields as neither a cautionary tale, nor an untouchable genius, but simply as a musician who just wanted to get his ideas and his sound right, and was willing to take the time and make sacrifices to do it.

Go this route and you may end up shooting fame and fortune in the foot, burning bridges, or having label accountants screaming at you over the phone a few times a week. Then again, if you’re extremely lucky, you may create music that shines even brighter over time, music that still stars in its own legend long after the bumps in the road fade from view.

Blake Madden is a musician and author who lives and works in Seattle, WA.

This entry was posted in All Stories, Featured Stories, Guest Posts, Producer Profiles, September 2013. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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