Sunday, February 17, 2013

When You Wake You're Still In A Nightmare 
a.k.a Where the Fuck are My Bloody Valentine? 
Alternative Press, October 1995

by Simon Reynolds 

During the almost FOUR years since "Loveless", every fan must surely have wondered: "What the FUCK has My Bloody Valentine been up to?!?"

Rewind to mid-1992: MBV parts acrimoniously with Creation, largely because of the 3 years and small fortune the band spent making  'Loveless'. By October, the band has signed to Island and immediately embarks upon the daunting task of following up one of the most critically praised and influential albums of the last decade.

"In retrospect, we had", says singer/guitarist/aesthetic fuehrer Kevin Shields, "a totally over-ambitious plan to find a premises, build our own studio, and get the record out by July 1993. We'd just completed the 10 month 'Loveless' tour, and we'd all this nervous energy. Not sleeping a lot puts me in a manic state."

Spring 1993, and it was all going according to plan. The studio was completed. But just as MBV was about to commence  recording, it discovered the desk had the technological equivalent to AIDS. " It took a whole year, until May '94, before we had a new desk sorted and could start again. By then we'd lost all the momentum. The fun side of  building a studio, thinking we could break the pattern of us doing things over a really long period, had gone."

Surprisingly, MBV's record companies---Island in Britain, Sire in the USA---were understanding. "Island have been bailing us out continually, they've already advanced us more money than they were contracted to. You rarely hear of stories of bands being treated so well. In a way I've done a lot more harm to the industry than vice versa!," Kevin notes  wryly.

Nonetheless, by Christmas '94, MBV was broke again. In order to economise, the members had been obliged to move into the South London house which contained their studio, and were living as an unhappy commune.  Isolated from the record companies, MBV was reduced to selling off unwanted gear accumulated during the decade of the band's existence. All this financial pressure, plus the band's gruelling aesthetic deadlock,  combined to trigger an existensial crisis for Shields, what he describes as a "meltdown".

"The things I experienced were quite unreal. I've been totally out there, I can honestly say I've experienced everything Aldous Huxley wrote about in 'The Doors of Perception'." Drugs--specifically marijuana---played their part. Shields says a book called 'Hypnagogia' "literally saved me and made me feel sane. Hypnagogia is the term for that state just before sleep where you have brief surreal flashes of scenes, almost like cartoons".  Reading the book, Shields found an explanation for his insomniac habits and aesthetic preoccupations."The author makes parallels between hypnagogia and all the other extremes of the human mind, mystical and drugged. Basically, there's a door to another type of consciousness and it's open all the time. Smoking grass, especially with the stronger THC content these days, makes you semi-hallucinatory, but mainly it simply enables you to stay awake when you're actually on the verge of dropping off."

As for the band's musical difficulties, they were complicated. Coming off the 'Loveless' tour, Shields wanted to create something with the same impact and immensity as the notorious 10 minute, one chord 'middle eight' of  'You Made Me Realise' which climaxed every gig. He also wanted to distance MBV from its shoegazer imitators, who'd tried to emulate the band's drone-swarm sound using methods (flangers, chorus pedals etc) that Shields despised as facile. "I was coming up with loads of songs, unusually complicated melodies---I have about 10 hours worth now-- but few of them were the sort of songs that facilitate the ideas I wanted to explore."

For the real problem was that MBV was, out of habit, making one kind of music but getting off on something totally different: jungle, the fusion of hip hop, dub, ragga and techno that has since emerged from London's underground to become the most happening UK scene since acid house. Precocious as ever, Shields and drummer Colm O'Ciosig were tuning into South London pirate radio stations in early 1993 and getting their minds blown.

"When I first listened to jungle, it seemed full of possiblities in a way I hadn't encountered since hip hop. Jungle was like hearing that early, very stark hip hop  like LL Cool J--- really raw and unpretentious, yet as out-there as you can get.  Hip hop's main influence on us was that it re-educated us about rhythm; now jungle's re-educating everyone again."

Circa "Isn't Anything", Shields talked of  how it was hip hop sampling that inspired them to create weird noises on the guitar; two year later, the gaseous guitars of "Soon" swirled around a hip-house rhythm-matrix. But cast your mind back to "Instrumental", the free 7 inch that came with "Isn't Anything" , which Shields described then as "a real acid house track". Actually, it's really an uncanny prophesy of today's drum & bass jungle. Over a looped breakbeat sampled from Public Enemy, ectoplasmic guitar weaves through  sublimely simple, poignant cadences redolent of Erik Satie. Speed the track up by 30 b.p.m, and you'd have 'ambient jungle', FIVE years before  Foul Play's "Open Your Mind". 

As it happens, Shields prefers the raw-to-the-core ruffness of ragga-jungle and minimalist drum & bass, to the smoother atmospherics of  'ambient jungle'. "Mostly, I've  been inspired by the way the rhythms shift and inverse on themselves, the way there'll be ten different beats at once, or effects like the beat's exploding. Someone wrote that black American music, being born of oppression, is downbeat even when it's meant to be lifting your spirit, but  that African music is always stepping off the ground.. I think that's what jungle rhythms do, and there's so much room for making the music air-borne, it really fits what I do with guitar on a track like 'Soon'. But the point is not to have jungle beats with guitars over the top, it's got be more oblique, just letting that influence seep in like hip hop did with tracks like 'Slow'".

There's other parallels between MBV and jungle: the oxymoronic mix of shattering bliss and panicky dread, the speedy on-rush of sensations. Shields sees jungle as "part of the whole speeding-up process of Western society. And you can't have an escalated culture without more extremes of everything,  positive and negative."

Talking of velocity, one of the bizarre rumours floating around during MBV's abscence was that Kevin had decided that thrash-metal constituted the most radical form of guitar playing on the planet, and accordingly MBV's LP was gonna be a thrash/jungle hybrid. Turns out there's a tiny grain of truth here: MBV are fond of the British TV metal show 'Noisy Muthas', and Shield went through a phase of liking the odd thrash track by bands like Sepultura. "It did influence me, although I've worked it out of my system now. For a while I was combining speed-metal riffs with Valentines grooves, but it wasn't coming from the right place, my head was too scrambled."

MBV's main problem with incorporating jungle into their sound was the amount of time it took them to program the rhythms. Now, after a three month sabbatical and another cash injection from Island and Sire, the band have regrouped with the intention of knocking out a half-finished mini-album in a couple of months, before re-embarking on the full-length sequel to 'Loveless'. What makes Shields confident they can quicken the pace is their acquisition of a new, digitally-fluent  member to handle programming, Alex Buess of Swiss jazz/core outfit 16/17.

With "Loveless'--an album on which the band experimented with sampling its own feedback, looping basslines and drum-patterns, etc--MBV became one of the very first post-rockers (i.e. bands who combine guitars with digital technology, who abandon riffs for non-rock textures and dynamics). Now there's droves of  'em: Laika, Disco Inferno, Main, Bark Psychosis, Techno-Animal, et al. What with post-rock, trip hop and drum & bass, we're living through a golden age for a resurgent British avant-pop. Yet all the media coverage has been commandeered by the Brit Pop squad of Blur, Oasis, Elastica, etc.

"From a sonic point of view, English music has gone completely backwards", Kevin complains. "Everything is justified in terms of the past . Creation were slagged off for being retro, but they could produce something like 'Screamadelica'. The whole situation in Britain right now is much more extreme 'cos they're not even cueing off  the most fertile things in the past. When people make a documentary about this era in the future, the people who are part of the NME/MM world are going to be seen as equivalent to the trad jazz scene in 1963," he predicts, alluding to the early '60s  student craze for  Dixieland  jazz. "There's that same reverence for a long-lost era."

"The only thing I like about Britpop is that, because it's a success, it's brought about a mentality similar to that of the early rave scene--there's a confidence and excitement about being young.  That buoyancy makes a pretty good platform to step off from. If Britpop is a recreation of 1966 and 1978, then what we might get next is 1967 and 1979. I'm hoping that out of all this energy will come a genuinely interesting breed of people with a bigger sense of what's possible, and they'll marry all the interesting developments in jungle and hip hop and everything. Cos I sometimes think maybe we can't be the people to do that, cos we're too old!"


for another take on the saga of My Bloody Valentine's disappearance and the epic delay for the sequel to Loveless, here's my 2008 Spin feature on the band's story, pegged to the reunion tour, and covering both the group's early days and what happened after 1995

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