March 16, 2004 at 8:43 pm #46831
I lost it
In his first interview for 12 years, My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields talks to Paul Lester about his madness, making Alan McGee cry – and how his house got full of chinchillas
Friday March 12, 2004
My God. Can it be? …. Kevin Shields, reclusive leader of seminal British noise-pop band My Bloody Valentine, has agreed to an interview. It will be his first face-to-face encounter with the press for 12 years. His first, in fact, since just after the release of 1991’s Loveless, along with Nirvana’s Nevermind the most influential album of the 1990s.
Not surprisingly, the notoriously tardy musician is late. But then, what’s half an hour for a man whose three year procrastination over the recording of Loveless drained Creation Records of its resources and sent the label boss, Alan McGee, over the edge, and who spent a decade keeping Island Records waiting for a follow-up that never came?
Since his withdrawal from the music scene, Shields has earned a reputation as the latter-day Brian Wilson, a tormented genius unable to produce a successor to Loveless, the Pet Sounds of UK avant-rock. He is, they say, a virtual hermit in his seven-bedroom north London home, a fearful wreck persecuted by his own perfectionism. Rare sightings of him suggest a depressed individual, bloated and forlorn.
But more recently he has collaborated with Brian Reitzell on the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola’s Oscar-winning Lost in Translation. Reitzell, who drums with Air, warns me during my nail-biting wait that Shields tends to work all night and sleep all day and never answers his phone. So no matter how late he gets there will be no contacting him. "He’s quite childlike," he says, in awe of the musician he met on the road in Japan in 2002. "Extremely sensitive. A pure artist."
How did people react when Reitzell announced he’d be attempting to coax brand-new performances and compositions from Shields? "They said I was crazy, that it wasn’t going to happen." According to Reitzell, who monitors these things on the internet, the two most anticipated returns in all of rock’n’roll are those of Axl Rose and Kevin Shields. "The guy’s an icon," he says.
The icon finally materialises around two. He might be mad – that remains to be seen – but he hasn’t gone to seed. The eternal undergraduate, all rumpled shirt, baggy cords, student specs and unkempt hair, he looks as though he’s just got out of bed – which he has.
"I couldn’t wake up," he says by way of apology, ordering tea and orange juice, his soft Dublin accent barely audible above the hotel-bar hubbub. It isn’t a voice you’d associate with such extreme music – one My Bloody Valentine track, No More Sorry, about domestic abuse, is blurry, hallucinatory and intense, unlike anything else in rock; another, You Made Me Realise, includes a section the band used to call "the holocaust".
I ask Shields whether he secretly relishes his near-mythic status. "No," he replies. He seems to change his mind. "It’s hard to explain. I live so much in my imagination. My version of reality is so different … I don’t necessarily connect with things. Yes, it is nice."
Is he the 21st-century Syd Barrett, or a Brian Wilson? "I’m crazy," he says, "but I’m not mentally ill. There’s a difference." Reitzell is quick to correct: "He’s not clinically crazy." With a grin, Shields adds: "The doctors haven’t got control over me."
But in 1997 he told a website his long absence was due to mental illness. "Ah," he says, "but I didn’t say whose mental illness." He pauses. "The funniest bit was, my brothers’ friends were all going: ‘Sorry to hear about Kevin’s mental illness.’ At that time, we were going through a slightly estranged phase, like families do. So they’d go, ‘Yeah … ‘ And that confirmed it."
The only advantage to being considered insane is, Shields says, that "people don’t get as angry with you when you piss them off". Angry, impatient record companies, you mean? He nods and laughs. "I’m right all the time, you see."
The real reason he’s spent the last 12 years behind the scenes, finessing the music of far less talented groups (Yo La Tengo, Placebo, Joy Zipper) and joining Primal Scream as mixer-cum-auxiliary live member but producing no new material of his own, is simple: "I lost it. I lost what I had and I thought, you know what? I’m not going to put a crap record out."
You lost it? "I think everyone does. Everyone has a certain thing and they lose it and they should move on. But I wasn’t ready to move on. I reached a sort of stalemate with myself. I wanted to be where I used to be and have that powerful, strong sense of direction. But I wasn’t inspired the way I used to be."
Shields was too good for his own, and everyone else’s, good. My Bloody Valentine’s first album for Creation, 1988’s Isn’t Anything, was so revolutionary that Shields, as much as his legions of imitators – Lush, Ride, Slowdive, Chapterhouse, The Boo Radleys – struggled to match it.
Over the next three years, using 18 engineers in almost as many studios, Shields toiled on the next giant leap for British guitar music. That giant leap cost a reputed quarter of a million pounds, a staggering sum for an independent (Oasis had yet to arrive and make McGee rich). It also cost the label owner his sanity.
"I think his drugs lifestyle was a much bigger part of that," suggests Shields, gesturing around him. "The fancy hotels – in those days he was living in places like this. You know, he also drove me crazy."
As Shields points out, 1991 saw not just huge outlays from Creation on Loveless but also on the label’s other key releases of the era such as Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque and Primal Scream’s Screamadelica. The financial price, Shields contends, has been overestimated – Screamadelica cost Â£130,000, Loveless maybe Â£140,000 – if not the emotional one. "I’m the one," he confesses, "who caused the most emotional damage."
This is true, as Creation’s boss recalls only too vividly. "Loveless was a factor in my personal meltdown," McGee tells me a few days after my interview with Shields. Creation, he explains, dropped My Bloody Valentine after the album’s release because he couldn’t face working with the temperamental band-leader again. "It was either him or me," says McGee, who was reduced to tearfully pleading with the musician to deliver the record before the whole enterprise went bankrupt.
You would never suspect that behind Shields’s unassuming exterior lay such a monster. "That," says McGee, "is called passive-aggressive." Legend has it that Shields, infuriatingly, would respond to demands as to when his magnum opus would be finished by blankly reciting My Bloody Valentine song titles: To Here Knows When. When You Sleep. Sometimes. Soon.
This strategy, if it was a strategy, backfired. "Kevin had a complete breakdown. He told me in great detail," reveals McGee. "He lost the plot completely. Everybody became the enemy. He lost his friends and he lost the band. He just locked himself away in his big house. Then, finally, nobody wanted to get in. I went to the house once with Bobby [Gillespie] and there were chinchillas, these weird little rat animals, in cages, about 20 of them, all over the room, with barbed wire everywhere. It was definitely meltdown."
What did happen in that big old house? Shields insists things were never as bad as people make out. "I was pretty crazy, for sure," he says, "and it was a very manic, overdrive kind of state, but it never got out of control. I can look after myself better than most people; I’m self-contained. I just didn’t do what I didn’t want to do. And I got away with it. When you keep on getting away with it year after year, you think you can just live like that. And you can. I wouldn’t work. I wouldn’t get up till late afternoon. I watched a lot of shit films."
After Loveless, the band signed to Island in 1992. The company stopped all monies in 1997 but only released them contractually as recently as 2001. During this period My Bloody Valentine provided not a single note of new music (a cover version of an old Wire track appeared on a tribute album, Whore, for a label called WMO in 1996).
According to Shields, Island advanced them Â£500,000, which lasted all of six months, most of it going on engineers’ fees and building a new studio. "Then," he says, "they put us on a retainer, which was about five grand a month, which doesn’t really go that far. That just went on for years."
Island’s bosses rarely ventured out to the band’s studio because they knew they would return empty-handed. "They visited us about two or three times in the whole eight years. On their last visit they suggested I go on the dole. I refused."
Between 1997 and 2002, Shields had no financial support from Island but couldn’t sign elsewhere because he was still officially on their books. Remix work and part-time membership of Primal Scream kept him from going under, while royalties from Isn’t Anything and Loveless, which continue to sell to new generations beguiled by MBV’s intoxicatingly strange, richly textured guitar experiments, finally began pouring in at the turn of the century.
Now, at the age of 40, Shields is about to enjoy his biggest payday yet, having contributed four new songs and one My Bloody Valentine track to the Lost in Translation soundtrack – which, after its BAFTA nomination and success at this year’s Academy Awards, could net him his first million.
As far as McGee is concerned, there are no hard feelings between him and Shields. "Certain working relationships burn out – Primal Scream was one, My Bloody Valentine was another. Seventeen years of the Primals was equal to my four with Kevin. I really rate him, though. I don’t use the word lightly when I say that, if Liam [Gallagher]’s a genius rock’n’roll star, Kevin’s a genius artist. A visionary. But you’ve got to have brass balls to get in the ring with him. Would I work with him again? No."
Shields is sorry for the misery he caused McGee. "I didn’t mean it," he says. Has he apologised? "Yeah." However, with talk of My Bloody Valentine getting back together this year to complete tracks begun in the early 1990s, and "ridiculous amounts of money" being flung at his de facto manager Brian Reitzell for a reformed MBV tour, it remains to be seen whether Shields will be any more compliant or reliable than he has been in the past. After all, if the man who tamed Oasis couldn’t tame him …
"I’ve never been normal and I never will be," says Shields. "The world will change before I will." Is there an industry mogul out there who can control him? "No," he smiles. "But that’s only because I can’t control myself."
original source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/fridayre … 43,00.htmlMarch 16, 2004 at 11:13 pm #100781
excellent articleMarch 17, 2004 at 7:10 am #100782
thanks … that was a great read :aliensmile:
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