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Dublin is a shithole basically! that's the opinion of Kevin Shields, one of the two Irish members of My Bloody Valentine, who quit the fair city six years ago because of what they saw as the stifling atmosphere of the place. Since then they've lived and gigged all over Europe and their 1988 album Isn't Anything has put them on top of the critical approval lists and independent charts. Here, taking a break from their US tour, the band reflect on their art, their careers and what they see as the general awfulness of the Irish music scene. Interview: Helena Mulkearns
Helena Mulkearns, 10 Aug 1989
It's mid afternoon downtown and a semi-dried out spatter of last night's puke is being examined with great interest by a skinny dog on the corner of Avenue A and 6th. The East Village is one of the few live neighbourhoods in New York that resembles Rathmines on a Sunday morning - those multicoloured puddles, the broken glass and pizza rinds, that hangover-nursing quietness in the air, muted music booming from behind closed curtains. Except here it's about 80 degrees with 110 percent humidity, or at least that's what it feels like, and I'm trying to find a place I've lost the address of. "Isn't Anything" is blasting through my walkman, its manic force causing me to stride a lot faster than anybody should in this heat, yet at the same time its dazed evasiveness is just perfect for Sunday.
My Bloody Valentine, perpetrators of this amazing sound, are ensconced in a suitably sombre basement apartment just down the road. Over the last few days they've done many interviews and photo sessions. Many. Actually, this afternoon all they want to do really is take the Stattan Island Ferry. But there's one more to. Bilinda and Deb are writing postcards, Colm and Kevin are looking as MBVs are apparently supposed to: wrecked, tousled and quietly bored.
It's a contrast to Friday night at the China Club, where their crashing, lurching guitars transcended a lot of expectations, deafened many and startled more. The sound was woeful but the sheer adrenaline force made up for the absence of subtlety to a certain extent. Onstage they blend visually to an almost framable degree: on the right Kevin Shieldss, dark, static, with low-key vocals that contrast and complement the sound. Left: Bilinda Butcher, feline and flowing, soft voice blurring through and conquering trippy guitar haze and clashing chords with equal grace. Deb Googe swoops and dives into the bass, vying in mobility with Colm O Ciosoig who looks positively possessed: arms flailing in the white stage light like a deranged windmill.
My Bloody Valentine originated in Dublin about six years ago (Kevin Shields and Colm O Ciosoig are from Cabinteely and Glenageary respectively) and having done what they felt was enough time on the Irish circuit finally decided to head for Europe. As a fairly standard starter, I ask them what their reason was for leaving Dublin.
"Because it was a shithole, basically," is Kevin's blunt reply. "It's a really bad music scene - we didn't see any point in staying there anymore. We went to Holland because we wanted to go anywhere but London. It s such a cliche -you know, going to London. Just about every Irish band that went to London never made it. Just think of it, every Irish band that went to London, where are they now?"
The present line-up of My Bloody Valentine was, however, formed in London. The band, during various stages of development lived, gigged and recorded material both in Berlin and Holland for a number of years. "But," says Kevin, "we eventually found out that it was probably easier to survive in London so that s why we went there."
In London, vocalist Dave opted out, so it goes, to write sci-fi novels and the current line-up came together about two years ago with Bilinda and Deb. Deb had been in an all-female outfit called Bikini Atoll, but she explains, the other members had moved to London to go to college and by the time we'd all established ourselves with places to live etc. we had drifted apart. After that I met Colm and I joined the band.
Bilinda had originally been a dance student. Then I was accepted to train as a singer, and although I hadn't played an instrument before, I realised that it was something I should do while learning to sing, so after that I learned to play guitar.
Trying to break through in the ever-precarious band scene in London in 1986, they went through a series of various independent recording projects before their first EP "Slow" (soon to be released in the US by Relativity on a 5-track radio-only EP) eventually did it. "Then You Made Me Realise" began their real ascent, bringing them substantial attention. They signed to Creation in 1988, and last year s album on that label, "Isn't Anything" shot them to number one on indie listings and earning rave critical success across the board.
The album is, according to your taste, either unbearable or truly brilliant. Transfused with energy, eroticism and opacity, the effect ranges from glimmering whispers out of the depths of sleep to 25 dunk guitars fucking. Their amorphous sound topped with truly amazing vocals, has been compared to that of contemporary American atonal guitar bands, and in fact both Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. turned up at the New York gig. I wondered if these bands had played a part in the development of their own sound? Kevin admits that they may have been inspirations, but not influences. "We're interested in everything, really," says Kevin. "Sonic Youth are just the obvious ones especially now we're in America etc."
The others mention Happy Mondays, Pixies, Pussy Galore, but don't enlarge on anything outside the contemporary. Best not to try getting too picky about definitions perhaps. My attempts at doing so unwittingly spark off a long misunderstanding about the presence or non-presence of angst in the material. Bottom line is that there is no angst in My Bloody Valentine's stuff. Kevin writes the music, his own lyrics, as Bilinda writes hers. I mention that for the most part the words are impossible to make out, and note that there s no lyric sheet. "That's not important," says Kevin. "It's important to us but that's all. That's as far as it goes. There's no band where the words are crystal clear. If people want words they should read books or poets or whatever. Songs are songs and the words are just an element of the songs. You can't take them apart and put them separately - it would be like giving a chord sheet with albums. With some people, like Lou Reed maybe, where the words are very narrative or something, then having a lyric sheet is good. But it's not what we're about, really. We're about the whole thing. Everything is equally important. Everything is there for a reason. "
After so many years in the grind, during which, at one point, a final split up was even rumoured, last summer's rapid and much-documented ascent into favour, with "Isn't Anything" was a spectacular development. I wondered if this had come from any deliberate change of direction? Kevin's answer is short, if not sweet. "That's media garbage, basically. We always had something to offer. Most journalists just can't see beyond their own pen. They just find the lowest common denominator."
Eh, right Kevin. I mentally revise my notes from that 'Liam Mackey Post-Van Interview Etiquette' course I sent away for this spring and continue. So what are their plans in America? To get a better deal, mumbles Kevin without much conviction, after a few minutes silence.
The pleasant, if somewhat confused thing about My Bloody Valentine is that they are consistently self-contradictory. And they either don't notice or don't mind. It s Kevin who dominates the responses in any case, with qualifications and comments coming from the others at various intervals but he certainly never lacks for something to say. The American question is a case in point. One minute Kevin talks about the desire to get on a better label here, the next they are singing the praises of Creation (Relativity in the States) to which they have been signed since last year.
Kevin: "We're on major labels in other countries, but in the end we can't be touched because our contract is with Creation. We have one that probably only bands in U2's position could get on a major label. We could never get a contract as strong as we have with Creation on a major. It limits our success, but that depends on what success means. It's like having so many noughts on how many people buy your records. That s all it means. "
Colm: "The way we are now, though - it really has nothing to do with the fact that we're independent, but we have more control than we would have with a major record company."
"You can make more money on an independent label anyway," adds Kevin, contrarily. "Well, like, we could have had more money for this tour, but in fact we probably have more money than the Hothouse Flowers at this stage. I mean, so much money can be invested in a band, like a half a million or whatever. But later their earnings are so much minus that half million. They get wages, but you still owe that money. We're doing it slowly and doing it our own way, without owing any money. The end result of the other may be that you get to be a star for like six months - so what. That's fine if you want, but it's got nothing to do with music. It's like, the cream of Irish bands - they don't do anything.
"They're so obsessed with major record companies and getting deals and cracking America and all this garbage that in the end, they're like nowhere really. They're running around trying to do everything, trying to be rock stars but in the end they aren't achieving anything. That s in a way the whole reason why we got out of Dublin, because Dublin is so stifling. It's basically a rotten place to be, for us. "
But maybe Dublin's a rotten place for lots of people?
"No, I don t think so," continues Kevin. " When we were there, there were a lot of people quite happy with their situation. A lot of bands who felt snug - or maybe smug - with their situation. They were doing very well in Ireland and there was a lot of talk about major record companies coming to see them and deals etc. As a result a lot of bands were signed up on major companies. I'm glad for them. You know, I'm not criticising them as people, but it's the system. The outlook in the country. It leaves people in a position where they can be very easily manipulated by money. By the chances of becoming big and famous, by seeing U2 do it. The fact is that U2 were an exception to the rule. For every U2 there will be 100 non-U2s. Every band who thinks it's got the stadium potential of U2 - Cactus World News, Blue In Heaven - why did they think they could make it?"
They have to do something of their own. There was Thin Lizzy and The Boomtown Rats before U2, and other internationally successful bands. Hothouse Flowers are another band who have got success because they are not like U2. They did something that no-one else did in Ireland before that and that's why they are successful. But all those other bands, they are all just little U2s. That's not saying that their music is the same, but they have to understand that they've all been signed on the strength of what happened in Ireland with U2, basically, not on the strength of what they're doing. It's a sad situation, I wouldn't like to be in that position.
But I just really hate the Irish music scene. And I know because I've lived in Holland, I've lived in Berlin and London... I know what music scenes are like and I know that it's unnecessarily shit. There's a real stupid attitude there.
I note that My Bloody Valentine haven't played Ireland, since they originally left and wonder if what they have been saying has anything to do with that decision. "No, it's just due to different happenings . . . " says Kevin. "But I really would like to play in Ireland for the people there. I have nothing against Dublin or anything. "
How would they place themselves culturally, then? I quote Melody Maker s new year issue: "My Bloody Valentine . . . one of the bands that make you proud to feel British again . . . "
Simultaneous chorus: "We're not British."
"The word 'British' is one of the most disgusting in the world," goes Kevin. "I don't mind English people but it's that 'British' concept. A lot of English journalists are really so full of shit, to the point where a lot of them just hate American bands - they're so patriotic. Standing up under a flag is dangerous. Stupid. When people call us British it's just misinformed. Like, everything that has happened to us, right, has happened from London. Not Ireland. But half the band are English. It's dumb to call us an Irish band, but calling us a British band is not right either."
Bilinda continues: "We've been called Irish. I mean, neither of us two are in the least bit patriotic either, we don't care at all. It's just funny the way everybody wants to make sure you re one thing or another . . . "
Walking out into the now dull afternoon, I put on the cassette in my walkman again and think of what Bilinda said. Thrash rock , acid-pop, atonal ... assign whatever category you wish, but it never quite defines them, much as we all love definitions. They blast the ear drums and even hit places other bands miss with a sort of unhinged sensorial attack, extraneous and dispassionate, sexual and lush and loud. I like them just for being anarchic and arrogant and for almost overthrowing cliche.
With their US tour complete, they are back in England with no immediate plans. Future Irish appearances are possible, but the dates are unknown. If they do make it back, they're worthwhile checking out at least.