My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields: The Guitar That Changed My Life
My Bloody Valentine had already been a band for five years by the time guitarist Kevin Shields found his secret weapon. After years of hopping between knockoffs of popular Fenders and Gibsons, a friend loaned him a 1964 Fender Jazzmaster – a melty, hotrod-shaped instrument with a bevy of switches and knobs and a long whammy bar mounted at its base. At the time, they’d been playing Cramps- and Pussy Galore–style heavy rock & roll, but they’d already begun transitioning into more experimental territory, which they intended to try out on what would become 1990’s You Made Me Realise EP. The guitar, Shields says, was “a big revelation.”
Almost immediately, Shields was able to play both standard strumming and add in warbling, momentary drops in pitch with a tremolo bar, creating the group’s now-signature dreamy, woozy atmospheres on the song “Thorn.” “It was like a new toy, really,” he says. “I could feel it. It was something that I wasn’t thinking about. I found it fascinating playing that way. I like the way the sounds move.” It went on to define My Bloody Valentine’s celebrated landmark 1991 LP Loveless and everything they’ve recorded since.
Since Fender is marking the instrument’s 60th anniversary with three new models and he and his bandmates are touring and working on new music that he says will “absolutely, definitely, 100 percent” come out this year, Shields wanted to pay tribute to the guitar that changed everything for him. He participated in an interview with Fender (video below) and spoke with Rolling Stone about both the Jazzmaster and the many possibilities of My Bloody Valentine’s future.
What was your first guitar?
A Hondo II. I got it for Christmas for about 50 pounds at a record shop. I was 16. It was a [Gibson] SG copy with a Bigsby tremolo arm on it, but I never used it because I didn’t understand how to use it. It wouldn’t stay in tune. I was frightened a bit. I had that for six months or a year, then I had a Cimar and a Yamaha SG.
Are those the guitars you were using when you started recording?
No. When [drummer] Colm [Ó Cíosóig] and I left Ireland and went to Holland and Germany [to record], I just got a cheap guitar. Oddly enough it was an Ibanez copy of a Jazzmaster. I loved the shape of it. It had a tremolo on the assembly, but it didn’t have the actual tremolo on it.
When did you get your first proper Jazzmaster?
In the spring of ’88. When Creation [Records] said, “Do you want to make a record?” We only had a few cheap guitars – an Antoria copy [of a Gibson ES-335] and an Ibanez 335 copy – and my friend Bill Carey said, “Use my guitars.” He had a Gretsch and a Jazzmaster. The Jazzmaster happened to be a really great guitar. They’d booked us three or four days in the studio and then I discovered the tremolo arm pretty much in that session. We did the You Made Me Realise EP, and the first song I played it on was “Thorn” and the second time I played it was on a song called “Slow.” I realized how good the Jazzmaster was later. Over the years, I hardly ever came across anything as good as that.
Did you buy it off your friend?
No, but he’s got it and he’s a good friend, so it won’t go anywhere if he still has it.
When you do buy a new Jazzmaster, do you have to tweak it?
Yeah, I have to modify it to play comfortably. I started sticking tape on the arm to stop it from going all the way into the hole. That way it’s very loose, and I can just strum the guitar or hit it and play it the way I wanted, and the tremolo arm rests in my palm.
Was it the changing pitches that appealed to you?
It wasn’t just a pitch change. We’d already been doing that. I remember when we started in ’83, we used to work with cassette tapes, and we did our drum stuff with bending the tape and changing the pitch. We also did it with synthesizers. There was a band called D.A.F., which was a German electronic band with a synthesizer, and they had a song that was shifting in and out of tune all the time. And I was fascinated by that. When I suddenly discovered the tremolo arm on the guitar, I realized I could do all the stuff I liked from the synthesizer. It was just a moment of, “Oh, my God, I can do all this stuff easily.”
I also remember a video of Jimi Hendrix at Monterey Pop when he’s doing “Wild Thing” quite a few times on TV, and the tape transfer would be wobbling in and out of tune at various spots. At the end it seemed like the tape was about to be eaten. That was the sound of danger, that something wasn’t right. So it was something I was conscious of and slightly fascinated by. When I discovered the Jazzmaster, I could do that and other stuff with it. It was a “eureka” moment.
“We’re pretty much determined to get an EP out actually this year.”
How many Jazzmasters do you own now?
Not that many good ones. Only about 12, maybe 14.
Did you use Bill Carey’s guitar when you recorded Loveless?
Yes, but it was a mixture of another Jazzmaster I bought in L.A., when we were over there in ’89. It was a ’59 that was refinished in ’64. And I used some [Fender] Jaguars and Japanese guitars.
What should people expect from your upcoming North American tour?
We’re playing reasonably longer than we’ve played before, because we’ve got a few more songs that we can play in under two hours. We’ll probably play different songs here and there, just to mix it up a bit more.
Are you still playing the full noise section of “You Made Me Realise”? You said you were second-guessing it last year.
Yeah, we’re doing it. But who knows how long it’ll last, because it’s based on what it feels like. If it starts to get boring or anything, then it gets very short. It always exists there, but as a long thing, who knows.
On your recent European tour, you also seem to be playing a lot of material off Loveless and Isn’t Anything.
That’s partly because we don’t play that much, so it doesn’t get old or weird. When we first started playing the Loveless songs back in 2008, we’d only played them for about six months before [we broke up]. And that was it; then the band stopped. When we played them in 2008, they felt really fresh, and we didn’t play that many gigs then really. In 2013, we played a lot of gigs, but because we’ve had a big gap it feels quite fresh again. We’ll be playing on and off now all the way through the end of next year, so who knows what’s going to happen between now and then but we’ll definitely play a bunch of new songs. For America, we’ll definitely do a couple of new ones which we haven’t recorded yet.
You’ve been playing a new song on your European tour, but there doesn’t seem to be a title yet.
That’s one of the songs we haven’t recorded. It doesn’t have a title. It’s quite normal to not have titles until the lyrics are fully written. We put it together in rehearsals. It might wind up on the EP or maybe not. We’re just doing stuff we haven’t really recorded properly or at all.
Have you been recording much lately?
We have things. I was attempting to get an EP out for now. It should’ve been out now, but for various reasons, we didn’t finish it. Also, I keep on swinging between doing two EPs or sort of a mini-album. But absolutely, 100 percent, I’m getting it out this year.
Are you sure?
We’ll have to wait and see because my predictions are part of our history. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s gonna happen. But it will happen – when it happens is the question. But no, we’re pretty much determined to get an EP out actually this year.
“I’m just at that phase right now where I wish I was working more on the warm stuff.”
How complete is it?
Not too complete. It’s sort of half-made. That’s mainly because I was trying to focus on an EP of the brighter, more positive tunes. I wanted to have that out for the summer, but some things have made it difficult to do that. I thought maybe I’ll just wait and, instead of rushing it, we can finish it by the end of September. We booked some gigs and they got in the way.
What is the idea behind the new music?
Well, it’s quite complicated to answer it properly. I started with a concept of songs that could just cross over into each other. Then, oddly, I started doing some songs that were quite normal in a way. They were warmer. But I have a journey because I wound up with a lot of stuff.
I’ll keep putting stuff out for a good couple of years, as opposed to the idea of putting an album out and then disappearing for five years or 22 years or whatever I’ll do. But this time around, there’s so much stuff that it’ll take me three albums’ worth to get it all realized really.
So part of the problem must be just deciding what to put it out.
Kind of, yeah. That’s why I was going on the EP, because four or five of the songs are more warm. And then I just kept on writing more stuff. One thing came out of a thing I did in Iceland last Christmas, and I made up a narrative with the music to play live for a thing that Sigur Rós were doing. Then there are some more immediate-type things that we enjoy playing when we’re rehearsing. I’ve realized, “OK, I’ve got a lot of things I want to explore here, but it’s become a traffic jam.”
I think what will probably happen will be, if I do more of an album-y thing, it’ll be more like seven or eight tracks, and you’ll get a mixture of those warm songs with some, well, slightly less warm stuff [laughs]. I’m just at that phase right now where I wish I was working more on the warm stuff. So I’m not too sure what it’s going to be like really.
How is it sounding?
I was working on one the other night, and it was acoustic with very simple drums, and it was based on a vocal melody, which made it work. And [singer-guitarist] Bilinda [Butcher] sang it and I started putting guitars to it and the guitars were the opposite of all of that. They reminded me a bit like a sort of demented Byrds style of guitar playing or a Siouxsie and the Banshees type thing – if you can imagine playing like Public Image Ltd., Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Byrds. So now it’s got that guitar on it and it’s completely changed it.
I guess the main positive thing is that I’m at a place where there are so many possibilities. Every time I say, “I’m gonna do this,” two months later I actually want to do that. So I just have to see what’s going to happen.