first time The Icarus Line got to play with Primal Scream was in New York, and
I have to admit I was slightly disappointed at the time, because Kevin Shields
wasn’t performing at the show. The word was that Kevin had to be at his
brother’s wedding instead. It definitely added to the myth that I, and
many other people as well, had built into our heads that Mr. Shields was some
kind of mysterious recluse whose appearances could never be bargained on. The
story of Kevin’s band My Bloody Valentine, and their demise, has up to
this point sounded closer to folklore than something that happened less than
a decade ago. Like a twisted version of the game “telephone”, My
Bloody Valentine fans have perpetuated the tallest of tales ranging from master
tapes of unreleased albums being set afire, to band reunions in far dark warehouses
in Berlin. When The Icarus Line had the opportunity of again opening for Primal
Scream, it would be a tour with them across the United Kingdom. When we encountered
the band soundchecking on the first day in Glasgow, it occurred to me while
I stared at them onstage, that between Kevin’s time in My Bloody Valentine,
Mani’s in The Stone Roses, and even Bobby’s stint in The Jesus and
Mary Chain, not to mention The Scream themselves, I was witnessing the composers
of a good portion of my record collection back home. Nothing was cooler than
them embracing us and treating us as contemporaries, instead of the wide-eyed
kids 20 years their junior ripping off all their bands we really were. Still,
it was Kevin that took me the longest to get around saying “hello”
to. His reserved and steady composure was admittedly intimidating. When I finally
got the balls to talk to him, we quickly engaged ourselves in an intricate half
hour conversation on how fuckin’ cool The Stooges were. After sizing each
other up on the extent of useless Stooges knowledge each other knew, it was
obvious we were allies. From then on our conversations ranged from how to handle
broken effects pedals on the road, to how to handle tripping ex-girlfriends.
Although he was hesitant at first, by London Travis and I persuaded him to give
us some time after a delicious English dinner (ha) for a “no bullshit”
interview. We sat in a tiny, freezing room somewhere backstage, and I threw
every question I could think of at him. Travis held a camera a foot from his
face and managed to ask him a question too. Here it is totally uncut. Enjoy.
Interview by: Aaron North
Buddyhead: So, when you’re not out on tour with Primal scream, what does a normal day in the life of Kevin Shields consist of?
Kevin: Basically, I spend my time in my studio. The studio is in Camden here in London.
Buddyhead: What kind of gear do you have in there? What kind of board?
Kevin: It’s called a DDA. It’s an old English desk they don’t make anymore. It’s weird. It’s all relays as opposed to EQ’s and auxiliaries having their own knobs.
Buddyhead: What have you been working on there?
Kevin: Right now I’m recording this band called The Beatings. They sound kind of Stooges-like… with a little bit of that Cramps rock n’ roll type thing. I’ve been doing that on and off for about 6 months. They’re actually the guys who built the studio.
Buddyhead: How did that work out?
Kevin: Well, last year I recorded an e.p. for them, and that was part of the deal. I told them I’d give them studio time if they helped build the studio.
Buddyhead: Good idea. Have you recorded any of your own music there?
Kevin: No, not yet. The nearest I’ve come to putting my own music together lately has just been the stuff from Lost In Translation.
Buddyhead: How did you end up doing the soundtrack work on Lost In Translation?
Kevin: The guy who put the soundtrack together, Brian Reitzell, who’s the drummer for Air, and he used to be in Redd Kross, I met him in Japan while I was touring with Primal Scream. We played a festival there together, and he asked me if I ever wanted to do something together, to give him a call. And then when they were doing the film, because they were already using some My Bloody Valentine music, they asked if I’d like to do just a few bits of new music. Initially, they just needed some music for a shot of a pan across the city. Then after I started doing that, they gave me the opportunity to replace some of the music they had in the rough cuts. But it had to be a similar style of what was already there, which was an imitation of My Bloody Valentine. So it was a little weird trying to imitate something that was trying to imitate something I had done before. One of the songs we had to replace just had really horrible lyrics, so we just copied the basic tempo of the song, and re-did it. I won’t tell you whose song it was. Haha. So yeah, that felt quite strange.
Buddyhead: Cool. So how about we go back to the very beginning… Where did you grow up?
Kevin: I was born in Queens in New York.
Buddyhead: Really? So you’re actually an American…
Kevin: Yeah. I actually have dual citizenship. My parents are Irish, and they immigrated to America in the 50’s as teenagers. I lived in Queens until I was 3 or 4, and then I lived on Long Island until I was 10.
Buddyhead: That’s funny. Do you remember what school you went to?
Kevin: Haha, yeah. Christ the King. A really horrible school run by psychopathic nuns. They made me so sick that I had to be taken to the hospital a few times.
Buddyhead: Haha. Why?
Kevin: I hated school so much, that it made me so sick that I kept throwing up.
Buddyhead: But were you a good student?
Kevin: No… no.
Buddyhead: So where did you live after you were 10?
Kevin: We moved back to Ireland. It was 1973, and things just got tough in America, so my parents decided to move back to be close to family. It was too hard for them to raise 5 kids in America at the time.
Buddyhead: Oh wow, you have 4 brothers and sisters… are you a younger child or older?
Kevin: I’m the oldest of the 5.
Buddyhead: Ahh, ok. So then you moved to Dublin?
Kevin: Yeah. I lived there from when I was 10 through 20… my formative years.
Buddyhead: How old were you when you started playing guitar?
Kevin: I was 16.
Buddyhead: What was it that made you want to play guitar?
Kevin: This kid that I met at a karate tournament said that he wanted to form a band…
Buddyhead: Wait, wait, wait… Were you watching the tournament, or participating?
Kevin: Just watching. Yeah… he was only 12, and I was actually 15 at the time, but he was the same height as me, so it didn’t seem that strange. That’s how I met Colm who ended up being the drummer of My Bloody Valentine.
Buddyhead: Oh, cool.
Kevin: Yeah, it took us a few months to figure out the whole “tuning” thing. I think somebody told us it had something to do with the 5th fret, but it just ended up sounding horribly out of tune with us trying to hold barre chords.
Buddyhead: So what did the first band you started with Colm sound like?
Kevin: It was just punk rock. Somewhere between oi punk and older punk. Our first gig was just doing like, Sex Pistols and Ramones covers. I was really into the Ramones at the time. We were called The Complex. We were only together for about a year… played a handful of gigs.
Buddyhead: How did you figure out how to play guitar?
Kevin: I would go to gigs, and it seemed like all the guitar players onstage just seemed to move their hand up and down the neck like this (holds hand in a barre chord position). So I somehow figured out how to do that, and that was the only thing Johnny Ramone did anyway, so that’s all I wanted to do… none of those messy, complicated chords.
Buddyhead: How do you rate yourself as a guitar player to this day?
Kevin: Well, if you watch me, I barely even do that (holds hand in a barre chord shape again). I’ve never considered myself much of a guitarist. I always just wanted to be like Johnny Ramone. Just be really good at one thing. I think because I was never dexterous, and because I never really learned how to play a scale, or lead guitar, or anything, but because I still wanted to be expressive, that made me use the tremolo arm, which gave me something to work with for a long time. I really get off on hearing… I can’t even really describe it… the difference between hitting the same chord one way or another way, and the subtleties within that. So in that respect, more so than flashier guitar players, I can play and it sounds like the amp is turned down real low, and then play and it sounds like it’s on really loud. Control.
Buddyhead: Did you ever see the Ramones?
Kevin: Yeah, I saw them in 1979. I saw the Banshees in ‘79 as well. Not many big bands made it over to Ireland at that time. But the Ramones show was the best show I ever saw. It was incredible. I had no idea what was going on at the time. They came onstage, and it was insanely loud, and before they came on there were all these seats on the floor, and then they came onstage and all the seats disappeared under people. It was so loud, I remember being deaf for two days afterwards. There was nothing like that in my life up to that point.
Buddyhead: Did you consider yourself a punk at that age?
Kevin: Well, yeah, it was about 1980…
Buddyhead: Did you have a funny haircut?
Kevin: It was funny, but it wasn’t supposed to be funny. I cut it without much thought. It was short and spiky in the front and got longer towards the back, going up and up. Like some kind of weird bird Mohawk.
Buddyhead: Did your parents think you were a weirdo?
Kevin: Yes. But not really cos of that. I was a weirdo from birth, so they were always pleased if I was into something somehow tangible. It was like, “Hey, at least he’s into something that other people are too, great!”
Buddyhead: So what happened after The Complex?
Kevin: Well, we started playing with a bass player who was your typical early 80’s, slightly funky… Gang Of Four type guy. So then we moved from being a typical punk band to being much more like Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
Buddyhead: What was the band called at that point?
Kevin: A Life In The Day. We didn’t put out any records or anything, but we had a tape and gigged around. We never got to play to more than a couple hundred people.
Buddyhead: So, at what point did My Bloody Valentine start?
Kevin: We started around 1983… technically. But we were just a loose group of people. Some gigs would have a lot of people involved, some would have just three. So, it existed as a loose kind of thing until 1984 when we decided to move to Europe. So all the people that didn’t want to come to Europe, they were out of the band. So that left four of us, and we went to Holland. We just had one gig in Holland that we managed to get from making loads of phone calls from a public phone box.
Buddyhead: Where was the gig?
Kevin: It was in Tilburg. The guy who set it up was friends with Sonic Youth or something, and he was shocked that we had come all the way from Ireland without any sleeping bags or anything. So after that we ended up in Amsterdam and stayed in hostels and stuff until we met some squatter kids and this Hells Angels biker guy who gave us this house we lived in for a couple months. Then we went to Berlin and made our first record there.
Buddyhead: The one that sounds like The Birthday Party?
Kevin: Yeah, the “gothy”, Birthday Party and Cramps sounding one.
Buddyhead: Did you ever see The Birthday Party?
Kevin: No. Hardly anybody ever made it over to Ireland. But they were a big influence on us. The “Junkyard” record was a big deal to us.
Buddyhead: So after you recorded the album in Berlin, how long did you stay there?
Kevin: We lived there for about another four months in a commune kind of thing. After that we went back to Holland for another month, and then we moved to London. We tried our best to find a place to live in Europe, but it was really hard to sign on for the Dole there. That’s what everybody in a band in this part of the world does, is sign on… so that’s why we went to London, cos we knew we could get unemployment easily.
Buddyhead: So, then you were moving along in London, you recorded a few e.p.’s, and then your singer, Dave Conway, left the group, and Bilinda joined the band as well. When did all this happen, and when did you start singing?
Kevin: Around 1987. We got Bilinda in the band, and we got this other guy as well, but he didn’t work out. We had a gig in a week, and I figured, instead of taking the time to teach the guy the tunes, I would just do it myself. And that was it. I was sort of forced to sing.
Buddyhead: That’s when it seems like there was an identity crisis going on with the band.
Kevin: Yeah. I think the first record was kind of good. But then we made a couple records that weren’t very good. One of them was intended to be an e.p., but the label wouldn’t put it out unless it was an album, so we compromised on a “mini album”, and bashed out all these tunes quickly very “demo”-like. I had just gotten this 12-string guitar, and was a little too enamored with it. I had also just discovered the Byrds. All the songs were too jingly jangly. Not to mention it was the first time I’d ever sung in a studio as well. So I was singing softly and badly just trying to be in tune.
Buddyhead: So this indie label you were dealing with at the time, do they still own the rights to that stuff?
Kevin: No. They paid for the recording, but since they put the mini-album and first album together as a full record in 1989… this was after “Isn’t Anything” came out on Creation, the label sort of capitalized on our success. The record was all over Europe, and we didn’t know anything about it until some fans came up to us and said, “This new record doesn’t sound half as good as your last one.” They thought it was a new album because it was dated as 1989. So they conned people into thinking it was a new record. So it all got really messy, and what we ended up doing… Fatty (Primal Scream’s roadie) and 14 other armed guys arrived with me at the record label’s office where all the records were held. They had about 10,000 of these records. I knocked on the door, went in by myself, and the label guy was sitting behind his desk and he said, “Well you can take what you can.” And I literally went like this, (sticks his hand in the air, and makes the “come on in” motion with his finger) and these 15 crazy looking guys all piled in. The label guy’s face turned white, and he wisely just said, “Take them.” Within 20 minutes we had moved out about 10,000 records into a van, and told the guy, “Just leave us alone, and we won’t be coming back.”