Kevin Shields is a musician that exists in his own space. Not confined to the “ebbs and flows of musical trends”, he and his band, My Bloody Valentine (MBV), have tread their own path for over thirty years. They have taken us on an immense sonic journey since they properly burst onto the scene in 1988 with their debut album, Isn’t Anything.
A stickler for the Fender Jazzmaster, and the owner of “a good few hundred” guitar pedals, Kevin Shields is the mastermind behind the whole My Bloody Valentine operation. Whilst all four of its members are iconic in their own certain way, yes, even drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig, Kevin Shields is without a doubt the band’s defining cog.
Aptly described by ubiquitous 1990s producer Butch Vig as “groundbreaking sonically”, Kevin Shields is possibly the most unique guitarist out there. Totally breathtaking and visceral yet serene in equal parts, John Doran was right when he described the Dublin guitarist’s sound as a “mermaid falling into a black hole”.
Listening to Shields bend the strings and warp the sound through his use of the tremolo arm and umpteen pedals, his work transports us to an ethereal realm, one that seems more in common with the myths of old than the modern world. An instant contradiction, particularly given that Shields’ use of the guitar is based upon technological advancements and electrical circuits. However, it is not totally far-reaching to equate Shields and MBV’s sound with the narcotic, summery haze of Homer’s Lotus-eaters or the trance-like ambience of an Arthurian tale.
It is this duality that makes Kevin Shields such an inspirational guitarist. There is no surprise that some of our favourite alternative guitar heroes, and his contemporaries, such as Billy Corgan and J Mascis, cite him as a significant influence. Discussing Shields’ work on MBV’s groundbreaking magnum opus, 1991’s Loveless, Living Colour’s Vernon Reid opined: “Kevin Shields achieved something on Loveless that only the great guitarists achieve: he achieved a wholeness and a unity.” Reid concluded that “He created his own sound.”
For a guitarist so pioneering and influential, it makes you wonder who made a defining impact upon him. In a past interview with Pitchfork, after the release of Loveless‘ long-awaited follow-up m b v, Shields revealed all.
He cast his mind back to his formative years as an axeman: “Well, the Beatles and the Ramones are my two favourite bands of all-time, and when I was a teenager, I learned that in order to play guitar like Johnny Ramone, it takes a huge amount of physical effort. A lot of people at my school could play the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ guitar solo, but they couldn’t play three chords of a Ramones song if their life depended on it because they didn’t have the strength or ability to do it.”
The Beatles and the Ramones are two of the most influential bands of all time, so it comes as no surprise that Shields should be inspired by them. What is interesting, though, is the way that Shields admits the impact punk had on him and MBV. If you cast your mind back to the band’s very first releases, 1985’s This Is Your Bloody Valentine and Geek!, the band had a raw, post-punk/gothic edge. Coupled with original vocalist David Conway’s baritone, the band sounded more like The Cramps or a psychobilly outfit than the ethereal pioneers we would know come to know at the end of the decade. It is quite a mind-boggling thought to heed that the simplicity of Johnny Ramone’s fast down-picking influenced the density of Kevin Shields. However, we all have to start somewhere.
In the Pitchfork interview, Shields carried on: “But all I did was practice that, and the style that I eventually fell into is more focused than people would actually imagine. There’s physicality and also nearly a meditative stillness to it. You have to be right there in the moment to do it, otherwise it’s just gratuitous chord-bending that sounds like nothing. And that’s why people who copy it don’t connect with anything. You have to be there to do it, you can’t be somewhere else.”
There we go. Kevin Shields’ favourite bands are The Beatles and the Ramones. When we dissect the revelation a little more, it is no surprise as The Beatles were the original sonic pioneers. Without them, popular music would not be the same. They changed everything, how we write, record and consume music. They inspired droves of future pioneers such as Shields, who, when coupled with the raw energy of the Ramones, becomes just one sonic embodiment of the countless possibilities that the two bands paved the way for.
Listen to Shields’ brilliance on MBV’s ‘Soon’, below.