Life’s a Picnic: Interview with My Bloody Valentine


Posted February 1, 2008 in Music Features

Café 1920 opening

On a picnic blanket in London’s Brockwell Park, singer and guitarist Bilinda Butcher gave us her account of the My Bloody Valentine story. Bilinda Butcher meets us at the Brixton tube station and suggests that we go in her car to a park nearby. Her youngest son Billy has reached the age where sitting in a caf» is not the best of ideas. We go to Brockwell Park, a large beautiful space with rolling hills and ancient trees. The place was immortalised in a song by Red House Painters on their album Ocean Park. We pass a little kennel on the way to our picnic and Bilinda tells us that the ashes from one of her dogs were spread in this park.

My Bloody Valentine was formed in Dublin in 1984 by Kevin Shields and Colm O’Ciosoig. A couple of new members joined and after a few overlooked releases, the band recorded their first album, Isn’t Anything. It hit the English indie-scene in 1988 like a bomb, and its thick and hypnotic sound gave birth to a scene that the UK press called Shoegazing. Bands like Ride and Slowdive soon formed in the wake.

The line-up consisted of Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher on guitar and vocals; Debbie Googe on bass, and Colm O’Ciosoig behind the drums. My Bloody Valentine started work on a follow-up, but it would take three turbulent years before Loveless, their second album, was released in 1991 – an album which is still regarded as one of the most influential rock albums of all time. Kevin Shields’ groundbreaking use of his guitar and guitar effects still influence bands today. It’s been said that the cost of recording Loveless was more than a quarter of a million pounds , which almost bankrupted Creation, their record company. The pressure put on the band almost caused them to implode.

In 1992, My Bloody Valentine received a large sum of money to sign for Island Records. They bought a house and built a studio where the new album was to be recorded. But nothing ever happened. Up until 1997, the band were still on Island Record’s payroll in the hope that they would produce another masterpiece, but the only thing that emerged were rumours of mental illness and writers’ block.

Today, Kevin Shields enjoys an almost genius-like status, a bit like Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. But My Bloody Valentine’s music is almost as much characterised by Bilinda Butcher’s singing as it is with Shields’ guitar playing. Today she’s 46 and has three kids. This was her first interview for well over ten years.

You like dogs…

Yeah, I’ve always had pets. Kevin and I had a chinchilla. The problem was that we bought another one, which resulted in 20 puppies. I read in the Guardian that our house had been taken over by neglected ratty creatures that we kept in a cage (laughs). They also stated that we had barbed wire everywhere. Nonsense. There are a lot of things that have been said about us that aren’t true.

For example?

I think someone described Kevin as a Howard Hughes-like person who never washed. I think it was in a book about Creation Records. The only odd thing about him was that he slept at weird hours. We probably smoked too much in that house, but he needed to revitalise himself and recoup his strength. For me it took several years, all the fighting had us all feeling really drained.

You said that you never really did interviews back in those days. Why was that?

I don’t really know. It just happened that way. Kevin was saying really good things and I didn’t want to say something wrong.

How come you spell your name Bilinda and not Belinda?

That comes from my grandfather. If I’d been a guy I would have been named Bill, but since I was a girl it became Bilinda. John Peel once said on his show that I was being pretentious and tried to be special by spelling my name differently. That bugged me. That’s the name I was given, it’s in my passport! But I didn’t have the energy to write in and complain.

Where did you grow up?

First in London and then in Derbyshire. In London, punk ruled but further north people listened to northern soul. I loved northern soul and used to go to all-dayers since I was too young to go to clubs.

All-dayers?

You know they had the all-nighters at Wigan Casino, that was the place to go. There were a couple of places, Nottingham Palais and Matlock Bath who arranged all-dayers instead. You went there in the morning, listened to music and danced all day.

What type of area did you live in?

We were living in an area called Golden Valley, it had one pub and a couple of houses and it was all very conservative. A friend of mine dyed his hair green one day. When my mother saw him she forced him to wash it with Ajax before his mum would see it.

Probably pretty embarrassing for you?

She was a bit special. To dye your hair was very uncommon at the time, it was something you would perhaps do if you lived in the city centre of Nottingham or Derby. In Golden Valley, I was considered a weirdo. My clothes were different. For a long time, I only wore clothes from the 1920s that I bought in a shop called Penny Feathers in Nottingham. My friend Dian – the guy who dyed his hair – had a portable gramophone that we used to bring to the forest where we listened to records. My mother thought I was up in the clouds. I never watched the news or read the papers; it was like I lived in another era. Everybody was into punk and I was living in the 20s and 30s.

How old were you?

Around 16. Then I went to London to study and to go to gigs. I saw Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy and loads of other Goth bands. I went to dance classes too but had to quit because I got sick.

What was wrong?

I had a chronic urinary infection. I had to go to the bathroom all the time and couldn’t dance for even a whole lesson so I had to quit. It was a nightmare to get in and out of the tricot. In hindsight, I’ve realised that I was mistreated; no one took my problem seriously. The doctors seemed to think it was something young girls get when they move away from home and start to have sex. In the end, I had a serious liver disease because of it. It was a shame I had to give up dancing, I loved it. After that, I worked as a nanny with a French family for half a year, then my mother died and I had to go back to Derby to sell the house as my dad had already passed away.

That seems to be an unfair amount of badness happening at once…

Yeah wasn’t it? When I got back to London I rented an apartment with some friends and hung out at gigs, things like Birthday Party, Talking Heads and Joy Division. I think back on some of the gigs and really wish that I could see them today instead. Especially Birthday Party and Cramps. During that time I met my son Toby’s dad, he was a Frenchman and I used to go see French bands like Metal Urbain. We lived in Paris for half a year.

What were you doing in Paris?

I got some money when Mum died so I lived off that and took it easy. The idea was that we were going to work but we never found a place to stay so we quickly got bored living with his mother. We moved back and stayed with other squatters in Brixton. I had Toby and didn’t work for several years.

How did you support him?

The money after my mother’s death was enough for quite some time, and since we were staying as squatters, we didn’t really have any expenses. When the money from Mum dried out, I started to go on the dole. Everyone did at the time. But with Toby, it didn’t feel that great to stay in the squat, there was a lot of heroin and it’s not ideal that a drug user’s needle could sting your baby. Toby’s dad was flipping out because of all the acid he took and I just wanted to get away from all the madness. I moved back to my flat. We tried to live together but he was in too bad a state so it didn’t work.

When did you start playing with MBV?

I think it was in ‘87. They needed a backing singer and Toby’s dad tipped me that they were having an audition. He met Colm on the ferry from Holland, where the band had stayed for a while. Toby was a year old and I was getting restless.

Did they have a proper audition?

You could have made a film out of it. It was a complete circus! Lots of real fruitcakes turned up. They used to rehearse close to Euston station and next-door was a shop for transvestites. I took the wrong door and went up to the counter and said that I was there for the audition. In the end, it was between me and this girl, Julie, who was going out with Douglas Hart from The Jesus and Mary Chain. She had a club and she knew the band. I didn’t know them at all, but I knew a couple of the songs. To me, it’s quite easy to imitate how people sing, which I guess is quite good in a way, but quite annoying at the same time. When J Mascis asked me to sing with him on a Dinosaur Jr. song, I sounded just like him, you could hardly tell the difference. So anyway I sounded very much like Kevin and I played a Dolly Parton song – that made me Debbie’s favourite.

Did you like the band before you joined?

I still don’t have any records from before I joined them. They were very indie at the time. They all had really cool haircuts and they were very cute. The song titles were really twee, like Sunny Sundae Smile and Paint a Rainbow. It sounds very innocent but the lyrics were very dirty. Paint a Rainbow is about necrophilia and there’s some really disturbing images in that song. So obviously, that was the first song I learned how to play on the guitar.

Had you ever been in a band before?

I had a band with some girlfriends for fun. We did covers of Marc Bolan and classics like Louie, Louie. I sang and played the tambourine. When I was little I played classical guitar for years, but at that stage I hadn’t touched a guitar for a long, long time. So at my first My Bloody Valentine gig two weeks later, I was playing the tambourine and was carrying Toby. We played in a squat and I didn’t dare put him down on the floor. I tried to learn the guitar the best I could, but above all I was always on time for rehearsals. There was actually a guy who joined the band at the same time as me, but he was never on time and when he eventually arrived, he was always stoned so he got the sack.

What about the songwriting process?

It was always Kevin who wrote all the music. Kevin had such clear vision of what he wanted to do.

You played the guitar just like Kevin. Did you have any influence over what you were going to play?

No. Kevin always wanted to uphold the myth about us being a band. In interviews, he never said that he was the one making all the music. He would probably be pissed off if he knew that I’m saying this now! But time has flown since then. I think it was obvious that Kevin did everything. Colm had good ideas but since we were always in a hurry when we made records, Kevin asked us not to play anything.

Did the rest of you ever get angry about that?

No one complained. It was just the way it was. We heard that it sounded fantastic. It would have been a waste for him to instruct me how to play a part, for me to practice to get it right and then record it several times to make it perfect. He could just as well record it himself in an instant. We got to listen to the songs and learn them afterwards. When we played live we were a completely different band from on the records. Naturally it sounded completely different, since we were four personalities who all offered something else musically. But if we had been another band and Kevin had been a different person, I would have thought it would have been fun to go into the studio and try.

Did you socialise with other bands at the time?

We met a lot of bands on tour that we became friends with. Mercury Rev used to come over and visit us in the studio. And J Mascis and his band. He and Kevin are still good friends.

How did you write your lyrics?

A lot of the lyrics are plain nonsense. I don’t know, I didn’t have a plan and I never thought about lyrics until it was time to write them. I just used whatever was in my head for the moment. Kevin didn’t touch them, though he once made me change one thing that he didn’t like. He gave me the melodies in quite some detail. He never sang any words on the cassettes I got but I tried to make his sounds into words. It always became my own thing in the end though. And that was the only power I had in the band.

Were you in the studio when he was recording?

Oh yeah, we were all hanging out in the studio. Kevin wanted us there to hear our opinions – he was no dictator. And I heard all the songs take shape since we lived together.

Were there songs that he wanted to record that no one else liked?

No, I don’t think so. In that case, he’d change them.

Your voice is as much a trademark of the band’s sound as Kevin’s guitar playing. How did you work with your voice?

I’m not shy when it comes to being on stage but I’m too shy to sing when there are other people in the room. We used to go over to Ireland and visit Kevin’s family around Christmas and they always started to sing Irish folk songs. None of us could ever do that, except perhaps Colm. I used to go into the studio and sing along to the vocal melody that Kevin had recorded, just to relax. Kevin and the sound engineer would start to listen without me knowing. I was always very nervous when it came to recording and since my voice isn’t very powerful I sit really close to the mic. You can hear all too well when I’m nervous; I get a hopeless vibrato, like Larry the Lamb. (Laughs)

Was there a particular feeling you were trying to get across with your voice?

I was often very tired when it came to add the vocals, we always worked really weird hours and the vocals often came in the morning after a long night. Sometimes that influenced my sound, more dreamy and sleepy. And the music affected the way I sang a lot.

Did you look up to any other singers in particular?

Not really. I used to like Francoise Hardy a lot, and other singers who were in the same range as me – pop and folk singers. One influence was probably Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. If I were to name someone, it would probably be her. I like the way she sang, more varied than myself.

Kevin used to tune his guitar differently and use lots of effects. Was it hard to keep track of everything when you played live?

Kevin had an unreal amount of effect pedals – he was the pedal man. I used to have two or three, I know that one was heavy metal distortion but I don’t remember the others. Every song had a different tuning of the guitar so we had to change guitars after every song.

How many guitars did you have?

Live, I think we had seven or eight each, sometimes more.

Kevin is known for playing on a red Fender Jaguar. Did you have a preference?

I also had a Fender Jaguar that I used most of the time, in white. But my favourite was a really beautiful green Charvel that I still keep in my bedroom.

I thought Charvel was for heavy metal poodle rockers?

It’s really cute (laughs). I still have an acoustic Fender in darkwood that Kevin used to write songs with when he couldn’t sleep, like You Made Me Realise. He gave it to me, but it was close to being broken a couple of times when we were fighting. When I was cross I put it by Kevin’s door, and in the mornings he’d put it back.

How much did you realise that Isn’t Anything affected people?

There was a feeling that we did something different. Kevin played his guitar in a different way but not only different tuning and the effects. He used the tremolo arm all the time. It started as experimenting but ended with most songs played like that. The sense of us doing something new was really strong.

Did the recording of Isn’t Anything and Loveless differ a lot from each other?

We recorded Isn’t Anything really quickly in Wales. With Loveless, it took a much longer time and no one enjoyed it. Colm had a rough time around then and couldn’t play the drums, it didn’t sound as good as before. All four of us were losing it in our own ways. God knows why. I think back and wonder if it was accumulated weariness and stress. We had no money. Colm was homeless and Kevin’s and my relationship was cracking. Quite frankly we were driving each other insane. The reason the album was called Loveless is because it all was when we made it.

Was Creation nagging you about finishing the album?

Alan McGee was on our case all the time. One of the reasons why it took so long is because he put us in incredibly bad studios all the time. And then he complained that we took so long and that it got so expensive.

Tell me about the lyrics on Loveless.

It was harder to write for Loveless. I listen to it today, groan about how blue I sound and think ‘cheer up missus!’ I think I felt incredibly lost when I was writing. I went to hypnotic therapy.

Why?

Ever since Isn’t Anything I had panic attacks. Toby’s dad treated me really bad, which I’ve told about in No More Sorry. All of a sudden he wanted joint custody and I was frightened. The hypnotic therapy made things from my childhood resurface which explained why I had been living with such a man. I was a nervous wreck and I realised that a lot that happened when I was a kid shouldn’t have happened. A lot of it came out in my lyrics. A lot of discomfort.

Since it was so hard to record Loveless, wasn’t it a great feeling when the album was finally out? Didn’t that relieve the tension?

Creation didn’t do as much for the album as we thought it deserved. The relationship between Alan McGee and us was strained and both Kevin and Alan were suffering. And the hype about the album didn’t come until much later. We went on tour as soon as the album was out too, in our ravaged state (laughs). Very smart…

When you came back from the tour you signed for Island, you bought a big house and built a studio. Can you tell me about the house?

It was in a quite dodgy area with a lot of criminality. Further down the street was a home for newly released criminals. If people had known about our gear they would have come with a full arsenal. So therefore it was always dark inside with all the shutters closed, but we had a nice little garden in the back. We had some fine moments too, it wasn’t always misery.

But the mood and climate in the band didn’t change?

No, the follow-up to Loveless needed to be finished, but everything just broke in the studio. We were haunted by technical problems! In the end we didn’t get any more money from Island, and Kevin and I shouldn’t have lived under the same roof. Colm and Debbie moved out, they couldn’t stand all our fights. After they left, Kevin entered his, by now, famous depression and refused to get out of bed.

So Debbie and Colm moved out and left the band. This was in 1996 right? So the band had more or less split up. What did you do?

I got very depressed too. Since there were no new songs to sing, I went into the studio to try and develop my voice. I thought I sounded too much like Kevin. I sang karaoke to Billie Holiday, Karen Carpenter and Dusty Springfield. Not that I was to sound like them (laughs). I started to dance flamenco and play flamenco guitar. I still do it and I’m quite good. I think it did me good. I had so much energy inside that had to come out. It took a while to adjust to a normal life. I quit smoking. I took anti-depressives but decided that I needed to exercise so I took up tae kwan do and got a green belt before I got pregnant again. But I split up with Davy’s dad and met Billy’s dad and now we’re all very happy.

When did it all end?

I moved out of the house in 1997.

Do you think that all the misery around the recording of Loveless is the reason the album is so great?

Maybe. It was cleansing in a way. A lot of the problems came out in a creative way. The reason why I have such a hard time listening to Loveless is that it was such an honest portrait of how things were and our mental state at the time. Although there was some optimism on the album too. I really think it still stands for something very special.

For some people, Loveless is looked upon as the Holy Grail of indie rock and people say that you would never ever make an album better than that. What do you think?

Now I think it’s a good thing we never released anything more. It would just have been a charade. There were songs that Kevin worked on but they never materialised. It just ended. I think Kevin also thinks that everything about Loveless is exaggerated. He did do things that hadn’t been done before with the guitar and he deserves credit for that, the album is a milestone. But all the reaction to it paralysed his way of creating music. He felt he had to come up with something as groundbreaking as Loveless.

We know he didn’t think what he came up with was as good, but what did the rest of you think?

We never got a chance to go through the same process as with the earlier albums. Everyone was fighting and we went our separate ways. That’s why Kevin couldn’t be creative. It sounds exaggerated, that he was the goose that was gonna lay the golden egg and that he should’ve been wrapped in cotton wool to be able to create the next masterpiece, but the feeling of us being a band didn’t exist anymore. The songs he wrote could have been special. Even if Kevin wrote everything, with some help from Colm, the whole band was needed. He knew that too and that’s why he was so frustrated. He understood that it wouldn’t be good enough if we didn’t all fight together.

I think most fans would’ve been satisfied if the follow-up sounded similar to Loveless.

I think so too. He had a lot of songs that people probably would have loved.

Is it true that it was two full albums that were shelved?

Yeah, it was probably enough songs to fill two albums. But it’s all very blurry, I’m sure that I sang on a couple of songs. As far as I can remember, some of them were finished.

Were Colm and Debbie ever a couple?

What? No, no (laughs). Debbie was part of the lesbian scene. It’s a fantastically funny thought though, them as a couple!

I thought perhaps you were like Abba, two couples…

It’s not that strange a thought since the band turned very Fleetwood Mac in the end – a lot of hurt feelings and tense relationships. Debbie and Colm liked each other very much; they loved each other like friends, nothing more.

Then you did a couple of songs with hip-hop band Collapsed Lung.

I wanted to see if I could create my own song melodies, Kevin always made the melodies before.

And what do you think of the result?

It was fun, but it wasn’t great. I mostly wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. Though I realised that there is no point doing anything musically unless you have a burning desire for it. I used to get really excited when Kevin had written a new song for me.

In an interview in the Guardian once, he said that he sees you as the only other member of the band.

I guess I was the only one who stayed. So technically Kevin and me were the only members for a while. But I think he needed to work with Primal Scream, produce other artists and make the soundtrack.

Did you see Lost In Translation?

I saw it on my own. It felt weird. When Sometimes came on I started to cry. We were touring Japan just after Kevin and me broke up and everything felt really sad. It was just a real shame that the band ended the way it did. Everything was supposed to be so good when we moved to the house and in some way everything just became so bad instead. I think it was a shock to us all. We just should have taken a long vacation, then maybe things would have been different. I remember when we were all in the same room for the first time in ages – when Colm played with Hope Sandoval in London. Colm’s mother took a picture of us. We like each other and get on together, even though I guess we all have a different version about what happened. We have never sat down and talked about everything.

What’s your best MBV memory?

Hmm. I always liked when we sat down to listen to a song we had just finished and had the feeling that it was the best we had ever made. But my favourite memory is really when we used to squeeze in with all the gear into an old Ford Transit and go to a gig. And when we did we always fell asleep on the mattress in the back. That was nice.

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