After The Spaghetti Incident? came out in 1993, it took Guns N’ Roses 15 years and 13 million dollars to follow it up with the long-promised Chinese Democracy. The newer album was met with something of a shrug. Similarly, after My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless came out in 1991, virtuosic frontman Kevin Shields teased its sequel sporadically, testing the patience of fans. The difference is that GN’R was following up a minor album, with seemingly nowhere to go but up. MBV was building on its genre-galvanizing masterpiece, Loveless, and had a legend to lose.
On February 2, 2013, the band finally followed up Loveless with what is being hailed as another masterpiece, the semi-eponymous m b v. In the wake of the new album’s rapturous reception, the time is ripe for taking a look back at what went into making Loveless, the seminal album that cast an enormous shoegazey shadow over 22 years.
Producer Guy Fixsen, of the band Laika, was 21 years old when he came aboard to work as an engineer on perhaps the most influential indie rock album since The Velvet Underground and Nico. The band had been working on the project for three months before bringing on Fixsen, and they would continue working together for nearly a year and a half, with marathon studio sessions that famously almost bankrupted label Creation Records. The result is a shimmering, swirling, audio kaleidoscope that teaches you how to listen to it as you listen to it. By most accounts, it is a towering landmark in modern rock music.
"The funny thing is, it did feel like I was working on a classic record," Fixsen says. "I was quite a fan of the band before then. They were the only band I followed around to a series of shows, so that gave it a sense of importance in my head. But also, the working process was so different than any other record I’d worked on before."
The engineer and producer, who says he is still regularly approached by bands specifically because of his involvement in Loveless, talked with Co.Create about the conditions the album was recorded under, the demands (and genius) of notoriously exacting bandleader Shields, and what goes into the creation of a classic.
Kevin Shields just wanted to make pop music, but in a different and new way. He was coming from 60s pop music, but there was a big nod towards hip-hop, and that’s where the sort of groove element of the record comes from. Melodies were hugely important to him. In terms of recording, though, quality was the only thing that mattered; time didn’t matter. It was all about getting something right. It wasn’t like a lot of other records where you’re under pressure of time and money and you gotta get it done. There was time to really get into tiny, tiny details.
A lot of time, there wasn’t even work going on—there was television being watched. And there was a lot of talking, a lot of theorizing mostly, and also a lot of joking around. The album was very much anticipated throughout the whole recording, and sometimes it could get to be a bit much. So Kevin’s response was to stop and wait a bit because he didn’t want to do things under pressure. He would wait until he felt right before he would do anything.
Normally, the clock’s ticking, money’s being spent—you don’t have time to really check out all those things that were maybe slightly troubling you in the back of your mind. But with Loveless, all those things were gone through to the nth degree and made to be right.
For example, we were recording a tambourine part for "To Here Knows When" and we ended up spending an entire week recording just that one part. You might think it must have been a complex part, but in fact, it wasn’t—it was just two tambourine beats repeated. Most people, if they were going to make a tambourine beat, they’d tap one out, loop it, and in three or four minutes, they’d have it done. The difference, with Loveless, is first we needed the right sound, so we recorded from a whole selection of tambourines. Then we had to decide which mic to use and test it, just to get the exact kind of tone that sat really well with the song. Then it had to be played with a really nice feel. From that, a bunch of candidates were selected. Then a lot of time was spent treating them in such a way, moving them ahead or behind the beat, trying to get it exactly right. When I tell them that story, people ask "Can you even hear it at the end of the day?" And I tell them, "It really, really feels nice. It has, like, a perfect groove."
Through the recording of Loveless, whenever Kevin was doing anything, he was experimenting—there was never a straightforward piece of recording. Everything got questioned. He took the opportunity to get a sort of perfect version of what he did, so he finessed everything and tried little subtle changes—little tiny things that gave it a little more grace, a little more presence, a little more depth.
He wanted things to work on different levels. If you play the record quiet, it sounds sort of harmonious, but if you play it loud, it’s quite scary—it’s a strange and powerful record that works on different levels. Kevin already had the droning guitar sound and the tremolo effect before then. You can hear it already on Isn’t Anything songs, like "No More Sorry." But he refined that sound on Loveless.
Most of Loveless was worked on during the night. The band would show up late in the day and they worked right on through to the morning. So for the year and a quarter or so that I worked on it, I was mostly living nocturnal, and that made it all a bit strange. Some of that might have fit it into how the album sounds.
There was a feeling during the recording of, "We’re going to do this exactly how we want to do this and screw everybody else really." And that’s how it should be. For me, there’s way too much music being made in the world, and way too little good music. The only time you really get something good is when somebody is just intent on their own thing and uncompromising in their pursuit of it.
In the early days, Kevin didn’t have as much studio time to play with, so things had to be done rather quickly. And he also got frustrated with a lot of the studio staff he had to work with at the budget level he was made to work at. When he finally got to Loveless, he was like 'No, I’m not having this anymore. I’m going to get it right.' And then he did.
[Kevin Shields Image: Flickr user Nathan Wind]