Thursday, May 3, 2012

The strange saga behind My Bloody Valentine's remasters.

one of my favorite bands...--jef

Kevin Shields
The shoegaze titan on the strange saga behind My Bloody Valentine's remasters.
By Ryan Dombal, April 30, 2012, Pitchfork

Kevin Shields
Photos by Steve Double

Rumors of My Bloody Valentine reissuing their back catalog started whirling around the internet as early as 2004. But, as is the case with most things involving these shoegaze originators, things took a bit longer than expected. A solid eight years later, though, they're finally here. On May 7, Sony releases remastered CDs of 1988's Isn't Anything and 1991's Lovelessalong with a compilation of the band's early material, EP's 1988-1991, that features three unreleased tracks including the rumbling "Good for You", above.

While many would assume that MBV leader Kevin Shields' notoriously meticulous work ethic was responsible for the delay, that's not really the case, according to the man himself. Instead, the story behind these reissues is one of corporate greed and suspiciously lost tapes that nearly required the services of Scotland Yard to retrieve. "The true story is as yet to be determined," says Shields on the phone from London, looking back on the twisty saga. One thing's for certain: These reissues were seen through by Shields, and he's proud of them. Though he does few interviews and is typically out-of-sight, Shields isn't especially shy or mumbly during our chat. Talking about the different ways he's been screwed by labels over the years, he sometimes veers off into the harried cadence of a conspiracy theorist, though there's no reason to doubt his claims.

The crown jewel of the reissue series is a 2CD version of MBV's all-time classic Loveless that features a remaster of the original disc as well as another based on previously discarded analog tapes. (Shields says vinyl versions of the remasters are due "probably in a few months.") And the overall project just might act as a precursor to the two-decades-in-the-making follow up to Loveless. "We might finish it really quickly, and it might be up in a few months," he says, tantalizingly. "I tend to work really quickly, suddenly, and I might be willing to do that right now. We'll see!" In the meantime, we get a great excuse to revisit one of the most influential groups of the last quarter century.
"We've had incredibly huge obstacles in our way-- no tapes,
no royalties, no cooperation on any level-- and we sort it out."
Pitchfork: These reissues have been in the works for a few years. Why did it take so long for them to be released?
Kevin Shields: The process actually started in 2001, when we managed to come to an agreement with Sony, who inherited us from Creation. Part of the Sony deal was that I wanted all of the EPs made into one package because, back in 2001, you could get the albums pretty easily but not the EPs. So it was basically a compilation of all the EPs, and that was it.

Then we decided to do Isn't Anything and Loveless as well-- if we're gonna remaster [the EPs], we should remaster everything. In 2002, I tried to start working on it, but the studio that had the tapes, Metropolis Studios, lost them; the analog multi-tracks were all missing for a year. Only after I started threatening to get Scotland Yard involved did they magically, suddenly reappear. The true story is as yet to be determined, but we'll fight that one out in the near future.

That took us to 2003. And then Sony fell into complete breach of contract due to various issues, and it took until last year to fully sort it out. In the meantime, I started the work anyway in 2006, and I completed it in 2007-- those are the ones [that leaked] on the internet, that was the near-completed work. And then Sony behaved very badly again-- like most sociopathic companies do, they can't help it-- and I had to re-adjust the situation until it was slightly fair again, and that's why stuff is coming out now.

Pitchfork: Are you saying Sony hid the tapes on purpose back in 2002?
KS: Oh, they did. The contract we did in 2001 basically gave me ownership of the tapes, and then the Sony regime that existed when that contract was signed left. And when the new regime came in, the tapes disappeared. That was relevant because even though I was the owner, it would only revert back to me if I remastered from the original tapes-- if the tapes were gone, I couldn't remaster from them and hence I couldn't ever own them.

[When asked for a response to Shields' comments above, Sony sent the following message: "We have really enjoyed working on these hugely iconic re-issues with Kevin, and can't wait for the release."]

Pitchfork: Is the idea of ownership over this material important to you?
KS: Ownership and control is important, because if you don't own what you do, all sorts of stupid stuff happens to it, and people spend good money on garbage. For example, in America, Warner Bros. licensed Loveless and Isn't Anything to Plain Records, and they basically just ripped [the audio] off the CD and put it on vinyl [in 2003]. They did an awful, terrible job. It was done without my permission, and the sound quality was 100% wrong. It was a rip off to anyone who bought it. But I didn't know anything about it until they were in the shops. We actually got an injunction against it being imported into the UK at the time because it was technically a bootleg but, in America, Warners operate under their own law, so it might have been slightly legal in the United States.

Also, you don't get paid if you don't own it-- you know, we've never been paid one penny from the United States from any of the records we've ever made. In the record company's world, we're always in debt. But the strange part of the story is Loveless alone sold enough copies in its first year to put us out of debt. But somehow Warners have managed to create a situation where, hundreds of thousands of records down the line, we're still in debt. That's why the compilations aren't coming out on Warner Bros. They're extremely in breach of contract as well at the moment. 

[We did not receive an official statement from Warner Bros. on this matter by press time.]

Pitchfork: Sounds like you've been dealt an awful hand with these label issues.
KS: I'm no victim here-- this is just the way it is for everybody. It's a bit like being in the middle of a battlefield and getting shot in the arm and going, "Why me?" I mean, to put it very, very, very simply: The corporate system is fully psychopathic, and any creative people who enter into business with any of these organizations come up against a lifetime of issues. You just deal with it as you go along. It'll keep on happening until people reorganize the organizations.

Pitchfork: What do you mean exactly when you refer to these labels as psychopathic entities?
KS: Well, the organizations are, but probably 70% of the individuals in them are decent people. But a significant controlling minority have no empathy. They don't give a shit. If you put them in a situation where they can't make any decision but one that is in your favor, they will-- but that can take years. That's the game. Most people just give up with time and go, "I'm a victim." The only reason I've got the reputation for delays and spending a long time on things is because I just don't stop. We've had incredibly huge obstacles in our way-- no tapes, no royalties, no cooperation on any level-- and we sort it out.

Pitchfork: So the delay of these reissues was basically out of your control?
KS: It was out of my control in the sense that we could have put out an incredibly substandard version of everything a long time ago. We wouldn't have used original master tapes. We would have just done what a lot of people do, which is to take the CD and put it into a computer, make it louder, put some different EQ on it, and say it's "remastered." Believe it or not, a significant amount of remasters are done that way. Most good artists do it the right way, but a lot of commercial and back-catalog stuff from the 60s and 70s are not from the original tapes. It's crazy. 

Pitchfork: People fetishize the sound of Loveless in its original form, so why did you even want to remaster it in the first place?
KS: The technical reason why remastering is valuable is because, up to around the late 90s, there was this endpoint called zero, and you couldn't get louder than zero. Loveless has a very wide dynamic range-- there's no compression over the overall mixes. Because of that, it's a very quiet record; most of it is about four or five dB below zero while most modern records are about six or seven above zero. That's a huge difference in volume because every three dB is perceived as being twice as loud. But that's not too important because people should just turn it up if they want to hear Loveless loud. But there's this other side of it, because the processors in CD players and most digital playback systems operate at their best in the top three dB-- the player acts like all the stuff below that level isn't as important, so it won't process it as heavily. 

So, of the two Loveless CDs that are coming out, one of them is exactly the same as the original, but everything's brought up to zero without crushing it with digital limiting, which essentially takes all the information and chops off the spiky bits-- transients-- that you don't hear as much as you perceive subconsciously. Those are the things that make you feel connected to the music. So something can be 10 dBs louder, but it somehow sounds slightly less involving. Each of those chopped-off peaks puts a little piece of distortion there instead, so the overall sound gets this hard, unpleasant kind of sheen, and you can't hear it as well. There is a tiny bit of digital limiting on one song on the Loveless reissue, but I'm not gonna say which one because it was a sacrificial lamb to get the rest of the album up a bit. And since the sound is brought back to zero, it means your CD player will be able to process it a bit better, so that it kind of sounds... "better" isn't the right word, it just feels different. 

Pitchfork: What's the thinking behind releasing the analog remaster as well?
KS: The original Loveless was from a digital master because it was much closer to the picture I wanted, and, at the time, the analog one was slightly twisted-- the process of putting it onto tape widened the stereo image and made the top and bottom ends too loud, so the guitar placement wasn't correct. I wasn't happy with that and I didn't use the original half-inch analog tapes. But, this time around, I had the time to take the original analog tapes and fix all the things I didn't like, so all I left was essentially the benefits of the analog with none of the disadvantages. 

When people hear the two new remasters, some can't hear the difference. But, for anyone who's slightly into it, I can promise that if you listen to the record from beginning to end, you're gonna have a completely different feeling with one version compared to the other. They're both good for different reasons; the digital one is slightly more like an inner head trip and the analog one is more physical, like you're conscious that some people did this. 

Pitchfork: In light of your reunion shows a few years ago-- which were famously loud-- it's ironic that the original Loveless CD is quieter than most.
KS: I know what you mean-- we cover most extremes. It just comes from not wanting to compromise, doing things a certain way, and feeling good about it.