I can’t remember when I first heard My Bloody Valentine. But I do remember playing one of their CDs in my Hollywood apartment – the four-song Glider EP – and the feeling of confusion.
The whole thing kind of seemed a little odd, but there was definitely something in there that made me want to play it again. And by the third time I played it I was freaking out. It opened me up to a whole different side of music that could make you feel two emotions at once. That’s the way I described it to my friends.
Up until then, most of the music that I had heard was very specific, and the feeling that I got from it was very specific too: it either made me feel happy or sad, and you knew what the thrust of the emotional content was. But My Bloody Valentine seemed to embrace the confusion of emotions that real life really is. You could listen to one song of theirs, and one time you’d hear it you’d feel the melancholy angle of it, and the next time you heard it you’d feel the uplifting angle. I was just completely amazed by that.
From there it really started seeping into my own music, and they had a huge influence on my song writing. Failure never went completely shoegaze, but we started to embrace the idea of washy guitars as another texture to our music. We also felt validated by them in a sense, because people thought of us as being an experimental rock band, but to us we always considered ourselves a pop band. And if you really look at the song structures and the writing in general, it’s not that experimental: some of the sounds are, but you can trace the arrangements and the way the songs flow back to The Beatles. That’s what I also saw in My Bloody Valentine, was this embracing of the past, but wrapping up it in this whole new presentation.
They did put out a recent album [in 2013], and it totally stands up to their old stuff. It’s different, but it’s still them, and it’s still of quality. But the songs that I’m going to pick are from 1988-1991.
These are my top 10 songs, in chronological order…
**ALL I NEED **(Isn’t Anything, 1988)
This song is off their first full-length album, and it’s one of the first songs by them that completely grabbed me: I’d listen to it over and over again. The first time you hear it, it kind of just sounds like noise. But you can listen to this song five times, and each time you’ll hear and feel something different. There’s a sonic depth to this track that I hadn’t really heard before, and it’s the first song that really sucked me into their world. It’s so extremely washy and psychedelic, in a way that I’d never heard before.
SOON (Glider EP, 1990)
My Bloody Valentine were such pioneers, and this song is quite dancey and pop. It’s so rhythmically orientated as well, and that was the other thing that I found to be really inspiring about them: they didn’t lock themselves into a specific formula of how to write and present songs. You could tell that sometimes they’d start with the beat as their launch pad, and other times it would be a weird keyboard or guitar sound. Again, that was something that I identified with as a writer, and it’s always something Failure has been interested in. We’ve never written from the same structural standpoint, and we’ve always tried to come at it from a different angle.
DON’T ASK WHY (Glider EP, 1990)
I really like this song because it showed that they were actually just really good songwriters as well. It’s a very simple, melodic song, and it was also one of the first ones where they allowed you to get into the lyrics. They never put themselves in a box of saying, ‘We’re only ever going to be impenetrable noise.’ It was always changing and morphing, but it always had this same sort of dual emotion to it. This song for instance has this melancholic thing going on, but then the chords are major: there’s nothing minor-y or specifically dark about it. It’s a beautiful contradiction, and that’s what real life is.
TO HERE KNOWS WHEN (Tremolo EP, 1991)
I love this song because I could never tell how they made it. I’m kind of a studio type person and I’ve always been very interested in dissecting songs, but I still can’t figure out how they achieved this guitar sound. There were very few bands that I was listening to at this time that really made me scratch my head the way these guys did, and made me want to figure out how they made stuff sound the way it did. I love that. I also love that they never really put their imagery out there, and you were never really sure what the band looked like, or who was even in the band. If you wanted to know what was actually going on, you really had to study it, and all we had was their records and very minimal liner notes.
ONLY SHALLOW (Loveless, 1991)
Loveless was their big record in the ‘90s, and this was the first song on it. When I got this record and I heard this song for the first time that sealed the deal for me. I realised that it wasn’t just a fluke, and that these guys were for real. They were refining their sound and taking it to another level. It was almost like they were trying to make a slightly more commercial version of themselves, but at the same time it wasn’t a commercial sound: it was a further exploration of beautiful pop arrangements shrouded in this mysterious, crazy guitar sound that you’d never heard before.
LOOMER (Loveless, 1991)
Their song titles were great, too. They were making up words like Loomer that were evocative, and made you think about the feeling of the music. The other thing about this record is that I feel they knew who they were by this point, as opposed to their first LP Isn’t Anything, which was a little bit more all over the place in terms of sound and the way it was sequenced. This one seems much more purposeful, in terms of the order of the songs and the way the record has an arc to it. It was a continuation of the Tremolo guitar sound too, which they put to good use on this record. But the way they combine the male and female vocals on this song seemed to be something new that they hadn’t really achieved on previous records: they blended themselves together perfectly, just like they’d done previously with the guitars.
**WHEN YOU SLEEP **(Loveless, 1991)
If there was a ‘radio song’ on Loveless, then this was it. I believe I actually did hear this song on the radio back in the day, although maybe not on a commercial station. This was another one of those songs where they really focused on hooks, and the pop aspect of their band. They actually came to LA and played The Roxy right around this time, and I think they opened with this song. It was amazing! They brought their own PA as well, which was massive. It was like the ones they use at small festivals. I’d never seen anyone bring their own PA to a club show before. Half the people in the room that night were in bands, and I think they’re definitely a musician’s band. Failure has always been pinned as one of those bands too, and there was an appeal there for me in that sense as well, watching them play that night.
**COME IN ALONE **(Loveless, 1991)
That LA gig was a great moment in music for me. I remember the crowd was buzzing, and this song was so heavy when they played it that night. I think a lot of people accuse the band of being soft because the vocals are quite breathy, but the juxtaposition of the heavy music and breathy vocals is what makes them great in my opinion, and live they’re twice as heavy and raw as on record. Then you have the volume: the guy in their crew mixing them that night was wearing headphones for the entire show, because the sound was so assaultive. They took the crowd to a whole other place that night: they levitated everyone off their feet.
**SOMETIMES **(Loveless, 1991)
This song I just like for the chords. The guitar sound isn’t that experimental, and you can actually hear him [Kevin Shields] playing. He’s doubled it with an acoustic, so you can just really appreciate his headspace as a guitarist and a singer. It’s not ‘unplugged’, but it’s the My Bloody Valentine version of an unplugged song. I’d put it on and go to sleep to it for a good year or so.
**WHAT YOU WANT **(Loveless, 1991)
This song has that same keyboard sound that you hear throughout this record, and it’s very hard to pin down. I still don’t know what keyboard they used to make that sound. Some people actually thought it was a guitar, but I’m pretty sure it’s a keyboard. It almost has like a middle-eastern feel, and it goes in between notes and hangs out there. It’s another one of my favourites by them.
Ken Andrews was talking to Matt Stocks. Failure’s new album The Heart Is A Monster is out now.