My Bloody Valentine — The Guitar Sound of To Here Knows When
One Sunday evening in the spring of 1991, I thought it was a good idea to get stoned while watching MTV 120 Minutes, a two-hour program that featured many bands praised in Melody Maker and NME. A video by My Bloody Valentine’s ‘To Here Knows When’ from the newly released Tremolo E. P. was announced and during the minutes that followed the only thought floating in my THC-marinated brain was something akin to “pfff… this can’t be true!” I had, without a doubt, just heard the vaguest song ever: a kind of gentle glowing magma of voices, guitar and countless unidentifiable sounds. The following week, in a sober state, it turned out sounding just as strange.
Early November 1991, ‘To Here Knows When’ reappeared on Loveless, nowadays canonized as a classic album (for instance number 2 on Pitchfork’s Top 100 albums of the 1990s.) Loveless is surrounded by all sorts of legends that I am not going to repeat here (Mike McGonigal’s 33 1/3 book on the album is an easy, if somewhat frustrating, introduction) but one aspect begs to be demystified and that is the guitar sound of ‘To Here Knows When’. Perhaps the last major innovation of the electric guitar and also something like the end station of rock music.
Over the years, singer/guitarist Kevin Shields has gained a reputation as an unreliable narrator. I think this is mainly due to the fact that the follow-up to Loveless had been announced and postponed countless of times (to finally be released in 2013). When it comes to musical gear, he is quite frank and the guitar sound of ‘To Here Knows When’ is surprisingly easy to reconstruct. In interviews, Shields has repeatedly observed that people think that the My Bloody Valentine guitar sound consists of hundreds of overdubs in combination with a cartload of effect pedals, to conclude that it’s all far less complicated.
Let’s start with the basic element, the guitar itself. Shields plays a Japanese Fender Jazzmaster, which was deemed cool early in his career because J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. also played one. Shields’ Jazzmaster became something of an icon as it is this guitar that graces the cover of Loveless (a still taken from the ‘To Here Knows When’ video). Now we arrive at the most important component of the My Bloody Valentine sound: the tremolo. In an interview with The Quietus, Shields explains:
There’s something unusual about the tremolo arm on the Jazzmaster?
Kevin Shields: Yeah. The spring is similar to a Bigsby, but they go all the way round. A Bigsby only goes round to there, but on the Jazzmaster you can pull it right over, and hold onto it the whole time you’re playing. So I modified it, I moved it round and put tape on it so it wouldn’t go all the way in, changed the bridge so it was super loose, more part of your hand than part of the guitar. So if you let go it would practically fall off.
Playing chords with this tremolo results in a “swimming” sound with a strange erotic charge, an anti-riff which seemingly wants to escape from the music. The alienating effect on ‘To Here Knows When’ is heightened by the use of an alternative tuning: E-B-E-E-B-E (with the capo on the third fret).
‘To Here Knows When’ was most likely recorded in the Protocol studio in Holloway (the band recorded Loveless in several studios — that’s a story in itself). In a Tape Op interview (November/December 2001) in which Shields explains almost all the technical details he didn’t forget through the years, the sound is dissected further. The Jazzmaster is directly connected to a Yamaha XPS-90 Digital Multi Effects Processor for the essential reverse reverb effect, at first probably amplified by a Vox AC30 and recorded on a single track. The tape with that track was then played over a Marshall amplifier and recorded again to obtain a raw sound, instead of using a more conventional distortion pedal (and this in contrast to the usual modus operandi where the guitar signal was split to the amplifiers mentioned above and recorded on four tracks, see this Guitar World article for more details.
The rest of the song is filled with many details (but no bass!) and, according to the artist, recorded in mono in the tradition of Pet Sounds and classic Phil Spector productions (Shields is very critical of the bright studio sound of the 1980’s) and this results in a woolly sound where all elements seem to merge in a unique way. The idea of a guitar solo is somehow unthinkable in this sound field. Since then the guitar sound has been copied countless times but still, nothing sounds as radical as ‘To Here Knows When’.
(This article was first published in 2012 for a series on guitar sounds. The analogue remaster of Loveless is out now.)