My first experience of the fourth track (“To Here Knows When”) off of My Bloody Valentine’s seminal album, “Loveless,” was one of time travel. I don’t mean time travel in the sense of “12 Monkeys,” because space wasn’t really a consideration. What I felt was a temporal undulation -- contraction and expansion -- that effectively rendered time irrelevant. Dramatic? Maybe, but I’m not alone.
If Lilys are known for anything in their patchy career, it’s for their generous appreciation -- some say to the point of rip-off -- of My Bloody Valentine. In 1992 -- just a year after “Loveless” saw critical acclaim -- Lilys released their cult debut album, “In the Presence of Nothing,” which is nothing if not a sacrificial lamb on a very bloody Valentinian altar. Discounting “A Brief History of Amazing Letdowns” (mostly an amazing letdown because it was a mini-album), the true follow-up, “Eccsame the Photon Band,” displayed Lilys’ fractal capacity.
While My Bloody Valentine demonstrate a telos of opacity, obfuscation and a melting crystalline lattice of being, Lilys work in reverse -- or rather, in orbit: Constantly in flux between watery opacity and crystallization, but generally edging toward some sort of solidification or clarity of innocence. You might consider “Eccsame” a complement to My Bloody Valentine’s often overlooked debut, “Isn’t Anything,” and “In the Presence of Nothing” a complement to “Loveless” -- not rip-offs but inverted companion pieces.
And so origins become important when attempting to understand the divers divergences between Kurt Heasley (Lilys) and Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine), who Heasley credits for helping him “retain the peace, retain the balance.” Where Shields sprang My Bloody Valentine from the punk rock of the ‘70s, Heasley sprang Lilys from the pop rock and psychedelia of the ‘60s.
When a 10-minute phone call turned into an hour-long conversation last week, Heasley told me about his early, formative experiences with music: “My mother let me collect all of the Monkees records. They were my window, and their writing -- and its distinct absence in the ‘70s and ‘80s … You hear a lot of those sounds in the fuzz sounds of My Bloody Valentine, and that it was happening before my eyes -- it awakened all of those reptilian brain impulses from my early years.”
With his subsequent releases as Lilys, Heasley began to embrace those early impulses unabashedly. On 1996’s “Better Can’t Make Your Life Better,” he shed a lot of his shoegazey lizard skin and patched himself up with remnants of the ‘60s -- again finding himself unable to escape from the charge that he wasn’t speaking in his own voice but borrowing the vocalizations of others.
Those charges might not be unfair, but they also don’t do Heasley any justice. They fail to understand his theatre.
Part of the reason Heasley left D.C. for the Lancaster/Philly area -- other than needing a little more Amish in his life -- was to escape the farce of the politics there. “It felt odd when George H.W. Bush won [the presidential election of 1988] and he had been trained to hold all thoughts and feelings at bay. People said he had no personality. I’ve spent enough time in theatre, with Shakespeare, to recognize a good actor,” he said.
Heasley’s understanding of -- and fascination with -- acting permeated our conversation. He spoke in various voices, some high and absurd, some low and cool, but every one both him and other -- as is the nature of acting. Sometimes he was hilarious, sometimes somber, always with a tragic sense of comedy that translated into a sense of optimistic resignation or dispassionate hope.
“I didn’t realize what a zealot I had become. When ‘Isn’t Anything’ by My Bloody Valentine came out, my mother knew she had lost me -- it gave me hope for humanity; it gave me hope for earth. ‘This is your mission; this is your crusade. You will die on your feet moving the entire spectrum of consciousness toward this potential’ … This was the craft that saved my very f----- up teenage years,” he said. “My Bloody Valentine took what I loved about Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth and put it into this level of melody, suspended dissonance and tonal resolution that had no comparison. They were the blue angels of noise, and you could feel it in the marrow of your bones.”
So, he decided during the early years of his musical career, “If I’m allowed to take Dinosaur Jr. and play it like My Bloody Valentine, then I’m just gonna do that.”
But, like a good actor, his lines were more fractal than the decidedly directorial nature of the bands he admired as a young adult, and he started reaching back into his early childhood. “[My Bloody Valentine] could be big, and I was just like, ‘I’m more like a kid in the pit, and I’m not afraid of the pit.’ When the ‘80s became the ‘90s, I said, ‘Well, maybe I’ll do this’ [act out a different character, a different sound].”
It’s not that the theatre in which Heasley performs is without a plot, it’s just not a definitively linear plot. It undulates. It contracts and expands, operating in the way “To Here Knows When” operates on me. Nonetheless, there is, as Heasley sees it, a through line, and that through line starts in the songwriting of bands like the Monkees and the Kinks, which he hears echoed in My Bloody Valentine.
See, to his mind, there was a noise competition in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s -- a competition between the ethereality of My Bloody Valentine and the angry immediacy of Nirvana. Because, according to Heasley, “Not everyone wants to be addicted to that level of bliss [My Bloody Valentine’s music],” Nirvana’s noise ended up winning, giving birth to the alt-rock/butt-rock craze that would carry on through the ‘90s.
And amidst all of this, Heasley sort of got lost. But that’s really how it’s always been. He’s a self-described “dangerous, wandering minstrel,” a “creative troubadour,” and he’s not too worried about normalization or pleasing anyone -- “musical eugenics started with ‘hit me baby one more time’ … 500 emojis later, I don’t think we’re going to be able to make the record you need.”
Heasley might die alone, and loved ones might worry about him from time to time; bandmates, like Ariel Pink, might leave him to go off and do their own thing, but he’s happy and he’s doing his best. According to him, “Love is always the winning ingredient -- love of an ideal, love of adventure.”
As such, much of Lilys’ set at Soda Bar on Monday, Feb. 6, will consist of “unabashedly love songs, and that includes loss, but in the name of knowing, in the name of giving yourself over to something much more permanent.” Because, as Heasley believes, “Everything that is right and holy is here and now … When things pick up and get crazy, you have to just be.”
Heasley spent much of last year offering vocals and production input for the “deep, dark OG,” Cass McCombs, on his 2016 release, “Mangy Love,” but he has no solidified plans for the future. It’s safe to say he’ll continue singing, playing, cooking, gardening and hiking, and if he’s not doing one of those things, according to him, he’ll probably be at the DMV trying to figure out what the f--- is going on.
While we’re all trying to figure out what the f--- is going on, at least Heasley has this figured out: “I’m a complete whore of Babylon: I’m painted and celebrating all of this … I’m not the purest, cleanest conduit … I ain’t no Keith Richards, writing pure blues from the radio in the sky.”
No, but you are a blue angel of noise.
Rutger Rosenborg was almost a Stanford neuroscientist before he formed Ed Ghost Tucker. He now plays in the Lulls and makes music on his own when he's not writing. Follow his updates on Facebook or contact him directly.