The Untold Story of My Bloody Valentine

Prolific and Then Some

Music Features My Bloody Valentine
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This magazine article employs a time-honored literary device called Wishful Thinking.

That means some of what you are about to read is a lie.

But not the part about the chinchilla obsession.

Or the band’s landmark gig in London this summer.

When My Bloody Valentine takes the stage at the Roundhouse in London this June 20, the show will conclude a 16-year cycle for one of rock’s most fascinating bands. After the end of 1992’s Loveless tour, the last shows My Bloody Valentine performed, it seemed the musicians had pushed their aesthetic as far as it could go. Instead, they turned to the studio, where they’ve become almost superhumanly productive, despite some bizarre and devastating challenges.

The band’s earliest incarnation was nothing to write home about: a Dublin-based crew of second-rate Nick Cave wannabes. After some lineup shuffles, forgettable records, and dalliances with sunny indie pop, their style reached maturity in 1988 with a pair of EPs and the remarkable Isn't Anything album. It was druggy, time-bending and mercilessly loud, built around songwriter Kevin Shields’ tremolo-crazed guitar assault, a tidal wave of noise through which his and Bilinda Butcher’s breathy voices beckoned like flickers from a lighthouse. From then on, “You Made Me Realise”—its 30-second white-noise bridge sometimes expanding to more than half an hour on stage—inevitably served as the finale for their shows. An entire scene emerged around the band: “shoegazer” acts like Ride and Chapterhouse, who emulated MBV’s virtues of dreamy melodicism and blistering guitar noise.

It took three years and an extraordinary amount of money—estimates range from a third- to half-a-million dollars—to record MBV’s first masterpiece, 1992’s Loveless. Aside from Butcher’s vocals and a short sample collage by drummer Colm O’Ciosoig, Loveless was essentially Shields’ solo project: He played all the guitar parts himself, obsessively perfecting and tweaking every sound. The band was in top form on the album’s tour but—in his mind—Shields had already moved on to its next phase. For the next two years, the only MBV release was a 7” single that came with an American fanzine.

Finally, faced with an impatient record company and a band that hadn’t played on its own records in years (as well as a rapidly dwindling cash flow), Shields made a desperate move: He shelved the tapes he’d been laboring over. He spent a week teaching the band a set of 11 new songs and adjusting a microphone he’d built himself. And then, on July 21, 1994, after two years of tinkering, tweaking and woodshedding, My Bloody Valentine turned on a monophonic tape machine and recorded ...If live to one track in just over an hour.

Shields insisted that ...If had to go out unmastered and un-EQ’ed: If the suits at Island wanted him to cut the perfectionism and make a record, they had to be prepared for a record that was as raw as it got. ...If was a tougher record to love than Loveless; it was a ranting prophecy of newness instead of an enveloping wash of texture. But it was visionary stuff, and it broke the dam. For the next year and a half, there was a new EP or mini-album every month or two, while MBV’s backlog of material made its way to disc.

The drum ’n’ bass influences the band had been absorbing became gradually more evident, especially once Swiss multi-instrumentalist Alex Buess briefly joined the band for the 1995 EP Chilly and its subsequent expansion, Chinchilla. (Butcher and Shields were major chinchilla buffs—they owned more than a dozen at one point.) When, at last, five months went by in 1996 without a new My Bloody Valentine record, fans started to worry that the well had run dry again. Shields declared that he was just reconfiguring the band’s sound, and that the threat of running out of money kept him producing new work. The Riser EP made good on his promise: a ferocious, baffling record with almost no guitar, driven by O’Ciosoig and bassist Debbie Googe’s breakneck rhythms.

But that was it for over a year, with Shields instead working on a stage-musical adaptation of J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” intended for Broadway and London’s West End. (It closed after a single preview performance—large pockets of the audience, unaccustomed to Shields’ preferred volume, stormed out of the theater before the show’s conclusion.) My Bloody Valentine returned to form, and then some, with the legendary “green album,” released just in time for Christmas in 1997. It was an untitled record with ten untitled tracks, and Shields’ and Butcher’s voices were now so deep in the mix that nothing could be heard of them but a few stray phonemes.

It was the best-selling MBV record to date, but recording costs had spiraled out of control, and the band members started side projects to make ends meet—O’Ciosoig played with the Warm Inventions, and Googe with Snowpony. Shields made an unlikely deal with Axl Rose to contribute guitar parts and two legendary but yet-unheard songs, “Dying Dream” and “Empire,” to Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy. But thanks to a forgotten clause in an old recording contract, four different labels claimed the rights to the recordings. Despite Shields’ best efforts, Chinese Democracy—and G N’ R’s career—are still in limbo nearly a decade later.

Shields’ and My Bloody Valentine’s next few years are shrouded in confusion. Only a half-dozen MBV EPs were released between 1998 and 2000, although a handful of the other monochromatic, psychedelic, uncredited records that sprang up in the wake of the “green album” have been attributed to them as well. Around the same time, the band recorded original music for the video game Duke Nukem Forever, but has apparently never been able to mix it to their satisfaction.

After an “inspirational” meeting with Robert Pollard at the beginning of 2001, Shields sprang back into action, writing and recording three My Bloody Valentine albums from scratch in a single week. Étant Données, Finnegans Wake and The Sistine Chapel all have extraordinary moments, although some fans dismiss them as “rushed.”

Over the next few months, Googe, then O’Ciosoig and finally Butcher left My Bloody Valentine, for reasons they didn’t disclose at the time; Googe quit the music business altogether, assisting American writer Harper Lee with research for her second novel.

After recording four songs for the soundtrack to Lost in Translation, Shields reconvened the group. Their first step was revisiting the music of their years as a live act. The year 2003 saw two MBV box sets: the dodgy three-disc 1984-1987 and the mammoth 1987-1992, which contained three hours of live material, a pile of outtakes and five newly recorded versions of unreleased songs from the Loveless era. Sadly, the mastering didn’t go as planned. A device Shields had invented to give his old guitar tracks a three-dimensional effect caused an electromagnetic pulse, shorted out the entire studio and briefly blacked out London. In the process, Shields discovered to his horror that he’d accidentally fried all the tapes for Neil Young’s decades-in-the-making, eight-disc Archives, Vol. 1 retrospective, which was being mastered down the hall.

After an unfortunate chinchilla-related incident, Shields and Butcher found themselves broke again. Only Shields’ iron will—and a fatefully timed death in the art world—got the band through the difficult recording of their next disc, Shudder. Shields was reduced to picking up whatever commissions he could find, including playing “effects guitar” on tour with Justin Guarini and providing the final mixdown for a series of ringtones featuring the Aflac duck. Then, just as the band was about to start hawking its equipment to pay for studio time, an anonymous art collector’s will bequeathed a million pounds to The KLF’s Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, on the condition that they burn it as a reprise of their famous 1994 art project. When Drummond and Cauty refused, the will earmarked the bequest as “the next best thing”: a recording budget for My Bloody Valentine.

That brush with disaster brought MBV closer together than ever; since then, they’ve been single-mindedly dedicated to cranking out a torrent of albums. (Sometimes at the cost of other work: Dr. Dre recently explained that his Detox album still hasn’t appeared because he’s been trying to get Butcher to deliver a promised backing-vocal session since 2004.) But technology had one more cruel surprise in store.

In response to Radiohead’s In Rainbows initiative, Shields decided to make a genuinely radical move: My Bloody Valentine, he declared, would be the first major band to leave physical releases behind. All of their CDs and LPs were withdrawn from record stores, henceforth to be available solely in digital form; the hundreds of thousands of fans who returned their old discs to the band for destruction were rewarded with high-bit-rate copies and bonus material.

And then, on Christmas Day, the “Love” virus hit: a computer worm as ingenious as My Bloody Valentine’s early records, attributed to a disgruntled member of the corps of engineers who’d worked on Loveless. Within hours, every sound file attributed to post-1991 MBV on every Internet-capable computer was erased, and the few physical copies remaining from their latter-day catalog instantly became impossible-to-find collector’s items.

The band has once again been knocked off its feet, and is now returning to live performances out of necessity, concerts being the only way for its music to be heard now that “Love” erases everything they try to record. Shields remains hopeful that he’ll find a way to overcome his digital troubles, but it’s possible that My Bloody Valentine’s recording drought may have only just begun.

Since 1991’s Loveless, My Bloody Valentine has released only two tracks, both of which appeared on compilations.