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3AM Eternal

by David Cavanagh

They live by night...rising at sunset to spend the small hours crafting music of fragile beauty and unfathomable mystique. And now My Bloody Valentine are required to get out of bed, travel in Transits, soundcheck - in daylight! - on their first tour in 18 months. What kind of bloody time do you call this?

Three years isn't very long, you know. Especially if you're not really paying attention at the time - Debbie Goodge of My Bloody Valentine, backstage at Cambridge Corn Exchange, December 1991.

This is the story of the band who yawned, stretched and made the classic indie album of the century. It's an album that was started before Ride or Slowdive had even formed, when things were so much simpler. An album so crucial to the structure of many young bands’ worlds that they have made individual careers out of trying to emulate in advance what they thought it would sound like, only to be proved spectacularly wrong. An album that suffered so many financial setbacks, studio knockbacks, enforced sabbaticals and technical disasters that all four band members believed that the malignant influence of a mysterious, evil karmic jinx was a serious possibility.

An album whose recording processes proved so tortuously slow that the entire year of 1990 was dedicated to the recording only of bass lines.

And the longer this agonizing process went on, the more My Bloody Valentine, this most - to use Kevin Shield's favorite word - bizarre of bands, became the stuff of rumors, intrigue, suspicion, wide-spread admiration, total plagiarism and, ultimately, unfathomable mystique. Worlds change; another war breaks out; the Valentines put a second lock on the studio door.

There is a comical myth about the Valentines that has them sharing a decrepit squat in some appalling area of London, where they sleep like knackered cats for half the day and spend the other half enough dope to send them back to sleep again. Nice idea, but there's a whole lot of activity in between. For "Loveless" is now out in the shops and here the Valentines are all of a sudden - muttering into the acoustics of a cold University of East Anglia dressing room and complaining about lousy onstage monitors - back on tour. Their first in 18 months.

Its a My Bloody Valentine tour, so everything is a bit of a struggle. There are big problems with the PA - the undeniably crap sound of which is infuriating the Valentines’ much troubled perfectionist leader Kevin Shields. The band can't hear each other onstage. Kevin can't even hear himself onstage. The vocals are a joke. And then Kevin thinks he might have broken something in his foot.

So, really, the tour so far has been little more than a fascinating chance to reacquaint ourselves with the Valentines live experience, punctuated by long delays, loud sighs and helpless gestures from Kevin and co-singer/guitarist Bilinda Butcher to the side of the stage.

There's nothing you can say to a band that's just done a bad gig. They don't want to talk about it. They don't want to talk about the songs. They don't want to talk about why they formed in the first place. Kevin, visibly distressed, is talking quite seriously backstage about jacking it all in if the PA problems can't be sorted out. Always skint, the Valentines have forked out serious money for the best PA money can buy, and it isn't good enough. Perhaps My Bloody Valentine's sound is simply too intricate a marriage of soft and loud; noisy and melodic; teeth-rattling and neck-stroking to duplicate live? Kevin's having none of it. It sounded fine two weeks ago in Australia and it should fucking well sound fine in Norwich.

Everyone else in the dressing-room is similarly muted. Bilinda, a stunning vision of eyes, hair and skinniness, is playing with her seven-year-old son Toby, who's brought loads of friends from his school down to the gig. Drummer Colm O'Ciosoig - it's pronounced O’Cusack - is chatting to someone from Creation, the label to which the Valentines are emotionally and financially manacled. Colm has spray-painted his clothes. His brown leather jacket is now a metallic red; his black leather trousers are sort of silver. His trainers are pink. He looks like a strange little spaceman.

Bassist Debbie Goodge, a class act in black and purple, sits in silence at a table. She looks aloof and stand-offish, but she soon reveals a shit-hot technique for opening bottles of Becks with a bic lighter.

"It's really bizarre," says Kevin Shields, yet again. You feel sorry for the guy - nine years working towards a sound that's simply too good for the technology he can afford. Nine years grasping at sounds too magical for this...

"No!" Shields says firmly. "These songs are not impossible to play. They can sound right live, but we have to be able to hear what we're doing."

He directs his words mainly to his sister, Ann Marie, who is coordinating the tour. My Bloody Valentine, who formed in 1983, still don't have a manager. Ann Marie seems to do everything Kevin says, except that she says it in a slightly louder voice.

The Valentines touring party - a very small and very quiet operation - heads back to the hotel bar. Kevin does 90 percent of the talking. There are a lot of misapprehensions about Kevin. He's immensely garrulous for a supposed aficionado of the ethereal, and he's actually really bulky - not at all the elfin fringe in a woolly jumper he looks onstage. You could fit three people into the trousers he's wearing tonight, and two of them would have room to stretch.

The tipple is Bailey's Irish Cream and the conversation touches on a wide variety of subjects close to the Shields heart. Tinnitus; the insides of recording studios; the untethered wildness of Mercury Rev, who are one of the support bands for the following night's gig; the astounding Nirvana Top Of The Pops appearance; the Scandinavian weather girl on TVAM; how useless and intransigent the people at Rapido are; Caron Keating rumors; the forthcoming Ride album; the Midway Still cover version of "You Made Me Realise’"

"They got absolutely all the words wrong except for the words 'you made me realise..' says Kevin in disbelief. "They weren't even making the right vowel sounds."

This is because of the Valentines' unique attitude to the words that they write. These people don't just not want to talk about their lyrics. They'll go to any lengths to avoid people even knowing what the lyrics are. They've even got round the problem of letting their publishers see the lyrics.

"I give them the titles," says Kevin. "Then a girl at Creation listens to the songs and writes down what she thinks I'm singing. And that's what she gives them. They're actually more her lyrics than mine. And some of the discrepancies are hilarious."

When Bilinda is asked about this later she bursts out laughing and says she never knew that. She seems delighted at Kevin's ingenuity. But she then refuses, even in the face of undignified journalistic begging, to reveal so much as the first line of 'Loomer'’ off the album. Kevin himself admits he has "absolutely no idea" what she is singing.

As we down the last of the Bailey's around 4:30am and call it a night, Kevin's waxing quietly pessimistic about the following night's gig in Cambridge. Some of the dates are selling better than others. Exeter's a catastrophe. London, however, is so good they're talking about maybe adding a third night at the T&C. Chapterhouse, of course, couldn't even sell out two. It's...bizarre.

First up next morning is Anna Quimby, an American flautist who has joined the band for the tour to play the melody lines on the songs. On 'Loveless'’ these are mostly samples of Bilinda's voice made to sound like a keyboard or a flute. Anna, a headscarfed waif in a Smudge T-shirt, admits that there is a strong likelihood that she is related to Fred Quimby, who produced all the classic Tom And Jerry cartoons. A few swans drift around in the river outside the hotel.

Kevin stirs. His trousers, amazingly, seem even larger than they were yesterday. How weird that the Godfather of Indie Guitar Wash is one of the baggiest dressed people in the country. He spends ages just watching the swans swim around.

Once we're in the van, though, he articulates all his feelings of disillusion and anger about the PA in a kind of reasonably-argued, gentle tantrum, delivered in a soft, attractive Dublin brogue and with a complete absence of swear words. He's directing the invective to his sister, after all. She agrees that a band like My Bloody Valentine should be getting better treatment than that. She reveals, clearly incredulous, that Creation only pay the Valentines 70 pounds each week - "For God's sake, even The Telescopes are on a hundred." Kevin ends his meek little sermon by asking rhetorically what's the point of playing live if it's just going to be shit all the time. The van burns up more miles.

"We're all tremendously aware of the importance of this tour," Kevin explains when he has calmed down a little. "This tour is going to change everything. I know. In some way. Either we'll cease to exist or we'll have to change quite a bit. If we don't achieve what we want to achieve, it would be too frustrating to continue. This tour lasts until the summer, and by then I think if we haven't figured everything out and we're not happy, we probably never will be. So I don't see any point in doing it. I won't be going on playing if the sound's shit. I won't do it."

One solution could be for the audience at MBV gigs to get together at the end and shout: "It sounded brilliant to us, Kevin!" Or else the Valentines could well retreat even further from the depredations of the outside world into the depths of the studio, where days blur into weeks and weeks blur into months and months blur...

"You get a good feeling of what it must be like to be in prison," says Kevin dryly about life. "The vast majority of evenings we spent in bed, while we were making the album. Starting work at midnight. Going to bed in the morning. Not really waking up till ten at night. And when you do that for months...and months...a year...years...You get pretty disoriented."

Do you sleep through world events?

"No you don't," he says firmly. "You see all the world events before everyone else does cos you watch the morning news on TVAM. And you see everything three or four times. We got bombarded by the Gulf War. The only thing that didn't seem to fit in was the outside world. Serious world events were the only time gauge we had for what was going on."

Most people's lives revolve around the early evening phone call as friends ring each other to check what everyone's doing that night. My Bloody Valentine were just off to bed around then.

They went into the studio to start 'Loveless' in September 1989; three months later the music scene exploded into colours and possibilities as The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays annexed Top Of The Pops for the evening. My Bloody Valentine slept. Ride were formed. My Bloody Valentine slept. Rough Trade went down. Zzzzzzzz.

So you didn't see much daylight in two years, then? evin thinks for a few moments. Maybe he's trying to remember what 'daylight' means.


What was the longest you went without seeing even one tiny bit of daylight? He shrugs.

"Two or three months."

Homeless, skint and stymied by Creation's unwillingness to give them any more money for equipment, the Valentines sulked, squatted and eventually slowed to a standstill as 1989 ended. The "positive environment" Kevin cites as essential for him to catch his flashes of genius in the studio had evaporated. The great days of 1988 and 'You Made Me Realise' had faded into memories of the struggles and traumas of 1983/84. The Valentines said 'fuck you' and went back to bed.

"You're expected to make this great new record and you're sitting there thinking, Well, my guitar doesn't even work properly. So, yes, that's exactly what we did. We just went into slow motion."

Take us through the history of one of the songs, then. 'When You Sleep', say.

"Right. Well, we recorded the drums in September '89. The guitar was done in December. The bass was done...er...the bass was done in...April. 1990 we're in, now. Then nothing happens for a year nearly."

So it doesn’t have vocals at this stage?


Does it have words?


Does it even have a title?

"No. It has a song number. 'Song 12', it was called. And...I'm trying to remember...the melody line was done in '91. The vocals were '91. There were huge gaps, though. Months and months of not touching songs. Years. I used to forget what tunings I'd used."

EPs ('Glider', 'Tremolo') would emerge sporadically to give clues to the progress of the album. 'To Here Knows When', the lead song off the latter EP, was a spectacular leap into the unknown, and had a shattering effect on bands who'd been trying to keep up. It became a music business legend that the Valentines were trying to make the perfect album and wouldn't come out until it was finished. Still homeless, they burrowed deeper and deeper into the studio.

And then, incredibly, it was ready. Kevin, pessimistic as usual, expected a critical panning. Instead everyone sussed the album for what it obviously is: an utter masterpiece of pop sound.

"I like the moments," says Kevin as the van pulls into Cambridge and the age-old rock 'n’ roll ceremony of Asking People In The Street For Directions To The Venue takes place. "It's got lots of little moments on it. I like them."

Bilinda Butcher reaches into her bag and produces two tiny bottles of Bach's Flower Stock Remedy. She looks at the labels and chooses one. She unscrews the dropper and puts four drops of the liquid on her tongue. She has eyes you could get lost in, and it would take you days to get out. She looks about 22, but she's the oldest member of the band at 30. She only joined as a backing vocalist (in '87 when original singer David Conway left) and was rather unnerved to learn that she was expected to learn guitar as well.

What's that stuff for anyway? She giggles slightly.

"Depression." (the journalist grabs the bottle roughly and takes a hefty swig).

Bilinda's from Derby. Her impossibly high-pitched and faint speaking voice even comes complete with flat vowels if you listen hard enough. A Sony TCM-74V tape recorder has a bastard of a job keeping up with her. She giggles a lot, though, and she's caring enough about the audience paying good money to see her band play that bad gigs really get her down. When she first joined she says she used to miss some important element from the band's live performance. Then she realized it was the presence of Dave, whom she'd just replaced.

"I didn't think they were proper My Bloody Valentine gigs without him," she says now. "Everyone expected us to change the name of the band. I don't think anyone expected Kevin to sing. He certainly didn't want to."

Debbie, who's a year younger than Bilinda, has been in the band since 1985. Typically for the Valentines, though, they only told her she was in the band in 1987.

"They didn't tell me I was in the band until Bilinda joined," she laughs. "I just kept turning up."

Do you all hang out together?

"We don’t make a point of it. We used to. We'd always make a point of meeting up before gigs and so on, and all go in together. But certain people in the band are always very, very late," she says, looking pointedly into the dressing room where Kevin is getting ready for the gig.

How does she feel about him taking aeons to make an album?

"Well, if somebody had told me in 1988 that the next Valentines album wouldn't come out until the very last point of 1991, I'd have gone on holidays for two years and just come back a few months ago," she grimaces. "And the way it happened you just kind of forget about it after awhile. It's like, Oh shit...yeah...we've got that album to finish. One day."

So you forget whole years?

"Yeah," she sniggers. "Well, you're very closed in in a studio, you know. There's no sunlight. No sounds from outside. It's very easy to rattle through a few months without realizing."

My Bloody Valentine are hands down/heads off/eyes frazzled/ears singed/wigs flipped/mind blowing tonight. Mind-blowing as in everything going right. All 14 of Kevin's FX pedals doing what they're supposed to. All 16 of the band's guitars behaving themselves. The songs coming over like little messages from a planet where people talk in soft textures while a million guitars buzz around them in the air.

The finale is 'You Made Me Realise', in excelsis. A few minutes into it, the band steer into a mammoth wall of feedback that lasts for seven or eight minutes - the whole band slashing away at their instruments on one terrifying white noise ride as the lights freak out and 1,000 people stand gawping in awe. Debbie later boasts that they played this sequence for 20 minutes once "to see if we could clear the room." She seems disappointed they didn't.

Cambridge secedes. We're some place else here. This is quite awe-inspiring. The ultimate in sound. It's the end of the world, as My Bloody Valentine perceive it. A cacophony of grievances. The band who, offstage, whisper even when they're furious are raging and burning and crying and blaming and thrashing and indicting for all to hear. It's fantastic stuff and the great thing is there's genuinely no sense of when it's going to end.

It's supposed to end when Kevin gives Debbie a signal - she then raises her arm and they crash back into the song - but Kevin is totally gone up there and Debbie's not watching anyway and this could go on for...

Hey! Maybe that's the answer. A way to shut out the outside world and not care about shit PAs, or silly deadlines, or record labels, or sleeping arrangements, or Slowdive or Chapterhouse, or the agony and the ecstasy of bringing us the sound of their minds. A way to escape. A way to officially 'not care' and be all the happier for it... Someday My Bloody Valentine may play 'You Made Me Realise' forever.

Originally appeared in Select February 1992
Copyright © Select Magazine