Though MBV fans waiting for more than a decade for the follow-up to the band's classic Loveless might beg to differ, Shields hasn't so much gone away as refined the day-to-day of his job. After Loveless, MBV certainly hit a rocky stretch, seemingly frozen after signing a new deal with Island Records after the album's release. A song on a James Bond compilation in 1993 and a cover of a Wire tune in 1996 were among the band's sporadic post-Loveless output, amid rumors and speculation about scrapped sessions and Shields' perfectionism and seclusion.
Today Shields admits to no more than a yearlong period of semi-isolation in his home ("I suppose in a seven-bedroom house, it can be a bit weird."), but says rumors of his eccentricity were greatly exaggerated. "My house is on a street with other houses and other people," he says. "Except for a short period, I was always surrounded by people. I wasn't floating around in La La Land [laughs]."
While the past decade hasn't yielded a new MBV album -- drummer Colm O'Ciosoig left to join Clear Spot and bassist Deborah Ann Googe co-founded Snowpony -- Shields has been continually writing new material while taking on work mixing and remixing bands, including Primal Scream. "Every year, I've done something," he says, "be it singles or remixing and mixing. I guess I just stopped making records myself, and I suppose that must just seem weird to people. 'Why'd you do that?' The answer is, it wasn't as good [as Loveless]. And I always promised myself I'd never do that, put out a worse record."
Another thing Shields refused to do is to try and replicate that album. The pieces he worked up for Translation -- "City Girl," "Goodbye," "Ikebana" and "Are You Awake?" -- feature MBV's ethereal sensibility, but they are more fragile in their construction, without Shields' furious sheets of guitar. The music aptly reflects the quiet nature of the film, which focuses on the unlikely friendship between a fiftysomething actor (Bill Murray) and a college grad (Scarlett Johansson), both feeling stranded and alone in Tokyo. "The only constriction I felt was that I knew it would be quite easy if I did something that sounded like Loveless," he says. "It was just a giant learning curve for me because I hadn't done anything like this before. I was barely aware of the language of music that's not essentially just for your ears. I was just learning as I went along. I suppose we were under the influence of the film. Looking at it and trying different things. In the end, just the physical movement of the film, that was a delicacy. And I suppose that's why I ended up doing stuff that was so delicate."
Soundtrack producer Brian Reitzell, who tours with Air, met Shields (who was touring with Primal Scream) backstage at a festival last year, and asked if he would be interested in writing music for film. Shortly after Shields agreed, he ended up with a copy of the Translation script. They adopted a late-night recording schedule, after London's trains had stopped running, which provides a perfect partner to Translation's predominantly post-sundown settings. "It was all done between twelve at night and seven in the morning," Shields says. "It was our productive time. It's basically as though the world's disappeared."
Despite its complementary nature, the soundtrack also stands apart from the film as an individual listen. Air contributed a new track, "Alone in Kyoto," and Reitzell worked up two new pieces with Roger J. Manning Jr., to go along with previously released songs by the Jesus and Mary Chain ("Just Like Honey") and My Bloody Valentine ("Sometimes"). Separate from Reitzell's soundtrack -- which also features contributions by Squarepusher, Death in Vegas and others -- is a hidden bonus in the form of Bill Murray's showstopping butchery of Roxy Music's "More Than This," from the film's karaoke scene.
As for what's next for Shields, he says, "I feel now quite provoked in getting something out quite soon on my own." He had been working on some MBV remastered reissues, which prompted some reports of a reunion, but Shields says beyond four previously unreleased Valentine songs, the group is still officially out of commission. And a year-and-a-half ago, he was freed from his Island contract that never produced an LP. Shields now seems ready to usher out some backlog material and start looking forward again. "I have an unusually large stockpile of tunes," he says, "just because I never stopped writing. I might make some little, low-key releases, just to get that stuff out of the way. I keep writing new songs and I wonder, 'Did I write that already? Is that someone else's song?' But I've finally reached a point where I really want to and need to do some stuff -- and can."
(September 24, 2003)