Q&A: Minor Victories’ Rachel Goswell On Hearing Loss, Mark Kozelek, And The Future Of Slowdive
When English shoegaze legends Slowdive reunited in 2014, it marked Rachel Goswell’s first live performances since a viral ear infection called labyrinthitis sidelined her from Slowdive offshoot Mojave 3 in 2006. Her return to the stage was exhilarating, and now Goswell is on to her next milestone: releasing her first recordings since her unplanned retirement from music a decade ago. What’s more, she’s doing it in an entirely new environment, teaming with Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite, Editors’ Justin Lockey, and his brother James Lockey under the name Minor Victories. They have a self-titled album out next month on Fat Possum, and lord is it good.
Minor Victories crafted their album long-distance, trading tracks and ideas on a seemingly endless string of email threads. But they’ve since come together to rehearse, found their form as a live band, and are set to tour on both sides of the Atlantic this summer. It’s an exciting time for Goswell, who wasn’t sure she would ever play music again, especially after her son was born with profound hearing loss due to a genetic disorder in 2010. She herself is practically deaf in one ear, but it’s not keeping her from contributing to some of the richest, most grandiose post-rock balladry in recent memory.
One of those songs, the sweeping “Breaking My Light,” gets its debut today. As with previous singles “A Hundred Ropes,” “Folk Arp,” and “Scattered Ashes (Song For Richard),” this one arrives with a video by the Lockey brothers (aka Hand Held Cine Club) depicting a simple scene from their childhood home of Doncaster in stark black and white. Watch it below, and read on for a conversation with Goswell touching on subjects from tinnitus to motherhood to Mark Kozelek.
STEREOGUM: Let’s start at the beginning. If I understand right, Minor Victories started out as a collaboration between you and Justin Lockey, right?
RACHEL GOSWELL: Yeah, it did. We’ve got mutual managers for Editors and Slowdive, and Justin contacted me in September 2014 and just sent me a few pieces of music to see whether I would be interested in collaborating with him. And the first track that came out of that was “Out To Sea,” which is from the album. It all kind of went from there. It was a bit of slow start because I was always really busy with Slowdive around that time, so we didn’t properly start it until the beginning of last year. We started sending bits and pieces backwards and forwards for the next couple months.
We decided we wanted and needed more people involved, and I bumped into Stuart a lot the year before at various festivals, and we got along really well, so was he kind of my first — well, he was my only choice, actually, to play guitar. I thought, “Who better, really?” Justin got his brother James involved to play bass, and James played some of the drums on the record as well, as did Stuart, and as did Justin, actually. So, yeah, I would say probably about by April we had our band — our virtual band, as it was — properly rolling.
STEREOGUM: Had you ever written music long-distance like that before, or was this a new thing?
GOSWELL: I think I’ve done a bit. Sorry — (yawns) — excuse me. I had three hours of sleep last night because my son was being a little bugger (laughs). Once or twice in the past I’ve done stuff sort of long-distance. I did one thing a while ago. I don’t think it’s come out yet. It was a weird, abstract, arty thing that might see the light of day. But no, nothing like this. So it was a very much a new experience, really. It was just really a mix because everybody wrote songs, so some stuff might come from Justin, it would then go to James and Stuart to put bits down on, and would then come to me to do the vocals and stuff at the end.
“Breaking My Light” started off as a demo that I had written just on the piano. I just had the chorus written and I think the third verse, as it is now, was the only verse I had written at that point. So I just sent that to Justin and he kind of completely reworked it and added strings and stuff. Stuart sent a couple songs. James did as well. So it was like a true collaborative effort from all of us.
STEREOGUM: Did you have to get into a different headspace working that way as opposed to being in a room together?
GOSWELL: No, it just felt weirdly natural! (laughs) It’s funny. I suppose it’s been a while. It’s been a few years since I’ve done a record and been in a recording studio with a band. But obviously I’ve done quite a lot of records over the years, so it’s not like I don’t know what it’s like. I don’t know, to be honest, it just kind of felt ridiculously easy. I don’t know how to explain it. It might sound weird to some people, but there was nothing weird about it for us. We would be literally, like, every day, all of us, for about eight months, would be emailing each other several times a day. Justin and I would be texting several times a day. And he made a comment that he spoke more to me than he did his wife during that time because it was just a constant kind of flow of — “creativity” sounds a bit wanky, but, like, a constant flow of stuff going on. It’s just really exciting in this way to see who drops in the inbox to see who had done what on whichever tune. Yeah, it just felt very natural.
The only part where I thought it was a bit weird was — this is quite funny — not the recording. We all came together for the first time in March this year where we were all physically in the same room together, the four of us. That was our first rehearsal in Glasgow. We went out the night before our first rehearsal and I think Justin or Stuart said, “This is really weird, isn’t it? We’re all, like, here now.” (laughs) And I was like, “No, I feel fine!” But it wasn’t until the next day that we sat in the rehearsal room and we started playing and we did the first song and I said, “OK, now this feels really weird to me,” because, you know, I’m used to seeing the same people in a rehearsal room. It was kind of the the weird penny drop in my head at the point just after we’d rehearsed the first song. It was like, “Yeah, this is weird because Neil [Halstead]’s not here,” and all of that sort of stuff. I was out of my comfort zone, as in not being with people that I’ve known for decades. You know?
GOSWELL: I can’t believe that we got so far because when we initially started, when it was Justin and I, and we initially talked about it, the idea was just to do maybe do an EP, maybe four songs, and he would do a film to go with each song and just keep it really low-key. But it just grew into something that none of us were expecting.
STEREOGUM: After doing the Slowdive tour, which obviously has a lot of context behind it, is it liberating to be working on a project that doesn’t have history or expectations attached to it?
GOSWELL: Yeah, it is. I mean, I think people will still have their expectations. I don’t quite know what people’s expectations will be, but I’m really confident in the record. I’m really proud of what we’ve created, but there will always be people that don’t like what you do. But it was quite a freeing experience to write in this way with all of these people exactly for the reason that you say, because there’s no history and there’s no expectations — I mean, there’s expectations, but there’s no set formula to anything saying, “Do it this way,” or, “You can’t do that.” Everyone just kind of did their own thing, and it all kind of got back to Justin for him to do the final bit of molding and make it work.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, you mentioned that him doing the video side of things was always part of the vision for the project, and all of the singles have come out with videos by the Lockey brothers. Is that going to work its way into the live show as well?
GOSWELL: Yeah, I absolutely hope so in time. We get to work that bit out. I mean we are coming over to the States for a couple weeks in June. I guess it will depend on what cities we’ve got available and venues and stuff. I think with festivals it might be difficult. But yeah, certainly. The plan is to incorporate those films into the live show. I’m kind of leaving that to the Lockeys because, you know, that’s their area, so I’ll just let them go on with it, like, “Yeah, that’s great!” (laughs)
STEREOGUM: When you were creating the music, were you conscious of what the visuals were going to be, or was that just something that they added in later?
GOSWELL: No, I had no idea what they would do, to be honest. That’s totally been Justin and James’ bag and their vision. And a lot of it centers around the videos not being too distracting from the song and just being very simple. Like “Breaking My Light,” I just saw it yesterday and I was like… (laughs) Yeah, it’s nice. I mean, they’re really clever. A lot of it is quite gritty because they’re all filmed around where James lives in Doncaster. I’ve never been to Doncaster, but yeah, I’m certainly getting a particular picture of Doncaster. Although samurais charging out of a field [in the “A Hundred Ropes” video] I’m not sure about. (laughs) It’s probably not the norm.
STEREOGUM: No. (laughs) Can you give me a little bit of background on that song since it’s premiering alongside the interview?
GOSWELL: I think the lyrics on the record are pretty self explanatory. I think they’re — you know the cliche, they are open to interpretation. “Breaking My Light” is just about, I guess, finding yourself in a situation — I’m going to be ambiguous — finding yourself in a situation that you weren’t expecting to be in, and a lot of changes happening in your life, and I guess, to an extent, hitting rock bottom. And, you know, kind of hoping there’s going to be a way out of it. I had a difficult year last year. The song tells the story. But I think they’re quite easy to interpret without going into too much personal detail.
STEREOGUM: Well, speaking of difficult, personal experiences — (laughs) how’s that for a transition?
GOSWELL: (laughs) That’s nice.
STEREOGUM: Is this the first new music that you’ve recorded since you’ve had the ear issues that sidelined you for a while?
GOSWELL: Yeah, it is actually! I mean, I took a quite long hiatus, honestly. I had to leave Mojave 3 when the last record was completed, and they toured it without me because I got labyrinthitis, and I had balance problems for about a year. That was about seven or eight years ago, and the balance side of it still affects me now. And I actually did lose a lot of hearing on my left side. If I put the phone to my left ear and tried to have a conversation, I wouldn’t be able to hear you.
STEREOGUM: Oh, wow.
GOSWELL: It’s that bad. Yeah, it really, really was bad. I actually, without fully realizing it, when we were in the States on the Slowdive tour a couple years ago, my tinnitus — because I’ve had permanent tinnitus ever since on that side as well — my tinnitus got really bad at one point. My balance was OK, I think. It’s been a bit weird. Actually, I had an audiology appointment booked for when I got back for my other ear. Ears are just a pain in the ass, really. But I had to go back and they did another hearing test and they said actually I’ve lost even more hearing on my left side. I don’t know how that’s possible, but my audiologist said, “You’ve must have had labyrinthitis when you were in the States again because a lot of it dropped again quite significantly.” I was like, “Is there anything I can do to save my hearing?” and they were like, “No.” You know, it’s kind of pot luck, which is — yeah it’s a pain, but it isn’t a massive pain. So anyone that meets me, just don’t bother talking to me on my left side because I probably won’t be able to hear it unless you’re really shouting. I’m quite used to it because I’ve had it for a while now, but it’s a bit tiring sometimes when you’re trying to concentrate on things that you can’t fully hear. You know?
GOSWELL: Just, like, create headphones with just one headphone on the right side. That would be perfect for me because I don’t need it on the left because I just can’t hear. There’s no point. When you get to mix music, which is what I learned, there’s no point panning music to me because if something’s panned in the left ear, I won’t hear it if I’ve got headphones, which is also really annoying. I hadn’t really thought about that before. I don’t like to put headphones on. I wear in-ear monitors when I’m on stage anyway, and I just have my voice in there. I wear ear plugs for other sorts of things like that, but you know, yeah I took time off obviously because I got very ill with that. But, I had my son in 2010, and he was born with quite serious issues as well, so you know, I’ve just been a stay at home mom for four years. And I thought that was quite difficult because of his problems. But it’s been a massive learning curve, and it’s been nice coming back into music. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it again because it took me a while to come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t do it after the labyrinthitis, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to put myself back in. But actually I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s really nice to have the creative outlet again, and to be able to do both: Do the music, be a mom, do music, and just kind of enjoy life and appreciate it.
STEREOGUM: That’s fantastic!
GOSWELL: Yeah, it’s good! I feel really lucky, despite being half deaf. I do feel really lucky to get a second chance to do something like this. If somebody would have said to me a year ago we would have done what we have done and we’d be where we are now with it, I probably would have been a bit, “Hmm, I don’t know.” But it’s been a really good couple of years creatively, so it’s exciting.
STEREOGUM: You have a few guests on the album in addition to the core band. Were they just looped in on the email threads since you were creating it online?
GOSWELL: No, they weren’t actually. For “Scattered Ashes,” we knew it needed to be a duet with a man. And I asked Stuart if he could do it, actually, and he was like, “I don’t think I can.” Stuart actually does sing on “Give Up The Ghost,” and “Cogs.” He’s very low level, you can just about make him out, but he is singing there. “Scattered Ashes” is too high for him, so we were just kind of throwing around names, and he suggested James from the Twilight Sad, you know, who he’s friends with. And so that’s how he came to do it, and I think he did a really great job. It works really well with his voice on there. We rehearsed in Glasgow with him, which was quite nice as well — nice to see him, quite nice to sing with somebody different. He’s a very different singer to Neil, and I suppose Neil is the only man I’ve sung with, mainly, apart from the occasional thing with Mark Kozelek over the years.
And again, that track [“For You Always”], we were just thinking about to get somebody and do something a bit different. Neil had played guitar for Mark last year. They played locally to me, and I went to see them, and Mark made me get up on stage. It’s not on YouTube or anything, I don’t think. He put me on the spot, and I had to do a Sonny and Cher song with him with no rehearsal. I cursed at him (laughs) because he emailed me before and was like, “Well, could we do this?” and I’m like, “Nah, I don’t want to do that.” And then he put me on the spot in front of an audience so I had to go and do it anyway. But Mark and I have known each other for over 20 years, and like you do with friends that live a long away, we kind of dip in and out of contact. And I guess the contact was renewed last year, so Mark was fresh in my mind. So we just sent him that piece of music that Justin had done, and he sent it back in a couple of days with him singing everything. And he sent me the lyrics. I go, “Oh, this is a bit weird,” being, you know, a lot of life events from the last 20 years condensed into three minutes. So, it’s an interesting run. I think it stands out on the record. The lyrics are his, they’re not mine, so writing-wise it’s quite different, but I do love it. It was a challenge to sing it because it’s hard to take a breath when you’re singing one of Mark’s songs.
STEREOGUM: Right? (Laughs)
GOSWELL: It’s so narrative the way he writes, honestly it’s like you are having a conversation with him. It was quite hard work getting the breath in to do it, so I liked it. It’s a bit out there I think, that track.
STEREOGUM: I wanted to ask you if he gave you a heads up when he had that song lyric last year about stealing a secret backstage kiss with you.
GOSWELL: (laughs) No. The first thing I heard about that was somebody tweeting me. I was like, “You, Mark!” and I was thinking, I don’t even remember that happening, which is even worse. (laughs) I shouldn’t have told you that! He’s going to kill me now. But yeah, it was a long time ago. We used to see each other quite a lot in the ’90s because we were both traveling around and quite busy, and Mojave was very active at that point, and we were over in America quite a lot in various places and like that, so yeah. No, he didn’t give me a heads up about that. Yeah. (laughs) Not many people picked up on that lyric, but they probably will now.
STEREOGUM: During the Slowdive reunion, you guys had talked about the possibility of doing another Slowdive album, too. Is that still on the table?
GOSWELL: It’s being recorded right now as we speak. So, yes it is. The guys have been in the studio for the last couple of days doing some drum and bass tracks. We did quite a lot of recording last year. We spent a few weekends last year. It’s quite difficult because we’ve all got children and we all live in different parts of the country. As you get older, it is quite a challenge. But we recorded quite a lot of music last year, and Neil has spent all of this year, in fact, in the studio piecing bits and bolts together, doing more writing on what we recorded. And we’ve got a lot of songs, and I recorded vocals on a couple about three weeks ago. I’m doing my vocals, as I did with Minor Victories, in my house because it’s convenient and it’s easy. Neil lives a couple of hours from me, and I’ve got my son to look after in between Minor Victories, and we’re going out to Austin with Slowdive on Thursday. Yep, it’s all in hand. We’re hoping to get it finished by the end of July, it’s all planned.
Minor Victories are going on tour. Tickets are available here, and dates are below.
06/03 Dudingen, Switzerland @ Bad Bonn Kilbi Festival
06/04 Mannheim, Germany @ Maifeld Derby Festival
06/17 Hilvarenbeek, Netherlands @ Best Kept Secret Festival
06/19 Washington, DC @ Rock & Roll Hotel
06/20 Cambridge, MA @ The Sinclair
06/21 Brooklyn, NY @ Music Hall of Williamsburg
06/22 Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer
06/24 Toronto, ON @ The Opera House
06/25 Columbus, OH @ The A&R Bar
06/26 Chicago, IL @ Lincoln Hall
06/28 San Francisco, CA @ The Independent
06/29 Los Angeles, CA @ Teragram Ballroom
07/15 Salacgriva, Latvia @ Positivus Festival
07/17 Southwold, UK @ Latitude FestivaL
08/05-07 Katowice, Poland @ Off Festival
08/07 Sicily, Italy @ Ypsigrock Festival
08/12 St Malo, France @ La Route Du Rock Festival
08/13 Haldern, Germany @ Haldern Festival
08/17 Paredes de Coura, Portugal @ Paredes de Coura Festival
08/20 Hasselt, Be @ Pukkelpop Festival