Rachel Goswell on Slowdive, Minor Victories and a circular 20 years

"Ultimately, if music resonates with people it will carry on," says Rachel Goswell, as we discuss why Slowdive's music has been so affecting to so many audiences for so many years.

While the group had perhaps more detractors than most in the 90s music press, the power of Goswell's ethereal, haunting vocal lines, entwined with those of Neil Halstead and submerged in a luscious ocean of guitars, is undeniable.

Goswell admits the band couldn't have foreseen being in this position 20 years ago, yet this year's self-titled return has been their highest-charting album to date and further proof of Slowdive's continued, steadfast importance in the landscape of British guitar music.

As well as discussing life as part of Slowdive, Brian Eno's contribution to the album Souvlaki included, we also mull over Goswell's work with Justin Lockley of Editors and Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite as part of Minor Victories, and why radio remains her go-to source of discovering new bands.

A happy accident

What Hi-Fi?: How did Slowdive’s sound come about? Was it a series of conscious decisions, or through experimentation?

Rachel Goswell: Experimentation, really. When we first did our original eight-track demo, which had Slowdive and Avalyn on it, Avalyn kind of defined where we were going. It was a bit of a happy accident, messing about in rehearsal rooms. It was the space of that track that resonated the most with us and guided where we were going to develop our sound.

WHF: When you say develop your sound, has that been more decided or again the way things have fallen into place?

RG: It’s just naturally what happens when we play together. The way Christian [Savill] plays guitar is all about soundscapes, and making lots of different noises and resonances with the guitar, so its just kind of how we write. Some stuff is a bit different. If Neil has song ideas and the basic chords of a melody, then he might come in and everyone plays around that. Generally the sound gets bigger and bigger as it goes on.

WHF: Your music, and other groups thought of as part of the 'shoegaze' genre, came up against some resistance from the music press at first. What do you think made them dismiss that sound then, and what do you think it is that has continued to resonate with audiences for all this time?

RG: I heard things about certain journalists just targeting bands they wanted to destroy – for whatever reason, I don’t know – but we were one of the bands targeted at that time.

Ultimately, if music resonates with people it will carry on. We had no idea when we were doing everything 20 years ago that we would be in this position now. But I guess with the rise of the internet and a lot of younger people listening to stuff over the years, the records have stood up. Some do and some don’t, we’re just one of those bands that has.

WHF: Can you tell us a bit about your recording process, from the beginning with Slowdive, and maybe how that’s changed?

RG: There are elements of this new record that were kind of the same. The technology has obviously moved on massively over the last 20 years, but we’re definitely conscious of the Slowdive sound and we wanted to retain that. On the new record there’s elements of old stuff and hopefully elements of new stuff we’ve brought in.

Simon has done a lot electronic work in the last 15 years, a lot of looping and things. In the track Falling Ashes, which is co-written by him and Neil, his influence is there, particularly with looping the piano parts and building things up.

But other elements have stayed the same. Some songs have been done in the traditional sense of just going into a rehearsal room and playing around. Slomo and Go Get It came out of simply just doing that.

We had quite a few different recording sessions in various places. We did a few weekends of recording just ideas, and Neil took those to his home studio down in Cornwall and messed around with some of the structures when they were just ideas and not fully formed songs. He moved things around and would then send them back to us.

I guess the bulk of the work was done at Courtyard Studios, near Abingdon, which is where we did much of the original Slowdive stuff. It felt quite nice to go back there, like a full circle. There were two blocks of about two-and-a-half weeks where most of the vocals were done, and things really came together and formed properly.

Skyping the studio

WHF: What about working with Brian Eno? What were your conversations beforehand, and how did it work?

RG: Sadly, it was actually only Neil who met him. We originally contacted him to ask whether he’d be interested in producing our second album. He said he didn’t want to produce it, but he would happily collaborate. Neil went into the studio with him for a couple of days, and he apparently put a clock on the sound desk and told Neil to just plug in and play anything, and he'd record Neil for ten minutes at a time. It was all quite random.

There is quite a lot of stuff done in those sessions that obviously never saw the light of day. But on the track Sing, it’s obvious which parts Eno has done. So Neil would come back with all this stuff, then Simon did a drum beat around that, and Nick [Chaplin] did his bass, and I spent about ten hours doing vocals on that one just messing around. There’s a lot of ad lib-ing done on that.

But that was kind of it. Brian didn’t come into any of the sessions when we were finishing those tracks off, it was just the initial part of it.

WHF: You say there was a lot of ad lib. Do you think that was kind of a follow through, the influence of Eno’s experimenting right at the start of those tracks?

RG: Possibly, to an extent. However, stuff we did prior to that, songs like Avalyn and Losing Today, a lot of that was very ad lib-y, and that does tend to be the way we work when we’re writing together - it’s more off the cuff. Slomo was another. So it really does depend whether it’s like a full band writing thing, or if Neil is coming in with set ideas of a semi-structured song and everyone joins in and adds their bits.

WHF: Moving on to Minor Victories... it’s a group of musicians with great similarities, but all still with strong personalities running through your music. How did that all work and mesh together to create the album?

RG: Minor Victories is a very different process altogether. Justin initially contacted me with around six pieces of instrumental music, to see whether I’d be interested in writing with him. The first track I worked on ended up being Out To Sea. It kind of sounded like it was a finished piece of music, I put the vocals on it and we messed around for two to three months with bits and bobs and decided we needed somebody else in.

I’d met Stuart on a few occasions the year before, just through bumping into each other at festivals. I really love Mogwai, and I think he’s a great guitarist, so I asked him. I didn’t think he’d say yes, actually, so I was really shocked when he did. We sent him that song, and he was immediately like, “yep, definitely”, then he’d add more guitars.

But we emailed our individual files back and forth to each other. The only time there was any studio time with people working together was Stuart and James [Lockley]. James went up to Mogwai’s studios for a couple of days just to put bass tracks down, but he plays drums as well, plays guitar, he does all sorts, and they came out with Cogs instrumentally.

So I would just get sent stuff to write to, then I’d sing it, then send it back to Justin. He was very much the producer of everything, putting all the pieces together.

Everyone is a very strong character, actually, so it’s quite different. They are in Slowdive as well, but with Minor Victories there were clear-cut definitions in that I’m primarily a vocalist ­– I see myself as a singer more than anything else. I get by playing guitar okay, but I’m not that good – and obviously Stuart’s strength is guitars, and actually Justin’s got multiple strengths. He’s like a real workhorse.

There was a clear definition of what everyone did and a respect for everyone in their roles. And actually nothing I sent was rejected, everything ended up being on the record, so it was a different way of working. But it’s quite exciting opening up the emails and putting my headphones on, listening to what new bits have been done.

When we had James [Graham] from The Twilight Sad do his vocal on Scattered Ashes, he did that in Mogwai’s studio – but that’s in Glasgow and I’m in Devon. I didn’t really like the original take they sent me, it wasn’t quite right, the vocals didn’t quite gel well enough. So he went back into the studio and they linked me in via Skype so I was able to talk to him while he was doing the vocals. We tweaked it so the second take was better. It was a weird thing to do, but it was really great.

Music for airports

WHF: Moving on to the other side of the speakers... what are your listening habits?

RG: I tend to listen these days with my headphones [Audio Technica ATH-MSR7] on when I’m travelling. It’s usually quite solitary moments, often on planes. I don’t find much time these days to kick back and put records on, having a little person to look after, although I’m still quite traditional in a sense that I buy a lot of vinyl. I do put stuff on occasionally at home [on an Audio Technica AT-LP120], in the evenings, but I’d say the majority of the time it is when I’m travelling, because that’s when I have time to myself.

WHF: Listening digitally on your travels, then, do you buy into hi-res files?

RG: I don’t so much, I’m not that purist about it, because I’ve only got half my hearing. I’m quite profoundly deaf in my left ear now, because of an ear infection nearly ten years ago that left me with significant hearing loss. If I try to listen to someone on the phone with my left ear, it sounds kind of like Mickey Mouse.

So for that reason, I’m not that finickity about hi-res. Other people in the band are - most musicians I know, actually - but I am not one of those people.

When I’m recording I just have the headphones on my right ear. Sometimes I pull the headphones off my right ear and just hold it away from my head, so I can just about hear the music and really hear my voice.

I’ve had to adapt quite a lot. We found with the last round of Slowdive recording, I was having some trouble with pitching a couple of times on higher stuff. My ears weren’t hearing things properly. We sorted it out, but it’s a weird thing and it can be quite frustrating.

WHF: And how widely do you listen; what are you listening to at the minute?

RG: I really like the new Japanese Breakfast album, Soft Sounds From Another Planet. We did a tour with them in the States in May and I really like that album. Ben Ottewell's A Man Apart, I bought that one recently. Nadia Reid’s new album I think is amazing. Big Thief I really like.

I suppose I do listen to quite a lot of indie stuff, but I like a lot of older stuff too. I love Neil Young, I love Joni Mitchell – they’re kind of old staples of mine.

When I’m travelling I tend to listen to things that relax me a bit more. I’m not a great flier, so one of my favourites is the first Black Rider album. I really like that because it’s quite mellow and calming.

WHF: Do you find a lot of new music through playing with people and having stuff sent to you?

RG: I listen to 6 Music a lot when I’m home, and I tend to do a lot of driving up and down the M5 and M4 to get to the airport, so I listen to a lot of stuff on the radio. That’s generally how I discover new bands.

At festivals sometimes I’ll go and watch bands, but sometimes they can be so hectic it’s hard to get out. We’ve done quite a lot of rainy festivals this year, actually, which has been a first, but sometimes you’re just knackered from travelling and you kind of go in and out. So I’d say mainly radio, and sometimes recommendations from my friends, is my main source of new stuff.