Rachel Goswell has overcome every musician’s worst fear: going deaf. These days the keyboardist and singer carefully manages her condition and is able to play with her bandmates in the reunited veteran British shoegaze act Slowdive. But that doesn’t mean her struggle is over.
“I was at peace with where I was at, and had accepted I’d never do music again,” Goswell tells The Tokyo Weekender ahead of Slowdive’s Dec 12 performance at Akasaka Blitz, of the period between 2006 and 2014 when she wrestled with the viral infection labyrinthitis.
Typically, the virus lasts between six and eight weeks and causes tinnitus, balance issues and temporary hearing loss. “But I was very unlucky in that it damaged some of the nerves in my cochlea, which gave me profound hearing loss and balance problems,” Goswell says. “Still now, 10 years later, it still affects me. The tinnitus is permanent, so I have to learn to live with it and manage it and know what the triggers that exacerbate it are, and what keeps it at a tolerable level. It can be very debilitating when it’s bad, and cause vertigo issues. It’s a weird one.”
On top of all that, Goswell’s son Jesse was born in 2010 with CHARGE syndrome, which also left him deaf and struggling with a serious heart condition that required surgery when he was five months old. Goswell spent the ensuing years learning sign language and advocating for such education to be a state funded right for parents who need it.
Those trials kept Goswell out of music and resigned to retirement until 2013, when Slowdive frontman Neil Halstead reached out to ask if she’d like to join him onstage during a spate of solo shows in London. At that point, both Goswell and her son’s conditions were finally more manageable. She recalls: “When Neil asked, it was the right time for me on a personal level. I felt like I could do something again and had the capacity to give some time back to music.”
Goswell and Halstead first met when she was about seven years old in Reading, Berkshire, in the late 1970s. Her best friend’s mother was a guitar teacher, and Goswell would usually arrive for her lessons just as Halstead was finishing up. Later, as classmates in secondary school, Goswell recalls having “The Smiths drawn on the cover of one of my schoolbooks, which Neil spotted straight away.”
Their friendship grew at a local rec center, where local teens gathered to use the PA system and indulge in their rockstar fantasies. Goswell and Halstead were among the few who stuck with it, forming a band called the Pumpkin Fairies and then, when it dissolved, starting Slowdive. The original lineup was rounded out by bassist Nick Chaplin, guitarist Christian Savill and drummer Adrian Sell. They recorded a demo which was released as a self titled EP in 1990, which critics praised. Sell left the band to enroll in university, and a rotation of other drummers came and went in the ensuing years,including current drummer Simon Scott. Slowdive released their debut Just for a Day, in 1991 which cracked the top 10 on the UK Indie Chart. Before long, the press lumped Slowdive in with shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine and The Jesus and Mary Chain, thanks to their penchant for bristling guitar riffs and feathery vocals. As grunge and Britpop began to dominate the airwaves in the mid-90s, Slowdive’s time in the limelight ran short and they were dropped by their label after muted reception to their 1995 release Pygmalion. From there, Goswell, Halstead and then Slowdive drummer Ian McCutcheon went country with the alt-Americana outfit Mojave 3 before pursuing solo endeavors.
By the time Goswell had joined Halstead for his solo shows in 2013, she had no idea there was a huge demand for a Slowdive reunion. When the Primavera music festival offered them a major slot on the marquee, Goswell, Halstead, Chaplin, Savill and Scott readily agreed, and it didn’t take long for them to book a tour of major festivals. However, Goswell recalls how “we discussed from the beginning that we wanted to not be a nostalgia band playing old songs. We wanted to explore new music as well. So that was always in the background.”
From there they recorded their eponymous fifth album. Slowdive was released this past May to rave reviews, and the band has toured behind the LP virtually nonstop ever since, to crowds that dwarf the number of attendees at their early gigs. One recent gig in particular stands out for Goswell: Union Transfer in Philadelphia, where the band played to a rapturous crowd that Goswell later thanked on Twitter. In that tweet she included photos of the performance, in which the band’s unofficial new mascot was in plain view: an inflatable flamingo that doubles as a beer can holder, perched next to Goswell’s keyboard.
At the mention of that she laughs and says: “Yes! The flamingo was christened Flo by a 14-year-old on Twitter. He was given to me for my birthday by the rest of the band, and my tambourine shaker fits perfectly in his cup holder, so I don’t have to keep bending down to pick it up. So it’s practical as it is stylish.”
“It’s gratifying and I feel lucky to have the opportunity to do this again,” the keyboardist and singer says of her band’s — and especially her own personal — triumphant return. “We’re doing it on a much bigger level than I’ve ever experienced. It’s been great fun, and none of us take it for granted.”
Slowdive will perform at Akasaka Blitz on Tuesday, December 12. Doors open at 6pm and the show kicks off at 7pm. Tickets are ￥6,800. For more information, visit our event listing.