This article originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) in May 2016.
Stuart Braithwaite has been losing sleep. You may not be surprised to hear this, given his predisposition for invoking untold dread as a member of post-rock leviathans Mogwai – from composing for film-maker Mark Cousins’ nuclear meditation, Atomic, to conjuring fearful psalms for undead people (they soundtracked French zombie TV smash, Les Revenants).
But the root of Braithwaite’s nocturnal trauma is more chilling than any ex-corpse apocalypse or Cold War dystopia. He’s been having anxiety dreams. They’re caused by his moonlighting in a shoegaze supergroup called Minor Victories.
This searing, dreamy alt-rock alliance comprises guitarist Braithwaite, vocalist Rachel Goswell (Slowdive, Mojave 3), drummer Justin Lockey (Editors) and his brother James (bass) – not to mention exquisite guest turns from The Twilight Sad’s brooding lodestar James Graham, and Mark Kozelek aka Sun Kil Moon. They release their debut album next month. They play their first-ever shows this week. They have barely met each other.
According to Braithwaite’s recent nightmares, here is how those gigs play out. “I have the lyrics written in front of me, because I do a bit of singing, but they’re too small and I can’t read them,” he shudders. “I try to wing it, but the words are too wee, so I just sing gibberish. And when I look up, everyone’s left, because it’s so sh***.” He hazards a laugh. Still, he’s not alone. “Barry [Burns, Mogwai] had one about Atomic, where all the keyboards just made animal sounds.” Mogwai’slive debut of Atomic – which crashed the UK Top 20 Album Chart last month – is also scheduled to take place this week, to Braithwaite’s mild hysteria.)
Despite the guitarist’s subconscious concerns, here’s what’s rather more likely to happen at this week’s Minor Victories shows: collective swooning, voluble cheering and covert weeping, prompted by a gorgeous, languorous body of work. Despite the songs’ gravitas and cohesion, however, they were created in fragments, in remote parts, and emailed round band members who had rarely, if ever, met.
Braithwaite was recruited at the behest of indie trailblazer Goswell. “I was a big fan of Slowdive when I was at school – I went to see them in the early 90s – and when they reformed a couple of years back, we kept bumping into each other at festivals,” he says. “That’s how we got to know each other.” How did Goswell persuade him to join a band who’d never met, and who were going to make an album without everbeing in the same room? That’s a pretty big sell.
“It started in a low-key way,” Braithwaite recalls. “Rachel messaged me asking if I wanted to play guitar on some songs she was doing with Justin from Editors.” The plan, back then, was for Lockey and Goswell to record a noise EP. But the collaboration found its own momentum, and course, and before they knew it, they had “seven or eight” songs.
“The first song I got was Out To Sea,” Braithwaite remembers. “That was pretty finished, so I just put more guitar over the top. But then something like Breaking My Light changed a lot as we sent it round each other and added stuff on. That was originally just Rachel and a piano, but when I did my guitars, I realised the song could be a lot longer. So we quadrupled the length of it, and then Justin played loads of mad drums over the top, and then – because it was longer – Rachel had to go and write more words,” he explains. Just like that. “It just all worked.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly given its disembodied origins, and evolution through the ether(net), notions of being untethered loom large on the album – from titles like A Hundred Ropes and Breaking The Light to searching entreaties on Give Up The Ghost (“Won’t you tell me what it’s for?”) and Scattered Ashes (“Tell me what it’s all about…”)
Did they discuss any over-arching aesthetic for the album in advance? “Not really, but I think we’re all from quite similar independent music backgrounds,” Braithwaite offers. “I’m sure we’ve not all got the same record collections, but I think we’ve probably got similar ideas about music.” (You could probably bet on Joy Division, The Cocteau Twins, Berlin-era Bowie and The Cure featuring in their collective jukebox.)
One of the album’s stand-out tracks is Scattered Ashes (Song For Richard), a duet between Goswell and Graham that’s so impassioned, fierce and intimate you’d swear they were singing face-to-face, into one microphone. Not so. “They were never in the same room,” Braithwaite says. “I tried to sing that song at first, but I couldn’t sing high enough. Justin’s a big Twilight Sad fan – Editors have taken them out on tour – and they’re really good friends of ours, I’m a huge fan. So we got James in. It was good fun. When he was recording it, Rachel was on Skype, because she was really particular about exactly how the phrasing should be. She’s a very, very particular musician. Probably more than anyone I’ve ever made music with,” he muses. “And it’s totally worthwhile.”
The video for Scattered Ashes depicts a panic-ravaged urban landscape in which cats look set to take over the earth. In a scene redolent of Mogwai’s Atomic, the promo climaxes in a mushroom cloud: a devastating, earthly reminder that laser-eyed felines and pop music are eternally cool, but we’re all just dust. What with that, and titles like Give Up The Ghost, it’s little wonder Minor Victories look set to haunt our hearts and minds. Don’t have nightmares, do sleep well.
Minor Victories’ debut album is out on June 3 via PIAS / Fat Possum.