Peter Brotzmann and David Keenan.
With the end of Volcanic Tongue, the closure of the greatest European record store for the past ten years is now a fact. So here’s a final talk with its shopkeeper who never saw himself as a shopkeeper: David Keenan.
At the end of last year, you wrote a piece for the Wire about 'the end of underground music'. In the beginning of this year, you announced the closing of Volcanic Tongue. Are these two events linked to each other?
My reasons for closing down Volcanic Tongue after 10 years are entirely personal and unrelated to the state of anything else except perhaps the economy. Since the economic downturn it has been very difficult to keep things afloat, I think all small businesses have felt the same, but VT was a labour of love and something we felt was vital for the time, not just to provide a platform for the best new underground music but also to function as a weekly newsletter that provided information, context and enthused prose on the best releases that were coming out. I know that we had many more readers than we had customers.
I was never a businessman, never wanted to be a shopkeeper, so it was never going to last forever, too many other things I wanted to do but the writing kept me interested, that was the focus of the site and why we never used sound samples, but after 10 years, and with it becoming increasingly hard in terms of cashflow I decided the time was right. I have been writing novels – fiction – for the past five years and now that they are about to start coming out I wanted to make the move to get back to writing full time and focus on my books. For the past ten years I have been working on VT stuff every day and then writing for The Wire and producing novels by night. It is simply too much to sustain and I am enjoying now having the opportunity to write in a less frenetic and more relaxed style. I mean, the VT writing came from that, it was fast, get your thoughts down, instant prose, evangelical, experimental, capturing the first thrill of hearing the music. My Wire writing was always different from that - in depth, critical, worked over - and quite segregated from it. I never considered VT or the state of things or politics or personal profit or whether it will win or lose me friends when I had an opinion or I wrote something for The Wire. I write what I believe in and what I think has to be said. Without forethought, really, which has cost me quite a few friendships over the years but I accept that’s the price you pay for a degree of critical rigour and honesty.
I can’t think of a single person who, like me, has been a central player in the actual underground for the past few decades who doesn’t believe that the underground is dead. But it doesn’t mean that there are no solitary operatives still doing their thing; that’s where the hope and interest lies. Either way I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone who was seriously involved with their art, who was a real artist, a serious artist, would even care whether the underground was dead or not. Why would you ever think your own art was part of some genre and fight to be included in it? Surely you must believe that your own art stands alone? And that you’ll be making it whether an ‘underground’ exists or not? That’s the mindset that interests me; compulsive creation.
What has happened with underground music is the same as what happened with independent music. Once it actually meant something, was a descriptive term, then it became ‘indie’, a genre, a ghetto, a dead end. The same thing has happened to underground music, it was inevitable. It has become undie... no need to mourn, let’s just move on, see what happens next. There will always be weirdos making the kind of art that refuses to conform to anything but the awkward contours of their own personality. My faith has always been with the one-offs.
Ultimately, though, the reason I closed VT was personal. My father died and my friend Shaun Falconer died within the space of a year. They were both central to VT. Shaun worked for us and my father built our shop by hand. The place was just too haunted without them. It was time to move on to the next adventure. The underground just happened to fall apart at the same time.
In an interview for the Dutch TV show 'Zomergasten', Cees Noteboom said: "There is no such thing as 'professional journalism'. You know a lot about something because you like it and you write about it because you want to share your enthusiasm... and if there would be something like 'a professional interest', I'm not interested in reading it".
For the last couple of years, my Sunday evening ritual was: reading the new VT update before going to sleep, because it always gave me a boost of positive energy. I liked your reviews because you were never cynical or trying to be clever, like many other British writers. So my question is: why and when did you decided that your VT reviews were going to be all positive, that you wanted to put your time and energy into praising the music and artists you like, instead of criticizing music and artists you don't like?
First thing, I don’t really think of myself as a critic, per se. That’s just a convenient way of describing what I do in a way that’s straightforward and understandable. Critique, however, is of little interest to me, ultimately. I prefer to simply ignore what I don’t like or doesn’t interest me and surround myself with my passions. I prefer building up to knocking down. I cut myself off from mainstream media a long time ago. I haven’t owned a television in 12 years. When I do encounter it, say, when on holiday or at a friend’s house, I’m appalled at the level of garbage that passes for culture and entertainment in the mainstream. I have no interest in pop music or in writing or commentating on it. I hue to the Bill Hicks line: you’re getting all confused, it’s a piece of shit, now walk away. I think it’s hilarious and a little tragic when supposedly ‘intelligent’ critics start taking crap like Drake or ASAP Rocky or Kanye West seriously. But then most critics are career critics, professional journalists, as Noteboom points out, so their whole reason for existence is to be someone who functions as a kind of barometer for the state of culture at large. They will write about anything because really their critiques are based around cultural or sociological or political themes and of course the more mainstream the music or art then the easier it is to hang grand statements on them that reflect on extra-musical concerns. This is also handy for writers who have no vocabulary or lack the imagination to talk about the actual music, the sonics, the quality of the sound. Which is why so much music journalism hangs on analysis of the lyrics. These guys are just out of college and they bring the same tool to writing about music as they did to analyzing fucking Rudyard Kipling in their English Lit class.
I have no interest in cultural critique on that level. I write for the believers, the obsessives and the fanatics, the people who are looking for a new kind of kick, something real, committed, something still in love with the original revolutionary potential of rock music and free music and radical highly personal art, the kind of music and art and literature that can change your life forever. I don’t believe that stuff really has a chance in the mainstream anymore because of the absolute stranglehold that corporations have over the entertainment industry, more than ever, though the rot set in in the 1980s. The message now is all about reinforcing spirit-crushing mainstream consumer values, even when it is framed as ‘edgy’. But I don’t care. I fight for a space for the music and art that I love, that’s what VT was about and that’s what my ‘critical’ writing is about, I’m an evangelist, an enthusiast.
With VT we made the decision only to stock things we like. End of story. Of course that caused a lot of animosity, especially with awful local musicians who really believed what they were doing was ‘underground’ or ‘experimental’ or ‘noise’ and that we therefore had a duty to boost it. My only duty is/was to boosting great one-off non-conformist art and music. So, of course, if we didn’t stock your cassettes or CD-Rs, it meant we didn’t like it, obviously, so people got annoyed, inevitably. Go build your own underground.
I simply could not bring myself to sell or pretend to like something that I thought actually sucked. I couldn’t live with myself. That’s why I couldn’t run a ‘standard’ record shop or on-line retail thing where they just stock all the indie and underground and electronica or whatever releases that come out of all the usual distributors that week and glibly rave about them all. So, primarily, VT was a place where we could put forward our passions, create our own canon, and bring to attention new things that were exciting us. I’m glad you got such a good, powerful, positive feeling from reading the VT updates. It was a total celebration of weirdo culture. I worked hard to mint a spontaneous language and a way of writing about the music that was completely in tune with the experience of listening to it, that didn’t betray it by hoisting a whole buncha non-musical smarts on top of it. I wrote without any agenda except to attempt to match the experience of the music. I wanted my words to be as exciting and fun and radical and new and affirmative to read as the music was to listen to. I have had no training in writing or journalism, no schooling, all feel. I taught myself, through listening to music, through reading and through obsessive writing. Lester Bangs blew my mind when I was 17 and I have been writing almost every day since. I stay away from cultural theory, from Marxist critique, any of that stuff. I abhor any school or fixed approach that is not drawn from my own veins. I know writers who actually describe themselves as ‘Marxist critics’! My god, you are nothing but a cipher for someone else’s ideas. What happened to your balls and your heart and your brain, you moments of secret epiphany, your revelations that were beyond any formal explicatory model? You really have abdicated any responsibility for self-creation. I am of no school. My mantra: is.
Of course my Wire work is different. I don’t pitch to write about things I don’t like. Why would I? I only pitch things I am falling in love with or excited about and wanna communicate that. Of course I am often commissioned to write about things that I end up not liking and in that case I have to be 100% honest but I approach everything without prejudice and with a completely open mind. I’m always up for being surprised and turned around. I have no problem tearing something to shreds if it comes up in front of me, in life and in writing, but it’s not something I go looking for. Still, watch your back.
I have no idea how I have managed to make a lifetime career out of what is really just a passionate stance, I really don’t, it’s so unlikely. I have spent very short periods in my life attempting to write for mainstream newspapers, for NME and Melody Maker at IPC etc, where really there was no freedom to follow your own passions and no potential to write about anything that people weren’t already familiar with. I bailed every time, I was so unhappy. Professional journalism is hell on earth and a form of moral and creative servitude that I simply cannot put up with. I’m amazed and thankful to be where I am. Hopefully my novels have a similar enthused, affirmative quality to them. I’m not cynical. I’m always saying yes.
You say you write for the believers, the obsessives and the fanatics. You could also say you write about the believers, the obsessives and the fanatics. Do you feel like, in the end, you don't write about music and that you actually write about people?
Well, I feel that in my Wire reviews and on VT I write about music, that’s a big thing for me, to capture the sonic aspect of it, to deal with how it sounds and reflect that in my prose. But, yes, I am fascinated with people, artists, for whom there is no separation between their art and their life. I think that’s the ultimate achievement and what fascinates me the most, one-offs, total artists, people like Derek Bailey and Peter Brotzmann, certainly, or like Steven Stapleton of Nurse With Wound, Sterling Smith also and writers, all the writers that I love like Malcolm Lowry and Blaise Cendrars and Pierre Reverdy and Charles Olson and Denton Welch and Kenneth Rexroth and Frater Achad and Alan Watts and Patrick Leigh Fermor and Sylvia Plath and Antonin Artaud and Henry Miller and Robert Aickman and Herman Melville and August Strindberg and Lester Bangs. And I’m very interested in how they lived their lives.
My features, I would say, my big cover stories, certainly, have much more to do with bringing out what the person is like, of catching them in their own environment, getting a feel for the contours of their personality. That’s what interests me. I never have set questions and I very rarely do much preparation. I spend time with them and I have conversations. It’s always very informal. What interests me most in an interview, although again, I never think of myself as an ‘interviewer’ per se, is how the personality of the artist comes across beyond any straightforward presentation of historical or biographical information; the way they talk; strange things they say;’ their sense of humour; their madness; their combativeness; the way they use language. Above all, that’s what I try to capture and to get across, in overt and in more subtle ways, such as rhythm, pace, structure etc. I like it all to cohere, all to contribute to the overall impression with nothing superfluous, even if it might appear wildly tangential. Content dictates form. I’m comfortable with many different kinds of people, I can talk your ass off plus I have opinions coming out my wazoo, so all that helps.
Visiting Steven Stapleton’s self-built goat farm/home/visionary environment in County Clare was a mind-blower for me, as was staying with Brotzmann at his home in Wuppertal for a while. I feel inspired by people who have created their own universe, who have managed to find a different way of existing than we are told is possible, who have somehow stepped off the edge of the map into the unknown territory of the heart itself, the core of their own being, and how it manifests itself in the world and their environment and their day to day life. That’s what was so fascinating about writing England’s Hidden Reverse, meeting so many eccentric people and also exhuming a history of people moving in the direction of their own passions and interests and secret obsessions, that’s the whole ‘reverse current’ that I talk about, people who refuse to go with the flow, to be caught up in society’s expectations, who dare to believe it is possible to exist outside of a nine to five job, who can turn their obsessions into their life. It is so important and these examples are more necessary than ever now that the whole world is threatening to become a monoculture run by banks and businessmen. I still think art and the example it can set and the inspiration it can provide is vital, it’s a source of strength. But often it looks to other people like you are going backwards, in reverse, if you fully embrace it and its possibilities and – ultimately – its sacrifices. I live my life the way I want to which has meant many sacrifices, all of which I am happy to make in order to live the life I want to live every day and not defer fulfilment to some fantasy future. I’ve pared my life down to my central passions. As I said, I don’t have a TV, don’t have a car, have very few day to day expenses, I try to grow a lot of our own food. And I get to write every day. You can step off the conveyor belt and follow your heart any time you want to. It’s only a lack of imagination that prevents you. And if you lack that, look to art for examples. But most people are too scared. What’s the worst thing that could happen if you started to follow your own inner dictates? You might die? Well, that is going to happen, so, with that out of the way, get on with it.
It’s the brave ones that fascinate me, the extraordinary people, and you find them everywhere. I don’t dress or particularly look like someone who is into ‘underground music’. It’s important for me to be able to move between different cultures and mix with different types of people. If I had, say, a blue mohawk and a pierced nose and one of those big things in my ear lobe or long hair, tattoos and combat fatigues that would be a little more difficult, in that I would be trumpeting my membership of a certain sub-culture. I mean, I respect people with mohawks, if they still have them when they’re 50 – to quote Keiji Haino. And I always really respected the saxophonist Terry Edwards who got a tattoo that read ‘Individual’ right down his neck so that he could never compromise and end up working in a bank. Amazing! But that’s not for me. I prefer a degree of invisibility – which is one of the key magic powers for a reason – so that I can flit between different groups of people with ease. There are weirdos everywhere, I meet a lot through gardening and living in the hut that I have on the outskirts of Glasgow where I grow my own food and have a wood burning stove. There are many amazing people hidden away there, eccentrics, survivalists, hippies, sociopaths, gangsters, many with singular stories and amazing lives. None of them have any idea what my background is or what I do outside of when they see me. I love that, I cherish a degree of invisibility and anonymity. I’m lucky in that I live in Glasgow and there is no shortage of madness or weirdness or amazing characters and of course there is a love of language here which is a total inspiration for a writer and is a big part of what made me fall in love with language myself. My dad was an uneducated Irishman who had the most wonderful command of language that was completely untutored – he never went to school – and so was truly his own. I grew up in the east end of Glasgow, then as a young adult I lived in Airdrie, in Lanarkshire, and eventually moved back to the west end of Glasgow. These were key formative moments for me, all of them, and much of the inspiration for my novels has come from there. Indeed, my fiction writing is even more focussed on celebrating unique one-off characters, weirdos and eccentrics. The universe gets bigger and stranger and more magical the more you expose yourself to these types and my books, really, are memorials and thanks yous and uncoverings of precisely these sorts of people. I have a novel called Adieu To All Judges And Juries which is a fictional oral history of an underground music scene that never existed in Airdrie and environs in the 1980s. It’s all about what you are talking about. I live to memorialise people, times and places, even if they are phantoms or figments or ghosts. And I love to tell stories.
If you move from non-fiction to fiction, don't you miss the dialogue?
No, not at all, I have spent my whole life talking with artists and musicians; I have a lot stored up!
Sometimes when I'm alone at night, I like to read out loud, fiction and non-fiction. Most of the time, I stop after a while because it doesn't seem to make much sense, but when I read your writing out loud, it always becomes so clear to me how your writing got a beat, a flow, how musical your writing actually is. I saw you playing live once, several years ago, with Tight Meat Duo in Brussels, with The Skaters. And after that concert I thought: Keenan his best writing swings more than his music. But to come to my question: should writing be music?
Absolutely. I can’t stand an unmusical sentence, a paragraph that doesn’t flow or swing or have some kind of organic movement to it. I have a pet personal theory, maybe more a hunch or an indulgence, a working fiction, who knows, that it is possible to bring writing alive, to make of it some kind of life form or organism, should you capture the correct rhythms, the correct interlocking movements, the mutual strains and forces that would animate it. It’s an idea akin to the Jewish folkloric concept of the golem (I’m very interested in esoteric Judaism and Kabbalah) or the idea of Adam Kadmon as primordial man; a perfectly balanced tree.
If you bring it to life like that, if you breathe into it – and this might be extrapolated from Olson, from my studies of him - the writing can go out and have its own life in the world and interact with other intelligences. My writing is focussed on facilitating the potential for, the possibility of, spontaneous life; towards movement and rhythm and intuitive form and my novels function biologically as well, I think so, at least that’s how they are keyed. This is an underlying theme of much of my recent writing, with chapters and paragraphs functioning as individual organs. Language is biological.
I always read my writing aloud to myself once I am getting near the end of a draft or after a morning or afternoon of writing. If it doesn’t have that rhythm, then it goes or is altered, somehow. Of course, as Peter Brotzmann says, there are many ways to swing and the rhythm must be in keeping with the subject matter, the oddity of it, the specifics, so you gotta get deep and feel the embedded notion of time in the piece and then you gotta explicate that. Music and dance is great delight in time. Writing has a reputation for being more static, somehow, more fixed, but I would like to blur the lines between the two. Writing is – and as – physical process.
You often write about outsiders. Why is that, you think? Can I be a bit amateur psychological here and say: because, ultimately, you're the outsider yourself?
Well, yes, of course. My earliest obsessions were things like science fiction (which I still love) and comics and horror and the supernatural and the unexplained and Forteana and astronomy. Real geek domains, classic outsider spheres. But it was always particularly the DIY self-actualising parts of these cultures that appealed to me the most, like when our local astronomy society, Astra, would print its own newsletters; I fell completely in love with these amateurish photocopied journals with stencilled graphics. Beautiful. That’s what led me to underground music, as I was starting to buy weird sci-fi and comics fanzines and then I discovered there was a similar DIY samizdat culture associated with music. I mean I read NME etc in the 1980s and of course I eventually went on to write for both NME and Melody Maker, both of which by that time, unfortunately, had become completely miserable places to be. But my heart was always with the fanzines and early on I got in touch with Lindsay Hutton who wrote one of the great garage/psych/rock zines to come out of Scotland – The Next Big Thing – and he sent me compilation tapes of garage punk etc and really indulged me and turned me on. I loved Lindsay’s aesthetic, his graphic style, the way he would handwrite the entire issue, the way the print smelled. I would send for zines that he mentioned or reviewed and soon I was getting lots of US and Euro zines, not just on music but like on horror movies and psychotronic flicks etc. I would go to London on holiday with my mum and I would wander around Portobello Road, picking up zines at Rough Trade, buying marijuana for the first time in the old underground toilets in Talbot Road, getting copies of things like Vague in weird head shops run by Rastafarians. It was a true education, a teenage dérive. And of course I published my own fanzine in the 80s, that was my first published music writing, and I wrote for a bunch of other ones too, there were quite a few fanzines coming out of Airdrie at the time, most of which I wrote for, which seems unbelievable now.
I mean, as a kid I was into heavy metal, that’s what all the sci-fi kids and astronomy buffs listened to, everything from Iron Maiden and Scorpions through Deep Purple, Demon, Rush etc. And of course the reason I was drawn to metal was at the time it was the heaviest, noisiest music you would encounter as a young kid in Glasgow or Airdrie but of course I then began hearing people using guitars in even more ferocious ways, that was my kick, and I got into The Ramones and Live Skull and things like that and from there into psychedelia and from there into free jazz and improvisation etc. I started playing some of my early discoveries to sci-fi pals and astronomy heads, thinking they would dig it, but they were just like, uh, this is weird. I didn’t get it. I thought we were looking for weird? I thought that was the point? It was doubly strange because I mean these guys all looked like the goddamn Ramones, albeit unwittingly, with tight Adidas t-shirts and bowl haircuts and leather jackets that were too small for them.
I have been around many subcultures in my time, been a part of many weird groups and fringe enthusiasms but I have never stayed with any of them. I ‘m not a joiner and I’m no team player. I prefer my own company. I love to write because it is an essentially solitary and non-collaborative pursuit. I find common cause with aspects of so much fringe and outsider culture but never enough to wholeheartedly give myself to any one or exclusively identify myself even as an outsider. I have eccentric tastes but I’m not looking to be a part of anything, inside or out. My passion is for the one-offs, the examples of what’s possible, and my interests and values are completely non-mainstream. Somehow I have managed to create my own universe or at least the kind of world I like to inhabit. I’m into self-taught, untutored, raw, personal, compulsive, obsessive art that waits for no-one’s permission or understanding. That’s where I write from. And I’m an enthusiastic writer. That might be the closest I come to any kind of consistent identity.
I'm married to an Austrian woman, which made me look at my own culture with a different view, through her eyes. You are married with a woman from US. Do you look at your own culture differently because of this?
Yes, Heather Leigh has further enflamed my love of Glasgow and Scotland and small town Lanarkshire. She is a true Glaswegian and has been for many years now but it was great to see it all again from the outside with her and come to appreciate even more the wild energy and passion for language. We have walked all over Glasgow. We will often take trains out into the east end and walk all the way back home via various spontaneous detours or we will spend a day in a small town in Lanarkshire, walking around, taking photographs, having conversations, stopping in for a beer. We have a great time together.
Of course, Heather Leigh also initiated me into life in the States, especially through regular visit to Houston, Texas, where her family lives. At first Houston seemed to me to be nothing but a mess of freeways, strip malls and suburbs but if you have the patience and the time to commit to fully uncovering it then there is a real underground there, an amazing folk art scene too and you soon realise why Houston has been home to so many great one-off artists like DJ Screw and Jandek. You can really disappear there and make your own art, in secret. I came to love Texas hip-hop. Still, being in the States only served to reinforce my understanding of myself as a European. That, ultimately, is the culture that I love. There’s only so much USA I can take.
Interview made by Joeri Bruyninckx/2015
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