he name David Keenan is well known to musicians, writers, and music obsessives alike. As one of the most descriptive and evangelical writers for The Wire, a member of improvisational act Taurpis Tula, and the co-owner (alongside partner and solo recording artist Heather Leigh) of Volcanic Tongue (a UK-based mail-order for underground music and record label), he’s made a huge quantifiable impact on underground and experimental music culture.
Glasgow resident Keenan took some time out of his full schedule to chat with Scott McKeating about work, CD-Rs, Jandek, Wolf Eyes, and the nature of improvisation.
When and why did you decide to start Volcanic Tongue?
It’s going to be about a year old next month. One of the major things was that being a massive record collector and a fan of music, you almost get to the point where you’re like a junkie and you’ve got to start dealing to keep up your own fix. I was addicted to Eclipse and Fusetron and a lot of other American mail order places and had been ordering from them for years, but there was a real lack of being able to get that stuff over here. Also the UK underground didn’t really have any focus or any point from which you could get underground music, nothing that really pulled all that stuff together. I wanted to combine the music I like from around the world with some of the UK underground stuff because I feel at the moment this is probably one of the healthiest times, especially for handmade DIY private-press folk form type production, and it felt right that we became a part of that, to help disseminate it.
We also wanted to combine this with what stores like Father Yod had to offer [huge Massachusetts store specialising in ‘avant garde’ flotsam/records]: putting out music of their own, stocking lots of really good underground records, and finding lots of new things. But also to be a bit of a lightning rod or a focus for underground people by putting on shows and showing a bit of support for the musical community.
Is this work with the musical community what led you to curating several experimental music festivals across the UK?
Well, I started curating a festival called Le Weekend in Stirling and that was the first festival in Scotland, if not the UK, that was dedicated to bringing in groundbreaking experimental music of its type. I did that for about five years in a row, and I resigned from Le Weekend as of last year. We brought over Keiji Haino to the UK for the first time, as well as older jazz artists. As we try to do with Volcanic Tongue, we tried to make a lot of links between artists, bringing together new underground folk, psychedelia, improvised music, and Noise and bring them all together to show how the strands relate to each other. In the wake of that a lot of other festivals started up like Instal, Kill Your Timid Notion, etc. I think we basically established that an audience was there, making it viable to bring these acts over. For this October’s Instal, I’ll be the creative consultant which basically means I’ll be giving recommendations and information for acts there. I think these sorts of gatherings are proof of how exciting and explosive the underground scene has been these last few years. These festivals have broken out like a rash and are managing to pull a lot of people in who are enthusiastic about the music. In the last five years the UK underground scene has become a lot more visible.
When I first got into experimental music and would send away for fanzines or records, I would read all the review sections of things like Forced Exposure and wonder how I was going to be able to get my hands on any of these titles. It was absolutely frustrating! At the end of the day I’m still a total enthusiast, I’m still a fan and that’s my basic way of operating and it has all come from that early fandom. And that’s my basic motivation whether it’s writing in The Wire trying to tell people about stuff, bringing groups to the UK to play, or making them available through Volcanic Tongue.
Volcanic Tongue holds exclusive distribution/outlet rights to a number of record labels like Chondritic Sound, Rebis, De Stijl, Heavy Tapes, PSF, and Wooden Finger. How did this come about?
We think of ourselves as insiders rather than outsiders, taking the music and cutting out the "does nothing" middle man. Some guys who own record shops don’t have anything to do with underground music, they don’t play music, and they don’t make any themselves—they just seem to make money from selling artists' records without giving anything back or involving themselves in the culture. What we are trying to do is to get this music out there and to get people aware of these acts. The key to what I believe about this music is that I think that all you need to do is encounter it; just actually hearing it will move people profoundly. People don’t hear the options. They don’t even know it exists because they have to choose from within the narrow spectrum of sounds that pass for mainstream music. When we hook up with all these labels it means that we can then encourage other shops to stock it, people get a chance to find it and try it out and it kind of spreads like a really benign virus. We feel evangelical about that.
You stock a lot of CD-Rs and limited art editions. Do you feel that the CD-R has finally come of age as a "real" format?
It’s still a kind of bastard illegitimate format to most people. A lot of shops are wary about stocking them but since we’ve been doing it we’ve been helping convert people to CD-Rs. Give it twenty years and people are going to be looking back at these handmade CD-R editions and they’re going to be revered like those long lost psych sides that turn up today. Eventually it would be cool for these CD-R editions to become more widely available; these don’t need to be the definitive edition, just an edition. It would be the edition I’d probably want the most because I feel there is something talismanic about something handmade by the artist where you can see more of them in that thing. And that’s all part of listening, understanding, and enjoying it. But yeah, this music should be heard by as many people as possible, and a lot of acts are reissuing rare material to give the music another life. A good thing about these short runs though is that CD-Rs can almost have a documentary role, recording works in progress and allowing you to try experiments and ideas and document as your musical thought grows. That’s quite liberating, and groups of musicians can push themselves and try out other stuff and not be worried about stupid stuff like “this is a major release.” Inevitably it does encourage a lot of crap—it’s so democratic that anyone can make a CD-R, and a lot of that is going to be rubbish. But it also encourage the weirdest, most fucked-up, totally outside, free noise, nirvana jams you could ever hear. The format has worked with the music to take it somewhere else. It gives you the permission and opportunity to do that and I love it for that. I love hands on DIY hands on art.
I know that you write the reviews for the releases on Volcanic Tongue and they’re always very complementary. Are you ever tempted to stock stuff that you don’t personally like?
Never. It’s not just a record shop; we have a really tough filter and will not stock anything that we don’t like. It’s that record collecting motivation, and I don’t want to sell a copy of a record that I don’t want in my collection. I write the reviews because I’m enthusiastic about it and I stand by the quality of the music personally. You’ll notice, and I won’t mention any names, but there are certain groups and labels that are noticeable by their absence on the site. That’s deliberate; we don’t just support underground music willy-nilly. As a fan of music you need some sort of critical faculties about it; you can say you love all noise music, but you are doing the music a real disservice if you can’t differentiate between good and bad. We don’t give blanket support to genres.
Are any UK acts that you can unequivocally recommend at the moment?
Jazzfinger. I think they’re absolutely amazing. I saw them years ago supporting Sunny Murray and Arthur Boyle in Newcastle and I picked up a CD then. I didn’t hear anything for a while and then recently they’ve had a run of stuff that has floored me. Like a lot of the American stuff they pull together so many disparate strands in their music. As people they are total fanatics about music, so nice and so impassioned about what they love and what they’re doing. And live their shows impact on such a visceral physical level. That lathe cut LP that they put out [This Small Space Where the Salt Glitters] is one the fucking weirdest UK records ever; such beautiful packaging and as weird as shit. There is so much great UK stuff around at the moment like Vibracathedral Orchestra, a lot of Neil Campbell stuff, I love virtually all Matthew Bower does… the new Skullflower record is unbelievable, its one of the records of the year. There’s Phil Todd—I love what he does solo and with Ashtray Navigations and he’s totally unsung. Also, and it’ll probably sound a little nepotistic for me to mention him, but Alex Neilson, who works at Volcanic Tongue, could probably start a whole new UK underground scene by himself. He’s got the enthusiasm, a grasp of how music should feel, and his drumming is superb.
Doesn’t he play as part of Jandek’s backing band? Are you a Jandek fan?
Yes, I saw the first show that Jandek did at Instal which was his first ever performance, and again at Newcastle, which I thought was the best show I’ve ever seen him do; I’ve seen all his three shows so far. I think that that group and the combination of Richard Youngs [bassist}, Alex and Jandek is an amazing improvising group. The language and the way they played is so fresh and instinctive and doesn’t really reference any sort of preconceived notion of improvised music or form. It was absolutely like nothing else I’d ever heard, it was incredible and as I said in my Wire review, it was comparable with something like the Albert Ayler Spiritual Unity trio—a whole new free language for trios.
What is your own band, Taurpis Tula, doing at the moment?
We’ve been doing a lot of recording that’ll come out on a bunch of releases soon and are probably going to tour the UK in October as a trio, which’ll be me, Heather, and Alex on drums. The next release will be something on the Wooden Hand CD-R label that is owned by Paul Labrecque from Sunburned Hand of the Man.
Isn’t the music you record/release mostly improvised? How do you know if something is working?
The Taurpis Tula stuff is all completely improvised. When it works its something that feels totally… it’s difficult to say because it’s not like the music sounds coherent or arranged because that not what you’re listening for. With improvising you’re not supposed to be aiming for notions of structure which is a real mistake that a lot of improvisers make; if you start with a destination in mind it never works. There have been times when we’ve played a real storming gig the night before and the next day I’ve tried to kind of move it towards the place we were last night and reused something I've done spontaneously previously. It always completely fails because I don’t think you can push sound around in that way. I think you have to let yourself be directed to a certain degree. It depends on how receptive you are to the music that night that makes it work; when it really works its like everyone is receiving this one shot of white light through both brains instantaneously. You have to escape your rational mind to trip the organisational part of your brain and get into this instinctive almost sensual part instead. It bypasses the rational thing into this weird half-inherited thing of letting yourself absolutely go. It’s a total communion-type feel and you can tell when that’s happening when you listen back to it. And that’s the moment you play for. You have to get the notion of entertainment out of your head—you can’t take the audience into consideration and they’ll enjoy it more if you don’t anyway.
You wrote the much-discussed noise primer for The Wire—what is it you get from noise?
The best quote about noise ever came from an interview I did with Masami Akita [Merzbow] a long while ago. He said how he used to listen to King Crimson and the Who and what he enjoyed most was what he called "the guitar smashing bit.’ His music, and a lot of music of that type, is that moment taken to the extreme, played over and over again. It's that rush.
You’re a big fan of Wolf Eyes. What is it you love about them?
The thing about Wolf Eyes is that their music is such an expression of joy; they love what they do and they enjoy it. Their music is the ultimate primal musical gesture and yet they are still beautiful players; John Olson is one of the best free jazz saxophonists ever. Now with the addition of Mike Connelly, who really ups the energy, they have someone whose guitar playing is superb and brings a real weird mangled sort of psychedelic metal edge to the band. You’ve got Nate Young in the middle and there’s now two high-energy rockers flanking him. Those guys are real old school metal fanatics and you can see how the band comes from that background. They’ve joined the dots between metal, extreme Japanese noise, industrial, folk, South American psych, and all these different underground sounds. They’re showing the common thread between them all. I love them and I can think of no better ambassadors for modern freak-out rock music than Wolf Eyes, I think they totally rule. Even their side projects are amazing—that Nate Young solo LP really surprised me; it was so different than what I was expecting. And Dead Machines; I saw them in the US and they played an unbelievable hardcore set on two suitcases full of tape machines and fucked-up electronics. It was just this kind of massive sick pulse, sort of like the first Suicide album but much more tactile and full of veins. It was also so funny that after this confrontational monosyllabic set; Olson leaned over to the mic and said, “Fuck the cops.”
With your book England’s Hidden Reverse you told the story of the birth and evolution of Nurse With Wound, Coil, and Current 93. Why did you choose these three particular bands?
All those groups were exciting to me as my view of underground rock/noise has always been fairly USA and Japan-centric and here was an inspiring subterranean scene that really seemed informed and plugged into some kind of peculiarly English tradition, albeit a secret, backwards one. Plus all three groups were interconnected. I was also particularly interested in investigating all the various cultural subcurrents that they drew on and factored into their own vision—people like Austin Spare, Shirley Collins, William Lawes, Charles Sims, etc. It was a fairly shadowy history and I felt that it had never really been told or put into that kind of context. I had interviewed all the groups for The Wire and as I uncovered more and more information about them, I began to see that there was more than enough material for a book. I think that the 80s UK industrial scene they came from was an incredibly fertile and creative one, a really inspiring time when so many people were dedicated to pushing the envelope all the way out there. I also thought it would be a cool move to situate the groups in a much more interesting experimental/outsider musical tradition, rather than the same old dreary, comic Death In June Euro-goths-with-a-chip-on-their-shoulder scene that they're sometimes associated with. That whole "culture" is of no interest to me whatsoever, so I wanted to go some way towards rescuing the groups from that.
You must have lived with this music for a while. Are these bands that you still follow?
To be honest, living inside that book and scene for so many years was incredibly draining and, in parts, a little disillusioning so at the end I felt I had to purge myself of it to a certain degree. So I got rid of a lot of stuff associated with the groups, I just had to clear it out of my life. Also, with Balance dying I really felt that it was the end of an era and I still find it very difficult to listen to Coil now, there’s just too much tied up in it. There's a quote in the book from Balance where he talks about the whole Equinox scene and how it was so nihilistic and everyone could quite easily have killed themselves but instead they were somehow able to redirect their energies into other creative areas. With his death I felt that, ultimately, that wasn't the case, and in the end those forces did in fact triumph. It's sad, and it really does feel like the final note in the whole tale. Besides Coil, I haven't really kept up with the other groups mostly because they haven't released anything particularly interesting since. They seem to be stuck on just recycling live things and remixes and besides Salt Marie Celeste by Nurse With Wound I haven't really been inspired to listen to any recent stuff more then once or twice. Still, I often pull out older Nurse sides and stuff like Soliloquy for Lilith remain staples round here.
What other acts now do you feel are worthy of the (imaginary) next volume?
I'd love to do another volume that would focus more on contemporary English outsiders like Matthew Bower, Skullflower, Total, Sunroof, Ramleh, A-Band, Vibracathedral Orchestra, Neil Campbell, Ashtray Navigations, Phil Todd, Richard Youngs, Jazzfinger, Alex Neilson, Ben Reynolds, etc. That'd make for an epic. Maybe one day.