David Keenan talks about the reasons behind the closing of the Glasgow underground music shop he ran with Heather Leigh
Glasgow’s Volcanic Tongue, run by Heather Leigh and longtime Wire contributor David Keenan, is closing after ten years in business. The forest green website, featuring a picture of a girl striking a pose in dressing up clothes (a young Heather Leigh preparing for a Madonna fancy dress party) became a mecca for underground music in the UK, stocking CD-Rs, tapes and vinyl often unavailable elsewhere. It began as a mail order business, run out of Keenan and Leigh’s kitchen, before expanding into a Glasgow shop. Since then, it has moved locations, started its own cassette store day and hosted regular in store performances. The website's regular longform write-ups by Keenan now total an estimated two million words, forming an archive of sorts for underground music released in the last decade.
Musicians and artists also passed behind the desk for spells of employment, including Alex Neilson. “As a reflection of the abundance of its music scene, Glasgow has always boasted a healthy number of high quality record shops,” writes Neilson, who worked at Volcanic Tongue between 2004–07. “Suffice to say, none of these ever had anything like the intensely focused aesthetic or the monomaniacal commitment to alternative culture and experimental art as Volcanic Tongue. As a tender 22 year old with an obsession for free jazz and feral folk music, it was a first class back seat education, which often felt like the equivalent of jet skiing behind a runaway train."
Neilson says that the shop became a crucial hub for underground music at a time when there was a ground swell of musicians and non-musicians using the internet and cheap recording equipment to short-circuit the existing production lines of art and music. “Volcanic Tongue provided a platform for people to record and self-release their most personally conceived expressions with the knowledge that it would be discussed with intelligence, sensitivity and on its own peculiar terms,” he explains. “Its closure hasn't just left a gaping hole in Glasgow's cultural landscape, but that of the world.”
“The noise explosion and the CD-R revolution was something that Volcanic Tongue helped channel,” says Keenan, “and by about 2006 it was really at its apex: glory years where it seemed like there were amazing new releases coming out every few days in incredible inventive packaging and with radical new approaches to the form. But when the recession hit in 2008, it hit hard. I don’t think the economy has ever really recovered, nor ever truly will.”
Last year, Volcanic Tongue announced plans to shut up its physical shop and instead return to mail order, but despite these plans Keenan says that this set off a “chain reaction" which could only end in the shop closing completely. "We started Volcanic Tongue as a mail order run out of our kitchen, and we ended that way,” he says. “We were very fortunate in that we developed a reputation in the underground community for breaking and bringing to people music they had never heard of before, so many of our customers were willing to buy blind purely on our own recommendation. We resisted modernising or upgrading the website, as we wanted to preserve the experience of reading a magazine – the way you would take a pitch on something purely after reading a review, with your imagination on fire and a fantasy image of what you were about to hear.”
One of the key factors leading to the closing of the shop is the increasing number of projects both Keenan and Leigh are working on outside of the shop. Keenan’s debut novel, The Comfort Of Women, will be published by Strange Attractor this year, along with a reprint of his book on the UK underground, England’s Hidden Reverse. He’ll also be continuing to contribute to The Wire, and running his cassette label. Leigh is working on new solo and group projects, with a number of releases planned for this year.