Interview with David Keenan
(Volcanic Tongue, Glasgow June 8th 2007)
David Keenan is credited with introducing the genre New Weird America into the public domain. It turns out Wire editor Tony Herrington came up with the term as a way to draw together the diverse set artists David was writing about for a cover feature about the Brattleboro Free Festival.
A lot of sounds have passed our way since then but the label has stuck and is as good a way as any to identify strands experimental music that don’t slot neatly into existing headings.
It’s exactly one year (and one day!) since I did this interview in David Keenan’s ‘den’ at his Volcanic Tongue record shop in Argyle Street, Glasgow. Parts of the city have been gentrified but this street is not one of them. Volcanic Tongue is all put hidden even for pedestrians, a location deliberately chosen to discourage passing trade. As David says, he didn’t want people coming in to ask for the latest Travis album.
He was very generous with his time and expansive with his replies to my questions. His machine gun delivery in strong Scottish accent make a verbatim transcription next to impossible but I’ve tried to capture the edited highlights.
David has an infectious enthusiasm for the weird and wonderful music that he distributes via the shop, plays in his group projects and writes about in the columns of The Wire.
My original plan was for to use extracts from the interview for a book about the New Weird America movement. This may still happen but in the meantime I think the time is right to get what he said ‘out there.
Animal My Soul (AMS) – Was the Brattleboro Free-Folk festival your point of entry into this genre?
David Keenan (DK) – Yes it was- I always go back to the Brattleboro free folk festival with its wide remit of free jazz, noise, improvisation rather some corny idea of some guy doing a traditional folk song on an acoustic guitar. All those who played there were aware of a community – they were listening to No Neck Blues Band, Charalambides, Matt Valentine (MV). private press recordings, free jazz, noise; joining the dots between outsider bands.
AMS –You seem to be dismissive of artists like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom. In one Volcanic Tongue mail-shot you called them “cute pop”. What is it that you don’t like about these artists?
DK – They seem a bit phoney to me -twee, zany, weird for people who don’t like weird music. They play on very tired stereotypes, a kind of music retro.
AMS – So what is Free Folk?
DK – Matt Valentine was the first to use the term . Improvisation is the heart – music that links people & makes the music more social – breaking down the ideas of fixed bands & line ups in a primal folk mode – the original musical impulse – spontaneous music Jazz is important for the free playing & this infected other forms at the same time. Noise music also had an influence. A whole new way of improvising was born – playing together simultaneously. Dialogue is not an option in noise – it was like a classic modernist thing of focusing on the accidental , fringe aspects – Fahey didn’t copy Patten but focused on the dissonance.
AMS – Why has this music popular now and is it still ‘underground’ music?
DK – I’m amazed that it has happened now – it’s still underground but it’s infecting the overground .Advances in technology are crucial : internet, cd burning + reissues, rethinking the history of rock to expose the lie of the Mojo type linear explanation. The Japanese, for example, looked at rock history from a distance – reading & imagining how something sounded rather than copying sounds
AMS – What is a typical Volcanic Tongue (VT) customer?
DK – This is a literate audience. The bulk of VT customers are generally males between 20-40 but this varies – a lot of women are buying and making music.
AMS – Is noise music a male thing because it’s aggressive?
DK – Noise is NOT aggressive – it’s energy!
AMS – What do you hope the audience get out of the music you play?
DK – Ecstasy!! A kind of ritual aspect – shamanic – there aren’t many outlets for this in western culture – if the performer loses himself it’s possible to take the audience with you, I’ve experienced it numerous times. In Bristol, Alex [Neilson] started singing then I started singing with my eyes closed and it was building and building – it felt like we were going to levitate through the roof and then everyone in the room started singing”
AMS – Why is Scotland such a rich centre for this type of music?
DK – The Celtic connection is drone based – you feel it in the mountains, it’s almost genetic – it just makes sense here. US founded on outlaw tradition, marginalised heritage; English is pantomine/vaudeville – Scotland has no indigenous outlaw sound
AMS – What do you think about Indie?
DK – Indie Bands are just mainstream and mainstream culture is absolutely dead. In the high street of any UK town you’ll find large major corporations selling absolute shit – it’s a form of psychological trauma just involving yourself with this .You can tell by the packaging – it has become a parody – there was a point when I checked out in the 1990s . The music [of New Weird America] is a reaction to the mass conveyor belt culture – hand made CDRs take on a fresh significance – cut out the middle men – all musicians distributing their own stuff.
AMS – How is your record shop not part of the mainstream?
DK – VT is not a business – the people who care have always been the minority – only fanatics are left to buy records and cds – the talismatic aspect will never ever go. Vinyl is the ultimate format .
AMS – What is the essence of NWA?
DK – It’s a way of channelling nihilism – an urban psych trauma. The avant-garde / primitive intersect is key to NWA – instinctive – spiritually authentic. I want to see someone expressing how they feel with all the awkward contours regardless of what they should feel. With Noise – the more you hear it the more it becomes a language. You have to de-programme your ears – away from the narrowness of music definition. Middle brow is the enemy!
Check out the Podcast – a talk by David keenan: Both Sides = Now:The Aesthetics of Free Folk