Of Trucks, Trains, Tractors and Monorails: visiting the Monorail record shop with Stephen Pastel and Duglas T. Stewart
by Anna Battista
It's an unusually sunny day in Glasgow. The orchids are blossoming in the tropical Victorian dome of the botanical gardens, a man outside the local Safeway in Byres Road is shouting "The Big Issueeee!" and students from all over the world are rushing to Glasgow University for their classes. Everything looks the same as it was when I left the place four years ago. It is as if everything has been preserved under one of those plastic, tacky but irresistible snow domes: life is relentlessly changing, but it's essentially the same. I walk further down the street, towards Hillhead underground station, to pay a visit to my favourite record shop on the second floor of the John Smith bookshop. Wearing the silliest smile of the world, possibly grinning like a Cheshire cat, I arrive in front of the shop only to find a Starbuck Café. Somebody must have rearranged my reality. I'm pretty sure, this was a bookshop and on the first floor there was an independent record shop. I perfectly remember it. Musician Stephen Pastel used to work here and the shop had become a Mecca for The Pastels' fans and for indie music lovers. This was a place were people could meet and talk about their music addiction. I suddenly feel lost. This can't be true. This is not Glasgow anymore.
"The record shop in Byres Road was part of a small traditional bookseller we had in Glasgow for several hundred years, John Smith, one of the oldest independent booksellers in the world," Stephen Pastel starts recounting two months after my shocking visit to Byres Road, "but the company had become badly run and when Borders and Waterstones opened in Glasgow, they became very weak and weren't able to respond to the challenge of bigger companies coming in and undercutting them. As a consequence, the company went down and John Smith became an academic bookseller, but I guess the company will have to close really soon since it has been really a disaster for the last ten years and the director in charge messed up the whole company and ran it into ruin." Stephen pauses for a minute, then he continues his tale, "When the record shop closed I said, 'OK, this is good, it will give me more time to do more music and to direct the label.' But then the fact that there wasn't a record shop in Glasgow that would stock all the Geographic music became really frustrating. There just didn't seem to be any good record shops, so we started having the idea of Rough Trade opening in Glasgow as a franchise. We pursued that for a really long time, but then, in the end, they weren't ready to have a franchise, there were problems on how we would administer our Internet sales, so we decided to open our own independent shop."
We're sitting inside the Mono Café', near King's Street, in the centre of Glasgow. Stephen is nursing a beer, the candle on the table flickers and casts golden shadows on his fair hair. Soft music comes from the back of the café, where the record shop Stephen is talking about has just opened. It is called "Monorail." "For so long we thought we were Rough Trade, but, when we decided to open our own indie shop, we suddenly had to get a name," Stephen says. "I just brainstormed over all these names, but I liked the sound of the name 'Monorail'. It just felt right, because the shop is underneath a railway track, a monorail and there was also a geographical connection because the person who invented the monorail, Louis Brennen, was from Scotland, from Lough Lannagh. It just seemed so perfect! So I emailed all the other people in our collective asking them what they thought about it and everyone liked it."
Stephen founded The Pastels in Scotland in 1982, but he ran for years the legendary 53rd and 3rd record label that helped to launch the careers of Scottish bands such as the Jesus & Mary Chain, Teenage Fanclub, The Vaselines, BMX Bandits, The Shop Assistants, and the Soup Dragons, and he worked for years in a well known independent record shop. By now The Pastels are revered by rock luminaries such as Sonic Youth and Nirvana and Stephen has a massive experience in the music business, which might help the shop. "For an independent shop to survive you need to have really good knowledge and you also need to specialise. There is a nice group of people who are running the store, I'm just one of them. Four main people are involved in the shop, but another ten people are really helping us in giving good advice about things. We are confident that we will manage and make the shop successful."
Stephen is at present busy also working with his new record label, Geographic, which he runs together with Katrina Mitchell and Laurence Bell. "It is important that the record shop reflects a lot of people's tastes, because you have to survive by stocking records that people can't find anywhere else. Whereas with a record label, I think it's good to have a very strong sense of what the sound of such a label should be. I like it when a record label has a specific sound and you have some idea of what a record on that label will be like."
Geographic is responsible for launching sometimes obscure artists, but also for being different from the other record labels for one thing: the records released by Geographic have a distinctive sound and are a little bit just like pieces of an art collection you can't do without buying. The catalogue goes from cinematic International Airport to eclectic Future Pilot AKA, from Teenage Fanclub and Jad Fair to the mysterious Japanese semi-obscure band Maher Shalal Hash Baz. The latter are Tori and Reiko Kudo, two Japanese music lovers whose desire to make music comes from an innerborn passion which is a fusion of deranged love for this art and of hidden talent. The album released on Geographic contains 27 tracks: some are instrumental, some others such as "Street Corner College" or "Wings Of Dawn" are sung in Japanese. "Summer" is hopelessly sad, "Goodbye" is a Carnival of sounds, "Unknown Happiness" is the main theme of the album and "Heart And Soul And Mind" sounds as if you already heard it somewhere in your life, but you'll never manage to grasp where and when, it is as if it was there before the entire world was even created.
"Katrina and I were staying at one of our friends in London. He writes for The Wire magazine and he said, 'This record is the record for you, I know you're going to love this' and he played this record to us and we simply loved it," Stephen remembers when he first heard a record from the Japanese band. "We loved the sleeve as well! Katrina and I could never remember the name of the band because it's a very complicated one. When I came back home I phoned my friend and asked him if he could get me a copy of the record he had played, but he said Maher Shalal Hash Baz's record was rare and getting a copy of it might cost about 100 pounds. He eventually found the record for us and, yes, we were really happy, but we wanted to introduce their music to other people, so we decided to release From A Summer To Another Summer (An Egypt To Another Egypt and we also brought them to Glasgow and to the Stirling Festival. People simply loved them, they were really excited by these new band."
One of my earliest memories of living in Glasgow involves a National Park gig at the School of Art: Stephen was DJing there and among the other records he played Ennio Morricone's track "Una Stanza Vuota". At the beginning, I thought this was a weird coincidence, me being Italian and away from my home country. But then I discovered that, well, it wasn't really a coincidence nor a tribute to my nationality, but a tribute to the man himself, to Ennio Morricone. "I particularly like Morricone, he's maybe my favourite musician, he's the composer I listen to most," Stephen explains, "whenever I see a cheap Morricone record I always buy it and I still play 'Una Stanza Vuota' when I DJ…" he smiles. I nod, meaning that I know it since Stephen recently played the track again during an International Airport gig.
He continues, "A while back we did a Morricone tribute night in Glasgow organised by Duglas T. Stewart. Ennio Morricone played a concert in London a year and a half ago, we know it's quite expensive to put him on, but we would love to have him in Glasgow. I would love to see Morricone…" he confesses ruffling his crown of hair, "You see, Morricone is actually one of the favourite musicians of the Glasgow music scene." In Italy there are quite a few record labels competing to re-release Morricone's back catalogue. One of them is Dago Red, fancied as one of the best exotica label around. "Dago Red is very expensive but I think their records aren't really good quality records," Stephen claims. "The way they re-master the music isn't always good. I must be honest, I would only buy something on Dago Red if it were something I absolutely had to own. I don't think Dago Red records sound very good if you compare them to the original versions. Other record labels such as General Music and RCA Italia records are much much better sounding."
Since we just mentioned the quality of sound it's inevitable to talk about the local recording studios and the local venues. "Recording has changed so much over the last ten years that there isn't always the necessity to be in an expensive studio," Stephen states. "We now use computers so much and it's a lot easier for us to record anywhere. There's a little studio in East Kilbride that I really like. It's run by David Scott from The Pearlfishers and we recorded Maher Shalal Hash Baz's album there. We also recorded some stuff recently with John McEntire from Tortoise at Cava Studio in Charing Cross, Glasgow. For what regards the venues, we recently put International Airport on at the CCA in Glasgow, but we're trying to find somewhere which is ideal. The CCA is OK at present, but we're really looking for something else. I'm not sure it would be good to have bands playing here at the Mono Café' because people eating don't want loud music, so we might need to find another place."
Developing the Monorail shop, finding a new place to do gigs, Stephen seems to be rather busy during these days and the future is saving for him some new and exciting projects: "We're working on Directorsound's record which is coming out on Geographic in April 2003. Directorsound is a one man band from Dorset, he released one track on our compilation You Don't Need Darkness To Do What Is Right that also featured International Airport, the Bill Wells Octet, Future Pilot AKA, Appendix Out, Telstar Ponies and Nagisa Ni Te. We think Directorsound has made an incredible record, he more or less plays everything himself, he's really great. I'm really looking forward for that to come out. We're working on Maher Shalal Hash Baz and Future Pilot AKA's new albums as well."
Future Pilot AKA's latest album released on Geographic, Tiny Waves, Mighty Sea, was a pure gem: Future Pilot AKA's Sushil K. Dade dared to invite to play on his record Bill Wells, Teenage Fanclub's Raymond MacDonald and Norman Blake, The Pastels' Katrina Mitchell and Stephen Pastel, Belle & Sebastian's Isobel Campbell and Stuart Murdoch, The Delgados' Emma Pollock, Alun Woodward and Stewart Henderson, Eugenius' Eugene Kelly, BMX Bandits' Duglas T. Stewart and Francis MacDonald and Superstar's Joe McAlinden and Jim McCulloch, but to mention a few of them. The sessions were recorded at Teenage Fanclub's studio in Glasgow and they are a triumph of the most disparate sounds, going from the ethereal "Ananda Is The Ocean", the Indian sensual drone of "Darshan", the hymn "Witchi Tai To" and the rockish "Beat Of A Drum". "Shree Ram, Jai Ram" is a choir of angels, "Om Namah Shivaya" is spellbinding. and the final litany "Prayer for Ananda" is wonderfully apt to close this album in which dreamy soundscapes and carpets of sounds, atmospheres of anointed sanctity and heavenly talent entwine. Including an essay by Raymond MacDonald about how the album was conceived, this magic and internationalist sounding project avoids categorisation to gift the artists with the freedom to play what they want and how they want it and gives the listener spiritual peace and freedom of thinking.
"Future Pilot's 'Tiny Waves, Mighty Sea' was really fantastic," Stephen agrees, revealing, "Sushil has almost finished his new work which will probably be released in May." New surprises are in store for The Pastels' fans: "We're not going to release a proper Pastels album, our new album is actually a soundtrack for David Mackenzie's film The Last Great Wilderness. On the album there are six or seven short pieces of instrumental music and two songs, one with Jarvis Cocker from Pulp singing and one song with Katrina singing. After that album we'll do some proper Pastels music." The Pastels also appear in Mackenzie's movie. "We had a cameo role in it," Stephen shyly admits. "We did the music mainly," he underlines.
The collaboration The Pastels did with Jarvis Cocker seems to be only the latest: in their musical life, the band worked with every single Glaswegian band, from BMX Bandits to Belle and Sebastian, not to mention all the international artists they've worked with such as Half Japanese's genius Jad Fair. "We've collaborated with so many people that now it would be nice to collaborate with ourselves!" Stephen exclaims laughing, "We recently worked with a good sound engineer, John McEntire, and that was fantastic. But I'd like to make Pastels music the next time we work on something, so maybe less collaborations, just us playing and singing but with a very good sound engineer, that's what I would like to do now."
Honourable mention to the band Stephen's been listening lately goes to Glaswegian V-Twin: "I like them a lot, they are friends, they are probably more rock n' roll than The Pastels or the typical bands you might find on Geographic. But they are fun and they have this collaboration spirit." Stephen concludes, casting a look at the shop where a few clients are rummaging through the record racks and Katrina is quietly working behind the counter. Guess right now the future of the record shop is what's on Stephen's mind most, and I ask him to recommend me a record to listen to: "Our record of the month is Faust's Best of. They are a German group that existed since the 1970s and this is a collection of their music. They assembled tapes and tapes, so the record spans thirty years in their history, but, at the same time, it has a special compactness. We also have an Optimo record of the month, Barry 7's Connectors Volume 2 on Lo Recordings. We have a close connection with the Glaswegian club Optimo. On the compilation there is also a Morricone track…" Stephen smiles almost to convince me to buy it, then looks around and sees BMX Bandits' Duglas T. Stewart hanging around the shop, so, while Stephen goes back to assist the clients, Duglas takes his place and starts recounting from his point of view what this shop means for him.
"In Glasgow there has always been a lot of creativity and there is also a sort of music community which is very outward looking, there is a very international attitude, but there was no record shop to provide a sort of focus," Duglas says. "What a lot of big companies have been doing, with big record shops or big cinemas, is move into an area, steal the customers of small indie shops and art house cinemas, then, once they manage to get rid of the competition, stop being specialised. But we realised we needed a specialised record shop. It's really great to be able to buy records over the Internet, but one of the most important things about buying records and discovering music is having a place where you can go and hear different things. Imagine having a record shop where the people who run it might start getting to know you and suggest you records to listen to, or play you some records they know you might like. That would be a different experience."
"The main thing with the shop now is to bring new people in. There is not going to be the aggressive 'what are you buying?' attitude in this shop: you can go in and hang around and listen. I think a lot of people from this kind of musical community definitely have an evangelical nature about them. The greatest pleasure we can have in life is to turn someone else onto a record or a band. And I think the actual position of the 'Monorail' shop, in amongst the café and the fair trade stall, is just like a real kind of community place. A lot of bands and musicians and record companies in Glasgow supported it and brought money or goods to the initial launch of the shop, because they felt it was something that it was needed so much. There is a number of ideas to develop the shop such as being able to sell over the Internet, because there are people living in other areas who might not be able to visit the shop. Then the shop might sell tickets or have people coming and performing in the shop. I would think these would be all the things we might improve the shop with in the future."
In Duglas' future there isn't only the shop: "We've actually done a new BMX Bandits album. For a while I've been involved in lots of other things: I did a Brian Wilson tribute night, a Morricone tribute night with people like Eugene Kelly, Norman Blake, Bill Wells and some people from Belle and Sebastian and The Pearlfishers taking part and performing together. It was a great opportunity to do that Morricone gig, because we had a very wide audience, with people who were maybe in their sixties, older people, and younger kids. I don't know if Morricone heard about it, but it would be nice if he did. The most exciting thing about it was that a lot of people have only heard the Mondo Morricone collection or The Good, The Bad and The Ugly or The Mission soundtracks and they wouldn't be aware of other Morricone tracks. During that concert we played other songs so that people might get to know them. Isobel Campbell and Eugene Kelly sang different songs and people were so surprised to hear them. We also did instrumental tracks of course. Among the other things we also recorded a Brian Wilson tribute album. I think that some time in the future we might be able to do other tribute nights, but I don't know whom we might be celebrating. The point is I think that I have to go back and celebrate my own music for a little while. We're going to release a new album early next year, so I'm sort of excited about making music again 'cos there's also going to be a BMX Bandits radio session collection coming out earlier next year and we're going to play concerts again. For what regards my music, I think the influences in it are probably still very very widespread. The music is still quite eclectic, the new album sort of sounds a lot older now. I think we're still influenced by a lot of records from the past, but I quite wanted the new record to sound like a record that was made now, not like an impersonation of a record that made in the 1960s. There are probably quite a few things to learn from old records, but most of the people I admire wouldn't try to make records that sound as a record that had been done twenty or so years ago."
A lot of independent artists are at present releasing records in Great Britain and experiencing various problems of distribution. "I think in some ways it's a funny situation," Duglas starts, "it's now much easier for almost anyone to make music, make a track and burn their own CDs in their house or whatever. So, on some levels it is definitely quite easier to make music nowadays: you can get music as MP3s that people can hear on the net for example. So in a way there have been a lot of positive things happening, but I just think the whole nature, the kind of cynical nature of the music industry now, is not investing on people who can work on long term matters. It is now a case in Britain that if someone gets signed to a record company and they cannot get a top five hit as their first release, they are maybe dropped straight away, even some mainstream artists. I'm not a fan of someone like Elton John, but Elton John, or even David Bowie, would not have been able to develop: they had a long time before they had any level of success, they were able to develop and grow. I think now it would be difficult for something like this to happen. Now you get a band signed by a major company and they think they'd made it, but the first record might not even be released and if it is released, if it doesn't sell, the band gets dropped. I think it's very difficult for bands to get their CDs played in the major stores and get a major distribution, unless it is something that is very mainstream. But this thing is backfiring on the majors because right now there is almost no real product of any worth in the charts. People are becoming more and more disillusioned and they are not buying things. Music is actually a dangerous, exciting and sexy thing and not something just boring and bland. This is what the people involved in the music business should understand."
In a way the music press has also become bland: "I think a lot of the passion you had in fanzines has been transferred to people building fan sites on the Internet, even though there is something quite exciting about someone having some stapled pieces of paper at a concert saying, 'Please, buy this!' It's a sad thing there aren't as many fanzines as there were before, but it's also quite exciting to be able to get in touch with someone from the other side of the world through the Internet and communicate your musical passion to them. You see, I've never believed in the NME. I always thought that the name is so appropriate because they are the 'en-em-ee', the 'enemy'. I remember when Sounds stopped being published and Elvis Costello said 'One down, two to go!' I totally agree with that sentence. It's not that I want to see people who are passionate about music not writing about it or getting a living out of it, I want to see them writing something else, informing people about something more positive. A lot of the editors would also suppress what journalists passionately wanted to write about. More than ten years ago, we would have writers from the NME, but also other magazines, saying, 'I really want to write about you, but my editor won't let me write about this or that'."
But, since music is, as Duglas said, an "exciting thing" we soon leave behind this painful discussions about the evil world of the music biz to move onto something else: Duglas has just visited the shop and he has already made a list of records we should all buy "What I would actually recommend apart from the Barry 7's Connectors Volume II is what I have in my bag!" Duglas stops, rummages in his bag and conjures up a CD single. "It's Asa Chang's single, it's mainly a tablas track: when I heard it I thought, 'Wait a second, this is a really important record!' You see, I'm discovering brand new things myself! But there are so many good records here, including Duglas T. Stewart's solo album and BMX's first album, 'Sex On Vinyl', still available here on vinyl!"
I smile, nod, promise I will buy something at some point, perhaps some of the stuff Duglas has recommended me, or something different, like some rare record from The Fall to add to my collection. We'll see. Meanwhile it's good to know that I'm back between friends and it's good to know that new clients will soon find new friends. The shop might be a point of geography where people might meet with their fave bands and find new or old records, or new or old friends, in the same way as it happened to me.
In The War in the Air, H.G. Wells tells the story of how "There had been talk of mono-rails for several years," but the real thing arrived only in 1907, when Louis Brennan exhibited during a meeting of the Royal Society in London an "inaudible, but convincing" invention that would have stirred the imagination of people for ages. A few months ago, there had been talks of a new independent record shops opening in Glasgow. Now it's here, it has arrived and it's called Monorail. Above all, it's not "inaudible, but convincing", it's amazing and exciting and with the records it has got in stock it will stir the imagination of music lovers for ages.