This article originally appeared in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland)
The messages started early last Sunday. “Happy 10th birthday to my favourite record shop, Monorail Music,” said Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite on Twitter, and his sentiment was echoed by Edwyn Collins, Frightened Rabbit, Optimo, BMX Bandits, RM Hubbert and many more. Monorail’s memo was typically modest: “It’s our 10th birthday today. Amazing really. Thanks for supporting us and allowing us to be here,” it said. They’ll officially mark a decade in business with a cult-pop knees-up this Sunday.
Ten years ago, musician Stephen ‘Pastel’ McRobbie joined forces with Dep Downie, then of Missing Records, and former Herald music writer John Williamson to open Monorail Music in Glasgow: a congenial, passionate record emporium with a keen eye for vinyl and a penchant for independent sounds. “Glasgow was and is an amazing music city and we hoped that we could put a record shop in the middle of it all,” remembers Pastel, frontman of indie luminaries The Pastels. He previously sold records in John Smith’s bookshop on Byres Road.
“We set out to be friendly, curious, forward-looking, specific and community-minded,” he continues, “and we were lucky to have immediate allies in Teenage Fanclub [who financially invested in Monorail], Chemikal Underground, Optimo [also marking 15 awesome years this week] and countless others.” Monorail swiftly gained a reputation for excellent stock – local and global; upcoming and vintage; alternative classics and outlandish rarities – and for exceptional in-store gigs, including a Belle and Sebastian album launch that witnessed karaoke turns from the likes of Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos.
“I can’t say it wasn’t hard work, especially for Dep, but at no time did I think we’d fail,” says Pastel. “And the shop has slowly grown – and grown better – through the years.”
This positive tone is at odds with widespread accounts of record retail despair. Pastel et al are not in denial, or immune to the decline of physical music consumption, but they remain optimistic and full of ideas (like their spin-off enterprise, Monorail Film Club). That outlook is reflected by the shop’s interior brightness, warmth and accessibility. “Yeah, we absolutely did not want the shop to be an intimidating environment: we wanted young kids, or people’s parents, or grandparents, to be able to come in and ask for a record,” says Pastel.
Downie, too, emphasises user-friendliness, with regard to their Kings Court location. “I always wanted us to be a city centre record shop because when I was a kid, coming in from Lanarkshire, I wouldn’t have known about record shops in the West End – I’d have known about shops in the centre. That’s why I think it’s important we’re here, even though we’d maybe make more money on Byres Road.”
This sense of ideology over commerce courses through Monorail, and much of Glasgow’s counter-culture: the shop’s collaborative nature and sense of artistic community is amplified by Craig Tannock, who owns venues / cafe-bars Stereo and Mono (Monorail is housed within Mono), and who previously helmed the renowned 13th Note on Glassford Street – a hangout steeped in 1990s DIY mythology. Did Tannock’s aesthetic, and indie history, resonate with their Monorail ethos?
“I think what we liked about Craig was that we saw him as this ethical grassroots promoter who was always operating on a shoestring – he had this kind of anarcho-madness,” Pastel laughs. “Craig’s one of these people who just thinks that things are possible. He was hoping to sell vegan shoes in here at one point. He’s brilliant and bonkers.”
One of Tannock’s maverick, vegan-flavoured endeavours was the Club Beatroot live seven-inch series – a collaborative venture between the 13th Note, John Williamson and guitarist RM Hubbert (among others), which included Mogwai, The Yummy Fur and Cora Bissett’s folk-punk troupe Swelling Meg (each disc also featured a vegan Beetroot recipe). Club Beatroot offered a collaborative snapshot of a certain place at a certain time (Glasgow underground, mid-late 90s), and it’s echoed in a brand-new box-set, Some Songs Side-By-Side, released this week by Tannock’s new Stereo label, Downie’s Watts of Goodwill imprint and Stevie McCaffrey’s likeminded RE:PEATER Records (see below).
Downie launched Watts of Goodwill in 2009 (his second release was the Scottish Album of the Year Award nominated Muscles of Joy LP) and Pastel has stellar label form – he ran iconic indie 53rd and 3rd (Jesus and Mary Chain, The Beat Poets, Talulah Gosh), and now co-helms Geographic (Lightships, Bill Wells). Williamson, meanwhile, co-runs ethical label Ubisano, thus ensuring Monorail has an instinctive understanding of the ways in which record shops need record labels to thrive, and vice versa.
The shop has subtly charted an evolving sonic landscape over the past decade. “Russell [Elder] joining was really significant because he had really good metal knowledge,” Pastel notes. “Also, when we opened in 2002, there was a sense of modernity about a lot of independent music – it was very much that era of Stereolab, Tortoise, quite forward-looking musicians – whereas at this point in time, there’s more great retro music: Crystal Stilts, Veronica Falls. Listening and buying habits have become wilder too, because people can check anything out online.”
Has the wealth of exotica championed by Monorail, or available in cyberspace, had a discernable impact on Glasgow bands? “A group like Sacred Paws wouldn’t sound like they do without all those incredible African re-issues – bands are exposed to far more exotic things now,” suggests Pastel. Sacred Paws’ entrancing tropical (post-)punk graces Some Songs Side-By-Side, and they’ll also play Monorail’s birthday hoopla on Sunday, along with Richard Youngs, Moon Unit and a rumoured rare turn from The Pastels.
Downie is upbeat but pragmatic about this week’s anniversary. “I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved, but it feels like Monorail still has a long way to go. We’re so backward we shouldn’t really exist,” he laughs. “I’m not really into branding. We’ve got no online presence. And these things will change, it’s not out of choice, but I want to do them properly. In a way, though, I think sometimes not having a website makes people seek you out more, spend more time.” Another modest understatement: “Hopefully Monorail is worth finding.”
Monorail , 12 Kings Court, open 11am-7pm Monday to Saturday; noon-7pm Sunday. 10th Birthday Party: Sunday, 7.30pm. Free advance tickets from Monorail.
SIDEBAR: SOME SONGS SIDE-BY-SIDE
Monorail’s Dep Downie also runs Glasgow imprint Watts of Goodwill, which has teamed up with Stereo’s fledgling label, and RE:PEATER Records, to issue Some Songs Side-By-Side, an unprecedented, thrill-packed double-vinyl / CD box-set. It features original contributions from eight contemporary musicians (including Muscles of Joy, Gummy Stumps, Organs of Love) and eight local visual artists (including Turner Prize winner Richard Wright and David Shrigley).
“I’ve seen so many amazing bands that split up or disappear before they put a record out, and then they’re gone forever – there’s no documentation. That’s the idea of this,” says Downie of their joint endeavour. “It’s meant to be a document of Glasgow, now. It’s turned out better than any of us had imagined, and we didn’t compromise on anything. It reminds me of all those old DIY punk compilations, stuffed full of newspapers and flyers. I really hope it becomes a classic, cult record.”
Related article: Finding Time: Glasgow, DIY and The Odd Tale of RM Hubbert (The Quietus)