The Pastels, Record Store Day, and independence...

Record Store Day’s evolution has been a curious thing to behold.

To begin with, it felt like a real shot in the arm for independent retail, offering up a few gems for fans in the process. It’s phenomenal success – events will run from Land’s End to John O’ Groats this year – has led to no small degree of criticism, though.

Clogged pressing plants and a deeply variable list of releases have brought the detractors out of the woodwork, with some arguing that the entire event needs to be scrapped.

At times, the negativity is just a little too much. After all, countless fans will enter an independent record shop this weekend and leave with a bag full of vinyl – some will return week after week, bringing new custom in the process.

Seeking out a positive voice, Clash got on the phone to Pastels songwriter and record shop aficionado Stephen McRobbie. Stephen helped found Monorail, a shop that – in my opinion – ranks as one of the very best in the country. A warm atmosphere and great records are guaranteed, while the staff have a patient, friendly, knowledgeable air that is helpful but never intrusive.

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So how is it all going, Stephen?
We’re doing really well, it’s actually been a pretty sensational year for us. There’s been an amazing run of releases so far this year, and we’ve got really nice close relationships with so many of the groups, like Mogwai, Frightened Rabbit. It’s been really good for us so it feels quite exciting just now.

You had Frightened Rabbit playing a live set in Mono last week.
It was great! It was packed out, and they’re a group that people really love and react to, there’s just something really human and warm about it. The partner of one of the band members works in Mono and she she’s an artist so she made a lithograph edition which the band signed and we were able to sell it as a special edition around the release.

Do you find fans like that sort of personal touch?
I think they do. I suppose this year’s been a change for us, as we only really started our online shop last year. Our business has always been really strong and but I suppose it’s probably something slightly more creative in a way, working with groups to come up with something that is kind of cool for them and their fans.

How has the online retail aspect of Mono worked out?
It’s taken off really well. It’s been really interesting, I think, because we’ve got a strong identity with the shop and a very community-based relationship with customers. I think people trust us and the shop is a nice place to come to, so we’ve created this goodwill and it’s been a sound platform to launch the online side from.

I suppose a lot of regular customers over the years have now moved away, and this is a nice way to keep in touch.
Well it’s interesting because there’s definitely a few regulars, and people who maybe don’t live in Glasgow but they’ll come in the shop when they’re in town. So yeah, it’s a nice way of keeping our connection with customers and friends. When we started the shop we wanted to have a business that was just sustainable, that could grow. And we’re really, really proud that over the past year we’ve been able to put all our staff onto living wage. It needs to be more than just a transaction - I think we saw the shop as being something else, as being something that would trigger things in Glasgow and be an important dot on the map for Glasgow music things.

It seems like everyone in the shop is either a musician or a DJ or involved in arts in some way - do you think being permanently embedded in that culture helps?
Absolutely, it helps you understand things from both sides and I think it gives you a sense of responsibility. We’re the frontline representation of someone’s work, so you want to represent their work in a respectful way and if someone asks what a record’s like you want to be able to explain it to the person who’s asking. What we do is really, really basic stuff - you know, it’s not complicated but we try to do it well.

The curatorial aspect of a record shop is so, so important.
Yeah I think people respond to what we’re playing in the shop, and we try to have the kind of shop where people don’t feel intimidated to ask or don’t feel that it’s a kind of hostile situation or something. I think we’re quite a friendly bunch! It is very noticeable that people have started spending quite a lot of money on records now, and it’s quite often a Friday or Saturday thing - people come in and buy a bunch of records and see it as something really enjoyable to do. Although there’s a kind of speedy listening thing which we all need to do, we need to just check things out really quickly, I think also there seems to be a culture of people sitting down to listen to a record properly again.

Record Store Day is coming up, and Monorail is involved once again – why did you decide to take part this year?
It’s something that’s a good thing for record shops. I’ve seen some negativity from people saying the releases aren’t so good this year, and part of being a shop like us is that you’re to an extent cherry picking all the time, finding the good things and bringing people’s attention to those. And there are plenty of good things - they’re maybe not things that seem massive for everyone but they’re really important for us. There’s a new Hope Sandoval record, there’s a Cats Eyes record, there’s a Primal Scream record... there’s a lot of good stuff.

I think people love a backlash don’t they? People love a moan. We’re good all the time, we’ve always got good records in our shop but Record Store Day is great because it brings in tonnes of people that maybe don’t know exactly what you do, and maybe they only come in once a year but quite a few of them will probably come back. In a way I’m not surprised that not all the releases are great, they never were, but there’s enough good stuff so it’s pretty exciting just to identify the good things and focus on them.

I think one of the problems is that the catalogue is so big this year.
Yeah it’s a real mixture. We probably stock some things that we wouldn’t at other times because we’re expecting different people to come. We’re probably the biggest record Record Store Day shop in Scotland now, so we’re wanting to find some new customers but equally kind of keep our focus on the kinds of things that we would normally be stocking. Once you get past the collectors mania of the first couple of hours, the flippers, and people who are genuine fans, then it becomes something else.

We’re selling a lot of records that we would normally carry if they were just generally released, but there are too many releases and it needs to find its focus slightly again. It’s hard just now - big labels don’t really have that many people working on these kinds of projects, and maybe the expertise isn’t always there, but I think it will be a pretty amazing day and I’m looking forward to it.

Will there be live performances in the shop for Record Store Day?
Yeah Emma Pollock’s doing a show for us, Spinning Coin are playing, we’ve got a bunch of great DJs and we’ve got some children’s stuff going on. There’ll be cakes, it’ll be a really nice, warm family atmosphere.

Finally, is there going to be any music from you in 2016 or are you going to be focusing on the shop and the label this year?
No, but we’re trying to pull together a couple of Pastels retrospectives, though. Some of our tapes have been coming back to us and we’re working on that. We are starting to make new music as well, but I don’t think we’ll release anything new this year. It just takes a lot of time to get in everything for a retrospective, but we are working on that. We’ve got working on a couple of Geographic things, too, we’re going to be playing some live shows, we’ve got a couple of festivals… it’s going to be a busy old time.

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Record Store Day takes place on April 16th at shops around the country - track down your local retailer HERE.

Stay in touch with Monorail online.

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