ABC – 29/11/13
With songs that make you imagine bleached pebbled sands, ice-cream and bitter British weather, Oxford-formed, bird-watching fanatics Stornoway bring monumental talent to their live shows, skilfully blending modern folk influences with lump in throat confessionals. Having been known to rip up paper and saw wood to create raw live music, their songs of falling in love and long train journeys are designed to arouse forgotten memories in every listener’s heads. Stornoway manage to resurrect the thrill of lying with your first love; illuminating the beauty in young foolery.
However, the moment that really demonstrates their unique talents is the crowd-silencing acoustic set. The boys stand in a crescent formation centre stage with nothing but a double bass for accompaniment and yet they convey so much emotion; innocence and sweetness tainted by homesickness and unrequited love that it’s difficult not to become blurry eyed. If it is anybody you should see live in this lifetime or the next, it is this exquisite coastal-conjuring crew.
Wiping away the tears, qmunicate’s Emmie Harrison floated into the Stornoway dressing room to talk to Oli and Jon about tweed scarves, wizard hats and The Beatles.
So, you probably get this a lot but have you ever been to Stornoway before?
Oli (bassist) – Well, the first time we had a good show. We had a lot of whisky and we actually signed our record deal after the show in a forest around a castle. The second time we went we were bottled off the stage. The people there just wanted a party!
We actually got given Harris Tweed whilst we were there as a gift from the city and we got to see the factory where they make it all. It’s very amazing – castles, rocks. We got to spend whole days play hide and seek.
First thing’s first, you met at Oxford University? What were you studying?
O – I was still at school; I actually went on to study Chemistry. I studied with some people from Strathclyde and worked in a lab. But I wish I did music. Being in a band is a great way of studying music, a big regret of mine is studying Chemistry.
But Breaking Bad is huge now! Jon, what did you study?
Jon (keyboardist) – I studied Russian. It was great. I went over there a few times to Siberia. It’s quite cold. I didn’t know where to start when studying Russian! I started doing it for musical reasons as I was listening to a lot of music in Russian and I wanted to understand what they were saying. But I enjoyed it yeah!
How did you get together in the music industry if you were doing Chemistry and Russian?
O – We found ourselves a fifteen year old drummer but he kept getting us kicked out of the venues because he was too young. But he was the best we could find.
J – He had a toy drum kit.
O – Once we had our drummer we spent five years making CDs of our demos at home and selling them to fans at gigs. We didn’t have any fans; we just sold them to people in pubs. And eventually, someone came up to us and said, “How about I manage you?” Then once we had our manager, he got us some contacts, and he told us to stop wearing dressing gowns on stage.
J – And wizard hats.
O – We actually got some good photos of that. But it was before Facebook.
J – That would be great. I would love to see pictures of us all in dressing gowns and wizard hats!
So rock and roll…
O – We were really part of the entertainment industry, and now we’re more boring in the music industry.
J – We were just messing about and I think we now actually want to do it properly!
Apart from that, what’s your favourite part of touring and playing music?
O – Going to the States is always nice. There is something weird about the landscape there. You feel quite nostalgic.
J – It was cool going to all of these places that you have only heard about in music. It was like what Oli was saying, you feel that you have experienced it already when you haven’t.
Did America react well to your music?
O – They were nice fans – we had big, big crowds in New York and California. But it was the first time we have ever played a gig in the middle of the States. But it was like, big crowds then towards the middle; gradually tends towards zero fans. It never reached zero! Montreal was very quiet.
J – I do still think it’s like a test, and you can still entertain three people. Some people do just take the chance if they have not heard you before.
You mentioned before how the lines of the landscape make you feel more at home, your music is mostly nature based. What fascinates you so much about that?
J – The lyrical side of things is what Brian (lead singer) does. He is quite steeped in the natural world. He is into art ontology; he draws inspiration from the outside world quite often as a metaphor for things internal. Internal emotions – that is how it is reflected. And then there are a couple of songs we’ve done which are actually more of a commentary, like ‘Battery Human’. It’s something Brian is very passionate about it.
Are there any songs that still catch in your throat when you perform?
O – We’ve got ‘The Ones We Hurt The Most’ which is probably the most difficult to do. I don’t actually know what it is about – I have never been tempted to actually enquire. It is nice having the music strong enough that other people who don’t know what it is about, still think passionately of it.
Absolutely, I have been to your gigs where the crowd is utterly silenced by your acoustic set. Everyone seems to get a lump in their throat…
J – As long as it’s not a lump of sick!
So do you prefer your acoustic sets then?
O – In some cases, like at Glastonbury we played the main stage. It was massive, there were thousands of people there; that’s the bit you’re supposed to enjoy. But actually the late afternoon acoustic set we did in a tent to a very small number of people. I remember thinking, this is much better. There was maybe fifty people, everyone was quiet and everyone was listening. There were no technical problems; there was no chatting to keep the crowd entertained. You don’t have to prove anything they just want the music. And this tour though we’ve done well on the production side of things – we’ve got a strong set that starts really loud, electrifying and a bit crazy. Then you go into the acoustic set and it just shows a different side of things.
J – The acoustic set is something we’ve started doing more now. It’s something we’ve realised we enjoy doing. We want the songs to work in their skeletal form after getting rid of the fat and the trimmings.
How do you feel about being compared to Mumford and Sons?
J – The thing is, we don’t listen to their music particularly. They did pave the way in a sense that they changed the music industry by massively focusing on acoustic music. I don’t understand why people say we sound the same as them, because we don’t but I suppose it does mean that people listen to us who might not otherwise have done though. Before they came along you couldn’t get an acoustic instrument on the radio and people didn’t expect them to be phenomenally massive but that doesn’t mean it changes things for us.
There seems to be this group with Laura Marling, Noah and the Whale and Mumford and Sons which people expect us to be part of but we’re trying to be in our own bubble. We did play gigs with Laura Marling, and I personally think she’s great but we’re not part of the London thing. They’re all huge!
Is it true that you bonded over Glasgow icons Teenage Fanclub?
J – In my case and Brian’s case, yeah we were into them. I don’t remember this but the first thing Brain said to me when he first met me was that I looked like someone from Teenage Fanclub. With the long hair and the beard. It’s always been a band we’ve liked!
So where do you think the ideal setting is to play your music?
O – There’s something special about West Wales in Pembrokeshire. We’ve all spent whole days there and it is a very beautiful place. You see the sun setting and you can imagine the Tolkien setting with the elves and the afterlife… We actually played with some hobbits on this tour. They were the support. Other than Pembrokeshire, I’m not sure. I don’t listen to our music.
J – We hear the songs everyday. Anything but! It would literally be like listening to the sound of your own voice.
Who would be your ideal band to support on tour?
J – Are they allowed to be dead? If I could resurrect them – I suppose because he died recently I would say The Velvet Underground. When they were actually going I never really appreciated them enough. It’s not an obvious choice for us!
O – I think mine would be [cult welsh psychedelic musician] Euros Childs just because of how funny he is. The amount of love that was created in the room when I saw them – everyone in the room added a couple of years to their lives just from the laughter. Because of how unhealthy touring is, just eating crisps, you want a really good experience. I did hear the same jokes at every single gig though so I killed it.
J – I’ve changed my mind, I want Mr. Motivator!
O – At a time I would have said Rolf Harris.
J – Rolf Harris has actually signed one of our backing’s trumpets.
And on that note, last question. Birdwatching or The Beatles?
O – I’d say The Beatles every time.
J – Definitely The Beatles. I actually had a dream I met George Harrison the other day. And he was an old, wise man. They were great, great musicians. Definitely The Beatles. What’s your favourite album.
Man! So hard. Revolver?
J – The one I listen to the most is probably Rubber Soul. But it does vary a lot as when I was a kid, the first album I heard was Sergeant Peppers. It was like a fairground! The colours catch your imagination. I still think the songs are amazing but if you take them individually, theres not as many amazing songs? But I could bore you for hours and hours!