When Tim Bearder was suspended from BBC Radio Oxford in
March 2006 for dedicating the whole hour of his breakfast show to local
band Stornoway, it should have felt like an early indication that these
four gifted musicians were on their way to something. However,
after joking about costing the DJ his job, singer and guitarist Brian
Briggs, talking to R*E*P*E*A*T fanzine along with his three band mates
before their performance at the Cambridge Junction, quickly suggests
that back then there were no certainties: Well hes a bit
of a strange man so we werent necessarily convinced that his perspective
on the band was representative of the wider population but it was very
exciting to listen to an hour of us doing silly interviews and playing
our demos at 5am on the Alan Partridge slot on BBC Oxford.
Indeed it took more hard work and another three years before the band
began to attain any kind of foothold in the overcrowded UK music market
with the release of their first single Zorbing in July 2009. In that
time, Brian explains, the band: were recording and releasing EPs,
recruiting more musicians, playing lots of gigs in Oxford and just generally
developing as a band. Writing, refining and improving.
It was the launch of their first album Beachcombers Windowsill
in May 2010, however, that really signalled the arrival of Stornoway.
A summation of the musical creativity of the group since their inception,
the album charted at number 14 in the UK; not bad for an album which,
the band fully admits, was almost entirely a DIY job. This, Brian informs
me, was through both choice and necessity: We didnt get
a record deal until wed finished it basically and when they (4AD)
came along they gave their endorsement of our own recordings. We werent
asked to re-do any of it.
Around the time we were getting record offers we, by choice, re-recorded
I Saw You Blink as we felt the version we recorded quite far back wasnt
as good as it could be. And we re-recorded bits of a song called Boats
and Trains. I think that might have been our first recording, if not
the first then one of the first, before Rob and Oli, and we wanted them
to feature on it. Also at that stage we didnt really know how
to use the digital recorder we were using and it sounded very kind of
chopped up and a bit weird. But essentially its an album of our
own home recordings.
The band seem fully at ease with the end result and appear in no way
desperate to have thousands of pounds thrown at them to produce a lavish
work of art. Drummer Robert Steadman tells me: I think its
better to go with the raw moment where you come up with a tune, words
or melody rather than waiting ten years. If you record something a decade
or so after that then the context is a bit different and its difficult
to get in the mindset of the sentiment.
Stornoway are already looking to the next album but there arent
any signs that they are ready to turn their backs on the humble beginnings
that have served them well so far. When asked if the next album would
be more produced Brian quickly says: I think well start
in the same way and arrange the songs with the help of home recording
equipment, thats how we finally settled on a lot of the arrangements
for the first album. Then depending on the songs, well decide
to keep them with the home sound or not.
Long Distance Lullaby was recorded with a producer for the first album
as we decided that one would benefit from a studio in order to get a
big, slightly epic sound. So we might do the same thing.
As is every artists wish it seems that Stornoways record
company 4AD is happy with this approach by the band and, as Brian tells
me, is unlikely to force them to create a massive pop chart success:
They seem really laid back and very happy to leave the ball in
our court. Thats exactly why we wanted to go with them. We like
to have our own space creatively so if they do start to sort of push
for pop hits or something then obviously well ignore them.
Aside from the success of their album, the band have also played at
the last two Glastonburys and successful slots at other festivals
such as WOMAD, which Brain openly declares his love for: Me and
John worked there as Oxfam stewards in the past. Its a great festival,
really interesting with great music. It was very nice to be playing
and the good thing is that the two main stages are beside each other
and they dont clash so youre guaranteed an audience and
in our case it was a real, nice, happy audience so it made it very enjoyable.
At the tail end of 2009 the band had their first brush with mega stardom
when they shared a TV studio with Sting, Norah Jones, Jay-Z and the
Foo Fighters for a recording of Jools Hollands Later show. Robert
gives a clear indication of their status amongst the artist: We
had the smallest dressing room out of all of them. I cant think
why. But we got to play hacki sack with Norah Jones and get our hair
cut with Sting. His brother Oliver suggests it wasnt all
fun and games though: It was very intimidating having them all
across the studio watching us and it being live to the world on TV.
Jon Ouin, guitarist, cellist and keyboardist in the band, was also overcome
by the situation: I think by the second song we enjoyed it a bit
more. With the first it was just slightly too terrifying. Brian
explains further: Its broadcast out on TV live so you dont
get a second chance and we knew that there was a lot of people watching
including Jay-Z. Oliver chips in, insisting that Jay-Z loved the
performance, whilst Brian continues: It was almost as scary watching
it again on TV. On the Saturday a load of friends came round and watched
it all and we relived the terror.
The bands current tour sees them play their biggest headline gig
at Shepherds Bush Empire and has been a very big step up for them. This
has not been lost on Brian: Its amazing to be playing the
album to all these people that we dont know and theyre singing
along. Its been very exciting. And its been pretty much
sold out every night.
Tonights performance at The Junction is almost full to capacity
if not sold out and we are treated to a real show from Stornoway, who
have even gone to the trouble of hanging sails from the ceiling of the
venue to bring some life and a bit of their own character to the otherwise
morbid black walls.
The gig begins with a lone violinist stirring the atmosphere with some
delicate melodies before the entire band join him onstage to break into
The Coldharbour Road and an entrancing beginning. The energy and vitality
of the performance never lets up, even through a new song about aliens
landing on earth which is as catchy as anything the audience already
knows the words to.
There is a warmth and humility to the band, perfectly
captured when front man Brian takes to the stage alone with his acoustic
guitar for November song. The power of his voice and the genuine song
writing ability take over the entire room, sounding like an artist already
A band from Oxford playing in Cambridge cannot help but mention the
rivalry between the two famous university cities although Brian seems
none too bothered and instead, more interestingly, points out that the
biggest difference between the two is that Oxford has produced more
prime ministers than any other city and Cambridge more spies, although
he also adds that they cant be very good spies otherwise we wouldnt
know about them.
The highlight of the evening is when the band strip back completely
for the beautifully epic song The End of The Movie. Without any amplification
there is just the sound of their raw voices and instruments as they
connect with a transfixed audience. Even the odd few idiots who cannot
manage to remain silent for a few minutes cannot prevent this pure moment
of beauty being perfect.
The band finish the set with a lively version of the popular single
Zorbing and bring to a close what has been a very refreshing night.
Having played New York earlier in the year, Stornoway will be travelling
to America and Canada before Christmas and then moving on to Australia
in the New Year. Whilst momentum is growing for them down under,
taking the Stornoway experience overseas does pose somewhat of a dilemma
for a band that are very much conservationists at heart who strongly
support environmental causes. Brian explains their situation: At
the moment its ironically much more expensive to try and do things in
a carbon neutral, or anything approaching that, kind of way but it's
definitely something that wed like to be able to do and if we
can afford to do it in the future then we will but it might involve
us having to bring our own solar panels or maybe we could just bring
a whole fleet of cycle for the audience to power the stage.
"My greatest passion in life is wildlife and conservation and Id
love to be able to do something for that but it is a very different
world. Its sometimes really annoying to see the way we treat it.
Whilst they are very impassioned about their beliefs the band turn their
noses up at the limp-wristed suggestion by the NME that people should
come and join the bands lovely revolution. There also
appears to be no plans to turn their backs on their music and preach
to the world, as Jon succinctly puts it: I think Bono is more
of a politician than a musician these days.
That said there is a poignancy to their music as summed up by the simple
folk anthem We Are The Battery Human which suggests, very fittingly,
that we have lost something as a species. Brian introduces the song
on stage by saying that we all spend too much time on Facebook, including
the Queen, and hes right. It is even more powerful live than on
record as a chorus of voices sing along: We need to fix our loose
connection / Out in the natural world wide web / Were human evolved
in three dimensions / We were tuned in by natural selection / And we
need to go online each day / But inside we dont get no connection.