An interview with Stornoway

By Glitterbitch, pix from

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 he’s a bit of a strange man so we weren’t 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 – Beachcomber’s 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 didn’t get a record deal until we’d finished it basically and when they (4AD) came along they gave their endorsement of our own recordings. We weren’t 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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 it’s 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 it’s 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 aren’t 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 we’ll start in the same way and arrange the songs with the help of home recording equipment, that’s how we finally settled on a lot of the arrangements for the first album. Then depending on the songs, we’ll 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 artist’s wish it seems that Stornoway’s 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. That’s 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 we’ll ignore them.”

Aside from the success of their album, the band have also played at the last two Glastonbury’s 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. It’s 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 don’t clash so you’re 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 Holland’s 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 can’t think why. But we got to play hacki sack with Norah Jones and get our hair cut with Sting.” His brother Oliver suggests it wasn’t 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: “It’s broadcast out on TV live so you don’t 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 band’s 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: “It’s amazing to be playing the album to all these people that we don’t know and they’re singing along. It’s been very exciting. And it’s been pretty much sold out every night.”

Tonight’s 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 fully established.

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 can’t be very good spies otherwise we wouldn’t 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 we’d 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 I’d love to be able to do something for that but it is a very different world. It’s 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 band’s ‘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 he’s 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 / We’re human evolved in three dimensions / We were tuned in by natural selection / And we need to go online each day / But inside we don’t get no connection.”

Lucy: Your band have been quite quiet for the last few months. Are you looking forward to playing gigs again?
Katie Jane Garside: I think I give very obtuse ans


wers to questions...It's never about looking forward to it. Actually maybe I should change the
script, maybe we are looeir musicm the 3rd album?