After spending over a decade together, Stornoway (without doubt, one of the greatest bands around) decided to part ways. Following their Farewell Finale in Oxford (12/03/17) we caught up with the band to reminisce on the brotherhood’s best memories, how defining the moment was in being the first ever unsigned act to appear on Jools Holland, and of their plans to reform in a few years!
We’re still in a little bit of an aftershock digesting Sunday was the final Stornoway gig – at what point did you feel that it was time to part ways?
Jon Ouin (keys, vocals): We were still feeling hungover three days later! I think it was about eight months ago that we reluctantly decided that we had to part ways. But we also came to the conclusion that we wanted a proper bookend to a decade making music together, and make the tour as celebratory as possible. The aim was to say a grateful goodbye to everyone that had supported us over that time, rather than just sliding out of view.
Do you think it was made even more difficult because of the brotherhood between you, it probably helps that there’s two pairs of brothers in the mix? The bonding comes across as one for a lifetime – how is life behind the scenes?
JO: Yes, on some level when you share that much experience together, I like to think that we are all brothers in a way, and that goes with our touring musicians too (one of whom, Adam, is Brian’s brother!). It’s a friendship that has lasted a long time. In the early days, I think Rob and Oli being actual brothers was probably the glue that held the group together when we didn’t really know if we were coming or going. Maybe I shouldn’t speak for them but if you consider that when we started Rob was only 15 or so, it’s a natural thing to look up to your older brother, and they definitely have a very strong bond which absolutely worked in our favour (there were never any Gallagher moments!). Musically too, they have a psychic connection as the greatest rhythm section.
We hope you’ll continue playing music, what are each of your future plans?
JO: We will all be working on various musical projects. You can catch Brian performing at various literary festivals (the first of which is Oxford Literary Festival on 1st April) with the brilliant Welsh poet Paul Henry; Rob is playing with two bands in New York – one called The Textiles and the other is KT Mulholland; Oli is keeping busy with his promotional company Tigmus and playing with Count Drachma; and I’m writing music for TV and radio, and songs for an as yet imaginary band.
Your hometown, Oxford, has done so much for you as a band – how did it feel to come full circle, Sunday night, performing a closing concert to your friends, family and loyal fanbase from the birth of Stornoway?
JO: We owe Oxford a huge amount. Even if none of us were born there, it’s where the idea of the band was first formed, so there was never any question of doing our final gig anywhere else! It’s the end of an era for us, so naturally that particular gig was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, but we made sure to treat it as a party to celebrate the last decade that we’ve had together….a musical raised glass to mark the moment: for ourselves, our crew (at home and on tour) and to the fans.
What do you love most about your hometown? When you were away, touring, what did you miss the most about home?
Rob Steadman (drums, vocals): Home cooking. Too many crisps on the road!
Tim Bearder done so much for the band in the early days for Stornoway, for those who aren’t familiar with his support, can you retell these events?
JO: We were reminiscing with Tim at our Oxford show about how he was once the sole member of our audience at a gig in an Oxford pub when we first started. As a legendary DJ at BBC Oxford he was supportive beyond all reason. He once barricaded himself into the studio once and played Stornoway music for the whole hour of his show and was promptly suspended by the BBC as a result. Having put us forward for the Glastonbury Emerging Talent Competition, he came with us to the audition in Pilton Farm to document it in audio form for his show, and having become decidedly refreshed during the day, gave the unsuspecting Huw Stephens a smacker on the lips before leaving – as I remember, he kept all this in the documentary. The very definition of kamikaze radio…but yes there’s no doubt he helped us on our way!
Is it true that you started out as a Teenage Fanclub cover band and years later as Stornoway you supported them? If so, how surreal was that experience for you?
JO: No, we would have made a terrible covers band – although we have done a few covers of other artists, we could never have done TFC harmonies justice! But Brian and I (Jon) were definitely part of the Fanclub fanclub as kids. We did end up having the honour of supporting them as part of a festival in London I think – I think they’d just released ‘Shadows’ so it was probably around 2010 or 2011 – which meant a massive amount to us…and I think we said hi to Norman Blake in a starstruck kind of way. ‘Songs from Northern Britain’, ‘Teenage Fanclub Have Lost it’ and the Peel sessions were my favourites…
What is the greatest inspiration for your writing? Are there any surprising and conflicting musical influences on your work?
JO: So far as songwriting is concerned, if I can speak for Brian, I think he is musically a little bit influenced by people like Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and classic soul stuff like Sam Cooke, Laura Viers and a whole tonne of others. Lyrically I’d say he’s fairly self-contained! In terms of when we’ve actually been recording or arranging, it’s a bit more complex. When there are four of you in a band, each with their own musical lodestars, you will always have creative conflict from which curious musical concoctions can arise. For example Oli and Rob were born and raised in South Africa and like Johnny Clegg and Zulu music (amongst many others); personally I love PJ Harvey’s music, stuff by Mike Oldfield and a lot of 60s folk revival stuff – people like Richard Thompson and C.O.B… At least three of us like Kendrick Lamar. This stuff didn’t always come through (in some cases this is probably for the best!).
There is a distinct storytelling to your songs. We loved the first acoustic one you played on your own, Brian, Sunday night, but didn’t recognise the song, what was it called? It’s songs like these that are almost fitting for an pub down in heart of Kerry, Ireland. Brian, you have Irish parentage like myself, do you feel an innate connection with Ireland, and if so, what influence did this bring to your style of writing and playing?
Brian Briggs (lead vocals, guitar): That was November Song. I was born and raised in England but have always loved folk and celtic music, having grown up listening to the Dubliners and the Fureys. My Irish roots were never a conscious influence on the music of Stornoway but I like to think that it somehow comes through in the songwriting. I wish we could have toured more over there!
The heart of each of your songs connects to natural world – how influential has nature been to shaping your musical style?
JO: Hugely. Brian has got a background in nature conservation, and moved to South Wales for the writing of our last album Bonxie. The Gower is a stunning area and surrounded by sea and marsh and lots of birds. The landscape and the outdoors have been a big inspiration on his song writing. With each progressive album, we wanted to capture the atmosphere and the original feelings that inspired his songs. We realised that by using field recordings, we could really tap into that and help bring the outside world inside.
Can you describe how it felt to perform on the incredible Later with Jools Holland? It’s a bench mark for pretty much every musician – any tips on how to gain a slot? Especially as an unsigned band, that must have been an incredible challenge?
JO: It meant an enormous amount to me to do it, as it was something I used to watch all the time as a kid. I think we were only invited so as to balance out the sheer weight of megastars that were on set that day (Jay-Z, Foo Fighters, Sting, Norah Jones). We also slipped them a fiver. It was an incredible challenge to perform – just thinking about the red camera light still makes me feel a bit nervous to this day! It was a blessing and a curse to be surrounded by so many huge names, in that millions more people watched it than otherwise would.
You once spoke of the band being not being “naturally extrovert” something so many us can relate to – what helped you develop self-confidence?
RS: Cocaine. Wait, no, I mean, we haven’t.
Haha…it’s fair to say that you all seem very natural and humble, but I bet it took a lot of collective ambition to get where you are today? Out of all the bands achievements, what are you most proud of and why?
RS: It did take a lot of negotiation for us as individuals to steer the ship in the right direction all along the way. Certainly I think we all recognised from the start that we wouldn’t get anywhere without listening to each other and finding compromises for the sake of the band. I think of our catalogue of EPs, live recordings, videos, etc. and feel really proud that we were able to produce a lot of unusual material for people to listen to and watch.
How special have the times been together as a band? What recommendations could you give to musicians starting out – what helped you become the success you are today?
JO: Try and write and record a bunch of really good songs, and definitely ignore older bands’ advice at all costs.
What would you describe as the most defining moment?
RS: I think we’d all agree that appearing on Jools Holland with the incredible Jay Z, Foo Fighters, Sting, and Norah Jones was a turning point for us. Suddenly everything felt a lot more professional (although we were still unsigned) but we also became known to so many more people. Being the first unsigned act on that show has also remained a very Stornoway kind of thing, like being the first contemporary act to play the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford.
Your cover on Sunday night of Simple Minds ‘Don’t You Forget About Me” was a great choice – how would you like to be remembered?
RS: I’d like for us to be remembered as a band that always stayed true to our method of working. The music industry is such a hard slog for every artist and many people have to change really core aspects of their creative process in order to take steps forward. I feel very proud to have been part of a band that found ways to move forward without losing those characteristics that attracted people to our music in the first place.
Out of all your songs what is the one that you are most proud of and why?
JO: It changes each time, but over the last tour, I have most enjoyed hearing Brian sing November Song the most, as it has some beautiful poetry within it…and I’ve been proud by association.
And for any of your fans that couldn’t make your Farewell Tour, is there a message you’d like to leave with them?
RS: We wish you could’ve been there, but YouTube may need to become your best friend.
We’d love you to reform again in a few years, do you think there might be a chance our hopes will be realised?
JO: Never say never.
To lift our spirits a little, can you leave us with the funniest anecdote of your times as a band?
JO: I’ll give you a few… We were asked to play a charity football match at the Kassam Stadium. None of us are really remotely athletic, but for some reason we were going to be pitted against some ex-England players including Dwight York and David Pleatt, so you get the picture…That would have made a whole stadium laugh; supporting Rolf Harris and watching him sign the bell of Adam’s trumpet; trying to hold it together through the whole of ‘Fuel Up’ after an audience member shouted ‘GET YOUR COCK OUT’ as Brian sang the opening line…