Naming your band after a Scottish island town is bound to fool people into believing that you actually hail from that place. Or at least confuse them mildly. I'd imagine that this problem occurred to Oxford's Stornoway some way shortly after choosing that name to perform under, but they decided to stick with it, eventually playing a sort-of homecoming in the town itself earlier in the year. By all accounts it was triumphant. That's one to tick off.
Another box to fill was the release of their debut album, Beachcomber's Windowsill, which came out via 4AD in late May and received warm critical acclaim for its airy and homely folk-pop. We had a natter to main man Brian Briggs ahead of their show at Hop Farm Festival about their album launch shows, the possibility of a new album, festivals and the problems that having a Top 25 album have led to.
DiS: You played an album launch show in Oxford last night, how was that? Do you like playing the hometown shows? These two were rescheduled, right?
BB: That's right – it wasn't so much an illness as I'd just lost my voice. It's never happened to me before but I quite simply couldn't sing, so we had no choice and we had to cancel. It was a bit of a late notice thing, though, as we didn't discover until the soundcheck that I couldn't sing. Bit of a pain though, because these were the shows we organised for ourselves and booked the supports, but it all went well yesterday and I think people were happy. Certainly our home crowd shows are amazing because we've got such a great following and people are so attentive and supportive, so we had the confidence to play these completely acoustic shows. What we've done for these show is taken all the songs from the album and re-arrange them for an acoustic set-up. For some of the songs that's quite straightforward because they are fairly acoustic sounding anyway, and others we've had to really re-work and try different instruments. So, John, who normally plays keyboards and electric guitars is playing a harmonium and Olly plays a double bass and Rob is on a Brazilian instrument – a drumkit in a box. It's good fun actually, really enjoying it.
DiS: How difficult was it to re-work the songs?
BB: Yeah, it took a bit of work but it was a fun challenge. We really love playing acoustic because, although we've had to work out a few new parts, it's actually far easier – there's no monitoring that can go wrong and everything sounds exactly as you play it, it's really easy to get the harmonies right and easier to play in general. And we got to choose some really interesting support acts for it that also play completely acoustic. We had a band called the Clapton Skillet Lickers who are a banjo street act and tonight we've got a group called The Maqam Trio, who are Algerian. Last night we had a guy called Barney Morse Brown who plays with the Imagined Village. He played a cello and folk songs on guitar, really, really high quality – amazing musician.
DiS: Are these bands you've played with before then, or just discovered elsewhere?
BB: We haven't, but we've seen them performing in the past and picked them up because of that. They're people we've seen in Oxford or at festivals. We try and get in local supports where possible. It's good to be in the position to choose someone unusual for a support slot.
DiS: What was your reaction when you found out you'd been offered a deal by 4AD?
BB: Well, I'd just got back from travelling in the Appalachian mountains in America, having had no phone or anything and got two amazing pieces of news – one that we were in the Glastonbury emerging talent finals and the other that we'd been offered a deal. It seems to happen every time I go away to be honest - I come back and there's some incredible news. That was the first record deal we'd ever been offered and it was something that we'd been looking for, so extremely exciting. As it turned out it was another six months or so before we actually signed it, because at that point we were just starting to reach a lot more influential ears so we decided we'd hold and see if anything else came in. We got a few different offers but the more we talked with 4AD we knew that they were going to be the best home for us. The reason is that they've always been very into home recordings and they are very open to us having a say on everything – that's something that's very important to us because we've always done things our own way and are used to having stuff go our own way so it was nice that these were people who were open to us being fussy bastards, basically.
DiS: It must've been nice to have piece of mind when you were recording the album then?
BB: Exactly, all of these songs with the exception of two are bedroom and living room recordings done on a little porta-studio. It was nice that they were giving us a vote of confidence that those recordings were up to scratch. We liked the whole recording process and it was nice to get the endorsement from them that we could keep doing it our own way.
DiS: You've received quite a lot of attention, mostly positive, in the press before the lead-up to your album and after it as well, is that all the stuff you ignore and just get on with it?
BB: Well, it's definitely true what you say about getting on with it. Obviously we're aware that this press is an extremely powerful tool for us and it's been great for helping us get where we are, so we're pleased for whatever reason that the press are interested in us. Certainly it hasn't changed anything that we do, or the way that we work, so yeah, you're right.
DiS: It must've been a pleasant surprise for the album to go in at number 14 in the charts, though?
BB: Yeah, that was incredible. We had no idea that it was going to happen – even just until the week of the release we were not even thinking about the charts. I just assumed that it wouldn't be in the charts at all and someone said “oh, I reckon this is going to be a top 25 album” and we just said “no way,” and we all put on bets what we'd do if it got into the Top 25, which consisted of me eating a hat of my choice, Jon eating a three course meal of entirely red-coloured foods – he's got this thing about red-coloured foods – Olly eating his own moustache...and it went from there. I'm just psyching myself up at the moment for the hat.
DiS: Have any of those things happened yet? Is the hat going to be the finale?
BB: No actually, you're probably not surprised to hear. Though I have discovered that there's a website devoted to hats made entirely of meat, so I've got a chance of doing mine and surviving.
DiS: Yeah, eating a moustache might be a bit trickier...
BB: And more unpleasant...
DiS: Are you thinking about any new material yet? Are you always writing?
BB: Yeah. It's an ongoing process where we're always working and this album is not something which was recorded in one go, it's stuff we've collected as we went along. At the moment we're finding it quite hard to find time to write and record because there's so much happening. There's always stuff on the go, though, just as soon as I find a bit more time we'll be working on the second album and it'll probably be something that takes us a good while but I'm looking forward to getting some new songs done.
DiS: Your music has a nomadic, carefree quality – have you all travelled a lot around the world and has it informed your songwriting much?
BB: Yeah. You can probably hear from the lyrics that a lot of them are based around life experiences and a lot of them reference the outdoors. It's partly travelling and partly because a lot of my work has been outdoors-based as well because I am...well, I was a trained ecologist and did a lot of bird-watching...my last job was actually working with reptiles...
DiS: And you're doing the Stornoway thing full time now?
BB: Yeah, there's kind of no alternative now and very happy I am about it too because we can hopefully afford to do that, and it's definitely something that I would have dreamed of. Now it's just a case that my interest in wildlife is a hobby rather than a career. It's a nice position to be in.
DiS: How was the show you played in Stornoway itself recently?
BB: That was a great experience to go up there for the first time and travel around the outer Hebrides and the Highlands - which is such a beautiful area - and to play little tiny venues. I personally feel that the music works best in such an intimate setting with a small crowd – and the Stornoway audience seemed to welcome us, which was a relief! We needed to impress them and they needed to be reassured that we weren't carrying their name around giving them a bad reputation! I think they were satisfied, though it helped that we gave them all shots of whisky as well..
DiS: You've got a fairly intensive summer of touring, any shows or festivals you're particularly looking forward to? Foreign ones?
BB: I'm very interested to go to Latvia for the first time, we're playing a festival over there called Positivus. I don't know much about it but it should be good to visit there. Also we are doing a lot of festivals – they are my favourite thing about being in a band. All the summer festivals across the UK I'm really going to enjoy, starting with Glastonbury to which we're heading off in a couple of days, that'll be a real highlight...
DiS: Do you prefer playing festival shows to club shows? Your sound is something that I think translates pretty well into the “music in a field in summertime”...
BB: Yeah, I think it should be. So far the reception we've got at festivals has been really nice. This'll be the first time that we'll be playing to crowds that might actually know the songs as well, so it'll be interesting to see if it's a bit different this year because of that. But I'm obviously looking forward to that, I love festivals.
DiS: You played the Bergenfest in May this year what did you think to it?
BB: That was fun, it was kind of like a show we'd have played a couple of years ago in Oxford. It was quite a dark and classic gig venue – it was really good fun, there was a good atmosphere in there.
DiS: Do you like to wander round at festivals and see as many other bands as possible?
BB: Yeah, definitely. This year it's going to be quite different because we're doing so many that a lot of weekends we're going to have to go from one to the next. Some weekends we've got festivals three days running so it's going to be a bit difficult. For Glastonbury we've got one big show at the Park Stage on Saturday evening – so we're going to be aiming to go and see quite a bit this week. Last year was the first time I'd been to Glastonbury so I was wandering around with this wide-eyed wonder, there's just so much happening on a huge scale, it's a hell of an experience, really. The music is such a big part of it but, actually, you could spend five days there without seeing a single band and still have an amazing time. I'm going up in my campervan – I've got a knackered old campervan this year, so looking forward to experiencing festivals in style.
DiS: You're playing Hop Farm this year, that's a festival with no branding or corporate involvement, what do you think about that? Is it something you've payed much consideration to at all?
BB: I don't really know much about it, to be honest, other than it's a new one. Unfortunately this is one of the festivals where we won't be able to stick around because we're flying out to New York the next day to do a couple of shows over there, which should be quite exciting.
DiS: Have you played America before?
BB: No, we haven't. It's our first trip out there – this is a tentative testing the water type trip. We're just going to New York to do a couple of shows and do a bit of promotion and just see what happens and hopefully go back later in the year or next year to play some more shows if it looks promising.
DiS: What places are you playing out there?
BB: One venue is called Union Hall, which I think is a relatively small place – a nice building with good acoustics. Then we're playing somewhere called Mercury Lounge which is a more well known, more legendary place. It'll be an interesting experience and see how it compares with playing gigs in this country. I hear bands get slightly better looked after in America, which'll be nice!
DiS: If you could pick a festival bill what three or four artists would you pick to play?
BB: We are all really enjoying the new Beach House album. I'm a fan of The Shins, obviously. There's quite a cool hip hop band called Why? Which we've been listening to a bit. Our sound man Paul has produced a wicked album which is reggae covers of indie hits by quite respectable reggae acts like Toots and the Maytals. I'm quite a big reggae fan so I've been enjoying that – songs like 'Song 2' in a reggae style.
DiS: Are your musical tastes relatively diverse or quite convergent?
BB: Yes and no – myself and Jon have got pretty similar tastes with the exception of reggae. We listen to quite a range of stuff which varies from the more folky end of the spectrum to international music and guitar bands. The others are a bit more inclined to listen to a bit of American-influenced music and they are unashamadly Blink 182 fans!
DiS: Things have moved very quickly for you in the past 12 months, what do you see Stornoway doing in the next year?
Hmmm, good question because we've not really had the chance to think of the future too much because there's been so much happening in the present. I'd say I guess my priority is to – as soon as we've spent some time touring this album – it'll be to work on and make an interesting and high quality second album. The greatest satisfaction for me is to write and record something that I feel really satisfied with. I'll be putting my energies into that really, once the touring is through. The other thing is to obviously enjoy it as much as possible.
Stornoway released Beachcomber's Windowsill through 4AD earlier in the year. They play Hop Farm Festival on Friday July 2.