WHEN THE English folk-pop/indie band Stornoway play the Róisín Dubh on Saturday April 17 at 8pm, it will be akin to a homecoming for vocalist Brian Briggs, who spent childhood summers with his grandfather in the lakes and mountains of Connemara.
Brian’s passion for the great outdoors comes through in all he does. He is an ornithologist by profession. He writes songs inspired by the sea, and has a passion for hiking, but the band’s origins lie in England’s great and venerable educational institution - Oxford University.
It was Freshers Week and Brian happened to think Jonathan Ouin looked like someone who was into Teenage Fanclub.
“When you’ve just arrived in university, no one really knows anyone so it’s easy to talk to people and say anything to anybody,” says Brian. “Jon looked like a Teenage Fanclub fan and to me they were a big deal. Jon did like them, though not to the same extent and he found my enthusiasm confusing.
“We got talking about music and realised we were both interested in playing it. He listened to my home-made demos and we started playing music together. The setting was very grand. It was this huge hall made from wood, with a lot of ornate carvings, and great echo, but it was the only place in the university that had a piano. Then we advertised for a bassist and a drummer.”
The soon to be rhythm section of Stornoway came in the form of South African brothers Rob and Oliver Steadman. However Oliver was the only person who answered the ad and the rest of the band considered Rob too young to join.
“He was only 15,” says Brian. “We thought he would be too immature to be bringing to pubs for gigs. After we tried out several drummers we turned in desperation to Ollie to try Rob out.
“Rob learned the songs from Ollie and within 10 minutes of us all playing with each other the neighbours came round to the garage where we rehearsed and shouted ‘Stop making that noise!’ That made us decide ‘Let’s go for it.’ My brother Andy joins us for the live gigs as he’s a full time doctor.”
That garage was also vital to the development of Stornoway’s gentle, folk/indie sound. The band would use whatever materials came to hand as instruments, or use one instrument to sound like another, such as de-tuning an acoustic guitar to give it the depth and resonance of a bass. The band’s diverse cultural background also had a subtle impact.
“My parents, who are Dubliners, and friends say I have an Irish accent but I can’t hear it,” says Brian. “I don’t feel especially Irish. It’s maybe a subconscious thing in terms of the music. My dad loves Irish folk songs and sings them every now and then. Dubliners’ tapes were always on in the car and although I don’t listen to Irish songs very much I do enjoy them.
“Rob and Ollie came over from Johannesburg with their parents about five or six years ago. They listened to a lot of South African music and there is some small influence there. I think some of Ollie’s bass playing has a South African flavour to it every now and again. It’s like my Irish roots, it’s not strong, but it’s there somewhere.”
The band took their name from a town in the Outer Hebrides, and with the line up complete, their sound developing, and the neighbours annoyed, they set out to play the Oxford gig circuit. Initially it was a tough sell as attendances at gigs were poor. A lucky break came during a show in 2006. There was only two people in the audience, but one of them was the BBC’s Tim Bearder.
Bearder was impressed and devoted an hour of his breakfast show to Stornoway demos and interviews. Suddenly audiences were coming to the shows and the media began to take notice (The Telegraph, The Independent, Q, and The Guardian have named Stornoway as their new favourite band ), as did Andrew Akers, the inventor of zorbing, a recreation sport of rolling downhill in a transparent plastic orb. Indeed he treated the band to a free day of the sport.
“He had heard about our single ‘Zorbing’ via the internet, got in touch, and said he liked it,” says Brian. “He got in touch again and said he would bring a zorb to Oxford for us to have a go in at the single’s release gig.
“We launched the single in the Isis Farmhouse pub in Oxford and about 500 people were there in the garden of the pub and the zorb was pumped up. It was about three metres across and was just lurking by the stage. Adam got into it and charged through the crowd and turned the whole thing into a party. He had his trumpet with him in the zorb and was trying to play it at the same time as trying to move around but his microphone wasn’t working!”
As well as music, all the members of Stornoway enjoy hiking trips, tandem cycling, power-kiting, nature-watching, and something called hackisack.
“It’s keepy-up with a small bean bag,” says Brian. “I’ve always got the hackisack in the pocket and whip it out any moment in-between sound checks on tour, so there’s lots of good opportunities.”
The band’s increasing touring schedule means opportunities for hiking, etc, are decrreasing, but coming to play Ireland will give Brian a chance to catch up with the outdoors and his family.
“We’re touring Ireland next month and I’m hoping the relatives will come and see us in Dublin and Galway. There’ll be a lot of them. It could get noisy,” he says. “I visited Galway when I was a kid and I remember being with my grandfather in Connemara in a cottage by the Twelve Bens and fishing in the lakes. It was great so I’m really looking forward to coming back.”
Another adventure will be playing gigs in April in the Scottish town of Stornoway.
“We’re slightly nervous as they’re going to have high expectations if we’re using their name and representing them around the county,” says Brian. “We’re expecting a boisterous Scottish crowd and if they don’t like it we’ll get thrown off the pier. It’s a small venue and I expect a drunken night.”
The band release their debut album Beachcomber’s Windowsill in May. Its wonderful title ties in with the band’s love of all things great outdoors.
“You’re the first person who’s asked about that,” says Brian. “It was the title of a song I wrote some time ago. The album is a bunch of songs recorded over a long period and they are different in terms of the environment and experience they were recorded in. It is a collection of odd bits and bobs and what ties them together in my mind is the sea as it’s something I find quite inspiring and images of the sea come up in a lot of the songs.”
Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and Zhivago.