I had the distinct pleasure to sit down with Brian Briggs, the lead singer, primary songwriter and acoustic guitarist for Oxford band Stornoway, before their band played their first-ever show in Washington the 5th of December. Despite the very chilly temperatures, Briggs mugged for the humourous photo to your right and we had a very nice chat. In part 1 of our interview, we talk about the origin of the band’s name and he tells me about Oxford and what it’s been like on their first official tour of North America.
So I’m sat here with Brian Briggs, singer/songwriter of Oxford band Stornoway. Welcome to Washington.
Congratulations on your band being #10 on our list of bands to watch in 2011. How do you feel?
Especially since you said it was a readers’ poll, that means a lot more than if it’s just one person’s opinion, that’s brilliant! I’d like to know who the other nine (bands) are…
Sure. You can look on our Web site over the next couple of days as we count them down. Actually, we just got to #6 today.
Yeah, have a look at our Web site.
Let’s start with your band’s name. The first time I heard it, I knew nothing about Stornoway, the place. So it sounded pretty mystical to me. And then I looked it up and found out it was a place in Scotland, in the Outer Hebrides.
How did you come to the name?
Well, pretty much by the same process that you just described. We were looking for somewhere that sounded a bit distant and remote and coastal. And it was a very long process, and quite a fun process that I think every band goes through trying to get the right band name. And we had a massive list, pages and pages, and the only thing that they had in common was that they were all slightly coastal or maritime-themed. So we were looking in books about knots and, I dunno, guides to natural history of the seashore. And we tried quite a few out and they all failed, and this (Stornoway) was the only one that stuck, and it was reinforced by the fact that if you see at the BBC weather forecast, Stornoway is up there…so we get this wonderful free promotion every time there’s a weather report.
You mentioned you wanted something coastal, maritime…tell me more about that.
Oxford is obviously like the furthest point from the sea in the UK. I am a very outdoorsy person, and all my happiest times have been at the sea, either working…I did a lot of conservation work, or on holiday. So I find it a source of inspiration, and a lot of the songs have a slight coastal theme to them, and that was the one thing I knew just had to feature in the band name.
On the internet, there’s a description about how you and Jon (Ouin, multi-instrumentalist) met at Oxford at Fresher’s Week. Fact or fiction?
That’s true, yeah yeah.
And Teenage Fanclub was involved?
That’s right, yeah. Jon had this massive hair and beard and he looked like one of the members of Teenage Fanclub. Our first conversation was about music and that band as well. But it didn’t take long for us to start playing music together in the college. They didn’t have a drum kit or anything but they have a couple of pianos and nice acoustics so we played in the college in whatever spaces were available, really.
Were all four of you at Oxford?
We were all in Oxford but not all at the university. It was just Jon and I at the university and we advertised for a bass (player) and a drummer once we decided to form a band. Oli (Steadman), our bassist, was the only person who replied to our advert, so obviously that meant we had to take him. And then it turns out that his brother (Rob) was a drummer, but it took a while before we took Rob along to audition because he was only 15 at the time and we thought it might create problems at gigs. But once he finally persuaded us to let him come and audition, we instantly knew he was the chosen one. We just all clicked together. [smiles]
I also read that at Oxford, you were studying ornithology, birds. (Watching the video below for ‘Watching Birds’ – the title now makes complete sense. And I enjoyed the ‘NOTORIOUS PHD’ label on the back of Brian Briggs’s robe. However, having met both Briggs and Oli Steadman, I don’t believe for one minute that they are fighters! )
So how did you get into that field? You mentioned wildlife…
Well, that’s what I expected to be doing as a career, really. I…yeah, the two greatest passions of mine are music and wildlife. Wildlife was the more likely career option but I guess I had this dream I might be able to play music. So yeah…I was studying ducks in southwest London, trying to work out how to protect them from waterskiiers…and yeah, at the end of my studies there (at Oxford) was when the band took off in a more significant way, so the hobby and the day job have swapped. So the birds take second place.
[laughs] But they’re still there (in your life)…
Yeah, they’re still there!
I totally understand where you’re coming from, because I trained as a biologist but my true love is music.
So I am a biochemistry journal editor by day…
Oh really? [amused]
…yeah, and then I go cover gigs at night. One day I hope to do this (music writing) for a living. So talking to you, it’s really great to see that you can do what you’ve dreamed of.
No, definitely. I definitely don’t take it for granted.
I have never been to Oxford, either the university or the town. The only images I have in my head for it is as it’s described in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. So can you paint a picture for me on what the town is like?
Yeah, I know it pretty well because I’ve been there for about 10 years now! In the centre is, I think, the undeniably sort of stunning architecturally because it’s dominated by the university,and the architecture and buildings, they’re all packed together and quite beautiful. It’s easy to take for granted when you live there. I don’t really notice it these days but when I come back after going away for a while, I’m reminded that it’s quite an incredible place. Obviously it’s famous for the university, but it’s actually, unlike Cambridge there’s much more to Oxford (than just the university), there’s a fair few people there, and a fair few parts to the city. We live in the Cowley Road area, which is a very mixed part of town and a really good place for music and nightlife, a whole mix of different kinds of people. I dunno really…I guess it’s got the Thames going through it, it’s got some nice meadows, and you’re never too far from the countryside, even from the centre of the city. Yeah, so there’s definitely a lot more to it than the university.
Let’s talk about your debut album, ‘Beachcomber’s Windowsill’ (review here) that came out on 4AD this spring. I really like how you’ve got your serene moments, slow tempo ones, and then you go to quicker tempo ones. There are tearjerkers and there are ones that make you want to stand up on your chair and sing along. What do you consider the most comfortable ‘mode’ for Stornoway?
Coming from style?
Yeah, from style.
I think…I’m glad you spotted there’s variety in there. Actually, what you see on the album is only a part of the spectrum of what we do and what we’ve done historically. We wanted the album to be coherent but actually, we’ve got a bunch of songs that are on the different ends of the spectrum. Some heavier ones and some quite silly ones, so…uh….I love a huge range of different types of music, and maybe what you hear on the album is what we do best but I’ll always be writing a variety of different styles. Basically, when I write a song, it normally starts with a simple demo of just guitar and vocals and then we’ll work out whatever style and arrangement that seems to suit that song at its most basic form best. And sometimes that involves strings and synths, or electric guitars, or strange drum beats. We’ll try a lot of things out when we’re recording. I think variety is something that important to me and keeps it interesting for us as well.
As a writer, are you one of those people that carries a notebook around so you can jot down ideas?
Yeah, I am, definitely. It’s been quite nice to be in America, it’s quite an inspiring place to be in and it’s like being in the movies to me. So many things that match up with what I’ve seen on tv. So I definitely have my lyric book with me.
Are you working for stuff for the next album then?
Yeah. The next one is going to sound like Bruce Springsteen. [mischievous grin] Or Tom Waits! [laughs]
So what singers or bands do you consider your greatest influences?
Well, I mean, I would actually say that, following up what I said about variety, it’s a huge range that have an influence and there’ s any that dominate what I’m inspired by. Actually my inspirations are more personal and about the outdoors but musically, I guess I like listening to…I just mentioned Tom Waits, but I have a lot of Tom Waits albums, he’s always someone that’s always in the back of my mind when writing or recording because he’s inventive. The same applies to Bjork. The kind of songs, we mentioned Teenage Fanclub earlier, they write great pop songs. I’ve got a love of pop songs too. And there’s a folky side to what we do, and maybe that comes from listening to artists like Jackson C. Frank and Paul Simon, Bert Jansch. But as I say, I listen to a lot of stuff. I’m just as likely to have reggae on the stereo as a guitar band or that sort of things. Yeah, it depends on what I’m writing, different bands that I like will come to mind, depending on what the basic demo sounds like.
It’s always been interesting to me talking to a band and hearing what they listen to. For example, I think of Stornoway as a folk pop band, but I know you guys do all kinds of stuff. It’s interesting to hear you listen to a lot of stuff outside that genre and how it informs your view of the music scene and how you want to write music. I interviewed Fanfarlo last year and two of their members were saying that metal and Metallica played a big part in their childhood. And I thought, you guys are in a folk pop band! How is that possible?
[laughs] I had a brief Metallica phase as well!
So your album was put out by 4AD…
I heard that there was a little apprehension about signing to any kind of label because you were worried about losing control on what you wanted to do and what you wanted to give to the world musically?
A little bit. It was more about the fact that we were used to doing it our own way. We’d put out EPs ourselves in Oxford and we were used to being the decision makers on everything. Having never worked with a label before, we were nervous that it would mean we would lose some say or having people twisting our arms doing certain things. And 4AD convinced us that wouldn’t be the case and that we would have creative control over everything and they were supportive of that and it’s worked really well so far, and they’ve stayed true to that.
So you started this North American tour 2 Fridays ago in Minneapolis. So is this your first official tour of North America?
Very much so, yeah.
Okay. How has it been going so far, how has the reception been with people at the gigs?
Yeah. It’s been great. It’s been really, really good fun. It’s been quite a relaxing tour for us because we’ve been playing much bigger gigs back in England, big festival slots and things like that, so it’s been really nice to play little venues of 200 to 300 capacity. Yeah, we’ve had a great time, it’s been a mixed range of venues. In Minneapolis, we were supporting a band who was releasing their album called Rogue Valley, but for the most part we’ve been headlining with support from a band called Franz Nicolay and Major General. It’s been really nice. We’ve been pleasantly surprised how many people have been to see us and how many people have been singing along, because there’s no real reason to know us out here, so the word has spread by things like blogs and YouTube and stuff.
Judging by the Black Cat Twitter, I think tonight is close to sold out.
Tonight? Fantastic. That’s great news.
And last night you were in Philadelphia, at Johnny Brenda’s?
I actually saw Two Door Cinema Club there back in May. And you mentioned you liked the smaller venues…
Yeah, I really enjoy the little intimate gigs. You sort of get the chance to feel much more involved, and the crowd is more involved as well. And we’ve been playing some unplugged songs and chatting to people after the gigs, and yeah, it’s been really nice.
The second half of this interview with Brian Briggs will be posted on TGTF on Monday (20 December) – stay tuned!