Us here at TGTF Towers are all abuzz about the new Stornoway album, which comes out in March on 4AD. Ahead of that, Carrie posed some of her burning questions to the Oxford quartet’s very tall, South African bassist Oli Steadman, who kindly and thoughtfully answered them.
I’m a newcomer to Stornoway, and I fell in love with ‘Tales from Terra Firma’ before I ever heard Beachcomber’s Windowsill (via Spotify). How is ‘Tales from Terra Firma’ different from ‘Beachcomber’s Windowsill’? How was the writing and recording process different? Is the sequence important, or can each album be taken as a discrete unit?
‘Beachcomber’s…’ was a collection of pretty much unrelated musical trinkets, ramshackle explorations in music as a hobby. The assortment was assembled over 5 years and tells some stories from our first days as a group, in terms of its lyrics and its production, being made in bedrooms and kitchens around Oxford.
The experiences and travelling which ‘Beachcomber’s’ brought us, were inspirational for much of the writing on ‘Tales…’. We hope it’s a more cohesive sequence of songs, with a bit more of a focus and direction. The songs try to relate true experiences that happened to us – to do that, we’ve arranged the songs with some varied instrumentation and styles, anything we could find to reflect emotions melodically, and invite the listener into these shared experiences with us.
So we hope it’s a more mature album sonically and lyrically – although we did use pretty much the same recording method. Zoom multitrack recorder plus an old XIX Pure microphone, the same we’ve used on all our vocals since day one… with many cups of tea and surrounded by outlandish instruments like the qanun (‘Knock Me on the Head’) and mbira (Hook Line Sinker).
Do you have any commentary on Spotify? Has it been worthwhile for you to have your music available to listeners that way?
I appreciate using Spotify, it means I listen to a lot more music than I would otherwise. After reading Electric Eden by Rob Young for example, I was able to plug in to this whole English folk music collection right there, which wouldn’t have been as easy without the service. I’m also rediscovering my South African roots and finding a lot of old Zulu Maskandi recordings. There is very little video record of this available, so YouTube is not an option, and the artists don’t send their discs to the UK. Without Spotify, I’d just have my terribly out of date CD collection…
In the same way I’m glad people can discover our music for free/cheap using Spotify. As an extreme model of selling recorded music, I quite like the idea of an album as a business card. You hand it out for free/cheap on services like Spotify, and once people listen and discover you, then they’ll pay to come to a gig. When new music is so easy to find and hear, a fan can make their judgments about which artists they love, and taste is truly free, tather than previously, where fans were being restricted by what was in the charts. Online streaming is helping democratise music and wrest control from the bigger labels and their billboards.
My favorite track on ‘Tales From Terra Firma’ is ‘The Great Procrastinator’. I especially love the woodwinds on this track. Was that a fun one to record, and do you enjoy performing it live? Which song on the album is your favorite? What are some of the challenges of performing the songs live vs. recording them in the studio?
Thanks! It was the one we recorded in the East Oxford Community Centre, where we previously did ‘Zorbing’ and ‘Watching Birds’. The band played the song together in whole takes, and laid the clarinets over at the end – I got to dust off my old instrument from high school.
We enjoy playing it live; it’s seemed to be a crowd favourite on this first tour. [It] can be tough reproducing it live because I can’t play four clarinets and double bass at once – and we can’t hire a clarinet quartet – so we’ve arranged it for muted trumpets and violin instead. The same goes for the other songs – some instruments are only used in a single song each night… so we have to be imaginative and economise in our live arrangements. Our new general dogsbody Tom Hodgson is playing qanun, dulcimer, keyboard, trumpet and woodsaw, and he’s only been with the band 2 weeks’ gigging.
I read that you recently had a rather unique opportunity to perform on a boat for Sounds from a Room in London. What was that like?
After watching the other artists they’d had – Charlie Fink, Jarvis Cocker, Baaba Maal, Tune-yards and Andrew Bird – we were honoured and amazed to be invited to close the Room For London’s year of gigging. The boat’s logbook was full of those guys’ whimsical observations of the surreal atmosphere. It was a strange place to spend the 2 nights.
As I listened to ‘Tales from Terra Firma’, I kept imagining the songs being performed in a chamber setting, almost like a traditional art song recital. Are your songs intended for performance in large venues, or do you see yourselves as being more like chamber musicians, performing in more intimate settings?
We love unplugging for the occasional song even during our electric gigs in big theatres, and sometimes we have the chance to do full sets of acoustic arrangements like in the Room For London. In the older traditional venues, e.g., Mr. Kyps in Poole and in Oxford’s Town Hall on this tour, audiences seemed to really appreciate this. Much of our new album can be performed in this way, unlike ‘Beachcomber’s’, so we expect to be doing it a lot more in future!
Again, as a newcomer to your music, I don’t know much about your background, so I should ask a more general question—do any of you have any formal music training at all? I ask because you used such a wide variety of instruments on ‘Tales From Terra Firma’; were any of those new to you? Did you have to take the time to learn to play them, or do you simply experiment with them until you get the sound you want?
Brian was a boy chorister in Bristol, Jon learned classical piano and cello. Rob and I come from South Africa where we mostly learned percussion and group singing… Because of the age range in the band, we all have some different listening tastes. As a result, each new song arrangement starts with no preconceptions or destination – we just try to hear the lyrical sentiment and head together in the direction it most strongly suggests, adding new instruments as we go. If that means learning a new Mediterranean instrument, e.g., the qanun for ‘Knock Me on the Head’, Jon’s always willing!
One thing that particularly strikes me, on both albums, is the lilting, legato style of the singing. Some of the backing vocals almost have a college glee club feel to them. Are the vocals something you particularly focus on? Have any of you had any formal voice training, or is this a natural sound for you?
In ‘The Great Procrastinator’, we imagined a village pub with beer in mugs on tables and a jug band joining in boisterously. The East Oxford Community Centre seemed best to realise this idea; we all stood around the one mic and tried to match each other while maintaining some beery warbles. In other songs where we overdub vocals one by one, we like experimenting with the room to get a good match between our voices. It may all be down to the microphone we use – the same one we’ve always had on our vocals since the very first demos for ‘Beachcomber’s’. It’s cheap, ancient and ‘Made in Thailand’…but has always worked well with our particular sound.
Some of the songs on ‘Tales From Terra Firma’ seem to have been inspired by specific places, particularly ‘Farewell Appalachia’. The songs in general use a lot of visual imagery, both in the lyrics and the instrumental parts. Can you talk a bit about the places or scenes that inspired some of the songs, or about the kind of imagery you were trying to convey?
‘The Great Procrastinator’ mentions English places like Offa’s Dyke in Oxfordshire, there are 2 live songs ‘Waiting on the Clock’ and ‘When You Touch Down From Outer Space’, which name check much of Oxford Town… and of course ‘Zorbing’ mentions Cowley where we formed as a band, and encompasses the venues where our fellow Oxford bands Radiohead, Foals and Supergrass all started gigging. It’s a town we feel strongly rooted to, welcoming and inspiring.
‘Farewell Appalachia’ is actually dedicated to a band we saw many years ago. It was written on the Appalachian Trail, but doesn’t contain much specific mention of the place. In this case we wanted to convey the outdoors using music without specifying location in the lyric.
‘Knock Me on the Head’ has a very definite nautical feeling about it. The clear imagery and the infectiously singable chorus make this the most accessible, radio-friendly song on ‘Tales From Terra Firma’. Did you intentionally write it as a single, or did you decide that after the album was written?
Decided it after…we actually recorded about 20 tracks for the disc, and picked out the best of them for the release, based on what linked to tell a story. This just seemed the poppiest and most representative out of that shortlist.
The lyrics are partially informed by “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, which also inspired the video (the song is reviewed here; watch the video here); it tells of a hermit, wedding guest, mariner and various other characters being involved in a sea voyage… There is hope and disaster and we hope the song presents that duality convincingly.
It’s one of the first times we’ve used melodic motifs to represent particular characters and recurring ideas; pop songs are mostly too short to do this, so we had to fill it to the brim with hooks and harmonies. This may be why it took us a whole year to finish! Personally it reminds me of the soundtrack to Asterix in Britain, one of my favourite films as a kid.
Finally, you’re about to embark on a tour of the UK (in fact, by the time you read this, you may already be touring). Do you have any further tour plans for the rest of 2013? Summer festivals? Our American readers (myself included) would be especially interested in any possible American dates?
We are very excited to be announcing some North American dates very soon. [There are plans for] UK festivals including Green Man and Latitude, and hopefully Australia later in the year. Rob and I have many family and school friends in South Africa, so our dream is to tour there. If we can get them buying the album, we’ll be sent out there… so South Africans, get on iTunes now please!
Many thanks to Oli for answering our many questions and Jonathan for helping us sort this for us.