UK indie has had many past dalliances with the pastoral; most recently British Sea Power with their foliage obsession and appearance on Countryfile. But Stornoway’s sound – whimsical pop-folk that suggests sun-dappled meadows and rolling dales – is backed up with professional experience in ecology. Having left a career as an environmental scientist, Brian Briggs leads the four-piece with his soaring tones, their bucolic sound seemingly vying for a place in our hearts as the theme of the coming summer. Last year saw the band take off; winning the ‘Best Artist’ award at BBC Radio One’s Big Weekend and, more recently, signing to hallowed UK label 4AD. This take-off seems unaffected by volcanic ash, as a season of festivals approaches and the release of debut LP ‘Beachcombed Windowsill’ is readied.
What’s more, these Oxford scholars have decided to play an exclusive gig at our humble university, where, in Derwent Bar on Tuesday 11th May, an audience of Oxbridge rejects can wistfully stare at them play, wondering how different things might have been had they had the opportunity to study amidst those fabled spires. The ecological vibe of the band is bolstered by our interview, which is conducted breathlessly via phone while hiking on a mountain near Bergen, Norway, where the band are later playing a gig. Brian, the singer, has always “been interested in sailing and outdoor activities”, hence the band name, a burgh in the Outer Hebrides which he once attempted to sail to but “failed, because of gale-force winds”. The name was also chosen because it “probably has the most romantic name of all the Hebridean islands – a band called Mull or Oban might be a bit awful”.
Romance and the great outdoors are definitely the two main forces that shape the band’s somewhat unique take on pop. Perhaps a genre name needs inventing for it; maybe ‘sprout-baroque’. Certainly, influences seem diverse, with Briggs’ Kate Bush romanticism mixed with Teenage Fanclub style power-pop. Drummer Robert Steadman (brother of bassist Ollie) cites a more exotic source for the rhythm section, as he and his sibling originally hail from South Africa. “There’s one main artist that I’ve always really admired,” he says. “Johnny Clegg – this South African guy who takes a lot of influence from traditional Zulu songs. The rhythm section having that sort of influence does add a slightly African feel.” While the band’s sound is hardly afrobeat in the vein of Vampire Weekend or The Very Best, the polyrhythmic percussion undeniably buoys their sound in an unusual way. 4AD is “a great home to be in, particularly with the other artists”, and combined with stablemates such as Broken Records and Camera Obscura; they definitely form a new rustic directive from the label. The source of all this swooning romanticism and idyllic naturalism seems to stem from the aforementioned Oxford. You do get the idea that they were running around the corridors clutching teddy bears called Aloysius. Being from such a background has its advantages – not many fosterling bands get backed by orchestras so early on: “towards the end of last year, in the Sheldonian Theatre – which is this massive, very, very old concert hall, we actually got a 40 piece string orchestra to join us, and having that behind us definitely added something special to the sound.” Live, the band are often joined by a trumpeter and violinist, their ambition and scope seemingly increasing by the week.
a band called Mull or Oban might be a bit awful …
But they’re clearly not the toffee-nosed ‘serious’ band they’re sometimes made out to be – the interview is interrupted at one point by a scream. Robert apologises: “Sorry, Brian just leapt out from behind a rock and scared the shit out of me.” Their academic background has also meant some big sacrifices for the chance to follow their musical dream. As mentioned, Brian left his career as an ecologist – “if you need to know anything about shoveller ducks in South East London, he’s the top person in the world to speak to” – but the others are similarly professionally trained, keyboardist Jon having done a Master’s in Russian at Oxford.
When asked why they’ve left such potentially lucrative career paths, they assure me it’s all about the love. They’ve been music obsessives since youth, balancing learning their instruments (some of the band are self-taught) with book-poring and note-scribbling in darkened studies. “It’s been a dream since childhood really, only now it’s developed into something more; a career,” Rob muses. Who can blame them? I’d take a vocation in dicking about on mountains and playing folksy chamber-pop over any job you can get with a Master’s in Russian any day.