Stornoway recently released their debut album, Beachcomber’s Windowsill, and have been getting a lot of attention, especially on The Alternate Side.
The quartet formed when lead singer and songwriter Brian Briggs met guitarist/cellist Jon Ouin at Oxford University. They were certain they had found the right bass player in Ollie Steadman as he was the only person to answer their ad in the local paper. After a few auditions, Ollie’s younger brother, Robert, became the band’s drummer.
Stornoway’s sound is blissful, musical and, at times, cinematic. With a do-it-yourself approach, the band took its time recording each song. The result is eleven perfectly crafted songs that are instantly likeable, revealing something new with each listen.
They made their radio debut in the States on The Alternate Side on a hot July afternoon. The Alternate Side staff even treated the band to ice cream, the Brits' first encounter with a Klondike bar. In turn, they treated us to these tremendous performances of songs from Beachcomber’s Windowsill, one of the strongest debut albums of the year.
Russ Borris: Your album Beachcomber’s Windowsill is a really cool album. The musical nature of it stands out more than anything else. There’s so much going on creatively. Some of it is cinematic, some of it is pretty rich. When you guys got together, how did you decide that this is the album we want to make or the band we want to be?
Brian Briggs: It really wasn’t a case of having something in mind particularly for the record. We just started writing and recording right from when we met and for the past few years, we’ve been basically developing as a band in Oxford. We gathered together our favorite songs and favorite recordings and put them together on an album. So that’s why it sounds quite diverse. We have a whole mix of instrumentation. Every song we’ve arranged differently and for some we’ve learnt instruments especially for that purpose because we felt they fit on particular songs. We’ve been gathering instruments as we’ve gone along as well.
Russ: There’s something like a 100 different instruments on this.
Jon Ouin: That’s what they say.
Brian: Yeah, if you include all of the weird stuff like kitchen sinks and and carrots and things like that.
Russ: Carrots? What did you use the carrots for?
Brian: Percussion (laughs).
Jon: Brian Wilson did it first.
Russ: The idea had to come from somewhere. Is he one of your influences?
Brian: I suppose a little bit, yes. I think everyone in the band is a Beach Boys fan.
Oliver Steadman: We don’t really have one common ground influence between all of us. Rob and I are from South Africa so we have a lot of traditional music at home that we listen to. We grew up singing and clapping our hands and didn’t see sheet music until we got to England. So we’ve got that and Brian and Jon have more of an English music tradition behind them.
Russ: How did you guys get together?
Brian: Jon and I met at university in Oxford and then advertised for a bassist and drummer and Olly was the only person who replied to our advert. So by default he got a place.
Russ: Well done. You had to have no skill whatsoever, you just had to show up!
Brian: Rob had to try a bit harder to get a place. We had about seven different drummer test before we got to Rob.
Rob: I was only 15 at the time so I had to do quite a lot to get an audition. Finally got one.
Brian: In Britain, battery hens is the name for caged hens, so what it means is that we are the caged human. And this is about how we need to get outside more.
Russ: I love how you explained the meanings there because listening to it on the record and having the regular definition of battery that I’m used to, I was thinking that this was a futuristic, robotic thing and it didn’t match with the music! Musically, there’s an a banjo on the album?
Brian: Yes, we didn’t manage to fit it on the plane on the way over.
Russ: It definitely gives a more Sunday morning acoustic kind of feel to the song. So it didn’t jive with the futuristic thing. Thank you for explaining the difference there. We were talking about the instrumentation and there’s a lot going on. Obviously, you guys were pretty meticulous. Did you drive each other crazy? I know it took a while to get this album completed.
Brian: If we’d been under time pressure we probably would have done, but because we did it all at home, we took as long as we wanted with it. So if things weren’t going well, we’d leave it for a bit and come back to it another time. We just pieced it together, bit by bit. We’ve got a little home recording studio, half a meter across, just a little box and we plug the mics and guitars into that and just laid down the tracks, trying different sounds and instruments.
Russ: It’s cool to have that much freedom going in.
Brian: Yes, we’re pretty fussy people as your soundman Dan has discovered already! We just took our time with it and when we were satisfied, we just left it there. It was quite nice when we met the people at 4AD and signed a record deal because we kind of half expected that they’d point at a recording studio and say, “Go and do it properly with a producer now.” As it turned out, they fell in love with the home recording, the sound of the things we created. It was nice to have the endorsement of the label as well.
Russ: Listening to this record, one of the things I noticed was allusions to different time periods in the year. There’s songs that talk about different seasons. Funny enough, there’s a song called “Here Comes the Blackout” which talks about the 7th of July [Ed. - the anniversary of the 2005 London bombings]. Did you write these songs at certain times?
Brian: As you spotted a lot of them are influenced by the outdoors, the seasons and weather. I’m someone who is very much an outdoors person and if I hadn’t had this success with the band I’d be working out in the field with birds. That was kind of what I was studying before the band started taking off. So I’m very influenced by the great outdoors. You definitely hear that in the music.
Russ: The cinematic feel too. Do you have aspirations to do things with movies? Scoring or something like that.
Oliver: Very much so. Jon is interested in that. We’re big fans of Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. Of course, he did the soundtrack to There Will Be Blood. We’re more keen to do movies than adverts or commercials.
Brian: Zorbing, if you don’t know, is an extreme sport which involves getting inside a giant inflated ball and going downhill.
Jon: We got to go zorbing in England once because the inventors of the sport got in touch with us and said, “We heard your song. Can we use it on the website and in exchange, here’s a free voucher to go zorbing.” It usually costs £20 to go every time and it lasts about 20 seconds. But we managed to have a great day.
Russ: So you don’t have a lifetime coupon? A one-time deal?
Jon: They invited us again. You should try it.
Brian: They could have made the course a bit longer. It’s a really short trail. You can either go in a hydrozorb, where you’ve got water inside, or you can be strapped into a dry zorb. We did both.
Jon: It’s a bit like being inside a washing machine.
Russ: How fast does it go?
Brian: It’s hard to tell. It feels pretty fast. Water allows you to get in three at a time so there’s more potential for injury and excitement. I’d go for that. Basically you sign something before you go in that whatever happens is not their fault (laughs). If you’re with your bandmates, there’s limbs flying everywhere so that’s where the danger lies.
Russ: I’ve seen Peter Gabriel and Wayne [Coyne] from The Flaming Lips [use them onstage].
Brian: That’s definitely an aspiration of mine to do that on top of a crowd. But, much like the carrots, it’s already been done. So I have to write another song about another extreme sport.
Russ: What’s the story about the BBC disc jockey who got suspended for playing you too much?
Jon: Yeah, it’s Tim Bearder. He works in Oxford and has been there for ages playing up-and-coming local bands and he decided he liked us one day. This was after a show in which he was the only audience member. We were really disappointed because we really wanted to show him the best show that we had done so far and he was the only guy who turned up. There was no support band; they didn’t even turn up. But he saw the music and liked it and decided to play us throughout his entire show. He locked himself into his studio and got suspended. He’s amazingly good at promoting all of these young bands in Oxford.
Brian: He’s done a huge amount to help us along the way. He got us a place at a national festival run by [BBC] Radio 1 in the UK which got us incredible exposure on the radio and things have gone step by step since then. So good one, Tim. Not that he’ll be listening.