‘I left with blood on my hands’ - Oxford’s alt pop stars Stornoway recall their best live music moments…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 30 Jan 2015
  • min read
Folk pop act Stornoway have been fixtures on the small gig circuit since they first got together.

Now with their third album Bonxie prepped for an April release and their popularity growing ever stronger, it’s slightly rarer to see them grace the stages of smaller venues. Their acclaim is so much, last year the band hit 222 percent of their target funding for the album in just four days of the announcement on PledgeMusic with fans invited to purchase their album copies alongside day-trips with the band to go zorbing and/or birdwatching.

As part of Independent Venue Week, the outfit are curating their own gig tonight (30 January) in conjunction with BBC Introducing at the Cellar in Oxford. We quizzed keyboard player Jon Ouin on how important playing these small gigs has been to their career…

How did you get involved in Independent Venue Week (IVW)?

It was a massive honour to be invited to co-curate an IVW night by BBC Introducing in Oxford and the guys at the Cellar. It’s been a real joy constructing a line-up of some of our current favourite local artists. BBC Introducing have also persuaded Brian to play a solo set as part of the line-up, while Oli and I will be doing a spot of DJing throughout the night. The Cellar was one of the first places we were invited to play in Oxford as a band … so you could say we kind of ‘grew up’ there musically, and have all been there so many times to hear other bands - varying from the screamingly loud to the delicately hushed.

Like all good cellars it’s got a pleasing subterranean dankness, and on account of its size limitations, when you catch a bigger name act, you often end up feeling you’re encountering something rarefied and intense!

Do you remember the first gig you went to?

The first one I remember actively choosing to go to was probably JJ72 (with Starsailor supporting) in Bristol. Right at the end the frontman smashed up his telecaster and chucked it into the crowd. As it was hurtling straight towards my head, I decided it might be wise to attempt catching it (or suffer a head injury) - which I did - but unfortunately a slightly more persistent person next to me lunged for it at the same time, and after a brief struggle, he grabbed the guitar strings and wound them around my hand and pulled tight until I let go of it. Which I did. A great dramatic gig though, even if I left with blood on my hands!

How important has playing live been to your career?

I think in our very early days we were perhaps more of an introverted recording project. The piecing together of songs was perhaps more meaningful than performing in front of other people. A bit lop-sided I suppose. But it’s almost as if we then went to the opposite extreme: we had a period where there was this incessant stream of gigs on the London pub circuit (forcing our drummer Rob to bunk off school). I think that stretch of near-constant playing and trying to get on this or that promoter’s show probably cemented the band, along with a desire to improve as musicians. More recently, over the last tour or two, I think we’ve loosened up a bit when playing live and have got into feeling the moment more - there are more improvisatory bits … as with a lot of bands, I think the relationship between our recording and live experiences has become a bit more symbiotic - they inform each other more now, rather than being discrete things, which I think is good.

What’s the most memorable gig you’ve played?

This is a very hard question, and my answer isn't always the same! Right now, I’m remembering one of my personal favourites which was playing on - and staying the night on - Artangel's boat installation perched on top of the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's South Bank a couple of years ago. It was positioned so you could see from St. Paul’s to Big Ben and all the landmarks in between. The architects designed it as a space for people to withdraw from London’s bustle, and we were preceded by all these literary greats who had used their time there to compose short stories - so a real privilege! We were in this displaced maritime oddity playing music to a (necessarily) small audience; it was so cramped that we were practically sitting on each other, but I remember the situation kept us amused.

What are your views on the live music industry in general at the moment?

I wouldn’t presume to know enough about the ins and outs of the live music industry per se, but it’s clear that smaller independent venues in the UK are suffering at the moment. It seems to me that audiences and musicians value them for the 'non-conformist' platform they can provide for all types of artist, so it’s great that we have Independent Venue Week to bring this issue into focus. It’s also an opportunity for bands (like my own) who’ve got a lot out of playing in independent venues in the past to give something back in a small way.

What can playing live do for new artists?

For a new artist, the short answer is: a hell of a lot! The pay-off from playing live regularly can be the equivalent of slowly acquiring a whole new set of musical senses … it’s exciting to witness other musicians who, to an outside observer, seem to have ‘distilled’ their act through performing. As I’ve probably illustrated in the previous question, it’s easy to end up romanticising past gigs (even ones that are car-crash experiences) but it’s very hard to under-estimate how much you can learn from having that direct interaction with an audience as a musician. On an immediate level, the response you can draw from the crowd is vital for deciding whether a new song you’ve just written is working or worth re-working! On another level, I think if the atmosphere in the room has changed when you stop playing, you know you’ve got something going.

Which new musical acts are you currently excited by?

At the moment I’m enjoying Adult Jazz, Alice Boman and I’m kind of mesmerised by that Shamir tune for some reason (I’ve just realised she was one of the BBC’s tips for this year). But on a more Oxford-centric level, I’m very excited by Pixel Fix, Tremorheart and Esther Joy Lane who are playing at our IVW night. Besides those guys, Charlie Cunningham really impressed me with his nylon guitar skills when he supported us at our Sheldonian show in Oxford in November - thankfully he’s agreed to support us again in Truro in March!

What’s next for you?

We’re in that limbering-up-and-stretching phase before the release of our next album, which is coming out in a couple of months. This entails getting the new songs lean, mean and match-fit in their live incarnation, as well as deciding whether to ditch that stupidly high backing vocal part, or pondering whether it’s really worth getting that koto player to come on tour with us for just two notes each night. In the meantime, for a spot of light relief we’ve just been recording a Groucho Marx cover, Lydia the Tattooed Lady, for the BFI’s Marx Brothers season. It features some seagulls and a badly-played bowed saw.

Visit the IVW website to find out more info on all gigs at the Cellar.

Check out our interviews with IVW ambassador Frank Turner, Frankie and the Heartstrings and rockers You Me At Six on how playing these small stages helped give them a leg up on their careers.