Since debuting in 2010 with the 100,000 selling Beachcomber’s Windowsill, Stornoway – Brian Briggs, Jonathan Ouin, Oli Steadman and Rob Steadman – have continued to garner increasing praise for their inventive acoustic folk pop. Following the release of 2013’s Tales From Terra Firma, and it’s six track mini-LP/EP counterpart, You Don’t Know Anything, the quartet return with Bonxie (out April 13). Produced by famed producer Gil Norton (Pixies, Foo Fighers, Twin Atlantic, Patti Smith), the album features the sounds of around 20 different species of bird. Principle songwriter, guitarist and Doctor of Ornithology Brian Briggs tells us more.
The album’s title comes from a seabird, the great skua (Stercorarius skua), aka bonxie. Can you tell us a bit more about them?
They’re aggressive birds who feed by forcing other birds to give up their food. They’re kind of… parasites.
There’s a lot of interesting sounds on the album …
Mostly British wildlife. On the first song, Between The Saltmarsh And The Sea, there’s a bit of foghorn there, and some Dark Bellied Brent Geese, who live in a saltmarsh habitat and spend their winters around Britain – I get a lot of them around here. The song is a metaphor for human relationships, and is told from the perspective of the saltmarsh and the sea tides as they come in and out. Man On Wire features a New York soundscape, and is loosely based on Phillipe Petit, Lost Youth begins with a Red Grouse, which makes this hiccuppy noise and there’s a blizzard at the beginning of Heart of The Great Alone, which is about Scott of the Antarctic. There’s also waves.
How did you get all that audio? Were you out there with a mic?
I don’t mean to disappoint but I didn’t record the bird sounds. It’s a real skill, something people devote their lives to, they’re very professional. I love birdsong. It’s a bit of an inspiration. The only sound we recorded was New York. I would have had to have spent two year or more trying to get good recordings of those birds, so I get them from Xeno-Canto, which is used by a lot of bird recordists, who upload their recordings.
Why use these ‘found sounds’?
The idea of it was to immerse the listener in a landscape, and bring a bit of the outdoors in – and that can also be heard in our lyrics. We wanted people to feel like they were outdoors. Nature and the outdoors form a big part of the settings of our songs.
Bonxie (out Apr 13) is preceded by the track, Get Low, which has a pretty impressive video…
I’m really excited about [that]. We did it with imprinted geese – when they hatch the first thing they see is a human so they’ll follow you. We went to an airfield and were travelling at 40mph with these geese flying next to us – you could almost reach out and touch a goose as it was flying. It’s quite striking, that one. Get Low [is] one of the more poppier moments from the album. It was a co-write with Jon and it’s proved popular when we play it live.
The album is produced by Gil Norton, which is the first time you’ve worked with a producer, isn’t it?
Kind of … though that’s not strictly true as we did one-and-a-half songs with a producer on the first album, but they took the role of an engineer more than a producer. This time, we firstly wanted someone who had strong ideas on the tracks and on structure. We’d got quite used to doing things our way. That’d been good fun. But this time we wanted a step up from our comfort zones and having Gil there made us question our decisions, see things from a fresh perspective. The result is a more simpler, fresher sound, and we wanted to do something less dense, less layered. It’s still poppy … but it in an outdoorsy way. Gil is most famous for rock, but he had done a lot of things we liked, like Ed Harcourt and he’d worked with [the band] James and a few vaguely folk pop bands we like. His name popped up, he’d just done a rock album and he wanted to do something more folk, and we liked the idea of someone who could give more oomph to our record. [Because of his interests] we had less time to spend on strings and brass, so we had to fight to still make sure they were still included, as they were really important to us, but it was a useful collision.
You had so many tracks left over after recording Tales From Terra Firma, you released the six-track mini-album/EP You Don’t Know Anything soon after. Did the Bonxie sessions result in another surplus of songs … ?
We only recorded an album’s worth of tracks, we did all the narrowing down before we went in to do the record. Last time, we recorded everything, which is why we had stuff left over. This time we were aware of the money spent on the studio, were every minute costs you money. We didn’t want to dwell on every moment so we did a lot of homework in advance, so it was definitely a faster process. It took a year-and-a-half, which is pretty quick for us. We have got one or two tracks spare, and one of those will hopefully come out with the album – it just has a slightly different atmosphere to the rest – but there’s not enough for another EP.
You Don’t Know Anything featured songs influenced by such other acts as Flaming Lips, Ray Charles, The Specials, Tom Waits, Beck, Teenage Fanclub, Gorillaz and Juluka; did you have any other bands in mind when working on Bonxie?
There’s a lot of musical influences between the four of us, such a range of music we listen to. Arrangement-wise, we have different bands in mind … we always have different artists in the corners of our mind. Heart of The Great Alone is quite a big sound, and we had Bjork in mind, with the synths but also the sweep of sound; Love Song Of The Beta Male we had a Phil Spector sound in mind; we thought about McAlmont and Butler for Man On Wire, the high strings, that grand pop sound. We work on each song as an individual thing and reference the bands we love.
Where are you all based nowadays?
I’m in an Oxford band, but I live in South Wales [laughs]. I moved here to write this album. I wanted to go somewhere a bit wild and I quite like it. Jon’s still in Oxford, Oli’s between Oxford and London and Rob is currently in New York. He’s out there but tos-and-fros, and will obviously be back for the shows.
Why did you go for South Wales?
The Gower is pretty wild but it’s also well connected – it’s at the end of the M4 so it’s not difficult to get to and from. There’s a mix of habitats here. I used to go up to Pembrokeshire and the Gower is like a mini-Pembrokeshire – there are cliffs, beaches, open moorland. And it’s the proper Atlantic Coast, and obviously less busy than the south of England. It’s nice here.
After first playing there in the autumn of ’09,you returned to Oxford’s iconic Sheldonian Theatre back in November for two shows (3 & 13 Nov 2014) – how was the experience?
That was very exciting for us. We’d been there five years previously featuring the Oxford Millennium Orchestra, who we collaborated with on a bunch of songs. We did the scoring for orchestra … it was so exciting. And the building, which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and has this painted ceiling! A real treat and playing to our longest serving fans … it was a great atmosphere. A thrill.
Would you like to play there regularly, say, in another five years?
I wouldn’t say no! I’d love to think that in 4-5 years time we could do it again. There’d be a lot to live up to if we keep going back though. We had so much new stuff we played for the first time, because we were half-way between albums, we got to showcase new stuff and old favourites. We’d done enough in the previous five years to make it feel special again.
You’re following your spring tour with an appearance at Towersey Festival* – a bit of a homecoming?
Yes. It’s our only Oxford show over the summer and the first time we’ve played the festival. It’s a bit of a legendary festival, so we’re really excited to get to play it at long last. We’re on the same night as Bellowhead, who are, of course, another ‘local act’. We’ve played with them in the past and they are great. I’ve never been to Towersey before but I’ve heard about it many times. Hopefully, I’ll take the whole family as we have a couple of toddlers and we hear the festival is really family-friendly. We should have local fans coming and we’ll get some friends down too I’m sure – it’ll be great.
How have the new songs been going down so far?
Josephine has these close harmonies and sounds like a sea shanty thing – that’s been going down well live. Overall, the record’s pop, but in disguise. The songs seem to quite quickly connect with people.
Interview by: Dave Freak
* Stornoway play Towersey Festival, near Thame, Oxfordshire, on Saturday 29 August 2015, with Bellowhead, John Smith, Phil Beer, Lisbee Stainton and many more. Day Tickets are £40 (adult), £28 (youth), £18 (child), under 5s free. Full Weekend festival tickets are available from £120 (adult), £110 (conc), £84 (youth), £55 (child), with under 5s free. For tickets and more line-up details, call 01629 827016 or see: www.towerseyfestival.com
* Stornoway’s UK tour begins on 11 April 2015, and continues into May. Full dates: www.stornoway.eu