THAT dreaded “second album syndrome” has long vexed rock and pop bands.
You burst on the scene riding a wave of euphoria as critics and fans garland you with praise like streamers at a confetti bar. And then you wake up with a sore head and you’ve got to do it all over again – only this time people know who you are and expectations are sky high.
The Stone Roses, The Strokes and Guns ‘N’ Roses have all grappled with this in the past and Stornoway are another of those bands that have had to steer a course through choppy waters.
When the alt folk outfit released their debut album, Beachcomber’s Windowsill, in 2010, with its tumbling strings and irresistible melodies they quickly became many people’s favourite new band.
Thanks to songs like Zorbing, I Saw You Blink and We Are The Battery Human, their quirky style attracted a loyal following and they went on to open at Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage and headline small festivals right across the UK.
So when they released their follow-up fans and critics alike were excited. But where Beachcomber’s Windowsill was witty, inventive and anchored by a succession of foot-tapping hooks, their second album, Tales from Terra Firma, was denser and more introspective.
It still attracted some decent reviews but it lacked the exuberance of their debut and even the band’s bass player Oli Steadman admits it wasn’t an easy listen.
But now the band – singer and guitarist Brian Briggs, keyboard player Jonathan Ouin, drummer Rob Steadman and his brother Oli – are back with a new album, Bonxie, which takes its name from the great skua, a large seabird that also goes by the name bonxie (as well as a songwriter, Brian is also a doctor of ornithology).
The record taps into the joyous enthusiasm of their debut while at the same time being more musically expansive. It’s also being lauded by the music press.
“We’d been working on the album for two or three years and we really didn’t know what to expect. So it’s been beyond our expectations,” says Oli.
It’s been a good few weeks for the band who take to the stage at the 02 Academy in Leeds tomorrow as one of the headline acts at Live At Leeds, which offers up the chance to see some top new musical talent, alongside more established acts.
Former Supergrass lead singer Gaz Coombes and Wakefield’s finest The Cribs are among the other headline acts at the four-day festival which starts today.
For Stornoway it’s a welcome return to a city they’ve played numerous times in the past. “We’ve played at the Cockpit, the Wardrobe and the Brudenell Social Club and we’ve always had a good time whenever we’ve played in Leeds, so we’re really looking forward to this,” says Oli.
You sense that the past couple of years have brought the band to something of a crossroads. “A lot’s changed in our personal lives,” he says. “Our drummer has moved to New York, I’ve moved to London and Brian lives in Wales now, so we needed something to keep us together as a group.”
The band’s story is an intriguing one. It was actually set up in Oxford, as opposed to the Hebridean town they’re named after – which aficionados of the shipping forecasts and TV weather reports will no doubt instantly recognise.
The seeds of what became Stornoway were sown during Freshers’ Week at Oxford University when Brian approached Jon and asked him if he liked Teenage Fanclub. It turned out he did, and the pair started out doing covers of the cult Scottish band.
Spurred on after coming second in a college talent competition they decided to put together a proper band, putting an advert in a local newspaper for a bass player. They received one reply – from Oli.
“I used to play guitar to Pixies records,” he says. “I saw an advert on the right day and went along for an audition.”
He got the job and later drafted in his younger brother Rob. The pair of them were still at school when they joined the band. “I was 17 when I joined and he was 16, so that was a bit weird. Brian and Jon were both in their mid-20s and we were these two kids running around behind them getting kicked out of pubs we’d just played in. It was ridiculous, but a lot of fun.”
They spent a few years honing their craft and then came the success of Beachcomber’s Windowsill.
“We went from being on the indie scene to suddenly having a record deal with a well known international label with a whole professional team around us. We became full-time musicians and we’d never experienced that before.”
Then came the second album. “We thought the buoyancy and exuberance from the first album would carry on but we perhaps didn’t get the promotion that we needed,” he says.
But now they’re back and Oli feels that Bonxie is imbued with a similar sense of excitement and fun as their joyous original record. He feels, too, they have become a tighter unit. “I think it’s definitely brought us all closer together as a band, it feels like things have fallen into place.”
- Stornoway are playing at the Leeds 02 Academy tomorrow at 4pm, and Sheffield’s Leadmill on May 8. The band’s new album, Bonxie, is out now.
- For more details about Live at Leeds go to www.liveatleeds.com.