Music interview: So farewell then, Stornoway

Indie folk band Stornoway are due to go their separate ways following the current UK tour. As the Oxford four-piece prepare to visit Leeds, keyboard player Jon Ouin spoke to the YEP.

After almost 12 years together as a band, why have you decided to call it a day?

The simple answer is that collectively we felt it was time. I think we’ve always done things on instinct and are proud of what we’ve done so far, but we are all leading very separate lives in different places now. This tour marks the beginning of a new chapter.

What have been the highlights of the past decade or so?

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Difficult question! Playing Glastonbury main stage has to be up there, as does being the first band to play at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. Getting to play festivals in places like Latvia and Poland, to travel over to Oz and all over the U.S.A. a few times hasn’t been bad either! But for me personally, the greatest highlight has to be appearing on Jools Holland - it was something I loved watching as a kid. On that particular show we happened to be surrounded by megastars (Jay Z, Sting, Foo Fighters, Norah Jones) and I must admit I got the jitters pretty badly beforehand!

You said in your statement announcing the break up that you felt you had “achieved so much more as a band than you had ever dared to dream back when you were students annoying the neighbours in a drafty east Oxford garage”. What were your initials hopes for the band?

I think we were always secretly fiercely ambitious – like almost every band – but became adept at pretending we weren’t. It was always about getting the right person to listen to our stuff on Myspace (which dates things a bit) or sending off a CD (which dates things even more) to the right person. Just getting gigs was a big deal at the beginning, with a slightly dodgy dossier of quotations about Brian’s old band from Bristol. But the main thing we had was a kind of unshakeable belief that we could be a good festival band…and I like to think we were right!  

How do you look back on the group’s musical development between your three albums?

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I don’t think there have been too many baffling volte-faces or synthetic makeovers, but still it’s been a bit of a musical ride! At the beginning we did about five or six years worth of writing, arranging and recording on a portable eight-track and one mic, pretty much all of which ended up on the first album. It was a very lo-fi, simple and unassuming sound, which still kind of appeals to me. I think when we were making the second album we were aiming much higher and wider in terms of trying on new sets of musical clothes as far removed from ‘folk’ as possible and pernickety arrangements, but on reflection, quite a bit of it was a bit harder for us to do justice to on stage! The more recent phase, with our last album ‘Bonxie’, I think was possibly a bit of a reaction to that, in the best sense, in that the album maybe feels a bit more comfortable in its own skin: it’s just about the most assured set of songs we could make, both in the song-writing and in the production department too.

The Brudenell Social Club in Leeds is possibly the smallest venues you’re playing on this tour. Is it a place that holds a special place in Stornoway’s hearts?

Yes, most definitely. I am pretty terrible at remembering things, but I’m pretty sure that the first time we played there was part of our ‘Twisted Folk’ tour back in 2009 with Beth Jeans Houghton (aka Du Blonde), and it’s been a fixture ever since! The smaller venues are often that much more enjoyable to play because there’s that closeness with your audience, and a kind of intensity in the air. More importantly though, Oli can do his stage diving trip without fear of jumping into an empty space.

You’d never actually visited the island from which the band took its name, until you played a show there in 2010. What were your impressions of the place?

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Well, for one thing, we were insanely lucky with the weather, considering it was March: it was bright and beautiful, with beaches of white sand. We played to a small crowd of locals in a small venue, and we bribed them with whisky to keep them onside – we’d borrowed the name of their hometown after all. We signed our record deal in a woodland area outside the venue in the dark, and after the gig I managed to inadvertently stop a fight at a pub because the two would-be pugilists were so disgusted by my red trousers. I also remember we made an early morning visit to the famous Standing Stones of Callanish and going for a heart-stoppingly cold swim in the sea.

If you had to pick a single song from the band’s repertoire, which one would you think represents you best?

Fuel Up.

What are you all planning to do as individuals after the farewell tour is over?

Well, you can catch Brian performing at the Oxford Literary Festival on April 1 with the brilliant Welsh poet Paul Henry; Rob is playing with bands The Textiles and KT Mulholland in NYC; Oli is keeping busy with his promotional company Tigmus and playing with Count Drachma; and I’m writing music for Radio 4 dramas.

Stornoway play at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on March 5.