Interview: Stornoway

Stornoway’s brand new album, titled Tales From Terra Firma and released on March 11th, is a quite stunning thing to hear. And so we were delighted when they took some time out from practising for their upcoming tour, to chat to us about the record, the effect of the success that came from Beachcomber’s Windowsill and a potential tour-inducing crisp addiction…

Were you surprised by the critical acclaim and commercial success of Beachcomber’s Windowsill?

Yep – I think I can speak on behalf of everyone in saying it was a very pleasant surprise!

What doors did that open up for you?  
A door marked ‘self-belief’: it was the realisation that we could trust our own ears! We produced 80% of the first album on a shoestring on an 8-track portable recorder and about 2 mics, and aside from giving mixing duties to George Shilling we’ve more or less done the same thing again this time round (on only marginally better equipment and a couple more mics).
The sounds on the new album, Tales From Terra Firma, are beautifully rich at times and you can hear a large range of instruments throughout the record. Is this one of your main priorities – to add a diverse range of sounds, experiment and play around with different instruments, so it feels textured and unique?
It’s definitely not a priority for us to include lots of instruments gratuitously, otherwise that would be akin to window-dressing. We do like messing around a fair bit at the demoing stage in terms of instruments, though; I suppose once we are all attuned to what we think the song is about or the feeling we want it to evoke, it becomes more ‘obvious’ what’s going to be best in terms of the space we record in, the instrumentation,arrangements and so on. Even though I find it can change the feel of a recording so drastically, for me Brian’s songwriting is at the core of it, otherwise the other stuff becomes a bit senseless and assumes an importance it shouldn’t have. Without wishing it to sound like it’s something edible, the texture and ‘flavour’ of the music are secondary – they’re more like by-products of the process!
Is this one of the reasons why the second album has been a few years in the making since Beachcomber’s Windowsill…ensuring the record is completely perfect?
Well, in total I think we recorded just under twenty songs to our satisfaction, and took flipping ages trying to decide the ones that went together best, and in what order! I think we spent pretty much all of last year rehearsing, arranging and recording all the songs we wanted to try out, aiming to capture the spirit of the original demos. I suppose there was always a sense that we were striving for something ‘perfect’ (whatever that may be), because otherwise what’s the point? But the problem is that the kind of ‘perfection’ we aspire to usually – but not necessarily – comprises elements which might sound a bit ‘wrong’ technically…and everyone has to agree…in short it’s pretty elusive.
The lyrics on the new album describe some very personal and powerful experiences, as well as carrying some important life-lessons. Some songwriters prefer not to write about personal moments, others relish in it and wish bare it all to their listeners…does the latter apply to yourselves?
That’s quite a difficult one for me to answer! To the best of my knowledge, pretty much all of Brian’s lyrics in these songs are based on personal experiences on some level, as he tends to tell stories through his lyrics (hence the album title) and doesn’t tend to hide behind third person narratives. I wouldn’t say he relishes it in an exhibitionist way at all (quite the reverse). It’s more that he’s prone to convey his own feelings first-hand in a pretty pure poetic form that is free of cynicism, and is one which I think other people can relate to; he also makes it seem much more simple than it actually is. I’d also add that in my experience, the things he alludes to lyrically often aren’t as straightforward as they might appear at first, and in some cases take a while to sink in (sometimes years later)…
A strong feature of travel and adventure, nature and the outdoors, play a big part on the record and its title. Are these of particular importance to the band as a whole?
Yes – the elements and the world outdoors are almost like a backdrop to our music. Ironically, we recorded the vast majority of the new album in a shed with no windows in (like most studios I suppose). This meant we felt compelled to start tearing out pages from National Geographic and started feverishly sticking them up on the wall of the shed for inspiration! For me, another (possibly unconscious) subtext is the passage of time. I wasn’t really aware of it when we were making it, but later on I realised that it makes its presence felt in some form in virtually every song.

Were any of the songs on the latest album taken from tracks that didn’t make the first?
Brian wrote November Song a few months before the Beachcomber’s Windowsill album came out, and if I remember right, we recorded it in a barn that winter. It didn’t make the cut on the first album because we felt it would have jarred lyrically, but in this new setting we could see that it made for a perfect closer, in that it seemed to take the thing full circle somehow – back to one man and his guitar – a textural contrast with some of the more ‘expansive’ songs on this album.

You previewed material from Tales From Terra Firma on the roof of the Southbank Centre as part of A Room for London. How did that come about? 
Well ‘The Guardian’ asked us last summer – we’d seen the tUnE-yArDs performance and so we were pretty thrilled to be asked, and we decided to make it into an acoustic showcase for our new songs. The boat is sitting on the edge of the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, and from there you’ve got a panoramic view of London from St. Paul’s to Big Ben, so it’s a truly unique space to perform in! We stayed the night on the boat, and thankfully the anchor didn’t drift.

Your current tour seems to be selling out pretty quickly! What can we expect from these shows?
We’re resisting the temptation to bombard people with new songs alone (there are also plenty of songs which we enjoy playing but happened to not fit in on the album), as that would be slightly unfair before the album is released, but we’ve been enjoying seeing how we can mesh old with new. Aside from the songs themselves, we will be integrating some extensions of Rob and Kirini (Kopcke)’s superlative album artwork into the stage design, and there’ll be a proper light show and everything.

The dates run until 27th March at the London Forum. Do you find it hard readjusting to life after a tour?
Yes, there is inherently a certain adrenalin-fuelled, nocturnal poseur side to performing night after night which doesn’t really lend itself to living as a normal functioning human adult (or at least one that others might actively like). Besides that, we all need help with a terrifying crisp addiction.
What’s next for Stornoway and how far ahead do you plan?  
We’ve never been particularly good at long-term planning and right now it’s a little difficult to look too far into the distance as the album is not out yet. We’re looking forward to going to as many festivals as is humanly possible (we’re hoping to announce a few pretty soon) and in between times, we’ll be eager to get back to our stamp collections, expanding our warhammer armies and learning imaginary languages etc. etc.
Questions by Nathan Fisher and Dom Kay