We recently caught up with Jon from beauty-folk purveyors Stornoway to discuss creative influences and processes, hopes for the future, bird song and the apocalypse.
The band are based in Oxford, yet you are named after a town in the Scottish Hebrides; both are beautiful places, but where would you rather be? Inside the creative, intellectual hub that is Oxford, or amongst the beauty and peace of a Scottish Island?
It’s difficult for me to speak for all of us as in fact only half of us are now living in Oxford! If it were a choice between an intellectual hub and a remote island, I am fairly certain that Brian would prefer to be in the wilds (he is currently ensconced in the Gower Peninsula). Oli is enjoying London life, where the streets are paved with gold. Meanwhile Rob and I are still feeling intellectually inadequate in Oxford. We’re all meeting up pretty regularly at the moment, though, as we are working on new musical bits and bobs.
Nature is a continual theme throughout your work, from album art to lyrics. What is it about natural science that you find so appealing, and how do you best like to transfer this to your music?
Yes, I suppose references to the natural world are pretty prevalent in Stornoway lyrics and titles! More often than not they are there in metaphorical form to mirror something going on beneath the surface in the internal world of the protagonist, but on a couple of occasions we’ve referred to the natural world more transparently as a subject in its own right. On the first album there’s a song called We are the Battery Human which is really a song about spending too much time staring at plasma screens (which I’m doing right now as it happens), instead of going outside, connecting with nature and living a life unfettered by technology. On our new mini-album You Don’t Know Anything, there is a song called The Sixth Wave about mass extinction and drawing a connection with the way we live now and the resources we are using. On a more subliminal level, we’ve often used bird song several times in our recordings. Oli mimics a South African birdsong in a looped section in his bass part to The Sixth Wave, and after spending weeks in a windowless garage, we ended our recording sessions with the track Tumbling Bay by using sampled sounds outside. You can hear the breeze in the trees and a bit of bird song – wrens, nuthatches and possibly robins… as well as a bit of traffic!
Many of your tracks have nostalgic, heart-wrenchingly accurate themes – for me most evocatively in the track Fuel Up. With reference to that track in particular, which do you feel is the best age to be, 9, 18 or 27? Or are they all perfect and painful in different ways?
I’m glad you like it! I think it is among Brian’s better bits of lyric-writing, in that he explores a single metaphor pretty thoroughly, and it’s also very accessible as an idea which can strike a chord with people. I particularly like the line “there’s no rewind, so you might as well play” when we’re doing it live. In terms of your question, I think 9 is a probably the best age, as that’s when we are at our most imaginative, and instinctively know how to pretend and play. When I was that age I was into making tapes of short, pompously titled ‘compositions’ and imagining I was making real albums, and obsessively watching and re-watching a video I had called The Complete Beatles. Nothing’s really changed that much so far as I’m concerned!
Focusing further on rites of passage, your new album covers the vast expanse of everyday life’s joys and disappointments, with perhaps as much shadow as there is light. Does adulthood/ageing cause you concern, or does is it more of a conductor for the band’s creativity and emotional resonance?
I’m not sure I would draw a distinction between the creative act and the experience of ‘adulthood’ or ‘life’, as self-evidently we don’t create in a vacuum or in a dispassionate way. I think all of our music contains a substantial amount of autobiography, from which you can draw your own conclusions!
You tour a lot, yet you reportedly spent two whole winters recording your second album, Tales From Terra Firma. Do you enjoy both performing and recording equally, or does one ultimately take precedence? And which form gives the audience the truest version of your music?
We sometimes think that in playing entirely acoustically we can give our audiences the purest version of our songs. That said, speaking for myself, on balance I probably slightly prefer the adventure involved in recording music, because I’ve always been attracted to the magic in layering things. One of my favourite records when I was young was Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, which as many will know was just one-man-in-a-studio-multi-tracking in excelsis. I like to think of the studio version of our music as a form of imaginative aspiration. But as we all know, there is that raw element of spontaneity and immediacy to playing live which cannot be equalled, nor that instantaneous, living bond you form with fellow musicians and the crowd on any given night. And of course there is a stirring hint of danger that everything could disintegrate at any minute! In any case, we would never seek to merely emulate a recording for the benefit of an audience, as they deserve something special.
I think in the past the studio and the live gig used to be entirely different beasts, but we now live in an era when they are more blurred, so perhaps there is no such thing as a “true” version. Studio recordings no longer exist as definitive versions of any given song as you can always find a recorded live version online, and a lot of performers use pre-recorded backing live as well (for the record, we haven’t ever done this…yet!).
What are your favourite musical elements to use and why? Loop stations, effect units, certain time signatures or instruments/timbres…?
For me it’s the search for setting a song and helping it fulfill its potential, as it were. Personally, I find looping stations a bit of a yawn – especially in a live context, unless someone’s doing something truly creative with it… Time signatures and changes are something that need to feel natural in order to work, rather than a mathematical point of reference – I’ve always enjoyed Field Music’s work in that respect, as the cerebral aspects of their music don’t feel laboured or showy to me. Trying out new sounds, instruments, textures and so on are pretty much the thing that I’m most excited by, even if those things are ultimately slightly peripheral to the general sound of Stornoway. Quite often you don’t get it right first time – it’s a bit like feeling your way in the dark, and you can end up with something implausible that still suits the song for whatever reason.
What is next for Stornoway? Are you already looking towards album number three, and if so, what could it cover musically, lyrically and conceptually?
It’s almost certainly too early to comment on this in depth too much, but yes, we are scratching around with some new demo ideas and beating them into shape. Musically, we are hoping it will sound like the aural equivalent of mid-winter oregano on a fresh bed of rocket, with a hint of crepuscular basil, orange peel and bonfires, at dawn on Blackpool harbour.