Stornoway - With the wind in their sails

A tendency to play unplugged has seen Stornoway lumped in with the burgeoning British indie-folk movement, but this restless, fast-rising Oxford outfit are their own men. Chris Mugan meets them backstage
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Ahead of Sunday's charts, there was much excitement that an unlikely pop outfit led by two Oxford postgraduates would storm the charts. In the event, Stornoway's debut album, Beachcomber's Windowsill, made a creditable No 14. Not at all bad when you consider that when the educated four-piece appeared on Later... with Jools Holland last November, they were still unsigned and in no rush to take the plunge.

To launch their highly anticipated debut, the band eschewed a high- profile London gig in favour of a trio of acoustic sets in their home city. Not merely "unplugged", in the MTV sense, but without plugs at all. Now the group have slotted into the burgeoning indie-folk movement by dint of leaning towards acoustic instrumentation, though the clarity of their instantly memorable tunes sets them apart.

The winning combination has enabled them to transcend their home city's town-and-gown divide. The band's founders, the singer and lyricist Brian Briggs and arranger Jon Ouin came to Oxford to study respectively for a zoology PhD and a Masters degree in Russian; the rhythm section's brothers, Ollie (bass) and Rob Steadman (drums), went to the local Magdalen School. I meet the two lynchpins of the band in an upscale café bar before the second night of the acoustic series.

One facet of Beachcomber's Windowsill that stands out is the purity of Briggs's delivery. I wonder how he plans to meet the challenge of pitting his voice against the rest of the band's varied instrumentation in a crowded room. Am I right in thinking he had some training? Cue a dry chuckle from Ouin and a pained expression from Briggs. "More than I want to let on," he says, before relenting. "I was a choirboy for a few years, I got a scholarship to Bristol Cathedral School, which meant I had to sing for three years pretty much every day. I stopped for obvious reasons when I got to 15; the inevitable happens and it becomes the least cool thing ever."

Briggs's Somerset burr sounds gruffer today and he complains about having suffered from a cold. I wonder whether tucking into a pizza a couple of hours before the gig is the best preparation, but decide he must know how best to use his voice.

He explains how he got back into music: by playing drums at university with a student from California. Several false starts later and five years ago now, Briggs came to Wolfson College, a graduate institution, where he met Ouin. They made an arrangement where the former wrote the songs while the multi-instrumental Ouin arranged them. They performed as a duo before deciding they needed a fuller sound, so Ollie responded to an advert and brought his brother in.

Ouin and Briggs form a perfect match, though they find it hard to explain what kept them from working together before Stornoway. "Musically speaking, we clicked because the first time we met we talked about bands we liked," Briggs offers. "I never intended to go back to university after being an undergrad because I wanted to work in wildlife conservation, but I had this secret ambition to be in a band and play music. I guess it wasn't the kind of thing my parents would have instinctively encouraged, nor was it particularly secure as a career choice. University's definitely a prime time for meeting musicians. And I couldn't find a job."

Given the themes of Windowsill, you struggle to imagine Briggs holding down a nine-to-five career. That much is clear from the semi-protest song "We Are the Battery Human" and even the buoyant head-over-heels-in-love song "Zorbing", where Briggs pleads, "Send my body out to work/ But leave my senses/ In orbit over south-east London." "I don't think I could ever do a job where I'm in a suit and being told what to do," he admits. "Well, I have, but it didn't last. With a PhD, you're your own boss. Your time is your own and you just have to come out at the end with a massive thesis. That was attractive to me and went well with spending lots of my time playing music and recording."

Ouin had his own careers-office traumas, as his degree in Russian was not opening the secretive doors it might once have. "I did apply to GCHQ, but round then it was all about 7 July, so Arabic was what people wanted," he explains wistfully. Still, you couldn't accuse Stornoway of being feckless dropouts. You don't take doctorates at Oxford with that attitude.

Instead, the group are consummate self-starters, finding their own support acts and booking gigs in unlikely buildings in their home city and beyond, including a date at the venerable Sheldonian Theatre and a pilgrimage to the Hebridean town that gives Stornoway their name.

Moreover, Briggs admits to being a "control freak". He speaks witheringly of a band he formed in Bristol with two lead singers and two songwriters. "It was doomed to fail". Now they find themselves lumped in with a burgeoning indie-folk movement – think Noah & the Whale, Laura Marling and current stars Mumford & Sons – which must be frustrating for a group that set their own course. For starters, you will not see them raiding the costume box for retro outfits like the latter (not since early publicity shots, anyway). Briggs cycled to our rendezvous wearing a helmet rather than a cloth cap.

"I personally like Laura Marling," Ouin ventures, "but I don't know how we are connected to that bunch."

"If you look at the range of stuff you hear on Radio One, then we definitely are in that bunch," Briggs suggests. "But in terms of my music tastes, I'd say there's quite a difference. I listen to very little folk music, more guitar bands and occasionally guitar bands that play acoustic instruments. But I don't mind, we seem to be riding on the tails of their success."

Like the Mumfords, Stornoway rely on acoustic sounds. But Arcade Fire too are capable of unplugging and heading into the crowd for a sing-along, something this fan-friendly outfit enjoy doing. Not tonight, though. In a pool hall off Cowley Road, the band have dressed the stage in fairy lights but Briggs is unable to reach the octaves his perfectionism demands, so cancels the gig.

It's typical of the band who, rather than aiming for a spurious credibility by using non-electric guitars, seem driven by a sonic restlessness. You could trace that back to Briggs's wanderlust – his devotion to conservation issues took him as far afield as Ecuador, an interest he parlayed into a list song about fish it was OK to eat.

Despite such earnest fare, the band still managed to attract a hardcore fanbase early on. One local DJ devoted an hour of his programme to Stornoway and was suspended for his troubles; another supporter donated them a tour van. "We didn't really need to go out looking for help – news spread and people came to see us," Briggs remembers. "It was a good thing being based in Oxford because that meant they weren't coming to check us out when we were rubbish." Now with a hit album under their belts, the news is sure to spread even further.

Stornoway's album 'Beachcomber's Windowsill' is out now on 4AD Records