Interview: Oli Steadman of Stornoway

By on Thursday, 10th September 2015 at 11:00 am

“Yesterday morning, we were heading back from Electric Picnic. I think it’s in the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland? Then it was on to Wales to play at Festival No. 6 in Portmeirion (North Wales). So we go to these crazy locations for some really boutique, lovely festivals. Back in 2009, 2010, we were doing the V Festivals and the sort of really commercial stuff. But what we really love, what we’ve gravitated towards over the years are these boutique experience festivals. Last night I got to watch Grace Jones do 32 costume changes in 10 songs, so that was pretty incredible! These are the kind of things we love playing. It’s definitely a different kind of experience.”

It’s hard not to be jealous of the experiences bassist Oliver “Oli” Steadman (far left in header photo) describes as he tells me what he and his band Stornoway have been up to on their very packed summer festival season. Thanks to the technological wonder that is Skype, we happen to sit down for a chat – him being in East London, myself in DC – a week within the 10th anniversary of him playing his first live show with Brian Briggs (lead vocals / guitar) and Jon Ouin (multi-instrumentalist / backing vocals) just prior to his younger brother Rob joining the group on drums. Considering the current uncertain climate in the music business, the combination of having your band survive and staying in said same band, as well as staying close friends with your bandmates is quite a feat.

He’s upbeat, explaining that Festival No. 6, their final festival of the season, was his favourite of all this year. “I’d never been before, and I didn’t know anything about it. The atmosphere, it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Around every new corner, there’s a new, sort of strange Tuscan architectural construction by a strange gentleman who lived there (Sir Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis) who lived there and built things there some 100 years ago or something. I still don’t know the whole story yet, I’m still discovering that. But around each other, you see the most incredible natural sight as well, like this huge estuary. You’d get some people trying to walk across it just while the tide’s out, hoping they have enough time to run across. You’d watch people get stranded. One guy was carrying a guitar, trying to get to the festival. Then the sun would set over the Western sea. It’s just a natural beauty, and I was really impressed by that festival.”

Given that Stornoway christened their most recent album after a seabird, ‘Bonxie’ (reviewed by me here), and their band’s long association with nature, Steadman’s appreciation for the great outdoors, even in the context of doing their jobs as musicians. The LP was released on their new label Cooking Vinyl in April, with the American release following it at the end of July on Slimstyle Records. ‘Bonxie’ also marks an important moment in Stornoway’s career in that it is the first of their studio albums to not be self-produced. For this album, they brought in acclaimed producer Gil Norton, whose credits include Foo Fighters‘ ‘The Colour and the Shape’ and several albums by Pixies, including 2014’s ‘Indie Cindy’.

Seeing that Norton is most famous for working with some of rock’s heavy hitters, this seemed like a mismatch to me, and I wondered if Norton had been one on a list of several producers they had been considering. According to Steadman, Norton was their first choice and securing him as producer came with a hefty price tag – hence their PledgeMusic campaign, which was so massively successful, their fans surpasses the original target goal in mere days of its launch – and it surprised me in what ways he says Norton influenced the sound of ‘Bonxie’.

“I think Gil taught us a lot about ourselves and finding within ourselves some kind of performance that has always been there, it’s always been available to us, but we’ve only accessed it in the wild gigs that we play. It’s a way of playing that has more conviction and volume, a bit more of an emotional investment. Playing our hearts out, really. For recording our previous albums, it was very relaxing, we’d have a pot of tea, sit in a small Oxford garage…Gil, he’s not really a tea guy. He’s got one huge bottle of mineral water that he starts off with in the morning and the rest of the time, it’s strong coffees. He’s got a manner about him…he can tell if you’re not being true to yourself, for the album you’re trying to make, he will let you know. He will say the ‘let’s give it some welly’ kind of thing. He gets the best performances out of people. So I listened to ‘The Pretender’ from the Foo Fighters and some of the Pixies’ albums, and you tell they went on the same kind of emotional journey we were on during the making of this album.

“But then having taught you that side of yourself, Gil is then the kind of producer who leaves his mark, and with this new ‘Unplucked’ EP, we self-produced again, although we had George Shilling to mix again, so he’s kind of the constant presence, the constant character in our creations. But we took Gil’s teachings from the whole ‘Bonxie’ album and we tried to look at those from a different angle and think, ‘okay, we can use this new way of performing that we’ve discovered from Gil, but we want to do it in these new instrumental arrangements’, so each song is stripped back to the barest instruments.

“We’re still playing with the conviction, but that really manifested in the technical aspects. So the songs that you hear on ‘Unplucked’, generally, every note was done in two or three takes. There’s the harmonica solo on ‘Lost Youth’, that’s the first time we really accessed that within ourselves. Having been given that massive confidence by Gil, we are returning with this ‘Unplucked’ EP, which is us doing it without Gil, but with all that Gil did teach us. We’re very proud of it… It’s like a return to what we were doing before. That’s why when we did the artwork, it’s a skeleton, it’s the bare essentials, none of the frilly stuff. I’m very excited to see what people make of it.”

As you all and Oli will read in my forthcoming review of the EP, I was really impressed with the sound of ‘Unplucked’, as it fully shows off through the five redone ‘Bonxie’ tracks the band’s talent in a very raw, naked state, and he agrees “‘Unplucked’ is something more for the traditional core of Stornoway fans”. This feels like a stark contrast to the festival and gig performing version of Stornoway I saw live in May, first at their star turn at the Academy during Live at Leeds 2015 the first Saturday of the month, then at a gig proper at Sheffield Leadmill the following Friday. It’s clear that their more confident sound has translated to a more accessible, farther reaching sound that Steadman himself has noticed the change in the type of fans who queue up after their appearances to say hello and get their autographs, as well as the overall reception.

“For most of this summer festival season, we’ve been playing these ‘Unplucked’ arrangements, even on the big stages. And it seems to excite them [the punters] in a way maybe I think they wouldn’t have been with the ‘Bonxie’ versions. Perhaps there was a sense that in the room that it might be a bit loud for the typical Stornoway fan, that they hadn’t gotten quite used to it yet…when you’re at the merch stall at the end of the night signing people’s albums and saying hello, you get a sense of who’s coming to the show, and there’s a whole new kind of Stornoway fan coming to us as a result of this record”. Longtime fans need to get onboard with the ‘new’, cocksure Stornoway quick, it appears, as Steadman says there’s already rumours of ‘Bonxie’ being tipped for a 2015 Mercury Prize nomination. “‘Bonxie’ is the new benchmark, the new triumph”, Steadman asserts. “This [‘Unplucked’] is a gift to all the fans who saw us through to making it.”

The surprise track on the new EP, especially if you haven’t seen Stornoway live in the last 6 months, is a cover of the late ’80s dance pop hit by Yazz, ‘The Only Way is Up’. It didn’t seem like the kind of song any of the guys in Stornoway would have on regular rotation, so I asked Oli how they chose it for a cover treatment. It turns out the writing was, literally, on the wall when they were working on ‘Unplucked’. “We initially went into the studio to make those five new versions. While we were there back at George Shilling’s place, we saw all these gold records up. They’ve always been up, but we took a closer look this time. It turns out that he produced it.

“It’s very out of character for him, because we’d known him as a rock mixer, or the guy who produced for ‘Tales from Terra Firma’. We quizzed him on it, we asked, ‘did you actually produce this?’ And he said, ‘yeah, that was in my electro heyday where I was programming all the drums and synths for Yazz’. He talked us through his experience with it, and it inspired us to play it and try it in a soulful, mellow cover… Whenever we’ve done a cover, we tried to choose a song we can take on as our own, even if people don’t know the words or the structure of the song.” Shilling’s own hospitality turned out to be important to the band’s creative process, as after their original planned recording location, Moles in Bath, had a major fire in early 2014, Steadman says the band camped out in Shilling’s back garden in the Cotswolds and got the recording that needed doing done.

The band may be done with summer festivals, but this doesn’t mean Steadman is about to go into hibernation. In addition to being a member of Stornoway and a cofounder of the Oxford branch of the Sofar Sounds movement, Oli has another band with his brother Rob called Count Drachma, in which they stay in touch with their South African roots by singing in Zulu and playing native Zulu folk music, called maskandi. And on his off days from these two bands – if you can call them off days – he is hard at work either with Tigmus (This is Good Music), a DIY gig-booking site for bands that he cofounded in 2013, or managing or producing bands in Oxford for his own company Stone Street Productions when he has an opportunity to return to the city where he first arrived in blighty at age 15.

Steadman’s plate is full these days: what he’s doing and all the projects he has his hands in seem altogether appropriate for someone young, talented and so clearly passionate about our business. We need more people as excited about music as him in this world. And even though I find Steadman this afternoon in London, he never stays in one place too long. Before we say goodbye, he says he’s just finished unpacking from the festivaling weekend, but he’s returning to his flat to pack again. He’s off to Mallorca in the morning. If that isn’t inspiration, I don’t know what is.

Many thanks to Oli for taking the time out of his busy day (and life!) to chat with me. Stay tuned for my review of Stornoway’s new EP ‘Unplucked’ on TGTF next week. It will be released on the 18th of September on Cooking Vinyl; ‘Bonxie’ is available now, as is our massive archive on TGTF on Stornoway over here.

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