A big chunk of my social life is centred around the Oxford music scene. There are very few people I’ve met through it that I haven’t liked and since I started making my documentary on it a few years ago, I feel like I’ve got to know most people associated with it. At the most I’d reckon I’m only one degree of separation from anyone in any way linked to it over the past 30 years. I say this not to brag, OK, to brag a bit because, frankly, my friends are brilliant, talented people. I mean, seriously, I know so many incredibly fantastic creative people, it’s a genuine privilege. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by it and I get a major buzz from it. Most people have to book expensive tickets to great big venues and stand in sweaty crowds to see the people who most inspire them perform. I just have to rock up to some room above a local pub, swan in and stand slack-jawed at the undiscovered brilliance which eclipses anything I’ve seen in the charts for many years.
Occasionally the world cottons on to Oxford. Obviously, Ride, Radiohead and Supergrass broke through and more recently Foals and The Young Knives. Mostly it doesn’t, though. A small handful of us are left with our one Beaker single, our Dustball ball, The Bigger The God 7 inches, The Evenings mp3s, ATL gig posters and maybe even a Purple Rhinos fanzine.
The weird thing about being on good terms with pretty much everyone is that you get a lot of gossip and a lot of unique perspectives. There is, of course, a lot of bitchiness. I’d love to draw a diagram of who hates who and why – a spiteful family tree linking all of the bands, promoters and record labels by branches of hatred and acrimony. But I won’t. Because I like all of them. Unlike other music scenes, ours is not linked by genre. Every genre of music exists within this scene and bands live or die not on the style of music they choose to play, but how good they are. But even quality isn’t enough to impress the scene as a whole. I never find two people with the same opinion about any one band. Which is good as it shows there is no following of the herd in Oxford.
The one band who I have recently heard the same thing said over and over again is Stornoway. And here is what everyone says about them ‘They are SO nice’. I bumped into Ronan, the editor of the local music mag Nightshift recently and that was one of the first things he said to me. They’re the cover story of the current issue and I’d mentioned enjoying the interview. He told me not only had they been willing, generous and interesting interviewees but they’d written him a thank you letter when it got published.
Rewind a year or so and my friend James, a promoter, had put a Stornoway gig on. The next day he came in and made a point of telling me that they were the nicest band he had ever encountered. At the end of the night, having loaded all of their equipment into their van, they came back and offered to help James load the bulky hired P.A. equipment back into his van. Nobody ever does that. Nobody even thinks to do that.
Tim Turan, the mastering genius behind most Oxford bands and the man who re-mastered the back catalogue of seemingly every band from the 70’s of any note (the first time I met him, he had the original master tapes for Thin Lizzy’s The Boys Are Back in Town sat under his desk) enthused to me the first time he worked with them about how decent and knowledgeable they had been.
My own most recent experience of them was the night I closed my video shop down. On less than a day’s notice, they were ready to come and play a free gig to pull in customers to buy our remaining stock. Crammed into a corner of a heaving, shouting shop, they held their own and eventually held the entire crowd. When I thanked them afterwards, they waved it off as if it were ridiculous I’d consider it worth gratitude. They are SO nice.
Their debut album is released today. And I’m writing this blog because I think you should buy it. Not just because they’re so nice but because you really should own this album. I know a lot of people who read this blog are not music snobs, so I’m giving you this tip-off now. You really should own this album.
It’s so appropriate that it gets released today because musically, there couldn’t be a better soundtrack for today. Their music is the sound of a long hot dry summer day, lying on your back on the grass, thinking about your problems and realizing that they’re not so big after all.
They represent strange and wonderful things to me. Without being retro, they remind me of the bands of years before I was born who I never got to see perform but whose music means the world to me. Back when the role of musician was still a craft and not an affectation. There is nothing fashionable about Stornoway and I see no aspiration on their part to be considered hip, cool or relevant. They just make the music which is the sum of their parts. Rooted in the folk music of our country’s past and the accessibility of the singer-songwriters of the 60’s and 70’s their songs are alternately bouncy and introspective but never less than beautiful.
Their musicianship is, in my eyes, unrivalled by any band of this ilk since Sandy Denny lead Fairport or The Band’s Last Waltz. Their orchestration is deceptive in it’s simplicity and it’s that very simplicity which creates an emotional resonance which just lifts me. Lead singer Brian has a straightforward, occasionally fragile singing voice unaffected by posturing. At his best, he reminds me of the little boy in the school choir realizing that not only can he sing, but he rather likes it. Jon is both his Keith Richards and his Garth Hudson. He’s the only keyboard player I’ve ever adored in a band apart from Garth. Your eyes are drawn to him and his various boxes of tricks with which he seems to be conducting some form of engrossing yet non-showy wizardry. Brothers Ollie and Rob on bass and drums are the lookers but nobody seems to have bothered to tell them. There’s no trace of arrogance or posturing, just studious dedication to keeping this train on the tracks. As with all bands, it’s the combination of people and influences which is critical. And theirs is perfect. The moments when their vocal three-part harmonies kick in, especially Jon’s rare talent for singing bass, that my heart just soars. I really do love this band.
My greatest regret, bar none, in my Oxford music life is missing the chance to have directed one of their videos. They asked me to direct one for We Are The Battery Human and I came up with a whopper of an idea but at the time I was up to my neck in the post-production of my film. Couldn’t make time to get it done. They’ve made a few videos now and I’ve disliked all of them. Well, I kind of like the one for Zorbing above but didn’t like the new one their record company just put out. I really didn’t like the one for I Saw You Blink. I think it’s easy to make a good looking video but less easy to actually capture the magic and personality of a band. Usually it ends up being beautiful shots of some uncomfortable people who have never been asked to act before. Maybe it’s just that every director sees something different in them that they want to show. All I know is that they have yet to be done justice.
But, incredibly for a band so out of step with the industry, things are on the up. They’ve signed to 4AD Records and their debut album is released today. Their single Zorbing has been B-Listed by Radio 1 – that blows my mind as I don’t think I’ve heard anything good on that station since Peel left us for a better place.
For an album to do well, it really has to hit high in it’s first week. It’s all about the first week for a band hoping to break into a career. So I’m urging you to take a punt on them.
You can click any of the below links to buy it for no more £7.99
http://hmv.com/hmvweb/navigate.do?pPageID=4605 (you can get a signed copy from here and be automatically entered into a competition to win a guitar)
http://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/beachcombers-windowsill/id369503432 (only £5.99 on itunes!)
For me, Stornoway are defined by that second and a half when they finish a song and, as it still hangs in the air, the audience has to catch it’s breath and recover before they can applaud.
They deserve to be heard and you deserve to hear them.
Order it NOW.