BRIAN Briggs can be forgiven for feeling a little emotional as he packs his bag for one last show.
The band he formed 11 years ago while a student at Oxford University is preparing to play its last ever set, right back in the city where it started.
On Sunday, fans of folk-pop band Stornoway will pack the New Theatre for the band’s farewell gig. The show is the finale of their StorNoMore tour – and, one can safely predict, there will barely be a dry eye in the house.
“We’ve decided to call it a day,” says Brian with a small sigh.
“It feels like the right time. We want to go out on a high rather than stagnate so are ending it with a final celebration tour.”
He adds: “There are no tensions, everything is amicable and we are having a brilliant time. We don’t go for conflict. But at the moment, creatively speaking, we feel the need to do different things.”
Brian met bandmate Jon Ouin during freshers’ week, bonding through music, and began jamming. In search of a bassist, they recruited Cowley lad Oli Steadman, then his brother Rob on drums.
They earned success the old-fashioned way, paying their dues on the Oxford circuit and maintaining their independence.
First catching our attention as a fledgling group with standout performances on BBC Radio Oxford’s ‘Introducing’ local music programme, they went on to play low key local shows, and then, Radio1’s Big Weekend in Swindon. Slots followed at the Tate Gallery, and a string of music festivals, not least Truck in Steventon, where they were to remain a popular fixture, and Glastonbury.
Their big break, though, came when they became the first unsigned band to appear on TV’s Later… with Jools Holland.
Based in a drafty Cowley garage, which still serves as band HQ, they named themselves after the town on the remote Hebridean island of Lewis, which, at the time, they had never visited, but were entranced by its romantic sounding name and coastal image. It worked well, chiming with their folky sound and obsession with nature. They eventually played the town seven years ago – the same year they signed to the cult 4AD label.
Throughout their tenure, they never lost sight of their roots, eschewing big corporate venues for quirky independent spots like Oxford’s Holywell Music Room and the Sheldonian Theatre – becoming the first pop act ever to play the historic venue.
They launched albums at a Cowley Road pool hall and Oxford Town Hall.
Their third and final album, 2015’s Bonxie (or fourth, if you count 2013’s mini-LP You Don’t Know Anything), was engineered by Pixies and Foo Fighters producer Gil Norton, and recorded with the help of a crowd-funding campaign, backed by largely local fans.
The end of Stornoway certainly won’t leave the band twiddling their thumbs.
The lads have each pursued individual careers and projects, Brian working as a nature warden in South Wales; Oli running a successful gig-booking service called Tigmus (This is Good Music); Jon writing and recording music for radio, film and theatre; and Rob studying and playing music in America.
Oli and Rob, who hail from South Africa, also have their own Zulu-influenced band Count Drachma.
“It’s like continental drift,” says Brian, a passionate ornithologist with a doctorate in duck ecology, who is talking from the coastal wildlife sanctuary on the Gower peninsula where he has made his home with his family.
“Our worlds have been moving apart slowly. Life is taking us in different ways.
“Wales feels like home for me now. I’ve been here for four years and am loving it – though I do miss Oxford, the music scene and the people; Oxford is full of interesting people. But this outdoors landscape is right up my street and it’s a really nice thing to be doing.”
Brian has spent the morning working on an osprey platform, and says he loves the scenery, with its marshland and estuary, even if the climate is harsh. “There are good days and bad days at this time of year,” he laughs. “But mostly it’s grim.”
Stornoway’s love of the great outdoors shines through its music – referencing wild places and birds. Bonxie, for example, is the Scottish name for the Great Skua, one of our largest seabirds, and the album opens with the cry of Brent Geese, one of 20 bird species to feature on the record.
So will he continue to find musical inspiration in nature? “I think I will continue in a different way,” he says.
“I’m keeping the creative juices flowing with a collaboration with the acclaimed poet Paul Henry, and will be back in Oxford for the literary festival next month for a combination of poetry and song.”
Brian admits the highlights are too numerous to mention, but says the live shows, and the satisfaction of finishing records are the stand out moments.
“We never thought we’d play the main stage at Glastonbury or Somerset House or the Sheldonian. They all go down as great achievements – but I also love the little gigs, like playing the A1 Pool Hall in Cowley Road or Truck festival.”
He admits there was no masterplan, though, confessing things just... happened.
“The band was a complete surprise,” he says.
“It really took off, but we never remotely thought we’d do what we’ve done.”
“We were never big enough – except in Oxford – to get recognised in public though. We’d go from rock stars on stage to anonymous in the street.”
Now, he says, all attention is on the New Theatre.
He says: “We are going to be digging up some older songs and have some surprises up our sleeves. Choosing the set list is the hardest thing – especially for the Oxford show.
“There will be some cover songs and unexpected twists. We are looking forward to it and itching to get there.”
Though he confesses, it will be a melancholy finale.
“It’s going to be emotional,” he says. “We’ve had such a good time and there will be lots of faces there from over the past decade. We look at each other and think ‘why are we doing this?’ – but this is going to be the best way to go out,with a home gig and a home crowd.
“It had to be Oxford. We could have finished in London, but Oxford is our home base and we’ve had the most amazing support. The Oxford crowd has carried and pushed us and created that buzz. If it were not for the Oxford crowd, those people from London who came to check us out in the early days would have quickly walked away.
“They are so loyal and it’s wonderful to think people haven’t grown tired.”
The question on everyone’s lips of course, is will there be a reunion?
Brian laughs. “That’s not something we’ve talked about,” he chuckles. “Right now it seems unlikely but it’s not something we’ve ruled out – and we will be keeping in touch.
“You haven’t seen the end of us yet!”
- Stornoway play the New Theatre Oxford on Sunday. The performance has, predictably, sold out