Despite the misleading band name, Stornoway are one of Oxford’s best homegrown bands, and this month they are back to play one of its most impressive venues. The folk pop band will be celebrating the 5th anniversary since they last played the Sheldonian by playing it again on 5th November. And then again on 13th November. I spoke to Oli Steadman ahead of the show about how it all managed to come about. (more…)
New York guitar bands are enjoying a bad patch. Rock and roll is for dweeby poindexters. People don’t listen to songs over 3 minutes long, let alone whole albums. Musical malaise is a theme of this single, which was released by Parquet Courts under the less-than-cryptic moniker of Parkay Quarts. (more…)
Irish indie-folk group Raglans recently embarked upon a twelve-date UK tour to mark the release of their guitar-laden, self-titled debut album. I caught up with the band ahead of their Oxford show to discuss their album, their musical influences and touring.
“For an independent release – we’re on a small label in London – that was amazing,” frontman and lead vocalist Stephen Kelly said. “We sold out the Academy Dublin for our album launch. We don’t want it to end.”
Raglans are not a conventional rock band. Sean O’Brien plays the guitar, as well as the mandolin, cowbells and a second drum feature in their live shows. Trombones and trumpets are also present on the album.
“It’s stuff you sing along to and dance with – good craic really.” Stephen explained. “Energetic,” bassist Rhos Horan chipped in, “sometimes fast, sometimes… medium.”
Despite their large group of “Raglads” in Ireland, the band is still aware that, in the UK, people haven’t really heard of them. “We did a run of shows in the UK last year and hadn’t released anything [in the UK]… We’re very much a live band; we feed off the audience.”
Their Scottish dates also went well: “Edinburgh and Glasgow went really well, they were the first two dates after the album came out so it was really surprising that lots of people came, and they seemed to enjoy it,” Rhos offered.
Raglans have been planning a longer overseas venture for some time: “We were never very comfortable just being in Ireland. We wanted to play to as many people and in as many places as possible.” Added Stephen.
Recording the album at Long Island Studios in London was also novel. Surprisingly, it was finished in a mere thirteen days. “Jay Reynolds, who produced it, was pretty surprised!” Stephen revealed. “He said that it’s taken him that long to just do EPs before, but I think we were ready. We’d spent two years gigging and writing songs. Conn did all his drums for the album in a day! Rhos did his bass in a day too. So, it took me and Sean eleven days to do everything else!”
The recording process has also allowed the band to dismantle and rebuild songs. The improvements, however, have their downfalls. “It’s frightening how far the songs come from the first time we rehearse them. We heard a demo of one of the songs on the album, ‘Fake Blood’, fairly recently. I remember when we first heard the song we were like, ‘this is great!’ – high-fives all round. When we heard it the other day we were like, ‘right, we need to make sure that that never gets heard, by anyone, ever again.”
The return of Raglans to the UK this April follows on from their most recent trip in February, where they supported younglings The Strypes on their headline tour. “It was great,” Conn reminisced. “The tour was sold out pretty much every day, so we were playing in these packed venues. It was exactly what a band like us needed: to just be going and playing in front of people.”
The Strypes are old friends of Raglans. “We’ve known them since they were even younger than they are now,” Conn joked. However, the youngsters are not a musical influence of Raglans, although the latter appreciate their stage style. “Watching them live, and seeing how they put on a show, thats an influence,” Conn mused.
Stephen added that he thinks Raglans are more “song-orientated”. “We don’t fit into pigeon-holes,” he said, “which has been a problem for us. Now that the album’s out, though, people can listen to the songs and see that it’s a bit eclectic.”
We started to talk about musical inspirations. “I love Bob Dylan,” Stephen said. “I love his lyrics and his melodies. Even if people thought he couldn’t sing, his songs are good, his lyrics are great. It’s important to have substance rather than just being catchy.”
His band mates, however, took a more humorous approach to the question. “Anything thats fast and full of energy for me,” Conn started. “Massive 1D fan. Lots of personality, great fashion sense and fabulous hair. So yeah, 1D, probably my biggest influence.”
Rapper Coolio was Rhos’ artist of choice: “Rhos never turns down the opportunity to do ‘Gangster Paradise’,” Stephen contributed, as Rhos began to rap along (“I’m 23 now, but will I live to see 24?”).
Following the end of this tour, Raglans are back in Ireland to film their latest music video. The band have previously put out a number of videos on their YouTube channel, with their latest video for ‘Digging Holes’ reaching almost 65,000 views so far. “They’re so much fun,” Conn said.
The rest of the year is filled up with festival dates. “We get back from this [tour] and do a load of festivals in Wembley,” Conn joked. “… nah, we’ve got loads of Irish ones and maybe five or six UK ones.” After some conferring, the band worked out that they weren’t allowed to mention any of those yet – but watch this space.
“Apparently we play everything too fast,” Johnny Foreigner mocked whilst onstage at their London headline show at the Borderline, referring to the criticism they had recently received from the NME. They seemed to take pleasure in drifting deliberately slowly into ‘Riff Glitchard’, a track from their fourth album, You Can Do Better, that begins with hypnotic, unhurried guitar riffs. “Y’know what,” they added, “it was annoying specifically because it was the NME. Being in a band is about impressing teenage ‘you’, and teenage ‘me’ was one of the millions that read that shitrag before the internet came and wrecked its machinery.”
The 3/10 album review that came from the magazine did seem unfairly harsh on a band who have gradually picked up a fairly significant fanbase from almost ten years of solid touring and recording. They may have invited some of the criticism they got for the album by titling it as they did: “I think that any smarmy music journo worth his wage should be able to twist an album’s title into a criticism [… we didn’t consider it] at the time, but we realised when it started going out to press.” Nonetheless, given the grungy guitars, boy/girl vocals and lyrical talent which often gets overlooked, the band are definitely deserving of the praise which You Can Do Better received from other critics.
Johnny Foreigner recently added fourth member Lewes Herriot to the band. Having toured with him for a couple of years now (he toured as part of the band in support of their third album, Johnny Foreigner vs Everything), You Can Do Better was the first album he participated in the studio sessions for.
I spoke to guitarist and lead vocalist Alexei Berrow about the band’s new membership, and whether the group had felt the change. “Yeah, very much so. Part of that is like, technical stuff: two-guitar song-making nerd stuff, and part is two-guitar song-mixing nerd stuff – two totally different disciplines. Basically, it makes it a lot more fun to write and a lot harder to record, but both were super rewarding.”
It’s this kind of development which has been interesting to hear: the writing has become more nuanced, but the energy – which has always been a key feature of their touring – remains as strong as ever, with all members of the band covered in sweat by the end of the night on the small stage at the Borderline. “For bands like us, touring the show is kind of why we do this. As musicians and friends, it makes us tighter, and the privilege of seeing the world as something greater than a tourist is a massive reward. All of that feeds back into the art we create.”
However, as the band grows older, the list of songs requested becomes longer. In London, a game of rock-paper-scissors ensues to decide whether to play ‘Salt, Pepper and Spindarella’ or ‘Eyes Wide Terrified’, both from the band’s first album. ‘Salt, Pepper and Spindarella’ wins, but ‘Eyes Wide Terrified’ does still make an appearance later in the set. I later asked Alexei how the band decides on the mix of songs used in the setlist. “We have twelve-week discussions about it in a windowless room, mostly. Some songs we kind of feel we’re more obliged to keep in rotation than others, and some we fall in and out of love with. Some we genuinely forget about. Mostly it’s a long but happy debate.”
Part of where a band’s key setlist decisions lie is in the encore – what to play to finish the show. But at the Borderline, Johnny Foreigner chose not to include an encore. I asked if encores had become a bit pretentious for the band. “Yeah, kind of. It’s supposed to be this spontaneous ‘oh, go on then!’ gesture, but it’s not at all. It’s like pantomime.”
This relates to the whole idea of arranging a setlist: “It’s important to us that we have a coherent and flowing show. So, if we decide to do an encore, there’s a risk of not playing the ending, if the audience don’t clap for long enough or whatever.”
The visuals that supported the band’s set, projected onto the wall behind them, gave a sense of a much more considered song grouping. Not that the consideration dimmed the excitement of the gig – indeed, the recognition of the somewhat contrived nature of an encore felt refreshing. “We’ve done – and will do again, I’m sure – genuine encore songs, and they’ve been hella fun, if a little sloppy because we didn’t prepare it. But this tour was definitely a precise ‘play-our-best-set-and-vanish’ kind of show.”
You can’t fault Johnny Foreigner for not being a genuine group of people. They believe in what they’re doing, they’re not mired in any of the bullshit that covers an industry which becomes more commercialised daily. And it’s endearing: not in a cute or sweet way, but in an impressive way – to have avoided being sucked in by the rubbish. Frankly, their criticisms of the NME are couched in a self-awareness that makes them seem caught somewhere between washed up, egotistical rock stars and eager-to-please teenagers. It’s hard not to like them for that. “By design, the NME is a self-perpetuating lifestyle magazine way more than it’s an objective music review source,” Alexei declared. “They don’t tell you what they think is good as much as what they think is cool, and fuck it, I wish we were cool. Pathetic, innit?”
As you can probably already tell, I’m more supportive of this government’s policies than perhaps the previous author was. I’ll assume you’ve seen the figures, saying that we currently have the lowest unemployment since 2009, and depending on your political allegiance, you’ll either think that’s a good thing, or evidence of systematic number-fudging by the current government.
As is now tradition, the second paragraph of an opinion piece is supposed to reference some obscure work of fiction, or academic paper, which summarises the arguments made in the article more succinctly and eloquently than I could ever hope to do, while also lending me the air of being both more knowledgeable and well read than you, the reader.
I’m not going to do that.
Maybe it’s because I disagree that this argument ought to be centred on idealism, we’re not going to settle the capitalism vs. socialism debate in the 700 or so words remaining in this piece. Similarly, it might be because I think it’s highly disingenuous to make reference explicitly to a story, or other analogous device, because there will always be a degree of misrepresentation of the side that the author doesn’t disagree with. Or maybe it’s because I haven’t actually read anything that I would dare quote in support of my argument – after all, I read Biochemistry.
Regardless, if we are to have a debate about whether life in Britain is getting better, it helps to know what we should look at.
Should it be employment figures? Possibly not – as Kate rightly pointed out, there are many issues with looking at official statistics, derived mostly from how ‘unemployed’ is qualified by their definitions, and the fact that the huge number of ‘discouraged workers’ are simply excluded from the total. That’s not to say that unemployment figures have no use, but perhaps they are not the most accurate measure of wellbeing.
Should we perhaps then take a look at the average wage? Surely if that rises, then it’s a good thing? Well, although that seems somewhat of a truism, it is important to remember once again that everything is relative, and in this case the cost of living may well be increasing faster than wages increase – inflation certainly is.
Perhaps the most useful indicator of specific wellbeing, assuming that the employment figures are relatively constant, is the average disposable income, adjusted for inflation. After all, if that goes up, then surely life is genuinely getting better?
And guess what: it has. As David Cameron said at Prime Minister’s Questions a few days ago, disposable income is higher than it has ever been in this country. And this doesn’t even account for the imminent raise in the income tax threshold, a change that means that you won’t start paying income tax at all until you earning go above 10,000 pounds per year. While this change may not seem like much, if we’re complaining about the Conservative-led government leading to a fuel bill increase of some 70 pounds per year, then a policy that will have practically no direct impact except giving the worst off in society more than 700 pounds is surely something to be lauded?
Except of course, this figure wasn’t mentioned at all in the 1300 word indictment of growth and increasing employment figures, that bizarrely mentioned union membership and unfair dismissal cases as evidence that “Britain’s not working yet.” It seems a bit unfair to write off the fastest post-recession job recovery in 40 years as predicated on constant and increasing abuse of workers at the bottom rung of the ladder, unless there is actually some evidence that millions of people are only being kept in work by companies taking advantage of low union membership, or the inability to complain about their working conditions.
The point to be made is that it’s perfectly possible for living standards to increase and for people to become financially better off, even if incomes aren’t actually rising. Furthermore, if we’re talking about the cost of living, what could be done more than freezing council tax, fuel duty and increasing the small business rate, all of which have been enacted?
Ultimately though, this debate is about jobs, and whether or not we, as a nation, are back to work. And to that, the resounding answer is “not yet”. However, that doesn’t mean that we aren’t moving in the right direction, for all of Labour’s predictions that “They have a programme which will lead to the disappearance of a million jobs” or the constant stream of pessimism leading to the record of 30 million people currently in work in the UK. However, if the Office for Budget Responsibility is to be believed, and they’ve consistently under-estimated growth, then we’re set to have unemployment fall to 6.9% over the next two years, and for inflation to follow suit, settling at around 2%.
If by then things aren’t looking up, then we can probably have another crack at this discussion, but just as one swallow doesn’t make a summer, neither does it mean that we’re due another winter.
The article Spiro is responding to can be found here.
FEATURED PHOTO/ Department for Business, Innovation and Skills