The Great Skua isn’t everyone’s favourite seabird. A forthright character, he dwells in coastal Scotland and doesn’t mind hurting the feelings of other species. Still, there are those who admire this hardy bird, and they know it by a nickname. That nickname provides the title for the third album by the accomplished British band Stornoway. It is Bonxie. You pronounce it “bonksy”.
“You don’t get them much down south, more in the Stornoway area,” says Brian Briggs, Stornoway’s singer and principal songwriter. “They’re aggressive birds who feed by forcing other birds to give up their food. They’re kind of… parasites.”
This doesn’t sound much like Stornoway at all. A group which formed when singer/songwriter Briggs met composer and now co-lyricist Jon Ouin as Oxford University postgraduates, the group personify civility, consideration and intelligence.
“I don’t think there’s much of a personality connection,” Briggs smiles about the album title. “It’s more the association with birds, the habitat, the sound of it…”
Stornoway are a band of the land, sea and air. “Folk” is a word occasionally used in their hearing, but their music is a world away from the skiffling in Harris Tweeds that came to prominence five years ago. Instead, this a modern band, tied to elemental forces. Stornoway’s is a world of geographical time: measured by the seasons, and governed by nature. In their songs, you’ll feel the wind in your hair, the salt spray of the sea lashing your face.
Now more than ever, after years resident in (and often writing about) Oxford, for their third album, Stornoway have shaken up their songwriting. Brian has moved to the rugged Gower peninsula in Wales. After busy years touring, it meant a new start, in a new place, with a blank page.
“I knew I wasn’t going to fill an album with stories about me,” says Brian. “It made us feel freer in terms of arrangement – I could put melody before lyrics in some cases. The musical side could be stronger.”
For the first time, the band has admitted a producer into their world. Gil Norton (Pixies; Patti Smith; Foo Fighters) joined the band in a more idiosyncratic, avian and British place. Bonxie offers Stornoway’s customarily heartfelt chamber-folk (The Road You Didn’t Take), a wry take on Walker Brothers orchestral pop (Love Song of the Beta Male) and the driving indie rocker When You’re Feeling Gentle.
The Atlantic gusts have revealed a fresh and direct pop sound. Lofty peaks are the 1980s synth sounds of the melancholic but triumphant Get Low, and the jaunty Vampire Weekend-go-hiking sounds of Lost Youth. Stornoway brought the birds. Norton brought the heft.
“He was so different from us personality-wise,” says Brian. “He was obsessed with the drums and bass. Then right at the end he’d say, “OK, give us all the keyboards and brass and we’ll chuck that all on now.”
“I think we liked the idea of being pushed out of our comfort zones,” Brian continues. “Moving to Wales, where I didn’t know anyone, was a way of testing things. I had a completely empty notebook. I was able to explore less personal directions. It was valuable, because I’ve been in Oxford a very long time, and the last two albums were very Oxford-centric. It was liberating really.”
In part, Bonxie takes some of its character from the Gower, where Brian lived within sight of the changing tides, his camper van/office gradually turning green in the face of the weather’s assault. We’re also hearing the transformative power of the romantic imagination at work.
As with the previous two Stornoway albums, Beachcomber’s Windowsill (2010) and Tales From Terra Firma (2013), the natural world provides the band with both breathtaking backdrop and telling metaphor. Drummer Rob Steadman developed the origami birds on the artwork, from an idea conceived by multi-instrumentalist and co-writer Jon Ouin. Bassist Oli Steadman has extended his range. Field-recorded birdsong opens an exterior door into the world of the record.
In the early 2000s, “at a time when what was on the radio was the Kaiser Chiefs…” Briggs and Ouin worked painstakingly on their first songs, teaching themselves about recording and arrangement. Though only 60 miles from London, the band were adrift from the music industry: recording their own material, playing shows in unusual venues, building substantial local support.
As Briggs put it, they “just got on with it”. Stornoway built a hermetic world with a sound of its own. There, the band’s wildlife interests gave flight to their deep feelings. Songs like Zorbing about the elation of young love are joyfully unselfconscious, unmindful of prevailing fashions.
“There’s a real honesty to it all,” says Briggs. “Honest and no too affected by the outside world. It was my first proper band. I was naïve. There were bands I loved but otherwise I just listened to reggae and got stoned! The student life, that’s what I wrote about.”
So self-contained were they, Stornoway didn’t sign to their first label 4AD until Beachcomber’s Windowsill was ready for release. Scrupulously diligent, Tales From Terra Firma took three years to follow, featuring the magnificent single Farewell Appalachia – modern as Radiohead, timeless as the Byrds.
“The second album was written after a lot of big stuff had happened in my life,” says Brian. “It was a personal, emotional album.”
Now, though, Stornoway have a new way of doing things. That’s not to say that their new location and new working practices mean they are on the point of going off-grid, escaping the modern world to yawp uninhibited in the wild. Instead, Bonxie has toughened the band up – the better to rejoin the fray.
“I’m in a privileged position to be able to combine my two great passions, the music and the wildlife,” says Brian. Still, this clearly isn’t someone prepared to simply hide away from the world. Instead, this is a driven person, who in fact relishes getting stuck back in.