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Culture, Music, Interviews

OX Meets: Dr Brian Briggs


Dr Brian Briggs – “Brian is fine” – divides his time between Llanelli’s Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Wetland Centre, where he is senior reserve warden, and his ‘other job’ as member of the widely acclaimed indie-folk band, Stornoway. When Brian came to Oxford in 2006 to study for his PhD in Ornithology, he started playing music with Jon Ouin and after recruiting more members, Stornoway went on to release three albums before an amicable split in 2017. Brian moved to South Wales to take up his ‘other’ career (which he still maintains), but happily for their fans, Stornoway reunited in 2022. They released a fourth album (Dig the Mountain) in 2023 and this summer will be back on the festival circuit, headlining at ALSO Festival in Compton Verney this July.

What can audiences expect from your set?

We're going to be bringing a full band. It's a very small festival but we're going to bring a big lineup because we are honoured to be headlining. We’re going to have a brass section and our secret weapon Charlotte, who plays absolutely everything from flute, violin and saxophone to buckets of gravel. And we're going to be doing a real mix of songs plus a cover or two.

We might incorporate some bird song into our set, and we’ve been playing a song which actually teaches people how to learn how to identify birds from their songs. So, I love it. We might give that a go as well. It's a bit of a crowd pleaser. Some old songs and new songs. We had an album out last year called Dig the Mountain, so a sprinkling of songs from that as well.

Do you like to stick around a bit when you’re playing festivals?

When we can, we definitely do. We love festivals, always have done, and always felt that our music is very rooted in the outdoors and feels like a good fit for the festival context.

ALSO sounds like a really interesting festival. It's not particularly music-dominated, which is good because often those other elements of festivals are kind of slightly put to one side but ALSO has the speakers, the comedy, the thinkers – that's kind of a dominant theme, almost more than the music. I'm looking forward to seeing what it's about.

That weekend we are doing another festival as well, so it is going to be a case of having to arrive on the afternoon of the set – hopefully in time to soak up a bit of atmosphere before we play. It looks like an incredible setting, right next to a lake.

Will you have a quick dip?

We're all keen swimmers; wild swimmers, any kind of swimmers. So yeah, we'll definitely get in the lake. If the weather's good enough.

I'm actually going be doing a talk on birdsong at the festival, as well. I'm going to be bringing my amazing avian jukebox and play a selection of weird and wonderful bird songs and hopefully, get people excited about it.

Sounds brilliant. I was going to ask about your music and your love of birds, I wondered how the two came together for you.

Well, birds are important to me. More broadly speaking, the outdoors and nature is and always has been such a big part of my life. You know, my day job is working on a nature reserve. And ever since I was very small, I've been really interested in nature and spent a lot of time outdoors. And so it's kind of natural – no pun intended – that the outdoors finds its way into all our songs. Normally through lyrics but, you know, in some instances we will incorporate field recordings.

I think birdsong in particular has been a sort of strong interest of mine since I was about 19. I mean, obviously I was aware of it, but I first discovered that by learning a few bird songs, I could, could feel a lot more part of the environment that I was in: I knew who was around and what they were up to, to an extent, you know? I could hear the differences between alarm calls and songs and soit became much more exciting for me to spend time in nature because I felt a lot more immersed. I've got even more pleasure from being outdoors, and unsurprisingly, that sort of found its way into our music.

I know the Stornoway started when you all met in Oxford but where did you grow up?

I'm from near Bristol but the connection really is just university. Going there and meeting my bandmate John. And then, it took me a long time to escape Oxford; it's such an amazing city, so full of culture and it packs a punch well above its weight. I've since moved out to West Wales, but I was there for 16 years or something, and still miss it.

I think having moved away I notice even more now, going back, how extraordinary the city is – it's a very beautiful place.

Any favourite spots?

Lots, really. I mean, I spent a few years in Jericho when I was studying and that's a beautiful corner of the city, going out onto Port Meadow. I used to go there all the time and Wytham Woods, as well. That's where I did a lot of did my first job after university, working in the woods on a study of blue tits and great tits.

Thinking about your commitment to the environment, how does that play out as a band? I’m thinking of festivals, concerts and all the venues you play?

We are very selective. And, you know, we try and avoid travelling overseas or keep that to absolute minimum. If we do then we'll try and do it in as low carbon a way as possible.

We played at Wood Festival, which is a favourite festival of mine, and the main stage is solar powered there, which is incredible. We are absolutely attracted to festivals and venues that that take measures to reduce their environmental footprint. And, yeah, it's something that we think about a lot. It’s a dilemma for any band, but particularly for a band that cares very deeply about the environment. It's difficult thing because obviously the live side of things is very much core to who we are and where we form such a strong connection with our fans. We can't do that if we don't get on the road and travel around. So, we think about how we can minimise our impact.

I have this idea that you inhabit two very different roles. Are there elements which are more comfortable in one or the other, or is it the same Brian in both guises?

Good question. I don't I've ever been asked that before. Absolutely, there's elements of both roles that I'm more comfortable and more myself with. Believe it or not, I never imagined myself as a performer, a front person. And it's taken me a very long time to get used to that, and to enjoy performing – the first gigs were terrifying. I'd be terrified for a week beforehand and sometimes still now I get nervous. It still doesn’t feel really like it's me, but I absolutely love it now, and within a couple of songs I'm having an amazing time.

I'm more me on a nature reserve, in a way, in the undergrowth, if I'm honest. But working creatively was something that we all loved in the band, and I guess that's what originally drew me to it. Discovering that creativity – and actually recently rediscovering it. You know, we had a long break with the band for many years after splitting up in 2017. And, as for many people, it was the pandemic that brought a little bit of space and time to pick up a guitar. I found it's such a powerful thing to rediscover the craft of songwriting and it was really exciting, as well. It reminded me how much the creative side is of a part of me.

It was obviously always there, waiting for the right time. Finally, can you tell us anything about your plans for further projects?

I can't really say but we are starting to work on new music again, which is a great thing to be able to do. And, we've had such an amazing time over the last year; getting back together and touring, and we were genuinely blown away by the reaction that we've had. Now time is opening up a little bit and we're back in our respective sheds, writing away. We enjoyed collaborating on the last album with other artists; that's been a really joyful thing to do. We'll definitely be interested in doing more of that in future, hopefully.

Stornoway are headlining ALSO festival (12-14 July) set in the beautiful grounds of Compton Verney. They will be joined by a host of other music acts including The Fontanas and Jessica Winter, plus speakers including Natalie Haynes, Roman Krznaric and astrophysicist, Lisa Kaltenegger. There will be talks, workshops, late-night discos, rum, feasting tables, yoga, sound baths, a dip in the lake and so much more: a celebration of creativity and conversation. See more at


Mon 1 Jul 2024

Dr Brian Briggs – “Brian is fine” – divides his time between Llanelli’s Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Wetland Centre, where he is senior reserve warden, and his ‘other

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