I’m Willie Armstrong and I play the pipes in the Red Hot Chilli Pipers.
We call it ‘bagrock’, which is a fusion of rock and bagpipe music. We steer away from bagpipe karaoke, and use traditional Scottish bagpipe music mixed with some recognisable rock songs. We only play about four or five bars of a well-known song and then mix it with our own traditional music.
There are nine of us in total on stage. We have a kit drummer; a percussionist who plays djembe and all sorts of different percussion; a separate snare drummer; a keyboard player; a bass guitarist; a lead guitarist; three pipers and sometimes we have a singer too. One of our pipers, Cami Barnes, will sing along to some tracks, and sometimes our lead guitarist and bassist will sing, but the bagpipes usually take the melody forward.
All of the pipers in the band used to do weddings and corporate gigs, and we found that after a wee while, the audience would tend to switch off. So we went into ‘We Will Rock You’, and everyone’s ears picked up and we thought, why don’t we get some guitars and really mix things up. That was about 10 years ago now, and it’s where it all started.
We’d been trying to think of a name for a while. One of our ex-bandmate’s girlfriends was sorting out CDs, putting them into piles of ‘rock music’ and ‘traditional music’, when she accidentally put a Red Hot Chilli Peppers album into the traditional pile thinking it said Red Hot Chilli Pipers. I had a call at about 3am saying, ‘Willie, I’ve got a band name for us’, and it kind of stuck.
I’ve been playing the bagpipes for 42 years now. You have to work at it for years before you can get some kind of a tone which is well played. You have to learn how to move your fingers in a certain fashion, how to blow in unison and work your arm, and then there’s everything to tune. It’s quite a physical thing and learning to play is actually quite phenomenal.
I wouldn’t say challenge, but we present the bagpipes in a better environment and show the instruments a lot of respect. Quite a lot of bagpipes you hear, I’d say about 90 per cent, are wildly out of tune and badly played. So when you hear people say, ‘oh it sounds like a cat being strangled’, I actually have to agree. But if you play a set of bagpipes well and in the right tune, it can be a very emotive instrument.
Our bagpipes are so in tune with each other and with the rest of the band, that the music is perfect. And that’s why the audience come back again and again because at no point are they going to be faced with an instrument that’s out of tune or a player that’s not up to scratch.
I love ‘Use Somebody’ by Kings of Leon. It sets up the bagpipes bit very well and right in the middle we have dancers come on stage and they’re all leaping about to the bagpipes, then we go back into ‘Use Somebody’. The crowds go crazy.
Obviously we mix them all with our traditional music. The only song we play all the way through and as close to the original as possible is ‘Fix You’ by Coldplay. There’s no traditional music in that tune, we just play it from start to finish.
Yes, quite a lot of the traditional songs are written by band members.
We usually leave our real crowd-pleasers until the very end, so songs like ‘Wake Me Up’ by Avicii, or ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ by Journey are absolute crackers and always get people singing along. We’ve started doing ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ by Queen, and the pipers can actually stop in the middle and let the crowd keep the melody going.
Out of them all, I’d probably say ‘Fat Bottomed Girls.’
This is the thing, there’s not really any comparison. What we do hasn’t been done before. Obviously there are Celtic rock bands, but the actual genre we have, bagrock, is new.
We look up to traditional musicians such as the fantastic piper, Gordan Duncan, which quite a lot of pipers take their sound from.
Aye, actually we played at Murrayfield Stadium ahead of the Six Nations too.
Any ones that I can get hold of tickets for or see, I’ll be watching.
Aye, very much so. It’s always good playing in England, because when the audience hear the bagpipes being played well, it’s always an eye-opener for them, and that’s a great feeling for us.
We always play to the audience, never to ourselves. If a song isn’t working for the audience, we’ll drop it and play something else.
We’ll be playing our usual crowd-pleasers and sometimes we have music battles when musicians go head-to-head and the audience pick which one was the best. So there’ll be wee surprises throughout to keep everyone on their toes, including the band!
We played at Proms in the Park last year. I never get nervous going on stage because you play the songs so many times it just becomes second nature. But I remember facing the audience at Proms in the Park and seeing 85,000 people. Wow, I had a wee bit of fright that day, but what a great atmosphere.
I actually remember playing the mainstage at T in the Park in front of 40,000 people, and I looked to the right of the stage and saw Franz Ferdinand all clapping along, and thought, it doesn’t get much better than that.
The Foo Fighters were playing at Murrayfield recently and the people who were producing the DVD of the show tried to get us to go on stage with them, but it never happened. Something like that would have been great.
I think we have to stay away from that. People ask us, ‘why don’t you cover ‘Under the Bridge’ or something?’ but I think that would be too close. Obviously our genres are so different and I think if we mixed it, it would kind of muddy the waters. Plus, if you name your band Red Hot Chilli Pipers and start playing Red Hot Chilli Peppers, I think you might get a lawyer’s letter!
I’m a fireman.
I don’t know, it’s like two full-time jobs. Basically I work nine to five as an instructor at a training college so I’m off nights and weekends and I do the band work then.
Yeah, Breathe by Red Hot Chilli Pipers, it’s amazing, even if I do say so myself.
I’ve always like the idea of playing at Carnegie Hall in New York. If I get to play there, I’ll be a happy man.
For more information about the band’s upcoming gig, see Red Hot Chilli Pipers in Gloucester.
By Alice Lloyd
Friday 18 September 2015
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