Tuesday 18 February 2020

Backstage with the Red Hot Chilli Pipers

A band dubbed 'so hot it carries its own health warning', SoGlos goes backstage with 'bagrock' band, Red Hot Chilli Pipers, to discuss its upcoming gig in Gloucester forming part of the Rugby World Cup 2015 celebrations.

Tell SoGlos readers a bit about yourself.

I’m Willie Armstrong and I play the pipes in the Red Hot Chilli Pipers.

How would you describe your style of music to our readers?

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.

How many of you are there?

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.

What made you decide to form Red Hot Chilli Pipers?

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.

What came first, the band name or the bagpipes?

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.

How long did it take for you to learn bagpipes?

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.

Are you trying to challenge the traditional preconceptions of bagpipes?

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.

What are some of your favourite songs to cover?

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.

And do you also write your own songs?

Yes, quite a lot of the traditional songs are written by band members.

What songs are the real crowd-pleasers?

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.

Which one is your personal favourite?

Out of them all, I’d probably say ‘Fat Bottomed Girls.’

Who would you say your main influences are, and who do you get compared to?

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.

So you’ll be playing in Gloucester to celebrate the Rugby World Cup 2015, are you guys big rugby fans?

Aye, actually we played at Murrayfield Stadium ahead of the Six Nations too.

Will you be watching any of the RWC matches in Gloucester?

Any ones that I can get hold of tickets for or see, I’ll be watching.

Are you looking forward to your concert at King’s Square in Gloucester?

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.

What can Gloucester expect from your concert?

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!

What’s your favourite venue you’ve played at?

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.

What’s been your most memorable moment on stage?

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.

And which band or musician would you most like to support and why?

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.

Not Red Hot Chilli Peppers then?

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!

What do you do when you’re not making music?

I’m a fireman.

Wow, okay, so how do you balance that with the band?

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.

Can you recommend one album to our readers you don’t think they will have discovered?

Yeah, Breathe by Red Hot Chilli Pipers, it’s amazing, even if I do say so myself.

What’s your number one ambition?

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.

And finally, who will you be supporting at the Rugby World Cup 2015?


For more information about the band’s upcoming gig, see Red Hot Chilli Pipers in Gloucester.

By Alice Lloyd

© SoGlos
Friday 18 September 2015

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