Red Hot Chilli Pipers man Willie Armstrong on getting back to bagrock and Belfast
David Roy chats to Willie Armstrong, founding member of Scottish festival favourites the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, about getting back to ‘bagrock' after Covid and bringing their 20th anniversary tour to Belfast next year...
GLASGOW'S Red Hot Chilli Pipers (RHCP) have been in constant demand at music festivals and music events all over the world ever since they claimed victory on TV talent show When Will I Be Famous? back in 2007.
Pioneers of their own genre, 'bagrock' - crowd-pleasing full band-bolstered snatches of bagpiped rock and pop hits from AC/DC and Deep Purple to Avicii and Snow Patrol sown amongst rousing traditional fare - the RHCP were enjoying gold and platinum albums, collaborating with music stars like Tom Walker and Ed Sheeran and averaging 200 gigs per year before the global pandemic hit and everything ground to a halt.
However, with lockdown measures continuing to ease and live music events beginning to happen again, the band are currently gearing up to get back on the road this summer in preparation for celebrating a major milestone next year - their 20th anniversary.
"It feels amazing," enthuses chief piper and founding RHCP member Willie Armstrong, a former fireman and Royal Navy veteran from Glasgow.
"I think all musicians will be feeling the same. It's not just the music and the way of life, there's other things you miss: your mates in the band and your ability to make money and feed your family.
"So it's been just a shocker. Who would ever have imagined that everything would have come to a shuddering halt? Nobody ever saw this coming. So I'm sure as we start to get back into playing that there will be a surge of interest.
"Even myself, I want to get back out there and listen to live music and see the bands that I like as well as actually playing. I can't wait to get out, stand among other people, have a couple of drinks and enjoy some live music again."
Absolutely nothing to do with Californian funk-rockers Red Hot Chili Peppers - the band are named after a CD misfiling incident involving a member's girlfriend accidentally mixing up her genres by misreading 'Peppers' as 'Pipers' - the RHCP have not played together since a show in Ohio at the end of March 2020.
With the first show in their post-lockdown diary fast approaching at Irish Folk Open Air Festival in Poyenberg in Germany on August 14 and a return to Belfast booked for February next year, the pressure is on for the bagrockers to build up their stamina to pre-Covid levels again in order to ensure they can still deliver the high energy live performances they've become famous for.
"We're going to have do a week or two in a studio to get everything as tight as it can possibly be, because you can't under-sell what you're doing," explains Willie, who's now the last man standing/piping from the original RHCP line-up which came together to perform at corporate events in 2002.
"With the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, it's not just a gig, it's more of a whole show with a proper stage performance. People have paid money to come and see us, so it has to sound just as perfect as it did before.
"Getting a practice space or a studio to use has been proving nigh on impossible because every single band seems to be thinking the same thing at the moment. But I really can't wait to get the lads all back together again and get the pipes up. I've totally missed it."
Willie adds: "Next year is gonna be total carnage, because not only have we got all our 20th anniversary stuff to do, we've also got all the concerts that were put back in 2020 and 2021 that are being rescheduled for 2022. So we are going to be gigging like mad."
In fact, demand is so high to the bagrockers that some lucky fans will be treated to rare live appearances from another OG RHCP, piper Kevin MacDonald, who has taken on more of a behind-the-scenes role with the band in recent years. However, according to his fellow founding member, Kevin will be back to bagging next year when it's set to be all hands to the pipes.
"Kevin's actually a qualified chartered accountant," Willie explains.
"But he'll be coming out and doing the odd gig with us again because we need bodies, as it's going to be so busy in 2022. Although I'm the last [original] guy still playing regularly, I still speak to all the original members who've gone on to other things."
Of the new blood which has flowed into the RHCP line-up over the past few years, which includes former fans inspired to take up piping at a young age after discovering the band, he comments: "Sometimes I look around the stage and I feel old - I remember that I was there 20 years ago when it all started."
Two decades of regular touring is a big ask for any musician, and Willie admits that none of the founding RHCP men - which also included piper Stuart Cassells, who retired in 2011 - thought that the band would become as popular as they have become, nor that they would still be in such high demand 20 years down the road.
"I'm asked that question all the time and the answer is 'no' - nobody could ever say 'oh aye, I'm going to win a TV show in a couple of years, get platinum albums and start touring the world'.
"Even after we won the TV show, it didn't happen immediately. Although it opened a lot of doors for us and got us a lot of gigs, there was still a lot of hard work after that."
The Pipers have been regular visitors to Ireland over the years, and Willie tells me they can't wait to come back to Belfast where there's "a big piping fraternity".
"I'll tell you a funny story about Belfast - last time we were there, I fancied going to have a look at the Titanic exhibition, but when we got there it was closed.
"There was a sign up on the door saying 'closed due to flooding'. I couldnae believe it, I had to take a picture. Maybe we'll get to see it next year."
When asked what's left for the Pipers to achieve, Willie has his sights firmly set on an appearance at one of Britain's best-loved music festivals.
"Glastonbury, definitely," he enthuses.
"I don't care whether it's a wee daft stage or the big main one. We were the last band to ever open the main stage at [defunct Scottish festival] T in The Park and I remember that was absolutely amazing, so Glastonbury would be the absolute topper.
"If we ever get to do it I think I'd come off the stage, throw my pipes under the bed and retire a very happy man."
:: Red Hot Chilli Pipers, February 19, The Waterfront Hall, Belfast. Tickets on sale now via Waterfront.co.uk