Founder, Willie Armstrong, talks to AM
Back in 2002, three talented (top-class) pipers decided to join forces and form a band. Bored of playing solo at weddings, the idea of performing as a group at large, corporate events appealed to the three young men.
“It was either that or we’d just go back to doing solo weddings, and if you’re piping at a solo wedding three or four times a week, the money’s not bad but it’s quite boring after a while. We thought this was a better way of doing it.”
I’m chatting to Willie Armstrong, one of the founding members of The Red Hot Chilli Pipers.
“We didn’t really do it for the money,” says Willie. “There would always be a scrap to see who would put petrol in the car to get us to gigs. For the first few years, it was just pocket money.”
But in 2007, they auditioned for the BBC talent show, When Will I Be Famous?
“To cut a long story short, we won that. I was working as a fireman at the time at Parkhead Fire Station. I just remember that all I wanted to do was make sure I didn’t make a fool of myself in front of millions of people on BBC One on a Saturday night! But we managed to win it, so that was good.”
‘Good’ is something of an understatement. The band went on to achieve phenomenal success with their ground-breaking fusion of traditional Scottish music and rock/pop anthems, a sound they proudly refer to as ‘Bagrock’.
“After the win, it just exploded,” Willie tells me. “When I say exploded, it wasn’t overnight success. We didn’t even have a website at the time, so we had to get a website. Then they wanted to book us for festivals… so we had to get different music together. We had to get different instruments… guitarists, keyboard players, drummer. And then over the space of the next few years, we brought out a couple of albums.”
What he fails to say is that their 2007 album, Bagrock to the Masses, went platinum in Scotland, and that this was followed in 2008 by their triple platinum album, Blast Live. The band’s next album, Music for the Kilted Generation, reached number 2 on the US Amazon Chart (beaten only by Adele’s record-breaking release, 21).
“It was early days on social media,” Willie continues, “but we started getting a following. Over a period of four or five years up until 2016 when I retired from the fire service, that’s when we became the band that we are now.”
The band has played at countless high profile events including the 2014 Commonwealth Games and the 2015 Rugby World Cup, as well as appearing on the main stage at T in the Park in front of 60,000 people.
“All of these events… it’s such a pleasure to be on that stage. It’s such a unique opportunity to have. One stand-out event was at Fuji Rock Festival in Japan with The Chemical Brothers just before the pandemic, playing in front of 80,000 Japanese who’d never heard of the band before. They’ve invited us back next year.”
In the meantime, The Red Hot Chilli Pipers are about to embark on a six-week tour of Germany before returning home for their annual Scottish tour, including a date at Ayr Town Hall.
“We’re playing in Ayr on 27th December. I used to work in Prestwick when I was younger… so I used to stay in Ayr. I love Ayr. I love the people in Ayr. Ayr is one of my favourites because it’s a standing audience. If you’ve got a standing audience in Scotland, you can’t go wrong. In a seated venue, we always try and make sure we get the audience up on their feet as early as we can. I always think if you’ve got a standing venue, there’s more impetus in the show.”
It’s that impetus, that energy and spectacle, that sees fans of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers return to see them perform time and time again.
“I’m not just concerned about the music,” Willie reveals, “I’m concerned about the showmanship, the lighting, the rigs, the production. All of that didn’t happen overnight, it took a lot of time, a lot of effort, and an awful lot of money to get all that put together so when people come and see the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, they want to come back again.”
Those returning fans and the satisfaction they get from a live performance, provide the motivation for Willie and his bandmates to be the best they possibly can.
“You don’t play music for yourself. If you want to do that you can just stay in your house. You’re there to play your music to a crowd and if it’s not working then you need to change that. That’s what we’ve learned over the years… always check the audience and see their reaction. You’re there to impress the audience.
“Also,” he continues, “drinking on stage. There are certain things you do as a musician and there are certain things you don’t do. We don’t drink on stage. We’re always sober, we don’t drink before we perform. We’re not angels… of course we drink after we finish, but we always treat the audience with respect.”
And something else they’ve learned…
“Always move forward. Don’t try and rest on your laurels… if you do that you’ll get found out and people will get bored with you. You need to keep moving it on.”
In addition to this ongoing awareness and the obvious appeal of their ‘bagpipes with attitude’ stage shows, Willie admits the wide age range of their fans has helped with their success.
“The demographic of the audience is probably from 9 or 10-year-old children, all the way up to 80 or 90-year-olds. We had a woman at one gig in London and she was celebrating her 100th birthday. Imagine being 100 and still going to see live music, that’s mental!”
Of course, Willie himself is no longer the youngster who founded the most famous bagpipe band on the planet and, inevitably, other band members have come and gone since it was formed in 2002, including fellow-founder Stuart Cassells. Alongside Glasgow-born Willie, the current pipers are Ross Miller, also from Glasgow, and Andrew Brodlie from Troon. But the other musicians – brass, keyboard, bass, guitar, percussion – are equally important, as is the production team.
“One big happy family!” says Willie.
It’s one thing knowing how to satisfy an audience in your home country, but what’s the secret to the band’s success around the rest of the world?“Even before the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, bagpipe music was so well received all over… Malaysia, Germany, Japan, Spain. It’s huge in France. If you think of all the amazing Celtic nations, if you’re playing a set of bagpipes in one of those countries, you just can’t fail.”
And Willie has another theory when it comes to the band’s popularity.
“There’s certain things about the Red Hot Chilli Pipers. The first thing is there’s three. We’re not the first to play rock music with bagpipes by a long way, but we’re the first to have three sets of bagpipes on stage. And when you put three sets of bagpipes together you don’t always play the same things. You play harmonies, melodies, so the pipes become their own oral sensation. It’s not just a set of bagpipes. Also, we play in a different key. We play in B-flat, most bagpipes are way above that, so it certainly sounds different.”
And what else?
“We wear uniforms. We’re a pipe band and we all wear black kilts and red sporrans. And I do believe in the showmanship that was brought in from the very, very start. A lot of bands wouldn’t do that or get involved in that. If you put all these things together, I think that is the essence of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers. That’s why people come back again and again.”
There’s also another, more obvious, key to success.
“Bagpipes have to be perfectly in tune,” says Willie. “If they’re not in tune they sound terrible, they sound like a Hoover! I would say that 85% of the bagpipes I hear, especially if you walk down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, I want to grab the pipes and put them over my knee!”
This supports Willie’s belief that every audience deserves nothing but respect. From the best sheepskin pipes, to world-class musicians, and fresh, dynamic shows, The Red Hot Chilli Pipers promise an unforgettable live experience.
And what about Willie himself? After two decades of bagrock, does he still have the energy and desire to continue?
“I always try and embrace what I’m still doing. I’m very lucky. As soon as you walk on that stage and the hear the roar of the crowd… you would be inhuman if you didn’t appreciate that. It’s an amazing sensation, an amazing feeling. I’m 58, so I’ve got another year or two…”
There’s also a brand new album to look forward to (released next year) and a gig in a certain city in Nevada.
“We’ve got a gig in Las Vegas,” he confirms. “Not in a spectacular venue, it’s down the strip a wee bit, but it’s still Las Vegas!”
Yes, things are still looking ‘good’ for The Red Hot Chilli Pipers.
For tickets visit www.rhcp.scot/gigs