Pipers with bags of music to delight
You could have your cousin’s wedding or your auntie’s funeral — it doesn’t matter, you have to play the gig.
Commitment sits at the heart of the band’s ethos since Red Hot Chilli Pipers began 15 years ago.
Then five members, now a rotating group of 25, the rock n roll bagpipers played two sold-out shows this weekend as part of The Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts.
“In the very early days, it was called an open diary policy — if a gig comes in you have to clear your diary,” co-founder Kevin MacDonald told Lifestyle.
“We all agreed to it. It was the only way for us to grow.”
They found moderate success early on, booking 30 shows in a year. Then in 2007 they took part in BBC talent show When Will I be Famous?, and won.
“All of a sudden we got catapulted into the public world so we had to increase the size of the band,” Mr MacDonald said.
They now tour as a party of 13 — nine on stage; four support.
The business has also changed “remarkably”. The band’s annual gross revenue is roughly $1.5 million and where it was once “very hard” to get musicians, today’s list of hopefuls is long.
“At the start we were seen very much as a joke act among the bag-piping fraternity and traditionalists,” Mr MacDonald said.
Their 187 shows last year included Hong Kong, New York, Los Angeles, Malaysia, France, Germany and Spain.
Mr MacDonald did not play them all.
“That would be impossible,” he said.
“We noticed fairly quickly that the customer experience wasn’t affected. It proved that the product was more about the music — the black kilts, the red sporrans, the look.
“[We] almost became the Blue Man Group of bagpipes.
“There have been various opportunities to move, but fundamentally the Chilli Pipers is based in Scotland and it will always be based in Scotland. We’ve got a great quality of life that we can leave Scotland behind for a couple of weeks and then come back to it.”
The 39-year-old hails from Aberdeen, where he got his start in music.
“The local community had a Boys’ Brigade and they had a pipe band as part of that. It was as simple as that,” he remembered.
“My dad got relocated to the Glasgow area and I joined the local pipe band.”
He started Red Hot Chilli Pipers with Stuart Cassells, William Armstrong, Malcolm McEwan and Steven Graham. The friends owned a company, Scottish Bagpiper, that provided pipers for weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals and corporate events.
“It was really Stuart’s brainchild and my background of being an accountant — I deal with the business side of it,” said Mr MacDonald.
They added drummers to get the rock n roll sound that became their signature and labelled themselves a “corporate band”, playing at company events.
“We all had day jobs at that point and this was just a bit of extra income,” said the father-of-three who still runs an accountancy practice and is the finance director for five companies.
“I’m a very busy individual but it was always driven by fear that tomorrow might be my last gig. So I have a back up plan.”
He believes it’s the mix of rock and traditional music that sets them apart.
“There’s bands out there that will take rock songs and put them onto bagpipes; there’s people that will take traditional music and put a rock beat behind it. Again, nothing new. We take the rock song and the traditional song and merge them.
“We will play the chorus line of Don’t Stop Believing and then we’ll break into a 16-bar jig and start jumping with the crowd and then we’ll come back to the song.
“It is good family entertainment. My overriding aim when I put on a concert is that the people leave feeling happy. It will put a smile on your face.”
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