Kirk McLeod: rockin' pipes
(An interview by Tom Kupiszewski,
March 2000)

Seven Nations is a musical group like many others. They have a singer, guitar, bass, drums, fiddle, bagpipes....

Yes, fiddle and bagpipes. You say you don't know many other bands which use fiddle and bagpipes? In short order, you will. Seven Nations is what many refer to as a Celtic rock band. All of the members are of Irish or Scottish descent, and they incorporate their family heritage and the traditional musical styles of their forefathers into their modern tunes. It's a combination which may not appeal to everyone, but is appealing to a growing number of fans daily.

The group has been called the "Dave Matthews Band with bagpipes," although that comparison actually falls short. While Dave Matthews writes modern, somewhat jazzy numbers, throwing in the fiddle and acoustic instruments for good measure, Seven Nations actually infuses their music with traditional melodies and styles of playing which were written specifically for the fiddle and bagpipes. However, they're not a strictly traditional Irish/Scottish folk band, at least not anymore. The category of Celtic rock suits them well, if any category can be applied to a continually-evolving group of artists such as this. Their combination of traditional and modern styles is constantly fluctuating as the band incorporates new ideas, keeping the band always fresh in the ears of their fans.

Their latest CD, The Factory, stands out as proof of that evolution when compared to the group's earlier albums, Rain and Thunder (1994, no longer available), Old Ground (1995), Big Dog (1996), and Road Kill Volumes 1 & 2 (1998). And, if such a thing is possible, the band's stage shows are even more energetic than their recordings.

Tom Kupiszewski recently had this chat with the band's lead singer/guitarist/bagpiper, Kirk McLeod, during a stop in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

TK: Is it correct that you and the other band members decided to form a Celtic-style band because of your family backgrounds?

KM: Of course. It was a natural thing to do. I actually went to piping school from the age of 12 in North Carolina. I had just moved there from England, I'm an Air Force brat. My mother's from England. Anyway, it was like a summer camp. Some kids go to summer camp, and some go to piping school. It's not just piping school, it's actually more like Scottish art school; you learn dancing, history, piping, drumming, Scottish traditions.

TK: Prior to forming Seven Nations, what were the musical backgrounds of the group's members?

KM: Scott Long, our piper, grew up kind of the same way I did. He's from New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, right outside Halifax. He got involved in piping through the pipe bands up there. There's a lot of piping going on up there, and there are seven or eight really great bands. He played with the Halifax Police Pipe Band, which were world champions while he was with them, so he got to play all over the place. Scott eventually joined a band in Canada which is probably the most like us out of any band, and they toured with the Chieftains, they were on the HORDE tour, so he has quite an extensive background.
Dan Stacey is from Stratford, Ontario. He's our fiddle player. His mother was from Scotland, and he grew up learning to stepdance first. He also learned to play fiddle at an early age, and competed against other kids in Canada. He was one of the top five in Canada for several years running as a fiddle competitor and a dancing competitor. He was touring with a show, Canada's equivalent of Riverdance, when I hired him.
The bass player, Struby, I met in school when I first moved from England to Florida, when I was 12. We started playing in rock bands together. His grandmother is Scottish, but he was first introduced to his heritage through me. We were best friends all the way. We went to competitions together during the week and on weekends we played in garage bands.
Ashton, our drummer, has more of a hard rock type of background with local Florida bands as well. He's from Jacksonville. We hired Ashton through our sound man. Our sound crew is from Jacksonville. A few years back, we were on the road and needed a drummer right away. They called him and he flew right in. We didn't miss a show.

TK: The band's bio states that the band formed in New York City. With some of its members from Florida and some from Canada, how did that happen?

KM: I moved up there in 1988, after spending two years as a musician for Disney. I was trying to find a producer and make it as a music writer. I was living there for close to nine years. It was during that time I put the band together. Basically I brought everyone in from outside. After I had established myself, I brought Struby in and the other musicians one at a time.

TK: Tell me about the early days; was the band an overnight success?

KM: No, not at all. Starting off in New York City, we actually didn't have pipes in the band at first. I had worked with some producers by then and had some interest from Sony so I put the band together to showcase my songs. I originally started playing the bagpipes at the beginnings of shows just to draw some attention to us, to say "hey, we're different, pay attention!" We would start playing outside the club, playing down the street in the freezing cold weather and people would follow us into the clubs. Then I realized, I'd been playing pipes all my life, writing songs all my life, and had a band, it seemed so natural to put it all together, I'm surprised it took me so long to do it.
We played the New York circuit for a number of years. Sony offered me a development deal if I would lose the band, but I had just brought them into New York. So we kept trudging away, and eventually we got our first (Scottish) festival offer all the way down in North Carolina. So we all piled in the van and drove down to North Carolina, and there we sold all 100 copies of our demos before lunch on the first day. We realized there was a market there, so we started hitting the festival circuit and after that, everything took off. So we pretty much started playing Scottish festivals right off the bat, and graduated to Irish festivals, because back then, Scottish festivals weren't really music oriented.

TK: So this was a new thing, to have a band with both traditional Scottish and rock influences at these festivals?

KM: Actually, back then we leaned heavily toward the folk side, just because we didn't want to scare anybody. When it took off so well and we were able to get into places with bigger stages, we started sliding back into the rock style which we had started out with. We're always trying to push the envelope because now, there are so many bands like us out there, and a lot of them are making a living.

TK: Obviously, it's an idea whose time has come, if you look at the success of groups like the Dave Matthews Band and others who incorporate traditional folk elements and acoustic instruments, such as yourselves.

KM: That's something else I wanted to get into. ... We've been getting a lot of flak from people saying we've turned our back on our roots because we don't do straight Celtic music anymore, and that we're pushing the rock music mixed with Celtic influences. My main statement is that there are so many other bands doing what we were doing a couple of years ago. We just want to be doing something different. It's not that we don't love that (Celtic) music anymore, just that there are enough bands doing that. We want to give people something different to listen to.

TK: How long did it take before you were able to make a living as full-time musicians?

KM: I was the first one to leave my job, because I had to run the business as well. It was probably only about three or four months after the first festival show that I was able to quit my other job. Then the other guys were able to quit their jobs a few months later.

TK: Was it long after that before you formed your own label and started making your own CDs?

KM: We were making our own CDs right off the bat, but we didn't formalize it and incorporate until about a year later. Before that, there was no overhead -- you sell the CDs, stick the money in your pocket and go have a beer.

TK: Tell me about some of the more memorable, exotic or obscure locations where you've played.

KM: My favorite place was Puerto Rico. We played there in December. They gave us a lot of press; we were there for a week just doing press. We did the show at the top of the Cultural Institute, which is on top of these cliffs overlooking the harbor of San Juan. The backdrop behind our stage was the old Spanish fort. The weather was really bad. There was a downpour and hurricane force winds, but still, 500 people came out to see us. They got totally drenched and danced their butts off. These are Puerto Rican people, they don't know Celtic music from anything, and it was so great to see all these people who have no Celtic tradition in their culture getting so energetic.

TK: How much time are you spending on the road this year, and how does that compare to the early days?

KM: That depends on how you look at it. Every year for the past four years, we've spent over 230 days on the road, but that includes down days when we're not playing. When we started out, we were just living off of festivals on the weekends, and we might have a festival in California and the next one would be in Colorado, so the band would stay in California until it was time to move on. But now, we make sure we have shows five days a week when we're doing that. So we're on the road the same amount of time but we're doing more shows.

TK: Every night on the road, you're staying in a different hotel in a different town and eating different food from different restaurants. Can you tell me about the best and worst experiences you've had with hotels and restaurants on the road?

KM: Probably the worst hotel experience I can think of was in New York. We were doing a show up there and got to the hotel very late, and the hotel was so disgusting that we actually slept in the van instead. Then we got up and did an afternoon show without having showered or anything. But we don't work with that agent anymore, haven't for quite a while.
There have been lots of good experiences. We were put up at the Hilton in Palm Beach last December, and that was pretty sweet. The show was sponsored and they gave us a five-star hotel with all amenitites included, stocked bars in every room and we charged five-star dining to our rooms. Another really good one was in Edinburgh, Scotland. Our hotel was on the Royal Mile, one of the most prestigious parts of Scotland.

TK: Speaking of Edinburgh, you played there to a pretty big crowd, 40,000 people.

KM: Actually, there were close to a quarter of a million people there. There were about 40,000 at our stage. It was a big show, we were playing against the Pretenders and UB40 on the other stage. You see, this is something we always have to fight: They put us on the "Celtic" stage. It wasn't bad though, we opened for Scotland's biggest Celtic band, though our crowd was bigger. We played right up to midnight and they played afterward, so we had the better slot.

TK: So how does playing to a crowd of 40,000 in your ancestral homeland compare to playing to a hundred in a small town in Pennsylvania?

KM: In Lancaster, we were warm. It wasn't snowing on us. Show-wise, the bigger the crowd, the easier the show is for me, it just falls into place easier. It's a little bit harder to work a crowd of a hundred. Musically, I enjoyed it more than the show in Edinburgh.

TK: Do you have a preference for a large arena show or a small club show?

KM: We do an acoustic show, too. For the rock show, the bigger the crowd the better, but for the acoustic show, the smaller, more intimate setting is better.

TK: Your critics have compared Seven Nations to the Dave Matthews Band. Do you believe the world is ready for Seven Nations to become as big as Dave Matthews, and is Seven Nations ready for that kind of fame?

KM: Definitely. We've put in the miles, we're ready for it. The way we've been working, taking that extra leap would be easier.

TK: Given the increasing popularity of the combination of acoustic and electric, folk and rock, do you see that leap happening in the near future?

KM: We're definitely seeing the signs. We've been getting a lot of airplay on rock and alternative stations, we have been asked to open for Christina Aguilera and Savage Garden, so we're definitely moving in that direction. On the east coast, at least, we've gotten as big as we could get on the Celtic circuit. It was like being on a plateau and we had to break away from it. We've lost a lot of fans of the Celtic music that have been with us for years because they resent the change we're going through. Some fans who knew you way back when you were small want you to stay that way, they don't want you to get too big.

TK: If Seven Nations were offered a chance to sign to a major label, or if a major offered to buy out your label, would you accept, or do you believe that signing to a major label would mean giving up too much control of the band and its music?

KM: We've been talking to BMG since January and getting along with them very well. They're very interested in signing us as is. But we also have a big publishing deal coming up as well, so our plan is to take the publishing deal and use the money to record our next CD with a hard-hitting producer. I can't say who, but it's someone who is very accomplished. We intend to take our time with this album and make the album of our lives, and in keeping with the relationship we have with BMG, we'll hand it over to them because we'll have a lot more leverage with a finished product.

TK: Have you, or any of the other band members, ever done any solo albums, formed groups on the side, worked on other musicians' albums or considered doing so?

KM: No. I couldn't even imagine having the time for that. When we have a day off, everybody sleeps.

TK: Will Seven Nations continue in the same musical vein, or is it possible you'll be incorporating other musical styles in the future?

KM: I would like to do some Hispanic rhythms, some Brazilian rhythms, and combine that with bagpipes. We may not do that for a whole album, but definitely some songs. We will always swing back and forth between the rock and Celtic styles. I can definitely see us doing a traditional album on the side after we have some success with more original albums.

TK: Does Seven Nations have a definite plan for the future, or are you taking it one day at a time?

KM: We definitely have a plan to break the scene wide open. We want to accomplish all over what we did in Puerto Rico, for people to see us because they enjoy the music and not just because it's Celtic. We want to be able to say "Thanks for coming, we're Seven Nations, and Bare Naked Ladies is on next."

TK: Do you ever get tired of answering the same questions about the band and the music over and over? Are there questions that you wish interviewers would ask but never do?

KM: I don't get tired of answering the questions, but I really like the interviews which are about the original music. It's a shame when they're all about "Why don't you wear kilts on stage anymore?" and they don't want to discuss the music.

TK: Is there anything specific you want the world to know which doesn't get brought up in interviews?

KM: That was the main issue, that's the kind of flak we're getting right now. You've got enough traditional, bagpipe-playing, Celtic bands, let us give you something new. If you don't like it, that's okay, but at least you've got some variety.

[ by Tom Kupiszewski ]
[ ]

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