Star Wheel Press
Wednesday, 07 September 2011
Words: Nick Mitchell
If the internet has had one positive effect on the music industry, it's been a levelling of the playing field. Where once it took serious graft and miraculous luck to have your music heard widely, today you barely need to step out the front door. Record, upload, email.
And while that may be an oversimplification of the process, it's true that now you don't need to be in the thick of the action to be noticed. Far from it, you could be in the peaceful Perthshire tourist town of Aberfeldy.
Railway Lines by starwheelpress
It's from this unlikely locale that Northern Irish ex-pat Ryan Hannigan, founder of Star Wheel Press, makes music that has already been heard across the British Isles, thanks to airplay on BBC radio.
Hannigan studied art in Dundee, and when his wife got a job in Aberfeldy he set up a gallery in the town to sell his work. But it's the story of how he encountered guitarist and producer Craig Milton that is too good not to retell.
"Believe it or not Craig and I met at an Aberfeldy gig, in Aberfeldy at Aberfeldy town hall," Hannigan says. "When I got Aberfeldy up for the (Aberfeldy) Festival last year we got them to sing on the album (and) it seemed to complete the circle somehow."
But Star Wheel Press, completed by bassist Jimmy Gallagher and Chris Smith on drums, sound more like the Appalachian Mountains than the Southern Highlands. Hannigan's deep, craggy tones slip and slide over a lo-fi tread of lazy guitar, delicate banjo and sparse drumming.
An obvious comparison to make would be with the timeless majesty of Bonnie Prince Billy's contemporary folk meditations, but debut album Life Cycle of a Falling Bird is also brimming with stripped back delta blues, lively slide guitar that evokes 70s icons like Neil Young and the burnished, sepia-tinted quality of a band like Midlake.
It's perhaps best summed up in Hannigan's own witty line, from 'Betamax Waltz (Digital Confusion)': "I get digital, not quite analogue, think I understand the future, lost in monologue."
The fact that his understated music has reached a wide audience is a pleasing mystery for Hannigan. "It's weird. Ian Rankin has been publicly saying how much he likes us and other celebs - not name dropping or anything - like Sean Hughes, Lauren Laverne, Bob Harris, Uncle Ted, Audrey Darling, Wee Seamus, but most importantly Kev Buckle have all been great."
While a few of those "celebs" are lost on us, the Laverne connection was beneficial after she played Star Wheel Press on her 6 Music show. How did that come about?
"I tweeted Lauren Laverne asking if she played bands that were unsolicited and were not signed," Hannigan recalls. "She said that if she liked it she would play it. I sent it to her and forgot all about it then I got all these tweets from all these different people saying Lauren Laverne is looking for you. I was having a hard time and thought someone was having a laugh but it was in real life, not only in the wonderful little universe that goes on in my head.
"We did get people buying albums immediately after the airplay," Hannigan continues. "Bob Harris (Radio 2) playing us was a biggy, but I'm not happy until we get on Tim Westwood's playlist."
Unlikely, but it's clear that Star Wheel Press's geographical remove from the music scene has done them no harm whatsoever.
"It has been funny with gigs as we are so isolated from the city (and) we haven't a clue what places are good to play," Hannigan says. "We've noticed bands are friends with each other so can support one another really easily... I'm sure we can't be friends with city folk - they all work in banks and go in underground trains, strange huh?"
Not as strange as the Star Wheel Press story might have seemed in the pre-digital days. While they seem to eschew 21st century technology (they are named after an etching press after all), this is one band who have benefited more than most from the simple power of Twitter and Bandcamp. Not that this concerns Hannigan too much.
"Not sure we know much about promotion and connections in the cities and online," he says. "It's been pretty organic with people asking us to do gigs and interviews etc. The online side has not been our initial focus as I hand print and make each CD and I never shut up about how long it takes me."
But for those who like what they hear, Hannigan has some good news: "We are always working on new songs."
• Star Wheel Press play live at The Tidal Wave of Indifference night at the Wee Red Bar, Edinburgh on Saturday 24 September (tickets). They are also confirmed for the next Aberfeldy Festival in November.
The album Life Cycle of a Falling Bird is available online via Bandcamp or in record shops.
Posted by Nick Mitchell