“We got a lot of flack from people in Scotland, Ireland and the States for wearing kilts and playing traditional music,” reveals Kirk McLeod, lead singer of Seven Nations.
“They’re thinking Americans can’t do it as well as the Scots or Irish,” he explains. “We started thinking, ‘Well, we’ve got our own heritage, here in the States.’ I think it’s unique that we kept a lot of our traditions and blended it with the American culture that we grew up with.” Viewed equally as an alt-pop band with bagpipes and fiddles, and a Celtic band with drums and electronics, Seven Nations intensifies that signature cadence on its sixth, self-produced CD, The Factory, without beating a retreat from members’ Celtic musical foundations.
Once again, they prove that bagpipes can rock.
Several years ago, the group rechristened itself, changing its name from Clan na Gael to Seven Nations, in honor of the seven nations of the Celtic world: Alba (Scotland), Eire (Ireland), Cymru (Wales), Mannin (Isle of Man), Briezh (Brittany), Kernow (Cornwall) and Galicia in Spain.
“We wanted to say, ‘Hey, we’re descended from the Celtic nations.’ We’re not trying to be Scottish or Irish or anything like that, we’re just proud of our own unique upbringing,” the singer proclaims.
McLeod, a founding member, also contributes guitar, keyboards and bagpipes. Though musical arrangements are still a collective endeavor, he continues to be the group’s main songwriter. “I was the guy that started trying to write rock music for bagpipes,” he recalls fondly: “I grew up playing bagpipes from the age of 12. I was always off playing pipes on weekends at Scottish festivals, and during the week, I was playing in a regular rock-and-roll garage band, in my normal life at school. When I moved up to New York City in the late ’80s … one day it dawned on me, ‘Hey, I’ve been doing both of these all my life — might as well put them together.’
“When we first started in New York, we did the very heavy rock-and-roll stuff with the bagpipes,” he reports. “Then we started being hired at Highland games and festivals. We thought, at first, that people wouldn’t like the rock stuff, so we learned some traditional things for the band, stuff that we’d grown up playing. As we became more and more accepted, we got more risky and brought back the stuff that we started with originally. We’ve done a full circle now.
“I love pop music, and I love traditional music,” the singer confesses. “They’re always both going to be there and come out [in my playing]. I write about personal things, about love and loss and everything else. But I also love to study history, just on my own — just for fun. I believe that history is alive. When I read a history book, I actually feel it.”
McLeod’s “The Ballad Of Calvin Crozier,” featured on The Factory, narrates a soldier’s act of selflessness; he penned “The Factory Song” about immigration from the British Isles to Nova Scotia. “The land in Nova Scotia was swallowed up very quickly. So, by the second generation, these people who’d just been displaced from their homes in Scotland and Ireland were now being displaced again, because there was no work. They had to travel down to Boston to work in textile mills. It struck me as sad that these people had to leave their homes once, then had to watch their children leave their homes once again.”
The group’s melodic folk tune “This Season” shows how ably the sound of bagpipes and electric guitars can blend. “Bagpipes are kind of a limited instrument — there’s only nine notes, and you have to arrange the music around them to make them appear like they’re doing a lot more than they really are,” he admits.
“Soft Gator Girl” is a 9/8 instrumental that features fiddler/stepdancer Dan Stacey. “Those are strictly traditional tunes, from east Canada,” says McLeod. “Our fiddle player and piper put those together. We wanted to show that we could still play traditionally as well, that we hadn’t forgotten what we learned.”
Bassist Struby and drummer Ashton Geoghagan make some heavy contact on the haunting song “The Paddy Set.”
“We wanted to create an atmosphere,” McLeod recalls. “Pipes were always used for battle, to get people riled up, and we wanted to try to capture that feeling of battle. The first part of the tune is getting the troops ready and getting psyched, and then when the band comes in with the pipes, it’s really heavy and confusing-sounding. We wanted to get that feel of a heavy-metal battle.”
“Daze of Grace” opens with a dreamy hip-hop rhythm, laced by distant strains of “Amazing Grace” and the pops and hisses of a well-worn record. “We got ahold of all these old Scottish LPs from the ’30s and ’40s, and we were looking for something to sample off them, to give [the song] some texture. It’s been so long since anybody’s played albums, everybody’s forgotten how scratchy they are … that old sound — so we threw a bit of it in the beginning, to make a little collage.”
Not surprisingly, McLeod has a firm grip on his family’s heritage. His ancestors came to America from Scotland in the early 1800s, he says: “I grew up with a very strong sense of Scottish descent. When I was 12, my dad sent me to a Scottish art school for the summer, up near Boone, and I made a lot of lifelong friends. It just caught on with me: I loved it.”
Among McLeod’s favorite popular musical artists are Lenny Kravitz, Barenaked Ladies, Joni Mitchell and Foo Fighters. “I don’t think what we like is anything different than any other American young people. I’m always just looking to hear good, well-written songs.”
Bagpiper Scott Long comments: “I have a long-standing respect for tradition, but I like taking what I’ve learned and applying it in new ways. The music can’t grow and live on unless it changes with the times.”
“If nobody writes any new songs, it will eventually die off,” McLeod sighs. “We’re helping replenish the Celtic folk repertoire. Our songs deal with traditional material, historical subjects … we’re writing the traditional music of today for tomorrow.”