For over a decade now, Seven Nations has been one of the most celebrated —and more unique— Celtic rock bands around. Their music touches on everything from traditional folk to contemporary pop-punk, and they’ve seen played to crowds as large as 40,000, and even seen a U.S. astronaut take one of their CDs onboard the space shuttle, where —one learns in school— occupants have to be very mindful of how much weight they carry.
High praise indeed.
The band has built a substantial fanbase through relentless roadwork, a steady stream of albums, and —of late— by collaborating with a growing number of orchestras — including the Jacksonville Symphony, who’ll appear in tandem with the group this weekend in our own Johnny Mercer Theatre for one-night only.
Like others they’ve done with this celebrated classical outfit, the Savannah show finds the two groups playing alongside each other for the first half of the concert. After a brief intermission, the band returns to the stage by themselves for a full set of rocking material that’s much closer in tone and substance to the pub, club and festival gigs they’re known for.
In anticipation of this intriguing blend of audiences, cultures and musical styles, I spoke with Seven Nations’ founder, frontman, lyricist and guitarist, Kirk McLeod.
Connect Savannah: In many ways you guys were slightly ahead of the curve of combining American rock and pop with traditional Celtic folk. What do you feel sets Seven Nations apart from many of the other Celtic rock bands on the club and festival circuit?
Kirk McLeod: I believe because we’ve been at it for so much longer than most of the other bands, we’ve had more opportunities to take risks. We also rely on 99% original material where most Celtic Rock bands do a great number of traditional covers, just rocked up a bit. Having our own studio doesn’t hurt either. We’re basically a bagpipe, a fiddle and a three-piece rock band. That’s the formula that’s now been copied again and again. It’s how creative you get with that formula that counts.
Connect Savannah: Many of today’s artists avoid traditional record label strategy in favor of a DIY business model, as your band has. Do you remain independent because of the better money that can be made that way, or because of the control over your image and recordings that would likely be lost upon joining a label’s roster?
Kirk McLeod: When we started out back in New York City in ‘94 we were blown away by the amount of units we could move ourselves mostly by touring the festival circuit. We eliminated the middle man, went right to the consumer and made a hell of a lot of money doing it. By 2000, we cared much less about the money and more about reaching people who musically would never even take notice of a Celtic-based band. We then signed our first major deal with Q/Atlantic —a Warner company— released a CD with them, then later released a CD on Razor and Tie — a BMG label. We’ve since formed our own label, Moriath Records, and have national distribution through Oarfin Records. That’s the best of both worlds. In my experience, the record companies couldn’t give a damn about creative control or artist development. They just wanted to throw something that was already working up against a wall and see if it would stick.
Connect Savannah: Your band’s logged almost a quarter of a million miles on the road over its career. Just how sick are you of driving and/or riding around the world?
Kirk McLeod: We’ve used just about every travel medium possible except maybe the transporter. We spent four years on a tour bus. Two of those years, we were out over 300 days each year. We’re doing only fly dates at the moment. The van is great because you have a bit of freedom (and hotel rooms), the bus is cool because you can party after the show and wake up in the parking lot of your next venue (but no hotel rooms). Flying is great because you get there quick and you have hotel rooms. But you have to deal with airport security! It’s safe to say you get sick of any of these if you’re stuck with them for long enough.
Connect Savannah: You’ve sold more than 150,000 records, which is phenomenal for an unsigned band. Approximately what percentage of those have been through distribution portals like CDBaby.com, as opposed to being sold directly by the band?
Kirk McLeod: We’re up to over a quarter of a million now, most of which were definitely sold on the road. I’d love to see our in-store sales pick up but, I think you need much more radio and video presence than we’ve ever had. The downloading thing is very cool and we’re only now tapping into it for real ourselves. Can I shamelessly plug our website here? Sevennations.com
Connect Savannah: What advice would you give to a band or musician who’s just starting out in the business and happens to play music that connects with crowds, but doesn’t fit neatly into radio or label formats?
Kirk McLeod: Find the thing or things that set you apart from all the others, tour like crazy, make lots of home videos and put them on Myspace.com.
Connect Savannah: What has the response been so far from existing fans of the band, as well as symphony fans who were either unaware of the group or had no interest in the sort of music you play?
Kirk McLeod: It’s been extremely exciting. Our fans love it and we get to reach new people who’d probably never come see us unless the symphony was involved.
Connect Savannah: What’s the greatest challenge for a rock band to overcome when working with an orchestra in theaters?
Kirk McLeod: Probably trying to play quietly enough! The greatest thing is to hear our fiddler’s parts played by an entire string section.
Connect Savannah: Who came up with the program for the portion of the show where the band plays alongside the symphony?
Kirk McLeod: The Jacksonville Symphony signed on Charles Calello to do three more charts for us. I was freaking out because he’s arranged for Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and Barbara Streisand. I couldn’t believe he’d be arranging for us! I chose one of our oldies, one from our last CD and one from an album that yet to be released. The rest of the program are our favorites from previous orchestra shows.
Connect Savannah: Your band plays the second half of the show without the symphony. To me, it almost seems as though the show should be structured the other way around, with the symphony taking everything to a higher level entirely. Was it assumed that some classical fans would not want to sit through a full set of rock music?
Kirk McLeod: It seemed strange to me too. It does seem like the second set would be a let down, but we did it this way our first time with the Jacksonville Symphony and it was awesome. Anyway, I promise we’ll have a few tricks up our sleeves!
Connect Savannah: You’ve played here before without orchestral accompaniment. What are your impressions of the city, and what can local fans expect from this show?
Kirk McLeod: Believe it or not, I played in the Savannah Pipe Band when I was a teenager. I have many fond memories of your city. With Seven Nations, my favorite show was playing down on River Street on St. Patrick’s Day. After another show, I can’t remember which one, we had a very entertaining evening hanging out after hours on that old ship you have docked down there… But, I better not say any more about that! We’ll be doing new material but, for anyone who hasn’t seen us with a symphony behind us it will definitely be a different experience.
Seven Nations and the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra (led by Michael Butterman) play the Johnny Mercer Theater at 7 pm Sunday. Tickets start at $25, and are available at www.savannahcivic.com, or by calling 651-6556 or (800) 351-7469.