Ross Ainslie and Ali Hutton are two of the most talented all-round musicians on the planet. To know that it was the bagpipes that brought them together makes what they do even more remarkable.
They started their life-long musical journey as kids in the late Gordon Duncan’s Pitlochry-based Vale of Atholl Pipe Band, the Novice Juvenile feeder band to Gordon’s brother Ian’s champion grade one team. It was Gordon who would stand as their biggest and most formative influence. His vitality and approach to music-making marked an inflection point for both Ross and Ali. The variety and possibility of multi-instrumental music-making, like that demonstrated by Gordon, proved a magnetic draw for the two pipers. By they age of 15 they were both well into instruments beyond the pipes. With guitars, whistles, bouzouki, cittern and banjo in hand to support the pipes, Ross and Ali never looked back.
Their careers have seen them play in many leading Scottish bands including Treacherous Orchestra, Old Blind Dogs, Salsa Celtica, Dougie MacLean, Shooglenifty and Capercaillie. It was only in the last few years that they decided to zero in on creating music together. Their compositions, arrangements and technical virtuosity have brought them a devoted fan following and hugely successful recording projects, including last year’s, Symbiosis II. Awards, too, have come their way. In 2017 they were winners of the Best Duo category at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards; they followed up in 2018 with yet another nomination.
Over a coffee and the clatter of banging plates in a busy cafe in Glasgow City Centre, Ross and Ali talked to Piping Today about their collaboration, their music and a candid peek into a musician’s life.
PT: Can you talk about how you support each other and your collaboration?
Ross: Every musician has strengths and weaknesses and I think that’s why it’s great to work with other people. Other people can fill the gaps and bring it to life in a way you can’t on your own.
PT: So Ali, can you give one example where Ross supports you and makes you better?
Ali: Ross has always been a brilliant tune writer and that is something that has taken me a long time to be confident and reasonably good at.
PT: Ross, what about Ali?
Ross: Ali is one of the best accompanists in Scotland.
PT: What makes him the best? Is it chops, an ear, a great sense of rhythm?
Ross: It’s all those. He’s also creative with his choice of chords. Ali likes to take time and make sure it’s the absolute right choice. I always like to use the first thing and I don’t want to hear anything else.
Ali: Yes, that can be one of the positive differences [between us]. We always try to incorporate each other’s way of doing things and incorporate views and ideas. It makes you more open.
PT: It takes a lot of maturity to do that. Do you think your collaboration works because you’ve known each other since you were very young or is there something in your personalities that lends itself to a collaborative spirit?
Ross: We’ve been playing music together – pipes with other instruments – since we were maybe 14. And we listen to the same stuff and are really into the same stuff. So it’s surprising it has taken so long to come together as a [professional] duo. Obviously we’ve played together for years on different projects but never worked as a duo. There’s a piece that we did on the Gaelic set on our first album. We wrote this bit of music when we were 15 but it’s always been in the back burner. We’ve been doing it so long, that collaborating was a natural thing.
PT: Would you say there are influences beyond trad that have leaked into how you work? Pop influences?
Ali: I was thinking about this the other day and actually in both of the albums you can hear bands, you can hear albums, I think you can even hear references from films. I think you can definitely hear all kinds of cultural references.
PT. Let’s make no assumptions. Give us one.
Ali: There’s a series of films called Friday and Friday After Next that are just funny films. We used to laugh at these all the time. There was always this kind of hip-hop intro music. There’s an intro in the second album that references that kind of hip-hop – a pizzicato string thing. And I remember, when we were thinking about it, sending Patsy [Reid, fiddle player] these references, and told her about this film and she came up with this thing. It was exactly perfect. I think that is the thing about this album [Symbiosis II], there is a nostalgic element to the music.
PT: Anyone reading this will have a good idea of your ages when you refer to anything hip-hop as nostalgic.
Ali: (laughs) Well, of course, it’s just what we grew up listening to.
The main idea is we used to spend a lot of time together: the pipe band, learning instruments. There was no one around to have a tune with. Ross bought a bouzouki and I bought a guitar and we just listened to albums and tried to figure out chord sequences. That is how we built up our understanding of chords and keys. It took a lot of years to understand it all.
PT: So, Ross, you spent a lot of time investigating the mysteries of chord sequences. How is it that you didn’t investigate the mysteries of piobaireachd? How was it you drifted from that world?
Ross: (laughs) It was listening to Gordon’s Just for Seumas album. It did something to you in hearing that bouzouki along with pipes. It was a wild sound.
Ali: Aye, that’s something you really can’t choose. I used to compete. I played piobaireachd for a while. I just shut off when I played it, just because you had to. You get to a certain point where you just have to do it., where it just grabs you. There was that moment listening to that album, for sure. And hearing Wolfstone albums or Bothy Band albums – things Gordon used to play us – and, yeah, it grabs you.
Ross: I’ll give you the track [that hooked me]. The strathspeys and reels that starts with The Brig of Perth and then Ramnee Ceilidh. It was when the bouzouki came in with Ramnee Ceilidh.
PT: That is great you can identify the moment that changed you.
Ross: I remember it, being in the car coming back from pipe band practice. We were fortunate that Gordon was our pipe major.
PT: What’s your take on the mainstream piping world?
Ali: It is so competitive on every level. It’s very different for us. I always find it funny that pipers can go to gigs and find it hard to tell another
piper they played well. There is always that want to be better than the next person.
PT: Ross, are you competitive?
Ross: No, not really.
PT: You had to think about that.
Ross: (laughs) I like to do well. I wouldn’t say I am competitive. Maybe that is why I never got into it when I was younger. In sports I am competitive (pauses). I don’t know. I never really thought about it. Maybe I am (laughs).
PT: What about you, Ali, are you competitive?
Ali: I don’t know. I think I’ve come to a point in my life where I want to be more encouraging and appreciative of other people’s things. Maybe I’ve gone through ups and downs depending on what’s going on – and my own self-confidence as a musician. I think it’s an environmental thing or situation. I’m not competitive. I can be down on things; but not because I want to be better. But I can be quite opinionated.
PT: So you are a piper.
Ali: I’m always trying to work at sharing; where everyone has a chance, has a voice. When I used to do solos, I always found it very weird that everyone – and their parents – would take it so seriously. Even with the pipe band: It was nice to win but I never ever felt seriously competitive against people. It was about the music.
PT: You play a lot in public. Do you ever get nervous?
Ross: Aye, definitely. More so now than ever.
PT: Why is that?
Ross: (pause) I don’t drink any more so I’m really aware of situations. To be honest, it’s not nervous about the actual playing, it’s the speaking part I get really nervous about. If iI don’t have to speak I’m quite happy on stage.
PT: What about you, Ali?
Ali: Recently I have been getting really nervous. I never used to. I think I’m having a confidence thing quite a lot.
PT: Have you had time to think about what might trigger that?
Ali: Yeah, I think over the last year I haven’t been doing a lot of gigs with people. Even with my guitar I haven’t been doing a lot of gigs. And so in a guitar gig recently I felt a bit alien doing this thing that I haven’t been doing.
PT: So how do manage it when you do get nervous?
Ali: (laughs) Just get on with it.
Ross: There’s no other way really to deal with it because you’ve got yourself in this situation.
PT: Any advice for pipers reading this who get nervous when they perform?
Ali: For me, before the gig I stay away from everything, stay backstage.
Ross: I think what can help is being prepared. If you’re not prepared, of course, you’re going to get nervous. If you do a lot of work before you won’t be nervous about the actual playing.
Ali: Yes, I think preparation is the best thing. A little bit of nerves is a good thing.
PT: Do you two ever fall out?
Both: (laugh together). Aye.
PT: So when you’re collaborating, what triggers a fall-out?
Ali: Music is an intense experience. It can be amazing, it can be frustrating and you have no say in how that is going to play out. It unfolds. Everyone has their preconceived ideas of what something should be. Everyone has that battle. Everyone has their own idea. Depending on how intense you are as a person determines how easy it is to bounce ideas off another person. Sometimes it can be a brick wall.
PT: Anyone in pipe bands will relate to this.
Ali: That’s why you need a pipe major. You need a person saying: “You’re doing that, and that’s it.”
PT: So are you guys co-pipe major?
Ross: We were in Treacherous Orchestra and there were 12 of us and no pipe major. It was a nightmare. People took roles because that’s the way people are but it was a tough situation to be in.
Ali: You have to be fine knowing that not everything you do is brilliant. You have to be OK knowing that this is the case.
PT: Can an audience effect a performance?
Ross: (laughs) That’s the main thing for me. If I sense a negative vibe from an audience, that’s the gig done for me. I love when it’s easy and everyone is there for a good time. I’m just not good at achieving a good vibe. It needs to be there before I start. I can’t create it. I know that, so I really struggle if it’s not there.
Ali: I think it’s a weird thing because an audience can sit and say nothing and then you feel annoyed but for that audience it might be the preferred thing to sit and not make noise. You can feel they’re not really into it. But then you come off and they’ve loved the gig.
Ross: There is a feeling. You can get quiet gigs but there is a vibe that is good. It’s unexplainable.
Ali: You always want an audience to be with you straight away.
Ross: The [Rolling] Stones must be the easiest band – or any of these bands – to play in. I went to see Ben Howard in Glasgow. He said like three words the whole night. It was so easy.
PT: It makes you wonder what competition piping might be like if the audiences made noise, maybe held their lighters in the air at a crunluath doubling.
Ali: (laughs) It would be brilliant!
PT: Ross, what’s your favourite material possession?
Ross: My instruments, I suppose.
PT: Is there one?
Ross: I love the whistle. Then, I love playing the pipes as well.
Ali: I think instruments are just a tool. You know, a guitar, or a good set of pipes, can feel irreplaceable. But if they break, you can get another one. But I would say I’ve got a comic.
PT: So what comic?
Ali: (laughs) It’s such a geeky thing. I’ve got a lot of stuff like that. It’s a Marvel comic. It’s the first appearance of Wolverine, and that all I’m going to say.
PT: Is it going to pay for your retirement?
Ali: This is the thing. It actually might. It’s sort of a musician’s pension fund.
Ross: I like cooking. I have a great Le Crueset pot that I always use. That will stay with me till I die.
PT: OK. So what’s your last supper?
Ross: Dumpling, mince – pretty amazing. I’m going to make them tonight. I like trying new stuff, pastas. I like cooking desserts, custard tart, Creme Brulé.
Ali: Ross is a very good cook.
PT: What about you, Ali?
Ali: Mine’s Beef Wellington. Ross showed me how to make it.
Ross: Most musicians are good cooks. I don’t know why.
Ali: I think it’s a good thing to shut your brain off.
PT: Is there a song, tune or musical passage that brings a tear to your eye?
Ross: I like The Brecker Brothers’, Song for Barry or Big Country by Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.
Ali: It’s Sigur Rós albums for me. I’m really into Icelandic artists. Ólafur Arnalds’ Living Room Songs – it’s just him playing the piano and a few strings. You can hear it creaking like you’re sitting next to him. That is amazing.
Ross: Also that [Moving Hearts] track, Tribute To Peadar O’Donnell. I just love it.
PT: Is there a song or tune you’d be quite happy to never hear again?
Ross: Glasgow City Police Pipers.
Ali: That’s a good answer.
Ross: How about Pumpkin’s Fancy (laughs). I loved it when I was younger.
Ali: That’s tough.
Ross: Highland Cathedral.
Ali: Now that’s a pretty good answer.
PT: What do your friends appreciate most about you?
Ross: My cooking.
Ali: Oh, I dunno. Ask them.
PT: Doing all the things that it takes to be successful professional musicians can’t be easy. How does that impact you on a personal level?
Ali: It’s interesting that talk of mental health is quite prominent now, especially as it’s associated with music. We were talking a wee bit about this the other day – unexpectedly – when we were talking about Gordon. It was quite nice to talk about things that we often shy away from.
PT: Mental health is a much more open subject now. Do you think we’re in a different place as a society when it comes to helping people who struggle?
Ross: Because we’re more open and a lot of people talk about addictions and mental health problems, I think there’s more help there now than even 10 years ago.
Ali: It’s the talking about things. That’s what’s important. On whatever level it’s good to discuss things. When you’re in close relationships in bands and all that, it’s better to be open because it makes for an easier situation for everyone – more comfortable and more productive. If people are aware that they can speak to each other, it’s important for people and the working environment.
PT: There’s no doubt that alcohol, for example, is a common thing around us – especially in the piping world.
Ali: A nice thing to understand: we did one tour when I decided not to drink at all to try to help Ross. And it was great. It was a realisation for me that you really don’t need it to have a good gig and feel good about the music. There’s a reason you play music and that happened before you had a drink.
PT: You’re busy in March, touring away. What else have you got planned?
Ross: We’ll have another album next year and a couple of singles this year.
Ali: We quite enjoyed doing the songs at the [Celtic Connections] gig. So maybe more of that. It’s nice to try out new things with people
PT: So the sky’s the limit – not talking Portree.
Ali: (laughs) Skye is the limit! That’s our first gig!
PT: Well, thanks to you both and break a leg. •
From Piping Today #95 (2019).