Ashleigh Prince spoke with Willie Armstrong from The Red Hot Chilli Pipers about the effect that the pandemic had on live music, the Chilli’s famous fans and the brand new show they have in store! Read on for highlights from the interview, or listen to the full interview below. Then tune in to Talk of the Commonwealth with Hank Stolz on WCRN 830AM Fridays at 9 AM and Saturdays at 1 PM for more behind-the-scenes interviews.
Ashleigh: Hello everyone and welcome back to another exciting episode of Behind The Scenes with The Hanover Theatre. Today we have a very special guest, Willie Armstrong, the founding member and director of The Red Hot Chilli Pipers. Hello Willie!
Willie: Hello Ashleigh, how are you doing?
Ashleigh: I am doing well, I am doing very well. Things are a little frigid here in New England, so I think it is time to heat things up with The Red Hot Chilli Pipers! I am very excited because The Red Hot Chilli Pipers this March will be my first Chilli Piper’s show ever. I do know that you have been to The Hanover Theatre many many many times before, so we are excited to welcome you back.
Willie: That’s good to hear! It’s just amazing to come back out and start playing live music again after the tough two years that everybody’s had. Seriously, I can’t wait!
Ashleigh: Yeah absolutely! I know that pre-pandemic you were enjoying gold and platinum albums, collaborating with music stars like Tom Walker and Ed Sheeran and having an average of 200 gigs per year. I mean, that’s just incredible.
Willie: Yeah, it was strange you know because it became your way of life. You just put your pipes in the case, got to the airport, travelled, played your gigs, came back home for a day or two and then went back. I would say you’re on a treadmill, so suddenly that was caught off guard. Obviously, no one had any pre-conceived idea when we came off tour and it was the start of the pandemic, that would be more than 2 or 3 weeks. Then after that we thought “Well okay, maybe it’s going to be two months, three months,” and obviously here we are two years later. It’s such a relief to get it back up and running. Any time I take an interview, when people say to me “how did you get on during the pandemic?”… Well, I lost a lot of money and I lost a lot of work, but I never actually lost anyone close to me because of coronavirus. I didn’t get it, so I always count my blessings and I always feel sorry for people who have lost family members. They’ve had a much tougher time than I have so it’s all relative, isn’t it?
Ashleigh: Absolutely, I was an intern with The Hanover Theatre in 2020. I was with them in the office from January to March, then we closed down, and I continued remotely until May. We just re-opened to the public in June of 2021, so it’s been such a rollercoaster ride these past few years and we are really excited to have our audience back in our seats and having so much fun.
Willie: I think the live music scene is such an important part of everybody’s life. Not even just for musicians like us — I mean, not that we ever lost the actual playing side of it — I really missed the actual gigs. I went to see a band called The 1975 in Glastonbury the night before the world closed down and that was my last live gig until I’ve played myself. I think the audience missed it, I miss it, everybody missed it and it’s such a relief to get it back up and running again.
Ashleigh: It certainly is. I know that you’ve had sold out tours in the U.K., the U.S.A., China, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and so on! I just think that transitioning from being at home and being in quarantine, then to jumping right back into the swing of things is obviously a lot to reacclimate to. I’m curious, how has everything been so far?
Willie: Well, I’m going to say something really strange. Pardon the pun, I was on the bandwagon and constantly having gigs and traveling. It wasn’t until it was forced upon me that I took the time to actually reflect. I was a fireman for 27 years and I retired from that 6 years ago. While I was still a fireman, I was doing the band, so I was working 120 hours a week sometimes. It was mad! So, it was a sensitive week for me actually to be able to sit down, my phone wasn’t ringing and there were no phone calls or emails. Just as I sat down, I started reading books and I started to learn how to play the guitar. It was just innocently getting through the days. I must admit, strangely, I quite enjoyed it. It was a breath of fresh air for me because I’ve been so busy up until the point where it was forced upon me. After two years and what not, it’s like “okay let’s get back to work,” and now that were back up and running again, it is such a joy. I remember I played “Through and Faith” in Scotland, and remember I played in front of the first big live audience sold-out show, so that’s what I was missing it’s just amazing. I spoke to some people in the audience after the show, they felt the same. A massive part of their lives had been missing.
Ashleigh: Right, I know there were numerous artists that were taking that time during the pandemic to work on new music and working on their skills by learning new instruments, like you said. I think that were really excited to see what happens to this show when you return March 12! I went and did some digging prior to this interview, and I happened to notice you have some very big fans including Ewan McGregor – a personal favorite of mine – Sir Paul McCartney, Her Majesty the Queen, Samuel L. Jackson; I mean that is quite the following that you have. Not to mention the 350,000 Facebook followers and 3.5 million viewers on YouTube, The Red Hot Chilli Pipers are on fire!
Willie: Yes, Ewan McGregor actually played with the band. He was brought up in Scotland and he played in a local pipe band. He’s quite a good snare drummer. We played at a big party in London for Bond’s night and he asked us – I felt such a strange grace of the great Ewan McGregor, it was just before the “Star Wars” thing kicked off for him – he asked if we wouldn’t mind if he played drums. Our drummer goes “Can you play?” and Ewan was like “Yeah, yeah I can play.” He came on the stage and played the snare drum, and it was just totally amazing. I got a great picture of that. Paul McCartney, he was obviously drawn to the band because he had the great number one “Mull of Kintyre” and had a local pipe band playing on it. He loves the bag pipes, and he just comes across as such a lovely guy. At the end of the year, I got both of their autographs and they’re so hard to get they just don’t do it anymore. Somebody told me that they’ll be worth quite a lot of money – obviously I’m not going to sell them – but I took them off the wall and put them in the safe.
Ashleigh: Wow, I would be totally starstruck, that is just incredible! I think that’s just amazing, and I’m wondering what is the connection with Samuel L. Jackson?
Willie: He tweeted about us. He had just saw a tv program and tweeted a thing like, “Red Hot Chilli Piper’s, I never knew there was such a thing, but wow I’m blown away!” Somebody phoned me and said “Did you know that Samuel. L Jackson tweeted you?” So, somebody went back to the tweet and says “Don’t you mean the Red Hot Chilli Peppers?” and then he went “No, The Red Hot Chilli Pipers.” It’s amazing, eh?
Ashleigh: It is, that’s awesome! If he wants to come and drop by The Hanover Theatre, he’s more than welcome to join us, we’ll save seats!
Willie: Right in the front row.
Ashleigh: Oh yeah, right in the front. We’ll roll out the red carpet. For our audience that are new fans, what is the some of the music we can look forward to in the show? What can we look forward to hearing in terms of artists, songs, etc.?
Willie: You’ll have 50/50, its fifty percent Scottish traditional music but also with the backing of an amazing rock band. There’s a percussionist and a drum kit, so there’s a lot of percussion. In the background, there’s a fantastic light show to look forward to. It’s not just an audio pleasure, it’s a visual pleasure as well. We always say it’s more of a show than a concept or a gig. The show tells this one story where you won’t get bored, cause people say “I don’t know, two hours worth of bag pipes? That’s a bit much,” but were not like that. We play traditional Scottish tunes, but the clever thing we do is a musical term called a segway. We avoid karaok, anyone can do that, anybody can pick up bag pipes and play “We Will Rock You” from start to finish. Believe me, after a minute of that you’d be saying “is there anything else?” so we avoid that.
We call them covers but they’re also interspersed by clever musicians, Scottish musicians. All these musicians on stage are all top-grade pipers, drummers, guitarists, and absolutely handpicked. That also goes to the technicians, they transmit the sound to the audience, so everything’s well thought of.Willie Armstrong
Willie: Bands like Coldplay, we play a lot of Coldplay numbers. Obviously Queen with “We Will Rock You,” we play eight bars of that. Survivor, we got a lot of American influence here and play “Eye of The Tiger.” It’s such an interesting thing and it’s been tried and tested, it’s not like we just jumped off a plane and jumped on stage at The Hanover. The audience is always blown away. We’ve got a whole new show coming this time, so there’s eight new numbers in there and the lighting show is amazing. You can imagine we didn’t have much else to do, so we just rehearsed and rehearsed and now we are good to go. Can’t wait!
Ashleigh: It’s going to be amazing! I hope that everyone is putting it in their calendars now because you do not want to miss this on March 12. If anyone is interested in learning more about The Red Hot Chilli Pipers, you can check them out on YouTube. It’s unlike anything else we have in our season. Get your tickets today at TheHanoverTheatre.org or contact 877.571.SHOW (7469) for more information.
Willie: Thank you!