Albannach band members from left are Donnie MacNeil, Great Highland Pipe; Jamesie Johnston, Bass Drum; Nicky Watson, Lead Drums; Jaqueline Holland, Bass Drum; and Drew Reid, Didgeridoo. Milton Young photo

I have always been very fond of all things Celtic (musically speaking, that is) and even visited Scotland back in 1990, a trip I shall never forget. So when I learned that Albannach was going to be coming back to the Somerset Abbey on June 8, I immediately looked to get a phone interview. Stacy O’Brien, my contact at the Abbey, suggested I get in touch with Jamesie Johnston, the bass drummer in the group, to set something up. … A call to Scotland was a bit out of my price range, so he told me (via an email) that he’d be coming stateside in early May and we could talk then. When he landed, he gave me a number to call and access to the band’s website so I could prep for our chat (which happened on May 8). I called that number and began by asking how he was doing after that long flight over to the U.S. … James, as he likes to be called, responded in an accent that I had adapted to those many years ago.
Johnston: I’m hanging out, man, just trying to get my feet under me after a long time in Scotland, ya know, coming back here.

Q: You know, when I saw the area code on this number, I realized that we’re almost neighbors!
Johnston: (Laughter) Yeah, I’m in New Hampshire, buddy. I’ve been here, on and off, for 20 years now.

Q: Really?!
Johnston: Yeah, you know how it goes, Lucky. I met a blond, American woman and the rest is history (laughter).

Q: Well, I was looking at Albannach’s tour schedule and saw that you’ll be in Maine twice: in Old Orchard Beach on the 3rd of June and in Madison on the 8th, I believe.
Johnston: Yeah, that sounds about right.

Q: Do you hit Maine every time you come stateside?
Johnston: We don’t go up to Maine that much at all.

Q: Well, at least you’re coming to Madison this time around.
Johnston: Stacy, the woman there, had seen us play up at the New Hampshire Highland Games, and she approached us up there. She said she put on music shows in an old abbey in Madison, Maine. We didn’t know where that was, but we said, “Yeah, we’ll come; we’ll do it. I like what you’re doing: putting on music for the locals, getting them out and all congregating in one place for live music. So, yeah, we’re down with that!”


Q: How did it go?
Johnston: I enjoyed myself last year. They were good hosts, really treated us so well, looked after the band. Gee, my band stayed there four or five days, I think.

Q: Will this show coming up in June be your second or third time there?
Johnston: This would be the second time, Lucky. Last year was quite a decent little crowd of local people that turned up for it. Hopefully we can build on that and have more people there, ya know? When you see an advertisement for a Scottish band that plays tribal bagpipes and drums, I would think that if you’re a local you’re taking a gamble on coming out to see that. I don’t want to be selling myself short here, but it’s not your everyday type of music, is it.

Q: No, not in the least! But when I was in Scotland back in 1990, I just loved the sound of the pipes and drums. It really touched something deep inside me. It is very goosebumps-inducing, to say the least. It is tribal, but also, at the heart of it, it is primal, if you know what I mean. It may be genetic; I have no way of knowing.
Johnston: I like it when you use the word “primal” because I like to use primal more so than “tribal.” You see a lot of bands using the word tribal, and it started to annoy me, so I’m using primal a lot more. And when we play, we’re tapping into something I can’t put my finger on. We’re not playing pipes and drums in a regimental style the way that everyone tends to see it; we’re doing it in a very primal and a very aggressive way. It sparks something inside ya, and it sparks something in all the people that come to watch us. You can see it happening — you can see it going across their faces, you can see it running through their bodies, and I don’t know what it is, Lucky.

Q: I don’t either, James, but I know I feel it when I hear what you are doing on stage.
Johnston: Yeah, that sound ignites some level of fire in you, and that’s what I see in the audiences. It’s something in the DNA, something in the genes, something primal is ignited by the type of music that we’re playing.

Q: And when I’m watching the videos of Albannach performing in front of those crowds of people, I can also see that fire is embodied in all the band members. You exude it, and that, in turn, just compounds the over-all effect of what you’re creating.
Johnston: They are instruments of war. There are no two ways about it. The bagpipe is an instrument of war. It’s been that way for hundreds and hundreds of years, and not just in Scotland, a goatskin bag with a couple of drones on it has been played in all sorts of countries. Scotland just has the reputation of the pipes. And that’s what it does for me, Lucky. When we go on the stage and Donald (MacNeil) starts his bagpipes up, it winds me up in a ball of fury, ya know?

Q: Another aspect of your band’s sound is a rhythmic one. There’s a lot of variety there, you would think that it would be repetitious with just pipes and drums, but that isn’t the case at all.
Johnston: Well, that’s the big challenge isn’t it, Lucky. We don’t have electric guitars; we don’t have synthesizers or keyboards or bass guitars or saxophones. We don’t have all of that stuff. We have four or five drums, a bagpipe and a didgeridoo, which freaks people out (chuckle). So how do you hold an audience for 45 minutes or an hour just playing those instruments? There’s your challenge, and I think we’ve done really well, because we have a great bagpiper who is capable of writing fantastic tunes which will cover a spectrum. He can write the slow stuff and he can write the fast, foot-stomping stuff as well. And then, put on top of that, we have an extremely gutsy lead drummer who can handle any type of music — rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, which I know is one of his big influences — Celtic music, he can play any type of that, and he hammers his drums so hard for us. That’s how we do it, because we have that combination of Donald and Nicky (Watson), who can keep things flowing for us and keep things different so that we can play 45 minutes to an hour of tunes without them sounding exactly the same.

Q: However it’s described or played, your music touches something deep in the listener that is, indeed, primal. So to wrap up this chat, is there anything, James that you’d like me to pass on to the folks reading this article?
Johnston: Yes, it’s a good family event, and I think that’s one of the wonderful things about the Celtic music scene, you don’t have to worry about bringing your kids out. There’s no drug use or fights breaking out; it’s family oriented. That’s what I’d like to get across to people. It’s fun for all the family and a great day out for everyone. It’s cool to be Celtic!

Lucky Clark, a 2018 “Keeping the Blues Alive” Award winner, has spent more than 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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