When he founded the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, Stuart Cassells created the biggest Scottish music act on the planet. He tells Peter Ranscombe that he’s now turning his attention from the bagpipes to another national symbol – whisky.
Ask most wee boys what they want to do when they grow up and they’ll probably tell you they’re going to be a farmer or a firefighter or a footballer. When Stuart Cassells was nine years old though, he had a completely different idea. “I wanted to be the most famous bagpipe player in the world,” laughs Cassells, who is now general manager of both the Famous Grouse Experience visitors’ centre and Glenturret distillery near Crieff in Perthshire. “That’s not the same thing as being the best bagpipe player in the world.”
After being named BBC Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year and becoming the first bagpipe graduate from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama (RSAMD), Cassells was well on his way to achieving that goal. Born and bred in Falkirk, he began performing at Scottish music shows five nights a week for American tourists when he was just 12.
Cassells initially forged a career playing the pipes at corporate events throughout Scotland and acting as an agent for ceilidh bands and other musicians. His early influences included bagpipers like Gordon Duncan, Fred Morrison and Allan MacDonald, part of a new wave of musicians who began playing their instruments in a more modern style.
“Up until that point, the bagpipes’ association with the military was so strong that the only time people heard the instrument was at Highland games, parades or formal occasions and people thought you had to march around and wear a uniform,” he explains. “But the bagpipes were never invented to be a military instrument; they were a shepherd’s instrument, a folk instrument.”
Cassells’s bagpipe heroes were heavily influenced by Celtic music in general and Irish music in particular, which had become very popular in the 1980s, along with the Asturian and Galician styles of piping from Spain and the Breton form from France. “They were bending or swerving notes, they were using vibrato, they were sliding from note to note,” Cassells remembers. “Traditionalists didn’t approve of this style of piping at all, but people like me in the generation that followed absolutely loved it.
“There was a group doing corporate events called the Gutty Slippers, who also played at Paul Gascoigne’s wedding and who started off busking in Glasgow. Busking is a great training ground for doing corporate events because you very quickly learn what audiences like.
“If someone pays to come and see you play at a concert then they’ve already invested money and they’re there to have a good time. But if you’re playing at a corporate event then the audience aren’t necessarily on your side – they sit with their arms folded and dare you to entertain them.
“The Gutty Slippers would be the first to admit that they weren’t the best musicians, but I loved their showmanship. So I began to wonder what it would be like if you could put together a group of good musicians and get them to play in that modern style. Essentially, what I wanted to do was to play the bagpipes like you would play an electric guitar – a far more relaxed style.”
During the winter of 2002, Cassells and his then girlfriend were tidying his student flat
in Glasgow. “She was arranging the CDs for me in genres because they were lying all over the floor,” he says. “Once I’d finished tidying the bathroom, I went back through to the lounge to see how she was getting on and she’d put bagpipe CDs in one part, rock and roll CDs in another, jazz in another, folk music CDs all together.
“But in amongst all the bagpiping CDs there was a Red Hot Chilli Peppers album and I asked her why she’d put it next to all of the bagpiping CDs. She said she thought it said ‘Red Hot Chilli Pipers’ and at that moment the penny dropped and something clicked – and I thought ‘That’s the name for this idea’.
“By that point it was 1am, but I phoned up one of my friends, Willie Armstrong, who I thought would be interested in joining this mad venture and at first he thought I was crazy but when I told him the name he thought it was genius.”
After putting together the original line-up for the band, Cassells used his contacts in the corporate events industry to book their first gigs, which they did for free to gain experience and try out the concept. “One of the original members packed it in after doing gig five for free and said it would never go anywhere,” Cassells smiles. “I think he now feels like the fifth Beatle.”
The Red Hot Chilli Pipers quickly established themselves as a regular turn on the corporate events scene, both in the UK and further afield. But the big break that pushed the band firmly into the public eye came in 2007 when the group won the BBC One talent show When Will I Be Famous. They went from providing the entertainment at black-tie business dinners to filling theatres and playing headline gigs at music festivals throughout Europe.
During Cassells’s final year with the band, they played 300 gigs, with two or three line-ups playing at different venues on the same night. “It became a brand, which I never imagined at the beginning,” he admits. “During my final year, our turnover was more than £1 million. I think the band is the most successful in Scotland at the moment – other bands, like Deacon Blue, are better-known, but they’re not playing nearly as many gigs.
“The vision for the pipers was that one day we would have a run at Las Vegas. The band hasn’t quite had a run at Las Vegas yet; I thought we were getting close when we were in New York playing BB King’s blues club on 42nd Street with our names up in lights on Broadway.
“The band still tours throughout America, playing to crowds of 3,000 or 4,000 people each night and to 30,000 to 100,000 people at festivals. Germany is the other big market – between Germany and America, the two biggest music markets in the world, the band plays 35 weeks per year.”
Cassells’s career as a bagpiper was cut short in 2011 after he was diagnosed with “focal dystonia”, more commonly known as writers’ cramp or musicians’ cramp or golfers’ yips. “It’s due to a misfiring of neurons in the sensory motor cortex,” he explains. “Basically the brain sends too many signals or the wrong signals to the hands and the muscles don’t work in the same way that they used to fire.
“It typically affects people who are using fine motor control, so whether that’s writing or playing a musical instrument, but I’ve also met dentists and surgeons who have been afflicted with this condition and they’ve had to retire. You have hand spasms and you don’t have the same dexterity or fine motor control.”
Faced with not being able to earn his living through playing the pipes, Cassells sat down
to plan his next move. He had already become a regular host of music programmes for the BBC and so a career as a broadcaster seemed like a possibility. Yet a second option held even greater appeal – a career in the whisky industry.
During the early days of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, the band had undertaken a lot of corporate work in Asia for Pernod Ricard, the French spirits giant that owns Chivas Brothers, Scotland’s second-largest whisky distiller and the company behind brands including Ballantine’s, Chivas Regal and The Glenlivet.
“I spoke to a few people in the whisky industry who I knew through performing and they all told me that I didn’t have any experience and that there were no whisky jobs I could get,” he says. “When I applied for jobs, they took one look at my CV and saw a musician. Then a friend pointed out an advert for the Saltire Fellowship, a training programme run by the Saltire Foundation – now part of Entrepreneurial Scotland – that sends promising entrepreneurs to Babson College in the United States to undertake intense business training before bringing their skills back to Scotland.
“I was the ‘wildcard’ in my cohort,” Cassells laughs. “There were finance guys and legal guys, a couple of tech guys, a couple of life science guys and girls, and here was me coming from a music background. Being the brains behind a band required sales and marketing skills and the ability to deal with agents in different countries.
“You’ve got a product, which is the band or the music, and you’re trying to sell that into agents in different regions in the same way that you would do with any other Scottish product, from shortbread to whisky,” he adds.
After studying at Babson for eight months, Cassells completed the two mandatory pieces of hands-on project work, the first involving ecommerce for the National Trust for Scotland in New York and the second back in Scotland with Edrington, Scotland’s fourth-largest distiller and the maker of whiskies including The Famous Grouse, Highland Park and The Macallan.
Cassells was tasked with looking at the stock model for the Glenturret distillery, which makes an eponymous single malt whisky used in the blending of The Famous Grouse and for bulk sale to other blenders. “I built a model that showed if we sold the stock as cases rather than in bulk then it would generate four-to-five times more profit for the business,” he says. “So at the end of my project they said ‘Give it a try’.
“So I set up a project within Edrington called Whisky Gems and we did retailer exclusives and worked with independent bottlers that allowed us to take excess whisky and sell it as cased goods. We achieved a lot higher profit than we predicted – six-to-seven times more profit than selling in bulk in tankers.”
Whisky Gems has generated £2m of profit over the past two-and-a-half years and so Cassells has now been asked to develop the concept across other parts of Edrington’s business. Somewhere along the way, Cassells also picked up a further two jobs with Edrington – running both The Famous Grouse Experience and Glenturret distillery. The Famous Grouse Experience is Scotland’s most-visited whisky-related tourist attraction and carries a five-star rating from VisitScotland, the national tourism agency. The experience is based at Glenturret, Scotland’s oldest distillery, which traces its roots back to 1775.
“Once I took over The Famous Grouse Experience, I began to realise the potential of The Glenturret as a whisky,” he explains. “There hadn’t been much of a focus on Glenturret distillery up until that point because it was so small, so niche, so craft. But craft distilleries and craft whiskies are on the rise and so I saw there was an opportunity.
“We relaunched The Glenturret single malt whisky on 5 November, 2015, with a new range of bottlings.
“We took all of the complexity of Glenturret away from the main business so it didn’t take up resources. Glenturret is unique – it now sits outside Edrington as an incubated brand and is being looked after by distributors Gordon & Macphail in the UK and Douglas Laing in Europe and beyond.”
While much of Scotland’s whisky industry is now based around automation and large-scale production, many of the processes used to make Glenturret are still carried out by hand. “Glenturret is probably the most-expensive whisky in Scotland to make,” admits Cassells.
“It’s three-times more expensive to produce than any of the big brands of whisky. Because we’re growing from such a low base, I can confidently say that we’re also the fastest-growing whisky brand in Scotland at the moment. But we have ambitions to scale the brand up to ten-times the current volume within three years.”
Cassells sees lots of connections between his two careers: “Whisky is very similar to music in that you’re telling stories connected to a specific area,” he explains. “Depending on which whisky region you’re from, you’re also very passionate about your distillery, your history, the way you make whisky, the people who are involved in it; there’s a lot of correlations between whisky and music. You’re basically selling Scotland, which is what I felt I was always best at.”