IF you associate bagpipes with the sound you might get if you strangle a cat, Willie Armstrong would not blame you.

The director of Red Hot Chilli Pipers has been playing the bagpipes since he was 12 but reckons around 80 per cent of musicians play them out of tune.

He said: “It only takes the bagpipes to be slightly out of tune for it to sound terrible.

“The favourite saying that I hear all the time about bagpipes is that it sounds like a cat getting strangled and to be honest that’s what it sounds like to me too even when it’s a tiny bit out of tune.”

Now, 17 years after his band invented ‘bagrock’ – a unique fusion of traditional Scottish music and rock and pop anthems – Willie hopes that the instrument is less misunderstood and more credible.

He added: “I’d like to think one of the legacies of being in the Red Hot Chilli Pipers would be encouraging more young people to pick up and play bagpipes and making them a wee bit cooler. Because certainly when I was at school it was all the guys with their guitars who did well with girls. I was on my bagpipes. Certainly none of that was happening for me.”

The Red Hot Chilli Pipers formed in 2002 and had no idea that their shows – originally for weddings and corporate dos – would eventually lead them all over the world and put them in front of more than one million music lovers.

The group was first exposed to huge crowds when they were invited to perform alongside The Darkness at T in the Park in 2004.

Then in 2007, they were one of the winners of BBC’s short lived talent show, When Will I Be Famous?

Willie, who played the Scottish pipes on the soundtrack to the Disney Pixar’s Brave, said: “That was massive. It was round about the time The X Factor and all that was getting big. We were playing in front of 8.9 million people on a Saturday night. It grew exponentially after that.

“I’m on tour now in Germany actually. I’ve been here for five weeks. It’s totally mad. We have to remind ourselves sometimes that it’s bagpipes we’re playing. I don’t think this has ever been done before. We’re touring all the time.

“When we come back from Germany, we’ve got eight dates in England, then we’ve got a Scottish tour and then we go to America.”

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In the same year the band’s album, Bagrock to the Masses, was gold certified with more than 100,000 UK sales. But Willie’s life did not change overnight. In fact, after winning the BBC competition he went back to work.

The 54-year-old added: “It doesn’t happen in the blink of an eye so you have time to adjust. We did that on the Saturday and I was back home on the Monday. I was a fireman at the time in Glasgow so I went back to work on Monday like normal.

“Although we were in demand we had everyday lives to go back to so it took a while for it all to come together. When it comes to the touring aspect, there was so much to learn. There’s sound engineers and tour managers and all sorts of other things you have to take in.

“We didn’t win the competition and go out into the world.”

Since then, one of Red Hot Chilli Pipers’ biggest crowds was at the BBC Proms at Hyde Park in 2013.

Willie said: “You turn around and there are 70,000 people watching you. I know they’re not there to see me – they’re there for the festival as a whole – but it’s still a massive audience to play in front of and sometimes you do pinch yourself.”

Not bad for a group who initially squeezed rock melodies into their sets to stop their audiences switching off.

Willie, who has been applauded by the Queen and tweeted about by Samuel L Jackson added: “After a while people just turn off. With bagpipes it can become a noise.

“So to pimp it up we’d incorporate little bits of rock tunes just for a laugh – for our own entertainment as much as anything. People’s ears would instantly prick up. You can’t play the rock tune all the way through because that’s karaoke bag pipes but if you play a wee segment of a rock tune and then go back into your songs it kind of ‘cleans’ the audience’s ears and they start to pay attention again.”

Now the band have around 200 songs in their repertoire, including their viral cover of the Avicci track, Wake Me Up, which has more than 3.5million views on YouTube. Willie’s favourite is more in the rock category though.

He said: “We Will Rock You is very anthemic and we still play that and then we go into Eye of the Tiger.

“I like that as it encapsulates what the show is about. Always by that point you’ve got the crowd hooked and they’re clapping their hands and stamping their feet.”

Meanwhile, Willie’s biggest brush with fame was when Ewan McGregor booked the band for his Burn’s Supper in London.

He added: “He used to play drums in a pipe band so he joined us on stage for a little while and then after the show Paul McCartney came over to me. I was talking to my wife on the phone at the time and I turned around and there he was. That was a big thing for me as Mull of Kintyre was one of things that got me playing the bagpipes.

“He also ended up taking the phone and speaking to my wife Anna. So one minute she was doing the ironing in Glasgow the next she’s speaking to Paul McCartney.

“He said that he liked her name and that Anna was a Beatles song. That was totally surreal and my wife still dines out on that story after all these years.”

Red Hot Chilli Pipers perform at the Parr Hall on Saturday, November 23. Visit parrhall.culturewarrington.org or call 442345.