Big Big Train's Greg Spawton: The (2nd) Daily Vault Interview
(Photo by Simon Hogg)
Big Big Train and I first made our acquaintance nearly a decade ago when a copy of The Difference Machine (2007) landed in my mailbox and captured me completely. One listen and I was a fan; here was a group that put a modern spin on the best elements of classic progressive rock, while imbuing the imaginative compositions of co-founder/songwriter/guitarist Greg Spawton with rich layers of emotion. From that point the band, anchored by Spawton and co-founder Andy Poole, began a steady evolution and growth. The Underfall Yard (2009), the first BBT album to feature vocalist/flautist/songwriter David Longdon, drummer Nick D’Virgilio (ex-Spock’s Beard), and guitarist David Gregory (ex-XTC) as members, remains my favorite prog album of this century.
Even as the group embarked on the fertile creative cycle that produced the Far Skies Deep Time EP (2010), English Electric I (2012), English Electric II (2013), the Make Some Noise EP (2013), the double-disc English Electric: Full Power collection (2013), the Wassail EP (2015) and the group’s first live performances in almost two decades, it continued to grow, adding Danny Manners on keys, Rachel Hall on violin, and Rikard Sjöblom (Beardfish) on guitar and keys. Poole rounds out the eight-strong core lineup on keys and acoustic guitar, with multi-instrumentalist Spawton having moved over to Poole’s former role on the bass. And then there’s the brass section, used strategically to further strengthen and vary the band’s sonic palette.
The now big big group’s new album Folklore features more of the historical narratives that they’ve proven so adept at crafting into compelling tales full of drama and emotion, while venturing a step father to consider how and why stories and legends come into being. It arrives on the heels of BBT’s Stone and Steel Blu-ray release, which documents both the band’s preparations for and several performances from its triumphant August 2015 London gigs (nominated in the Live Event category for the 2016 Progressive Music Awards). All in all, it’s a great time to be a Passenger, as fans of BBT are known.
The last time I interviewed Greg almost four years ago, English Electric I had just been released, and Big Big Train was still officially a quintet, so we had much ground to cover during our recent conversation.
[Editor’s Note: As before, this interview was conducted by e-mail, resulting in many English spellings (organisational, realised, programme, etc.) making their way into the text. These have been preserved for authenticity, and should be read aloud in your best imitation of Benedict Cumberbatch for full effect.]
Daily Vault: Last time we talked, English Electric I had just come out. Since then the group has issued a stack of albums and EPs, played its first live gigs in 17 years, released the Stone And Steel Blu-ray disc, and now has just come out with the new album Folklore. During the same period, the group also expanded from five to eight members in the core lineup, which now features musicians living in three different countries on two different continents—and you’re an independent, self-managed band. All of which inspires a question before we even get to the music: do you dream in spreadsheets?
Greg Spawton: The organisational and self-management input we have to put in to the band has increased hugely in recent years, to the extent that it does become a struggle at the times when we are most busy. We got very good at making, releasing and promoting albums but the move back into live work and into producing visual media has added several layers of complexity. The trade-off is that for the extra work and hassle of doing everything for ourselves, we have complete control of all the things we do. And, most importantly, we are not, as a business, having to pay promoters, managers and record company overheads. It is hard to make a living in the music industry and the more activity you outsource the harder it gets.
Having said all that, we are in the process of sorting a venue out for next year's gigs and when I was going through the paperwork for the venue (red tape! bureaucracy!) I must confess that my heart did sink a little.
(l to r) Rachel Hall, Andy Poole, Danny Manners, David Longdon, Nick D'Virgilio, Dave Gregory, Greg Spawton, Rikard Sjöblom
(Photo by Simon Hogg)
It's a bit of both. From The Underfall Yard onwards, our studio releases had moved away from the traditional rock band restrictions and we made the songs so that they sounded as close as possible to what we were hearing in our heads. So, alongside the brass and strings, we would often have two guitar or two keyboard parts at any one time. When we came to play these things live, we took the view that we should try to play the songs as written rather than strip out some of the layers. This meant we had to expand the band to represent the depth and complexity in the arrangements.
Now, having seen the band in action and how we can deploy the musicians in different ways, we have been able to tweak the writing and make sure we play to our various strengths. We were planning to release an EP next year, but ended up with quite a lot of new material so decided to write some more and make a companion album instead. We are letting our hair down a little on this album and I have been able to write something which requires two excellent keyboard players. I am not sure I would have written the song in that way before Rikard joined alongside Danny, giving us access to two highly technical players.
One other thing I should mention is that we have played a couple of acoustic shows in the last few months and it has been interesting to see how a song like “Wassail” can be stripped of its rock stylings back to its folk roots. Good songs should work with different arrangements.
Very true. Coming back to Folklore, I wanted to take a minute to ask about the roots of the album’s themes. English Electric, like The Underfall Yard before it, largely focused on the lives and experiences of the working people who built England. Folklore similarly looks to history for inspiration. It feels like there’s a certain aspect of archaeology to your songs, an effort to unearth untold or neglected stories from the past and bring them to light. Do you agree, and where do you think the desire to do that comes from?
Yes, that is certainly what drives us. I spent a few years in the early part of the band's history not really having a clear idea about what worked best for BBT and for me as a songwriter. So the earlier material is a bit more scattergun, including a “divorce” album with English Boy Wonders. Looking back, there were a few things that hinted at what we would turn our minds to later on; “The Last English King” off Bard, for example. And when I came to write The Underfall Yard album, it all just became really obvious. I have a background in archaeology and history, so why not use it in the songs? Luckily, my songwriting partner David, who joined on that album, had a similar interest in telling stories with songs and a strong connection to the landscape and to local history tales, so we explored that approach together on English Electric and Folklore. The next album we do will be the last in this vein for a while though. After that we have a concept album and then we will see where we are with things.
Very interesting! The new album in some ways digs even deeper than the last few, examining the origins of much of the historical knowledge we have today: the storytelling tradition itself. The title song “Folklore” suggests that as stories are passed down from generation to generation, becoming legend, they can achieve a kind of immortality (“For it is said, so it lives on / We pass it down, it carries on…”). Which feels like it might be both an observation and perhaps, as storytellers yourselves, an aspiration of sorts.
On Folklore, we started off with the premise that we would tell some stories which either had a basis in folklore or which we felt may take on elements of folklore in future years. We then started to think about how stories become folklore and the process of communication of these tales. Some of the latest research suggests that the most ancient folk tales are around 6,000 years old which, in human terms, is a very long time indeed. There is now so much information and so much communication and it may be that the number of stories are overwhelming and don't take root like the older tales, but my hunch is that humans need stories which bring us together and that new folklore will continue to be created.
I think your hunch is correct—we may be witnessing changes in the mechanics of how stories are shared, but the desire to pass them on seems very strong still. A great example of the approach you described, and one of my favorite tracks on Folklore, is “London Plane,” which moves between a lyrical narration of historical events, and a heavy jam in the middle that feels like it represents the frenetic swirl of activity all around the tree as it lives on through the centuries. The emotion David invests in the closing line “I still reach for the day’s last light” feels like it encompasses the entire sweep of history witnessed by this one tree.
The instrumental section in “London Plane” was very much planned as part of the narrative of the song. The last historical event mentioned before that section is the sinking of the Princess Alice in the late 19th century. The instrumental passage was intended to convey the bedlam of the first half of the 20th century, with two world wars and huge social change. When David comes back in with the continuation of the vocal narrative, he describes another 20 years in just four lines, from the end of the war through to the Festival of Britain and the death of Winston Churchill. The London Plane tree in the song experiences the passing of time in a very different way from human beings, so I was able to take quite a long view in the song. David imbued the vocals with the right sense of gravitas. We are not young men, and I am not sure how it would have sounded with a young person's voice.
Fair point. Speaking as a greybeard myself, I loved it. Another favorite on the new album is “The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun,” which has a really magnificent core melody but also a number of interesting digressions and bits that seem to flow seamlessly together. I do want to encourage readers to visit the excellent blogs that you and David wrote explaining the origins of each of the songs on Folklore, but for those who may not venture that far: how did “Transit” come together?
When I was growing up in England in the ’70’s, there was a very restricted choice of just three television channels. This did make for a good national conversation, as large numbers of people would watch the same things. One of the characters who seemed ever-present in those days was Patrick Moore, who was the presenter of a late-night show called “The Sky at Night.” Whilst the subject of the show was quite esoteric, Sir Patrick was an excellent communicator and quite a character, so his fame spread and he was a familiar presence within that national conversation. In 2004, I watched a programme about the transit of Venus across the Sun. It was filmed in the back garden of Sir Patrick's house. The transit of Venus is an intriguing and spectacular event, but I also felt that it sounded like a line of poetry or a song title, so I kept it in mind.
When I finally came to write the song more than a decade later, I started to do some research about Captain Cook's scientific expeditions to observe the transit. However, I kept coming back to Sir Patrick Moore and the song started to become about him. In the end, I focused on the impact of the loss of his fiancée who was killed in the second world war, and it became a love song.
Musically, I wanted to start the song with a brass and string passage. We return to these chords very briefly in the middle of the song and then in more grandiose style at the end. The verses feature guitar arpeggios and the choruses, piano. There are quite a few different time signatures but these are just part of the structure behind the melodies rather than being tricksy. There is a vocal build-up in the middle with some repeated lines and added harmonies. On the day we were in the studio recording the vocals, David came up with the idea of a sort of vocal chant using some of the features of Venus as words which added another layer of interest to the song. Rikard plays a blinding solo at the end. It isn't a particularly long song, seven minutes or so, but it features a lot of the things that Big Big Train does.
Funnily enough, I am writing a song for the companion album to Folklore at the moment. The song is called “Experimental Gentlemen” which is the name that Captain Cook gave to the scientists on his expeditions. So I have returned to the original idea for the lyrics for the “Transit of Venus.”
I’m also curious about “Winkie,” surely the only prog epic ever written about a heroic pigeon. The narrative part of the song is clear enough, but how did the musical part of this track—which traverses seven distinct musical segments in under nine minutes—come together?
Only a small part of songwriting is inspiration. Much of it is a hard slog of making things work so that songs form a satisfying whole. It is particularly difficult in a progressive rock context, where songs may be longer and have multiple sections. It is nice when pieces of music come together from jamming, but songs created mostly by band improvisation may lose the thread that you get when a writer is properly in charge of the material.
David did all the sweating on “Winkie.” He wrote it as if it was a short movie. I speak to him once or twice every week and I remember that we talked about “Winkie” for several weeks in a row as he described the process he was going through of getting the tempo and sectional changes right. It took him quite some time, as most of the more involved pieces do.
You and David have split the songwriting chores fairly evenly the last couple of albums. How is the dynamic with two principal songwriters now in the band? Do you contribute to one another’s songs? Do you find yourselves egging each other on in a sense, as writers?
We are a much stronger band now that there is the two of us writing. I would say that there is a degree of entirely friendly and wholly positive competitiveness between the two of us. We are not seeking to outdo each other in any way, but if David has written something great, then it spurs me on. And we do write some songs together. We have two co-writes coming up on the Grimspound album. And, whilst we do the majority of the writing, it isn't a closed shop. Nick has written two tracks for the concept album we have in the pipeline and Rachel and Rikard have both written pieces for Grimspound. Danny has also co-written something with me for that album.
That’s exciting to hear! And relates to my next question. The Stone and Steel Blu-ray release captures highlights from the rehearsals the band conducted in summer 2014, as well as several tracks from the subsequent live performances in London in August 2015. One of the remarkable things about the transformation of the band over the past decade has been how smoothly each addition to the group has integrated into the whole and, judging by the footage captured on Stone And Steel, how well everyone gets along. There is a sense of deep respect by all for both the music and one another, as well as for the ensemble nature of these songs. For a group that had never actually played in the same room prior to the rehearsals shown in Stone and Steel, they seemed to gel more or less instantly.
Everybody turned up to those rehearsals having put a lot of work into preparation. However, we hadn't played as an eight-piece before and we had never played with the brass band in the room and most of the songs had never previously been performed, so I was intrigued as to how it would come out. What was surprising was how much it sounded immediately like I expected and wanted Big Big Train to sound. Straight away it was just us. I am not sure how else it would have sounded, but I remember thinking We are standing here playing “The Underfall Yard” [a complex and challenging 23-minute epic] and it sounds just right. The other great thing that came out of the two weeks in August 2014 and 2015 was that we all got along so well. It was hard work, it was tiring, it was stressful, but we had a great time. We are just beginning the initial preparation for next year's gigs and I am looking forward to it very much.
Watching the footage from the shows at Kings Place, I also wondered how it must have felt for you as a songwriter to see big, complex, emotionally rich songs like “Victorian Brickwork” and “East Coast Racer” performed live, by a virtual rock orchestra of 13 players, to thunderous response. You obviously had to focus on keeping up your end on the bass, but were there moments on stage when you could step back for a moment and reflect on what an accomplishment this was?
Before the gigs, aside from album reviews, the only feedback we were getting from listeners was via email or social media. So we were aware that some sections in some songs were hitting home. But to get that response in the flesh is very different. One of the best things about the gigs was that there was spontaneous applause or reactions during some of the songs. It felt like a very direct validation of what we have always set out to achieve in music, which is to capture and deliver those spine-tingling moments which make music such a special art form.
The news arrived recently that Rikard Sjöblom’s group Beardfish is calling it a day. Do you have any sense yet of what this change may signal in terms of Rikard’s level of involvement with BBT in the future?
I was really sad that Beardfish decided to bring things to a close. They were a refreshingly old school band in the way that they operated and had been together since they were lads, so it must have been a very tough call. Rikard makes a living from music and he will continue to be active both in Big Big Train and on his own projects, so I don't think it will make a huge difference as Rikard is already a significant part of BBT. He brings incredible musicianship and a lovely personality and he has been there for all of our recent live shows, including the acoustic gigs we have done. I mentioned before that he had written something for the Grimspound album. It started as a 90-second acoustic guitar and piano piece. Last I heard it was a 14-minute epic. Ha ha!
That’s great! Turning back to a favorite topic of folks on the Big Big Train Facebook group, there’s been chatter there for some time now about the forthcoming Station Masters collection. Could you describe it again and give us an update on its progress?
Station Masters will be an attempt to provide an interesting overview of all of the band's music from the very early days up to the present. We are completely re-recording some songs from all of the albums up to The Underfall Yard with our lineup as it is now. Some of these will be re-worked, others will be fairly close to the originals. We are also re-recording some songs from more recent albums where the songs have taken a slightly different direction for live shows. So there are also new studio versions of “The Underfall Yard” and “East Coast Racer” with the new ending we debuted in London.
The original plan was for Station Masters to be a double album, but then we realised it would need to be three CD's. This then started to become a problem as every time we started to move it forward we looked at this mountain of work and decided it would be overwhelming with all of the other things we have on. We have now decided that the best solution is to release this as three separate volumes over the next few years. This means we are only working on 60 or 70 minutes of music at any one time rather than three hours of music, so it is much more manageable. Even so, I am not sure when each volume will be completed, but we will finish them and slot them into the release schedule when there are quiet periods.
That makes a lot of sense. Another thing about the BBT Facebook group is that, in my experience, it’s unique in terms of its perpetually friendly and upbeat atmosphere—it’s really a breath of fresh air on social media. I also noticed that, in addition to overwhelmingly positive response to Folklore, there's a great diversity of opinion on the forum about favorite tracks on the album. For each individual track, there seems to be a Passenger or two among the group who loves that one the best.
It has been good to see a bit of love for all of the songs, even more esoteric tracks like “Salisbury Giant.” When we were sequencing the album and selecting tracks we wanted it to sound cohesive so that it was the type of album listeners would want to play through to the end. It is a long album, so I am sure that isn't possible all the time, but we hope that when listeners immerse themselves in something they will find something to enjoy in all of the songs, not just the ones that stand out immediately.
I also wanted to ask about the band’s approach to packaging [all of which is designed by Andy Poole]. English Electric: Full Power and Stone and Steel, for example, are two of the finest examples of premium packaging I’ve seen in recent years, beautiful pieces of art in and of themselves, before you even get to the music they contain. There’s been a trend during the last decade towards “artisanal” products – items that have been hand-crafted with extra care. It strikes me that in an era when it’s become increasingly difficult to convince consumers that music is something they should pay for, you’ve positioned BBT’s output as a premium artisanal product – a beautiful physical object created by the band that reflects the care and attention to detail you put into the music itself.
That is exactly how we have approached things in recent years and I do like the analogy you have used of artisanal products. We have a couple of artisanal bakery and coffee shops around here and I will go out of my way to enjoy their offerings, expecting to pay a little bit more for that quality. The music market is directly comparable, with streaming sites being sort of like Subways, and with vinyl and, increasingly CDs, on the more artisan side. Hi-res downloads are also becoming popular at the higher end of the market.
We approach these things in two ways: firstly, from an artistic point of view, we want to create music and the associated artwork which will meet our own aesthetic requirements. This is why we work with a fine artist like Sarah Louise Ewing, at good studios with great engineers like Rob Aubrey and Mark Hornsby and with an LP production company whose owner Chris Topham, is a passionate advocate of quality vinyl. Secondly, we are in business and competing in an overcrowded market and we have found that the right position for Big Big Train with the sort of ornate music we make, incorporating a brass band and strings, is at that place in the spectrum.
Of the many roles you play within the BBT context—songwriter, co-arranger, co-producer, co-manager, performer—which is your favorite role, and why?
I am principally a songwriter. If I could only do one thing, it would be that. It can be frustrating when things aren't going well, and it can be a lonely occupation, but the alchemy of songwriting is an incredibly fulfilling thing. I have grown to enjoy performing but, even then, the main buzz I get is when people like our songs.
With all the changes the band has been through over the last several years and all the new people on board and projects in the works, along the way, what has surprised you the most? And what has pleased you the most?
Some good individual moments which spring to mind include winning the breakthrough band at the Progressive Music Awards and getting picked up by Bob Harris who now plays us regularly on BBC Radio Two. Then there was the time we ended up singing backing vocals for Robert Plant at Francis Dunnery's charity gig last year, which was a blast.
Our own gigs were certainly amongst the most pleasing things I've ever been involved in. The warmth from the audience and the communal nature of the concerts was really special. The good humour and spirit that the listeners show on our Facebook forum and on Twitter was brought into the concert hall.
More generally, the fact that prog rock has gone through something of a renaissance in recent years, both in terms of the number of very impressive artists involved in the scene and the critical response to prog rock has been great. It isn't that long since prog rock bands couldn't get arrested. Now, we have some bands and artists that are selling well and being written about in mainstream publications, and many bands who may not be making a living but are making really good music. The critical response has evolved from a sneer to a degree of warmth and, in the UK and Italy there are magazines devoted to prog rock which are on general sale in newsagents and supermarkets. This more positive environment has enabled success. We've gone from selling a few hundred copies of our albums to appearing (albeit briefly) in the national charts.
Finally, I must mention my bandmates. I work with a great bunch of people and I love them to bits.
To finish up, here’s a hypothetical. Imagine we’re five years down the road in 2021. If everything has gone more or less as you hoped, what has Big Big Train achieved over that period of time?
The next few years are going to be interesting for us. We've made some progress but I suspect the next stage in trying to break through to a substantially bigger audience is going to be difficult. So, feet on the ground, all I can say is we aim to continue to make good and moving music and play some shows which will stick in people's memories in a positive way. I’m anticipating there will be three new studio albums in that five-year period and that we will gig a bit more widely. I hope we take our current audience with us and pick up plenty of new Passengers along the way.
(Photo by Kain Dear)