Interview: Big Big Train
I am not a fan of albums where there is a fast song then a slow one or a heavy one then a quiet one. I like things to unfold in a way so that various moods are created for reasonable periods of time, rather than lots of chopping and changing.
One of the resounding success stories in recent years for prog music has been the pastoral eloquence of Big Big Train. A band with a long history, the original duo of Greg Spawton and Andy Poole has developed into a many headed beast, intent on producing some of the most glorious music ever. Bringing to life stories of Victorian gentleman, war pigeons and that ever so nostalgic image on racing car green, they are a window on an England long past. Quintessentially prog, they continue their evolution with Grimspound, the follow up to last years Folklore, a mooted EP which eventually has turned into a full album. Echoes and Dust’s very own Big Big Train fanatic Martyn Coppack caught up with founding member Greg Spawton to find out all about what makes the band tick. Pour yourself a glass of ale and join us for this epic journey aboard the train…
(((o))): Firstly, congratulations on your recent success at the CSR Awards. I guess after all these years it must be some sort of validation of why you do what you do?
Greg: It is certainly something we have greatly appreciated. It is good to know that our fan-base is large enough to win these sort of things and that our music and performances resonate enough for listeners to take the trouble to vote. We are very grateful.
(((o))): The story of Big Big Train has been a long time coming and to the music fan discovering you now, they must feel slightly lost as to where to start. How has the journey been for you over the years? What are the key moments that have brought Big Big Train to where they are now? There are the obvious ones such as David joining, but what else has made you tick?
Greg: I think it is fair to say that we have had our ups-and-downs. Looking right back to the start, meeting Andy Poole in the late 1980’s was the first important moment. I had moved down to the south coast after university and wanted to get back into songwriting and making music and needed somebody who was on a similar wavelength. Andy was the right person at the right time. We also were lucky to meet with our sound engineer, Rob Aubrey, back in the early days. Rob has helped to sculpt our sound and has also been instrumental in getting the current line-up together.
Later on, when we had lost our record contract after the first couple of albums, it was back to being just me and Andy as the only two band members. At that stage we decided to invest in our own recording studio and do things for ourselves and that was a crucial decision as it meant we were free to make our own choices and were able to generate enough income to keep things ticking over. After that, starting to work with Nick at the time of The Difference Machine was important to the band. It was the beginning of a long and productive creative partnership with one of the best drummers in progressive rock and, because of Nick, the band stepped up a number of levels. You mention David joining, which he did on the following album, The Underfall Yard, and the significance to Big Big Train of that moment cannot be understated. David has given the band the voice that we needed to attract a bigger audience and hugely strengthened the songwriting team. And, of course, The Underfall Yard was Dave Gregory’s first album with Big Big Train too, which gave us the wonderful guitar sounds and arrangements of a real master. That album was also where we started working with our brass arranger, Dave Desmond, bringing the wonderful melancholy sound of a brass band into the music. Finally, bringing Danny, Rachel and Rikard aboard has created the line-up that we needed to play our songs live and to maximise the potential in the band’s writing.
(((o))): Has there ever been a point where you thought “why am I doing this?”. Prog has gone through something of a renaissance in recent years, but back when you started it was very much in the doldrums?
Greg: There wasn’t a great deal happening in progressive rock when we started, but there were always one or two things going on in the background that gave us hope. There was a network of printed fan magazines, there was the Classic Rock Society and we started to hear about bands like Magellan and Dream Theater and, a bit later on, Spock’s Beard. It Bites were coming to an end as we started up, but they were a big influence and gave us a steer in terms of how progressive rock influences could be incorporated into the contemporary music scene. There was also a small scene on the south coast, with bands like Jadis and Galahad. So, there was enough there for us to feel we were not alone. Things got tougher for us in the later 90’s when we had lost our record deal and most of our band members. I think we just carried on at that stage out of habit more than hope. I was getting divorced at the time and we set up a little studio in the dining room where I was sleeping. It was all a bit grim.
(((o))): What were the key ideas and themes for the band both musically and lyrically. There is a wonderful storytelling element to your songs which I would like to approach later but was this a key part of Big Big Train from the beginning?
Greg: When we started up, I don’t remember having a particular idea of how the band’s music would develop. For the first year, it was really just me and Andy with two 12-string guitars and two tape recorders synced together. We both loved the music of Anthony Phillips and worked up some rambling instrumentals. As the line-up expanded we started playing gigs and recording demo tapes. Those were just the things that every band did, but we needed new songs to play and record. The others in the band could all write a tune but they were all a bit lazy when it came to putting the hours in to get our own songs together, so the songwriting started to fall onto my shoulders. I have a background in history and archaeology so some of those elements began to crop up in some of the early songs but those themes and the storytelling element didn’t become our main thing until The Underfall Yard. We really enjoyed making that album, the listeners responded to the subject matter, the audience grew and so we took it from there.
(((o))): Your background in history truly comes to the fore on The Underfall Yard with Brunel becoming a key figure. How did the creative process stem from that? I guess conceptually the idea of a story fits in with prog rock norms. What Big Big Train managed to do (and still do) is marry the perfect atmosphere and sound to the delivered vocals…
Greg: The Underfall Yard was certainly the album where we went headlong into the history and landscape story-telling. I don’t think it was thought through, particularly, it was more a reaction to what I was reading about at the time. I remember reading some of the stories around Brunel and the Victorian engineers and I read a book by Richard Fortey who was then a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum. His book started with a description of a railway journey to the west and he mentioned that the rocks further west are much older than those that could be found in London, so it was like a journey into deep geological time. On the title track which was becoming quite a sprawling, epic piece, I connected the engineers with the landscape they worked on (and under) and I also introduced some themes about the Enlightenment as those engineers were very much men who lived by Enlightenment and scientific values. I really enjoyed writing the song and that led me to other stories which I thought would be nice to write about such as the Winchester Diver. When I was writing all of these songs, I didn’t realise that I was about to meet and connect with David, who is very much my musical soul-mate. Some singers might shy away from that sort of subject matter, but he met the challenge of those songs head-on. And as he is a writer himself, he was able to ensure the vocal arrangements and performances suited the material.
(((o))): Was there a point where the other band members thought “why on earth are we writing songs about Victorian engineers!”
Greg: It wasn’t really like that back then. We didn’t really have a full band identity at that stage. We had started as a band, and then, like a reverse butterfly, had undergone this gradual metamorphosis into a studio project. At the time of The Underfall Yard, we were just beginning the process of becoming a proper band again. So, at the point of writing those songs, there wasn’t really anybody to tell me what to do and I just did what I wanted to. It is different now, we discuss and agree things, so I have had to let go a bit, but the benefits of being in a full-band with all that extra creative input far outweigh the fact that I am less able to exhibit any control-freak tendencies. I think we all feel we have carved out a bit of territory for ourselves in the last few years which has worked well in defining the band and giving us a strong identity.
(((o))): Moving forward a bit and the idea of the “story” is explored even further on Folklore. The themes and ideas or a lot less immediate here though. It almost feels more insular than English Electric, as if the songs are hushed secrets?
Greg: We think of the work we have done in the last few years as a sort of cycle of albums which has moved from songs about the individuals who worked on and under the land, to songs on the English Electric albums about the communities that those people formed and finally through to songs on Folklore about the stories that have bound those communities together over time. Again, it wasn’t planned, it evolved, and it isn’t as neat as all that, but that is, broadly speaking, the arc of it. Grimspound ties some of the threads together, it is the last full new studio album that we will be doing in this cycle of releases.
(((o))): The stories that are told through history become a kind of fabric that binds us. Do you see the music you make as a natural extension of this?
Greg: That is exactly what we hope to achieve. We would like to be a small part of the process of remembering the stories and the characters that define us as communities. There is a lot of identity politics around at the moment which seems to break people up into ever small groups of individuals, enabling people to be played off against each other in a sort of competition of who is or isn’t the least privileged. In reality, there are far more things that bind us together than separate us, and much of that is down to shared history.
(((o))): Big Big Train’s story continues with Grimspound. Can you elaborate on this enigmatic figure and what we can expect from the new album?
Greg: The title of the album came from a Bronze-Age settlement on Dartmoor. It is an incredibly evocative place with a mysterious name which was given to it by the Anglo-Saxons who connected it and other such places to one of their gods, Grimr. Our friend, Sarah Louise Ewing who paints our cover and booklet art had provided us with a beautiful painting of a crow for the cover of Folklore and during a conversation she asked David what the crow’s name was. His instinct was to call it Grimspound. So the name of the album came about by quite a circuitous route.
As for the album itself, I think it is in the grand tradition of progressive rock. It was an album made without any pressure. We had just released Folklore, had a couple of songs that we hadn’t had time to finish and so thought we would write one or two more songs and release an EP to fill in the gap before our gigs later this year. The amount of material we had available to us grew very quickly, with David and myself both writing some big pieces and with major writing contributions from Rikard, Rachel and Danny. So, we suddenly found ourselves with almost a double album of songs and we selected the hour or so of music that fits best together to make a cohesive album.
(((o))): I’ve recently been listening to the 2011 reissues of the early albums and it struck me how you like to revisit old songs and develop them in new ways. With an album like English Boy Wonders it’s a no brainer as it was a chance to complete it. I’m intrigued by ‘Expecting Dragons’ on Goodbye to the Age of Steam though, where you use the new line-up. Is this something you would like to do more of? Does this tie in with the Station Masters release?
Greg: Yes, that is the kind of thing we will be doing with Station Masters. The idea was that we would create a retrospective release with some older songs reworked by the current line-up and some newer songs to give an overview of our music. The problem is, we have written a lot of songs over the years and as we started to plan it out it became a double then a triple CD. And that, in itself, caused problems, because every time we started to work on it, we were faced with this Everest-sized mountain of material. So, in order to actually make progress with Station Masters, we are going to split it into three volumes, which will be released separately over the next few years. The other issue we have faced is that we think our new material is strong and so the lure of moving things forward with new albums and EPs, rather than doing something backward looking, has proven difficult to resist. But we will definitely set some time aside next year to get the first album in the can.
(((o))): On revisiting, you made a bold move to go back to English Electric and reformat it. Was there a fear that this may not be taken well after achieving such critical success with English Electric Part One?
Greg: Good-will from listeners is hard won and easily lost. We are conscious of the demands on people’s limited income and there is always a danger of alienating the fanbase when revisiting material and releases, especially so soon after they originally came out. People can very easily feel ripped off. The counter argument is that nobody is forcing anybody to buy anything, but, in reality, that isn’t how it works for people who may be completists or who want to do their bit to support bands. So, it is important to give people some lower cost choices. When we released English Electric: Full Power, which had four extra songs, we made those songs separately available on a low-cost EP and for download.
(((o))): On playing live, as a studio band it’s something that you shied away from for a long time. How did it feel to finally get the chance to perform those songs in front of an audience? Stone and Steel highlights the rehearsals, but I guess behind the scenes there was a lot of panic!
Greg: The purpose of those filmed rehearsals was to minimise that panic! We wanted to play the songs as written, with the brass band and everything, but with 13 musicians involved we were worried it might be a struggle to deliver in the live environment. Rather than book gigs and find out that it wasn’t working with an audience watching, we thought a trial run in a controlled environment at a studio would be helpful. Once we knew it would work, we were confident that we could go ahead and book the gigs. That then added other layers of complexity and that is where different worries kick in. We did everything ourselves, no promoter, no manager, no tour manager, so it was a steep learning curve and pretty full-on. When it came to the shows themselves, we got tighter and more confident with each performance and we were lucky to play in front of such friendly audiences who wanted us to do well. I am a songwriter rather than a performer, so I was concentrating on getting as many notes right as possible but the reception to our songs from the audience was unforgettable.
(((o))): Are there any songs you would or could not play live? Would you ever consider going down the route Anathema or Pineapple Thief do by playing acoustic sets interspersed with full band tours? I guess the logistics (and money!) make it difficult?
Greg: Although some songs translate more easily to live performance than others, everything is playable and we would never rule any songs out. When we started the Kings Place shows with Make Some Noise, we wondered if people may feel we would concentrate on our more accessible material, but we tackled The Underfall Yard, which is long and tricky and some other difficult material, so we won’t shy away from anything. As regards doing some stripped down acoustic gigs, we have done a couple and we are recording and filming some acoustic sessions at Real World in April so it will be fun for the eight of us to be together doing things in a slightly different way. And I do quite fancy doing something ‘unplugged’ at Winchester Cathedral at some stage. The focus next year, though, will be doing some full-band shows in mainland Europe and, in 2019, we’ll be doing some shows in the north of the UK. We also hope to get to the States and Canada at some stage, provided it stacks up financially for us to do those things.
(((o))): Grimspound started life as an EP called Skylon with some left-over tracks from the Folklore sessions. How much of the resulting album was built around older music and what was brought in new?
Greg: In the end, almost everything on the Grimspound album was newly written last summer. Only one song from the Folklore sessions ended up on Grimspound, and that is the title track of the album. There is a song called ‘Skylon’, a really nice song actually, but when it comes to sequencing an album, you need to choose what you think works best together rather than what may perhaps be the strongest standalone songs. We had so much material for Grimspound, it could very easily have been a double album but the album didn’t flow as well with more songs on it so we took ‘Skylon’ and a few other things off quite late on. Those extra songs and pieces of music will, hopefully, see the light of day at some stage in the next couple of years.
(((o))): With this being the first album where the whole band contributed in writing, did you find a different dynamic? How did you find it differed from say, the English Electric sessions? I notice Rikard wrote for the album, how did this tie in with the way you were used to working?
Greg: It was all very easy really. The development of the band in recent years has been nicely organic, we haven’t had to force anything. The current line-up was still coming together over the English Electric albums so, even then, we were establishing ways of working which suited us. And there had also already been some writing input from others for songs that we haven’t yet released. So, for a long time we have been working, alongside everything else, on developing a concept album, and Nick has written two really strong pieces for that which are partly recorded, so it has never been a closed shop in terms of the writing. We were able to take the fresh writing input from Rikard, Danny and Rachel in our stride.
(((o))): Lyrically the album follows in the tradition of Folklore with many references popping up (‘The Transit of Venus Across the Sun’, ‘Brooklands’). One of the themes that stands out most is one of scientists and explorers both in ‘Experimental Gentlemen’ and later in ‘A Mead Hall In Winter’. Within this you get the old tale of Grimr adding a rustic flavour. How do see the line between history and folk tales and how they carry on down the years?
Greg: This album very clearly occupies similar sort of territory, both in the music and the lyrics, to The Underfall Yard, English Electric and Folklore albums, and we wanted the connections to be explicit between those works, so there are some lyrical themes which return and are developed. In ‘Experimental Gentlemen’ and ‘A Mead Hall in Winter’, we look again at the influence of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment and seek to reflect on how important those traditions are to humanity, especially in these days of ‘fake news’ and conspiracy theories which can gain great currency because of the way ideas are distributed on the Internet. Historical stories and events are, of course, open to interpretation and misinterpretation and I am sure that much of our understanding of historical events is flawed. At times, historical traditions are closer to folklore than to history, so there is probably quite a substantial grey area between the two. One interesting thing in England, recently, was the finding of the remains of Richard III. Revisionist history has tended to pour scorn on the depiction of Richard as a hunchback. Examination of the remains showed that he did, in fact, suffer from severe scoliosis and may have had one shoulder much higher than the other. So, some of the stories which we think of as more folklore than history may, after all, be close to the truth. And in any case, I do like the fact that we can play a small part in raising awareness of some of the historical figures we have written about, such as William Walker, Captain Albert Ball and John Cobb. Their stories should not be lost.
(((o))): Judy Dyble guests on ‘The Ivy Gate’. How did this come about?
Greg: We are fans of Judy’s recent music as well as her work in Giles, Giles and Fripp, Trader Horne and Fairport Convention. Judy came to one of our London shows in 2015 and we met her there. David composed ‘The Ivy Gate’ with her voice in mind and we were so pleased that she was happy to work with us.
(((o))): There are a lot of interesting music sequences on this album with some that may surprise the fans (the beginning of ‘A Mead Hall in Winter’ seemed so out of place on first listen!). A strong folk element shines through though, which I found different for Big Big Train. The pastoral elements are still there along with the classic “prog” moments but it was on songs such as ‘The Ivy Gate’ that the heart of the album lay. How do you see the way the music has progressed on Grimspound?
Greg: I am not a fan of albums where there is a fast song then a slow one or a heavy one then a quiet one. I like things to unfold in a way so that various moods are created for reasonable periods of time, rather than lots of chopping and changing. So, the sequence of music from ‘Meadowland’ through to the end of ‘The Ivy Gate’ provides a fairly pastoral cycle of music which, I hope is quite immersive. The sequence before that, with two long songs and a complex instrumental is a rather more progressive rock section of the album. ‘A Mead Hall in Winter’ is another long and complex piece which, again, is more in the progressive rock tradition. It is quite a long album so there is the opportunity to show different sides of the band’s music whilst ensuring the album is a cohesive work.
(((o))): And of course we can’t forget Uncle Jack who makes a welcome return. There’s a sense of moving full circle on this album which you mentioned in an earlier question. What now for these characters? Although you see Grimspound as the final piece of the themes that have run since The Underfall Yard, it offers so much for the future. By looking back you seem to have found an interesting route forward?
Greg: I think we have the writer’s reluctance to set these characters and stories to one side, so, whilst we consider Grimspound to be the final album in a sort of Albion sequence where the songs have been primarily about England and its landscape and people, we may return to this subject matter in future years. It is interesting talking to Danny, who has a background in jazz, and Rachel, who has a background in folk. Rock musicians are, I think, programmed to work in fairly short cycles, where they feel the need to move on and do something a bit different. Jazz and folk musicians don’t necessarily share those concerns. It is only whether what we are doing is good that matters to them.
(((o))): And finally, what stories are left to tell? Where next for Big Big Train musically and who will they bring to life?
Greg: The concept album that we have been working on may not now happen. It was becoming something very substantial in terms of the story and that may have taken up the next three albums and a lot of development time. One of the things we are determined to do is to make the best of the time we have and to be highly productive. So, rather than spend a huge amount of time on the concept album which may delay more shows and other releases, we may be putting it on the backburner for now and looking at some more self-contained stories. One idea that David and I have had some earlier conversation about is setting some of our songs outside of England. David has a song with an Italian setting and I have two songs set in Rome and one in New York. We are looking to play our first shows abroad in the next year or so and I quite like the idea of the band travelling and our music similarly going to some new places.
Photograph by Simon Hogg.