Big Big Train is an English progressive rock band, founded in 1990. Based in Bournemouth, England, the band members are Nick D’Virgilio, Dave Gregory, Rachel Hall, David Longdon, Danny Manners, Andy Poole, Rikard Sjöblom and Gregory Spawton. Having released eight studio albums and three EPs, they were an independent band for most of their career (although they were signed to the Giant Electric Pea record label from 1993 to 1998), distributing releases through their own website. Up to 2009, Big Big Train worked mostly as a studio project band headed by Spawton and Poole with changing line-ups and guest musicians. Since their sixth album The Underfall Yard, which received critical acclaim from the progressive rock community, a more stable lineup has been established, and the band performed their first live concerts in seventeen years at Kings Place, London, in August 2015. The gigs were voted Event Of The Year by the readers of Prog magazine. Stone & Steel, a Blu-ray featuring the 2014 rehearsals at Real World Studios and four of the songs performed at Kings Place, was released on 21 March 2016. Big Big Train were the winners of the Breakthrough Award at the Progressive Music Awards held at Kew Gardens, London on 3 September 2013, and have been nominated in several other categories in recent years. The band’s latest album, Folklore, which was released on 27 May 2016.
I was able to connect with Greg Spawton on Facebook and he graciously accepted to answer a few questions I had, and below is what Greg had to say.
Hi Greg, I’d like to start by asking how Big Big Train (BBT) came about and your roles within the band.
We’ve been around for quite some time. The first version of BBT was formed in 1990. At that stage it was just some young guys coalescing around a love of good progressive rock and pop music and trying to write and play good songs. We have been through many stages as a band, from hobby through to semi-pro and now we are trying to make a living from music so individual roles in the band can be very varied. My main role is as songwriter and I play bass and bass pedals. However, like many bands these days, we also try to do as many things as we can ourselves so we’ll share other roles within the band, such as management, promotion etc.
Who are your musical heroes? What impresses you?
My all-time favourites include Genesis, PFM, Van Der Graaf Generator, Prefab Sprout and XTC. More recent bands that impress me are Mew, Sweet Billy Pilgrim, The Unthanks and Elbow.
Can you explain, what the backbone and the soul of BBT are?
I could answer that in a number of different ways. First and foremost, my friends and bandmates are the backbone and soul of the band. None of it happens without them and it is the combination of personalities and talents that make us what we are. Aside from that, what makes us tick is the desire to write and play music that moves people. It’s all about making music that can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up or that creates an emotional response. We want people to be engaged and involved and to connect on an emotional level with what we do. If that happens, we are happy.
BBT have written a few albums, and has gone through some changes, does it get harder with time to come up with new and original material, avoiding musical ideas that you’ve previously recorded & written?
I don’t worry or even think about it. I just write and see what comes out. David is the same. Things have evolved naturally over the last few releases, so there is flow and change, but also continuity. We do plan things a long way in advance, so we know what is coming in the future. We know that the sequence of releases from The Underfall Yard, through to English Electric and Folklore will be brought to an end with the release of an EP next year and we know that the next studio release after that will be very different, so we have a long term plan which factors in change and originality.
Are you a live band or a recording band, or both, and why?
Over the last few years, our focus has been on writing and recording as we wanted to create a reasonably substantial catalogue. Last year, we started playing gigs again and will be playing some more shows in 2017 and in the future, so we are now happily in both camps. Personally, the creative process is my main thing and I am not really a performer. But others in the band are and I have really enjoyed watching them do their thing whilst playing alongside them onstage. It is very heart-warming to experience the direct and immediate response from an audience.
BBT’s latest album ‘Folklore’ is about to hit the stores, could you tell us more about the album and what to expect? And is there a concept behind the album?
Folklore is a curated collection of songs rather than a concept album. A number of the songs are based on folklore tales and others tell stories which we think may take on the norms of folklore tales in coming generations. We are interested in how these stories are told, how they grow in the telling and how they are communicated over the years. The sharing of familiar folklore tales is one of the defining characteristics of a community. On the English Electric and Underfall Yard albums a number of the songs told tales of communities and on this album we wanted to write about the stories that helped those communities become what they are.
In general an artist is almost never 100% satisfied with the end results, my question to you is this: how satisfied are you with ‘Folklore’? Do you think that the ideas you had in mind for the album translated well into songs in studio?
I am as satisfied with Folklore as I could hope to be. I have got past the stage of analyzing every component and can now just enjoy it as a body of work. Nothing is ever perfect, but I do think it is strong and the rest of the band feel that way too.
Are there any tracks on the album in particular that standout for you?
That’d be like choosing your favourite child! Different songs have connected with me at different times. We’ll be playing much of the album at our next shows which may throw new light on the material. There are some songs I think will work very well live. It’s been interesting reading some of the reviews and comments from listeners as to their favourites. Not always what is expected.
Can you tell our readers, what you describe as typical elements of a BBT song?
Whether a song is short or is one of our more extended pieces, we hope to take listeners on a journey which has a proper beginning, middle and end, and hopefully some drama and excitement along the way. The good thing about the progressive rock genre is that it throws open the possibilities for unusual things happening. We don’t feel restricted in any way and we can let songs unfurl and take twists and turns. One of the things we are very particular about is the structure of the songs that we write. I hear too many extended songs where disparate elements are stuck together in an unconvincing way. We put a lot of thought into making sure each song meets our expectations as writers and arrangers. A good example is a song called Winkie, which is made up of a number of different sections with different tempos and time signatures. David put a huge amount of time into making sure that song flowed smoothly through all of the changes within it.
There are different ways of composing, writing lyrics and recording music. Can you describe, how your tracks come to life?
Songs normally start with either myself or David. We’ll make a demo of each song and then involve the other band members in the arrangements. Demos may be very sketchy with just a basic structure of chords and melodies or can be worked up to a fairly full arrangement. It just depends on which direction the song takes during the writing. If I know a song will feature a lot of piano or strings or brass I may pass that over to Danny or Rachel or our brass arranger Dave Desmond at an early stage. Where we are co-writing, we’ll discuss ideas and share chord sequences and lyric snippets. We normally have a title and an idea of what the song will be about before anything else, so will write music to a title. The words come later on when we’ve worked out what angle we will be taking on the story we are telling. Writing is a very satisfying process. It is hard work, but magical things can happen along the way. I love it when a song comes together.
When do you come to the conclusion that a song or rather an album is finished?
We have a lot of experience now. It will feel right and it will meet our expectations as songwriters. Then it’s done. I actually get very frustrated with some artists who seem unable to finish things. At some point in the process, the law of diminishing returns kicks in and then it is time to stop fannying around.
What do you think the recent deaths of musical icons and visionaries like David Bowie and Prince indicate for the music world?
Personally speaking, I am phlegmatic about it. Many of our visionaries are now at a later stage in their life and the loss of people from earlier generations is to be expected. They do leave a gap, though, and there is a great sense of loss and of what might have been.
Is BBT your full professional career, and live only for and from your music?
We are a very expensive outfit, with eight musicians in the band, plus five brass players and engineers and crew. Everybody in the band earns some of their income from the band but nobody makes a living solely from BBT. I no longer have a day job and do nothing other than music and that is the same for some other band members. Others have jobs outside of music. Everyone is at a slightly different stage in their lives so, to some extent, it depends on where you are in your life in general terms. If you have young kids and a mortgage you are going to need to find much of your income elsewhere.
What are your plans for the next two or three years?
Unless something untoward happens, we’ll have a live album out in November, an EP in April 2017 and will be doing some more gigs in late September 2017. After that we’ll finish off a concept album we’ve been working on for quite some time.
Finally, can you give our readers an update on what’s currently happening in the BBT camp?
It’s been a very busy few weeks for us. We finished the album mix in February and from that time until now we’ve been doing all we can to promote the release so we’ve been filming music videos and doing interviews. We had an album launch party and have played a couple of acoustic shows. We run our own store so that side of things has been very busy and has taken a lot of time. Now the album is out, we are beginning to move on to other things. We are writing for the EP, the live album is being mixed and we are in discussions with a venue for next year’s gigs. I’ve also been writing a book about the last 18 months of the band’s work and I hope to get that finished and published before Christmas.
Many thanks to you for taking time out from your busy schedules to talk to SAUS and all the best for the future.