Over time, Big Big Train has assumed one of the most desirable places in the progressive rock sphere. With albums such as The Difference Machine, The Underfall Yard and English Electric, the band was able to find talent as diverse as Nick D’Virgilo, Rikard Sjöblom or Rachel Hall. The new album untitled “Folklore” is a beautiful demonstration of all this tremendous equation. Let’s talk about that with the bassist Greg Spawton.
First, could you give a brief history of the band?
Gregory Spawton : We started making music in 1990 and were signed to the GEP label in 1994, releasing a couple of albums through them. After losing our record deal we formed our own label and started doing things for ourselves. We began to gain a reasonable profile on the progressive rock scene and, in 2009, after The Underfall Yard album, things started to take off for us a bit. We won the Breakthrough category at the Progressive Music Awards and started to get occasional airplay on BBC Radio. We have been featured in Prog magazine and, more recently, in Classic Rock. We had a long break from playing live but returned to performance in 2015 and will be playing more gigs in the future. Our latest album, Folklore, which came out in May 2016 was the first of our releases to feature in the official national charts in the UK.
Big Big Train has a curious name. Where did it come from?
Gregory Spawton : My Mum grew up in a railway cottage in the Midlands. Her Dad and brothers were on the railways so we were always surrounded by railway things. At some stage somebody bought me a trainset which was called Big Big Train and the name stuck in my mind. In the late 1980’s my brother formed a short-lived new wave band and I suggested that name for his band, which they used. When I was forming my own band in 1990 I threw that name into the hat and it was the most popular suggestion.
So, “Folklore” is the title of your new album. Why this title?
Gregory Spawton : The title was the product of a long conversation between me and our singer David Longdon. We talked through the material that we had written and the common themes that we were exploring. A number of songs had a folklore element to them and we thought the word itself was a strong title. We wanted a bold, memorable title and we wanted a theme which we felt listeners would relate to.
Is there a concept behind the album?
Gregory Spawton : I wouldn’t describe it as a concept album. There isn’t a narrative across the whole album and while most songs are on the folklore theme, not all of them are. Like most of our releases, though, there are a number of themes across the album. Aside from the folklore tales that we tell on some of the songs there is a theme of how folklore is made and communicated. We also address the subject of time passing and loss and we tell a couple of non-folklore stories as well.
“Folkore” was released a few months after “Wassail” and “Stone & Steel”. Could you tell us some words about their influence on the writing and recording?
Gregory Spawton : Wassail was very much the starting point for the album. Our drummer Nick D’Virgilio lives in the States and only comes to England two or three times a year and so we make the most of the time that we can spend with him. We had some time with Nick at Real World in 2014 and he put down some drums for “Wassail”, “Lost Rivers” and “Mudlarks” plus “The Transit of Venus“. We held Venus back for the album but we wanted to play Wassail live at the 2015 shows so put it out as part of an EP release. Wassail was the first time we introduced a definitively folklore theme to our music and so the subject matter of the song was in our mind when we were thinking about writing and making the new album. David also used some sections of music from Wassail as a starting point for the title track. Wassail and the song called Folklore are linked both lyrically and musically.
It’s the ninth album of the band. How are you looking the evolution of your music?
Gregory Spawton : It has been a quarter of a century of making music, so forgive me for this being a fairly long answer. When we started back in 1990, there was not much of a progressive rock scene. The bands from the early 80’s had taken a similar route to the bands from the early 70’s, with a more commercial approach and I am not sure it was working that well as the existing fan bases weren’t that keen and the music wasn’t really reaching new audiences. There was one new band I liked very much called It Bites and I saw them many times in the late 1980’s. They had a very good fusion of rock, pop and prog rock and we followed their lead a bit for the first couple of albums, with a smattering of XTC, Radiohead and Prefab Sprout in the mix as well. The Gathering Speed and The Difference Machine albums were a bit more influenced by 70’s progressive rock and we started to grow our audience with those albums. The progressive music scene was beginning to thrive again and this made it easier for us to sell our music. In 2009, we decided to completely relaunch the band with an album called The Underfall Yard. David joined on vocals, Nick became our permanent drummer and Dave Gregory started to play guitar for us. We also incorporated a brass band and real string instruments into the band’s sound for the first time. In subsequent years, Dave Gregory became a full-time member and other strong new musicians joined, Rachel Hall on violin, Danny Manners on keyboards and double bass and Rikard Sjöblom on guitars and keyboards. Another important factor is that David started to share the songwriting with me, so there was another songwriter in the band. Therefore, I see our music as changing significantly from the Underfall Yard album as the sounds we were using with real brass and strings, the different musicians in the band, David becoming the voice of Big Big Train and the expansion in the songwriting team all led to a bit of a revolution. Having said all that, the earlier versions of the band and the current incarnation share a lot of musical DNA, so I think listeners can find music to enjoy from all of our albums.
What is your creative process?
Gregory Spawton : The initial versions of the songs are normally developed by David or myself. We’ll make a demo recording of each song and this will usually feature a basic version, including the structure of the song, the chords, melodies and themes. Nick normally records his drum parts to the demo. Most of the drums are recorded in England at Real World but sometimes Nick, who lives in the States, will record at Sweetwater. Nick likes to work intuitively so he doesn’t get to hear the songs in advance. He’ll listen through three or four times and then the ideas will start to flow and we’ll start getting takes. Once the drums are down, the rest of the musicians become involved and will work up their parts. For the brass band and strings, this will mean writing a score out, for the rest of us it is just spending time with the song and getting things as good as they can be. Like many bands today, the band members don’t all live in the same town so communication when songs are being worked on is by email or Skype or Facetime. Recording of final parts will take place in various locations depending on the musician. Sometimes, because of the complex multi-layering of songs we have too many parts fighting for space.
« Lyrics are very important to us. We like to tell stories with our songs. We come across these tales when we are travelling or reading… »
The final decision on the arrangements always rests with the songwriter. Mixing is done by Rob Aubrey in Southampton. After many years of spending day after day sitting with Rob during the mixing process, we now just let him get on with it. He’ll send mixes out for snagging as he makes progress. Danny, Nick, Rachel and Rikard are all writing songs for Big Big Train now so the process will continue to evolve but I doubt it will change much. We are only all together as a band three or four times a year so we have devised a working method which is efficient and enables us to be productive musicians.
Rikard joined the band recently. What is his impact on the sound of this album?
Gregory Spawton : Rikard is an amazing musician, equally adept as a guitarist and a keyboard player. Soon after we started rehearsing with him, we realised we wanted his ideas and the sound of his playing in the band. Not only does Rikard being in the band mean we can faithfully recreate the multi-layered parts in our songs when we play live, it also means we have an extra layer of creative input to go alongside the other musicians. On Folklore, Rikard turned in some of my favourite moments. He plays a mean accordion too, which helps us when we are exploring some of the more folk-influenced areas of our music.
How do you manage an eight members band and so many styles and influences?
Gregory Spawton : There are some different backgrounds in there. Rachel comes from a folk background and Danny from a jazz background. And Dave spent many years in XTC, one of the greatest pop bands of all time. But everyone loves the music we play together. And the great thing about prog rock is it gives an excellent platform for musicianship and songwriting and performance. Almost everything a musician could want can be found in progressive rock music so we all pull together. Another factor is that many of us have been around the block a bit and have had our ups and our downs over the years. With those experiences behind us, we don’t have time to waste time and, as a band, we don’t want to be with people that waste our time.
I think that your music is better and better in each new album. Could we say that this feeling is due to the new members of the band and the fact of melting so many universes is a good thing for your music
Gregory Spawton : It has certainly been a factor. We have great musicians in the band now and in the brass band and string section and the time that we have spent together rehearsing and performing has also helped to make us a strong band making what I think is good music. I know for some people, their younger years are their most creative, but we have found ourselves in a good place in our middle years and we are going to try to seize this opportunity and make the next few years as productive as possible.
What are your sources of inspiration?
Gregory Spawton : For the music, a lot of different things go into the melting pot. There are the progressive influences from bands such as Premiata Forneria Marconi, Van Der Graaf Generator, UK, King Crimson and Genesis. And then I like contemporary folk music from bands like Lau and The Unthanks, classic pop music such as The Beatles, Prefab Sprout, XTC and also some alternative or post rock from bands like Mew and Sigur Ros. David will have some similar influences but also many more of his own too. For the lyrics, I think we do our own thing and are influenced by history, folklore and the landscape.
The lyrics of your songs are always very well work…
Gregory Spawton : Lyrics are very important to us. We like to tell stories with our songs. We come across these tales when we are travelling or reading. Everybody loves a good story and it is important to put time and thought into the angle we want to take and how we are going to convey our thoughts on things. Depending on the subject of the song, we may do some research and we sometimes carry out visits to places associated with the stories to get a good feel for the surroundings. Of course, when it comes to songwriting, the words have to sound right for David to sing. They have to scan well and be pleasing to the ear, so there are more restrictions than writing prose or poetry.
What are the stories behind the new songs?
Gregory Spawton : We tell the story of a racing driver at the oldest motor racing circuit in the world, we tell the story of a pigeon who saved the crew of an aircraft that crashed in the second world war. There are folklore tales of legendary giants and there is the story of the development of a city through time told from the perspective of a tree growing on the banks of a river.
« We had two or three songs for the Folklore album which we didn’t get time to finish in time for mixing so we thought we would put these out on an EP in the Spring next year… »
Who is the author of the artwork?
Gregory Spawton : We have been doing well with sales of vinyl on recent albums and knew that Folklore needed beautiful front cover and gatefold paintings which would work well for the LP and CD versions. We have been working very closely with an artist called Sarah Louise Ewing and asked her to paint the images for Folklore. A few months before the release of the album we met with her in Oxford and talked through all of the songs. Sarah decided that there should be a strong individual image for the front cover and suggested a crow, which has a lot of links with Folklore. We feel that the very striking artwork has been an important part of the success of the album.
The quality of the arrangements is awesome. Could you tell us some words about that?
Gregory Spawton : With a band of eight people plus a five-piece brass band and a string quartet there is a need for arrangements to be carefully planned and thought through. Our recordings are very busy with lots going on but I like that as it means there is lots of detail which will emerge on repeated listens. Occasionally, we have to prune some parts out during the mixing stage but most of the parts we record make it on to the albums.
Since 1992, Big Big Train released many EP’s. A new one named “Skylon” seems scheduled for 2017. Could you tell us some words about it?
Gregory Spawton : We had two or three songs for the Folklore album which we didn’t get time to finish in time for mixing so we thought we would put these out on an EP in the Spring next year with a couple of brand new songs. However, we have ended up writing a lot more material than we expected and so have decided that we will release an album instead. The album will be called Grimspound and is intended as a companion release to Folklore. It’s been a lot of fun to write it as we weren’t really thinking about making an album and so we have let our hair down a little. There are quite a few instrumentals and the album shows the playing side to the band’s music.
What are your other projects?
Gregory Spawton : There will be a live album out in November called A Stone’s Throw from the Line and we will also release footage of every song we played at the shows in London last year. Grimspound will be out in April 2017. We are working on a concept album due for release in 2018.
Will you be doing any live shows in the foreseeable future?
Gregory Spawton : We will be playing some London gigs in September 2017. We may also play some acoustic shows in the meantime.
What is your feelings about your nominations in the Progressive Music Awards 2016?
Gregory Spawton : I am chuffed as nuts. In other words, extremely happy. The awards are very high profile and get a lot of mainstream press coverage so it is great to be associated with them. This year we have been nominated in some of the most prestigious categories and so we are up against the most established artists. Therefore, the chances of us winning are probably quite low but just getting to the nomination stage is fantastic. Hats off to Prog magazine for the work they do on the awards. It has really helped the genre to get back on the radar of the BBC and other major music and news outlets.
What was your introduction to prog rock?
Gregory Spawton : I remember it very well. I was about 11 years old. My brother had been to the record shop and his friends had tried to persuade him to buy the first Sex Pistols album. Instead, he came home with Selling England by the Pound. My brother used to take long baths and put the record player on really loud so he could hear the music in the bath. One day, I heard him playing Dancing With the Moonlit Knight. I loved that little guitar motif. After that I sought out other Genesis albums and then got into Van Der Graaf and it went on from there.
So, what does “progressive rock” mean to you?
Gregory Spawton : For me, it is the name for a genre of music which is recognisably rock music but which may be slightly more complex in form or in composition than other genres of modern popular music. Whilst it has its recognisable tropes it’s a very broad genre and can encompass many different styles and approaches which is one of the reasons I like it so much. However, whilst progressive rock shouldn’t be a 70’s nostalgia trip, I don’t have any time at all for the argument that it has to always be doing something different. If you move too far into perpetual experimentation on the basis that that is the defining nature of a progressive rock band then you won’t be playing rock music. And you’ll probably be playing music which is not pleasing to the ears of many people.
What are your five favorite albums/artists?
Gregory Spawton : It’s hard to narrow it down to 5! I’d have to say Genesis and Van Der Graaf Generator. Plus Prefab Sprout, Elbow and Mew. On another day, The Unthanks, XTC or Premiata Forneria Marconi may take one or more of those places. As for albums, Jordan: The Comeback, Godbluff, Nonsuch, Frengers, The Seldom Seen Kid, Going For the One, A Trick of the Tail spring to mind…
With whom would you like to work?
Gregory Spawton : I’m very happy with my bandmates and other musical colleagues and I don’t particularly have any burning ambition to work with anybody else right now. I do have a lot of respect for the work of The Unthanks and Sweet Billy Pilgrim so something with them would be cool if an opportunity arose. We got to sing backing vocals for Robert Plant at a gig last year. That was unexpected and a lot of fun so you never know what may happen.
Have you some musical advices?
Gregory Spawton : The two albums that have the made the biggest impression on me in the last year are The Bell That Never Rang by Lau and Motorcade Amnesiacs by Sweet Billy Pilgrim. These albums are musically very interesting and, most importantly, they are full of great tunes.
Some last words for the readers?
Gregory Spawton : I would just like to send greetings from the band to all of your readers.
An interview prepared and conducted by Cyrille Delanlssays