Resisting every temptation to load this page with railway puns (although I may go off the rails once or twice - sorry) I'm just going to say that if you haven't yet heard of BIG BIG TRAIN, you've probably just been looking in the wrong place. In prog rock circles they are a big big name, winning the Best Live Event and Band Of The Year categories at the 2016 Progressive Music Awards, and they have been nominated in three categories for the 2017 awards. (Only Opeth has more than three nominations!)
GET READY TO ROLL spoke to BBT's songwriter/bassplayer GREG SPAWTON, seen here on the far right of this photo which was taken at the 2016 awards ceremony in London.
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We meet up with Greg at a hugely prolific period in Big Big Train's timeline... your third studio album within a year, your first live shows in *17 years!* recorded for an album and a DVD in 2016, and another run of shows coming up in September/October 2017. As trains go, that's quite a Tornado! What factors do you put this massive surge of creativity down to?
For us it's all about making hay whilst the sun shines. Things picked up for us quite dramatically about five or six years ago, with sales and profile increasing and so we decided that we would really go for it and put all of the time that we can into making the band both a critical and commercial success. As you know, making a living from music these days is very difficult, so there is a need to work hard and to be productive. It is no different from the bands in the 70s really. They would tour and release an album every year and sometimes make two albums in a year. The bigger bands got lazy (in creative terms) in the 80s and 90s and got used to releasing an album every five years and making a crazy amount of money from the stadium thing. That option really isn't available to any contemporary progressive rock bands so it is more about going back to how things were and working hard to be productive in making good music.
For people who are new to BBT, what album(s) should they start with to get the best feel of what you do?
English Electric Part One and Folklore are both reasonable jumping-on points, with a good cross-section of what we do. For people that really like the progressive rock side of our music, then The Underfall Yard and Grimspound seem to be favourites amongst the listeners.
The Second Brightest Star is billed as a 'companion' release to Folklore
and Grimspound. Please tell us about these new Big Big Train tracks.
We had a collection of songs which we had written during the Folklore / Grimspound period which didn't make it onto either album. This wasn't because we felt they were of lower quality, but simply because they didn't quite fit on the albums. When we make albums, we do all we can to give the listener a cohesive set of songs rather than simply bunging all the newest stuff together, so if something doesn't help an album to flow then it may end up being left off.
We had about 25 minutes of unreleased material, so we could have made an EP with it. I don't like EPs though, they tend to fall between two stools; not quite a single, not quite an album. So, we decided to write a couple of extra songs and make The Second Brightest Star into an album to act as a companion release to Folklore and Grimspound.
You've also included extended versions of some of the tracks from Grimspound and Folklore and cunningly called that section... 'Grimlore'!
Yes, as it was 'old-school' album length, ie about 40 minutes rather than 60 to 70 minutes, it gave us some scope to add some bonus tracks where we drew together some of the material from Folklore, Grimspound and The Second Brightest Star into longer pieces.
I have read a lot of interviews with bands in the past where they talk about lost recordings or alternative versions of songs which didn't see the light of day when they were first written. For example, there is Smile by the Beach Boys, Lifehouse by The Who and Crimson / Red by Prefab Sprout. And in the prog rock world, Genesis have a couple of lost epics that were intended for the Duke and Abacab albums plus a longer version of Burning Rope from And Then There Were Three, which was never released. We had found ourselves in a similar position with a couple of our songs existing as separate parts or as alternative versions and so we decided to make them available in their extended forms. So, London Plane went up from the 10 minute original to a 13 minute piece and Brooklands is now four minutes longer, at 17 minutes or so. The feedback we have had is that listeners are tending to prefer these extended versions. But then, that's progressive rock fans for you! More is more!
The first part of your Stone & Steel dvd covers the lead-up to BBT's
first ever show with the current line-up - and it was amazing to watch
those rehearsals develop. This group of people who'd never played these tunes together before, all meeting up, fully-prepared, and absolutely nailing it! And then to watch the performance itself... jaw-dropping!
The whole thing was pretty frightening really. We had come together as a band in a very modern style. Whilst we are all friends, we are scattered across the world and only met up as a band a couple of times a year. So our albums were usually recorded in various locations and brought together in the studio.
We like a lot of detail in our music and this meant we became a bit gung-ho with things. We were merrily layering on lots of different keyboard and guitar parts and, if we wanted a string quartet, we would hire one and record them - and the same with our five-piece brass band. When we decided to actually become a 'real' band and get together and play live, we were then faced with a fundamental decision as to whether to strip things down or to try to play our music as it was written and recorded.
We decided on the latter, playing as a 13 piece live band! And so we thought we should check things out with cameras rolling but without an audience. If it turned out to be not something that worked then at least that would be discovered in private. It turned out very well in the end and Stone and Steel captures that section of time where we became a band, evolving from a studio project. It also gave us the confidence to go on to play live shows.
Looking back on that experience ten months later, what were the highlights?
My main thing in life is song writing. I play bass with the band but my primary musical interest is in writing. So, the highlight for me was getting to see my songs performed for the first time and then being able to take them out in front of an audience. There is a bit in East Coast Racer where the Mellotron and the bass pedals kick in and David sings 'she flies' and it is all quite stirring when we get it right. I remember looking out into the audience during that section and seeing people being drawn to their feet and making wings with their arms. That was pretty cool.
And... any lowlights?
Organising it was a complete nightmare. In order to make a living from this, we keep our costs as low as we can which means we haven't used a promoter or manager or tour manager - so it falls on the band.
Would you ever go down the crowd-funding route?
So far, we haven't used the crowd-funding model, but if there was a specific project that needed a lot of investment upfront then it is something we would consider. I do have some mixed feelings about crowd-funding, though. On the one hand, I think it is a very positive idea, with listeners perhaps more in the role of patrons and working closely with the bands. Marillion, who were pioneers in this area have an incredibly strong bond with their fans and I am sure that is partly do to the way they have worked together with fans over the years. On the other hand, I think there is a danger of crowd-funding being over-used, with some bands raising money via this process when they could almost certainly pay for recordings themselves from the proceeds of previous sales and tours. In other words, if it is necessary to do it to ensure albums are made or books written or whatever is on offer, then it is a sensible and positive way forward. If it is just a way of replacing business mechanisms where a band would normally invest earnings in future activity, I am not sure it is necessary. I worry that over-use for projects which could be self-funded will damage the crowd-funding brand.
Having eight bandmembers must impact on your ability to tour - and that's without counting the 5-piece brass section which was pretty vital to The King's Place shows last year. How can you get round the logistics of this - or don't you need to?
Our strategy up to now has been to play good venues which are slightly off the normal rock circuit and to play multiple nights. This reduces the logistical planning and keeps the costs down a bit. For this year's shows we are playing three gigs at Cadogan Hall which is a lovely 900 seat venue in London. We are a very expensive and complicated outfit when we play live, with 13 musicians plus sound and visual experts and techs, so anything we can do to keep things a little simpler helps enormously.
The downside of our approach is that we are not very flexible. We need a big stage and we need to be able to play in places where people can travel easily enough to come and see us. And people have travelled a long way. We have had fans from all over the world flying into London which is incredibly heartwarming. On the other hand, there are some listeners who are intensely parochial. We get a lot of emails from people in England saying I will only come to see you when you play Dudley or Portsmouth or Cornwall or wherever. I fully understand that many people cannot afford to travel to shows or may be elderly or disabled and so can't travel. But when it just comes down to a reluctance simply to travel to any gig that isn't on your doorstep, then I don't get it. Especially when London is full of other great things to do.
Recurring themes on your albums are Britain's industrial heritage, railways, architecture, the quality of British manufacturing, folklore, tradition,
and all the things which made Britain a force to be reckoned with. How does that vibe work outside Britain - in America for example? Bakelite
versus plastic versus polystyrene and all that?
It seems to travel surprisingly well. People do have a particular idea of Britain and some of that idea is undoubtedly a little out-of-date or formed from films which don't reflect contemporary life. But, Britain, whilst geographically small, is very diverse. The big cities are very different from each other, and the countryside is different from the towns and cities. And undoubtedly, the regions have a lot of differences. So, many of the things we write about which might sound anachronistic to someone who has been brought up in, say, London, are either current within other parts of Britain - or certainly existed within living memory. Lots of the folklore traditions such as wassailing are out there, bits of the industrial history are still present, and there are vestiges of the communities that worked on and under the land. It's all still there if you look hard enough.
And the same is true in many places across the world, where communities have faced change in the last 50 years or so. We have had letters and emails from people across the world with their own local experience of the decline of old industries.
What would you estimate is the demographic breakdown of your fanbase in age groups and territories?
One of the benefits of Spotify is that artists can get very useful demographic data about their listeners. Of the 20,000 or so individuals that listened to us in the last month, 40% are in the 45-59 age bracket. But, we also have 34% aged 18 to 34, so there is a younger audience too. In terms of location, the highest number of listeners in individual towns and cities are consistently in South America and in the Nordic countries. Quite diverse locations! I should also mention the gender information. Despite all of our male band members being exceptionally attractive to members of the opposite sex (ahem!), our listeners are predominantly male, with only 11% female audience. I suspect that is a fairly typical progressive rock demographic.
Are the vinyl versions also a nod to British music's classic era? I know it's a modern trend be retro, but are your own LPs a titfer-tip to an age when people spoke like Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson and petrol was three shillings and fourpence a gallon?
I was a bit sceptical about making our music available on vinyl. However, we were contacted out of the blue by a chap called Chris Topham who is an airline pilot with a vinyl record label on the side, called, craftily, Plane Groovy. Chris convinced us that there would be a market for our music on vinyl. More importantly, he was clearly a vinyl purist with great attention to detail in ensuring the vinyl releases are well pressed on heavyweight vinyl with well-presented artwork. Vinyl is expensive to buy. It's a premium product, so if you are going to do it, you must do it well. In the end, the vinyl has turned out to be a big success for us with Grimspound reaching number 11 in the official national UK charts.
When I first became aware of BBT, one of my favourites was Judas Unrepentant. A very tuneful song, biographically complete. I remember the Tom Keating news story breaking, back in the 1970s, and how he became famous for being infamous - the heroic anti-hero! Bizarrely there are actually Keating fakes which are as collectible as the real thing - a tribute to British eccentricity which we should continue to celebrate! Sorry I went off on one a bit there... so, my question is... what are *your* favourite songs from the BBT catalogue? The tunes and lyrics which you are most proud of - and what makes them so?
Taking things chronologically, I like Summer's Lease on The Difference Machine album. This was the last album we did before David joined on vocals and this is the first song of ours he actually heard (on a magazine cover CD I think.) The song is about the death of my wife's mother, an event which was a tremendously difficult experience for some of the people I love. I was both involved in that experience, but also an observer. We performed a version of this song at Real World studios a month or so ago and filmed and recorded it. We hope to get it online soon.
Moving forward to The Underfall Yard album, I like the words to Winchester Diver. That was an early story-telling song for me and I had a few things I wanted to say in just a couple of verses. Writing lyrics is nearly always a compromise as the words have to be reined in by the structure of the song. But that is one of the few examples where I got to say everything I wanted to say and did so in a pleasing way.
On the English Electric albums, I really like A Boy in Darkness. That was a very difficult subject but handled very sensitively by David. I also like the arrangement of the song, with the early sections contrasting with the heavier closing bits. I mentioned East Coast Racer before, and that is another song that we all enjoy. It is great fun to play and it has a couple of moments which seem to be spine-tingling for many listeners.
Moving onto Folklore, The Transit of Venus seems to be very popular. When the band heard the demo, the reaction I got was a bit underwhelming. Nobody seemed to like it that much, except for me. But when we started recording it, everyone got really into it. I am also very fond of London Plane and Telling the Bees on that album. London Plane is a really good example of the progressive rock style that we do well. And Telling the Bees is just, for me, a really beautiful song.
On Grimspound, I think A Mead Hall in Winter came out really well. Rikard created a mighty demo and I think Rikard's music with David's melodies and my words made for a strong piece of work.
And finally, on The Second Brightest Star, I like the title track. I think it is David's best piece of writing so far and it sums up all that we have tried to do in the last eight years since The Underfall Yard.
The design and quality of your sleevenotes and cover artwork has so much attention to detail in it, and is clearly very important to you - who's the genius behind this?
Like almost everything we do, it is a team effort with Sarah Louise Ewing painting the artwork, the band writing the sleeve notes and Andy Poole taking care of the design. Prog rock is known for that strong connection between the music and album artwork. This has been true right from the very beginning, with Barry Godber's painting for the first King Crimson album. Many bands were at their best when they had that strong connection with an individual artist, eg Yes and Roger Dean and Genesis and Paul Whitehead. In Sarah Louise Ewing, I feel we have found our own artistic muse. Sarah's paintings are beautiful and striking. She understands what we are trying to do and when we meet to discuss ideas she will tease out what is the right approach for each album. As a professional artist, Sarah is also very knowledgeable about branding and that has helped us to create our own strong identity.
Your merchandising has also been pretty imaginative... one example being the 1000-piece jigsaw on sale with The Second Brightest Star. You've even had Wassail cider, and telescope-shaped Grimspound keyrings! Who comes up with the ideas and how do you choose what makes it to the merch desk?
All of our merch is handled by another important part of our team, Nellie Pitts at The Merch Desk. Nellie comes up with many of the merch ideas alongside Sarah. She has a deep understanding of the merchandise market so has a good hunch about what will work and what may not fly. The jigsaw was a lovely idea and I have also liked the aprons and bags that have been produced alongside the t-shirts and hoodies.
BBT has an extremely dedicated Facebook community - your "passengers"! When tickets for the Cadogan Hall shows were released it was like seagulls swooping for bread! It's a really good-natured group, and even when they stray off-topic, the moderation is gentle but effective. How much do you and the other bandmembers get involved with the discussions? And how much do you enjoy the involvement?
The Facebook community has been a really important element of the growth of the band. The forum was actually set up by accident. I think we were confused between what Facebook calls a Group and a Page in the early days of social media. Most bands promote themselves with a Page, but we accidentally set up a Group instead and that has become a real meeting place for fans. We now also have a Page where we do the official promotional announcements but the forum continues to grow and is our main social media presence.
We have two moderators at the moment, Sue Heather, who has a background as a mod on one of the old Genesis forums, and our Viking, Tobbe Janson. They both do a tremendous amount to set the tone of the forum making sure it is a friendly place where wide-ranging discussions are welcomed - provided that those topics do not include politics or religion. Those two topics are poison to any forum.
All of the band members read posts on the page and we all get involved from time-to-time. Some of us are more social-media aware than others, so it depends on the individual as to how often they may get involved. We also recognise, however, that people may want to talk about Big Big Train or other music or other subjects without involving us, so we try not to be a constant presence.
Big Big Train's style has clearly morphed over the years - how would you compare what you're doing now to what you were doing then, such as Difference Machine (2007), English Electric (2012)? And how has that changed from the very early output such as Bard (2002) and Goodbye To The Age Of Steam (1994)?
Six of the band members now write music for BBT, whereas back on the earlier albums it was mainly me writing. So, our music in recent years has been a far more collective effort which has undoubtedly changed the DNA of the band's music. Looking back, The Underfall Yard album reset the band. That was where we started with our songs about landscape and story-telling and where we committed ourselves to using brass and strings as part of the vocabulary of the music. The Difference Machine is probably more of an outlier, as that is heavier and almost chaotic at times. I know some listeners particularly struggle with the first five minutes of Perfect Cosmic Storm. But, as I mentioned earlier, we played Summer's Lease a few weeks back and it sounds like Big Big Train to me. Of the earlier albums, I like English Boy Wonders as that has some good songs on it. But listening to those early albums is difficult for me as the youth and inexperience which is on show outweighs the positive elements.
GRTRoll's resident odd-job-man (the fella who got me hooked on BBT, so please don't hate him!) has estimated that he's played the quartet of Underfall Yard, Difference Machine and English Electric Parts 1 and 2 something like 1,000 times on his way to and from GRTR-HQ, 5 days per week for the last 2 years. He's worried that he might not be normal. Please reassure him - or should I have him sectioned?
If you decide on the sectioning approach, I promise we will visit. He sounds like a very good guy for a band to have as a listener.
He's also an ex-railway signalman, with a houseful of precious artefacts including a genuine English Electric brass sign. He needs to know if you're planning any more railway-themed albums in the future.
Those signs are really beautiful. We are always on the lookout for stories which we can make into songs, and if we find another good railway story like the one on East Coast Racer then it may happen.
And... back to the future... what's next on the Big Big Train timetable?
After the Cadogan Hall gigs we will continue writing our next album which we will finish next year and release in 2019. On the next album, we will be leaving the shores of England and setting some songs in Italy and other parts of the world. We are in discussion with the promoters to play at the Loreley festival in Germany in July next year and I think that is now very likely to happen. In 2019, we are aiming to do a short tour of the UK and a separate short tour in Europe. And we are also looking at options in the United States and Canada. There will be other things happening too. It's back to making hay.
Happy haymaking, and long may the sun shine!
People can listen to the title track from The Second Brightest Star here on Soundcloud, and many more BBT tracks are linked from YouTube.
Click on the first link below for the Big Big Train website, and underneath that are some other interviews which give a more in-depth insight into the recent albums. And if you'd like to vote for Big Big Train in the 2017 Progressive Rock Awards, here's the link!
© Get Ready To Roll - 5th July 2017