An Interview with Greg Spawton
We’re in the middle of perhaps the largest revival of progressive rock—that form of rock music which pursues the artistic and the mythic—since the genre became somewhat suspect as overblown and over-the-top in the second half of the 1970s with the rise of punk. Almost any American over the age of forty can remember the time when long songs such as Yes’s “Roundabout,” Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung,” Kansas’s “Song for America,” and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s “Karn Evil 9” dominated FM radio.
The music of these groups, unlike much rock produced in America, originates not as much from jazz and blues as it does from European forms of classical, symphonic, and operatic music.
In this way, the genre of progressive rock has sought to preserve and extend the best of the western tradition while also being willing to incorporate non-western instruments and rhythms.
Those days of FM dominance are long gone, but the emergence of internet sales and music downloading has allowed accessibility to a number of excellent bands and artists that would have been bypassed by corporate labels over the past three decades as not marketable enough for the immediate fashions of the moment.
Several record labels such as Inside Out, Road Runner, KScope, Spencer Park, English Electric, and Radiant Records specialize in progressive rock.
Long-established acts are re-embracing progressive rock as a label and an aspiration. Rush has just released their most progressive album since the 1980s. Marillion is touring throughout the U.S. right now, and Peter Gabriel will be arriving in North America in the fall. Kate Bush’s “50 Words for Snow” and Tori Amos’s “Night of Hunters” are nothing if not progressive. Other established bands, such as New York’s Dream Theater and L.A.’s Spock’s Beard, have never abandoned their progressive leanings.
Throughout the western world, newish bands are rising and doing so quickly, finding greater audiences than ever before. American progressive acts such as San Diego’s Astra and Austin’s Shearwater have worldwide followings. Out of the United Kingdom over the past two decades has come some of the best and most interesting new music—anything done by Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree, Storm Corrosion), Matt Stevens (solo and Fierce and the Dead), Tin Spirits, Coralspin, Anathema, The Pineapple Thief, Sanguine Hum, and The Reasoning. Out of Scandinavia have come The Flower Kings, Gazpacho, and Sigur Ros. Out of the Netherlands, anything and everything by prog metal artist Arjen Anthony Lucassen is delightful. Out of Italy, Nosound.
Of all of the bands to emerge in the last two decades, though, the definitive progressive act of the current revival is England’s Big Big Train. I am firmly convinced that someone writing for TIC twenty years from now will look back on the genre and determine that while Yes’s “The Yes Album” through “Close to the Edge” was the highpoint of the 1970s, Talk Talk’s last three albums defined the best of the late 80s/early 90s, and Radiohead’s “Ok Computer” represented the best of the best of the late nineties, Big Big Train, beginning with its 2004 album “The Gathering Speed,” will have defined rock for the first two decades of the twenty-first century.
Though Big Big Train has been well known and followed for a considerable time in the United Kingdom and in Europe, only recently have they gained a sizeable American (North and South) following.
The band consists of the original members, Greg Spawton and Andy Poole, along with David Longdon on vocals, L.A.’s Nick D’Virgilio on drums, and Dave Gregory, formerly the guitarist for XTC. Rob Aubrey is the sound engineer, and Jim Trainer has created the album art. In everything these men do, they pursue excellence. Their albums are finely and expertly crafted works of art, with each lyric and each note having its place. And, despite the drumming of an American, Big Big Train is as English as English gets. With its intricate orchestrations, each BBT album possesses an intimate, chamber-like quality, begging the listener with dignity to immerse himself into the very art itself.
On September 3rd of this year, Big Big Train will release its eighth studio album, part one of “English Electric.” Part two will be released in March, 2013. The band has released its nearly five-minute trailer for the September 3rd release, and even the trailer itself—musically as well as visually—is a stunning glimpse into the world of Big Big Train.
Despite his very busy schedule, Greg Spawton, co-founder of Big Big Train, has graciously agreed to an interview.
As you’ll see, I intentionally avoided asking Greg about his views on politics or religion. Frankly, I’m not sure I want to know them. I’m more than content knowing Greg as a friend and as an artist—each thing certainly higher than the narrowing and conformist framework of politics and ideology. I’m more than happy with his explorations of the most meaningful and beautiful things. So, for this piece, we’ll leave the “conservative” out of Imaginative Conservative. But, there’s no question, Greg exemplifies Imaginative. Amen.
You’ll find Greg as intelligent and interesting as you’d expect considering the stunning music he’s produced over two decades. May he continue to do so for at least the next two decades, if not more.
TIC: First, Greg, thanks so much for taking the time to talk. You’re much better known in the United Kingdom and Europe than you are in the Americas. Can you give our readers a history of BBT?
GS: It all started when I met a chap called Andy Poole in 1990 after I moved down from the Midlands to the south coast. We were both songwriters with similar influences and we decided to co-write some tunes. We spent about a year working with two tape recorders hooked together writing lengthy instrumental 12-string pieces. After a while it was clearly time to get some more musicians in and we established a settled five-piece band. We did all the usual things, rehearsed, wrote songs, recorded demos, gigged, hustled. We had a little van and became expert at squeezing all the gear in. After one gig in London, though, it all seemed to go in a little too easily and it turned out, when we got home in the early hours, that we’d left an amp on stage at the venue. The band we were supporting was based in Southampton, just along the coast, and they kindly brought the amp back with them. Andy went to pick it up the next day and met their sound engineer, Rob Aubrey. Rob became one of our dearest friends and has been a very important figure in our career. Rob immediately set us up with a session for a radio station and took us under his wing. We recorded a self-financed album with him and he involved Martin Orford from IQ in the recording sessions. Andy already knew Martin as he’d helped out as a roadie for IQ back when they were called The Lens, so there was a good connection. Martin liked what he heard and we signed to IQ’s newly formed label GEP. We released a couple of albums through GEP, almost became big in Japan (but didn’t!) and then got dropped and started to fall apart. It ended up as just Andy and me again. It was a new decade and we put together another line-up with Sean Filkins on vocals. We put some money into a studio and recorded a couple of albums which we released on our own label. These did better than anything we’d done before and then, through Rob, we came across a chap called David Longdon who was getting back into music after a break. David had called up Martin Orford out of the blue and asked to try out for some songs on Martin’s second solo album, The Old Road. David came down to Rob’s studio and blew Rob and Martin away. Rob was on the phone to us about him five minutes later. David joined us in time to sing and play on The Underfall Yard, which is the album that has moved things forward for us.
TIC: Your band has a fascinating name, especially with the repetition of Big. Where did it come from?
GS: My granddad and uncles spent their working lives on the railways. One of them bought me a train set which was called Big Big Train. My brother was the drummer in a new wave band and named it after that train set. I remembered the name after they split up and took it with me down to Bournemouth. I didn’t think much of it for a long time but I now like the connection with my family.
TIC: Getting back to your origins. You and Andy Poole have been the real bulwarks of the band for over two decades now. How did you and Andy meet?
GS: I got a job when I moved south and Andy was working there. I’d mentioned on my job application that I played guitar and Andy came up to me the first day to find out a bit more. We connected immediately and ended up talking for hours. I’ve probably spent more time with Andy than with any other person and we have rarely exchanged a cross word.
TIC: Having listened to your music for quite some time, I’m not at all surprised by this. You’re famous for being very tight in vision as well as execution. Prog rock fans are obsessed with genealogy and lineage, far more so than in any other genre of music. That said, what were your influences musically and lyrically? Did you and Andy have a common vision from the beginning?
GS: We found out on that first day that we shared very similar influences. The obvious link was Genesis and Yes, but we also liked Van Der Graaf Generator and PFM [the Italian band, Premiata Forneria Marconi]. We started testing each other with more and more obscure bands. In the end, I threw IQ at him as I assumed he would never have heard of them but, of course, he had. There were some other bands we both loved that were not normally thought as progressive but have always been important to our sound. In particular, there was XTC and Prefab Sprout. As for a common vision, I don’t think we had one at the start, to be honest, beyond wanting to write good music and words.
TIC: That naturally leads to another question regarding the same topic, Greg. “Progressive” was a somewhat unpopular genre and label when you founded BBT. Though the 1980s saw lots of really interesting progressive rock music, almost no one admitted to the label itself, identifying progressive rock with “dinosaurs”. Did this worry you at all? Did you consider yourself progressive from the beginning?
GS: Certainly, our major influences were progressive. But, I have to be honest, we did want to make a living from music, so we didn’t feel we could entirely ignore what was happening in the music business. Back then, prog rock appeared to be over and, when we looked around, there wasn’t very much we could latch on to in terms of a possible way forward. There were still a few bands from the ‘neo-prog’ scene plugging away, such as Pendragon and IQ, but the surviving classic bands were no longer at their best and many of the most exciting artists from the 80’s such as Talk Talk and David Sylvian seemed to be winding up. This was before the internet so we were pretty much oblivious to anything that was happening elsewhere. One band that had been successful in Britain in the late 80’s was It Bites and, looking back to the beginning, we were certainly influenced by their approach. They blended up-tempo rock with prog and so we followed a similar template with our first demo. However, by the time we’d got to our first album “Goodbye to the Age of Steam,” we had found a different blend of styles and a sound that was more our own.
TIC: So, what does “progressive” mean to you?
GS: To me, ‘progressive’ is a term which describes a genre of music. That genre emerged from the rock and pop music of the 60’s and became fully defined in the early 70’s. But what I think may be the sub-text behind your question is whether bands writing and performing music in the progressive genre need, by definition, to be striving for some sort of statement of originality in everything they do. I think not, but I am aware that many others take a more absolutist view of things and this has caused an endless debate. In The Music’s All That Matters, Paul Stump makes some very interesting observations. Early on in the book, he correctly identifies that the main problem with progressive rock is its name (he calls it ‘the most self-consciously adjectival genre in all rock’.) Another point that Paul Stump makes is about what unites the musicians of the genre. He says they have ‘a hankering after the transcendent’. I really like that phrase as it can take on a broader meaning than ‘progressive’. In Big Big Train, we combine our influences in a way, which is often original. But trying to do something different isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. What we are really trying to do is to make extraordinary music.
TIC: How English do you see your music?
GS: There are significant elements of the music that are rooted in England or Britain. The brass band that we’ve used on the last two albums has become an important part of our sound and certainly gives the music an English feel. David [Longdon] has also brought the folk influence forward as well, so we are drawing on a number of English traditions. And progressive rock itself is rooted, for the most part, in England, so that’s another set of typically English influences. As for the lyrics, I’ve been interested in English history and landscape since I was a youngster and have found that there are stories all around which are just waiting to be told or retold. I’ve spent time in Bristol and York and London recently and I came back with lots of ideas for songs I’d like to write about each of these places. But we do also look further afield for influences and subjects. For example, “The Wide Open Sea” on the “Far Skies” EP was about Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel.
TIC: Lyrically, you often focus on eccentric men of genius who have been ignored by history and most historians. Has this been conscious on your part?
GS: I think that’s just the type of story I’m attracted to. Why certain things get hard-wired into popular history and others don’t is a mystery. Why is Alfred the Great remembered, whereas Athelstan is not? It’s good to retrieve some of the less-well known stories and give them a wider hearing. I’ve been particularly pleased with the response to our song “Winchester Diver” which is a well-known story in Winchester, but very obscure beyond the bounds of the city.
TIC: Your newest album, already mixed and recorded, comes out on September 3. Can you give us some background on the new album?
GS: “English Electric” is a double album, split into two separate releases, part the first coming out in 2012 and part two in 2013. There isn’t a story or concept that links every song together, but there are a number of themes. Many of the songs are an exploration of the English landscape and the communities of men and women who work on and under the land and who have helped shape the landscape.
There is a pivotal character on the first album, which is David’s “Uncle Jack.” He was a coal miner who lived for the countryside and used to spend his spare time walking along the hedgerows with his dog, Peg. He links the songs which are set under the ground, or in other dark places, with the countryside songs. At times it’s an album with a sense of joy but it also explores some more difficult themes and there is also an air of melancholy about some things that are gone forever. There has been immense cultural and economic change in the last fifty years or so and this seems to be accelerating. I’m not being nostalgic, change can often be a good thing and many aspects of life are far better than ever before. But we’ve also lost things along the way, things that bound us together in communities.
TIC: No debate on that, Greg. At least not from me. Can you explain the process of writing, recording, and mixing?
GS: It’s an organic process. The songs will come from two sources, either from me or from David. Sometimes we will work independently and bring a completely finished song to the band, at least in terms of composition. Other times we get so far and then work together to finish things off. There are more joint compositions on “English Electric” than ever before and it’s something I’m finding very productive and enjoyable. I was a bit protective of the song-writing territory before David joined, but I’m now completely open to collaborative working. The best songs will make it onto the albums; it doesn’t matter who has written them. Once the chords, melodies, and basic structures for the songs are in place, it’s over to the musicians to help with the arrangements and make the songs special. I’m not a very good musician and I am genuinely in awe of the skills that Dave and Nick bring to the songs. On “English Electric” we have also collaborated with a number of other musicians including Andy Tillison [of the band, The Tangent] on organ, Danny Manners on piano and double bass, and Rachel Hall on violin. Again, I am astounded by their performances. The brass and string arrangements are also very important to the songs. We sometimes give Dave Desmond (brass) or Dave Gregory or Louis Philippe (strings) some basic melodies for their arrangements but what comes back is greatly developed and enhanced. At other times they start with a completely blank canvas and only the barest style-notes from us. Once the recording is done it’s over to Rob Aubrey for mixing. His job is to bring all of the elements together to create a cohesive final release. We are in touch with him all of the way through the mixing process and will keep listening and tweaking until we’re all as happy as possible.
TIC: How do you get the lyrics to fit the music, or does the music fit the
lyrics? That your lyrics work so seamlessly with your music is, frankly, an endless source of joy for me.
GS: Typically, a song will start with a title and an idea of what the lyrics will be about. There may be a phrase or refrain to go with the melody. For example, on “A Boy in Darkness,” David had the words for the chorus and knew what he was going to write about, but he only had the melody for the verses. It stayed that way for a long while, as he needed time to develop the lyrics. Both of us spend a lot of time on the lyrics. We do a lot of research and thinking about the subject matter. The challenge is to write words, which are pleasing to read and also to listen to.
TIC: You’ve been extremely gracious with your time, Greg. Just a few more questions. Who do you listen to now?
GS: My favourite music of recent years is from a Danish band called Mew. They write extraordinary, beautiful, complex songs. I’ve also been listening recently to Ben Folds, The Unthanks, Midlake, Doves, Elbow, and Richard Hawley.
TIC: With whom would you like to work, if given the chance?
GS: We are very privileged to be surrounded by people who we love working with and who are right for BBT so I’m happy with how things are. However, one person I’d really love to work with is a historian called Michael Wood who has been a major influence. He made a TV series for the BBC in the 70s called “In Search of the Dark Ages” and it made a big impression on me. I’ve followed his work ever since and I would love to get his voice on one of our recordings.
TIC: Would you ever want to expand English Electric, your company, and bring in other artists and groups?
GS: It’s something we’d consider but I’m not sure we’d want to cross that line from artist to record company.
TIC: Yes, I could see how that might be an odd line to cross. If you weren’t a professional musician, what would you like to do or have done professionally?
GS: Well, even now I have to work part-time in a job I don’t like very much to make ends meet. But when I was younger, I did have a number of opportunities to be an archaeologist and I would like to have followed that up.
TIC: That definitely explains some of your lyrics. What advice would you give someone hoping to embark on a similar artistic career path?
GS: I wouldn’t recommend it at the moment. The music industry is in a very unstable position and it is difficult to predict how things will go. Practically speaking, anyone with a burning desire to be a musician should try and get some other work which is flexible as they will struggle to make a living. Persistence and, of course, talent may pay off. It’s good to be hopeful, as some musicians still make a great success of things, but for every Steve Wilson there are a thousand others, so having realistic goals may make life more satisfying.
TIC: Final question, Greg. What’s your favorite beer?
GS: A difficult question as it changes all the time. We can often be found drinking beer from Bath Ales or from our local Ringwood Brewery. Spitfire seems to work in the studio. We were sent a crate of Wylam’s Rocket recently and that was very tasty. Real ale seems to be increasingly popular in Britain so we’re spoilt for choice and if I’m travelling I tend to go with beers local to wherever I happen to be.
TIC: Thank you so much, Greg. For everything. We’ll eagerly await the arrival of English Electric, Vol. 1. Our best to you.
GS: And to you, Brad.
Big Big Train sells its CDs through its own company, English Electric. All titles available can be purchased from bigbigtrain.com; English Electric Vol. 1 is now available for preorder. The band graciously allowed me a hearing of five of the eight forthcoming tracks from EE1. In every way, they are stunning and beautiful. All of the traditional complexity of Big Big Train’s music is there, and the music and lyrics carry a real depth to them. The vocals, not surprisingly, are impeccable, and the subjects of the songs cover everything from the wonders of the seasons and the complexities of nature (“Uncle Jack”) to betrayal (“Judas Unrepentant”) to the horrors of child abuse (“A Boy in Darkness”) to the nobility of defending one’s homeland (“The First Rebreather.”) As always, every thing is in its perfect place with Big Big Train.
In the past, I’ve written in rather glowing terms of BBT at other websites. A sampling:
At Ignatius Insight:
Last year’s The Underfall Yard, followed up by the shorter Far Skies Deep Time, incorporates a significant variety of instruments: not only the traditional guitar, bass, and drums of rock, but also piano, organ, keyboards, cello, brass, woodwinds, accordion, mandolin, banjo, and even a glockenspiel.
The lineup of the band also includes an array of highly skilled musicians. XTC’s former guitarist, Dave Gregory, plays throughout the album, and Frost*’s Jem Godfrey, offers an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer-style keyboard solo on the final track. Most importantly, from my perspective, though is L.A. drummer, Nick d’Virgilio. Everything this guy touches—from his own band, Spock’s Beard, to Frost* and Big Big Band—seems to turn to pure magic. At a younger moment in my life, I would have proclaimed it heresy to ever equate the talent, drive, or skill of any drummer to Neil Peart of Rush. From my middle-aged and untrained ear, though, I think d’Virgilio is in every way Peart’s equal. In terms of skill, simply put, he might be our greatest living drummer.
On these last two albums, The Underfall Yard and Far Skies Deep Time, Big Big Train has adopted, as their lead singer, the bardic and Richard Thompson-esque, David Longdon. Armed with a folk singer’s voice, but without the working-class tilt, Longdon brings just the right emotion to the songs, whether the songs deal with the death of an English soccer player in the 1930s or with the decay and destruction of Victorian-era technology. Indeed, though Longdon can bring an element of mischievous joy to his songs, his voice, more often than not, holds a twilight, autumnal quality of longing and melancholy. Regardless of how I might describe it here for Ignatius Insight Scoop, Longdon’s voice calls to the most essential parts of me.
But, as with almost all art, the ingredients and materials comprise, at most, only half of the final product. The skill—whether in baking, writing, painting, or composing—comes in the ability to see connections of one thing to another and to follow through on those connections, making them beautiful to he who listens or sees or experiences the art in some way. Big Big Train, led by Spawton and Poole, does this masterfully. Not a note, not an instrument, and not a voice is out of place. None of this is to suggest that the music is predictable; it’s far from it. But, the end result of pulling together so many ideas, instruments, voices, etc., is not chaos, but harmony, unity, and brilliant centricity.
And, yet, in some joyous and mysterious way, the music remains gleefully eccentric as well.
When I bask in the music of the very, very English progressive rock band, Big Big Train, I feel—at the deepest possible levels—each of these quintessentially British traits: perseverance for the good no matter the cost; and a singular melancholic intensity.
As with every other BBT release, “The Difference Machine,” simply stuns me, and it does so even more with each new listen. Indeed, I treasure each new listen, for I keep discovering layers and depths and things and beauty and sadness. I’m sure there’s a limit to the creativity that went into “The Difference Machine,” but I’ve yet to find its outer or inner most boundaries.
To me, Big Big Train—its history, its perseverance, its openness to its listeners and followers through the internet, its musicianship, its desire for reaching perfection, its poetic and imagist lyrics—represents the very best of what exists in music today. This is far from feint praise, for there’s a considerable amount of competition out there—some almost equally fine music from groups as diverse as Porcupine Tree, Gazpacho, and others.
BBT only increases my love of things English.
Having the privilege of getting to know Greg a bit through correspondence and listening to even more music since I wrote these things above. . . my view of BBT only increases in appreciation. It’s enough simply to know that there are folks out there pursuing beauty in all its splendor and nuance. But, in fact, I do more than know—I get to experience the majesty of it all and immerse myself in the art.
After having spent some quality time with a little over half of what will be released as “English Electric” in September, I can state without hesitation that BBT has even bested their own standards of excellence. “A Boy in Darkness,” especially, is one of the most deeply moving songs I’ve ever encountered.
If you’re interested in exploring any more BBT, please check out their official site. The band has provided a number of songs, including their 23-minute masterpiece, “The Underfall Yard” for free.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.