An interview with Greg Spawton, August 28, 2015.
Greg Spawton needs no introduction to this audience. He is one of the founders of Big Big Train, its bass player, and, now, one of its two main songwriters and leaders in the band. He is also, not surprisingly, a true renaissance man, interested in everything imaginable and not just large railroad cars! He reads, he travels, he explores. He’s also quite “normal.” He’s a father as well as a husband. He’s, frankly, an all-around great guy.
As most of you probably also know, the five original editors founded progarchy initially as an unofficial Big Big Train fan website. Though we have grown to analyze all music, we will never forget our original purpose. And, thank the good Lord that BBT continues to earn such love and admiration.
Progarchy: Greg, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. It’s always a pleasure. What was it like working in Peter Gabriel’s studio? Did it feel like it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience? Was it a learning experience, or was it really just recording in a large studio, bigger than your normal one?
Spawton: Real World is a unique environment: historic mill buildings converted to cutting-edge recording rooms and facilities set in a beautiful rural location. The studio is fully residential so you eat and sleep on site. The sound engineers are extremely talented and knowledgeable and all of the staff are friendly people who do all they can to make the time that musicians have on site productive and enjoyable. We have spent two weeks there now on two separate occasions and will be recording there again in November so it has become one of our main bases.
Progarchy: Since we last talked, Greg, you’ve added two new members to the BBT lineup? Can you tell us a bit about each and what they’ve brought to the band?
Spawton: Rachel and Rikard have proven to be superb recruits to the band. Initially, they were brought in to help realise the songs in the live environment, with Rachel providing string parts and Rikard guitar and keyboard. However, both are intensely musical individuals and they have added a huge amount to our musical firepower. They are also both lovely people. At this stage in my life, I don’t want to waste any time working with people I don’t get on with, or who are not on our wavelength. The fit with Rachel and Rikard is perfect.
Progarchy: Nice. Can you give us a run down on upcoming BBT projects—any details about content and release dates?
Spawton: There are quite a few things in the pipeline. First to be released should be STONE AND STEEL which will be a DVD / Blu-Ray featuring in-studio live performances from 2014 plus some documentary footage of the band evolving from the studio to the stage. We also hope to include some footage from our recent gigs. The aim is for a November release.
We have a new album which we are working on at the moment. This is called FOLKLORE and will feature up to an hour of new music. It will be released in early June 2016.
Alongside FOLKLORE, we are working on STATION MASTERS which is a three CD release which will serve as an overview of the band’s music up to FOLKLORE. All of the older songs featured (songs from before David became lead singer in 2009) will be re-recorded with the new line-up. This is planned for Spring 2017 and will be released at the time of our next live shows.
Progarchy: Phew. Amazing. Well, that’s a cornucopia for all Passengers! About 2 years ago, in an interview with PROGRESSION [no. 65] magazine, you’d mentioned BBT would release a concept album. Is this the same as FOLKLORE? Or, was that a different project altogether?
Spawton: It is a separate release which will be a double concept album. Much of the music is written for this and some of it has already been recorded. However, it is a big project and we knew we wouldn’t get it finished in the next year, so we decided to write a separate set of songs for FOLKLORE as we wanted to release an album in 2016. We aim to have the double album out in 2017 or 2018.
Progarchy: One of the things that so permeates WASSAIL—all four songs—is the deep layering of mythologies and symbols. From the Judeo-Christian to the Anglo-Saxon mythology of apples, for example, on WASSAIL. Do you intentionally set out to do this, or does this come naturally to BBT?
Spawton: It just happens, really. Themes emerge through conversation between me and David or through our own research. We are both quite ‘bookish’ when it comes to writing lyrics. We like to write about something.
Progarchy: A follow up to the previous question. Where do you see yourself in the current music scene? Would you label yourselves as anything in particular or just as prog rock or rock, broadly defined? A recent issue of PROG, of course, called you folk-prog.
Spawton: They can call us what they like as long as they are listening. We are always very happy to be defined as a prog rock band. Progressive music draws from so many different sources and enables bands to cover so much musical territory. We don’t find the label, or the genre itself, restrictive in any way. A lot of people call us pastoral and there is certainly a folk influence in some of what we do, but we listen and absorb influences from many different types of music. Anything we enjoy, really.
Progarchy: Again, another follow-up, if you don’t mind. It’s possible that the most powerful moment in all of your music is the reading by John Betjeman and the honor you give it and him. Would you do something like this again, and, if so, with what figure(s)?
Spawton: The inclusion of Betjeman’s voice was suggested by Andy Tillison [The Tangent, as almost every one of you knows—ed.]. When I heard it I just thought: ‘of course.’ Subsequently, I have been in touch with the historian Michael Wood and we have discussed using his voice in a spoken word moment. Michael Wood is a very well known English historian and has been a big influence on me. I would like to feature his voice at some stage.
Progarchy: A lot has happened to you this past month. What were your impressions of offering the three shows in London? In personal correspondence many years back now, you’d mentioned to me that you thought the last time you toured, it was a bit unpleasant. My word, not yours, Greg. But, I think I’m close in describing what you wrote to me. Were these three August shows redemption?
Spawton: The last gig played by Big Big Train prior to the shows this year was back in the late 1990’s and didn’t go well. It was at a festival in the Netherlands and we faced lots of technical problems. Our music didn’t fit the festival very well either, so it wasn’t a good experience. However, I don’t connect that in any way to our recent live experiences. Different era, different line-up. If there is any sense of redemption it is more in the overall trajectory of the band. We have turned things around in the last few years. Some of that is through sheer bloody-mindedness, mostly it is because we now have the right line-up for the band’s songs which has taken the music to another level.
Progarchy: During the tour, what moments worked best? Were there any moments in which you thought, “Ok, this is exactly why we wrote or recorded this.” When I lecture, for example, things I’ve always believed become somehow more real or tangible as I state them and place those ideas between me and my students. Did something similar happen with playing the music for you in London?
Spawton: Yes, I know exactly what you mean. There were many moments like that, where things felt fully realised. A few things spring to mind, for example the early instrumental sections in THE UNDERFALL YARD where things really groove now and it takes on a sort of fusion feel and WASSAIL, which is such a fun song to play as an ensemble. One particular bit at one of the gigs sticks in my mind, which was during the faster section in “East Coast Racer” starting with the electric piano solo and ending with the ‘she flies’ moment. I remember looking up at the screen which was showing some film footage and then looking up at the brass band who were in full flow and then seeing a guy in the balcony standing up and extending his arms out as if they were wings and I thought ‘we’re really flying here.’
Progarchy: A personal question, Greg, if you don’t mind. Chris Squire (RIP) just passed away. As a bass player, was he much of an influence on you?
Spawton: Chris Squire developed a particular way of playing which gave him a strong signature. Sometimes, when I become aware that I may be straying onto his territory, I step back. His was an exceptional talent and it is hard to believe he won’t be seen on a stage again.
Progarchy: Beautifully put. And, a fine tribute. On another topic, you’re an avid reader. What are you reading now? History? Fiction? Anything you’ve read recently that really struck you as meaningful?
Spawton: Mainly history at the moment. I have been reading a few books about the dawn of civilisation in recent weeks, back to the Sumerians. Ancient Worlds by Richard Miles is very good. I am trying to follow things through from there and get a good broad grasp of the timelines. Right now I am reading a book by Tom Holland on the Persian / Greek conflict, the original clash between East and West. In the next week or so I need to start some research into the stories I am writing about on FOLKLORE, so there will be some different books coming down from the shelves.
Progarchy: What music are you listening to at the moment?
Spawton: Elbow released a nice EP a couple of weeks ago. And I am still listening to the recent Mew album. The best new thing I have heard recently was by Sweet Billy Pilgrim. I suspect I will be getting all of their albums. I do have some cool gigs coming up. I am seeing King Crimson with David. I also have tickets for PFM, The Unthanks and an acoustic show by Mew.
Progarchy: Thank you so much, Greg. Not to embarrass you too much, but every progarchist is a huge fan of your work. We’re proud not only to know you, but to see the excellence you continue to pursue. Congratulations on all of your recent successes. All well deserved.
BBT’s official website: http://www.bigbigtrain.com
[Earlier this year, Professor Geoff Parks very kindly asked me to contribute to the BBT Concert Book, introducing and celebrating the band live for three dates this past weekend. As any progressive rock lover knows, this happened and, surprising to no one except the members of the band, BBT performed with absolute and utter brilliance. From my perspective, praise of BBT is praise of integrity itself. Below is what appeared in the concert program. I am deeply honored to have been a part of this event, even if armed only with a keyboard and separated by 3,500 miles–Brad]
Over time, most bands fade, while some others merely linger. A few, however, grow, evolve, develop, broaden, deepen, and reach. Toward what? Toward excellence, toward true community, toward art, toward creativity, and toward beauty.
Big Big Train is such a band. More importantly, it is an artistic community, in and of itself.
Founded in the early 1990s when progressive rock had become not just “weird” but almost anathema for most folks, Big Big Train stood for something solid and good even when the footing was unsure. Writing dramatic and cinematic pieces—complete with false starts and re-dos and some clumsy grasps (one album from 2002 is even a four-letter word)—Greg Spawton and Andy Poole pursued their dreams of making their own music. Though they correctly offered pieties to the past of Genesis and Yes, they wanted to be their own touchstone.
Then, something happened. Gathering Speed. At once an homage to the brave who defended the motherland against the rapacious fascists of central Europe, Gathering Speed proved to offer a distinctive sound, a “Big Big Train” sound. Drama, time shifts, jarring passages becoming melodic and melodic becoming ethereal, and truly fine lyric writing made this album a gem.
Then, something happened. Again. The Difference Machine. Astonishingly, even better than Gathering Speed, The Difference Machine told the haunting story of the stars and the souls, and the souls and the stars. At what point do the two become one? Chaos, order, sacrifice, dreams, death, loss. Everything that matters in life (and death) is here, in every lyric and every note.
Then, something happened. Again. The Underfall Yard. Oh, the majesty of that new voice, that voice that so perfectly captures Spawton’s and Poole’s music. That voice doesn’t just define the sound that the two remaining founders of the band had so long pursued, it gives it harmony in a perfect, Platonic sense. The listener begins the album, lulled by that voice. Toward the middle, we don’t know if we’re in Hell, Purgatory, or Holy Mass. By the end of the album, we care desperately that an electrical storm has moved out to sea.
Then, something happened. Again and again and again. English Electric One, English Electric Two, English Electric Full Power. A two cd set with a glorious booklet. And, now, we see what Spawton and Poole had seen for twenty-three years: an idyllic English landscape, marred by human error and the will to destroy. But, also leavened with the will to love, to discover, and to create. English Electric, despite the power implied, is the delicate holding of a soul, a soul that can choose the good or the ill, the true or the terrifying, and the beautiful or the horrific.
And, now, a toast of Wassail to three live dates in London, 2015. There, in the heart of English liberty, the heart of English commerce, and the heart of English dignity. For there, behind wind-swept pioneers, Spitfires, divers and architects, station masters, fallen kings, intriguing uncles, decrepit athletes, shipping manifests, curators, and loyal dogs, lies . . . something.
There, just behind the hedgerow. If you look and listen with attention and care, you’ll find the keepers of all things good, true, and beautiful. They call themselves Big Big Train.
To echo John, “Wow” is a pretty good way of summing it up. “Stunning” and “special” would also do. There are countless superlatives that could be substituted here.
I was thinking a lot about last night’s gig as I travelled north on the train this morning and I’ll share a few of those thoughts here. There’ll be no spoilers, and I’ll not be writing an actual review myself – I’m sure John and other Progarchists will be doing that more thoroughly and eloquently than I could.
The first thing that strikes me is how unusual it is for a well-established band, with such a body of work behind them, to have never before performed as a live act. That’s part of what made yesterday evening so magical to me, aside from the obvious special qualities of the music itself.
Second observation: debutantes could be forgiven some hesitancy or nervousness, and we might not expect them to sound as tight as a more seasoned unit. Yet there was none of that here. The thrill of seeing this music performed in a concert venue for the very first time was greatly amplified by the confidence and assurance of the performers. It simply felt like they’d been doing this as a band for years. (If only they had been…)
Third (slightly shamefaced) observation: I’ll confess to some doubts before last night. I worried about how well that amazing album sound, rich, multilayered and impeccably recorded, would translate to the live setting. Surely some of its depth and subtlety would be lost in the process? Well on that score I’m happy to have been conclusively proven a complete idiot!
These players have taken that advice to “run hard as you like” to heart. Moments that were powerful and energetic on record seemed to take on new power, greater energy. Yet none of the delicacy was lost – a testament to their skill as musicians.
Big Big Train have emerged from the chrysalis, and the splendour of their new form is dazzling.
So proud to have two progarchists as a part of this. Lady Alison and yours truly–BB
From Professor Geoff Parks: At last I can reveal a closely kept secret. A while back I volunteered to put together a programme for the band’s upcoming Kings Place concerts. To my delight that offer was accepted and early in June I sent my efforts on to Greg et al. for approval.
The programme is 24 A4 pages in full colour. It includes profiles of the members of BBT and their support staff, equipment lists and a number of articles that should be of interest to passengers, including a couple of specially commissioned pieces by Alison Henderson and Bradley Joseph Francis Birzer of this parish.
The programme will cost a very reasonable £5.
The section containing the band profiles has been cunningly designed to include convenient spaces for the collection of autographs.
You can see the front cover below.
This, fresh off this morning’s pony. . . .
Here’s a quick round-up of news ahead of the BBT London shows next month:
* Wassail (the song) has been nominated in the Anthem category of the 2015 Progressive Music Awards. Listeners can vote for their favourites here: http://awards.prog.teamrock.com/
* Wassail (the EP) has been flying high in Amazon’s folk(!) charts for over a month. The CD version of the EP is available at Burning Shed: http://www.burningshed.com/store/progressive/collection/506/ and the download and streaming versions are available from the usual sources.
* Wassail t-shirts are available from The Merch Desk: http://themerchdesk.com/shop/index.php?route=product/product&path=87_115&product_id=504
* An interview with David and Greg appears in the July issue of Prog magazine which is on sale now.
* David performed Spectral Mornings with Magenta at two gigs in June.
* For those coming to the BBT gigs at Kings Place, London, next month, please be aware of the gig timings:
Fri 14th & Sat 15th Aug:
Band on stage: 7.30pm
Sun 16th Aug:
Band on stage: 2.00pm
* The “Stone & Steel” DVD, featuring “live in the the studio” performances recorded last year at Real World Studios, is due for release in time for Christmas this year.
* After the gigs in August, we will be returning to the studio to finish work on the next album which will be called “Folklore” and is due for release early in 2016.
Andy, Danny, Dave, David, Greg, Nick, Rachel and Rikard
Music is powerful. C.S. Lewis wrote: “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” [The Weight of Glory]
Music is transcendent and truly exists only among man (whales, wolves, and birds notwithstanding.) who use music to imitate and re-create the ontological, above and beyond the emotions of pain, loss, or even temporary contentment.
As much as I/we may like and enjoy rock and pop music (I do love the Ramones, Beach Boys, and Abba. to name but a few) the true worth of progressive rock music, “prog,” is that it not only frustrates the mere commercial designs of FM station managers and music directors (3-minute bites and bottom line revenues $) but that its subject matter soars above cars, girls, booze, and rebellion.
The greatest prog bands and performers have always opened the listener to challenging vistas of speculative fiction, socio-economic dynamics, and the very heart of man itself—sin and redemption; self-sacrifice and self-reflection; and grace. Whether it’s RUSH with 2112, DREAM THEATRE with Scenes from a Memory, or MARILLION’s Brave, the best of progressive lyrics and engaging musical composition, always enrich, and makes one more human than just about any other genre of current musical fare.
And as much as I love science fiction concept albums or cosmic themed instrumental tone-pieces, there is one theme that touches something very deep inside all of us—the stories of our homes, families, neighborhoods, towns and shires. The idea of place is both nominal and real. We all come from some place and we all want to go back to those special places of the heart—our past and our future—that bring reunion and safe haven.
There are some seminal bands that have addressed these topics of land and earth, i.e. PLACE, and its inextricable connection, at least hitherto, with the wandering and prodigal pilgrims of the age of impermanence. JETHRO TULL gave us the criminally underrated Heavy Horses (and other classics on most of their discography) and Ray Davies & The KINKS produced the greatest of the 1960s musical manifestos to agrarian worth and the encroachments of modernity for modernity’s sake with The Kinks Are The Village Preservation Society. Some of early GENESIS also taps into the vanishing pastoral Britain (parts of Selling England & Wind and Wuthering might be examples). BARCLAY JAMES HARVEST also explored these themes in their 1970s and 80s recordings. John Lees specifically addresses his own background of growing up in Manchester in his 2013 album North.
It doesn’t matter whether one grew up in East London, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Glasgow (Al Stewart’s 45 year career is sprinkled with nods to not just his love for “general” history but to his own roots), Dublin (Horslips) or Topeka, Kansas (Kerry Livgren’s career with and without KANSAS bespeaks a loving and nostalgic nod to his home town and state).
All of the above is my way of saying that progressive music has found its penultimate, if not ultimate, purveyor of music of “place” with BIG BIG TRAIN.
I just listened to my copy of Wassail (which finally arrived from amazon.com) and in a heightened state of “enthused” tranquility wanted to pen a review that wasn’t a review. Nobody can say it any better than Brad Birzer did in his own superb review a few days ago right here ( http://progarchy.com/2015/06/05/a-good-little-truth-bbts-wassail/ ) but I wanted to share just WHY BBT touches so many of us.
The best music, like the best literature, art, and food is not abstract, ethereal, and free-floating in the aether. BIG BIG TRAIN grounds their brilliant songs in their own mother Muse of England; not England of the silver-screen or modern television, but England of the docks, quarries, factories, row houses, back alleys, family tables, and gravesides. BIG BIG TRAIN is the soundtrack to contemplating the “higher things.” Though Wassail is only a four song ep it continues their passage through the seas of brilliance to the Grey Havens of musical Proghalla.
And as much as I love hearing Joey singing “Beat on the Brat,” BIG BIG TRAIN elevates us all in ways that Southern Agrarians, British dock workers, West Virginia coal miners, and families of faith not only understand, but believe in their souls. While BBT writes the truth that the hymnist penned in the words “change and decay in all around I see…” they also place us at the family table of peace and community.
Big Big Train, Wassail (English Electric, 2015)
Tracks: Wassail; Lost Rivers of London; Mudlarks; and Master James of St. George.
As far as I know, I’ve never tasted Wassail.
Of course, I come from Bavarian peasant stock and possess, sadly, not a drop of Anglo-Saxon or Celtic blood in my veins. My wife, however, is blessed with Celtic as well as Swedish ancestry, and I’m more than happy to have played a role in passing those genes on to our rather large gaggle of children.
As far back as I remember, though, my very German-American family drank something that sounds quite similar, at least in essence if not in accidents, to Wassail, Gluhwein. Even the very word Gluhwein conjures not just the scents of warm cinnamon, cloves, and anise, but also the idea of heavenly comfort and satiation.
Much the same could be said of all of Big Big Train’s music. Not that it doesn’t have its share of tensions and darker moments within the music, but, it’s hard to imagine a band in the world today that better understands the goods and beauties of this world than does Big Big Train. They find glory in even the most ordinary of things. And, rightly so.
Wassail is a triumph, frankly. Not a huge triumph in the way The Underfall Yard or English Electric were each immense, almost overwhelming, triumphs, but a triumph, nonetheless.
A good, little truth.
In Greek, one would employ a word that has become utterly perverted over the last hundred years to describe Wassail best: a “dogma.” Literally, translating it from Greek to Latin, a dogma means a “good little thing,” a thing good in and of itself whether we understand its relation to larger truths or not.
Such is Wassail. A good little truth, whether we understand its relation to anything else or not. Only four songs at 25 minutes and 39 seconds, Wassail ends all too quickly. And, yet, for those nearly 26 mintues it plays, it fills our souls to the brim.
The opening song, “Wassail,” is a sing-songy English folk tune, completely with poetic and thoughtful lyrics. Here is the apple—the symbol of the devil, the instrument that caused the Fall, and the fruit that, to this day, brings so much love and joy. How can one thing be so loaded down by so many meanings—from the very existence of the universe and our relation in it, to the very thing that serves at the heart of what our grandmothers make best? This is a Longdon song, pure and simple. It is, for all intents and purposes, the sequel to Hedgerow, but without the rock edge.
The second song, “Lost Rivers of London,” is as much a Greg Spawton-song as the first was a Longdon song. What remains of the ancient world under the very streets of the city that represents so much good and truth in this world? What has nature wrought, our ancestors cultivated, and our current generation forgotten? These are quintessential Spawton questions, and, of course, true to Gregorian form, he serves as our modern natural historian, our urban archeologist, and our prog bard.
The third song, “Mudlarks,” is also a Spawton song, but its fullness comes across as a Big Big Train song more than the song of any one person. On “Mudlarks,” every member of the band, contributes and plays his or her heart out. Of the four songs, this is the most pop-rock oriented, despite the use of a whole set of rather folksy strings.
The final song of the EP, “Master James of St. George,” reveals just how much the band has evolved since the song first appeared—rather gloriously—on The Underfall Yard. Recorded live at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, this version of “Master James” is much more layered than the original. Whereas the original offered a folksy minimalism, this version is layered almost beyond reason. The new strings add much but what really comes to the fore in this version is Danny Manner’s keyboards.
The Wassail version of “Master James” in no way makes the original obsolete. Quite the opposite. This new version just makes those of us who love BBT justifiably a little prouder of them. For, really, this version shows just how truly alive their music is, how much depth it possesses, and long it will be remembered. . . long after any of us have vanished from this world.
Let us just hope when we get there (wherever “there” is), we know which apple to choose. It’s pretty clear that BBT wishes us well, and they’ve even kindly provided the soundtrack for that journey.
Over the past week Progzilla Radio has been broadcasting the choice of its listeners of the top 100 Modern Prog Classics – that is, songs released in the past 25 years (since 1990). The full list can be found at www.progzilla.com, but the top Ten, as voted by the listeners, were:
10: Pink Floyd – High Hopes
9: Porcupine Tree – Anaesthetize
8: Transatlantic – The Whirlwind
7: Big Big Train – Victorian Brickwork
6: Marillion – Neverland
5: The Flower Kings – The Truth Will Set You Free
4: Frost* – Black Light Machine
3: Big Big Train – The Underfall Yard
2: Frost* – Milliontown
1: Big Big Train – East Coast Racer
The title track from the forthcoming Big Big Train EP, due for release on June 1.
Also, it’s only 13 weeks today until the first live show!
This coming Tuesday evening, I will have the great pleasure of giving an academic lecture on the meaning of progressive music as best expressed in the work of Big Big Train. Unfortunately, this lecture will not be open to the public. I will, however, make an audio recording–should any progarchists be interested.
For the same event, I’ll also be giving two lectures on the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and one on the same of G.K. Chesterton.
So excited about this!