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
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.
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!
Having had a chance to listen to a stream (a review copy from the fine folks B/W/R PR) of the new Steven Wilson, I’m very glad to write that it’s profound and good and true and wonderful. I wasn’t so taken with the last album (the RAVEN one), though I thought the first two solo albums quite astounding. And, I pulled out my Chicago DVD show of Porcupine Tree. Sheesh, when Wilson wants to be, he’s incredible. The last solo album I thought a poor mimicry of the work of that ever-wonderful genius, Andy Tillison.
This new album pays homage to late 1970s Rush, but it does so in a way that honors Rush. All to the good.
As the Grammy’s are happening as I write this, I remember how utterly disappointed I was with Wilson a few years ago when he tweeted how sad he was not to have won a Grammy. I responded in my own tweet: “Dear Lord, you are so much better than that!” Or something akin to this.
I meant it.
A Grammy is an albatrossian weight, not a mark or a sign of anything other than bland, tapioca conformity on a corporate scale.
Not watching the Grammy’s, I can happily report that I’m listening to the brand new, deluxe version of Galahad’s EMPIRES NEVER LAST. Let me offer another “sheesh.” What a great album, made even better through remixing and editing. Glorious.
Yesterday, my family and I devoured the new Neal Morse, THE GRAND EXPERIMENT. We are all rather smitten.
Today, I listened to all of Dave Kerzner’s NEW WORLD (deluxe edition) as I made Sunday evening pizza. Again, I’m a rather happy fan.
I also read Bryan Morey’s insightful review of Mike Kershaw’s latest EP, DEPARTURE, featuring lots of FRACTAL MIRROR talent. This got me to thinking about Greg Spawton and his ability to form communities–not only around himself immediately in BBT, but also through the internet. Kershaw, Urbaniak, Kull. . . what a crazy bunch of proggers we all are. And, that Morey. He’s a natural.
And, now, I patiently await the arrival of the new Glass Hammer.
I’m sorry–what awards show is going on tonight? Yeah, I’ve got much better things to listen to, thank you very much.
Greg Spawton comments:
‘Prog is a prison’: Mr Fripp in Classic Rock. I prefer to think of it as a broad church.
Driving across the grass seas of western Nebraska and eastern Colorado this past week, I made sure my listening list was quite specific and quite orderly. Across the western parts of Nebraska, traversing the mighty and winding Platte several times, I listened to Big Big Train, ENGLISH ELECTRIC PART ONE. Not FULL POWER, but the original PART ONE. Back to this in a moment.
Once the Platte split into north and south, I took the south fork, and I went for The Tangent’s THE MUSIC THAT DIED ALONE. Andy always inspires me. But, the combination of Andy and Roine Stolt as my car flew (legally, of course) through such nearly forgotten towns as Julesburg, Ovid, and Sedgwick proved perfect. Andy never fails to find the beauty in lost hope.
A bit of patriotism hit me after The Tangent finished, so I went for Kansas’s THE POINT OF NO RETURN. Amazingly enough, the entire album took me from the ending of THE MUSIC THAT DIED ALONE to our brand new house in Colorado. Truly, as we driving up to the house in Longmont, the final notes of “Hopelessly Human” played.
As promised, back to BBT, ENGLISH ELECTRIC PART ONE (EEP1). First, its pastoral tone fit the Nebraska countryside beautifully. The skies, not surprisingly, were as broad as were deeply blue—the kind of blue one finds only in the Great Plains on a summer day. But, the grasses were a treat as well—variations of greens and golds, generally quite tall and swaying under the pressure of the continental winds.
Second, I’ve not listened to EEP1 for at least a year. Indeed, once ENGLISH ELECTRIC FULL POWER (EEFP) came out, I considered it the definitive edition, putting away PART ONE.
I won’t in any way, shape, or form suggest I had any thing at all to do with the final ordering of EEFP. Such a claim would be nothing but hubris. And, it would be completely false. This was not, however, for want of trying. I bugged Greg openly on the internet and privately through emails about this. I interviewed him about it, and, as a friend, tried to put him in a corner. Greg, the quintessential English Stoic gentleman, quietly (though not in quiet desperation, I pray) took the suggestions of this overly eager and earnest American (overly eager and earnestness are two of our defining traits as a people) with kindness. Thank you, Greg.
I know there was some debate among the progarchists whether or not Greg and Co. were messing with a work of art unnecessarily by re-arranging the order of things and filling in the corners with EEFP. But, from the beginning, I was on Greg’s side. It’s his creation, and he can do with it as he will (and the rest of the members of the band, of course).
Listening to EEP1 this week only confirmed my thoughts. It is a stunningly beautiful, calming, and mesmerizing work. Like all great works of art, it demands full immersion by the participant. Pastoral, it is also equally humane and cinematic. It is a part of the English bardic tradition at its very best. A community of minds and talents produced this album, and we are blessed indeed to exist in a world that allows such works of art to emerge and flourish.
But, for me, especially as a historian, EEP1 is now an incomplete yet intriguing part of a puzzle. It belongs in the archives now, a glorious blueprint, but not quite the complete thing.
This discussion, I think, is not mere mental wrestling. BBT is not just another band, and EEP1, EEP2, and EEFP are not just mere new releases. BBT is a definitive band of prog’s third wave, and EEFP is possibly the finest statement of music over the last two and a half decades. It is the legitimate successor to Talk Talk’s SPIRIT OF EDEN.
How the album came together, how it evolved, and how it is received is not merely academic. It’s now a critical part of our history as lovers of music, art, and human genius. It is now an integral part of the western tradition. Long may it continue.
A review of “The Underfall Yard” from The Underfall Yard by Big Big Train (English Electric, 2009). Song and words by Greg Spawton. Additionally: David Longdon, vocals and vocal arrangements; Dave Gregory, guitars; Nick D’Virgilio, drums; Andy Poole, bass and keyboards; and [see image on right for a full list]
As much I love albums, I’m always looking for that perfect song. The song that longs to linger in our souls after we’ve heard its last notes. The song that cries to the heavens in triumph, praise, and rage. The song that hovers over that second away from eternity, rooted in the human condition, but reaching for timelessness.
In my first two pieces of this series, I looked at Rush’s “Natural Science” (1980) and The Tangent’s “Where Are They Now” (2009)? In this article, I turn to none other than a well-recognized masterpiece, a (perhaps, THE) cornerstone of third-wave prog, “The Underfall Yard” (2009) by Big Big Train. It originally appeared at the final track of Big Big Train’s 2009 album of the same name, the first to feature the vocals of the incomparable David Longdon.
Six seconds short of twenty-three minutes in length, “The Underfall Yard” is epic in every sense of the meaning of the word. I once gave it to a non-prog friend of mine as an introduction to the genre. He liked it (really, who couldn’t?), but he also joked, “Brad, when I started the song, I didn’t realize I’d have to miss dinner to finish it.”
The lyrics of the song reveal its scope best:
Using available light
He could still see far skies,
Beyond, above, and yet below the far skies rests (not contentedly) deep time. Indeed, given the song, one must imagine deep time as equal parts restless but also confident in its restlessness, sure of itself even in its transitions.
Always a superb lyricist, Spawton reveals his most intimate and poetic sense in this song overall. The words are at once hopeful and melancholic, the piece as a whole trapped in a slowly shifting twilight. The loss is of England’s entrepreneurial and industrial moments of the interwar era, the parents Edwardian, but the children Georgian.
As one stands with Spawton, watching this scene fade in golden and royal hues, he might just as readily be standing with King Alfred hopeful against heathen men as hairy as sin; with Harold of Hastings, tilting against a bastard’s armies; or with Winston Churchill, toiling and sweating against those would rend idyllic places such Coventry with insidious and inhumane progress.
Spawton’s words endlessly capture that which is always true but never quite obvious to all at all times.
The opening moments of the song move from an earnest guitar into a driving and equally earnest interplay of bass and drums, Gregory, D’Virgilio, Poole, and Spawton weaving something both tribal and civilized. More guitars appear, jutting and jetting. Strings emerge as if from the land itself. At 1:45, David Longdon’s voice enters into the art itself with the necessary pitch, the perfect lilt and quaver, and a resonant meaning. If Spawton is coming from sacred soil, Longdon is coming from the heavens, thus allowing the horizon and sky to meet in an infinite moment.
Almost uniquely among singers, Longdon possesses both assuredness and humility in all of his vocal arrangements, but none more so than in this song. While his voice is the voice of a man, it also is the voice of a chorus of men, a plea for generations.
Chasing a dream of the west
Made with iron and stone
Man, in Spawton’s vision, if armed with genius and integrity, reshapes the land, not in man’s image, but in the sacramental, Adamic way had things in Eden not soured.
These are old hills that stand in the way
breaking the line.
It came out of the storm,
out of the sea
to the permanent way
Using just available light,
he could still see far.
Even in his broken state, some men–seers, prophets, bards, skalds, poets and prog rockers–can see beyond the immediate, toward that which is far and that which is deep. Of all creatures, they alone can imagine the heights and the depths of existence.
In Spawton’s vision, England becomes not just another place on this earth, but a place sacred, sacred because man has recreated nature, not through domination, but through creative understanding, the soul and the intellect of each in harmony, not tension.
One is reminded of Spawton’s counterpart in the world of poetry, T.S. Eliot.
A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
–T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
Even the timeless moment, though, can not be seen or understood forever. Timeless moments—the light falling on a secluded chapel—lasts only as long as man knows to look for it. As with all things of beauty, truth, and goodness, it is fleeing, at least through our abilities to perceive, incorporate, and understand.
Roofless engine houses
distant hills like bookends
frame electrical storms
moving out to sea
away from England.
Spawton’s words and Longdon’s voice combine to make the above lyrics not only the most moving parts of the song, but combine to make one of the most moving parts of any song in the rock era.
I could never even count how many times I’ve listened to this song over the last five years. Every time, my stomach drops and my heart and soul swell when I hear this. Every single time.
And, yet, despite the loss of the thing itself, the moment in all of the revelation of its glory, Spawton knows—with the greatest thinkers of the western tradition—that memory can comfort us. Perhaps memory alone.
Parting the land
with the mark of man,
the permanent way,
Using just available light,
he could still see far.
The imprint is true. It always exists. We, however, must choose to remember. When we do, the world becomes just a little brighter. Using just available light.
And, thus, Big Big Train reveals its ultimate contribution to the world of art. Somethings are worth remembering, whatever the cost, and memory itself is a precious and delicate thing beyond any cost.
Far skies, deep time.
If you’ve not noticed before, we progarchists kind of, sort of, really, really like Big Big Train. So. . . it’s with much excitement that we report this.
The Classic Rock Society of the U.K. has just awarded BBT with three well-deserved awards: 1) David Longdon for best vocals; 2) “East Coast Racer” as the best track of the year; and 3) Big Big Train as Great Britain’s best band.
The progarchists of progarchy hq in central Hillsdale County of Michigan are doing a little victory dance for our friends across the Atlantic.
Congratulations to Greg Spawton, David Longdon, Nick D’Virgilio, Dave Gregory, Danny Manners, Andy Poole, and Rob Aubrey. And, of course, to Jim Trainer as well. Amazing and brilliant and wonderful.
I had the great privilege of speaking with one of America’s foremost political commentators yesterday, Tom Woods, about progressive rock. It turns out that Tom is a huge progger. I shouldn’t be surprised. I think we’re both the younger brothers of Neil Peart. We really had a field day talking about CLOSE TO THE EDGE, SELLING ENGLAND BY THE POUND, THICK AS A BRICK, PASSION PLAY, IN ABSENTIA, and THE FINAL CUT.
We talked “third wave prog,” too.
Tom was especially interested in the founding and purpose of progarchy. And, for what it’s worth, Tom is as smart and insightful as he is kind. A true gentleman. Here’s a link to our show yesterday. Enjoy.
Also, in September, Tom talked with Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson. Also worth checking out.
Here’s the link to Tom’s website: http://www.schiffradio.com/f/Tom-Woods