Brown M&Ms, Writing Grooves, Natural Historians, and Big Big Train: The 2013 Interview, Part I

I would love to give an elaborate introduction, but, really, I’ll be very honest with myself–you’re here to read the words of Andy, Dave, Danny, and Greg.  They very graciously gave us a significant amount of their time.  All Progarchists eagerly await the release of Big Big Train’s much anticipated conclusion to the highly successful English Electric Part One.  The first half released only last year represents, for me at least, the finest album in the rock world since Talk Talk’s 1988, “Spirit of Eden.”  No pressure, guys.

Ok, Brad, remember you promised to bloviate only very, very little. . . .

Progarchy proudly presents an exclusive interview with Big Big Train (though, feel free to make this less exclusive and repost anywhere and everywhere).

Spawton bass
Photo by Willem Klopper.

N.B. AP is Andy Poole, DG is Dave Gregory, DM is Danny Manners, GS is Greg Spawton.  Progarchy interview conducted by Brad.


Progarchy: Greg, EE1 did extremely well in terms of critical response. Did its success surprise you at all? If so, what part of it surprised you?

GS: We believed we had made a strong album but by the time the mix is finished, all objectivity goes out of the window so you never really know what will happen when others get to hear it. I think we were a little anxious about the number of other albums being released last year, and English Electric started shipping at around the same time as Sounds That Can’t Be Made, so we worried about whether it would get lost amongst all of the attention that CD was going to receive. A couple of weeks ago, Prog magazine published its readers’ polls for 2012. It only really hit home to us when we saw the results of those polls as to quite how much reach English Electric has achieved. It was surprising and very pleasing to be up there with Rush, Marillion, Porcupine Tree and Anathema.

Progarchy: Does its success change at all what you think about BBT?

GS: BBT is six chaps making music. However well we do, that’s all I think of it as.

DM: We haven’t reached the stage yet where our rider has a “no brown M&Ms” clause.

Photo not by Willem Klopper.

GS: I suspect it has changed how others view us. I read a couple of reviews recently where the album was described as being ‘hyped’ and I felt a little indignant as that misrepresents us. We’ve promoted it sure, but not in an excessive way. If other people write or talk about something, that isn’t hype.

Progarchy: How much of EE2 was written before EE1? That is, how much of this album is a response to the last? Or, are they really two parts of a whole?

GS: All of the songs were written and recorded as part of the same sessions. Any of the songs on Part Two could have been on Part One instead and we had mixes of all 15 tracks before EE1 was released. However, once we knew the track-listing for EE1, those eight songs on the first part got our maximum attention to make sure they were ready for release. As soon as EE1 was out we then went back to the EE2 tracks and continued to work on them.

AP: We wanted to take full advantage of the 6 month gap between the two albums to make sure all of the songs were at their best. That sometimes meant a bit of a rethink about the arrangements. East Coast Racer, in particular, benefitted from us being able to spend more time on it. We always thought it was a good track but now I think it’s one of our best.

Progarchy: Was the writing process much the same as the last album and previous albums? David clearly offered much in terms of lyrics and song ideas. It it the same with EE2?

Nick, Andy, Dave, David, Danny, Greg.  Photo by Willem Klopper.
Nick, Andy, Dave, David, Danny, Greg. Photo by Willem Klopper.

GS: We’re really in a groove with the writing now and have very established way of working within the band. I’ve written more of EE2 than EE1, but that’s just to do with how the track-listing fell. In fact, David has already written a lot of material for our next studio album and we’ve recorded Nick’s drums for some of the songs. The other guys are heavily involved in arrangement and, in truth, there can be a blurry line between writing and arranging. The accepted practise is that the songwriter is the person that composes the chord sequence, the main melody and the words. However, sometimes the parts written by the musicians for those chord sequences and melodies can be as important as the underlying music. So, the songs evolve at the hands of all of us.

Progarchy: Can you tell us about some of the themes–musically and lyrically–of EE2. The titles are poetically enticing, and there’s, of course, a huge anticipation on the web as to what the titles mean. Curator of Butterflies? Worked Out? The Permanent Way? Keeper of Abbeys (my favourite title)? For better or worse, I have lots of James Marsh images floating around in my head as I visualize the possible meanings of the titles.

GS: English Electric isn’t a concept album but it is an album with a number of themes linking many of the songs. On EE2 some of the songs pick up on the subject matter of songs from EE1 whilst others head off in different directions. Swan Hunter and Worked Out are both about lost working communities (from the shipyards and the mines) so those follow on from songs like Summoned By Bells. East Coast Racer is set in the 1930’s when a group of people designed and built a steam train called Mallard which ran very fast indeed. It’s a great adventure story. Leopards is a love song and provides an important contrast with some of the more epic material. Keeper of Abbeys is about a chap I met at a ruined abbey in the north of England. This man worked from dawn until dusk every day, tending to the stones. I got to know him a little bit but used my imagination to join up the missing parts of his story. Curator of Butterflies is inspired by a woman called Blanca Huertas who is the Curator Lepidoptera at the Natural History Museum. I read an article about her where she said the study of butterflies can allow so many tales to be told. The song is about how narrow the line is between life and death. I was very anxious about it sounding trite and so I wove a character into it to make it a story and tempt me away from spouting platitudes. Finally, The Permanent Way is the pivotal track where we try to bring everything together.

Progarchy: There’s lots of excitement about you joining, Danny. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to join BBT?

DM: Well, I started off learning classical piano from a young age, and later became very interested in twentieth century classical music – at one point I was fairly obsessed with Stravinsky and had serious ambitions to be a composer. In my teens I also took up double bass (and later bass guitar) and got heavily into modern jazz and jazz-rock. You could say I was always into “progressive” music in the broadest sense of the word. But also, I was at school in the mid-seventies when some of the classic prog rock albums were being released, or had recently been released, and handed round on vinyl. I remember really liking early Yes, and Gentle Giant – still a favourite band. After that, I was more interested in the Canterbury end of prog, probably because of the jazzier connections. At university, as the eighties started, I became fascinated with some of the new wave bands that were combining the more advanced musical ideas I was already into with the stripped-down aesthetic of punk, which I’d initially been completely affronted by! XTC became a particular favourite, and a big influence on a university band I played bass guitar in and wrote for. (It got nowhere, although the members all had interesting careers in music afterwards.)

After that I played a lot of jazz, and some free improvised music, on the London scene – on double bass.  I joined a big band, The Happy End, which mixed up Kurt Weill, Sun Ra, swing, and protest songs from around the globe into a joyful, ramshackle stew, and got heavily involved for a few years gigging and writing arrangements for them – a highlight was working with Robert Wyatt, who made a guest appearance on a Happy End album. Gradually, I also became involved with various alt, leftfield or indie rock/pop singer-songwriters. The notable ones were: Sandy Dillon – that’s a female Sandy – originally from the US, whose band mixed blues and roots with the avant-garde, with Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart as major influences; Cathal Coughlan, one of the best lyric writers I know, whose voice and songs can range from beautiful ballads to corruscating anger; and, most importantly, Louis Philippe, a Frenchman resident in London, whose music mixes influences from the great pop writers like Brian Wilson or Burt Bacharach, classical music, jazz, French chanson…. I’ve worked with Louis for 25 years now, initially as a bassist, but later also as keyboard player and arranger, and as a participant in some of his production work for other artists.

In 1995, I think, Louis showed me a letter he’d been sent by a fan, who turned out to be David Longdon. David had included some of his own music, and was obviously hugely talented as a singer, songwriter, instrumentalist and arranger. So Louis had no hesitation in asking him to do a gig with us, and then to participate in Louis’s next few albums. (Also featured on those was Dave Gregory, who Louis had met when arranging and producing an album for labelmate Martin Newell.) I stayed friends with David, and he kept us informed about the Genesis near-miss, but we didn’t see each other for a while after that as we were both busy with young families. I do remember him telling me he’d joined a prog band, although the name Big Big Train meant absolutely nothing to me at that point. (I hadn’t kept up with contemporary prog at all.) Then a couple of years ago, he asked if I’d put down some double bass for a song called British Racing Green…ee2

Happily, the band liked it. I think David had possibly recommended me for the keyboard chair earlier than this, but Greg and Andy may have been wary because I didn’t have any track record specifically in the prog field. However, when they started work in earnest on EE1 they asked me to see if I could do anything with the piano on a couple of songs. Again, it turned out to our mutual satisfaction, and in the end I contributed to almost every track, did a bit of arranging on Summoned By Bells, and stuck my nose in at the mixing stage as well.  By the time attention turned to finishing off EE2, I was pretty much fully involved, so it made sense to them to ask me to join the band officially. I really liked the fusion they’d arrived at on EE, blending folk  and acoustic instruments into the prog and other elements already there, and it was a great opportunity to work with fabulous players like Dave G and Nick, so I didn’t have any hesitation in accepting.

On EE2 I’m playing keyboards a bit more – including an honest-to-goodness, “I’m prog and I’m proud” synth solo – and it’s going to be quite exciting exploring further on future releases.

Part II tomorrow.–Ed.  To order English Electric Part II, please go here–BBT’s official shop.

3 thoughts on “Brown M&Ms, Writing Grooves, Natural Historians, and Big Big Train: The 2013 Interview, Part I

  1. Pingback: The Permanent Way: The Music of Big Big Train | Progarchy: A Celebration of Music

  2. Pingback: Getting Started with Big Big Train | Progarchy

  3. Pingback: GrimspoundPaLooza: Big Big Train | Progarchy


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