N.B. AP is Andy Poole, DG is Dave Gregory, DM is Danny Manners, GS is Greg Spawton. Progarchy interview conducted by Brad.
Progarchy (BB): When you put EE1 and EE2 together, how do you expect the listeners to see the whole EE? Say, 20 years from now, few will have had the experience of getting one, then the other. It will most likely be just EE. Do you expect your listeners–me, for example, or anyone else–interpreting EE1 differently in light of EE2? In particular, I think about a track like Hedgerow. As you probably know, Greg, I consider this the single finest conclusion to any album. Ever. Period. Even better than Abbey Road, which had that position for me prior to hearing EE1. But, when I do get to hear EE2, I will now see Hedgerow as the middle song.
GS: You’ve put your finger on something that has caused us a fair bit of soul-searching Brad. At first, we had a fairly straightforward view on this which was simply: ‘it’s a double album, but we’ll split it into two separate releases’. Our reasoning was that 2 hours of music is a lot for the listener to get their head around which can initially cause under-appreciation of the double album in question. We were also aware that if you release so much music at one time, you get one round of publicity then the world moves on. If you split the release into two, the band is in the spotlight for a longer period of time. The only downside to this release strategy is that English Electric becomes seen as two separate pieces of work and so we always planned to release a special double edition bringing it all together. The thing is though, and as your question makes clear, it’s not as simple as we thought it would be. If you’re splitting an album into two you do have to try to make two satisfying separate halves, which is what we have tried to do. And that isn’t the same as sequencing a whole double album. So, the question we began to ask is: what do we do when we prepare the double Full Power edition? Do we simply stick Part One and Two together or do we start from scratch and re-sequence it as a double album? You mention Hedgerow as being a strong concluding track but we’ve also got Curator of Butterflies which is, we think, another strong end-piece. Which one of those takes precedence and gets to close the double album? And what happens with the three extra tracks we’re including? Where do they fit in? What we now think we’ll do is to start again from scratch and re-sequence Full Power as a double album without any reference to the orders on EE1 and EE2. It may be that we find some of the sequencing on EE1 and EE2 also works for EEFP and if it does, it does. Or it may be that the sequencing is completely different. In any case, the additional tracks will inevitably change the feel of things. The other question you raise is what happens when EEFP is released? Does that mean that EE1 and EE2 should go out of print? If not, will any new listeners buy them or will they go straight to EEFP? This is, I think, something we’ll have to keep under review. If EEFP turns out to feel like a very different listening experience to EE1 and EE2, then it makes sense to keep them all in print. Of course, the extra tracks will also be available on an EP and as downloads to make sure listeners don’t feel obligated to buy a double album just to hear three new songs. So, for many people their experience of English Electric will be as three separate releases.
Progarchy (BB): Tell me about the additional songs added to the full package? Will there be much new artwork?
GS: There are three strong new songs. They are not leftovers from the original sessions but have been recorded specifically for EE Full Power. One of them is a sort of bookend love song to go with Leopards. Another builds on the main album themes of working communities and the English landscape. And the final one is something very different for us.
AP: As regards the artwork, I’m working on a lavish design with a comprehensive booklet telling the stories behind the songs and behind the album.
Progarchy (BB): After EE2, you’ve announced plans to release Station Masters. Can you give us some details about this? Will it be reworked older tunes? Are there some new tunes?
GS: It’s a triple CD which aims to tell the story of the band. All recordings will be with the new line-up so songs from albums prior to The Underfall Yard will be entirely re-recorded. Some of these are radically re-worked, others are fairly close to the originals but with the strong performances that the current line-up is capable of. Even more recent material may be reworked to some extent. For example, I always wanted to feature violin in The Underfall Yard but we didn’t have a violinist at the time. Rachel Hall will feature on the updated version. Wherever we look back and think something could have been better, we’ll make it better.
Progarchy (BB): Will anything else come with the CDs? Any kind of BBT timeline or a poster? Concert DVD?
AP: There may be some video or other visual material. We haven’t made any final decisions on that yet.
Progarchy (BB): Where do you see BBT’s place the history of rock and the history of prog rock?
GS: I think it’s too early to make an assessment. There are many drafts of history. I hope we’ll find ourselves as more than just a footnote when later drafts are written. However, progressive rock is a fairly contained world and we’re a long way away from making any sort of breakthrough in the broader rock and pop worlds.
Progarchy (BB): You have an immensely large and loyal fanbase. How does this affect you or the band’s approach to music and the music world?
GS: We’re really lucky with our fanbase. They seem to us in all of our interactions to be a thoroughly decent and likeable bunch. The feedback we’ve had over the years has been really important. To hear that what we like to write about resonates with others and particularly that we’ve moved people with our music makes a huge difference.
Progarchy (BB): What is your view on packaging the material? You sell lots of downloads, and we live in a download world (for better and worse), but you also put a lot into the packaging of your CDs. Which I love. As you might remember, after I downloaded all of your albums up to The Underfall Yard, I contacted you because I wanted to purchase physical copies. And, it was worth the investment. Why do you consider it so important for BBT to have such beautiful packaging, especially in day and age? And, would you say such quality packaging should be important for all bands?
AP: The ideal package for us is a presentation of the words, music & images. The artwork is integral and we have been very fortunate over the years to have teamed-up with Michael Griffiths, Jim Trainer and Matthew Sefton who have each provided inspiring works that both complement & advance the sensory delivery of our albums.
Growing up with vinyl in the 70’s, you had an ingrained sense of interacting physically with an album … the touch, feel & smell of a new gatefold release was savored and an essential part of the experience … quite apart from placing a stylus in the groove and being aurally transformed to a progressive world of music where none of the old rules applied.
The initial advent of hurriedly released compact discs in their horrid plastic jewel cases and Lilliputian inserts amounted to instantly inferior packaging largely forgiven by consumers for the promise of digital sound.
We migrated to digipaks for the enhanced tactile experience, albeit in miniature compared to vinyl, and greater flexibility to represent the visual artists who collaborate with Big Big Train.
Although it is tempting to suggest and hope that other bands disregard the importance of physical product packaging to our advantage, I actually believe that it behooves us all to raise the quality bar up high and to the reasonable limits of affordability.
DG: It was certainly a very important factor with XTC. Andy Partridge claimed that every time he finished writing a song, he’d design a sleeve for it just in case it was chosen as a single! But then, he’s a very talented artist and can’t help himself. I’m certain sales of many of our releases were multiplied as a result of the packaging, as well as boosting the band’s ‘arty’ credentials.
Progarchy (BB): I’m always amazed at what a community BBT is. That is, it’s clear–from the music as well as things such as FB posts, etc.–that you each really like one another. There’s no sense of brilliant radical individuals working next to each other (such as in certain early Yes albums), but a true sense of group brilliance, an organic whole. What do you think accounts for this?
GS: From my point of view I come back to something I’ve said before – surround yourselves with talented people and things start to happen. There is something else as well though, and that is that the guys in the band are all thoroughly good chaps. We’ll all hold strong positions from time-to-time and we say what we think but good manners are important. Speaking of Manners, you’re the new boy, Danny, do you have any observations?
DM: Some of it is simply that there are no huge egos in the band, whether by luck or by conscious or unconscious choice. (Medium sized, maybe, but not huge!) However, one musical thing that strikes me is that the band members aren’t over-specialized – BBT doesn’t consist of “the singer”, “the drummer”, “the guitarist”, etc., all vying for the spotlight. Everyone is a multi-instrumentalist to at least some extent, and everyone also has writing and/or arranging experience, so there’s much more focus on making the music work as a whole.
DG: Don’t forget also that we’re grown men, not ambitious youngsters. We are focused on the music at all times, because we love it. Both Greg and David, as writers, are extremely accommodating in terms of accepting ideas and contributions from all of us; they have yet to display any serious proprietorial tendencies when it comes to protecting their original vision. Which is not to suggest that it’s an open free-for-all; we live with the songs for months, plenty of time to assimilate their essence, so we’re generally united in the common aim, ultimately.
Progarchy (BB): And, how do you see the role of Rob as engineer or any guest musicians you bring in? That is, how integral are they to a BBT sound, if such a particular thing exists.
GS: It’s an evolving sound and it will continue to develop. We have some really important collaborators at the moment and I envisage we will continue to work with many of them in the long-term. Certainly, Dave Desmond (who plays trombone and arranges the brass band) and violinist Rachel Hall will have significant input into Station Masters. As for Rob, he’s the seventh Train and our dear friend.
Progarchy (BB): Where do you see BBT after Station Masters?
GS: I’d like us to be playing some shows at some stage. It would be good to do something around the time of Station Masters and then something around each release after that. As mentioned earlier, we have another album well underway and have started recording it so that is likely to come out in 2015.
Progarchy (BB): Any final thoughts on the current and future state of rock?
GS: In Britain, the last of the high-street record stores has gone into administration. I guess there are similar issues in other countries. The supermarkets have stepped into the breach and will only really sell music in the pop charts, so the route through traditional music-distribution is closing down to most progressive bands. However, online, the choice is very broad and the issue there is getting noticed amongst all of the competition. Making a living out of music is going to get harder still but it’s been a labour of love for most folk and jazz musicians for years and I don’t see why it should be different for rock bands.
English Electric Part 2 enters the world on March 4, 2013. To order, go to Big Big Train’s online shop.
[Well, what does one say after such amazing interview, except—thank you. Thank you to BBT for giving us so much time for this interview. An even bigger thank you for making the world just a little bit brighter.—Ed.]