There’s a really great interview with Big Big Train’s Greg Spawton over at Echoes and Dust. Don’t miss it!
Greg: The Underfall Yard was certainly the album where we went headlong into the history and landscape story-telling. I don’t think it was thought through, particularly, it was more a reaction to what I was reading about at the time. I remember reading some of the stories around Brunel and the Victorian engineers and I read a book by Richard Fortey who was then a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum. His book started with a description of a railway journey to the west and he mentioned that the rocks further west are much older than those that could be found in London, so it was like a journey into deep geological time. On the title track which was becoming quite a sprawling, epic piece, I connected the engineers with the landscape they worked on (and under) and I also introduced some themes about the Enlightenment as those engineers were very much men who lived by Enlightenment and scientific values. I really enjoyed writing the song and that led me to other stories which I thought would be nice to write about such as the Winchester Diver. When I was writing all of these songs, I didn’t realise that I was about to meet and connect with David, who is very much my musical soul-mate. Some singers might shy away from that sort of subject matter, but he met the challenge of those songs head-on. And as he is a writer himself, he was able to ensure the vocal arrangements and performances suited the material.
(((o))): Was there a point where the other band members thought “why on earth are we writing songs about Victorian engineers!”
Greg: It wasn’t really like that back then. We didn’t really have a full band identity at that stage. We had started as a band, and then, like a reverse butterfly, had undergone this gradual metamorphosis into a studio project. At the time of The Underfall Yard, we were just beginning the process of becoming a proper band again. So, at the point of writing those songs, there wasn’t really anybody to tell me what to do and I just did what I wanted to. It is different now, we discuss and agree things, so I have had to let go a bit, but the benefits of being in a full-band with all that extra creative input far outweigh the fact that I am less able to exhibit any control-freak tendencies. I think we all feel we have carved out a bit of territory for ourselves in the last few years which has worked well in defining the band and giving us a strong identity.
(((o))): Moving forward a bit and the idea of the “story” is explored even further on Folklore. The themes and ideas or a lot less immediate here though. It almost feels more insular than English Electric, as if the songs are hushed secrets?
Greg: We think of the work we have done in the last few years as a sort of cycle of albums which has moved from songs about the individuals who worked on and under the land, to songs on the English Electric albums about the communities that those people formed and finally through to songs on Folklore about the stories that have bound those communities together over time. Again, it wasn’t planned, it evolved, and it isn’t as neat as all that, but that is, broadly speaking, the arc of it. Grimspound ties some of the threads together, it is the last full new studio album that we will be doing in this cycle of releases.
(((o))): The stories that are told through history become a kind of fabric that binds us. Do you see the music you make as a natural extension of this?
Greg: That is exactly what we hope to achieve. We would like to be a small part of the process of remembering the stories and the characters that define us as communities. There is a lot of identity politics around at the moment which seems to break people up into ever small groups of individuals, enabling people to be played off against each other in a sort of competition of who is or isn’t the least privileged. In reality, there are far more things that bind us together than separate us, and much of that is down to shared history.
(((o))): Big Big Train’s story continues with Grimspound. Can you elaborate on this enigmatic figure and what we can expect from the new album?
Greg: The title of the album came from a Bronze-Age settlement on Dartmoor. It is an incredibly evocative place with a mysterious name which was given to it by the Anglo-Saxons who connected it and other such places to one of their gods, Grimr. Our friend, Sarah Louise Ewing who paints our cover and booklet art had provided us with a beautiful painting of a crow for the cover of Folklore and during a conversation she asked David what the crow’s name was. His instinct was to call it Grimspound. So the name of the album came about by quite a circuitous route.
As for the album itself, I think it is in the grand tradition of progressive rock. It was an album made without any pressure. We had just released Folklore, had a couple of songs that we hadn’t had time to finish and so thought we would write one or two more songs and release an EP to fill in the gap before our gigs later this year. The amount of material we had available to us grew very quickly, with David and myself both writing some big pieces and with major writing contributions from Rikard, Rachel and Danny. So, we suddenly found ourselves with almost a double album of songs and we selected the hour or so of music that fits best together to make a cohesive album.