Big Big Train’s David Longdon: The Progarchy Interview

2020 was going to be Big Big Train’s breakout year in North America. Building on ten years of increasing momentum, the road first paved on 2009’s The Underfall Yard (singer David Longdon’s debut with the band) had led to five more thrilling albums, brought to life in concert by a fearsomely talented septet (and the BBT Brass Ensemble). It was official — that spring, Big Big Train would tour the United States for the first time!

Then, as with so many other events, the coronavirus pandemic brought those big big plans to a screeching halt. Shows for 2020, then 2021 were inexorably cancelled; as the enforced period of inactivity lengthened, guitarist Dave Gregory, violinist Rachel Hall and keyboardist Danny Manners left the band. While the double album career survey Summer’s Lease and the live Empire served as worthy capstones to their era, BBT’s faithful Passengers couldn’t help but wonder: what was next for founder Greg Spawton, Longdon (both pictured above) and remaining compatriots Nick D’Virgilio and Rikard Sjöblom? Had the Train reached its final destination?

Fortunately, the answer was a resounding “Nope!” With Big Big Train’s brand new release Common Ground set for release at the end of July, followed by North American and UK tours in 2022, David Longdon was kind enough to join me for a Zoom chat last week. Obviously excited by both the new album and the prospect of returning to the stage, Longdon was generous with his time and his answers, open about the toll the pandemic took on him and his beloved country, and willing to “thrash through” the intricate lyrical and musical ideas on the record. A delightful mix of familiar and innovative elements, Common Ground is yet another BBT album of exceptional artistic ambition, power, beauty and grace, and David Longdon couldn’t be happier about it! A transcript of our conversation follows the video. Enjoy!!

So I wanted to start back last year, because the pandemic threw all of us into uncharted territory.  One of the first impacts from our end, as a music fan, was that you cancelled your North American tour, Big Big Train’s first American tour.  We had tickets for the Fort Wayne show, and we were disappointed, but we certainly understood. 

But obviously, that enforced pause in playing live went on a lot longer.  How did that feed into making your new album, Common Ground?

Well, everything ground to a halt, didn’t it?   The world as we knew it just ground to a halt; the unthinkable happened!  It’s such an extraordinary time.  And it was very much like – I said so at the time — like living in like a Ray Bradbury book, or something like that. Or certainly a J.G. Ballard book, this apocalyptic times kind of thing.  “It’s awful!  Were we gonna make it through?  Is this gonna be our equivalent of whatever saw off the dinosaurs?”  That kind of stuff.

The news bulletins were horrendous.  The death rates were going up, the R-rates in the UK, they’re looking at that.  Each day the wave of fresh cases, and more worryingly, the rising death toll.  It was going up and up and up and up.  And of course, in the UK, we’d seen it coming over from Europe in the months leading to up to our first lockdown.  And we knew what was coming, because we’d had correspondences from our European friends.  Yeah, it’s the stuff of nightmares!  Very uncertain times.

One of the things that I found as a comfort would be walking in nature, being in the natural world; I always take great comfort from that.  I’d rather be outside than inside, particularly when things were starting to get a bit hairy, back in March last year for us.  Yeah, it was horrendous!

So music, writing music and going for walks in nature were the thing that kind of kept me on the straight and narrow, really.  It kept me sane.  So that’s how I dealt with it.  And through the first lockdown I was finishing off the record that I made with Judy Dyble [Between a Breath and a Breath]

I don’t see how what happened to the world in that time could have not had an impact on the record, really.  And with losing three members of a long-standing lineup: again, some of that quite possibly came to a head as a result of being a real crossroads for the band and for the world at that time.

So yeah, the pandemic was a huge impact on the album. And the band.  And the world.  And everything!

OK.  So you mentioned there were some changes thrust on you by circumstance – the band members leaving, for example.  As you and Greg and the others started writing and recording. what changes were intentional choices?

OK.  Well as I said to you, personally, from my writing point of view, rather than writing songs where in the past, something like “Ariel” I’d be researching The Tempest, I’d be researching the life of William Shakespeare.  I’d be researching the life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and collating lots of information to make the story and make it scan as a piece of music, I just felt like I needed to write in the real world, in the now of that time, if that makes sense.

I know that, inevitably songs like “The Strangest Times,” which is very directly about the pandemic, I know that will eventually be a time capsule of that period.  But I can’t wait when it is!  I’m looking forward to that being the case!  I would say that in particular.

In terms of the recording process, how were things different?

For this time around, we decided that we were gonna go into a studio.  And we were gonna all be in the room at the same time, and put the rhythm tracks down live, in “old school” really.  Something that we hadn’t done.  We’d rehearsed in rooms for tours and things like that, gigs, but we hadn’t done it like that in the [studio].  We thought that would be a nice thing to do.  And it’s something that Nick has always wanted to do, NDV, and it’s something Rikard wanted to do.  And with us being a smaller, more manageable unit, it made it easier; we could pretty much go anywhere we wanted to.

But unfortunately, the international travel because of the pandemic restrictions – we couldn’t make that happen!   So we ended up doing – the way it was made was as we’ve always made them, file shares and all that kind of thing.  And doing this kind of stuff, where we’re speaking on Zoom or Face Time or whatever.  We were kind of making the record sort of – an “alone together” kind of thing.

Then Greg and I went into Real World to do a few days in there.  Greg put his basses down, and I went and did the vocals for Common Ground.  It was great fun!  It was – lovely to see other people, you know?  It’s good to see anybody in these times!    It was extraordinary that when we go into Real World, we’re so used to doing in there, cause there’s a long legacy of working in that studio.  It feels a little bit like homecoming when we go to it; we’re known there, and all of that.  But seeing it set out how it was for the pandemic with everything, people going in one way and coming out wearing masks – you know, if you’re eating you could take the masks off, but you weren’t you had to keep the mask up.  Things like that, looking how it impacted on our friends, that was a strange one.  But it was the way it was.

One of the things I noticed, since you were down to these four core members, a bit like when you first joined, actually. 

Yeah.

All four of you write; three of you also sing; three of you play multiple instruments.  It really felt like a band of equals.  I just heard the album for the first time in the last 24 hours.  And all of you seem to be stretching yourselves and taking on more varied roles.  Do you have any insight on how it evolved to where, for example, you have some pretty extensive, uptempo flute moments on a couple tracks —

Yes, I did!

— which were not as evident before.  And Nick and Rikard have more vocal leads; was that conscious, or did the songs dictate?

Yeah, I think so [that it was conscious]!  When we did the UK tour for Grand Tour, we were doing things like “The Florentine,” Nick would get off his drums and come and stand and sing at the front, which was a good idea. 

So I thought that, yeah, that was a good thing to do, involving more vocalists.  Cause Rikard sings with Gungfly and he sang with Beardfish, and he’s got a great voice.  And Nick, of course he sang with Spock’s  [Beard] and all of that.  We’ve got singers, so I thought it would be good to develop that and use it a little bit more.  Just to make it different, because we’d got the opportunity to change, to do something a little bit different. 

And as you pointed out, you heard the flute thing.  The moments where — this piece on “Apollo” where I play a flute thing, an anthemic sort of flute solo on the end of the track.  I think it’s cause we’ve just got the space there, whereas before space was a very rare commodity in Big Big Train.  Cause we’d got so many people jumping on it and wanting to — “I’m gonna do something there.”  It could be a bit of a bun fight in that respect!  But now it’s no longer like that; we’ve got the space.

We use a violin player called Aidan O’Rourke, who plays in a British folk band called Lau, a fantastic band.  Greg and I are fans of Lau, and so we were thrilled when Aidan guested on violin for the album.  Although Rachel had gone, we didn’t want to lose that instrument within the texture of the band.  It’s an important part, and it’s something that we wanted to maintain.

We’ve got a violinist called Clare Lindley, who oddly enough also comes from [British folk-rock band] Stackridge!  She was in Stackridge at the same time as Rachel was as well; I think for a little bit after Rachel went, too. 

And we brought Dave Foster in as a second guitar player.  Cause it’s gotta be someone who – they’ve gotta be the right people.  It’s not only that they’ll be good musicians; they’ve gotta be the right sort of personalities.  Cause we are looking to get out and play more, and we want to go on tours.  So you’ve got to be able to get on in the early hours of the morning on a tour bus, when you’re in Milwaukee at 3 in the morning or something like that, and everyone’s a little short-tempered.

But that’s it.  The recording process was great!  It was an opportunity to reinvent ourselves to a certain extent, and to let new things in and see what happened.

I appreciate your willingness to keep the orchestral sound of the band.  That is actually one of the things that attracted my wife, beyond the standard prog rock.  That there was this symphonic element to it, with the violin and brass.

Yes.

And also – you’ve mentioned Dave and Claire.  Also, you brought Carly Bryant in on keyboards and vocals, and I guess some other instruments as well.  

Yeah, she plays guitar as well.

OK.  So how will they slot into the band going forward?  It sounds they’re gonna be part of the live crew, but –

Yes, they are.  We’ll just see how it goes.  I mean, all’s going well so far, but we’re just – we’re itching to get out and play.  We think we’ve got the makings of a really good live band, and they’re great performers, they’re good people, Carly and Dave and Clare.  They’re all seasoned performers.  So we think it’s gonna be a pretty hot band when we get out and do it.  There was Greg and Carly and Dave and myself, we played together at Real World one afternoon. 

And Carly contributes some vocals to the album.  I guess Carly’s main role would be – she will be predominantly the keyboard player.  But Rikard stepped forward as well in that respect, he’s doing more keyboards.  Rikard’s sort of head honcho keyboard player and guitar department; he’s the MD [musical director] of all that.  So, I don’t know; it depends.  It’ll be fun; it’s great fun singing with NDV and with Rikard, of course, as it always has been.  But it’s great having Carly in; she’s a very different voice.  Rachel had a lovely voice, she’s got a great singing voice.  Carly’s different, it’s a different thing, and she brings a lot of character to the band, I think.  I’m really looking forward to seeing where we go with all of this!  It should be great.

Big Big Train 2021. Top row: Rikard Sjoblom, guitar, keys, vocals; David Longdon, lead vocals, flute, guitar, keys; Carly Bryant, keys, vocals, guitar; Greg Spawton, bass, guitar. Bottom row: Nick D’Virgilio, drums, vocals; Dave Foster, guitar; Claire Lindley, violin, vocals.

Cool.  I wanted to double back to the album, especially the title track.  And that intrigues me for a personal reason. 

OK.

Because there’s another song called “Common Ground” that’s been stuck in my head is for about 30 years; you may not have heard it.  It was from a band from my hometown Detroit; the name of the band was Rhythm Corps.   The hook of the song is a question – “can we meet on common ground?”  Which seems to be much more the mood of the world these days, even before the pandemic.  But your lyrical hook, “We claim our common ground” — it’s this strong, confident assertion; it feels like a mission statement.  Especially since it pops up on these other tracks across the album.  So where did those lyrics come from initially?

I had a period of time where I had gone through a separation, a period of time where I wasn’t sure what was gonna be next in my private life.  So I just threw myself into music.  Turned out that Sarah [Louise Ewing] and I got together.  And ironically enough, at the time we got together we were in a place called Avebury.  Which is, if you know, it’s got standing stones, it’s incredibly beautiful.  Very Big Big Train countryside!  It’s got chalk hills, it’s in Wiltshire, it’s very very Big Train terrain, if you’ll pardon the pun.

And we were standing at this monument at a point where we realized we’d come together as a couple.  This time in my life – I’m now 56.  It’s time to get on it, because we don’t have forever!  This was written slightly before the pandemic actually, the title track.  But it’s just about that, really; it’s about claiming it!  It’s not about “will we find it?”  It’s “you’d better find it and get on with it, because you’re not — it won’t be forever.  We don’t get forever.”  That’s the beauty of being human, we don’t get forever.  So that’s what it was about.  The idea of claiming it is actually going, “yeah, I’m committing to this.  I’m going down that road.”  

And I think that looking into the pandemic time, people making the best of it, the human spirit, really came through.  You could see that with people working in the [National] Health Service, key workers working in shops and public services.  They were making a difference to people’s lives.  And also people were, after the initial kind of shock of everything that was going on – “is this real?”  “Yes, it is real,” and we learned to adapt to it in the best way we could.  It’s great to see that human spirit come through, as it always does in the times of trouble – the Second World War and the Blitz and things like that.  People about that kind of wartime spirit.  And it was the same thing, you know?  It was just a different kind of enemy.

Now, do you have any insight on how that theme ended up connecting with some of the other songs as they were in progress?   I know it pops up in “Black With Ink” – “let words be common ground.”

Yes.

And as I recall it’s certainly referenced in “Atlantic Cable,” even though it may not be stated specifically.

Those are two Greg Spawton songs.  And I guess, Greg and I speak like you and I are doing now, we often thrash through ideas.  So whatever we talk about we tend to echo.  So he will go away and he will incorporate things; I will go away and I will incorporate things that he’s mentioned.  We kind of echo these things as themes. 

And with “Black With Ink,” I think the idea was the ransacking of an ancient library.  And apparently when they destroyed the library, they got rid of the books, and they threw the books into the river in the sacking of this place.  And it’s Greg making a metaphor, I guess — they said “the river flowed black with ink,” that’s where the title comes from.  And it’s the idea of people destroying books, destroying knowledge.  And in knowledge, through understanding and learning, we find our common ground.  That was the message with “Black With Ink.”

And I noticed a lot of musical coherence, too.  It’s almost like – well, the second half of the album especially flows together well.  Because I hear these musical themes across “Headwaters” into “Atlantic Cable” and even into “Endnotes.”

Yes.

And “Endnotes” actually kind of answers – the first part of the album to me seems to end with an incomplete picture with “Dandelion Clock.”   It’s this person who’s adrift, really.  And then in “Endnotes,” it resolves that, at least to my ears.

Yeah, that’s right, it does!  “Dandelion Clock” is a Greg song, “Endnotes” is, and “Atlantic Cable” is and “Headwaters” is, so these are all kind of things that he’s fitting in.   Like, there’ll be an overarching theme to it all.  Bear in mind, that’s a very progressive rock thing, isn’t it, to actually do that?  These themes that come back. 

When I started writing for this record, I’d been working on the Dyble Longdon record with Judy Dyble, the singer from Fairport Convention.  Just before that album was released, Judy passed away, unfortunately.  It was a bit of a grim race against time to get the album done, so that Judy and I could sign it all off.

And that, and then going eventually into the pandemic and all of that, I just couldn’t – I just had to write about what I was thinking at the moment.  And that’s one of the things I said to Greg; I said, “look, there’s gonna be no historical drama from me on this record, I don’t think, Greg.  I’m just too full up with now.”

And also I was very preoccupied with the death of Jude, definitely!  When you know something that is gonna happen, it still doesn’t take away the shock of when it actually does happen.  It’s a profound thing, and I knew that.  A huge loss, you know; she’s a really good friend and great musical ally as well.  I still miss her greatly, as you’d expect me to.  So I was very much in the moment; I think I was kind of grieving coming out of that.  And so I lit out to write in the now. 

Really, it’s thanks to Greg, the themes that unite these things together.  And Greg started to write – “Endnotes” is a personal thing; “Dandelion Clock” is a personal thing to Greg., but it was written at a time when he was a bit adrift.  So he’s reflecting back on that time.  As we all are, we have been.  It was — what’s “the thing what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?” I think that’s definitely the truth of the last year.

Well, my sympathies to you on Judy Dyble’s loss.  Obviously I couldn’t know her the way that you knew her.  But I admired her as a musician for so many years, and you could tell that her soul came out in whatever she was singing.  I do very much appreciate the album the two of you did; it grows in stature every time I listen to it.

Thank you.  Yeah, it was good fun to do!   It was an odd thing to do, you know; she’d got some serious health complaints.  But as the album progressed, it looked like it was going to be her last record.  Just inevitable, really, given what she was up against towards the end.  So, yeah, it was an odd undertaking; it was a serious undertaking.  I’m proud of it; I think some of the songs I worked on with Judy are some of my best work.

David Longdon with Judy Dyble

And again, I feel like Common Ground is another fine, fine addition to the Big Big Train canon.  It is serious and it is joyous at the same time. 

Yeah, it is.

Because I can tell the sheer joy of music comes through with you folks, whenever you’re either recording or touring.

We decided that we would talk about — obviously, within my tunes I do speak about what’s going on with regards to the pandemic a little bit more.  But we didn’t want it to be like – Greg and I were talking about these dystopian things.  It would have been very easy to write a record that is all doom and gloom.  But the world is doom and gloom — at that point, understandably, absolutely!  But we thought the last thing that the world needs is another dystopian record saying just how horrendous it is at the moment.   

We kinda clung to the idea – again, I’ll come back to it.  Which is people finding common ground, people finding things that they have in common with other people.  And also going through that experience and realizing how much they actually do need other people.  How we aren’t islands; we are sociable creatures.  We do need each other, to a greater or a lesser extent; we depend on each other.

And that’s certainly been our experience stateside as well.  And frankly, one of the things that many of us in the States are excited about is that touring is opening up again.

Yay!  Yeah!  Good.  So are we!

And that you are planning to give touring North America another go.

We are!

What can you say about the timing and the scope of this tour?  I know that dates have not yet been announced, but what can you reveal about the planning at this stage?

Well, you know, I’m under strict instructions not to reveal too much.  It’s a good — we’re gonna be with you for a nice amount of time, I think.  So that means there’ll be a substantial number of shows, as far as what we’re gonna do.  It won’t be long before the announcement.  So I’ll have to keep you in suspense, I’m afraid, Richard.

Well, that’s fair!  I just wanted you to know that if it’s the dead of winter in a blizzard, I’ll still plan to get there, somehow!

OK!  Well, I’ll tell you what, we can’t wait to do it!  We can’t wait to get over there and play; we’re really looking forward to doing it.

And we will do whatever it takes to get there.  And you’ve also launched an opportunity for fans to become Tour Patrons.  Can you tell me a bit more – first of all, about how this benefits the band?

A lot of people — particularly the state of things being the way it is at the moment in the world for the arts, there’s lots of people who are working in the arts who have had to diversify and go into different sorts of work to sustain them going through this last year.  And funding and everything for the arts isn’t great at the moment. 

So some people have been asking us how they can sort of help out.  Being a Tour Patron is what we’re doing, but it’s also – I think there are different kinds of packages, where there’s meet and greet and there’s coming to a soundcheck, I believe.  That’s one of the benefits.  That’s what I’ve heard about it.  I’m a little bit underprepared on that one.

That’s fair.  And I know that you are always accessible to the fans, whatever sort of – you’re not going to be a “VIPs-only” sort of meet and greet people.

Now, I don’t know – the thing is, again, the pandemic will determine how that goes.  Cause I’ve had both of my jabs; I’m lucky to get those.  We’ve done everything we can on that score.  But again, we just don’t know; we’ll have to wait and see.  But obviously, we are looking forward to meeting people and all of that.  So, yeah, we can’t wait to do it!  I think it’s gonna be a joyous occasion.

Yes, it will be celebratory, no question.

Oh, absolutely, absolutely!

Is there anything else you’d like to say to the readers of Progarchy?  We’ve had a relationship with the band for a long, long time, and lots of Big Big Train fans tune in.

Well, thank you very much to you and your readers and the people who support you for supporting Big Big Train too!   I remember years ago, you’d see the Progarchy things, and they were really — they’re always very considerate and always well-written.  It does make a difference, because we do read them, and they matter!  It’s a really important thing that you do, so keep doing it.  Keep supporting new music, and if you like it, shout about it and draw attention to it!

We will!  And again, congratulations on Common Ground – we wish you every success with it.

Thank you.

I look forward to getting my copy, and can’t wait to see you live!  Thanks for talking to me.

Yeah, absolutely.  It’s an absolute pleasure, Richard.  Good luck, stay safe, and we’ll see you next year!

Alright, same to you.  Thanks!

Big Big Train’s Common Ground is released on July 30 — preorder CDs, LPs, T-shirts, an art print and bundles from Burning Shed or The Bandwagon USA.

— Rick Krueger

15 thoughts on “Big Big Train’s David Longdon: The Progarchy Interview

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