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.Continue reading “Big Big Train’s David Longdon: The Progarchy Interview”