WASSAIL! An Interview with Greg Spawton

An interview with Greg Spawton, August 28, 2015.

Greg Spawton needs no introduction to this audience. He is one of the founders of Big Big Train, its bass player, and, now, one of its two main songwriters and leaders in the band.  He is also, not surprisingly, a true renaissance man, interested in everything imaginable and not just large railroad cars!  He reads, he travels, he explores.  He’s also quite “normal.”  He’s a father as well as a husband.  He’s, frankly, an all-around great guy.

As most of you probably also know, the five original editors founded progarchy initially as an unofficial Big Big Train fan website.  Though we have grown to analyze all music, we will never forget our original purpose.  And, thank the good Lord that BBT continues to earn such love and admiration.

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The set (missing a few EPs).

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Progarchy: Greg, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.  It’s always a pleasure.  What was it like working in Peter Gabriel’s studio?  Did it feel like it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience?  Was it a learning experience, or was it really just recording in a large studio, bigger than your normal one?

Spawton: Real World is a unique environment: historic mill buildings converted to cutting-edge recording rooms and facilities set in a beautiful rural location. The studio is fully residential so you eat and sleep on site. The sound engineers are extremely talented and knowledgeable and all of the staff are friendly people who do all they can to make the time that musicians have on site productive and enjoyable. We have spent two weeks there now on two separate occasions and will be recording there again in November so it has become one of our main bases.

Progarchy: Since we last talked, Greg, you’ve added two new members to the BBT lineup?  Can you tell us a bit about each and what they’ve brought to the band?

Spawton: Rachel and Rikard have proven to be superb recruits to the band. Initially, they were brought in to help realise the songs in the live environment, with Rachel providing string parts and Rikard guitar and keyboard. However, both are intensely musical individuals and they have added a huge amount to our musical firepower. They are also both lovely people. At this stage in my life, I don’t want to waste any time working with people I don’t get on with, or who are not on our wavelength. The fit with Rachel and Rikard is perfect.

Add Rachel and Rickard (and Rob Aubrey) and you have BBT.
Add Rachel and Rickard (and Rob Aubrey) and you have BBT.

Progarchy: Nice.  Can you give us a run down on upcoming BBT projects—any details about content and release dates?

Spawton: There are quite a few things in the pipeline. First to be released should be STONE AND STEEL which will be a DVD / Blu-Ray featuring in-studio live performances from 2014 plus some documentary footage of the band evolving from the studio to the stage. We also hope to include some footage from our recent gigs. The aim is for a November release.

We have a new album which we are working on at the moment. This is called FOLKLORE and will feature up to an hour of new music. It will be released in early June 2016.

Alongside FOLKLORE, we are working on STATION MASTERS which is a three CD release which will serve as an overview of the band’s music up to FOLKLORE. All of the older songs featured (songs from before David became lead singer in 2009) will be re-recorded with the new line-up. This is planned for Spring 2017 and will be released at the time of our next live shows.

Progarchy: Phew.  Amazing.  Well, that’s a cornucopia for all Passengers!  About 2 years ago, in an interview with PROGRESSION [no. 65] magazine, you’d mentioned BBT would release a concept album.  Is this the same as FOLKLORE?  Or, was that a different project altogether?

Spawton: It is a separate release which will be a double concept album. Much of the music is written for this and some of it has already been recorded. However, it is a big project and we knew we wouldn’t get it finished in the next year, so we decided to write a separate set of songs for FOLKLORE as we wanted to release an album in 2016. We aim to have the double album out in 2017 or 2018.

The Green Man sees all.
The Green Man sees all.

Progarchy: One of the things that so permeates WASSAIL—all four songs—is the deep layering of mythologies and symbols.  From the Judeo-Christian to the Anglo-Saxon mythology of apples, for example, on WASSAIL.  Do you intentionally set out to do this, or does this come naturally to BBT?

Spawton: It just happens, really. Themes emerge through conversation between me and David or through our own research. We are both quite ‘bookish’ when it comes to writing lyrics. We like to write about something.

Progarchy: A follow up to the previous question.  Where do you see yourself in the current music scene?  Would you label yourselves as anything in particular or just as prog rock or rock, broadly defined?  A recent issue of PROG, of course, called you folk-prog.

Spawton: They can call us what they like as long as they are listening. We are always very happy to be defined as a prog rock band. Progressive music draws from so many different sources and enables bands to cover so much musical territory. We don’t find the label, or the genre itself, restrictive in any way. A lot of people call us pastoral and there is certainly a folk influence in some of what we do, but we listen and absorb influences from many different types of music. Anything we enjoy, really.

Progarchy: Again, another follow-up, if you don’t mind.  It’s possible that the most powerful moment in all of your music is the reading by John Betjeman and the honor you give it and him.  Would you do something like this again, and, if so, with what figure(s)?

Spawton: The inclusion of Betjeman’s voice was suggested by Andy Tillison [The Tangent, as almost every one of you knows—ed.]. When I heard it I just thought: ‘of course.’ Subsequently, I have been in touch with the historian Michael Wood and we have discussed using his voice in a spoken word moment. Michael Wood is a very well known English historian and has been a big influence on me. I would like to feature his voice at some stage.

Progarchy: A lot has happened to you this past month.  What were your impressions of offering the three shows in London?  In personal correspondence many years back now, you’d mentioned to me that you thought the last time you toured, it was a bit unpleasant.  My word, not yours, Greg.  But, I think I’m close in describing what you wrote to me.  Were these three August shows redemption?

Rust never sleeps. It remains alive in song.
Rust never sleeps. It remains alive in song.

Spawton: The last gig played by Big Big Train prior to the shows this year was back in the late 1990’s and didn’t go well. It was at a festival in the Netherlands and we faced lots of technical problems. Our music didn’t fit the festival very well either, so it wasn’t a good experience. However, I don’t connect that in any way to our recent live experiences. Different era, different line-up. If there is any sense of redemption it is more in the overall trajectory of the band. We have turned things around in the last few years. Some of that is through sheer bloody-mindedness, mostly it is because we now have the right line-up for the band’s songs which has taken the music to another level.

Progarchy: During the tour, what moments worked best?  Were there any moments in which you thought, “Ok, this is exactly why we wrote or recorded this.”  When I lecture, for example, things I’ve always believed become somehow more real or tangible as I state them and place those ideas between me and my students.  Did something similar happen with playing the music for you in London?

Spawton: Yes, I know exactly what you mean. There were many moments like that, where things felt fully realised. A few things spring to mind, for example the early instrumental sections in THE UNDERFALL YARD where things really groove now and it takes on a sort of fusion feel and WASSAIL, which is such a fun song to play as an ensemble. One particular bit at one of the gigs sticks in my mind, which was during the faster section in “East Coast Racer” starting with the electric piano solo and ending with the ‘she flies’ moment. I remember looking up at the screen which was showing some film footage and then looking up at the brass band who were in full flow and then seeing a guy in the balcony standing up and extending his arms out as if they were wings and I thought ‘we’re really flying here.’

Progarchy: A personal question, Greg, if you don’t mind.  Chris Squire (RIP) just passed away.  As a bass player, was he much of an influence on you?

Spawton: Chris Squire developed a particular way of playing which gave him a strong signature. Sometimes, when I become aware that I may be straying onto his territory, I step back. His was an exceptional talent and it is hard to believe he won’t be seen on a stage again.

Progarchy: Beautifully put.  And, a fine tribute.  On another topic, you’re an avid reader.  What are you reading now?  History?  Fiction?  Anything you’ve read recently that really struck you as meaningful?

Spawton: Mainly history at the moment.  I have been reading a few books about the dawn of civilisation in recent weeks, back to the Sumerians. Ancient Worlds by Richard Miles is very good. I am trying to follow things through from there and get a good broad grasp of the timelines. Right now I am reading a book by Tom Holland on the Persian / Greek conflict, the original clash between East and West. In the next week or so I need to start some research into the stories I am writing about on FOLKLORE, so there will be some different books coming down from the shelves.

Progarchy: What music are you listening to at the moment?

Spawton: Elbow released a nice EP a couple of weeks ago. And I am still listening to the recent Mew album. The best new thing I have heard recently was by Sweet Billy Pilgrim. I suspect I will be getting all of their albums. I do have some cool gigs coming up. I am seeing King Crimson with David. I also have tickets for PFM, The Unthanks and an acoustic show by Mew.

Progarchy: Thank you so much, Greg.  Not to embarrass you too much, but every progarchist is a huge fan of your work.  We’re proud not only to know you, but to see the excellence you continue to pursue.  Congratulations on all of your recent successes.  All well deserved.

BBT’s official website: http://www.bigbigtrain.com

A conversation with Spock’s Beard’s Ted Leonard

Ted

In his first official Progarchy assignment, rookie Progarchist Adam Sears talked to Ted Leonard of Spock’s Beard about their new album, The Oblivion Particle, set for release on August 21st by Inside Out Music.  The Oblivion Particle is the follow-up to 2013’s Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep, as well as Ted’s second SB album on main vocal duty. In addition to the album, they also cover everything black holes to cruise ships to venereal diseases.

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PROGARCHY  First off, just like to say that the new album is great! It has some of the stuff I’d expect from Spock’s Beard, but it had a lot of new fresh sounds.

TL   Yeah, there’s a bit of both, there’s a bit of harkening back on songs like “Tides of Time” and some of the other songs are a bit of a departure, like “Minion”.

PROGARCHY  You wrote “Minion” as well as “Hell’s Not Enough”, correct?

TL   Yes, I started writing “Minion” a long time ago, about the same time I wrote “Hiding Out”, which was about 2010, but it just kinda got shelved. Then I resurrected it, but I wasn’t sure what band I was going to submit it to, until it started shaping up and then it started sounding more Spock’sy than Enchanty to me.


PROGARCHY  What inspired you to write “Minion” and “Hell’s Not Enough”?

TL   “Minion”’s a little tough to get into without incriminating myself. But basically it’s about being in an oppressive relationship. Feeling like someone else’s little bitch, as it were.

PROGARCHY  Ah, yes. Been there, done that. I think we’ve all felt that way at some point.

TL   Haha, yep. Then “Hell’s Not Enough” is kind of an interesting song, given my background and the band’s background. It’s not a terror on religion in itself by any stretch- it’s more of a lash out at cult leaders and people who manipulate the week-minded. There’s a reference to the Jonestown thing, where it says
“Hook line and sinker, thank God you’re not a thinker, here take this fruity drink, you’re fine”. (laughs) So that’s what that’s all about.

PROGARCHY  I don’t remember where I saw it, maybe on Facebook or Twitter, but you have mentioned that The Oblivion Particle is the best project you’ve ever been involved with. Tell me why that is.

TL   You know, I don’t know if it’s necessarily better than BNaDs. If I posted that late at night, there’s a chance I was, ya know, gushing…

PROGARCHY  Or just overly excited?

TL   Yeah, or drunk… haha, but no, I do feel like it’s super, super strong. I think it holds up against BNaDs quite well. And I also think, for variety’s sake, it’s more of a wide array of styles wrapped up into one album. I think it’s super cool, because of that. And the sound quality of the recording is so well done.

PROGARCHY  I’m sure a lot of that is due to Rich Mouser. Did he engineer, as well as mix and master the album?

TL   As far as the engineering goes, there was a lot of it done in our houses. Some of the guitars were recorded at Al’s house and I recorded some of the vocals at home, then we did some at the studio. So he [Rich] engineered most of it, but we tried to do a lot at home this time. The bass is always engineered at home. We tried to save some money because BNaDs turned out to be pretty expensive.

PROGARCHY  On August 29th in Los Angeles, you are doing double duty, performing with not only Spock’s Beard but also with your band Enchant. What are a couple of differences in the group dynamics and your relationship with the two bands?

TL   Spock’s Beard approaches their career with more business sense, so there’s a degree of being business partners with them rather than being old buddies. But we are good friends, especially with Dave, because we hang out and play in cover bands. It’s a little different than the camaraderie of Enchant where we’ve known each other for a long time. Some of us have known each other more than half our lives. So we’re almost like brothers. We laugh like brothers and we fight like brothers. (laugh). It’s totally different than Spock’s, especially because I came into the band way later. But it was actually less weird then you’d think, ‘cause I knew the guys pretty well from before. So definitely a difference in the dynamics. They’re both good, just different.

PROGARCHY  You’ve been performing with Spock’s Beard for four years now. Do you still feel like the new guy or do you feel like you are now an accepted member of the band since you’ve now completed 2 albums and performed many many shows?

TL   Yeah, I think the shows have definitely solidified it, especially the cruise [Progressive Nation at Sea 2014], was a cool thing with Neal being there, being out in the audience, and then me being on stage with Neal in Transatlantic. I think what fans took away from Transatlantic was there’s no weirdness. Neal respects me, I respect him. So, I don’t feel like the new guy anymore. It has been quite a while and we have played a lot of shows. By the time you finish the 2nd album you start to feel that this isn’t an audition anymore.

PROGARCHY  So what should we expect to hear on The Oblivion Particle?

TL    Sonically, we branch out- there are plenty of moments, keyboard tones especially- we’re not just relying on the four keyboard tones that Spock’s has always been famous for- the tron choir, tron strings, tron flute, and organ. And of course piano. There are a lot of analog synths going on- kind of a nod back to certain eras of Genesis with the tones, like Duke era to mid 80’s, rather than going for a strictly 70’s sound, which has kind of been the Spock’s thing, at least with the keyboards. There’s a sonic difference in what you hear from Dave too. On most albums, he’s mostly playing with a pick the whole time. With this album, he plays quite a bit of finger style. Tonally it’s not the same old Dave on every song. Another cool thing about this album are the piano highlights- there are three of them, that I can think of off hand that are really cool piano parts kind of out there by themselves. There’s one in the breakdown of Minon, there’s one in the beginning of the song that Ryo and Al wrote [The Center Line], then the bass comes in and does a really cool thing with them. As far as the overall vibe of the album- it gets big and huge, pulls back and gets really intimate, those are all typical characteristics of Spock’s stuff and this album is no exception.

PROGARCHY   Why is the album called the Oblivion Particle?

TL   You know, we’re going to have to invent a reason, because I get that question all the time, and I honestly have no idea.

PROGARCHY  Does it have anything to do with CERN or the Large Hadron Collider?

TL   Well, some people have theorized that it is the opposite of the “God particle”, or whatever they were trying to find. I can’t remember what that particle is actually called.

PROGARCHY  The Higgs boson. Yeah I’m kind of a nerd and like reading about that stuff.

TL   (Laughs) Yeah that’s right!  But I don’t know, I think it just sounded cool. But some of the songs have an invention theme like “Bennett Built a Time Machine” and “A Better Way to Fly”. It seemed kind of science-y, so we thought it would be cool to have a title that went along with that.

PROGARCHY    In “Disappear” when you’re singing “We could disappear” are you sure you’re not referring to the Large Hadron Collider’s theoretical creation of a black hole that may swallow us up?

TL   Yeah, I’m going to use that! I’m gonna fake like I’m that intelligent!

PROGARCHY  What is your favorite track of the Oblivion Particle?

TL   Ok, my favorite track, that I didn’t write, (laughs), is “A Better Way to Fly”. Although I love “Get Out While You Can”- it’s totally short and concise. It has me going into a Bono territory with the voice, so it’s a little different for me. I really dug that. You always try to do things a little bit different, otherwise people get sick of you. (laughs)

PROGARCHY  What was the most difficult thing about recording this album?

TL   I would say, the timing on some of the songs. Especially with some of John’s songs, like “A Better Way to Fly”. That one is going from 6 to 7 to sometimes 8, then back. There were times when I was recording along his scratch vocals, and I was just watching the wave form to know what beat to come back in on. Now that I’m trying to learn it for live shows, I’m sitting there just having to count ‘cause it’s really trippy. I’m comfortable doing songs in odd time, obviously, but this song is really giving me grief. And I’m playing a lot of keyboards on it too, so it’s like… ugh!!! That song is going to be the toughest one.

PROGARCHY  So you’re definitely going to be doing that song live?

TL   Yeah, we are, unfortunately. I love the song, but it’s giving me… it’s giving me fear. It’s a great song for Jimmy too, because he’s just pounding back there. He really comes out of his shell on this album, not that he ever was in a shell, but on the first album he wanted to keep it safe and not try to overstep his bounds. But on this album  he just kind of got free reign and he was like “I’ll take it”. On the last couple of tours when Nick and Jimmy were having their drum-off solos, of course Jimmy shined and did well, but now that he’s the ONLY drummer, we’ve had these nights where we’re like “Hey, take a solo!” and he just goes and does it completely off the cuff. It’s always like the best thing ever. I never get bored watching him take a drum solo, and usually get bored watching EVERY drummer do a solo. That’s usually a good time to take a piss! But he’s always doing something different and interesting and pulls it right out of his hiney. Al and I would be just sitting on the side of the stage just like laughing at how cool it was. So this time around it was just like “Do what you do! Tear it up!” So there are a couple of moments that come off like a drum solo in that song, which is good stuff!


PROGARCHY  Track 4 of the The Oblivion Particle is “Bennett Built a Time Machine”. If you were to build a time machine and you can change one thing in your past life, what would it be?

TL   Well, I think, just like the song goes, there might be some historical moments that would be interesting to be a part of, but it would be really hard to slip into it unnoticed, unless you go dressed for the period I guess. I think what most people think of when going back to the past is revisiting pivotal moments in their own life, like maybe they could have changed things, but we all know how that turns out with the paradox factor. I can think of a few moments in my own life, where things would be vastly different. But then I’d come back and realized I created a black hole or everyone’s dying from some strange disease I introduced by accident, maybe a bad venereal disease because I somehow changed the course of events that led my past self into sleeping with someone I shouldn’t have. So yeah I come back 20 years later, and the whole world is a wasteland.

PROGARCHY  Maybe that should be the plot for the next Spock’s Beard concept album?

TL   (laughs) Yeah, there are not enough venereal diseases in concept albums.

PROGARCHY  Or in prog in general.

PROGARCHY  After your European Tour in September and October, Spock’s Beard is going to play Cruise to the Edge in November, which will be on the same ship you guys performed on at last year’s Progressive Nation at Sea. What was it like performing on a boat in the middle of an ocean?

TL   Yeah! Washy Washy, Happy Happy! Yeah that’s going to be really nice, and I’m going to be doing double duty again! Well, when we were in the theater, it was kind of a rocky night and you could actually feel it while on stage- even just walking around. It just made you feel like you were drunk, which you know. I’m familiar with performing drunk. That’s happened, but not often. I usually don’t drink that much when it comes to prog, but I have done plenty of cover band gigs where I’m like “Oh my God, I don’t even know how I’m going to do this third set!” I usually have like a beer before, a beer on stage, or maybe two. So by the end of the show, there might be three beers in my system, but it’s usually a two hour show, so it’s pretty tame. And then afterwards it’s a completely different animal, especially when you know you’re getting on the bus in a total controlled environment. You spend three weeks out on the road and you just have to come home and detox. I can’t imagine if we were out there, like some of the big bands, for six months at a time. I would be just like Keith Richards. I would totally just look like that by now already.

PROGARCHY  (Laughs) Let’s get back to the cruise… how was it playing the outside pool deck area?

TL   Oh, that was amazing! Especially when I opened with Transatlantic. You could see the port going by and the boat getting up to speed, so you could really feel it. It was really super windy. I needed the music for that band, but my charts were just flying all over the place. Luckily, the guitar tech saw it and started taping it down for me. But it was incredible. And the reception was awesome for both bands, but especially for Spock’s Beard on that first night, by the pool… that was really cool. And when everyone knows that Neal’s on the boat, to get that kind of reception out of the crowd was pretty cool for me. Then of course the second night in the theater when he came out and did the thing, that was just so cool. I think the weirdest part of that night for me was singing “Walking on The Wind” with Neal right in the front row. I was like, “Well damn, you should sing this  too, dude!” But it was cool, it turned out really cool.

PROGARCHY  And here, I will add my Chris Farley style Interview question… remember when I saw you guys play at Progressive Nation at Sea, while I was in the hot tub? That was Awesome!

TL   (Laughs) Yeah, hopefully I have time to do that for some bands on this one, maybe Marillion. That’d be cool!

PROGARCHY  Ted, thanks so much for your time. Congratulations on the new Spock’s Beard album and good luck with the tour! I’ll see you at the CalProg show on the 29th!

TL   Cool! I’ll see you there!

Progarchy’s Exclusive interview with Alan White of Yes

PROGARCHY EXCLUSIVE

An Interview with Yes’ Alan White (August 3, 2015)

Yes-Alan3

Prog Rock’s quintessential super group, Yes, will be heading out on an American tour again this summer/fall, including the third annual Cruise to the Edge in mid-November.  The most notable change in the line-up, of course, will be the absence of Chris Squire on bass—the first time ever for a Yes tour.

PROGARCHY’s Kevin McCormick recently spoke for with Yes drummer extraordinaire, Alan White, as he prepared for rehearsals for the upcoming tour.

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PROGARCHY Thank you so much for taking time to talk with us.  I think I speak for all of the members of Progarchy.com in offering our condolences after the recent and sudden death of your colleague and friend, Chris Squire.  Obviously he was such an essential part of Yes, founding member and the only person to appear on every Yes album.  Are there plans to honor his memory in some way on the upcoming tour?

Alan White  Well, we’re going to start rehearsals on Monday and we’re going to put our heads together.  We’ve got numerous ideas and we’ve got to work out something to honor Chris.  Just how we’re going to do it, we haven’t really decided.

Chris Squire

PROGARCHY On your website, you wrote a touching note in his memory.  As a musician, I know how unique the musical relationship between the drummer and bassist is and how crucial it is to forming a solid foundation for the band’s sound.  Can you put your finger on what made your collaboration with Chris work so beautifully seamlessly?

AW Well yeah, it’s a question of similarity with each other.  And over the years it became a more brotherly kind of relationship.  Chris was almost part of my family.    We shared a lot of experiences together and we played together for 43 years.  So when you play together with someone for that long you get to know all of the facets of their playing and visa versa, him with myself.  So it made it easy for us to work out some kind of flow in the rhythm section in what Yes was creating.  And it was a special relationship.  It probably never will be the same.  All the same, he did ask that we keep this going, and that I keep it going.  He said just do whatever you can do.  And that’s a good insight, to just keep things very much forward.

PROGARCHY I imagine it must have been difficult to choose to continue with the planned tour.  Was there a deciding factor for you?  

AW That was what Chris wanted. He didn’t want everything to come to a halt just because he was ill.  And while he was ill he had a very positive outlook to the future.  He said, “Well, I’ll go into hospital for four to six weeks, I’ll get rid of this and I’ll be back on tour next spring.”

YES latmac CDVD cover lo

PROGARCHY Well, the fans will certainly miss him and I know the band will too.  Any hints on the set list for the upcoming shows or will that be decided at the rehearsals?

AW Well we’ve put a set list together, but we’ve not rehearsed. We’ve got a few things to try out and see if they’ll work out or not.  That will determine how we approach the set list.  It’s not confirmed yet, but we have a good idea the type of set we want to do, because we’re touring with Toto who are probably going to do a lot of their [popular tracks].  We’re not going to play whole albums like we’ve done in the past few years.  We’re just going to do a great selection of Yes music that people love to hear in concert.

PROGARCHY At first glance, Yes and Toto doesn’t seem like the most obvious double-bill.  How did it come about?

AW Well it sounded pretty good to me.  Maybe … because we know the guys in the band so well.  Steve Porcaro and all the them, I’ve known those guys for years.  They’re all super-nice guys and we get along really well.

PROGARCHY Any chances that you might join forces?  

AW I doubt it.  You know, once you get on the road you have a set list to get into and a time line you keep to.  There’s not really time to work that kind of thing out.  But I’ve played with Steve Porcaro and Billy Sherwood [on the Pink Floyd tribute album, Back Against the Wall].

Yes Tour

PROGARCHY So is it Yes with Toto or…?

AW It’s going to be Yes and Toto.  They’ll be opening for us every night, but it’s really more of a kind of double-billing.

PROGARCHY It’s amazing to me how much energy you bring to your live performances.  When I saw Yes perform in Austin in 2013, I was impressed with the power in your playing.  For you in particular, it must be extremely physically demanding.  

AW [laughing] Well it all depends on what part of the tour you go to when we’re on the road!  You know, none of us are spring chickens anymore, obviously.  And traveling is really what gets you.  If we didn’t have to travel on a daily basis we’d be in relatively good shape every evening.  But sometimes you’re just really tired when you get to the evening and the last thing you want to do is share music.  But it’s really funny how the body turns around and rises to the occasion.  I guess when you walk out on stage and see all of the people out there, the body just shrugs all that off and gets to it.

PROGARCHY Has your relationship with Yes’ music changed over time?  Are there any songs that you enjoy more now than when they were recorded?

AW Not really.  All of Yes’ music is pretty challenging to play.  Each song has got its own demands on what to play, and how to play, and the way to play it.  So you have to readjust yourself to all of that framework….I have played some of them quite a few thousand times.  So it’s about getting back into the mold and making it work.

PROGARCHY Are you surprised at all to still be playing with Yes after so many years?

AW [laughs] Well, I mean, yeah.  Eventually, when I joined the band I said, “I’ll give you guys three months and see if I enjoy it and you give me three months and see if you enjoy it as a band.”  And I’m still here forty-tree years later, so there must be something working.

PROGARCHY You had commented a while back about the current line-up of Yes is one of the best there’s been and Jon Davison’s working out well.  Are you still feeling that?

AW Jon Davison is an excellent vocalist and all-around musician.  He’s a super nice guy and very easy work to with.

PROGARCHY It’s amazing to me that Yes is still touring after 40 years.  Is there an element to progressive rock that allows it to reach across decades and generations?

AW I guess the main thing is that everybody strives to make Yes a well-respected, high-standard-of-musicianship kind of band.  When we perform, everybody gives 110 percent. If one part of the band isn’t clicking on all eight cylinders or whatever, you can tell, because it affects everybody else and their whole performance.

When we’re all firing on all cylinders, there’s no other band like it.

PROGARCHY Indeed!  Thank you so much for all of the great music over the years and good luck on the upcoming tour.

AW Alright, man.

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An Excellent Interview with Steven Wilson by Stephen Humphries

A friend of mine, Stephen Humphries, just interviewed Steven Wilson.  Well worth reading.  Humphries is a natural.

My story began to spin off other things that I wanted to talk about: nostalgia for childhood, regret, and isolation and alienation,” says Wilson. “When most people say ‘concept album,’ they think of fantasy. But for me, the quintessential concept albums are things like TommyQuadropheniaThe WallOK Computer. These albums are actually about very similar things. They are about a fear of the modern age, they are about alienation from technology and alienation from society. They are also albums about individuals becoming isolated from the rest of the world. I think there is a lineage that this album appears to be a part of.

To read the entire interview (and you should!), please click here.

Humor and Rush: Alex Lifeson Reflects on 40 Years

Photo, courtesy of Toronto's Q107.
Photo, courtesy of Toronto’s Q107.

We’ve always spent most of our time together laughing. . . . After sound check, we have dinner together, and it’s just us in the dressing room for about ½ hour or forty minutes. We all catch up on stuff that’s going on day to day or in our lives or whatever. And it’s also a chance for us to have some laughs, and we always do that, every single day that we’re together. We do that. It’s been a very important part of our longevity, for sure.

–Interview with Alex Lifeson, January 26, 2015. Q107/Toronto

The full interview is just under 20 minutes, and it’s a blast.  Well worth your time.  For the full thing, go here.

Medium-sized Egos, The Seventh Train, Lush Soundscapes, and Big Big Train: The 2013 Interview, Part II

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. BBT EE2

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?

NDV by Willem Klopper.
NDV by Willem Klopper.

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 BBT
Andy Poole by Willem Klopper.

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.

146BBT1
The Seventh Train and Phill Brown of our age: Rob Aubrey. Photo by Amy Mumford.

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.ee2

 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.]

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.

brown_mm_10703016
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.

An interview with Yes, December 10, 1971

yes patchby Frank Urbaniak

As a sophomore at Lafayette College I became program director of the college radio station, and Larry Fast (Synergy) became the general manager.  We had access to early releases and concert passes in one of the great periods in progressive music.  To generate better distribution for college stations, I published a newsletter called The Rolling Paper that we distributed each month on campus and to all record labels.

We were fortunate to interview our three favorite bands between 1971 and 1973-Yes, Genesis on their first US performance at Lincoln Center, and King Crimson on the second Larks Tongue tour through the Bill Bruford connection with Yes.

We met and interviewed Yes at Dickinson College in 1971.  I had seen Yes the previous summer supporting Jethro Tull ($5) with Tony Kaye and had been blown away by the energy of the band.  By December the Yes album was taking off, and Fragile had arrived that week as an import from Jem Records.  We requested an interview through Atlantic Records, and received a warm welcome from the band members who were delighted that we were holding import copies of Fragile in the US.  For the next several years we were fortunate to have backstage passes to more than 20 Yes shows at area colleges, and later at the big arenas like Madison Square Garden and the Spectrum in Philly during their prime including several shows with Bruford on drums prior to his departure.  We watched the band grow from being third on bills (Yes, King Crimson, Procol Harum ) to headliners for the Close to the Edge through the Tales from Topographic Oceans tour.  Larry built a strong connection with Rick Wakeman through electronics and keyboards, and he went on to build some sequencers for him over the next few years. My connection was forged through and over beer, as Rick and I shared a fondness for brew.  I was but a lightweight while Rick’s consumption of Budweiser was unrivaled and eventually unsustainable.

I thought it would be fun to revisit this interview 40+ years later and have condensed the original piece, but not changed the content. Continue reading “An interview with Yes, December 10, 1971”