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.

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

The Big Prog (Plus) Preview for Fall 2020!

As always seems to be the case, there’s tons of great music coming out between now and Black Friday, November 27. Below, the merest sampling of upcoming releases in prog and other genres below, with purchase links to Progarchy’s favorite online store Burning Shed unless otherwise noted.

Out now:

Simon Collins, Becoming Human: after 3 solo albums and Sound of Contact’s acclaimed Dimensionaut, Phil Collins’ oldest son returns on vocals. keys and drums; his new effort encompasses rock, pop, prog, electronica and industrial genres. Plus an existential inquiry into the meaning of life! Available on CD from Frontiers Records.

John Petrucci, Terminal Velocity: the Dream Theater guitarist reunites with Mike Portnoy on drums for his second solo set of instrumentals. Plus Dave LaRue of the Dixie Dregs and Flying Colors on bass. Expect lotsa notes! Available on CD or 2 LP from Sound Mind Records/The Orchard.

The Pineapple Thief, Versions of the Truth: Hot on the heels of their first US tour, Bruce Soord and Gavin Harrison helm TPT’s latest collection of brooding, stylized alt/art rock, honing in on the post-truth society’s impact on people and relationships. Available on CD, BluRay (with bonus track plus alternate, hi-res and surround mixes), LP or boxset (2 CDs/DVD/BluRay) – plus there’s a t-shirt!

Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly, Alone Together: Sjöblom spearheads a thoroughly groovy collection on vocals, guitar and organ, with Petter and Rasmus Diamant jumping in on drums and bass. Heartfelt portraits of daily life and love that yield extended, organic instrumental jams and exude optimism in the midst of ongoing isolation. Available on CD and LP (black or deep blood red vinyl).

[Upcoming releases follow the jump …]

Continue reading “The Big Prog (Plus) Preview for Fall 2020!”

“An Accidental Musician”: Judy Dyble, 1949-2020

Judy Dyble, whose crystalline vocals were key contributions to the early days of folk-rock legends Fairport Convention and progressive pioneers King Crimson, has died at the age of 71, following a late-life musical renaissance as a solo artist.

Dyble, who titled her 2016 memoir An Accidental Musician, grew up in North London. Drawn to the ferment of the Smoke’s music scene, she fell in with Ashley Hutchings, Simon Nicol, Martin Lamble, fellow singer Ian Matthews and Richard Thompson, who eventually became Fairport Convention.  Their kick-off single “If I Had a Ribbon Bow”, a oddball update of a 1940s big band shuffle, was a prime example of the early Fairport’s wildly eclectic style:

The band’s first self-titled album from 1968 featured a vivid mix of originals and covers (of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell among others), but Dyble was shuffled out of the band soon after, briefly joining an embryonic version of King Crimson (then trading as Giles, Giles and Fripp):

Following a final stint with cult duo Trader Horne, Dyble drifted away from singing, marrying music critic/record shop owner Simon Stable, then moving to the country and raising a family.  Invited to the occasional Fairport Convention reunion at the Cropredy Festival, she began singing in public again after her husband’s death.  A trilogy of electronica-based collaborations with Australasia’s Marc Swordfish eased Dyble back into songwriting — which led to 2009’s marvelous Talking with Strangers, co-produced by Tim Bowness of No-Man and Alistair Murphy (aka the Curator) and featuring contributions from Nicol, Fripp, and a starry host of other guests on the acoustic-prog epic “Harpsong.”

Further solo albums and guest appearances followed, including a vocal on Big Big Train’s “The Ivy Gate” from the Grimspound album.   Her latest effort Between a Breath and a Breath, a collaboration with David Longdon featuring contributions from the rest of BBT, has just been announced as a late September release.  While fighting her final illness, Dyble penned these reflections on the new album, showing both her unquenchable spirit and her wickedly impish sense of humor:  

The lyrics for these songs virtually wrote themselves, with minor tweaks, as music grew around them. All were written before I was diagnosed and before the dreadful virus stamped its footprint on our world.

“Quite a few of my lyrics have a touch of sadness about them but always with an optimism for the future and a desire to know what happens next. France, Whisper and Obedience tell stories suggested in conversations and Between A Breath And A Breath is sheer magic. Astrologers was a simple ‘Hmmpph! Stop it!, while Heartwashing and Tidying Away were just poems which wrote themselves.

David Longdon has written a tribute to Dyble which appears on the front page of Big Big Train’s website.  Two songs from the Dyble/Longdon sessions not included on Between a Breath and a Breath will be released as Bandcamp downloads later this year, with proceeds benefiting Dyble’s favorite charity, The Barley Greyhound Sanctuary.  A selection of Dyble’s albums (including a freshly released live recording from 2016, Weavings of a Silver Magic) are most easily available from Burning Shed and Amazon UK.

Oddly enough, I’d been celebrating the upcoming release of Between a Breath and a Breath last night, listening to Talking with Strangers again and re-reading An Accidental Musician.  So Dyble’s final words in her memoir have an uncanny resonance today:

There may be trouble ahead, but while there’s poetry and starlight and mellow autumn colour in the woods and a dog at my side, I’ll face the music and slightly dance.  To be continued.  I expect …

For all those who sorrow at Judy Dyble’s passing, I wish them comfort as they remember her life with gratitude, as well as continued delight in the beautiful music she made.

 

— Rick Krueger

 

The Progarchy Interview: Tim Bowness, Part 2

In Part 1 of Tim Bowness’ latest Progarchy interview, Tim discussed his previous solo albums, working again with his first band Plenty, reuniting with Steven Wilson for new No-Man music, and how all this feeds into his new album Flowers At The Scene (released March 1 on Inside Out Music).   We dig into the new album in depth below!  Note that [brackets] below indicate editorial insertions.

Pulling it back to Flowers At The Scene, it’s interesting what you said about how really, there are some [pieces] that you’re producing, there’s some that you and Brian [Hulse] are working on, there’s some that you and Brian and Steven [Wilson] are working on.   It all feels like a unity when I listen to it.  Despite the variety of colors, it’s, as you say, it feeds on what you’ve done before, but it goes in really interesting, different directions.  Are there any particular songs that you feel are at the core of the album?

I would say you’re right, it does feel like an album.  One thing that’s important to me is, I know in this age of streaming and Spotify it’s not particularly fashionable, but I love the album.  I’ve always loved the album as a statement.  And in some ways, although this album is different from the other albums – I mean, the previous three albums had themes to a degree.  Lost In The Ghost Light was a narrative concept album. Stupid Things That Mean The World and Abandoned Dancehall Dreams had linking lyrical themes in a way.  This is different in the sense that it’s eleven very separate moods, very separate lyrics, very separate songs.  And yet it fits together, I think, in a kind of classic 43-minute album format.  And in some ways, I think it’s the album that flows best of all four.  There’s something about it that it kind of moves from one mood to another.  And yet it holds together.

I suppose the key songs would have been when “Flowers At The Scene” and “Not Married Anymore” were written.  And I just felt that Brian and I had been coming up with material that had its own distinct identity.  And I also had a certain idea of how I wanted them to sound – and suddenly that was it!  And I guess that there’s this [Robert] Fripp line, he would always say that a new direction presented itself.  And I think that it’s true, because I’d continued writing material on my own, and I’d continued writing material with Stephen Bennett while I was recording the Plenty album.  And although the material was good, it felt like it was gonna be a continuation of Lost In The Ghost Light or Stupid Things That Mean The World.

And I think that it was when I’d written the fifth song with no purpose really – Brian and I just kept on writing together because we were excited by what we were doing.  And I think it would have been “Flowers At The Scene”, the title track itself, and I thought, “this is the new direction; it’s presented itself.” And from that moment on, it became a very exciting and immersive project and I said to Brian, “I think this is the basis of a new solo album. And it feels like a fresh direction after the other albums.”  And you’re right that, what’s kind of interesting for me is it’s fresh, it’s a reset, but perhaps because of the mood of some of the music and because of my voice, there’s also a sense of continuation.

And certainly one of the things that contributes to it being fresh is this cast of musicians that you gathered, which is really genuinely impressive.  So many great names with great work that have fed into this.  I was wondering if I could just toss out names and, in a few words, you could try to describe what each of these guys have brought to the music for the album.  Starting with Jim Matheos.

Well, Jim’s somebody I’ve known for a few years.  He asked me to guest on an OSI album [Blood], probably about nine years ago now.  And I really enjoyed it.  So the track, which is called “No Celebrations”, felt very different for me; it was very much in that OSI art-metal style, but it accommodated my singing as well.  And after that, we carried on communicating together.  So occasionally he’s asked me for advice about things, and also we had co-written a couple of tracks that had never been released.

And when I was doing this album, I thought I’d love to get him involved.  Because one of the tracks I’d been developing had him on anyway, and he’s an incredibly versatile guitarist.  Very, very nice guy, but what people I don’t think are aware of is how versatile his talent is.  So his own music can be anything from sort of ambient experimental to metal to classical acoustic guitar.  And I knew how good he was as a soloist, and so I got him – really, he was my stunt guitarist on the album on a few tracks.  And he did some fantastic work on it.

Peter Hammill.  What a legend!

Yeah!  Well, Peter’s somebody who when I was growing up, when I was in my teens, he was one of my favorite singers.  And as I’ve said to people, what’s interesting with this album is that, probably my five favorite singers when I was 13 would have been David Bowie, Peter Hammill, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and Kevin Godley.  And I’ve two of them on the album, and it’s an incredible thrill to have that!

Over the years, Peter’s become a friend.  We ended up playing on lots of the same albums in Italy, and we got to know one another.  And over the years, he’s guested on my work; and we even live in the same small town in England!  And so he’s probably my sort of coffee and chat companion, where we’ve put the political and the musical world to rights once a month.  And as I always say about Peter, he’s as nice, generous and decent as his music is frightening!

[Laughs] Oh, that’s a great summary!

[Laughs] Absolutely!  Cause, you know, you wouldn’t want him to be as frightening as [Van der Graaf Generator’s] Pawn Hearts really, would you?

[Laughs] No, not in the slightest!

It is true; you’d be coughing your coffee up.  It’s not good!  [Both laugh] So yeah, lovely guy, and we’ve worked on a few things.  And the thing about Peter is he is very honest about his opinion.  So interestingly enough, I’d asked him to work on Lost in the Ghost Light, but he wasn’t as much a fan of that material.  So basically, he works on what he likes.  And he’d worked on the Stupid Things That Mean the World album, and I’d played him this album in progress.  He’d mixed an album for me as well.  There’s a Bowness/[Peter] Chilvers album that’s been unreleased that Peter’s mixed, which is quite an interesting project in itself.

And while I was making the new album I said, “ah, you know, a couple of Hammill-shaped holes here!”  And he heard it, and he heard exactly what I wanted, and he really liked the material.  One of the tracks he put a great deal into it, there’s a track on it called “It’s The World”.  I’d played it to him, and initially I wanted his bite – there’s a real sort of bite in his voice, I wanted this in the chorus.  And he said, “Yep, I know exactly what you want; I’ll get it to you.  But I tell you what else I’ll give you; I’ll give you guitars, because the guitars on this aren’t working!”  And so he completely re-recorded the chorus guitars, and almost went into sort of Rikki Nadir [from Hammill’s proto-punk solo album Nadir’s Big Chance] mode, and did a fantastic job.

So on the track “It’s The World” he’s on kind of backing and lead vocals, and also adds some really ferocious guitar parts.  And he made the piece work.  So that was an interesting case, where the piece I think was pretty good as it was, but he gave it an extra edge and an extra looseness.

Got it!  One of the newer singers on the album is David Longdon.  I know you collaborated with Big Big Train on a b-side [“Seen Better Days (the brass band’s last piece)”].  What did David bring?

Well, I suppose I asked him to be on the piece [“Borderline”] and I’d suggested a particular approach to backing vocal which he used.   I almost wanted this kind of rich, Michael McDonald/Steely Dan approach.  That’s something I wanted: a comfortable bed of David Longdon voice, really, and he gave that.  And then he added some flute as a means of contrasting with the trumpet.  And he did a beautiful job in both cases, really.  So I suppose what he gave was himself, so he kind of knew the places where I wanted him to play, and where I wanted him to be, and with the backing vocal he was effectively re-singing the melody that I’d already sung on the demo.

But with the flute, he performed a really beautiful solo, and it was great!  Because although the trumpet was recorded in the outback in Australia – I used a jazz musician, a guy called Ian Dixon, who’s worked with No-Man, he was on Returning Jesus, several tracks on that, and he’s a wonderful sort of jazz trumpet player.  And his studio is a tin shack in the outback in Australia!  And he said when he recorded it, it was in the middle of the rainy season.  So he’s recording that with crashing rain on the tin roof – which I thought was very romantic!  And David really beautifully worked with Ian’s trumpet.  And to me, it sounds as if the two could be in the room together playing!  So they worked very nicely together, and I suppose in that case, I knew what I wanted, and I got what I wanted.  But it was still different, the playing, the expression that the two of them had given was entirely their own.

Continue reading “The Progarchy Interview: Tim Bowness, Part 2”