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.
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.
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.
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?
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