Big Big Train Interview Special
Progressive rock band Big Big Train are a band whose live shows are regarded by their legions of devoted fans as huge events as they don’t play live all that often so the last year has been very hard on the band with live dates cancelled.
With all that is going on in the world and in lieu of those cancelled tour plans, the band released the live album Empire at the end of a chaotic year, a reminder of good times to come again and shows the band thriving in their natural element. We caught up with Big Big Train founder/bassist/songwriter Greg Spawton to talk all about Empire as well as hearing about the status of the new Big Big Train album, the return of live music and his own journey through music.
Big Big Train released the live album Empire at the end of last year. How has that been received so far?
It seems to have had a very good response. I am conscious that we have released three live albums now, which is quite a lot for a band that hasn’t played that many shows, but each set of gigs we have played has been very different in terms of the set lists, so I think it is worthwhile presenting live recordings via the medium of live albums.
What are your main memories of the Hackney Empire gig that the album was recorded at?
It was the last show on the tour, so it was nice to capture that event. We are getting into the 1,000 plus seater venues now so the audience make a decent noise when they like a song and that lifts the performance and makes things even more enjoyable.
Did you feel any more pressure at all knowing that the gig was being recorded for release?
I thought we might be a bit nervous due to the filming, but the director Tim Sidwell is very good at getting his crew to undertake stealth-filming so we were almost completely unaware of the cameras. If it had ended up being a terrible gig, we just wouldn’t have released the film so the pressure isn’t actually any different from any other show.
How has the global pandemic affected Big Big Train as a band?
It’s been a disaster. We were just getting into our stride as a touring band, we had tours booked in Europe and North America and all of that went down the pan. The general public don’t realise how much spending takes place ahead of tours to make them happen. Straightaway we lost £12,000 on tour booking and visas. This blew a hole in our finances which we are still struggling to recover from. The pandemic also made band members think about their futures in a touring band. So, over the summer, we lost three band members that have been part of the band for the best part of eight years. Really, we were in disarray for a few months.
Has the state of the world proved to be any inspiration for future music lyrical themes?
Yes, both directly and indirectly. Personally, I don’t ever want to hear the words ‘lockdown’ or ‘pandemic’ ever again, so I steered away from writing about it. However, other band members have tackled it head on in new songs and the overall theme of our next album is a humanitarian one which is informed by writing songs during a global crisis.
Do you think that live music will come back stronger when that time comes?
If people feel safe and are safe, if treatments and vaccines have reduced the risk to, say, seasonal-flu levels, then I think things should open up as before and the audiences may want to see even more gigs. But if the situation is prolonged to late this year, or even next year, then it will be hard for the industry to get going again. A lot of crew will have left the business and venues may start to close. The problem for many bands and artists is that they have come to rely on touring income due to the reduction in income from physical sales, so it has been a shock to the system.
Have you got any tentative plans for live shows when the time comes for them to start up again?
We have three shows booked in July. We think the chances of them happening are low. We do have a plan B, provided Nick and Rikard are able to travel. We desperately want to get the band together in the same room as soon as possible.
You have some new live members, can you tell us about them and how they came to join the band?
Dave Foster is well known in the world of progressive rock. He started out in Mr So and So and, from there, became part of the Steve Rothery Band. He also makes his own music in the Dave Foster Band. I saw Dave play with his band in 2019 and was impressed with his superb abilities on 6 and 12 string guitar. Carly Bryant comes from a different musical tradition, more from the indie side of things. She is a brilliant pianist and singer. She has released a number of solo albums and toured with Oz Mutantes, one of south America’s biggest bands. She also plays guitar so is very adaptable. Carly is new to the world of progressive rock but has been immersing herself in the music.
What will they bring to the Big Big Train live experience?
They are both extraordinary musicians and performers so they will bring a huge amount. Rikard, Carly and Dave are already working on the guitar and keyboard arrangements and we can’t wait to show off our new line-up.
Have you been practicing regularly throughout this either together or virtually?
We have been wrapped up in finishing the new album but are now turning our attention to learning and practising. We won’t properly be able to play together until we get to rehearsals though.
Have you thought about a Big Big Train livestream show at all?
Yes, that will be our plan B if the July shows can’t happen.
What have been some of the most memorable gigs that Big Big Train have ever done?
Three shows stand out for me. The first one was our first show of the new line-up at Kings Place, London, back in 2015. I hadn’t played a gig for 15 years so it was all a bit nerve-wracking, especially as we didn’t have tour or production management and had organised it all ourselves. When we walked on the stage on the first night, the response from the audience before we even played a note was overwhelming. Secondly was our headline show at Loreley in Germany. It’s an epic location, an open-air amphitheatre on a cliff overlooking the Rhine. We came on at 10pm on a beautiful summer’s evening. The light was fading fast, and we played as the sun set over the river. The audience was, I suspect, well lubricated with alcohol from a day spent in the hot sunshine and were up for an enjoyable evening. It was our biggest audience so far, and it was magical. Finally, I am a Midlander by birth and so our show at Birmingham Town Hall in 2019 was very special. The last time I had played a gig in the Midlands was with my first band, Equus, to about 50 people at the local YMCA. This was quite a memorable return! Great venue too, nice high ceiling, epic space. I hope, at some stage, we can play at the Birmingham Symphony Hall.
What has been the best gig you have ever seen as a fan and what made it so special?
It’s hard to say that any one gig was the best. The most memorable ones include the Genesis re-union at Milton Keynes in 1982. I didn’t know him at the time, but David our lead singer was there as well. It rained all day and David bought two baked potatoes to put in his pockets to try and stay warm. But even with the rain and the low temperatures, it was an extraordinary event. Another memorable show was The Blue Nile at Birmingham Symphony Hall. Immaculate sound and a passionate audience. Generally, though, I prefer smaller gigs. I saw Mew at a small venue in Bristol in 2009 and they blew my socks off.
You are currently working on the follow up to your last album The Grand Tour, can you tell us how is the progress going with it?
It’s done. We have just signed off the masters. Difficult to be objective about it at the moment but I think it’s a bloody good album.
When are you looking to release the album?
Not until the summer. I know the date but we are not ready to announce it yet.
Has it been a difficult or more strange process doing this album due to the pandemic?
We have been recording at separate studios for many years as Nick lives in the States and Rikard in Sweden. We have done a few live sessions in the studio together, but, for studio albums, we are used to working remotely. What was strange for us this time was that we had booked Real World for a week in November with the intention of making the album all in the room together. In the end, of course, the pandemic prevented Nick and Rikard from traveling so David and I did our parts there and the others worked remotely. We did also record an acoustic live session with Carly and Dave, which was fun.
You are releasing a reissue of your 2009 album The Underfall Yard. Can you tell us a bit about that?
The Underfall Yard was originally released in 2009, just before the resurgence of vinyl and we have had many requests for a vinyl release. However, rather than simply put the existing recordings on vinyl, we decided to make the definitive version. So, we went back to the sessions and remixed the whole thing. We also took the opportunity to record some new bonus material for a third vinyl and second CD disc, new versions of album tracks with our line-up in 2020, a brass prelude and a brand new song written to complement the existing album. We did change one or two things on the original album as well. We replaced a synth part with real trumpet on Winchester Diver, and Francis Dunnery recorded a new solo for the title track.
Are there any plans for any further reissues of your previous material?
There is an album called Bard we will be re-mixing and re-issuing. We made the album when the band was at a low point and we only pressed two thousand copies. It isn’t a good album, although it has a couple of nice songs. It is fetching high prices on the second-hand market, so we are going to try to tackle that issue by making it available one more time. We’ll re-mix it, press up maybe 3,000 more CD’s and a limited edition vinyl and then delete it. It won’t ever appear on streaming services.
What album has had the biggest effect on you and what was it about it that resonated so much with you?
Again, I am going to cheat and provide two answers. The first album would be Selling England By The Pound. For me, it’s one of the peaks of prog rock. The second would be Jordan: The Comeback by Prefab Sprout. It’s one of the cleverest and greatest pop albums ever made. Prog rock is at its best when it is basically pop music with ambition, and those two albums are probably my biggest influences.
How did you discover progressive rock in the first place?
I was a choirboy at a church in Sutton Coldfield. There was a good organ player and we used to perform Handel’s Zadok the Priest. I had no idea what the music was, really, I just sang the words with the choir. But it used to stir something in my loins, this big, powerful, melodic, piece with an instrumental introduction and then a whacking great chorus. When I started getting into rock music, I think I was looking for similar musical settings and found them in Supper’s Ready, Awaken, A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers etc.
Who are your biggest influences as a musician?
As a musician, Anthony Phillips for his 12-string acoustic guitar playing and Mike Rutherford for his bass and bass pedals.
How do you think that Big Big Train have evolved as a band since you first started?
It’s been quite a journey. It started out as a hobby, then became a very expensive hobby and finally, after a lot of ups and downs, ended up as a career. My only real talent lies as a songwriter and I think surrounding myself with talented people has been the smartest move.
What have been some of the proudest moments for you in your time with Big Big Train?
That Town Hall show in Birmingham was a big one. However, becoming a top 40 UK charts band in 2019 was probably the most surprising and, in a way, quite an emotional moment for me. We got almost nowhere for the first 15 years, then began to make some progress when Sean Filkins joined as singer. Things picked up even more when David and Nick joined in 2009 and then, when we added the talents of Danny, Dave and Rachel it all began to gather momentum. But I still had no idea we had the potential to get in the Top 40.
Thank you for the time spent discussing all things BBT, wishing you the best with the re-issue and new material!
Words: Gavin Brown