Big Big Train has been enjoying some well deserved success lately. Starting with their acclaimed release The Underfall Yard in 2009, Big Big Train has only enjoyed more and more positive reception. I first heard them after reading an article on modern progressive epics (meaning longer songs).
‘The Underfall Yard’ is a 20-minute progressive epic, fitted with many of the typical musical trappings of a prog rock song- odd time signatures, stellar musicianship, and even brass accompaniment. But, for me, the most striking aspect of the track was the subject matter. ‘The Underfall Yard’ is about Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the most influential and important civil engineers in British history.
I remember being surprised the first time I paid attention to the lyrics. Progressive rock can tend toward escapism or esoteric themes: For example, the anteater tank and manticore battle on Emerson, Lake, and Palmers’ Tarkus, or Yes’s ode to various books of Hindu scripture found on Tales from Topographic Oceans, or even more recently, Dream Theater’s concept album about reincarnation. I was used to that aspect of progressive rock, and so hearing a song about a civil engineer took me by surprise. I bought the album, and was further shocked to hear songs about rural train station managers, maintenance workers, and tired soldiers.
I personally think that, for the music alone, Big Big Train’s English Electric albums are some of the most interesting and exciting progressive rock that has been released in the last several years. But the unconventional subject matter, and the intentional memorialization of the British working-class makes the albums all the more powerful. So many of us can trace our roots back to dock workers and hedgerow gardeners and coal miners, and their stories have been lost with time. I had the unique privilege of asking Big Big Train’s bassist/songwriter/founding member Greg Spawton about Big Big Train’s musical and lyrical focus. While I had Greg’s attention, I thought I’d ask about the writing process of Big Big Train and some of the recent successes that they have experienced. Enjoy!
Q: Progressive rock is notorious for its escapist and fantastical lyrics. One of the most striking things about Big Big Train for me was the subject matter of the lyrics. For example, English Electric has songs about shipyard workers, factory employees, train engineers, and other jobs that are not as lauded by society. What is your intention with lyrics and subject matter that have to do with work, the working class, and ordinary folks?
A: Both David and I are from the Midlands and we were brought up in typical working class households in the ’70s. Various members of our families worked down the mines or on the railways and we feel a deep connection with the local communities and landscape. Social change over the last 50 years has taken place at an extraordinary rate and many of those communities have lost the local industries that were their reason for being. Some communities have adapted well, others are struggling. Many of our songs on The Underfall Yard and English Electric albums feature those communities or characters from them. There are some amazing tales out there in the landscape and we want to tell some of those stories. We don’t wish to romanticize things; many of these industries were hard places to work and the people needed to be very tough, but we don’t think the stories should be lost.
Q: I remember when I traveled to England, I felt like I understood the lyrics and stories of British music on a more visceral level. Big Big Train’s music is similar, in that it deals with England’s stories, legends, and people. Am I overstating the effect that place has on Big Big Train’s music?
A: No, the landscape and our surroundings are essential to the music we make. Both David and I do a lot of walking and we seek out the stories that are around us. For example, David ended up in a church yard the other night and found a great song title on a monument. That title will almost certainly lead to the creation of a song in the next month or so. I have written some songs about London recently, and these are all from stories I have picked up whist wandering around. What has been particularly rewarding for us is that the stories we tell from England seem to resonate across the world. We get a lot of emails from people who remember the old industries which have closed down in their local areas. Whist we are all of us formed by the places we were brought up in and the people around us, we are all very similar under the surface.
Q: Big Big Train’s music is very story oriented. When you want to write a song, do you often begin with a story and then shape the music around it?
A: Yes, most of the time that is how it happens. Usually we start with a song title and a general idea of what we want to write about. Then we write the music which fits the story. Then we go back over the melodies and finish the lyrics.
Q: What is the writing process like as a band? How do you deal with problems of distance?
A: Songs will normally be started by me or David. If we are writing something on our own, we will demo the song and then send it on to the rest of the band for them to work their parts up. If we are writing together, we’ll take things up to a certain point and then send it to the other person to finish. Whilst band members are geographically spread all over England, Sweden and the States, I am not sure we would greatly change the writing process if we all lived in the same town. Time spent in a studio is money, so we need to work in the most efficient way we can. Therefore, songs are thought through in great detail before we record, with everybody working on their own parts and talking to others to make sure there are no clashes. Any brass or string quartet parts are scored in advance. Generally, the drums are the first thing to be recorded and then we work up from there. Occasionally, some parts of the original demo make it through to the final recorded track. For example, David recorded some demo acoustic 12-string on a song called ‘Telling the Bees’ on the new album. It sounded great so rather than replace it, we just left the demo parts there.
Q: Your band has had an interesting trajectory. How do you feel about the recent success of the band? What do you personally attribute it to?
A: It took us a while to find the perfect line-up for BBT, the missing pieces in the puzzle. We started working with Nick D’Virgilio in 2007 on The Difference Machine album and he joined the band with Dave Gregory and David in 2010 after we had all worked on The Underfall Yard album. We also started working with Dave Desmond and his brass band at that stage and his brass arrangements have added a lot to the sound of the band. During the recording of English Electric we added Danny Manners on keyboards and Rachel Hall on violin and when we decided to get back to playing live we asked Rikard Sjoblom to join on guitars and keyboards. All of these musicians have added their own wonderful techniques and personalities to the songs. And speaking of songs, that was the other important factor. The story-telling aspect of the songs became more important in recent years and we found that the stories we were telling were resonating with people.
Q: What can you tell us about the new album?
A: The main theme of the new album is the folklore tales that are such an important part of different cultures. Some of the folklore tales that we have been brought up with are thousands of years old. They help to make us who we are and they tell us about life and love and death. We wanted to tell some of these tales and write about how stories become folklore. Musically, the album builds on the work of the band on The Underfall Yard and English Electric albums.
Big Big Train’s new album, Folklore, will be released on May 27, 2016. Not only will the music be brilliant, but the artwork and presentation of the physical copies of the album are already looking to be absolutely gorgeous. Click here to buy on their website and on Amazon. Also, the incredible David Longdon (singer/writer/multi-instrumentalist in Big Big Train) has updated his blog to give some further context to the new Folklore album. Check it out if you want to learn the stories behind the songs.
Great interview! Thanks!
Love learning about the writing and recording process of BBT. Fascinating reading, Thomas, thanks…