BIG BIG TRAIN interview by Pierre Romainville for Prog-résiste magazine
Sept 5, 2022.
As I imagine that not everyone is necessarily aware of recent events in the life of Big Big Train, it is probably useful as a preliminary to recall the essentials. Almost unknown at the dawn of the 2000s, the group sees itself propelled barely fifteen years later to the rank of headliner in the prestigious NOTP festival of the Lorelei in Germany (2018) and is seen filling 6 honorable large English halls in 2019, including the very London Hackney Empire Theater where the concert will be used to make the Blu-ray soberly titled "Empire" and which I highly recommend. Look for such an evolution in the world of relatively recent prog bands, you won't find any other examples. These service records and titles of glory alone will justify the forthcoming publication in these Prog-Résiste magazine pages of a long history of Big Big Train, starting with the next issue and probably spread over several quarters. A big big historic.
2020 was going to be the year of confirmation on a global scale, with tours planned throughout Europe and the Americas. But here comes the pandemic and, with it, the time of uncertainty and introspection. The tours are obviously cancelled. Three eminent members (including the very revered guitarist Dave Gregory, historical member of XTC) decide that their personal future can no longer be combined with the future of a group caressing such traveling ambitions. First boom. The worse is yet to come. A tragic fall at his home causes the death of David Longdon, charismatic singer of the group and composer of a beautiful portion of the recent catalog. A human and artistic drama. Against bad winds and tsunami tides, what remains of Big Big Train nevertheless decides to stay on the rails and to continue the journey by hitching new wagons to the coupling, organizing in the process a small tour of ten dates in UK and Western Europe. But third boom... the bandits of the HRH decide in extremis to cancel their festival in Leeds, where Big Big Train was to perform. A decision that makes the whole tour financially null and void, of which only three dates will remain. Two in England and one in Holland, at the very famous Boerderij de Zoetermeer. Here we are.
Suffice it to say, certain meetings with musicians, certain interviews, sometimes turn into a nightmare, so much the impression comes to us of being absolutely unwanted, of being perceived as a necessary evil, as a chore that the musician performs without enthusiasm and with an ill-disguised bad mood. And then sometimes, like an absolute reward, these interviews become simple and magnificent moments of exchange, which even the musician does not seem to want to put an end to. Without a doubt, meeting Gregory Spawton falls into this second category. He is the only founding member still present in the group, he is also the undisputed boss, bassist and main composer.
After having already spent the evening together yesterday at the hotel bar, we find ourselves on the outdoor terrace of the Boerderij, a Dutch concert hall where the two tour buses have just arrived.
Pierre Romainville: Greg, are you sure you don't mind taking time off on a show day?
Gregory Spawton: Not at all. On the contrary. On tour we have moments of absolutely free time. Last night you saw us come back from a trip to Amsterdam and today, as you see, the trucks have arrived and an army of poor lads... well, poor, they get paid to do it, don't they? … is unloading the material to set up the scene. As soon as the concert is over, they are also the ones who reload everything on the buses. We are going back to England the next night. I know that many musicians in the industry do this work themselves, but it is also part of the respect we owe to the public and to our music, to be in good physical condition to play. And then, imagine that one of us hurts our hand? The tour would simply be cancelled, with all the ensuing trouble and expense.
PR: Yes, but hey... All that costs a lot of money!
GS: We lose money on tour. Still. We are the ones who pay to shoot, in reality. Of course in prog and classic rock, income from merchandising and what we can sell around, helps a little. But this is largely insufficient. To be honest, you have to weigh in the balance what a tour can bring and, in particular, a lot of publicity for which we would otherwise have to pay. And therefore notoriety and recognition.
PR: And then the fact of feeling like a “real” band, perhaps?
GS: Absolutely. And that's actually the most important thing. A lot of bands these days are virtual bands.
PR: You yourself have been a virtual band for a long time.
GS: That's right. Finally, we started in the 90s as a real group, before becoming for a while what we can call a “collective” of music creators.
PR: I know... We were at Prog Farm when you were there in 1999. It was, how can I put it, terrible.
GS: Yes, a disaster. But in our defence, I must say that we were not helped by the technical side. It happened that all the electricity was cut in the middle of a piece and then we died of cold. Initially, we were happy. We are invited to Holland, we say to ourselves why not? Before realizing that it is in the far North, in November and in a kind of barn with a vague platform. Every time the drummer hit his bass drum a little too hard, it generated a reset of my guitar processor... Anyway. We had gone there a bit on an adventure with our own cars and we slept in a large dormitory. So, it's true that when you see the two huge tour buses parked here in front, you say to yourself that we haven't evolved too badly since then.
PR: For the reasons that we know, you have canceled or postponed the next few dates of the tour. But why not cancel the whole tour? All this is a monstrous job, for only three shows!
GS: On a purely economic level, it is clear that we should have canceled everything. But this group, how to say... This "young" group in a way, really needs to be together. To rub shoulders. If we now want to plan that we are going to live together for two or three months next year, we had to have the opportunity today to really meet, spend some time together, laugh, chat, drink suddenly, become colleagues and friends, in reality. It's the only way to get there.
PR: To see them together, it seems to me that the newcomers and the old ones are in the process of forming friendships and complicity!
GS: Yes. The atmosphere is fantastic. But before you leave, you're never sure how it's going to be, if people are going to get along. It is always a kind of bet, that we are winning. I think you'll see tonight how confidence is coming back. We draw a lot of strength from it.
PR: Are you going to spend a term together in 2023?
GS: Not exactly. To start, we planned to record all together for 15 days, in a studio in Trieste, Italy. What we have never done. For this time, I want to feel the energy linked to the presence of all, in the final recording process. Rob Aubrey will also be there to record and mix, as always.
PR: Ah yes, before, everyone recorded their parts on their side. I can't wait to see the difference this new recording method will make. What do you expect?
GS: I think it will be more… actually, I don't know, to be honest. It's a discussion we've had in the group over time, and this time I feel the urge to give it a try. So obviously, things have to be written in advance, we are not a blues band whose compositions can come out of a jam session but it is quite possible that the collective energy can bring something to the process, that sections can be invented or improved together, in any case I want to experience it, I'm always ready to try new ways to fly higher and higher with this group.
PR: It reminds me of a line from our late David Longdon, which I read in Grant Moon's book. He said that the EP "Far Skies Deep Time" in 2009 was a good example of a common writing process between him and you, but unfortunately that didn't happen much after that. Why ? Because of the distance ?
GS: Yes it is. And I think that's a regret we have in common. It's a period when I had in my hard drives many works in progress that, to be honest, I couldn't finish. David asked me to send him the demos, just to see. He received the parts of British Racing Green and The Wide Open Sea (a very long piece of 18 minutes devoted to Jacques Brel) and he liked it a lot. And it is indeed he who made these pieces what they have become. So why did we no longer share the writing afterwards... to be honest, I don't know, it's a shame and we never talked about it together.
PR: Was there a little fight between you to know who would bring the best composition?
GS: There was indeed something that was a bit competitive. A competitive element, perfectly healthy. And who helped us a lot, who had nothing negative! David came up with such fabulous compositions sometimes, that I then forced myself to try to do the same. Between David and me, it worked like stairs, which took us up, always.
PR: You also said of David that, as a singer, he brought the soul to the music; that prog, as complex music, requires the presence of a great singer to bring humanity to it and serve as a link with the listener. It gives an idea of the task which consisted, a few months ago, of finding a new singer. How did you find and choose Alberto Bravin?
GS: That's right. The quality of the singer is what makes the difference in a prog band. For several years I have had the idea of making a solo album, surrounded by big names. And my job now is mostly just jotting down names on a list, whenever I meet or hear from someone who might be a good fit for the project. I saw Alberto on stage with PFM in London in 2015 and he really blew me away. To be honest, I didn't even know his name and I remember reading up on the internet about him. PFM was a band from the 70s, so this young man could only be a session musician. So when it came to looking for a new lead singer, I went back to my notes and he was simply the first on the list. It's crazy that he is our singer today.
PR: And he said yes, like that?
GS: When I contacted him, I first asked him if he had ever heard of Big Big Train. Yes of course, I like it a lot! he replied. And second question, immediately, would you be interested in auditioning with us? Yes of course. I had a real crush on what he presented to us. But, you know, he had to leave PFM then and invest a lot because it's not nothing to join a progressive rock band. So, when he was chosen, I especially asked him to think carefully before answering me. When you join a group like ours, you have to realize that your life is going to change and it's not a decision to be taken on a whim. I told him, take your time, think about all the implications, talk it over with your wife. Because you shouldn't join us and then realize after six months that it's actually not possible, that it's incompatible with the rest of your life. It is very bad for everyone. Especially since PFM is a band that tours a lot, maybe a hundred dates a year, which is a huge opportunity for a musician. Joining us is in fact a sacrifice, on several levels.
PR: It's a leap into the unknown. The decision involves the family...
GS: In our field as in others, it is important to have a good partner with you, someone who guides you or pushes you in the right direction and who assumes with you. It's the same with my wife too. The decision must be joint. Besides being a singer, Alberto is also an engineer; he very quickly sent us his demos and wrote to us why he absolutely wanted this job.
PR: You made the decision alone, concerning him?
GS: No, not at all. There were several candidates and the decision was made by the group. Our manager Nick Shilton, who is an important person for us, also took part in the decision.
PR: I find it very nice on the part of the group vis-à-vis Alberto, to have released this new song “The Last Eleven” on social networks before leaving on tour. He must feel much more integrated again.
GS: Yes. It is indeed a piece on which David has never worked and which he has never heard since his writing dates from after his disappearance. Alberto put part of his DNA there. It was an exciting collaborative work, from the demo he came back to us with some big vocal arrangements that weren't written down to begin with. You have to tell yourself that, when it works well, the fact of writing together, whether in the same room or not, does not consist in dragging a composition down because of compromises. On the contrary, it is an enrichment. It was very useful here, I hope Alberto realized that he hadn't fallen into a group where he was going to have to confine himself to singing the scores that a composer would send him. With us, it's more like, here's the idea of the song, now put on the table everything you can bring to it. I give you another example; when we learned that it was the Norwegian keyboardist of the band Dim Grey, Oskar Holldorff, who was going to accompany us on this tour, he also received the demos of this track and offered us this fabulous moog solo which is in the middle .
PR: Ah, is Oskar playing this solo? It is a bit in the delicacy and the style that Danny Manners, who left the group 2 years ago, could have played.
GS: Yes indeed. Oskar is a very intelligent young man. His usual universe is not that of classic progressive rock but he knows this material perfectly. We sent him the track and he timidly offered us this solo which is purely fantastic and, of course, we integrated it!
PR: Anything else. I believe I told you, I am preparing a long document about you, to appear in the Belgian magazine Prog-Résiste and I was looking for a title for my article. I would like to submit it to you; I was thinking of “The Art of Being Well Surrounded”.
GS: Brilliant. Perfect. This is probably the golden rule of my entire musical life. “Surround yourself with talented people”. Find the right people. I've often been asked if I'm not afraid of being compared to such talented people, but when it comes to the point of view of the composer that I am, I've always considered that the more talented they are, the more they will bring material to my music. And often talented people are beautiful people, which doesn't hurt. I fully subscribe to your title.
PR: If you agree, I would like to ask you about two very paradoxical sides of your personality, it seems. I've read about you things like 'monstrous ego', I've heard David say Big Big Train was of course your band and no one else, your old keyboardist Ian Cooper saying you were definitely the leader . However, you also claim to have been sickly shy, to suffer from a kind of impostor syndrome, I even learned that, doubting your abilities, you had for a moment considered taking a bass player other than yourself for the stage. .
GS: Yes, I know. When I read Grant Moon's book about our history, I talked to Nick, our manager. There appears a kind of dichotomy between these two sides of my personality. And I told Grant that maybe there was an explanation for why I might be perceived that way. You would think that I am the one who wants to control everything without ever wanting to step out of the shadows. Remember, we were still talking about it yesterday at the table, with fans who regret that I never come to the front of the stage. What could I answer you? In my youth, I believe that I was a rather confident young man, even if less than others obviously. At the time of the beginnings of the group, there was not really a leader, in fact. But I understood that any group needed a leader, even if no one wanted to be. It is rather a charge that I have agreed to take on, basically.
PR: Like a void that someone has to fill.
GS: Yes, exactly. Making the decisions was not a deliberate choice on my part, but as someone ultimately has to lead a band, I guess, as I was the composer, that task fell naturally to me. And then, we were a group of friends so when they talk about me, they can also afford nicely excessive words, like this ego monster story. At the time of the progfarm, when we stopped the scene, it is true that I had lost all confidence in the role of lead-guitarist which was supposed to be mine. Later when David joined the band (2008) I was still the one pushing the band forward but with David Longdon and Nick D'Virgilio as charismatic figures I could handle things from the back of the stage, if we can say so. I don't have, how to say, a personality to want to put myself forward, to be the one that everyone looks at. But yes, as a composer, we can talk about my ego. Yes, I want my music to be listened to and appreciated by as many people as possible and, to achieve this, I am ready to step out of my comfort zone. When David died a few months ago, I again felt that it was up to me to take matters into my own hands, to do what was necessary to keep the train on track.
PR: History has ensured and demonstrated that you are now the one and only essential and indispensable member of Big Big Train. Without you, there is no more group.
GS: mmmh... I don't know if you can say that. Of course, as the last survivor of the initial group, I had this mission to put him back on his feet. And this group now needs some time to fully restructure. As for what would happen to the band if I decided to quit, honestly, I don't know. I believe that there is enough strength, conviction and even a sense of belonging within BBT, to continue even without me.
PR: Oh good! And you would see someone take the lead?
GS: Not necessarily. I don't think you realize how important a manager like Nick Shilton is, who you can trust and rely on for all decisions. Today, I'm really not the one who decides everything. But without a driver, it doesn't work. You need a pilot and a precise agenda. For example, here in the tour bus, we were talking about next year, the future album and the tour. Well, Nick will decide and control the schedule. The demos must be finished for Christmas, for example. Things must be said, specified and controlled. We are all very busy people, Rikard and Nick have sick schedules, so we have to provide them with specific deadlines and objectives. In addition, next year, we will be playing old and new songs on stage that this group has never played, which also represents a huge investment in rehearsal time for everyone, each at home and then together. To finish with your question, I concede it to you, I must represent a large part of the DNA of BBT but it is indeed a group, a real one!
PR: It seems to me that the mood of your writing depends heavily on your state of mind at the time of writing. I am wrong ? The compositions on the old album "Bard" for example are terribly depressing, while you are also capable of very joyful things.
GS: Yes, it is well observed, my writing often depends on where I am in general. I wrote a lot at times when my life wasn't simple and, in terms of the band, a lot of melancholy comes out of it. And Bard, since you mention it, is an album that I don't like, as it sounds "cheap" production-wise, it's a bit of a trash.
PR: You are a bit harsh, the compositions are not bad there, I think.
GS: There are a few tracks that are worthwhile, indeed, but it was actually the first time we recorded ourselves in the home studio and it really comes across. And then, these songs are sad... they talk about a love that ends and the harm we do to children... I was with my first wife at the time. In addition, we tried to write long songs without real structures... (sigh). A remixed version should be released soon, though. I think we initially pressed 2000 copies, now sold out. And probably because of our current notoriety, I saw this CD on second-hand sites for several hundred euros. This is not normal, we have to offer a solution to our fans who want it. In fact, I know quite a few people who like this record and it is certainly not nice of me to condemn it like this. But in my mind, it's still a very badly produced album, with too little means and it represents a part of my sentimental life that was a bit miserable. Bad memories.
PR: You have written a lot about specific parts of your life. Childhood, adolescence, the loss of your dad, the love of your new companion, etc. On which part of your existence will your future composition be based?
GS: Yes, everything you say is true. (Long thought). Well, I just wrote it and I think it will be on the next album, a song that is once again personal but more about my whole life. She will talk about friendship. Of the one that lasts. There are people who have been close to me from the beginning and who will be so until the end and I am not talking about the musical circle, even if friendship can also be found there, as was the case with David. This piece will be dedicated to them, to this handful of friends who will always count and on whom I can always count. So yes, there will still be songs based on personal stories. I've written a lot about historical figures or events but it seems people like it just as much when I talk about myself.
PR: On the album "The Difference Machine", we understand that this title is an allegory that wants to talk about these people, these beautiful people who have had a beneficial influence on the lives of their fellow men or at least some of them. between them. Isn't it ultimately your deepest desire to become a sort of "difference machine" yourself for those who listen to and love your music?
GS: Wow, what a great question! Yes, definitely. (Reflection time). It's a nice question, because I think that's exactly what every composer is trying to do, really. That their music can touch people and make a difference in their lives. And it's an invaluable chance for us to personally meet the people who listen to our music, on tours like this and to receive such feedback. Some tell us that they are particularly touched by such a piece or by such a part. That it moves them to the point sometimes of influencing their real life. And basically, that's why we're doing all of this. This is the soul of the process. And it doesn't matter if it makes them sad or happy because I think all feelings have their value. It is magical to be able to generate these feelings in others, wherever they are.
PR: That's probably why you're one of those super affordable bands. You are on Facebook, you answer yourself, you need to see this difference that you cause?
GS: Maybe just need some love? (smile). Look, if someone is dedicated to my music enough to dare to ask questions, to give a personal feeling and that I am able to answer thanks to the ease of social networks, I think, provided that all of this remains appropriate, that it is not only a duty for me to answer but that I gain a lot from it personally as well. What people say about my music, what they feel, these are things that interest me! I think that's just what artists need, even if you've reached the level of Coldplay. In truth, we are in a world where there are many ways to be close to our fans and it's great, it's beautiful, it's just good! That's what I do.
PR: I don't think all musicians say that… some have already said things to me like “if you want to become a hero you have to keep a whole part of mystery! ".
GS: Yes. This is a remark that has also been made to me, I will not say by whom, behind the scene. That we should let a little more mystery hang around us. Or to do things differently, if we want to grow the audience. Probably if we are lucky enough to see the number of our fans grow even more, it will become impossible for me to engage so much on social networks; I don't have to spend my day there. But as long as possible, I just tell myself that I have to be myself and this contact with people is part of who I am. Like going down to the hall and the bar right after the concert, to talk with everyone, sign records, take selfies, ... Is that wise? Well yes, that is wise. One day, it was before we played live again, I had attended a Camel concert and right after the show, to my surprise, they were there having a drink with everyone. Andy Latimer! It was Andy Latimer, anyway!! And everything was going well, it was perfectly manageable and managed. Of course it's not Genesis, at one point, the number makes things impossible but, at our level, why should we deprive ourselves of this shared pleasure of meeting our audience?
PR: Yes, this is real life.
GS: That's exactly it, that's life! To come back to one of your previous questions, it's true that I was sickly shy at the start and that I had to force myself. But what a pleasure to talk to people, to listen to their stories, to listen to them explain how they came into contact with this music... I love listening to people, in fact, it is really an exchange.
PR: From the start, you always wanted to push the band to the next level. With the departure of three musicians and even more with the death of David Longdon, weren't you afraid of not being at this level immediately?
GS: Of course, it was an earthquake and the decision was not easy to make, to continue or not. At one point, I called Rikard (Sjoblom) and Nick (D'Virgilio) to ask them the question! Are we still a band or not? Their response was firm and without hesitation, yes of course we have to continue! Especially since it was the wish of our dear David, he had expressly said so on several occasions! Knowing, however, that we were going to have to rebuild around us and it is true that the preparation for this weekend was quite stressful, since we did not know in advance how it was going to happen. Furthermore, to increase our audience, we have also decided to agree to play in smaller venues, such as here at the Boerderij, which is a magnificent place but hey, playing on a Monday evening in front of a standing audience, it's the first time for a long time. Be careful, we would never want to go back to small English clubs with rotten sound, a miserable welcome and lamentable comfort for the spectators; but smaller venues with excellent sound, a comfortable stage for 11 musicians, we're up for it. Even with a standing audience. However, I know that, in our audience, many prefer to enjoy music while seated, this is also the case for me, but that is how it is, we are moving forward in this way today.
PR: Well, something tells me that you are not done moving forward. We can say that the term “resilience” suits you perfectly, which consists in finding in hardship the strength necessary to rebuild oneself to continue to move forward. See you soon without a doubt and thank you.