For the past decade-plus, Big Big Train have increasingly grown their fanbase and the size of their band. Almost on the verge of becoming a supergroup, the membership was so chock full of talent that it was continuously on the verge of tripping over itself. The pandemic and other factors brought some changes to the personnel, whittling down the core membership to the size of a quartet. But you would never know that, given the creativity and skill displayed on new release “Common Ground”. To the contrary, the band is ready to tackle new musical avenues as well as new venues – they’re preparing for extensive touring including their debut trip to North America.
Sonic Perspectives’ progressive rock resident contributor Scott Medina had a chance to talk with lead singer David Longdon and drummer / vocalist Nick D’Virgilio about the latest evolutions of the band, including their songwriting contributions. You can read the transcription of the interview below or listen to the audio. Great ready for the Big Big Train to arrive at your station in early 2022!
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Hey everybody, this is Scott Medina with Sonic Perspectives. We are really pleased to have not one but two members of Big Big Train. We’ll just call them Big Train, I guess, for the moment [laughing]since they’re half of the band, from both sides of the pond. Welcome gentlemen! First to start off with, who IS Big Big Train at this point in time? You essentially are a quartet now, yes?
David: I guess we are. Yeah. As a result of the pandemic, we narrowed down to a quartet. Which was great because it enabled us to reinvent ourselves to a certain extent and be able to have more space…because usually space is a very rare commodity in Big Big Train with all people kind of piling in. So now we were able to do something a little bit different, but also retain some of what we’re known for, too. It’s been good, a great experience. It’s something different. It’s fresh and that’s what we needed.
Nick: And even though we’re a quartet, I guess officially, we still had a lot of other guests help us out in the recordings. When we go out and play live, we’re still gonna have 11 people on stage. There’s not just going to be a four piece. So even though we say the band is technically a four piece, we still employ and bring in a lot of other people, too.
Is the writing essentially the four of you in the principal arrangements, though?
David: Yeah, it has been so far. For this record. And as you mentioned, you’ll be augmenting the band to include several other players live and it sounds like some of them also did perform on the album as well, in addition to the five-piece brass ensemble.
Nick: We had Carly Bryant who’s going to be playing keys and guitar and singing. She’s doing a few things. Dave Foster, who’s going to be the second guitar player, he’s playing on a few things here and there. So yeah, we definitely had people help and add their voices to the recordings. We wanted to get them involved from the beginning so they’re not just feeling like they’re just hired guns and stuff. You know, we try to be a family and get close to everybody. So it was a cool thing to just have them sort of dive right in. They got to actually record with David at Real World studios where we were all supposed to record, but of course we couldn’t because of this freaking virus. So, they actually got together to record during our original recording session, they couldn’t cancel the session. So, they actually went and did some vocals and a few other things. And Carly and Dave got to go and hang out with the boys and do some recording.
David: Yeah. That was great, it was good fun. On the album, we also had Aidan O’Rourke who’s from a band called Lau, on violin. He’s really good. He does some great things but he’s won’t be joining the band, he’s gotta be back up on the stage with Lau, that’s what he does, that’s his thing. We’ve also got Claire Lindley on violin. We didn’t want to lose the sound of the violin in Big Big Train. That’s a very important factor.
And, even though you mentioned Dave Foster adding some guitars, did it come down to Rikard to do the majority of guitars and keys on the new album?
Nick: Yeah, Rikard really got to step out and shine on this record. He really did a lot of stuff. I mean, we already knew that he was great, but he really got to show… the dude’s pretty phenomenal!
David: Yeah, he’s amazing.
Nick: He added some great flavors to the songs.
The sound is so full, whenever I’m hearing all those layers of keyboards and guitars and everything, I’m just thinking, man, he was really working it on this album. Although we’re focusing on where Big Big Train is headed in the future, is there anything that you two care to share about the former members who chose to leave the band in the past year or two and how that shift happened?
David: They’re all in the UK and they’re all friends. So there wasn’t any animosity between any of us. I think just with what we were going through with the pandemic and all of that, I think it brought a lot of things to a head. It was a very intense time, really. Rachel went because she decided she wanted to train to become a nurse. And Danny‘s an old friend of mine and he just decided that he was going to step down…he had thought about it, and eventually he did go for that. And for Dave, again, I think there just comes a point where we wanted to do more live playing at that time. Dave stepped back because we were about to go off and do an American tour. That tour didn’t happen but in principle, once we’re back up and running, it will happen. I think Dave just was thinking about that, you know, and whether or not he wants it to be, to be doing that.
Nick: We love all them and we always will. They’re fantastic people and we had a great run together and thankfully the band kept going, which I’m very thankful for. We’re all very good friends and will be for the future, for sure.
The new album, “Common Ground,” is labeled as being split into two different parts, part one and part two. And I especially found the first part to be finding you guys sporting some new sounds. Was that a real focus that you wanted the beginning of the album to bring in some new elements? You know, Nick is writing and there’s a lot of new voices. Was that a concerted effort from the get-go?
David: Yeah, we just wanted to do something different. It was a great opportunity, so we said, Let’s bring it. Let’s see what we’ve got. Let’s show people from the get-go that we’re doing something a little bit different.
Nick: Yeah, I got a chance to write more, which I’m very excited about and it just adds a little bit different flavor than Greg writing so much of the material. He’s an amazing writer, but we got the chance to kind of lend our voices a little bit more. And I think we found that we kind of liked what we were getting. It’s a little edgier to the sound. I still think it sounds very much like Big Big Train, we’re just adding a little spice here and there that wasn’t there before, and it’s totally working.
David: It’s a very direct sound this time around. We’re getting to it, you know. It’s rockier, definitely, which is not a bad thing. You know, it’s where we find ourselves with who we are at the moment, so that’s okay. That’s all good. It’s just different.
Let’s explore one of those tracks that really heads into some new places. There’s one written by Nick, “All the Love We Can Give”. Musically it weaves a lot of different styles into it and also finds David going out of his usual vocal range as well. I’d love to hear from both of you a little bit about that song.
Nick: So, I’m a huge David Bowie fan and David Longdon doesn’t do it very often, but I love the character of David‘s voice when he sings low. I think he’s got just a very sultry, beautiful tone to his voice when he sings low. So, when I was coming up with the vibe of this tune, especially at the beginning part, I just had in my brain the inspiration of 80s-era Bowie, like the Let’s Dance sort of record, and some of those vibey tunes like “China Girl” and stuff where he sings that sort of low register and it’s mellow, but deep sounding. That’s just kind of what I had in my brain. Originally David was a little afraid to sing that low but I think once you went for it, it worked. It’s about coming together and finding love for people that you might have a tough time finding love for. You know, coming together as people and respecting everybody. Dignity for all, that kind of thing. So the song sort of weaves about that, you know, in the end we can all give love and if you just treat people like you want to be treated, boy, life is so much easier! And so the song gets to weave through a little bit of that until you get to that point at the end, where the guy sort of has to find that he’s got love to give, and then it gets a little bit dark in that sort of rock section in the middle and it eventually ends where we’re all sort of together. That’s kind of a theme about this record is kind of coming together as people. So, it sort of fits in that vein.
It’s funny, you mentioned the Bowie reference cause I did pick up on that as I was listening. It kind of has that sort of Bowie swoop in there. So David did Nick let you know that that’s what he was going for and put that in your mind?
David: Yeah, he did, absolutely. What tends to happen when I rehearse is I go into rehearsals and it’s not only about when you sing a set, there’s the recovery time afterwards and things like that. So, after I’d done it a few times for a few days, it sort of starts to go lower. So during rehearsals…I think we even did “China Girl” in the past and maybe that was when Nick thought, Okay, yeah, I like that. So it takes a while to get there, but Nick sort of knew I could do it.
Nick: David was working on changing the melody when he first got the song, he thought it was too low to sing. So he was working on different melody ideas, which I was totally going to go for. The melody he came up with was cool and it was totally working, but then I think it was in the Real World session, your voice was sort of finding that spot. And he went for it with the melody I came up with.
David: At the end of the day, when I work on Nick‘s material, I want to please him. I want to give him what he’s after, you know? That’s the point of it. We’re all trying to get towards whatever vision the writer has got for the thing. Nick, Rikard and Greg and I have been together for a long time as a band. And we have that trust in each other, you know, we’ve got that, we root for each other.
And then later in the second half of the song, we go into a whole different section, a nice rocking section. Nick comes to the fore with the vocals at that point. How do you guys decide when anyone other than David’s going to be doing the lead vocals?
David: Well, Nick‘s very magnanimous for this thing, as indeed Greg is. I think I made the call because it just sounded like Nick. So let’s let him do it. Cause it just sounds like Nick. I think I did record vocals in some of those parts, but it just sounded just like Nick‘s thing and the words as well, the lyrics, what he was saying sounded like something that Nick would say.
Nick: I was happy! [laughing]And the song is about people, so having different voices sort of works in the story, you know. It’s the proggy thing, so the song goes through sections. So when the guys said, Yeah, we think you should sing it, I thought, Cool! I mean, I’m happy to do so. I love singing, so the more I could do, the better. I appreciate that.
The next track on the album, “Black with Ink” continues on that vein. I think we’ve got four different singers singing verses on that.
David: Yeah, that was an odd track. We had an ill-fated concept record called “Hope” that got abandoned in the earlier days because as a band we were becoming more and more popular. So this would have been a really big undertaking to do and we thought, well, we actually need something that addresses where we are. We need an album out so that the album ended up being “Folklore“. So lots of material got shelved from that record. So this is a track that Greg wrote but the lyrics are different. The initial title of the song was called “Edmund Ironside“, which was a character in part of the story. But anyway, it’s a great song that has to do with the destruction of a library. When this ancient library was destroyed, they threw all the books in the library into the river and the ink from the books turned the river black. So it’s the destruction of all that knowledge and insight, and the idea of enlightenment in the sense that we get enlightenment by knowledge, by learning, by reading. And we find common ground by being enlightened by reading and seeking things out. So destroying it is not good for civilization. That’s the message behind it.
And once again, it takes pretty adventurous turns, musically-speaking, throughout that song, too.
David: Yeah. Well, we’ve got these great singers in the band with Rikard and Nick for years. So it’s good to let us all have a go at it and just get us all just firing. But this song has lots of words, loads of words. Greg can write lots of words, and sometimes it’s good to make them overlap. So I just said to Greg, why don’t we get people just to record as much as we can. And then when we got Carly in the studio, we realized she’s got really good voice. It’s a different voice to Rachel‘s voice. Rachel‘s got a great voice, and Carly‘s is a different thing altogether. So she, brought something different again, which is what this album’s all about.
It’s funny, as that song begins, I always think of the song “Turn It On Again”. [laughter]I expect Nick to count in the band like Phil does. Well, since we’ve been talking about the theme of the album already several times, why don’t we dive into the title track here, David where I believe you were doing the songwriting on that one?
David: Yeah, I did. In the last year, the world’s kind of gone in a very nightmarish direction and we’ve all found ourselves in extremely awful predicaments. A lot of people been tested. These have been very fearful times and at certain points, no certain outcomes, either. It’s been horrendous really. “Common Ground” was written just before the pandemic. It’s about my partner and I, Sarah Ewing, who’s the artist for Big Big Train. We got together and as I’m 56, we decided that, you know, we were embarking on this relationship, at our time in life. And so it was really about finding our common ground with each other. So it’s written about two people and it’s real, it’s these real people finding themselves in that situation. When I started writing for this record, I told Greg that “Common Ground” was one of the tracks that I’ve got for it and I’m writing about the moment. I think with everything that has gone on with the world, I found what was happening was so shocking that I just couldn’t have time to go read “The Tempest” or research the life of William Shakespeare, I haven’t got time for that! I just got enough to go through each day. And I thought, well, I need to write about the now. And the same thing went on with “The Strangest Times“, which is really about living through the pandemic. In fact, a friend of ours said “The Strangest Times” sounds like a Pete Townsend song, it’s kind of got that anger to it. So, the difference for me on that record is that I’m writing about the current situation and it’s still current. I’m really looking forward to when I can sing it in hindsight and say, Remembers those awful days? And they’re well behind us. When I never have to sing that song again, that’d be great. I’m good with that!
Although it’s a love song, a very personal love song, that theme does take on more of a global context, especially with the album cover you’ve got and the video for the song too. It really transcends even just that personal love.
David: Yeah, we’ve got the idea of the helping hands on the album cover. The amazing about this whole pandemic thing is the resilience of the human spirit. It’s just incredible, you know. You see it time and time again, every story that you hear on the radio. And that’s great. That’s what we’re about. I particularly like the album cover. In many ways it looks like one of the hands is helping up the other one. It was originally just about Sarah and I finding out what we had in common with each other, and how we’re going forth. The idea of the line in the chorus, “We claim our common ground” is not something that just happens to you. It’s also something you’re in command of, it’s something you choose. In our cases, we need to have it now because we don’t know how long we DO have, especially in light of the pandemic, and also in terms of years. You just never know. You just never know what’s around the corner. If one thing the pandemic has taught us as a species is that you better get on with it, you know, the clock’s ticking. Get it and enjoy it while you have it.
There’s a track on here, the “Dandelion Clock” where the band takes a decidedly XTC-ish turn, and yet the song comes after Dave Gregory has left the band. That’s sort of ironic, it seems.
David: Yeah. There’s a bit of XTC in “Common Ground” as well with the opening chords. Yeah. But they were always a big influence on me. I’ve known Dave a long time, he’s a close personal friend of mine. When I was a young struggling musician, he gave me his time and the fact that he encouraged me, he gave me that hand up, and I’ll always be grateful to that. So the idea of having an XTC-ish-ness about certain things within our writing, that’s fine. I’m good with that. They’re incredible band.
We’ve also got this killer instrumental called “Apollo”. Nick, it’s really exciting that you’re continuing to write instrumentals for the band, like “Pantheon” was on the last album. So what led to the creation of this track for you?
Nick: This band rocks, in my opinion. We’ve got a group of killer musicians in all these different areas. And even though we haven’t had many instrumentals like specific instrumentals – we have a lot of great instrumental sections in our extended songs – I wanted to write the band’s quintessential sort of instrumental. Sort of like Genesis has “Los Endos“. You know, they ended every show with “Los Endos“, they still do. And it’s just one of those tunes where it shows off the band. The melodies aren’t too inaccessible. It’s still sort of straight ahead. There’s singable melodies through it, but it’s a chance for the band to stretch a little bit and a great show closer. And that’s kind of what I set out to do with this tune. That was my inspiration. Once I got the beginning sort of going, I was just laser focused. I worked on nothing for three or four weeks until I sent the guys the demo. Cause I was just so excited about the whole thing. And they were into the tune, everybody liked it. And once everybody else started putting their flavor onto the original demo, man oh man, it just took on a life that I just couldn’t be happier with the way the tune turned out. From Rikard to David‘s flute to the way Greg played bass, Aiden‘s violin, my gosh, it’s just killer! It really turned out well and I love it.
The drums are massive on it, and I know you’ve got the whole Sweetwater support there. So is there anything you want to mention about the specifics of the drums on that track?
Nick: The drums are a little bit different on this tune. I used a small drum kit throughout the whole record, just a regular four-piece drum kit. But we used a ton of different snares to get the sounds. We have a great engineer here named Sean Dealy, who worked with The Counting Crows for a long time. He’s been on the road forever. He works here as one of our main engineers and producers now, and he’s a drummer by trade. So it’s almost like I had a drum tech in the studio with me. I think we had like 15 different snare drums and went through each one to just dial in that sound since the snare is like the main body of any song, as far as the drums are concerned. So we really tried to focus in the sound for each tune and gave Rob Aubrey – our engineer, the guy who mixes all our stuff – lots of options as far as microphones and sounds to work with. It’s just fun to work here. I got to really kind of experiment on things.
So, like “Los Endos”, do you think you’re going to have that be your show closer from here on out, or you’ll have to wait and see?
Nick: I mean, I don’t know about forever, but definitely the tours that we’re going to be doing next year, yeah.
David: It’ll be fun to play, definitely. It’s a great piece of music. Yeah.
Speaking of touring, finally you’ve got UK dates booked and you are finally coming across over to North America as well.
David: And we can’t wait! We’re really looking forward to it.
Nick: For North America it’s going to be – you know, I know nothing’s announced yet – but it’s a fairly extensive run of shows going all over the country from the east coast to the middle of the country – which is unusual for a band to tour in the States for the first time and actually hit some of these cities in the middle of the country which is great – and then up and down the west coast. So we’re really kind of tackling a bunch of cities and a couple in Canada as well. For me, of course, being the only American in the band, I’m super excited about bringing this band over here finally after all these years. I mean, I’m really eager to play this music for an American audience,
David: It’s going to wild. I mean, imagine it. These are the first dates we’ve done since coming out of the pandemic. It’s going to be so joyous! I can’t wait.
Nick: And a lot of the guys have never been here. David‘s never…have you been to the States?
David: No, no.
Nick: And Greg‘s only seen a few things, a few cities in his life. Sarah‘s probably traveled a little bit more?
David: Sarah‘s been in the States. She used to work for George Lucas.
Nick: Right. So a lot of the gang has not seen a lot of this country. And since we’re literally going to be driving all the way across and pretty much all the way back, they’re going to see a lot of things they’ve never seen before, which is great, and have experiences, which’ll be fun. We’re going to do some rehearsing here in Fort Wayne first. They’re gonna come to Sweetwater. So they’ll get to hang at my house and come to dinner. I’m always over there, you know, going to their houses and stuff. So it’ll be great to have the gang over. Tiffany will make sauce and we’ll have a big dinner, and I’m excited about these things!
David: So am I. I’ve heard about this sauce!
Nick: Oh, it’s good.
Even I’ve heard about the sauce! [laughter]
Nick: Come on over, man, you’re welcome!’
Well, this is an amazing way for you guys to experience North America. I’m really excited for you. And knowing about the songwriting approach of the band, another album or two down the road might encapsulate some more American stories in them.
David: Yeah. I guess so. Cause it does, doesn’t it? I mean, look how much what’s happened in the world has impacted this record. So as we broaden our horizons, I’m sure, absolutely. There are songs to be written, I’m sure!
Now that you’re releasing this excellent new album, as you look back over the past 10-plus years, how would each of you define the band’s evolution at this point, over that time you’ve been in the band?
Nick: To me, it’s been fun to see how this band – which was already around for a number of years before I joined and before David joined – to see the incremental growth and just the joy of making music. Being in progressive rock for a lot of my career…It was always one of these things where you had to say, Oh yeah, I’m in a progressive rock band and the response was always like, Oh, you play THAT kind of music? But BBT were always an unapologetic, progressive rock band. This is what we do. We hope you like our music, if you don’t that’s fine. That kind of thing. The earlier records had a lot of the English storytelling that they did. That’s what we did. And it resonated with people because they thought it was very honest. We just did what we loved first. And thankfully the band was very talented. So the quality of music was good. And just to see it grow, our friendships grow, our music grow. And then once we played live that first time at King’s Place, I think we all kind of said, Man, we should do this some more. And that was really the stepping off point to try and really grow the band. And it’s just been nice to kind of live this incremental growth over the years. Really, it’s a very joyous experience for me as a musician.
David: It’s great because the bigger it gets…it’s an odd thing. You know, it’s very idiosyncratic thing as well. It’s that if you look at what we did and how we did it, it just doesn’t make sense. When you think about it on paper, it’s just a ludicrous scheme. But in some way it just does work. And idiosyncratic in a way that probably Jethro Tull or Genesis or Yes or those sorts of bands just were. But it is interesting to see how it grows. How we’re going onto the next step, now going over to America. It’s a wonderful thing for BBT. There’s future there, there’s life to be lived. Also seeing how people change as well, the growth in people as individuals. I mean, when you think about what we were like when we first met, we’ve both had such different experiences. It’s been wonderful seeing people come to the fore, like on this album Rikard‘s come to the fore and you can hear what he does. And it’s undeniably Rikard. I’ve been in it for 11 years and it feels like we’re just getting started. It’s ridiculous. Just feels like there’s so much potential here.
What does the rest of 2022 look like in terms of either live shows or future activity?
Nick: We still want to go play continental Europe. We’ve only had a couple of gigs in Germany at the Night of the Prog, you know, that kind of stuff. So we haven’t explored. It’s a big world out there. I think there’s a lot of places for Big Big Train to play if we have the opportunity. So it’s just a matter of things opening up and there’s political things, and visa things, and there’s always kind of stuff that’s a pain in the ass to try and figure out. And they all cost money. That’s the biggest part of it all is that we’re at a point where we’re able to do this, but we still don’t have enough in the coffers to not have to worry about it. It’s a consideration. So all of these things just sometimes get in the way of where we want to go, but it’s just a step-by-step process. What’s really great now, too, at this point in the band’s history is that we have a team behind the band that is really focused on getting us to the next place in the responsible, proper way. So we’re not just hemorrhaging money and we’re doing right stuff for promotion. And all of those things, we have a nice team with us now, too. We’re not just doing it all ourselves, which is great. It helps out a lot. Like Sarah is helping with promotion, aside from the artwork and publicity and stuff, cause she’s so smart and she’s been in the film and music business her whole life. So she has a ton of knowledge. So she’s helping. And our manager, Nick, and all kinds of stuff. So it’s really taken us to another level. As far as the business part of it is concerned
David: And Steve does the web page and the Passenger Club and all that kind of thing. That’s Steve’s baby and he’s made a massive difference to Big Big Train.
Well, the arc looks good for where you guys are headed. Gentlemen, thanks so much for chatting with us. I know everyone’s going to be ecstatic about the new album and then getting to see you next year.
Nick: Awesome, thank you man.
David: Thanks a lot, Scott.