For the past many albums, progressive rock band Big Big Train have excelled in telling stories of the English countryside and its people. Formed 20 years ago, the band underwent many personnel changes especially over the past decade, until they finally reached their current all-star lineup. With new recording Grand Tour they are ready to bring their focus to a wider landscape, and at times beyond planet Earth entirely. inspired by the 17th and 18th century custom of the Grand Tour, where young men and women traveled to broaden the mind, Big Big Train have made an album of songs set in distant lands and beyond. Grand Tour features nine new tracks which will take listeners on an epic journey over land and sea and through time and space.
In this brand new interview, co-founder Greg Spawton discusses Big Big Train‘s unique approach to storytelling and songwriting, group dynamics with so many strong creative musicians, and some aspects of where the Grand Tour will take them in the coming year. Enjoy this interview on streaming audio, or in the printed transcript below and remember to subscribe to our Podcast in several platforms to listen and be notified about new interviews and contents we publish on daily basis.
Welcome everybody. This is Scott Medina for Sonic Perspectives. We’re really excited today to talk with the founder of Big Big Train, Greg Spawton. Welcome to the interview on Sonic Perspectives.
So the world is excitedly awaiting the release of the new album, Grand Tour. It seems that for five or six albums now you’ve been focusing your lyrical content on telling stories of the English landscape and the people and we thought that Grimspound was going to be the last in that series, but then The Second Brightest Star surprised everyone with its release.
So with this new album, are we truly moving out into the world on the grand journey, or the grand tour, at this point?
Yeah, I think so. I think we’d gone as far as we could with the sort of English landscape and people thing that we started doing. We started that in 2009 I think with The Underfall Yard, sort of writing about what we know, I suppose. And it’s been a very rich seam of material for us. There’s been lots of stories we’ve been interested in and we’ve connected with the sort of landscape and countryside around here. So it’s been good and people have enjoyed that part of our music. But when we sat down to think about the next album, we felt very strongly that it was time to move out into the world. And there was a nice parallel for us because the band is playing gigs outside of England now and our whole horizon has shifted. So we thought it sort of worked in parallel with the ambitions for the band to write about subject matters outside of England.
That new spirit of adventure seems to be well encapsulated in your first single “Alive”.
Yeah, that’s right. I mean David wrote “Alive” very much as a sort of “seize the day” kind of song. And I think the backstory to the album is that…well, they all say that travel broadens the mind and we think if you’re getting out and about in the world, you’ll discover things about yourself, about other people and about other cultures and all of those things. So, travel is a good thing. And as I say, it just seemed to fit nicely with the story of the band growing out of the UK as well. And therefore we were able to sort of shift our whole viewpoint a bit further out into the world.
When you’re starting to look at the beginning of a new album, since you and David are the main lyric writers, do you plot out the album’s themes and stories before the music is ever written?
Songwriting is a messy business. So it’s never really possible to start from a completely blank slate. Normally there’ll be some work in progress or some ideas or something that’s happened that will set you in a certain course or direction. David and I live about 150 miles apart. For Americans that’s just down the road, but for English people, that’s a long way. So, we talk most days via Face Time and when we’re thinking about songs, when we’re writing songs, we tend to share what we’re doing with each other, and for almost all the way along in the sort of partnership we’ve had over the last decade, there’ll be this sort of organic process where we connect, our ideas connect and we start to formulate what will be the next album.
So, we knew we were talking about writing songs set outside of England and it was David that came up with the concept of the Grand Tour, which is a very familiar phrase in Europe. It may not be in the States, I’m not sure. But in Europe it goes back to the 17th century as a concept of getting out into the world and finding yourself and discovering things about history, etcetera. So we liked that idea. Obviously there’s an issue with a very famous motoring show in the UK. So we had some discussion about whether we should sort of stick to our guns there, but we decided that it summarized the album quite nicely, and the message of the album. So we stuck with it.
So were you thinking of some alternate play on words of “the grand tour” otherwise?
Yeah. Yes. We had a couple of alternative ideas for titles. But it might be, we don’t know yet, but it may be that we do a sort of followup album at some stage. It’s certainly not written at the moment, but it may be that we use one of those alternative titles for that. So I won’t share those with you at the moment. But yeah, I think it’s a question of just sticking to your guns. You know, the worry is that you sit there and think, you’re going to get a lot of people commenting about the connection to a television show. But it’s such a very longstanding phrase, a very longstanding concept, and so therefore we thought actually, you know, it’s sort of public ownership of that phrase. We felt strongly enough that we could forge our own identity with it.
There’s a host of really strong melodies throughout this album, right from the opening track, “Novum Organum”, until the final closing track “Homesong”. Do you come at it in a different direction with each album in terms of how strong melodically you want to focus, or is that just evoked from the stories that you’re telling?
I think we’re very much a song-orientated band. So even if there are some long instrumental passages on this album, and there’s an instrumental track as well, but even then the focus is on melody. We like things like fusion and stuff like that where maybe there’s more of a focus on sort of playing, etcetera, but we’ve always been very much a songwriting collective. So I don’t think there’s necessarily a change in approach per album. I think it’s just that for us, the song is the thing. That’s where popular or rock music is at its best where the song is at the core of everything. And it may be that song is fifteen minutes long or it may be it’s three minutes long. It doesn’t really matter in that respect. It’s just we feel it’s the sweet spot for us as songwriters, working on material that has a melodic interest, if you like.
And drummer Nick D’Virgilio has several writing credits on this new album, too.
Yeah. So Nick‘s been very patient, actually. He’s been sort of chaffing away wanting to get into the writing for a little while. And one of the three tracks he’s either composed or co-composed on the album, we had in the Big Big Train catalog a couple of years ago because it was originally submitted for a different album. But we held onto it because it needed to find the right home, and it felt right on this selection of songs. And Nick, I mean, he’s a great writer, and as you know an incredible drummer. And we’ve not been able to accommodate his writing so far, but now we have and I’m sure he’ll be a big part of the writing team moving forward.
What’s been nice has been collaborating. You know, we all write individually, but also really it’s good to collaborate. So there’s a song on there called “Theodora in Green and Gold” and he trusted us with his music. He handed that over and said, here’s some chords and you go away and write the melodies and the words…and it’s a great thing to have that trust. It’s a little bit nerve wracking when you play it to the main composer of the song and hope that they like what you’ve done. But nevertheless, it’s good. And I think it just speaks volumes for the spirit in the band that we’re all pushing forward together to get the most from Big Big Train.
Yes, indeed it is. And I know with Nick he’s working on a new solo album, so I guess it’s interesting from his perspective, or all of your perspectives, as to which material you choose to keep for your own and your own projects or other bands, and then which songs you say, this feels like a Big Big Train composition.
That’s a very good point. And all of us really have ideas for side projects or solo works. And I think what we’ve been able to do in the last few years is kind of define a territory for Big Big Train, where songs will sit best for us. I was at Abbey Road just a week or so ago with Nick recording some string parts and brass parts for his solo album. And honestly you’re in for a treat. It’s an absolutely beautiful piece of work. I did say that there was one particular song where I thought, man this would be a really good Big Big Train track! And so I gave him a slightly grumpy stare on that one. (laughs) But you know, there’s always going to be crossover, you know, there’s always going to be tracks that kind of would work as a solo thing or as a Big Big Train thing. But, uh, no, honestly they’re great songs and great instrumentals he’s got there and just to bear witness to part of the creative process was really exciting. Really good fun.
I’ve spent some time with him when he’s been over here in the States. I think it was at a show he was doing with Spock’s Beard a couple of years ago where it was just really touching – and I wanted to pass onto you – of when he would talk to the Spock’s Beard fans about Big Big Train… because you know in the States, not everyone is as aware of Big Big Train… so, the kind of pride and glow that he has about him when he speaks about this band really made an impression on me. And even though I was already familiar with the band at that point, I could see it really was touching other listeners who were like, Oh, well I guess I better check these guys out!
Well that’s really cool. I mean, I genuinely love the man. He’s been a huge part of my life for over a decade now. What’s been nice, you know, we started out by just playing a couple of sessions for Big Big Train, it was no more than that. And then over the years that evolved into sort of full band membership. And then as you said a few minutes ago, he’s writing songs for us now. And I just couldn’t imagine doing it without Nick. He’s such a musical drummer and also he’s just a lovely human being. And to get those two things together is fantastic. Where all of us in the band, we’ve been around a bit and life’s too short to work with people that you don’t want to work with. And so it’s been great over the last few years building this partnership of players and writers that is Big Big Train, it’s fantastic and it’s very heartwarming to hear him speaking so highly of us in the States.
Oh yeah, he really gave the feeling like, Hey, this is my band. You know, you should check out my band. It was pretty cool. Along those lines, a lot of times these days, new super groups are introduced to the world. But in your case, it feels more like your band has evolved into a supergroup over the span of a decade.
Yeah, it’s been a weird last few years, really. I mean, the band goes back over 20 years and for most of that time we couldn’t really get arrested, you know. It was an odd slog with low sales, etcetera. And then we began to find our feet a bit. Slow starter I must be! I think I’ve always been a decent songwriter, but we needed to get the right people to work with to bring life to those songs. And so I started working with Nick in 2007, and David Longdon came on board as our singer in 2009. And that began to be sort of the core of Big Big Train as it is today.
And so we brought in Danny, Rachel and Dave Gregory and then Rikard fairly recently. The nice thing is because I mean, you know, genuinely Nick and Rikard and Dave Gregory, these are high-profile musicians in the prog-world and beyond, so it could have that feel of a super-group, but because it’s been an organic process, because we’ve kind of just worked together and it’s grown as a sort of proper partnership, it just feels like just a proper band. It’s amazing, you know. To grow from what had become a studio project with a couple of guys, into getting back on stage and doing tours has been really exciting and really heartwarming and there’s a real spirit of camaraderie in the band. And I think we’re all on board and we all want to go as far as we can within the limitations of the music businesses as it is these days, you know, it’s quite harsh.
How do you make sure that there’s not a dynamic of “too many cooks in the kitchen” with that many people who have their own recording careers and amazing bands in their history?
Yeah, I tell you what can be difficult is making sure there’s almost not too much in the song sometimes. I mean, there’s two ways of looking at complexity in music. You’ve got that sort of horizontal complexity and vertical complexity. And I think we’ve got both of those things. So the songs change a lot over the sort of horizontal time. And then vertically, there’s a lot of different parts stacked up as well because we got the brass band on top of everything else and there’s a string section on the new album, too. And sometimes there’s a fight for space and we can end up sometimes saying to musicians who’ve put their life and soul into parts that actually we’re not going to use their part because it’s just too crowded an environment. And yes, it causes grumbles and I can’t pretend that giving birth to an album is the easiest of things. But we all know that it’s for the best, you know, and the rule we have is that the writer is the producer. So whoever’s written a particular song gets the final say on how that arrangement works. We trust the guys and girls to come up with the very best parts as they do, and we get there in the end. There’s a bit of give and take and a bit of grumbling about it as we try this and try that. A good example is the song called “The Florentine” where we knew there was going to be a keyboard solo on there, or there was space for a keyboard solo. Rikard came in first with a beautiful guitar solo. And so that was a question of can we also accommodate a keyboard solo as well. So we, gave that a spin and in the end, the song grew in length to accommodate both of those things, and we’ve got two lovely melodic solos on that where the players were able to show what they can do. But in other places we’ve had to take bits out, you know, so sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
I’m always fascinated watching the right side of the stage to see where Rikard will take a guitar solo or where Dave will. I mean, there’s such an abundance of riches there.
Yeah, that’s exactly right. And quite often we get to the question of, you know, whose solo is that? And it’s not always easy to tell because they’re both players that crank an amp up and get a warm tone, they’re almost old fashioned guitar players. And I think they both kind of idolize each other actually in a funny way. They’ve both got huge respect for each other and enjoy working together. Um, they learn from each other. So yeah, we’ve got a very cool guitar lineup in the band. It’s something rather splendid, yeah.
When Andy left the band a year ago, how has that impacted the way that you approached writing this new album and playing live dates?
So Andy‘s musical involvement was fairly limited in recent years. He took more of a production and sort of art work or graphic design role. For live purposes, when we play live, it is an extended lineup. There’s 13 musicians on stage because what we try to do is to present the music as we recorded it with all the complexity of the parts. And Andy had a role there, you know, playing additional keyboards and guitars and mandolin, etcetera. So, when Andy left last year and we had gigs booked, we knew that we wanted to replace him for live performance and called on a good friend of ours called Robin Armstrong, whose band is called Cosmograf. So his main work is as a writer and he creates albums of original music, beautiful stuff as well. I’d seen him play live. I mean, Cosmograf actually only played one live show, but it was a really high profile gig. And so I watched Robin command the stage there and I thought, yeah, he’s the guy for us. So I asked him to join us just for the live band. Coming back to the conversation we had a few minutes ago, there’s so many ideas amongst the seven of us in the studio version of the band that we don’t need an eighth musician there. But certainly for live purposes, Robin‘s a great person to have on board. It’s good to look over from my side of the stage and see him over there handling his parts with aplomb, it’s great.
And the new Cosmograf album is excellent, too. Much heavier obviously than Big Big Train material, but wonderful.
It is great, yeah. I’ve got a copy of it just here by my side, actually. Yeah, he’s done a terrific job. And he’s always had that kind of seventies sort of heavy rock sort of style to him, which hasn’t come out so much in earlier Cosmograf albums, but he sort of let that out this time. And that’s cool, that’s great. He’s a natural, he’s a really good writer.
So getting back to the new album, the track “Voyager” for me is certainly a highlight of the album, and it also seems to symbolize the album’s theme. We can even hear that staccato signal of piano notes in the opening track as well.
Yeah, there’s direct connection between “Novum Organum” and “Voyager”. So “Novum Organum” is taken from a book called Novum Organum Scientiarum, and I think it was published in the 17th century. It literally means “new instrument of science”. So this was a period when mankind was coming out of the Medieval period and was heading towards the early modern period and the Scientific Revolution was just around the corner. And I thought if you’ve got an album about voyaging, about traveling, about getting out into the world and beyond, that a song about Voyager would be a sort of fitting thing to write. And I’ve written a couple of other pieces in recent years, “East Coast Racer” and “Brooklands” which have been exploring the sort of relationship between mankind and the machines that mankind creates to kind of extend the reach of humanity. And the Voyager spaceships are for me the ultimate example of science doing something completely remarkable and almost beautiful, really. The fact that these ships are now heading out of the solar system into deep space and will be around out there as our envoys for probably billions of years is just incredible. I mean, the truth is they may well exist beyond mankind. They may well continue beyond the end of humanity. And that’s just an amazing story. I was 12 when those ships were launched, as was David, so they really caught the imagination of my generation of kids. Because the voyage is so long…even last week they fired up some motors on Voyager…It’s been almost a lifelong fascination with those spacecraft. So it’s good to write a song which hopefully helps to tell a bit of their story.
Yeah, it’s an epic journey that they’re on. I mean, the most epic we could conceive of. And so I was really satisfied to experience that the song you wrote about it is just as epic and breathtaking. So, well done on that.
Thank you, that’s kind. Thank you.
I also liked how in your liner notes, you had a quote from Plato’s Republic where he says that music and astronomy were twined sciences and our ears are formed for the exploration of music, while our eyes are for astronomy. And that seemed to tie in really well with the “Voyager” track as well.
Yeah, we spend a long time on lyrics. As I said earlier, the songwriting is important and that means not just the melodies and the chords, but it also means the words. So we’ll quite often spend months researching the backstories of things to try to make the most of the stories that we’re trying to tell. I was helped by a chap called Stuart Clark, who’s become a friend of ours. He’s a scientist and astronomer and a writer in England. I met with him a couple of times to talk through some of the ideas that I had for “Voyager” and he really gave me some great steers. I think the great thing with Stuart and others of his type, Carl Sagan being a good example, is that their primary role is to communicate science. You know, the wonder of it all, if you see what I mean. You know, scientists themselves can get very deeply into the research, but it’s important that the research is connected to humankind in a broader context. And what Stuart does and others is to communicate that sense of wonder and extraordinariness, really. So he was an absolute godsend in terms of researching those words.
So while Big Big Train has been very productive in releasing new recordings, your approach to live shows has been much more calculated, shall we say. Do you see that more of the world will experience Big Big Train live in the near future?
Yeah, for sure. We’ve been very careful and cautious with the live side. Mainly for cost purposes, you know. When we started – just to go back a million years – we played live as a young band, then we sort of became a studio project really. And then the last few years we’ve become a proper band again and gone out and started playing shows. But it was very much of, let’s kind of start playing when we felt the audience was there. We’ve all been around a bit and I didn’t particularly want to get in the back of a small minivan and then be driving 200 miles to play to 20 people or something. So we kind of pitched back into the live environment when we felt that there was an audience there that really wanted to see us.
So we kind of started off at a 400 seater venue in the UK and played three shows there. And then a couple of years later, we were up to a thousand seater and played three shows there at Cadogan Hall. And then beyond that, we’ve gone out to do the Loreley Festival in Germany. This autumn we’ve got our first proper UK tour and then we’re going to be out in the US and Canada next year. And also do a short tour of Europe as well. And I do feel going forward, as I said at the start of the interview, that our horizons are getting further and we will be following those horizons as far as we can. The story of the band is to try and continue writing and recording and releasing albums, but we’ve got to balance that with a fair bit of live work going forward as well.
Plus, it’s great fun. You know, I’m not like Nick or Rikard who’ve done hundreds and hundreds of shows. So it’s a fairly new experience for me. But it’s quite addictive. When it goes well there really is nothing else like it. So yeah, I’m looking forward to doing more of this. It’s just a strange experience for me…you know, this happened when I’m 53 and it’s the first time I’m on tour, which is quite late in someone’s life. But yeah, I’m loving it. It’s pretty good fun.
Well we’ve been very patiently waiting over here on the side of the pond, so I’m glad to hear that in 2020, you’ve got at least hopefully a couple of gigs lined up over here and Canada.
Yeah. We’ll be in Canada and in the States, so I’m looking forward to that.
Yeah, you’ve been slowly bit by bit building your reputation as one of the most respected and esteemed progressive rock bands today. I think you were just recently voted best band by Prog Magazine as well, and David for the best male vocalist.
Yeah, it’s weird really, because three or four years ago if we could have looked forward and see where we are today, we’d have been pinching ourselves. I mean, it’s really hard to make a career in music and progressive rock. So for me to see the band kind of beginning to thrive…I mean, I’m not getting carried away here…we’re still at the thousand seater level in the UK. What we need to do is to get out into Europe and beyond and try to build that up to a thousand or two-thousand seater in those areas as well. And that’s going to take time. But we feel we’ve got the wind at our heels, and we feel that we’ve got a fan base behind us, with people talking about us (mostly in a positive way!), and it’s got potential. I think we all feel that in the band as part of the camaraderie that we’ve got. We all feel that we’ve got a fair bit of potential here. Where that will end up, I don’t know. Hopefully it will end up with us becoming successful enough for us to continue making music for many years to come. And if it doesn’t, then at least we’ve tried. And that’s all you can do.
Well, as you said early on in this interview, it ties in nicely with the whole theme of the Grand Tour. Seeing as how you have played out the stories just based in England I’m sure you’ve got many more stories to come for future albums of the grand tour as you yourself begin that grand tour.
Yeah, that’s right. That’s exactly right. And we’ve got quite a few thoughts about future songs. I’m very keen to write about New York. I’ve only been to the States once and I spent a few days in New York and I absolutely loved it. I wandered around there a lot making notes…there’s some great stories in that city. I mean, that’s the thing for us, we are a storytelling band. It’s almost that folk tradition, it’s not folk music, but it’s that tradition of telling stories through songs. That’s what appeals to us. That’s what we’re on the lookout for. Anything that’s quirky or interesting or resonate with people. And those stories are across the world. They’re out there to be found and songs to be written about them.
It really does establish you with a unique identity in the world of progressive rock bands. It’s amazing how many bands could be singing about whatever. But it seems that Big Big Train really has a unique corner there with what you’re providing and people are really turning up to listen to that.
I think so, yeah. One of the things we love about progressive rock is it’s a very broad genre. It covers a huge amount of areas and we’ve managed to get our feet sort of fairly squarely on there. We do things our own way. We’ve got this brass band that that comes along, which surprises people. You know, it was noticeable at Lorelei when the brass band started playing. In England we have a sort of tradition of coal mining bands that goes back into the industrial revolution. And it follows on from that tradition rather than a kind of jazz or funk type of brass.
So it’s quite a mellow kind of sound, but it adds quite a huge resonance to the sound canvas of the band. And I think when you connect that with the story telling and the musicianship within Big Big Train, it does seem to appeal to fairly large numbers of people. We’re just signing a licensing deal in Japan for Grand Tour. So again, there’s that kind of feeling at the moment that things are heading in a positive direction. I take nothing for granted, I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I’m very conscious it could peter out tomorrow. But, as I said, we’re going to give this as good as go as we can.
Well we’re on the tour with you, so thank you so much for spending this time talking with us and all the best in the release of the new album.
Thank you, Scott. Really good to talk to you.