Haymaking – An interview with Greg Spawton of Big Big Train

“Writing vocal parts and lyrics is a very different discipline to writing poetry.”

By Steve Blomerth

http://www.bigbigtrain.com/

Big Big Train is a Progressive Rock band based in the UK.  They delve into myth, legend and history for much of their subject matter, creating compositions that artfully combine elements of Celtic, Jazz and Progressive Rock.  Their music, by turns emotional and uplifting, is played with virtuoso skill yet remains accessible and memorable.

Greg Spawton, one of the main songwriters for Big Big Train, started the band over 20 years ago.  Through perseverance, and by maintaining high musical standards, Spawton has kept the flame of Progressive Rock and good songwriting alive long after the high tide of popularity of bands like King Crimson, Yes and Genesis.

Progressive Rock continues due to the work of later generations of bands, who have not had the benefit of widespread public awareness, record company support, nor the income that once made recording and touring a viable means of making a living.  A love for this music has inspired a new generation of writers and players who “on the shoulders of giants,” have recorded music that often surpasses that of the genre’s “founding fathers.”

Unfortunately many of these bands never get the recognition they deserve because the market for this music’s symphonic development and deep themes is no longer what it was in the late 1960’s and early 70’s.  The current generation of Progressive Rock musicians is made up of people who love music for the sake of the music, and they have found a way to continue to write, record and play without much financial support.  Many former fans of King Crimson, Yes and Genesis remain unaware that there is new and inspiring Progressive Rock music as good as any they loved in younger days.  They should be well pleased that Big Big Train and others are writing music with such finesse, power, and beauty.

In the midst of writing and recording material for the April 2017 release of an album called Grimspound, mixing a CD, and editing a concert video of Big Big Train’s 2015 King’s Place concert called A Stone’s Throw from The Line, Greg Spawton made himself available for the following interview.

CMJT: Now that Big Big Train has been successful at bringing it’s wonderfully written studio recordings to playing live, has that affected your approach to writing?

Greg Spawton:  When we rebooted the band with The Underfall Yard album in 2009 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHB1AXYY9co) there was, at the time, no prospect of gigs, so we decided that we would write and record music exactly as we wanted to hear it, without any consideration for the difficulties in recreating the songs at live shows.  This led to us incorporating the brass band and a string quartet into our sound, and our music became very layered and complex.  If we had been playing live during that period, I think we would have reined our ambitions in a bit, and we would have stuck with the more traditional rock-band line-up.

As we came to think about playing live, we had to make a decision as to the approach we would take.  It would have been easier for us to have scaled things down and played the songs without all the bells and whistles.  But we felt that wouldn’t provide gig audiences with our signature sound, so we decided to go with a 13-piece live line-up and to attempt to play the songs as faithfully as possible.

We are mixing a live album at the moment and, listening back to the recordings of the gigs, I think we actually did a pretty good job of delivering the proper sound and arrangement of our songs.  So, when we came to write and record Folklore it was, for the most part, life as normal, with the brass and strings and the multiple layers all featuring in the writing, and with the knowledge that we will go on and play many of these songs live.  And this made me very pleased that we had gone with the creative and imaginative flow back in 2009, and that we subsequently stayed with that approach at the live shows.

Having said all that, the fact that we are a live band again did, of course, colour some of the writing on the new album.  Probably very subtly though.  At no stage did we get self-conscious about it and start thinking we would need to write material specifically with live performance in mind.  We just got on with doing what we do, but we felt a little more informed about what the band could achieve.

CMJT: How does the addition of two new full-time members of the group (Rachel Hall: violin, viola, vocals; Rikard Sjoblom: guitars, keyboards, accordion, vocals) affect your conception for the arrangement of the songs as they are taking shape?

Spawton: There is no doubt that we have taken onboard the capabilities of the new configuration of BBT, with Rachel and Rikard now full members.  So, on the material we have written for our next album, we have incorporated arrangements into the songs with their musicianship in mind.  There is lot of solo violin on the new album, lots of finger-style acoustic guitar, and moments where two keyboard players are in full flow at the same time.  And David is now focusing his backing vocal arrangements on our strongest voices, with parts specifically written with Nick, Rikard and Rachel in mind.

CMJT: I noticed a subtle use of Rachel Hall’s voice in the mix of the harmony vocals on Folklore at several points.  It seems like a great addition to have that timbre available to you, to widen the palette of the vocal sound, particularly on call-and-response vocal passages.

Spawton: Rachel has a background in folk music and her voice features folk stylings which fit our vocal arrangements very well.  She will also be singing some lead lines on one or two songs on the next album.  It is good to be able to call upon so many different voices, all of which are full of character.

CMJT: The Beatles became more musically adventurous once they left the touring phase of their career behind, but they had the advantage of immense popularity and a huge demand for their work.  As your own music has gained wider recognition based largely upon studio work, you are just starting to experience the pluses and minuses of live playing.  Do you feel this has an effect upon your songwriting or musical skills?

Spawton: Speaking personally, BBT becoming a live band again has meant that I have had to spend some time brushing up on my bass and bass pedals.  I am new to bass playing and only took it up when the proper guitarists joined the band.  Furthermore, my main interest and focus has always been as a songwriter and I have never spent much time learning any instrument properly.  Having taken up the bass very recently, I have found myself in the lucky position of playing alongside a really exceptional drummer and that gives me a lot of options when working up bass parts.  I figure that if I get in tight to what Nick is doing, I don’t go too far wrong.  But getting tight, and learning two hours of music, rather than simply learning a song and recording it and then moving on to the next song, has been a different discipline for me and has been a challenge.  I know that David has also spent a lot of time building up his vocal stamina so that he can sing three long gigs in three days.  His singing parts are pretty full-on and so he had to get into training a few months before the gigs.

As for me, focusing on playing rather than writing may well have had an impact on my output but for the fact that I no longer have a day job, so I get to balance my time playing, writing and doing the band management, PR and admin roles that are part of our self-management approach.

CMJT: With BBT’s new-found capacity of four different voices able to sing a song or a portion of a song, has this stimulated your thoughts on composing songs to take advantage of that?

Spawton: Rachel’s voice gives us ready access to a female narrator for sections of songs, which further opens up our options.  And the thing with David’s vocal arrangements is that they aren’t limited to a lead voice with some background vocals; there are times where different voices combine and more than one voice is taking the lead.  The good thing for us is that Rikard’s and Nick’s voices both have a distinctive character, so that makes it easy to arrange parts for those voices both in terms of placement and for effect.

CMJT: To my ears David Longdon’s voice also has a unique capacity to go from a tune as gentle as “Leopards” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4A4rFLUS84) to the heart-rending “A Boy in Darkness”. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysfsTdf0sYs)  As a writer, have you found that this has opened up your own ideas about what you can compose for such a powerful, varied and unique instrument?

Spawton: Unquestionably.  I compose specifically for David’s voice.  He has excellent range and, as you mention, great control over his voice.  Most importantly, he is a very soulful singer as were many of the great vocalists for Progressive Rock bands in the 70’s such as Jon Anderson, John Wetton, and Peter Gabriel.  I think people sometimes forget how soulful those guys were.  They had the ability to lift a vocal part and make something very moving with the use of their voices.  As David has a soulful voice it has enabled me to tackle subjects that I might have shied away from.  When I am writing vocal parts I am working to an idea of how I think David will deliver the song, although he sometimes takes me by surprise.  Some of our pieces are quite wordy and the timings can be tricky.  Writing vocal parts and lyrics is a very different discipline to writing poetry, there are more limitations on word choice and there is a responsibility on any writer to ensure songs are technically deliverable and that the words have the right feel for the singer.

CMJT: Do you find you prefer to work on one piece until it comes to it’s final form, or to have several ideas going on at the same time, which you can go back to if you reach a block that doesn’t allow you to find the way to complete a song?

Spawton: I tend to work on one piece of music at a time and that applies both to writing music and writing words.  I am writing some long sets of lyrics for three songs at the moment and I am on a deadline and I have been tackling them one at a time.  Of course, writing the lyrics for a 15-minute song means that there will inevitably be different sections within the words so if I have a bit of a block with one section I will move on to another, but always within the same song.  One of the things that bugs me about songwriting is the lack of craftsmanship that is apparent in some of the things I hear.  Coming up with a good chord sequence and melody is one thing, but making sure the song then fulfils its highest potential is another.  With any of our songs, both David and myself will chisel away until we know that the structure is the best it can be.  This will usually be days of work.  Making music through improvisation is great, but unless you are in a very free-form band, there will always need to be structure and solid foundations and that normally means an individual sitting down and patiently working things through.  I become very preoccupied during these later stages of songwriting as it becomes impossible to stop thinking about the song.  My family leaves me be!

CMJT:  Perhaps the greatest failing of many lyric writers is they may value rhyme over meaning.  If you are writing several sets of lyrics at the same time you are probably struggling with communicating the sense of the song while trying to choose the most poetic way of saying it.  Getting across that balance of meter, sense, poetry and rhyme seems a bit like solving a puzzle.

Spawton: I couldn’t agree more about the rhyming issue.  Sometimes, the use of rhyme can add something to the sound of a song.  Mostly, though, I think the use of rhyme is an added constraint and can lead the writer away from the best choice of words and even from the intended meaning of the song itself.  The puzzle analogy is a good one.  A good set of lyrics will draw the threads of various sentiments together so that they read well on the page and sound right when sung.

CMJT: There is a lovely bit of rhyme used on the song “Winkie” on the Folklore album where the lyrics go, ”He phones the information through.  Gets the message to Air Sea Rescue HQ.” That rhyming serves to almost mimic the steps of transmitting the information through from one level to another.  It sounds as natural as speech yet it strengthens the impact of the song by using that little repeated sound.

Spawton: Yes, that is a good example of effective and thoughtful use of rhyme.  It comes back to the point I made earlier.  David spent a lot of time on “Winkie”, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6_QXWK5YXho) both the music and the words.  He wanted the music to have a film soundtrack quality to it and the words to do justice to the story.  We talked about the song every week for maybe a couple of months whilst he was tweaking it.  It’s very interesting for me to work through songs written by David and other writers in the band and unpick the thought processes behind their work.  It teaches me things.  Rikard has written a long piece for the new album and it is the first time I have had a chance to get ‘under the bonnet’ of one of his songs.  Rikard’s writing style is very ‘organic’ with a real sense of flow to it.  He is an uninhibited writer.  David has written the vocal melodies for this piece and I have written the words and it has been a really effective and enjoyable bit of co-writing.

CMJT: As David was working on “Winkie” and informing you of its progress did you make suggestions to help him find his way?

Spawton: Encouragement rather than suggestions.  Songwriting can be a lonely struggle and when somebody is embroiled in resolving structural issues with something they have already spent many hours on it is best to let them work it through unless they ask for help.  A few years back I had a song called “British Racing Green” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LY59TfclhPI) and I could never get the arrangement right.  In the end, I sent it off to David and he brought a fresh slant to it.  So sometimes it’s good to call in the cavalry.

CMJT: The three-way cooperation you describe working on Rikard’s long composition could only be successful if the musicians involved have the best communication and the highest degree of mutual respect.  When you saw the tears of joy in the audience’s eyes at your King’s Hall performance you must have felt that the audience realized how rare and uplifting the music was and how rare the relationships within the band must be.

Spawton: The expanding line-up of BBT in recent years has only worked because of the very close relationships we have forged.  We all get on very well, there are very rarely any arguments.  We don’t have a manager and don’t need one.  The band members are all grown-up and want the band to do well.  They know that means some give and take and occasional compromise but there is a strong sense of common purpose.  I guess the friendships in the band give off a positive vibe and there was a real sense of connection between the band and the audience at the gigs.  I hope we can retain that going forward.

CMJT: When you mention that “the band members are all grown-up and want the band to do well,” you touch upon an observation I have been thinking about in recent years.  As I listen to recent Progressive Rock compositions they have a musical and lyrical sophistication beyond what I can hear in most of the work of the ‘founding fathers.’ I believe this is due to the fact that, in general, modern Progressive Rock composers are older, more experienced musicians.

Spawton: It’s very difficult for me to be objective about the merits of the 70’s bands as opposed to contemporary ones.  I am a fan of many of those 70’s bands and, in some cases, have been a fan since I was a teenager so my judgment will, inevitably, be clouded.  What always amazes is how extraordinarily precocious the first generation was.  For example, Selling England by the Pound, one of the great albums of Progressive Rock, was released in 1973.  That means the band members were just 23 years old when they made that album.  Again, Robert Fripp was in his early 20’s when In the Court of the Crimson King was released.  In fact, most of the best work of the first-generation bands was completed before the band members reached the age of 30.  That really is astonishing.  And they were so creative and prolific, touring and making albums every year.  So if, on occasion, some of the earlier works of the 70’s bands can seem a little immature it shouldn’t be a surprise.  And when these bands were at their peak with albums like Godbluff, Going For the One, A Trick of the Tail (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJIVuinJlsU) and Per un Amico, they were making very sophisticated music.  I have had the opportunity to spend some time with various musicians from these bands in recent years and what has been very heart-warming is the lack of any ego, and the willingness to give time to people like myself from lower profile bands.

CMJT: I was 18 years old in 1969 when I first heard King Crimson’s In The Court of the Crimson King (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJa5sxlvsVg&list=PL7ZIjrxy99gE9UdKRak8YUUFwtjwAcNwK) and it set me on a course to follow and enjoy the work of all those seminal Progressive Rock bands; I still listen to those LP’s from time to time.  In early 2014 I saw a mention of Big Big Train on the Gentle Giant Facebook page.  On the BBT page, I not only found links to your music but also to several other current Progressive Rock bands like the Flower Kings and Karmakanic.  The music I found was a great revelation to me: because I had been previously unaware that anyone was still working in the vein of the ‘founding fathers.’ What I heard was a music that built on the music of those precocious Progressive Rock giants, but seemed more musical and more mature.  The situation reminds me of the quote from Sir Isaac Newton, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Spawton: Yes, the Newton quote is apt.  We are certainly building on some very beautiful earlier works.  Interesting that you have come to find out about us and other modern Prog Rock bands only recently.  You are part of a lost generation of potential listeners for newer Progressive Rock bands.  I went to see the Australian Pink Floyd a couple of years ago and I was amazed that they could fill arenas and yet there are almost no contemporary Prog Rock bands who could do that.  There is only a handful at the larger theater level (Steven Wilson, Opeth, Anathema and Marillion spring to mind) and most of those have come from a heavy-rock background so they have been able to generate an audience in a genre with a larger fan base.

 

The good thing is that Prog Rock is no longer reviled.  In England, after the 70’s, Prog Rock was given a very rough ride by many music journalists.  That is no longer the case and the genre is now looked at quite fondly.  Bands and artists that a few years ago would have avoided the Prog-Rock tag because it would be seen to damage their careers, now have no problem with the association.

CMJT: Most of my great enthusiasm for the current generation of Progressive Rock music comes from just listening to the music, but part of it is also a sense of relief that I can once again follow music that has intelligence in the composing and playing, with lyrics that teach me something like “The First Rebreather”, “East Coast Racer”, or “Winkie”.  In the US most fans of Progressive Rock music did not care that the largest music journal at the time, Rolling Stone, never cared for Progressive Rock.  All it meant was that Rolling Stone was full of rubbish and we fell away from reading it, particularly if they opined that ‘Punk Rock’ or ‘New Wave’ were in any way superior to our Progressive Rock heroes.

Spawton: In the UK, the major music periodical was the NME which, as soon as Punk turned up, found Progressive Rock to be inimical to the modern music scene.  It sneered at Prog Rock for many years.  Sounds was a lot better and got behind some of the 80’s bands, but it went out of business in the early 90’s.  Q magazine became a big player but it seemed to be more interested in the lifestyles of musicians rather than their music and words.  Classic Rock magazine came along in the late 1990’s and has been a very positive influence in writing about both classic and contemporary bands.  But they cover a lot of different musical styles and we have only recently started getting articles and reviews in there.  So, along with many other bands, we were reliant firstly on fan magazines and subscription publications such as the Classic Rock Society magazine and, in the later 1990’s, on internet forums and review sites.

Then, in 2009, Classic Rock took a punt on publishing an offshoot called Prog magazine and that has been a terrific boon for the genre.  They draw in readers with big articles on the 70’s bands mostly, but give a lot of coverage to bands like Big Big Train and have helped us and many others to reach a bigger audience.  There is an Italian version of the magazine now too.  In the States, there is a very good magazine called Progression but that is an independent publication and it has been very hard for them to maintain a regular release schedule.

Ironically, one thing we have faced in recent years is more competition from the 70’s bands! Many of them have come back and are still big draws on the touring circuit.  That is all cool although some of the ticket prices being charged are eye-watering.  There have also been a lot of re-issues, some of them very good.  But there is only so much money available for people to spend on music and, inevitably, a lot of that is still going the way of the classic bands.

The main thing, for me, is to be positive.  There is a lot to moan about if you’re trying to make a living from music.  Musicians can spend their lives grumbling about Spotify and poor ticket sales and illegal downloading and all that.  But nobody is making us make music.  We choose to do it.  We are lucky to be able to do what we most want to do and to have found that there is an audience.  If we can increase the size of that audience then life will become more comfortable.  If we can’t, then we gave it a decent shot and we will have had a lot of good moments along the way.

CMJTYou have used the phrase, “We’ll be letting our hair down a little on the Grimspound album…” Can you elaborate a little more on the Grimspound album? I see that is also the name of a late Bronze Age settlement on Dartmoor in Devon.

Spawton: I spend a lot of time visiting historical sites.  Some of them have very evocative names and one such site is called Grimspound.  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grimspound)I visited Grimspound a few years back and it is a very beautiful place in a remote location on Dartmoor.  It is a sort of walled settlement and is more than 3000 years old.  The name probably came from the Anglo-Saxons who attached the prefix ‘Grim’ to a lot of the ancient places they found when they settled in Britain.  It is easy to imagine how mysterious some of these earlier sites were to the early English and so many of them have accumulated a considerable amount of folklore.  When we were writing for the Folklore album, I composed a song with David called “Grimspound” but we didn’t have time to finish it for the album so we thought we’d finish it over the summer and put it out on an EP next year.  However, one thing led to another and we got ourselves in a real writing groove and found we had a lot of new songs.  So, we have changed course and have decided to put these songs out as an album in April next year with Grimspound as the album title.  What has been especially cool about working on the Grimspound album is that we didn’t really understand that we were writing an album at the time, so we just went with the flow.  Consequently, there are some long songs and some instrumentals.  One thing that has emerged during the writing of the album is that this will be the last in a sequence of albums that started with The Underfall Yard and will end with Grimspound.  Our focus on all of these albums has been to tell stories of the English landscape and people.  Knowing this, we have been able to draw some of the threads together in the lyrics.

CMJT: It seems as if writing the song “Grimspound” with David Longdon energized a great creative spark that you had not expected.  Did it seem that the other band members picked up on that energy when it came time for recording the songs which lead you to use the term ‘letting our hair down’ in talking about the Grimspound album?

Spawton: Well, Rikard was originally submitting a two-minute acoustic guitar piece but, in the end, it turned out to be a 16-minute band epic so I think he took the phrase ‘letting our hair down’ to heart! The whole album has just been a very easy process.  For Folklore, we were totally geared up to make an album.  We hadn’t made a studio album for nearly three years and it was a very focused period of time.  As Grimspound is more of an ‘accidental’ album, it has been a nicely relaxed process.  Of course, when the deadline for mixing is looming we will face the inevitable rush to finish things so I suspect I won’t be anywhere near as laid back at that time.

Right now we are in the middle of the recording period and so the potential that we can see in the new songs hasn’t yet been fully realized.  My hunch is that Grimspound will be a very strong release.  But we’ll need a few months (possibly years) to get enough space away from the music to understand where it sits in terms of our other albums.  And sometimes the artists themselves aren’t the best judge.  Some of my favorite bands are critical of some of their best albums because they didn’t really enjoy making the album and that clouds their judgment.

CMJT: What was your experience like in the video production for the Vimeo release of BBT’s Kings Hall live performances? It must have been a little different than preparing the live CD of A Stone’s Throw From the Line.

Spawton: Working with video is very different.  It adds a whole layer of complexity and we have been on a steep learning curve in recent years.  We work with two excellent film-makers, Peter Callow and Steve French, so it has been a very collaborative process.  One of the bugbears for me is that the film industry has allowed a mess of formats and technical requirements to develop which makes producing DVDs and Blu-Rays in worldwide formats very complex.  Plus, the whole industry seems to be on the cusp of a transition away from physical formats to streaming and downloading, but many consumers haven’t even progressed from DVD to Blu-Ray yet.  Nevertheless, we have learned a lot and we will be filming our shows at Cadogan Hall next year with a view to a Blu-Ray and download release.

CMJT: I am sure your fans appreciate the fact that you are willing to tackle the steep learning curve of video recording and production because seeing the band play live does open up another enjoyable musical facet and many fans throughout the world cannot afford to travel to the UK for that experience.  I heard an energy and immediacy on the songs that I had previously only heard on CD.  Did you learn or hear or see anything making the CD and video of the King’s Hall performances that came as a pleasant surprise?

Spawton: Yes, particularly the visual side.  Throughout rehearsals and the gigs, I was locked in position at the back of the stage.  Alongside the bass and acoustic guitar I was playing bass pedals and singing backing vocals a lot of the time so there isn’t much opportunity for me to move around.  There were whole sections of David’s visual performance which I was completely unaware of until I started watching the footage.  There were other things about the band’s performance as a whole that you pick up and think ‘we’ll do that differently next time’ so it is very useful having high-quality video.  The venue for our next shows has a much bigger stage so we are already thinking about how we will make the most effective use of that space drawing from our experiences at King’s Place.

CMJT: Sometimes sports teams will sit down together and have a look at the footage of the last game and see what worked and what they would like to work on.  Were the members of BBT able to have such a viewing session? That would have been fun to see as well!

Spawton: Real World studios is often used for film production and they have this huge descending screen in the main room with a projector system.  We did have a chance to watch our Blu-Ray release Stone and Steel on the big screen there as a band and that was interesting and fun, although watching yourself on-screen is always a slightly strange out-of-body experience.

It was late in the evening and the wine was open so it was a fun occasion! We only see each other a few times a year so we try to make the most of it.  And that’s the story of us at the moment, making the most of things.  We have an instrumental track on the new album called “Haymaking” and that is what we are trying to do whilst the sun is shining.  And if our music is catching the ear of new listeners along the way, then life is good.

CMJT: Thank you, Greg, for your time and for the insights into your creative process.  We look forward to your harvest from the time you spent “Haymaking”.

For more information on Big Big Train as well as examples of their music and videos please go to http://www.bigbigtrain.com/.  The Blu-ray concert video Stone and Steel and the CD Folklore have previously been reviewed for CMJT by Steve Blomerth.

Big Big Train is:

 

– Andy Poole / bass, keyboards, backing vocals

– Greg Spawton / guitars, keyboards, bass, backing vocals

– David Longdon / vocals, flute, banjo, mandolin, organ, glockenspiel

– Dave Gregory / electric guitars, backing vocals

– Nick D’Virgilio / drums, backing vocals

– Danny Manners / piano, keyboards and double bass

– Rachel Hall / violin, viola, cello, backing vocals

– Rikard Sjöblom /guitars, keyboards,  backing vocals

 

Greg Spawton: Music & Magic Gallery