Experimental Gentlemen: An Interview with Greg Spawton and David Longdon of Big Big Train

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The follow-up to and outgrowth of 2016’s award-winning Folklore, Grimspound is Big Big Train’s most accomplished album to date and a necessary reminder and celebration of humanist values in a digital age. It’s also a thrilling representation of progressive rock at its peak.

SEM interviewed Big Big Train bassist-songwriter Greg Spawton and vocalist-songwriter David Longdon on the occasion of the release of Grimspound, which is an early contender for the best progressive rock album of 2017.

SEM: Thank you, Greg and David, for talking to me again. Congratulations for your recent wins at the Progressive Music and CRS awards. What do these awards signify for you and the rest of the band?

DL: The awards are voted for by progressive rock fans, so it gives us an indication of where we stand within our genre. We are very lucky that some people like our music enough to want to vote for it. We are especially delighted that our music makes a strong connection with some people.

GS: I see awards as a recognition of the progress we have made as a band. The fact that our music is connecting with people so that it makes them want to cast votes for Big Big Train is very heartwarming. And success with awards really helps in spreading the word about the band. The Progressive Music and CRS awards have a high profile and the connection of the band with success at the awards helps generate further interest.

SEM: Does the repetition of the crow image on the album covers of Folklore and your new record, Grimspound, suggest continuity between the two albums? If so, what is it?

DL: Yes, there is most definitely a continuation between the two albums. Folklore the album featured a wonderful painting by Sarah Ewing as its cover. The name of our cover star crow is “Grimspound.” The album Grimspound has a song on it with the same title. This song is a fantasy story about Grimspound the crow and its subject matter is based on the folklore that surrounds crows throughout the world.

GS: Grimspound was released less than a year after Folklore and many of the songs started life as part of the same writing sessions. The albums are connected musically and thematically and we felt very strongly that our cover star should make a further appearance on Grimspound.

SEM: The song “Grimspound” prompted in me a sort of philosophical wondering. I read in the album booklet about the mythological role of the crow as witness to the generations. Twitter, represented by a different avian icon, also bears witness. Would a so-called “Digital Native” recognize the universality of the questions in the “Grimspound” lyrics: “What shall be left of us? / Which artefacts will stay intact? / For nothing can last”?

DL: So much of today’s world is based in the digital realm that it is intriguing to think about what will be left of our times as hard archaeology. If that connection to the digital realm is somehow lost due to whatever will befall our species in the future, I dont think that much physical matter will remain to tell our story. Impermanence is a concern. That is what this song is about.

GS: My background is in archaeology and history and it is interesting that many of our activities these days are ephemeral. Information is so easily shared and yet deeper knowledge and understanding doesn’t necessarily follow. One of the core themes on the album is a call for a return to the Enlightenment tradition. We seem to be getting slightly adrift from the humanist values which gave birth to modern society.

SEM: Four of the songs on Grimspound are collaborations. In general, what prompted you to include your bandmates in the songwriting process, in comparison to the songwriting process for Folklore?

DL: I think it was the right time for us to open up the collaborative potential from within the group. We have all got to know each other as people over our time together and we like each other as friends and musicians. Grimspound seemed the ideal opportunity to explore this new-found potential from within the ranks of the band. I think that the results speak for themselves.

GS: It has been an interesting process for me as I was the only writer in the band for a while. When David joined in 2009, he brought not only his talents as a singer but also as a writer so his songs started to define the band as much as my songs. We knew that Nick and Rikard are strong writers and were very honored when they wanted to start contributing material. Nick has already written pieces for the next album and Rikard’s writing is an important part of Grimspound. Danny tends to write collaboratively rather than on his own and he has helped enormously in extending the potential of some tracks, such as “On the Racing Line.” The big surprise was Rachel as I didn’t know that she was a writer. I remember her playing a really complicated fiddle piece to me and Rikard and asking how we would break down the time signatures. It turned out to be a lovely instrumental which she had written and which we have recorded and will be releasing at a future date.

SEM: What does the booklet containing the songs’ backstories add to the listeners’ experience of the album?

DL: The booklet backstories add extra enrichment to the subject matter within the material. In the past, we have written blogs that accompany the release of each album. We would publish a blog each week in anticipation of the arrival of the album. This has been a popular strategy for us. This time we decided not to release the blog episodes, opting to collate them within the album booklet itself. We are songwriters and storytellers first and foremost. The blogs provide details about the stories within the songs and also background information about the research and development of the pieces. This information has gone down very well with our fans.

GS: I like the fact that our releases have a bit of heft to them. Listeners can sit down with a beer or glass of wine and immerse themselves in the experience of listening to our songs and finding out a bit about the background to them. I am sure we will continue to do this in future.

SEM: The second part of “Brave Captain,” is titled “Memorial to Captain Albert Ball, Nottingham Castle grounds 1973.” I’d like to ask the both of you if a song can function as a historical monument.

GS: Undoubtedly. One of the things that we have tried to do in recent years is to find stories that maybe have become a little lost amongst the myriad histories that are out there. I think we can reconnect people to these events and people. It has been very heartwarming to see the interest in Captain Albert Ball and in other characters in our songs such as William Walker, the Winchester Diver.

DL: Songs are able to transport us all back to specific moments within our past, invoking people, places, feelings and emotions. Culturally a song can do this too. The first thing that springs to my mind is the legions of fans of Liverpool Football Club singing Youll Never Walk Aloneon the terraces. It is anthemic but it is also more than that. It invokes a spirit.

I remember reading an article about David Bowie (this was before his death) and the writer wrote that when Bowie inevitably died, his career defining song would be “Changes” – most obviously because of the different musical and character changes that David went through in his illustrious career. When Bowie did die and votes were cast for the definitive Bowie song – it went to “Life On Mars?” Of course it did. It is totally wonderful and encapsulates everything that David Bowie was and all that he stood for. Not only is it the pinnacle of his song writing it stands as a memorial to him.

SEM: Please discuss the sequencing of Grimspound. I’m especially interested in why the band decided to place the instrumental, “On the Racing Line,” as the second track on the album.

GS: There is no science in sequencing, it is just what feels right to the band. Whilst the stories in our songs are important to us, so are the musical passages where we are sort of trying to paint pictures with just a soundtrack. So, we don’t really differentiate between songs with words and instrumental pieces. The sort of high-speed fusion of “On the Racing Line” seemed to me to follow on very well from the closing sections of “Brave Captain.” One listener suggested we could have started the album with “Meadowland” and finished with “A Mead Hall in Winter,” and that would also have worked nicely with the two songs as “bookends.” But, I like the flow we have on the album as it stands. We actually had three other tracks on the album right up until a few days before it went to be pressed but we took them off because the album sequence just didn’t have the same flow. All three of those tracks are strong pieces, but albums need to stand as cohesive works, not just collections of songs, so we did some trimming at a late stage.

SEM: In your estimation, given the popularity of Captain Cook compared to that of Charles Green and Joseph Banks, how much historical unearthing and/or “revisionist history” does “Experimental Gentlemen” reflect?

GS: I think that comes back to the point I made earlier about some stories being lost. When I was a kid, Captain Cook himself was always the main act in the story of the expeditions. I remember a Ladybird book about the voyages. It was all very gripping but it downplayed the scientific side of things. I started reading about the expeditions again because the principle aim of the first voyage was to observe the transit of Venus across the sun, a subject which is connected to a song on the Folklore album. I became fascinated by Joseph Banks in particular and felt he and the other experimental gentlemen deserved a starring role in their own song.

SEM: Your previous album was titled Folklore. What separates the imaginative and almost fantastical tellings of real times, places, events, and people on Grimspound from that which are actually termed “folklore”?

DL: Traditionally, stories of real events, people places etc were told around the fireside. As time moved on these stories would have been passed on in the oral tradition. Each generation of story tellers and listeners adding their own specific embellishments depending on their culture and customs. So eventually things that have happened in reality can be altered and reinterpreted through this process. Folklore is a process and both real information and fabricated creative interpretations are combined and adapted during this process. Reality or fantasy – the folkloric process is the same.

SEM: “Meadowland” is a beautiful song dedicated to the great John Wetton. Is it fair to say that this song celebrates the humanist imagination? Please explain.

GS: “Meadowland” is a development of a short section of the song “A Mead Hall in Winter,” and I would agree that those two pieces are celebrations of the humanist tradition. For me, the kind of “sweet spot” for humanity is a crossing point between the logical, reason-based approach of Enlightenment thinking and the more aesthetic Romantic tradition. The mead hall and the meadowland are sort of meeting places for the sharing of those ideas. One of our friends said recently that she sees my songs as being rooted in logic and reason whilst David’s songs were more from an instinctive and spiritual background. She felt that it is the combination of those different traits that helps define the band’s identity.

SEM: Why is “Meadowland” dedicated to John?

DL: The dedication is out of respect for the man and the music that he gave the world during his lifetime. He was a pioneering figure within our genre and it is our way of paying tribute to him. John was very supportive of Big Big Train, especially around the time of English Electric Part Two. He would share words of encouragement concerning us and our music, which means a great deal to us.

GS: And for me there was very direct connection to John and the song as I was listening to the final mix of “Meadowland” when I heard that John had passed away. At that moment, the lyrics and melodies in the tune took on a different hue.

SEM: “The Ivy Gate” features Judy Dyble, the original lead vocalist of one of my favorite bands, Fairport Convention. What elements of Grimspound can be identified as an inheritance of 1960s’ and early-1970s’ British folk music, especially the artists produced by Joe Boyd?

DL: I have listened to those Witchseason albums for all of my life. Joe Boyd and sound engineer John Wood produced bands and artists that contained very interesting musical ideas. I like the creative edge that those artists had.

I think out of anything, we have taken the creative torch from those recordings and tried to reimagine it in our own way. It wasnt a contrived thing for us, it was part of a very natural process. If there are any comparisons, they are purely coincidental rather than specifically targeting any particular Witchseason act.

I like acoustic music and I like the subject matter of folk music. But in my own music, I have tried to do something different with it.

SEM: Did “A Mead Hall in Winter,” given its length and collaborative authorship, pose any new challenges for the band? Please describe the songwriting and recording process.

DL: Rikard is an intensely musical person. It was very enjoyable to work with him on something that he had presented to us as a fully arranged musical piece. The only thing he had not done was write the vocal parts. So I wrote the vocal melody line and Greg then wrote the words. It is a combination that has worked successfully and it is one that Im sure that we will be keen to pursue in the future.

GS: I think it has turned out to be one of our best songs so I was very pleased that we collaborated on this piece as it shows the strength there is in working together. As David mentions, the piece was musically fully arranged by Rikard. There were a couple of areas which were more sketchy, but it was pretty much all there except for vocal melodies and words. What was interesting for me given Rikard’s skills as a keyboard player was the confidence and trust Rikard showed in handing over all the keyboard parts to Danny.

SEM: The song “As the Crow Flies” references Icarus: “Take flight to the far skies / Distant as you dare. / Don’t let anybody tell you / That you’re too close to the sun.” In the Greek myth, the sun destroys Icarus because he ignores the warning not to fly too close to it. What is the significance of revising the myth on the final song on Grimspound?

GS: The myth is normally referenced in connection with hubris but I felt Icarus could also be used in a more positive sense as a metaphor for ambition and for finding your own way in life. Sometimes there is a necessity to make your own mistakes from which you can learn deeper lessons. My experience with my children who are both currently at university is that I can give them plenty of fatherly advice, but the most significant lessons they have learnt seem to be gleaned from their own experiences. Nothing beats finding things out for yourself, even if that means a few rapid descents alongside periods of steady flight.

SEM: Thank you both for your time and for yet another inspiring album.

DL: Thank you for the interview.

GS: Thank you Paul.