Written by: Paul Gleason
Big Big Train’s fans (collectively known as passengers) and progressive rock listeners in general celebrate and carry on the traditions of long-form, complex, and surprising compositions and narratives. But, even in an age of ever-increasing musical homogeneity and ever-decreasing attention spans, Big Big Train’s lead singer David Longdon points out that “We are all of our time,” and that certain songs can “exist within a specific political point in world history, and this adds to [their] meaning.”
SEM talks with Longdon and bassist-songwriter Greg Spawton about how Big Big Train’s most recent LP, Folklore (2016), excavates the previously unexposed folkloric, historical, geographic, and musical elements of today’s cultural bedrock. In so doing, Big Big Train have made one of the most important progressive rock albums of recent memory.
SEM: How much research did you do to compose your individual songs on Folklore?
GS: The amount of research depends very much on the individual song. So, to give some examples: for “Brooklands,” which is about the life of racing driver John Cobb, I found that there wasn’t actually that much information out there about him, so I decided to visit the site of the racing circuit to get a feel for the place where he spent so much of his life. “London Plane” also needed a few trips to London to find the right place for the tree featured in the song. I also visited the Museum of London to pick up some ideas and then did a fair bit of reading.
DL: There is always a strong element of research with most BBT songs. Some songs are very factual, and the lyric provides a narrative of events, so there is the process of researching the facts of a story. Sometimes, the research is undertaken to inform a perspective to be used within a song, especially when trying to convey the essence and spirit of the song’s principal character.
SEM: What were your sources of inspiration and information for the music and lyrics?
GS: A lot of my songs will start with a title, which I pick up from reading or from visiting places. I travel quite a lot and make a note of ideas as I go. Once I have a title and an idea of what a song may be about, it is then necessary to find the angle that I am going to approach the subject from. So, for “Along the Ridgeway,” I wanted that to be a child’s eye view of all of the legends and folklore that surround the ancient pathway. I was trying to capture the feelings I had when I first read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen—that sense of magic and of things being beyond my understanding.
DL: I read lots of varied sources for information and travel to investigate specific places that catch my interest. I like meeting and talking with people, and often an unexpected conversation can reveal something of interest. Greg and I usually speak on FaceTime and share these experiences, which usually spark new ideas and possible songs. On Folklore, I looked into the English apple orchard wassailing rituals for the song “Wassail,” investigating what traditionally would happen at these events and also noting cultural implications. “Winkie” is the true story of a pigeon that saved the lives of her doomed aircrew—she also received a PDSA Dickin medal for it. Her story is very factual, and so the lyric is the narrative of what happened. Once again lots of research was applied to the songwriting process, sifting through the number of existing accounts of what actually happened to establish the facts. With the track “Folklore,” there was not so much research but plenty of musings about the varied ways in which we culturally tell our stories and pass on information. It is also about how the storytelling medium and folktales have evolved throughout our existence. “Telling the Bees” is a folkloric tradition involved with beekeeping. For this song, I told the tale of a family who passed on the tradition of telling the bees from generation to generation. Again, not so much research, but a focus on the human element of the folkloric process in the context of history.
SEM: How much direction do you provide the rest of the band when they perform your individual songs?
GS: When demoing new songs, I work on the Pro-Tools DAW, and the demos will be sketched out in varying degrees of detail before going to the band. Sometimes things are left in a pretty sketchy state, and other times there are parts from the demo that are intrinsic to the writing of the song and that you either ask the other players to recreate or to build upon. So I may give a very clear steer to the rest of the band, or I may say, “Just do your thing.” Generally speaking, the structure of the song will be fully in place with all of the chord sequences and melodies there before the band get involved. Nick [D’Virgilio, drums and percussion] is normally the first to put his parts down and things then evolve from there.
DL: My song demos are written using Logic Pro, which is my preferred music production software. I compose and arrange the sections, write and demo the lyrics, melody and harmonies. By the time the band hear them, they are considerably developed, which gives them a good head start when it comes to making the final version. Sometimes, I write accompanying notes or will have had conversations about the subject matter and the feel of the pieces with the band in advance of them hearing the music. There are some sections within the pieces where band members will extemporize. The individual musicians within Big Big Train add their own considerable idiosyncratic styles to their performances, and the music eventually ends up sounding like BBT.
SEM: What locations and images in the music video for the title track would be familiar to denizens of the UK?
GS: The locations we chose are actually fairly obscure, so they would not be widely familiar. The main location for where the band set up to play is at Basing House, near Basingstoke. The site features the remains of a huge Tudor House and an earlier medieval castle. There were a couple of major sieges in the Civil War, and the Great Barn, where we did most of the filming, was badly damaged by cannon fire. You can still see the impacts from the cannon balls today. The other location was at St Catherine’s Hill, just outside Winchester. We needed a wide expanse of land for the folklore dancing and the parade, and this proved to be ideal. We filmed in a chalk-land valley below the ramparts of an Iron Age hill fort
DL: “Folklore” features references to certain specific areas within England, and we decided that we would film in a suitably English rural landscape. The song is about folkloric traditions being passed on and handed down, so we wanted to give a strong sensation of both the people and the land itself. Big Big Train has earlier song references to Winchester, and it made sense to shoot the external filming in the surrounding countryside. As Greg says, we also shot the interior sections at Basing House.
SEM: From your point of view, what’s the relationship between storytelling and progressive rock?
GS: I think it is part of the grand tradition of progressive rock and folk music. The extended form of many progressive rock songs lends itself to storytelling.
DL: Yes, the extended song format lends itself completely to the telling of epic tales. Progressive rock can be a very flexible genre within which to write music. It encourages writers and performers to reach and extend with ideas and performances.
SEM: What albums, in particular, stand out for you as demonstrating the salience of narrative in progressive rock?
GS: There are different types of narrative releases. There are concept albums, with a narrative across the entire album, and there are albums with songs that tell stories. On the concept album side of things, many albums focus on an inner narrative rather than storytelling in the classic sense. For me, Genesis provide the best examples of the latter. Many songs on their albums up to 1978 told quirky, interesting stories and did so very well.
DL: Yes, some of those early Genesis albums have often bewildering narratives, but they work well within the music. Off the top of my head, I’d also say the late Eric Woolfson’s superb lyrics, especially on Tales of Mystery and Imagination by the Alan Parsons Project. Neil Peart’s lyrics are highly articulate and he uses storytelling to good effect on pieces like “Natural Science.” I especially love the down-to-earth directness of Pete Townshend’s lyrics on the mighty Quadrophenia. Some may say that Quad is not a Prog album, but I think that it is.
GS: I must also mention Peter Hammill, who, for me, is the finest lyricist in progressive rock. Brilliant songs like “Lost” and “La Rossa” tell narratives of relationships, so they are personal stories, but stories nonetheless.
SEM: What are your literary influences?
GS: I was brought up on Alan Garner. His Stone Book Quartet is writing of jaw-dropping beauty, and it is still my favorite book, alongside Red Shift. In recent years, I have done what most middle-aged men do and gravitate towards nonfiction. I read a lot of history and science. I don’t read the hardcore stuff, though; I prefer narrative history and popular science rather than academic studies. So, in the last few months, I have read books by Tom Holland, Michael Wood, Richard Fortey, Roger Crowley, Simon Winchester, and Peter Heather. I have also started to read books about the landscape and countryside. I like Robert Macfarlane.
DL: As a child, I enjoyed reading history-related books. I read classic books in my teen years by the great authors like Jules Verne, Mary Shelley, Alexandre Dumas, Emily Brontë, and Charles Dickens. I also enjoyed the writing of Iain Banks, Robertson Davies, Mervyn Peake, Robert Holdstock, Patrick Suskind, Neil Gaiman, and China Mieville. Since becoming a father, I have read lots of children’s books to my children. I usually like to read three books at a time because I don’t like sticking with one book. The combination usually consists of a factual book, a work of fiction, and a biography. I’ll usually take a slim book with me when I travel in my bag to read on long journeys.
GS: I also read three books at any one time. I thought that was just me!
SEM: Do you consider your lyrics to have any direct (or indirect) political relevance?
GS: We try to avoid overt references to party politics or religion in our songs and on social media. Politically, I am all over the shop, with some libertarian instincts and with other views that would be considered to be quite old-fashioned socialist in outlook. I guess some of those points of view will crop up in the songs, and I would not deny that a fair bit of English Electric is a sort of epitaph to the communities that worked together for a common good. And there is some more direct social commentary from time-to-time. David’s “A Boy in Darkness” is a good example of that.
DL: There are political issues that arise circumstantially within some BBT songs because they are about events that happened at specific historical points. The historical figures within the songs are involved with the political issues present within their time. We are all of our time, and, culturally, we operate within a political backdrop. “Telling the Bees” is set during WWI, when a boy discovers that his father is not coming home. “Telling the Bees” is not a political song, but it exists within a specific political point in world history, and this adds to its meaning.
SEM: Progressive rock is often criticized for being apolitical. Do you agree with this assessment?
GS: In England, there is the pervasive NME-style school of music journalism, which seems to me to be far more interested in whether bands are espousing the correct political sentiments in their lyrics rather than in the quality of the music itself. Rush fell foul of this with the whole Ayn Rand thing. Of course, the old chestnut about prog rock is that we just write about wizards and science fiction and other escapist subjects. But some prog bands have written about politics, and Roger Waters in particular has gone very much down that route. Marillion seem to be headed that way too. It’s not particularly to my taste: I don’t like the way that The Wall has been turned from a personal narrative into a geopolitical one. Writing songs of a political nature is fine, but these huge political subjects are complex and rooted in so much history. I don’t really enjoy rock musicians scratching at the surface. And I dislike ranting of any form. A brilliant political song like “Shipbuilding” is thoughtful, poetic, and ambiguous rather than blustering.
DL: I am very interested in politics. Recent events in the political landscape of the UK, Europe, and the world as a whole make for many screaming tabloid headlines. I encourage people to find out as much information about political issues as they can and then vote for what they believe in and want to change. I believe it is important to vote. Politics affects all of us, and I believe everyone should use their right to vote. However, I don’t feel the urge to use BBT as a political soap box. Politics and religion are not discussed on the BBT Facebook forum because both the band and our fans want it to be a haven away from worldly strife. We’re not putting our heads in the sand; it is simply a matter of a time and a place for everything. I have published occasional political related posts on my own Facebook page, but I am not using my music to bang anyone’s political drum or try and influence people to agree with me politically.
GS: Politics is very interesting, especially the interaction between individual politicians and great events. I watch a lot of news and read widely to form my own opinions. But I don’t think the world right now is short of opinions; the internet is a heaving mass of commentary. Because of that, or perhaps more because of the way that people express their opinions and disagreements, social media is turning into quite a divisive place rather than something that brings people together. So, I won’t be entering into the fray anytime soon.
SEM: Where do the two of you find folklore meaningful in your lives?
GS: For me, as someone who spends a lot of time reading about history and archaeology, I find it a way of connecting with previous generations. Some of the stories and traditions that have been handed down have roots going back several thousand years.
DL: Folklore is all around us, but when I am with my children, I hear how they pick up on sayings that they have overheard during their lives. As a parent, I hear myself recite things to them that I heard from my own upbringing. Passed down from living and long departed family members. We pass it on down.
SEM: Do you have any formal training as a musician?
GS: I had about a year of classical guitar lessons and got up to Grade 6. I found the sight-reading really hard and it put me off. Some of the band members have had a lot of formal training: Rachel [Hall, violin, viola, and cello] and Danny [Manners, keyboards and double bass], for example. And when it comes to our brass players, those boys are at the top of the tree when it comes to classical training.
DL: Yes, I had piano and flute lessons when I was a boy.
SEM: When composing in long form, do you ever consider the truncated attention span of most listeners?
GS: No, I don’t think about that for a moment. I don’t think about whether something should be long or short; I just write what I think works. I worry about whether something is moving or beautiful or powerful.
DL: Progressive rock gives songwriters a broad canvas to work from, and it allows the time needed to develop musical themes and go much deeper. Most progressive rock fans expect extended pieces from Prog bands. No, I don’t deliberately set out to write lengthy pieces just for the sake of it. It all depends on the storytelling within the song. Twists and turns in the subject matter inform the different sections and the various tempos and time changes. If the song needs to be developed further musically, then I’ll do it. I allow the songs to be as long as they need to be. No longer and no shorter.
SEM: Finally, what should we be telling the bees right now?
GS: We have a family wedding coming up next month, so I probably should share that.
DL: I am attending an old friend’s funeral tomorrow afternoon, so I’d better have a quick word with them.