Photos: Courtesy of Steve Hughes
Tales from the Silent Ocean is the first solo album from ex-Big Big Train drummer Steve Hughes, released earlier this year on F2 Music. Sean Filkins (another former Big Big Train man) also features on the album as lyricist and vocalist. TPA’s Leo Trimming interviewed both Steve and Sean about the album and their musical careers. Part one of the interview features Steve Hughes talking about the album, his days with The Enid, his time with and departure from Big Big Train, and ‘hearing music in colour’. (You can read part two of the interview, with Sean Filkins, HERE).
TPA: Steve, Tales from the Silent Ocean is an impressive and diverse album. The music is credited to you and much of the lyrics to Sean Filkins – how was the song writing completed between you? Which came first: the music or the lyrics?
Steve Hughes: The bulk of the music arrangements were already written before Sean fitted his lyrics and melodies around the songs. So the music came first. The album was actually originally intended to be an instrumental album of atmospheric textures and ambient sounds, as it developed I felt it would be better with vocals and Sean was keen on the music and his vocal style seemed to fit very well. As far as the creative process there were a lot of phone calls and emails discussing things, and we actually met up only once in person to discuss the parts. Sean went into the studio and did his thing then sent me his parts which I then had freedom to edit and do what I want with them.
TPA: The album credits the respective aspects of the album being recorded in different studios and as you say you met up only once during the process – what were the challenges in working in such a distant manner?
Steve: There were a few challenges with this record. Firstly I’d never recorded an album by myself. So I had a fairly sharp learning curve in a relatively short space of time with regard to the technical side of sound engineering and so on. Virtually everything was recorded at my home studio. It took time to build my studio and buy all the equipment required for home recording. J.C. Strand came over in early 2012 to discuss an album and we actually laid down guitar parts for the first track Will We Ever Be Free while he was here. Then his subsequent guitars were recorded in Norway and Sean’s vocals in Hampshire. Then parts were sent to me to work on. It was a bit of an experiment really. I wasn’t entirely sure what the end product was going be. We were rarely altogether in the same room. Doing it this way has its pros and cons of course. But it’s the done thing these days and more convenient I suppose. Overall it went well with not too many obstacles.
TPA: This album is released on F2 Music – a ‘Progressive Rock’ label – but in many ways the album does not fit easily in to the ‘Prog rock’ genre. How would you describe this album?
Steve: F2 mainly cater for the progressive audience but I found them open to other different progressive rock styles. I suppose I would describe the album as a sort of progressive rock/pop album with many influences. But it’s all in the ear of the beholder, everyone will have their opinion as to the style or genre. I’m comfortable with people thinking it sounds progressive with some experimental poppy styles and flavours thrown in for variety. I love traditional prog rock but I’m always keen to experiment with new sounds and styles. For example, Ezzy Anya who appears on a couple of tracks is very much an R’n’B singer but I think her voice works well on the album.
TPA: Notably for such a complex album you play much of the music, but other talented musicians play on it. How and where did you recruit the other musicians / singers?
Steve: Guitarist J.C Strand and me go way back as school friends and he’s been a great friend and fellow musician over the years, even though he’s been living in Norway the last 18 years we remain close buddies to this day, so it was nice to finally make a record with him. The other female singers are session singers found through various contacts and friends. My eldest sister Angie puts in a small appearance. Maciej is a fine classically trained violinist from Poland. As you know Sean and me were old Big Big Train bandmates, so it was nice to work with him again after BBT.
TPA: Remarkably on this album you play keyboards, acoustic guitar, bass, penny whistle, percussion… and even drums! Have you always been such a multi-instrumentalist, or did you have to develop your skills on other instruments for this album? Were drums even your first instrument?
Steve: I think I’ve always had a bit of an aptitude for other instruments, and always having the dream of making an album of my own it kind of drove me to get better at other instruments, so being a multi-instrumentalist was an evolutionary thing that was probably meant to be. I wasn’t a confident singer, I once hosted a radio show for a while and was told by a listener I had a nice voice and after that I just started to experiment with a few old demos and I was pleased with the results. Funnily enough my first instrument was bassoon, I then switched over to guitar, then drums a bit of bass and keys along the way but for the most part I’ve been playing drums. (Still learning!)
TPA: The main concept of the album is based around a troubled writer who suffers depression, and how it affects his family. What inspired such a theme for the album? Was there an autobiographical perspective behind this concept? If so, how did it feel using such experiences artistically?
Steve: I think as the music evolved, the concept grew more towards being about the troubled journalist, influenced in fact by a Cutting Edge documentary called Brian’s Story, though it’s quite abstract really and in the documentary, the journalist was homeless and suffering manic depression but had no family, so I added that part to the concept to make it more interesting. Originally, I’d say a huge chunk of the album was written after I’d broken up with someone and was going through a low period. Sounds a bit of a cliché I know, but sometimes good subject matter can come from feeling melancholy. A lot of emotion went into the music. So yes there is some autobiographical influences but I’d say that those inspired the music more-so than the lyrics. The album was originally intended as an instrumental album of atmospheric sounds and ambient textures but it did evolve into more with combining the different themes and I’m glad it did. Sean’s lyrical input also added further flavour and another dimension to the music.
TPA: This is an interesting album which is difficult to define musically. Are there any artists/bands that significantly influenced either of your inputs into this particular album?
Steve: It’s always quite a tough question to answer when asked about influences, there are some unlikely influences such as Prefab Sprout and Scritti Politti (two of my favourite pop bands) through to Tears for Fears – I’m a big 80’s pop rock fan. Maybe you can get hints of that through the music. There is some Genesis, Rush, The Enid and even Toto influences too. Just All the bands I liked to listen to growing up. It’s all rather mildly schizophrenic I’d say. I’ve always tried to be a little different and I’m unafraid of being experimental. I like mixing and merging the sounds and styles much like a painter’s watercolour painting. I kind of see and hear music in colours. The music brings a certain colour into my mind and it’s very interesting, it’s almost a (dare I say) spiritual thing.
TPA: You do quite a lot of the vocals on this album. Previously you were known as a drummer. Have you sung previously? If not how did you prepare for singing on an album, and how did it feel?
Steve: Well maybe I’ve always fancied myself as a singer but lacked the confidence to go out on the stage and lead a band. I suppose I’m a little shy like that. Being a drummer I’d have the drum kit to hide behind and still be able to express myself musically. I tried singing in a band once but it was all a bit of disaster really. The band were SO loud, they blew the P.A and then my voice went after the second track, I couldn’t hear a thing on stage. That was my first and only notable gig so far as a frontman. For this album I had to put in a bit of practice for the vocal sessions. It was a bit of a challenge but worth the results, and of course you have the luxury of fiddling and tweaking at your leisure with home recording until you get things sounding just right.
TPA: This album takes some unexpected twists and turns – e.g. on the song 50/50 Zone what inspired the shift from the intense percussive rolling rock of the first half into the more laid back acoustic second section with the violin?
Steve: Well, it’s an interesting track and I came very close to slicing 50/50… into two halves. In a way it’s interesting as you have these two completely different sections that seem to fit quite nicely. The last section with the violin originally had a vocal part all written and recorded but the female vocalist I was collaborating with at the time decided to pull out of the project last minute and requested that I didn’t use any of her lyrics or melodies which was a pain and delayed things a bit so rather than getting somebody else in to rewrite a part I decided to go with it being instrumental. I think it gives a bit of breathing space and is a nice interlude to the rest of the album. I wanted a sort of fusion Prog/dance style track for the album, and all the better in 7/8 just to be different.
TPA: Tapestry of Change is a bewildering and haunting musical journey, apparently about the break up in his family, which weaves various strands of music and lyrics together – how was that particularly complex piece put together? Were they fragments of other songs previously woven together for this song or composed as a single piece?
Steve: Thank you, You describe it perfectly. Yes, I’d say there were sections from past demos that I’d recorded that were pieced together along with Sean’s melodies and lyrics. I wanted a track that was interesting in three key ways: 1) Atmospheric, 2) Upbeat and 3) Sad – all in your face in one go (ooh er missus!). The only risk is you can have a result that is slightly wonky or disjointed in places as things change dramatically throughout the piece. So I had to piece it together in a more structured way. But hey, my personality is ever so slightly wonky and disjointed sometimes so what the hell. I think most people will feel the emotion behind it – a lot of love went into creating it.
TPA: How did you gain interest from the F2 Music label to release such an unusual album?
Steve: I’d known of David Robinson for years from the early days of BBT when he would help promote them with his progressive rock directory publication. So I knew he was an avid BBT fan and that he may have known who I was. Also Sean Filkins pointed me in F2’s direction as he is also signed to them and a good friend of David’s (and mine) too. So F2 seemed the logical choice really. I sent him over the early ideas and he was keen from the start.
TPA: Are there any plans to play this album live in concert, challenging as that would be?!
Steve: Certainly challenging! It would be a beautiful thing to play these tracks live to a full house of fans though. I guess that would be the ultimate quest. There were some plans to form a band but I think it can wait until my profile is a little more known, nothing worse than playing in front of one man and his dog in a grubby pub in South London. Anyway let’s see what the future brings, I love playing live but let’s get another album out first. Actually while I was making the album it didn’t really dawn on me until the end that it could potentially be played live so maybe the tunes will have to be re-worked for the live environment. Let’s see!
TPA: Sunshine Willow and Willow’s Lament are effectively the climax of the album. There is SO much going on with these complex tracks. The multitude of sounds and voices woven in reveals something new with every listen. How was it all put together? … and I simply have to ask – is the central figure dead at the end of this epic song or is that left open to our imaginations!?
Steve: Most of it was a combination of weeks of experimenting in the studio, although I actually used the original lament melody from a very old demo I wrote back in 2009. It was expanded on from there. Textures and colour are important to me when creating music. I tend to rely on seeing and hearing music in colour and it helps me write. (Is it possible to see music in a particular colour?) I think it is in a weird kind of way, but it’s more of a feeling. I think there’s a name for it too. Sunshine Willow and Willow’s Lament are examples of this I would suggest… And Yes, unfortunately the man in the story dies. Sorry to put a downer on things.
TPA: You engineered and produced this debut album. In future do you think an external producer would give a different perspective and a more objective view at times?
Steve: I think it was quite a challenge to do pretty much everything myself. Of course it would be easier if another person was involved to take off some of the workload. I think doing things alone has it’s benefits as well as drawbacks. You get to do what you want and when you want, I guess I work better alone. Others need a lot of people around them which is fine too. I would like other people’s objective feedback though, which you don’t always get working on your own which I guess is one of the drawbacks, although for this album I was lucky to get a lot of feedback from different people. But you know what they say about opinions. Maybe I was being a little too grand with my vision for this album as I’d never attempted a project of this scale. I think you have to try to aim as high as possible, but unfortunately sometimes it can come down to funds. I wanted to keep the costs of everything to a sensible budget at the same time not compromising the quality of the music which is of course the most important thing. I brought Simon Hanhart in to master the album, hopefully next time round he can handle the mixing side of things – budget permitting. I met a lot of obstacles along the way as would anybody attempting their first solo album. I had to become good at lots of things (I think) to accomplish it. It’s all good learning and development. As for a producer, we’ll see. Next time round I want to aim higher with all aspects of production.
TPA: The artwork for the album sleeve is striking and appropriately dramatic – who put it together for you, and what input did you have into it’s design?
Steve: Well it was all my creation. I have a small home-grown designs business that is developing slowly called Thunted Hex Designs Laboratory, which kind of started out as a bit of a joke when I was younger, but as you get older you have to come up with new ways of finding new ways of expressing yourself creatively and maybe paying one or two bills too. I guess the art work was a first attempt at my first fully fledged album cover project. My photography friend Claire helped out with camera duties. Hopefully people like it.
TPA: Can you please tell me about previous artists with whom you have worked. I am interested in what influence they may have had upon you as an artist, and what you felt you brought to them as bands?
Steve: I guess the most notable artist who had a significant influence would be Robert John Godfrey of The Enid. 1994-1998. Robert had a profound affect on me as a musician. He taught me about all those little subtleties in music and that it wasn’t all about thrashing about behind a drum kit at a thousand miles per hour. At one time in my early 20s we (The Enid) all lived together in the large apartment and studio, a bit like a commune for drop-outs, musos and other weirdos. It was all rather chaotic and wild. Never a dull moment – they were great times though. We toured a lot. But the drinking too much part eventually took it’s toll and I eventually had to walk away. But through all the madness there was the music and that kind of helped keep it all together. Back then The Enid was kind of starting up again so for the most part we were playing to a man and his dog. This went on for quite some time until The band’s profile was once again re energised. Having said that though, we did play some great venues around 1996 like the Wulfrun Hall in Wolverhampton and the Astoria, London to a full house. It’s great to hear they are doing well again. I know the hard work that went into it all and still does today.
I did a short stint with Kino back in 2004 which involved about three gigs in Holland and Germany. I played on Nick May’s Whimwise album and we did some live shows back in 2006. I also played drums with a punk/prog band called Meretto who are no longer going (think man and his dog… again). I’ve kind of been hibernating a bit since then. I’ve kept my hand in with a few live things here and there. Recently I’ve played live a bit with Jazz supremo bassist Shez Raja. He’s a great musician and we have great jam sessions together and play the odd prestigious show in London. I guess I’m a bit of a Jazzer at heart. Also my old friend Dec Burke is in touch again so there is talk of some possible project together in the future.
TPA: You played previously with Big Big Train – what are your views on what you achieved with Big Big Train, and are there lasting influences on this album?
Steve: Big Big Train was a formative part of my early days as an aspiring drummer. I was very young when I joined with them and I was very enthusiastic, we spent a lot of time rehearsing and played a few gigs in the local area and some shows in London. I always felt we could’ve played more live as that was what I enjoyed most back then. Unfortunately I had to move back to London away from the band so it became more difficult and Gregory wanted to focus more on the creativity of writing and recording. It was good to be involved on the albums I played on but it was all rather a long time ago now and I feel I’ve moved on as my musicality progressed, and they’ve certainly evolved with their new direction and are doing very well now. Big Big Train make very good progressive music and a lot of their musical influences are the same as mine so I’d say yes, there are some lasting influences on the album.
TPA: What were the circumstances around your departure from Big Big Train, and what are your feelings about the success of this band in recent years?
Steve: I’d recorded the drum parts for The Difference Machine album and some months later learned that a lot of my parts were being replaced with Nick D’Virgilio’s drumming. I think this was a turning point for BBT. They became good friends with Nick and he breathed a new lease of life into the band and raised their profile, which is fair enough. It was time for me to move on and I wanted to do other things and explore other musical avenues. We are all still friends. They’ve found their musical style and they made the break. Having Nick as a member of BBT has opened up a lot of opportunity for them and I wish them well.
TPA: What has been the reaction to Tales from the Silent Ocean, and are there any plans to make a follow up album in due course, or any other projects in the pipeline?
Steve: Overall the reaction to the album has been very good. CD sales haven’t been mind-blowing but I think in this digital age that’s to be expected. As we know we are living in the time of free downloads, etc. I’m just happy that there are still some very loyal people that appreciate the work involved in such an endeavour as producing a CD and I’m glad I’ve reached out to those people, and I think there’s still something to be said for the mighty Prog Rock CD collection – I know mine is still growing!
As for a new album, Yes definitely. Watch this space!
Thanks to Steve for taking the time to speak to TPA
[Leo has also reviewed Tales From The Silent Ocean, which you can read HERE, and interviewed Sean Filkins regarding his work on the album and other aspects of their career. You can read the interview with Sean HERE.]