Published on 10th December 2019
Greg Spawton – Big Big Train
By sheer coincidence, I came into contact with founder/bassist/composer Greg Spawton of Big Big Train. I was seeking permission to use some of the pictures from the website to accompany my report on their live performance in London, to which he responded quickly and positively. One thing led to another and his response to my request for an interview was very well received. Here is the rendition of said interview, that took place via e-mail.
Perhaps a bit late, but nevertheless congratulations on your latest album Grand Tour. An excellent album, perhaps your best so far, and my personal favourite for 2019. I particularly like the clear move to more prog compared to predecessors Grimspound and Folklore. What prompted this move?
Glad you have found some things to enjoy on Grand Tour. Is it more or less ‘prog’ than Grimspound and Folklore? I am not so sure. We certainly set out to make a different album from those two, especially in terms of the lyrical content, but there is a lot of complicated music and there are many grand themes across the three releases.
From a lyrical point of view, the big change is that subjects are now more European tinged and less quintessential English. You are the number one lyricist within the band, what was the idea behind this change?
The lyrics these days are shared fairly evenly between me and David (Longdon), and we work closely together to make sure we are exploring album themes in interesting ways. After a few albums where the songs have told stories with a mainly English setting, we felt it was time for a change. We didn’t want to lose the story-telling aspect, that is what we do, but we thought it would be good to write songs with a different setting, which got us thinking about other places and other worlds and the discoveries that people make when they travel. David came up with the idea of using the 17th and 18th Century tradition of the Grand Tour as a shorthand for the concept. For a little while, we were going to set songs in some of the key places along the route of the typical Grand Tour, but that was constraining us a bit, so we loosened the concept and that set us free to choose the stories we wanted to tell.
I am very curious about your experiences with touring. So far you were a ‘resident band’, for the first time you have actually travelled. What was that like, with thirteen band members and six cities within eight days?
We have been very cautious about developing the live side of the band. We were doing pretty well just making albums, but it reached a stage where the demand to see us in the flesh was growing nicely and we were also getting very curious about whether we could become a successful live band. As you mention, we thought we’d keep things under control with a couple of residencies and they went well so we started planning for touring. We got a little taste of things when we played at Loreley in Germany, but the U.K. tour was considerably more challenging in every respect. Travel, accommodation, the different setups at each venue, all these things become central issues.
You have waited a long time to announce a tour, which, moreover, appears to be relatively short. Now fans in Europe and America in particular have been waiting for quite some time for white smoke from England. What is the main reason for this hesitation, is it primarily a question of money?
Yes, it’s primarily money. This has been a full-time career for me for the last few years and, being in business, you can’t afford to take huge risks. As it is, we lost a fair bit of money on the U.K. tour. Hopefully we can recover most of that loss with a Blu-Ray release next year, as we filmed the London show. The problem we have is that the live band so far has consisted of thirteen musicians. We have a big, complex soundscape and can’t recreate that with a small band. Plus we have a crew of six technicians and on top of that we have a merchandise team. With Robin (Armstrong) now leaving to focus on his own band, Cosmograf, we’ll be trimming things down to twelve musicians from next year, but the costs of transporting, accommodating and paying twelve people alongside the crew is astronomical and it’s difficult to make things stack up financially. We were doing pretty well from album sales but that side of the business is under threat now. We became a top 40 band in the U.K. for the first time in May of this year, so that’s a good indication of us doing well, but streaming is denting album sales, record shops are in trouble and postage costs are going through the roof, so the source of revenue from album releases is diminishing. I am not moaning though, the world does not owe us or any other musician a living. There is a need for musicians to adapt and be clever. We have a few ideas to help us grow the band and to help us keep making music, which we’ll be announcing soon.
You just finished your tour, your last album was released in May this year. What does a professional musician do when he is not on tour or specifically working on a new album. What does your average day look like?
It depends on the level you are at in the business. At our level, there is a lot of hands-on work and not a huge amount of financial reward. We now have a manager and tour manager and they are doing all they can to take the load off band members in terms of the day-to-day running of things, but there are still a lot of emails to answer and organising to be done. Straight after the tour, I had a couple of days to relax, then I spent a few days catching up, paying invoices and all that. Not very exciting really! In the last few days, I have had some time to do some writing and a bit of recording so that’s been good. A label in Japan is releasing a double CD next year to help introduce us to the Japanese market. It will mostly be a ‘best of’ but we are doing a couple of new things for it and so I have been working on those. In the next week or two I will be learning some parts for an album that David is recording with Judy Dyble and I’ll be going into the studio after Christmas to get those recorded.
I have been fortunate to see you perform live on three consecutive occasions over the course of three years and it strikes me that you seem to have gotten better every time. Are you of the same opinion and to what extent is that due to building self-confidence on tour?
Yes, I think we are finding our feet as a live band. Every set of shows we do, we’ve got better. We’ve had some ups and downs and we’ve made some mistakes due to inexperience but we are all very serious about what we are doing and we’ll continue to try and improve.
Speaking of self-confidence: your performance at Night of the Prog last year was a great triumph, the audience embraced you passionately. That must have been a good feeling. How did you experience your first major performance outside the U.K.?
It was an amazing evening. We were on after a couple of quite heavy bands so I was a little bit worried that our show might fall a bit flat. But we played well, the audience were right behind us and the stunning location and beautiful weather made it seem such an enchanted evening. Nick (D’Virgilio) has played literally thousands of shows and even he was on a big high afterwards. Dave (Gregory) used to do some big shows with XTC and it is great that he is back playing in front of decent sized audiences.
What about plans at the moment, possibly a new album in the making, are there currently plans for other projects or solo albums? I am thinking in particular of the much-discussed Station Masters project, is that still alive?
There is some solo activity right now. I mentioned David’s album with Judy, and Nick has also got a new album which will be out early next year. I have heard both albums and they will both be brilliant releases. We should also finish work on the Japanese market BBT release in January. And we’ll be going back into Abbey Road early next year to record a string section for another Big Big Train project which will come out in 2021. In May we’re off to the States and Canada for some shows and in July we are playing two shows in England and then heading out to Italy for a couple of gigs, finishing in Rome. As for the new BBT studio album, we have plenty of song ideas and have set some time aside to finish writing the album in the autumn next year. We’ll then record the album early in 2021 and release it in the autumn of that year. Finally, the Station Masters idea is resting, but we’ll try to put some time into that at some stage.
What’s with this strange obsession of yours concerning bass pedals? You are an excellent bass player and the Rickenbacker still produces sufficiently heavy and especially low tones?
Bass pedals were a key part of the sound of bass players in the ’70s. For some reason, that seemed to die away a bit, as did awareness of the awesomeness of bass pedals. I remember when we played our first shows in 2015 a lot of people asked me afterwards what I was doing with my feet on my pedals which really surprised me. Prog rock is a music form where songwriters can be ambitious and can explore ideas in extended songs. Where songs are lengthy and where there is the opportunity for pieces to be highly dynamic, the deployment of bass pedals during the bigger moments can greatly enhance the composition. Sometimes, size is everything.
Who would you say are your influences, and what music do you enjoy listening to?
On the playing side, Mike Rutherford, John Wetton and Paul McCartney. Mike was the greatest exponent of bass pedals alongside melodic and rhythmic bass playing. On the writing side, I am influenced by many different artists such as Mew, Prefab Sprout, PFM, Van der Graaf Generator and The Unthanks. My biggest influence from the early days right through to now is probably Anthony Phillips. I love his playing and his music. His new album is really beautiful. Another album I have been listening to a lot recently is the new Nick Cave album, Ghosteen. It’s an extraordinary piece of work.
On 6th December the DVD/Blu-ray will be released from the performance at Cadogan Hall, two years ago. I was there on the first evening, Friday night. The noise was abominable, especially if you were, like me, seated upstairs in the hall. What actually went wrong that particular night?
I mentioned earlier about mistakes and inexperience and that was a key moment for us where we got things wrong. The venue at Cadogan is great and the people there are lovely and we may go back some time. But somebody in the tech team there was worried that their PA would be out of phase with our PA, so they suggested that we turn off their PA and just use ours. We took that advice and, down in the stalls, the sound was pretty decent. The mistake we made, though, was not checking every part of the venue; we should have checked upstairs as well as the stalls. And upstairs on the balcony the sound was awful. Onstage, we are on in-ear monitors, so we have our own mix and we had no idea of the sound problems people were experiencing. Just before the break, somebody upstairs got very angry and started shouting at us. Of course, we are on in-ears which block out the sound, so we had no idea what he is saying. The sound crew, however, were then alerted and so they did what they could to improve things. And from the second show on we brought in some extra PA upstairs to get the best sound possible. Subsequently, we have expanded our crew to take on a PA tech who has the sole job of setting up the PA at every venue we play. It’s expensive, but we owe it to listeners to do all we can to put on the best shows.
How do you see the future of the band, your band actually. Where will you be in five years and what are your ambitions?
All of us are ambitious. If things go to plan, we should be playing at 2,000 seat venues in the U.K. within the next two years. In the rest of the world, we’ll have to judge what size audiences we are likely to draw and plan accordingly. If the audiences are likely to be too small or if a promoter isn’t prepared to take a risk then we won’t be able to afford to take BBT to some parts of the world. We’ll continue to write and record albums, as albums are the core artistic statement for rock bands. I’d like us to break into the Top 20 at some stage, but we will not be compromising our music to seek to achieve further commercial success.
Finally, is there anything you would like to share with the readers/visitors to our TPA website?
I’d just like to say thank you for listening to music and for supporting the musicians.
Thank you for your time, good luck with the band, I sincerely hope to see you soon without having to board trains or planes!
Thank you Alex.
Photos by Martin Reijman and Andre Wins.