After three visits to the United Kingdom to attend shows and two previous interviews with founder/songwriter/bassist Greg Spawton, I have the honour to speak once again to a member of the famous English prog band, Big Big Train. New Italian singer Alberto Bravin is ready and willing to answer my questions about the upcoming show at the Boerderij in Zoetermeer, the Netherlands. A conversation about his succession to iconic singer/songwriter David Longdon, the setbacks the band has had to overcome lately, a new studio album and much, much more…
Hi Alberto, good evening, buona sera! Thank you for allowing me some of your precious time, it’s a pleasure to talk to you. You are the new lead singer of one of my favourite bands, Big Big Train. I have countless questions for you, so let’s get started, if that’s okay with you… First of all, how are you? It’s been a tumultuous period for you and the band in many ways.
Yeah, yeah. It was a really rough times, yeah. You can say that, really busy time. Because, of course, we had to prepare everything for the gigs and I had to learn all the material.
Which is quite a lot.
It’s quite a lot, indeed. Yeah, not easy, and apart from the memory thing, it’s of course all the other things in just reimagining the songs and trying to take something from the previous versions and just make it mine. So it’s not an easy job to do, but the other guys trusted me and gave me freedom to do whatever I want, so it was really a cool job to do. Really exciting, yeah.
Really good that they trust you, being a new member isn’t it?
Yeah, they were really, really welcoming and there was no pressure at all. There were no problems at all on all the songs, of course. Well, we have to rehearse now, there may be some, yeah. [laughs]
Just to get back to the beginning, for some members of the audience, you’re relatively unknown. Could you please introduce yourself briefly.
My name is Alberto Bravin and I’m from Italy, from Trieste, that’s a small town on the northeast border of Italy, near Slovenia. I have played the piano since I was three years old. And then I started studying singing in the Conservatory, here in Trieste. And then I earned a diploma in modern singing in London, so I used to live in London for a couple of years, so I know the British guys and a little bit of the culture. I’m also a recording engineer, both a live and studio recording engineer. I had quite a known studio here in Trieste for a lot of years, and then I moved to Milan because I joined Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM). Before that I had a band called Synesthesia. We made two albums that were produced by Franz Di Cioccio, the drummer and the main guy in PFM, so that’s the connection.
When the original guitar player of PFM, Franco Mussida, left the band they called Marco Sfogli to replace, but they also needed someone who can sing and play a little bit of guitar, little bit of keyboards, a little bit of everything, and my name came up. And they just called me and said, “well, we are of course trying several people, but do you wanna try?” I went to Milan, we rehearsed once and that was the first PFM rehearsal that they did in seven years. So I played with PFM for seven years and it was beautiful. It was great, a great experience, really rock ‘n’ roll experience. We travelled the world, we made two albums and we did a lot of tours.
What was it like working with those guys, the legendary PFM?
Well, just playing with them, it’s really a pleasure and an honour and just really, really fun and you learn something each time you play with them. You know there’s always something new, but the best thing is just hanging out with them and just listening to the stories and to listen to whatever they wanted to tell you and teach you, so it was a great experience musically, but also personally. Yeah, it was really great, just staying in the hotel room after the concert, with a glass of wine and just talking about the ’70s. [laughing]
Getting back to BBT, it was, of course, terrible news when David Longdon died, it has left its mark. On the other hand, it opened up a window for you, meant a new perspective for you. What’s your take on that?
Yeah, it’s a bittersweet thing. But I was a fan of the band before, so I remember when the news came that David had passed away. I remember that and I was shocked because it was like some days before I was just listening to Big Big Train and saying “well, this is a good thing, I like the new stuff”, I really loved it.
So yeah, it’s really bittersweet because when Greg wrote to me, he sent me a message on Facebook, but I’m not really a social media guy – I’ll try to do better. So I didn’t get that message. After a couple of days I think he found my e-mail address and sent me an e-mail, saying, “well, hello, I’m Gregory Spawton from a band called Big Big Train, have you ever heard of us?”
I just jumped up from my chair, I said “Yes, of course I know you!” And so he just said, “well, you know about the bad news?” and so we talked a little bit about that and he said “we are auditioning for a new member because we want to carry on and we decided that’s what David would have wanted. There is an audition open if you want to do it.” He very kindly asked me “if you have the time to do it.”
Very polite. Very British.
And so, of course I said yes. Just with no hopes, just to have the pleasure to try and sing on those songs. So yeah, that was the way it happened.
How did he come up with Alberto Bravin? Someone must have mentioned your name.
That’s a fun story. Well, no, it’s more funny than that. Gregory was at a PFM gig in London in 2015 in Camden Town, it was our first, the first in years actually. We were really excited, we were playing in London and then we were going to the US and South America, and do a big tour and the cruise. We did Cruise To The Edge too. We were really excited to play this stuff, so we played Dingwalls in Camden Town, it’s a nice place, and Gregory was there and he must have noticed me, he said to himself “so this guy can sing, can play”. I discovered this only much later because at the time I didn’t know. I asked myself this question, of course: how did he find me? And so he just wrote down my name because he was thinking about doing a solo album in that period.
I know, he’s still thinking about it.
He’s still thinking about it every day. So he just wrote my name down and it was there in his phone, I think, for all these years.
That was long before anything happened to David Longdon, wasn’t it?
Oh yeah, it was back in 2015. So he just had my name and when the audition process started he thought of me.
And the fact that you’re also a multi-instrumentalist, as you said before you play the keyboards and guitar. I read somewhere you also play a little bit of bass and drums, that helps.
I do a little bit of everything.
And maybe the fact that you had been educated in London and know a little bit of the history and the culture of England, that might have helped as well.
Yeah, I think so. Well, at the time they didn’t know, of course. At first it was: “this is just three songs from our back catalogue. Just sing on two of these, if you can do a video, it’s a good thing.” Not mandatory, you know, that’s it.
Can you remember what you played, what you sang on?
Yeah, of course, I sang on East Coast Racer.
Oh, one of my favourites.
Yeah, just the second part, the most difficult part.
Goosebumps, you know, that is a very difficult song to sing.
Yeah, goosebumps, that’s the most difficult song ever written, I think.
And you chose that particular one?
Well, they chose the songs, they gave me East Coast Racer and Judas Unrepentant and, what was the other one? Well, it was three songs. I had to choose two songs, sing and perform them. Just a video of one, not mandatory. I did all three songs with video within 24 hours. It was a strange situation, because I’m a little bit of a perfectionist.
All sound engineers are.
Bad people, indeed. And I knew that I’d just edit everything, I just wanted it to be perfect. But my wife said “no, just send the songs, they don’t care about that, just the raw material. If you add a voice or if you tune it, they just want to hear how you sing and how it sounds on the song.” I have to thank her for that and I actually did, because in truth I wanted to learn to play the flute.
No! Come on, in 24 hours? And in the end you made it.
Yeah, that I think, that was one thing then when we talked about it. As I said, I used to live in London, I know a little bit of UK culture. And so we connected there, yeah, and of course the thing that I can play a little bit of everything is a good thing. And I’m really proud about that. I wanted to continue to have this, this kind of role in the band. Of course, this is more of a main role now.
You’re the front man now.
Yeah, I’m the front man, but I really love to play a little bit of keyboards, have a guitar in my hands and basically just do what I’m comfortable with, some instruments nearby.
And it certainly helps with this grand type of music that they play. Any kind of instruments will add to this full sound of theirs, won’t it?
Yeah, and also when we were getting started to rehearse, just from Zoom calls, to rehearse the songs and decide the parts. Of course, there are thousands of parts, so there’s plenty of room for everybody to play everything all the time, because the production is massive. Thirteen people on stage, you know, that’s a lot.
I’ve seen you perform twice with PFM at De Boerderij. You know the venue, what do you think of it?
I already told the guys, some of the guys have played there before, but Greg, Big Big Train never played there.
Never outside the UK, in Europe, with one exception, Night of the Prog in 2018.
That’s just really strange. I told the guys, well, it’s a beautiful venue and I really remember that we were really excited to play there and the stage is great and the possibility to do the video stuff also. It’s a plus for a venue like that. And the kitchen is great!
And it’s all freshly cooked.
That’s amazing, yeah, I remember that.
So you think you can fit thirteen people on that tiny little stage? You have the full horn section with you. That will be a bit of a challenge.
Well, that’s rock ‘n’ roll. Like everybody’s sweating so there’s no problem. I think with PFM we were seven. So that’s a lot of people and we played small clubs in the US, like in Chicago, we played like a small punk place and it was incredible, it was great, really cool.
But this time you’re taking the horn section along, aren’t you?
Oh sure, the full sound will be there. And they’re blasting away with the horns!
I’m very much looking forward to the show. Mind you, I’ve seen BBT three times in the UK already, and I made the trip already a couple of times. I’m a big fan, I’m so much looking forward to this because it’s a premier: it’s the first indoor European show ever.
I heard a short sampler where you sing as a lead singer on some of the older material. It must be hard to follow in the footsteps of a legend like David Longdon, for one thing. And the other thing: your voice is quite high up there, you’re more of a tenor and he’s more of a baritone. Does that require some alterations to the arrangements?
No, no, because I am really a baritone.
You always sing the high-pitched voice.
When I was studying in the Conservatory I studied classical opera. So there you find your range, your real range because you can only just play some roles, right? So I wasn’t the heroic baritone. But I’m actually a baritone with quite a big range. I can sing high, I have some high notes. But the colour, it’s not really a tenor colour, I don’t have the crispy light higher tenor voice, I sing more of a baritone tone but for a lot of years, I always sang the tenor stuff. Because everybody said, “well, you can sing high, sing that”. But my dream is to sing this baritone stuff, I really love it.
OK, so you’re living the dream now.
I really love it and I feel comfortable, yeah.
I think it may have to do with the fact that Franz Di Cioccio’s voice (PFM vocalist) is a little bit lower so you have to have that opposite colour, this high-pitched voice, as opposed to his low voice.
Yes, that may be true because in PFM it was Flavio Premoli, the original keyboard player that has the high voice that sang Mr 9 to 5 and La Luna Nuova and all the other high-pitched stuff. They were looking for someone who can sing that stuff. So I started to incorporate that range into my voice. So yeah, but I know that I recorded all the songs that we are playing live already, I recorded all the songs in the studio so they can have my voice on the backing tracks to learn these songs, just to be prepared for it.
To be prepared for a different kind of voice.
Yeah, there’s a different guy out there, so just to be prepared, and we were back and forth with Greg just to tell me what do you think about this, what do you think about that approach? And then I started to ask him about the lyrics and just to be really into that and truly understand them. Just a tiny different emphasis on one word can make an enormous difference because they are a lyrical band. There’s the lyrics, there’s the music. It’s beautiful, in the lyrics there’s a story. There’s folklore, British folklore. And there is a lot to get into and digest everything. It’s really important for a singer.
You just released a new single, Last Eleven, with you as a first time front man, as lead vocalist. I must admit I like it very much, all the elements of BBT are there and your voice fits perfectly within the concept of the band. Congratulations on that. It’s your first recording with the band. How did it go? Were you able to give some input on the new stuff?
Yes it was. I recorded that originally as a demo for the audition, after the three songs from the back catalogue, I sang on two unreleased songs. One of them was Last Eleven and the demo that Greg sent me, it was just him playing guitar, a little bit of keyboards and bass and singing guide vocals. Then Nick D’Virgilio recorded some drums on it, just to get in the groove. That was part of the audition. I really pushed on and so I did all the vocal arrangements that you can hear there. So there is a version of Last Eleven with me singing all the parts. And there’s a lot of parts. [laughs]
You must let me hear that one, some time.
Yeah, I will. Well maybe we’ll release it, I don’t know. But well, the first idea was just to release that one. Some sort of a stripped down version of the music. But then we talked about it and I said, “well it would be great if everybody, the whole band, can sing the different parts”, so it’s not just the Alberto version of the song. And it really worked because everybody was really happy about it.
I sent all the parts to everybody, everybody sang the parts, and then Rob Aubrey (BBT chief sound engineer) mixed it perfectly. It was really cool and I’m really happy about the comments and all the feedback has been really positive. Everybody is so happy. There was some criticism, of course, that’s cool, but it was always constructive critics like, “OK, I don’t like this because blah blah blah.” It’s cool, right?
You have to be prepared for some criticism, it’s normal.
You know what? I was really scared when my name was released. This is Bravin, the new vocalist from Big Big Train, right? Boom. What? What’s happening now?
It’s like succeeding Jon Anderson in Yes or something. The poor guy [Trevor Horn] must have been shaking in his boots.
Yeah, but today, I think it will be always like this forever, right? But also, for example, Steve Morse with Ritchie Blackmore, it’s the same. It will be always Ritchie Blackmore, the only true guitar player of Deep Purple, right? So it’s really strange, but Steve Morse, it’s like 30 years or so. He’s been with them much longer than Ritchie has ever been in the band. This is the way, so I was really scared, but I’ll just wear a happy face. I don’t know if they’ll like me.
Just put on a brave face.
A brave face, yeah. Everybody was so welcoming and warm. And these are strange times. And when the first things with me singing on it came out, everybody was really positive about it. Because, let’s be honest, I’m not David Longdon. No, but nobody is David Longdon, right? So finding a copy of him, I think it would have been the wrong choice and Gregory knew it.
New man, new sound, we have to accept that.
But the songs are written by the same guys, the nucleus, yeah, so the music is that thing and the voice is different and my approach to the vocal arrangements is different. But the comments are positive and the feedback was great, so I think it’s good and I really like that.
The song starts with me and Nick singing; it’s not just me. I am only coming in on the chorus and I really love that. This approach, it’s not like a slap in your face, right? This is a new song, this is a new singer, but there is Nick singing, everybody singing, and then there’s the chorus with me singing. I really like it.
Just a couple of final questions, because I’m taking up way too much of your precious time now.
Don’t worry, I’m talking too much.
No, it’s your show, you know, not mine. So you were talking about new music, I read that you’re going to record a new album. It’s going to be recorded in Italy, you own a studio in Italy. Did you have anything to do with the fact that BBT is going to record a new album in Italy, of all places?
In fact no, because, well yes, I have the connections but I don’t have a studio anymore, so it’s not my studio. When we first met Nick D’Virgilio told me “it’s odd, it’s been years that we try to go to Italy to record because we just wanted to go there”, because of course the recording, it’s work, but maybe you can just add two days and have two days of like a weekend somewhere, so yeah, it’s always good times there. When this came out, they asked me, “do you know some studios there, do have some connection with some studios?” So I got in contact with two or three studios in Italy, one is really good and one is also in my city, in Trieste, so we haven’t decided yet where we’re going to do it but, yeah, it’s gonna happen. I don’t know if we will record the entire album here and maybe some other material in another place. We’re just talking about it, but yeah.
So there’s going to be a new album, you’re going to be the front man, it’s going to be partly recorded in Italy and I’m already looking forward to it.
Me too. [laughs]
OK, let’s go back to the show in Zoetermeer. It will take place in a couple of weeks only, on 5th September. It’s on a Monday, a bit of an odd day, but anyway. What can we expect from you in terms of the setlist? Is it going to be a lot of the latest album or is it more like a ‘greatest hits’ thing?
Well, it’s a good mix of both because there is of course some of the biggest songs. And there are some songs from the last album, Welcome to the Planet. What we tried to do is not choose the more ‘David’ songs. For this first couple of gigs, the songs that everyone associates with David’s voice. The more personal, the ones that David wrote the lyrics for. So it was just this, the line that we didn’t want to cross. Just do the most popular songs, the ones that everybody wants to hear, expects to hear, but making just some little bright stars somewhere.
OK, I’m very curious what you mean by that, but I guess we’ll find out soon enough.
Yeah, you will find out. Mind you, it’s a long set list.
I sincerely hope so, that’s what we’re used to from you guys. I think I’ve gone through all of my questions. Maybe a last question for you: What would be your message to people who are still deliberating whether they should go and see the show?
My message is that it will be an emotional show, for us and for all the people that will be there. Because of course, it’s our first couple of gigs. So it would be really fun to do it, but also really emotional because we don’t know what to expect of course. And also to the people that don’t know Big Big Train’s music. Of course, it’s progressive music, but everybody can listen to it. Everybody can find a way to digest the progressive thing in the songs because, they are songs, they are a song band. Because you have the melodies, you have the verses, you have the choruses. There are big choruses, I always think about some of my friends who don’t listen to progressive music, but maybe they listen to Top 40 songs. When they listen to Big Big Train, songs like Alive or Folklore, these kind of songs, they may just fall in love with them. because you don’t have to be a progressive aficionado, right?
You are saying: just enjoy the songs, don’t hesitate any longer. Buy your tickets now, because otherwise they’ll be sold out and it might be your last ever opportunity, because you had to cancel a lot of shows right now due to unforeseen circumstances.
Yeah, you know the circumstances about the HRH Festival in Leeds that was cancelled. That was a big anchor show for us, enabling us to do all these smaller ones. It was too much of a risk for a band like us, we are not Dream Theater.
I talked about this with Greg before. Too much of a financial risk for you guys, you simply can’t do that.
Of course everybody is sad about this because we were really excited to go and play. Of course in the Boerderij, but also in Germany and in at the Z7 and in Paris. But it’s not gonna happen right now, we will do it next year, that would be great.
OK. Well, Alberto, thank you very much for your time, we’ve spent more time than I than I thought was made available to me, grazie mille. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to talk to you. I had a great time, I wish you all the best of luck with the band and the new album. I’m already very much looking forward to the show at the Boerderij. I’ll be there cheering you on. So see you there on the 5th of September.
Yeah, yeah, we’ll see you there!