Big Big Train have just released English Electric Part I, the first part of two new albums they are issuing in the coming months, and their first studio album since the critically acclaimed The Underfall Yard in 2009 and the EP, Far Skies Deep Time in 2010.
Regarded as one of the most quintessentially English of all the contemporary prog bands, DPRP’s Alison Henderson shared some stories over a pint of real ale with Big Big Train’s founding members Greg Spawton and Andy Poole in that most traditional of settings, a pub in the heart of the New Forest.
Greg: It’s ‘all hands on deck’ at the moment. In the past few days all of the pre-orders of the album have needed to be prepared for shipping, so we’ve spent most of the past week helping to get the admin work done. The number of pre-orders we have received has been overwhelming so it has taken up a greater part of our time and you know how bad we men are at multi-tasking! But it seems prog rock is going the same way as folk music in becoming something of a cottage industry.
Andy: We have got our business vibe going currently. I spent most of the morning at the Post Office but you have just got to roll with it.
Greg: We have also just been interviewed for a second podcast so it is now beginning to feel as though we are not releasing the album into a vacuum. Interaction with journalists is an important part of the process of promoting the music.
Andy: It is certainly very different now to when we were younger and starting up the band. In those days, there were only a few musical fanzines that specialised in prog and we used to go out personally handing out flyers about our gigs.
Alison: So let’s talk about the golden years of prog, the 70s, which I think influenced us all. What was your introduction to prog?
Andy: Oh, it was Close to the Edge by Yes because it was like nothing I had ever heard before. Before I bought it, I kept looking at the sleeve and thinking how come there are only three tracks on it. However, I had heard some of Yessongs prior to buying it and the studio albums sort of came as a bit of a disappointment after I first encountered them as live versions, especially Heart of the Sunrise. Then a friend tried to get me into Hawkwind, but someone else played me Willow Farm by Genesis which totally hooked me, and of course, after that, hearing all of Supper’s Ready was unbelievable.
Greg: Mine was Selling England By The Pound in the late 70’s. My brother had just bought the album, much to the regret of his friends who were suggesting something by The Sex Pistols. I was climbing up the stairs in our house and Dancing With The Moonlit Night was playing on the record player. That little guitar riff drew my ear immediately. Lyrically, and musically, Selling England is still a significant influence for us.
Greg: We have always been a song-driven band. This is what both Andy and I set out to do when we started the band back in 1990.
Alison: What I love about English Electric I is that because of its lighter material, it does make it more accessible than your previous albums.
Greg: Yes, I suppose, when we were sequencing the tracks on the albums we knew that we were likely to get the most amount of attention with the release of Part One, as we haven’t released an album for a few years. The albums, by the way, do form part of a double album as all the material was recorded together but they can also be viewed as single albums in their own right. Part Two is probably a little quirkier than Part One.
Alison: I guess I have to declare a personal interest here, as one of the songs on English Electric is about Winchester, my home city, and of course, there was Winchester Diver on The Underfall Yard. What is the story there?
Greg: For me, it is because I love places like Bath, York, London and of course, Winchester, because they are all such historic places where even if you are walking down some back alley way, you can see something which will make you go ‘wow!’ And they are places where you need to look up as well as around to see all the history in the buildings. For this song, Winchester From St Giles’ Hill, I used the vantage point of the hill to look out over the cityscape below and describe some of the history of the place.
Alison: It is an incredibly beautiful song which encapsulates the spirit of the place perfectly.
Greg: I am so glad you like it. The interesting thing about our songs is that we do not always know where they are going when we are writing them as the songs will sometimes take a different direction along the way.
Andy: What really delighted me was the way David Longdon sang the chorus because he really put in a soulful performance there. David is also a very good flautist and so we were able to arrange this song primarily for flute and piano (played by Danny Manners).
Alison: The other thing which really struck me about this album is the quality of the song arrangements. Tell us more about those.
Greg: We are very much at a stage when all five of us at the core of the band want to make statements through both the songs and their arrangements and that means having a brass band or string quartet in there for some of them. Dave Gregory has arranged strings for XTC and Steve Hogarth amongst others so he arranged most of the string parts on the album and you can hear the results on The First Rebreather and Winchester From St Giles’ Hill.
The other string arranger is Louis Philippe who arranged the strings on A Boy In Darkness. He is a very interesting chap who is not only a fine songwriter and musical arranger, but also a football commentator for French radio.
Andy: It was funny because we all went out for a post-recording drink and the next minute, he was on the phone to the French equivalent of TalkSport, talking to several million football fans. He has also written a biography of Eric Cantona.
Greg: Andy appears on several tracks. When we were working on them with him, he came back with more than just that fantastic organ sound. He also gave many more ideas on what kind of keyboards and sounds would work best on the songs.
Andy: He was great because he was so much there with us, adding textures to the arrangements on organ, keyboard, piano and Moog. He will also be contributing to the second part of the album.
Alison: We must also put in a word for Rob Aubrey who mixed and mastered the album. It sounds as though he was very much an integral part of the plot.
Andy: We’ve worked with Rob for 20 years and have grown together during the making of the albums. Rob put in an unbelievable performance for us in the mixing of English Electric. At times we had an embarrassment of riches with which to work and, in the end we all had the difficult task of deciding what to keep in. At one stage, he was running with about 170 different tracks. We spoke to him a couple of days ago and some of the other non-prog albums on which he has been working only have about ten tracks.
Greg: It’s interesting to think back on how Yes and Genesis made their albums with the processes of writing the music and then arranging their songs. I cannot imagine how Close to the Edge turned out so well because basically they put that together in the editing room.
Andy: And while we are talking about those two bands, the other thing you have to bear in mind is that they made all their greatest music when they were in their 20s and 30s. We are now in our mid-40s which makes their achievements all the more substantial.
Greg: We must be slow starters.
Greg: I hope so. To me, this album feels more rounded. It has been a very pleasurable experience from start to finish, writing and recording it. It seems to us that most writers are attracted to the darker sides of life in their songs and we are no exception there. However, Andy has often wanted us to tackle ‘happier’ subjects too and on English Electric the music comes across, hopefully, as being joyous, at least in places. We have noticed that The Underfall Yard has been a jumping on point for people to start exploring our albums from the very early days and they then often go on and listen to the back catalogue. I am hoping that English Electric will have the same effect.
Andy: It does have a very confident air to it and I hope that reflects where we are in our lives. We both used to have full-time jobs but now we both work part-time. So now, we do have some flexibility which suits us perfectly. Once upon a time, we used to get home from work with our brains totally frazzled which is not really the best frame of mind to be in when you want to turn on the creative taps and make music afterwards.
Alison: I want to go back to the album again to talk about the stories behind some of the other songs especially A Boy In Darkness which is extremely powerful and quite disturbing in its content. Am I right in thinking that it is a comparison of what hell was like for a young boy 170 years ago to how hell for a child is perceived in the present day?
Greg: Yes, absolutely. David had just become a father when the Baby Peter story happened. He found it all very upsetting and wanted to write a song about it but it was important for him that it was not ‘preachy’ in the way it came over. It was very much a heart-felt thing for him and he was struggling with it for a long time even just starting off getting it down on paper. It ended up with him talking to a lot of professionals to help him to understand the subject. The main point of the song is that sometimes you have to explore these dark corners of life so that you can shine a light on them.
For the first part of the song, it was David’s Uncle Jack (about whom you will be hearing more later) who inspired the story. He was born around the turn of the last century and worked in the Derbyshire coalfields. He remembered from his early years how youngsters were sent down the mines and, in one instance, one of these boys died following an accident at the pit. David had been reading Jack’s books about the coal mining industry and so was able to put the two elements of the song together.
Alison: Perhaps the song which has a direct line back to The Underfall Yard is Summoned By Bells. Do tell us about what inspired this song.
Greg: My parents come from Leicester where my granddad used to work on the railways. We decided to take a trip back there with my mum so she could see where she grew-up. Initially, it was a little bit disorientating for her because of the changes that had taken place since they lived there, but the more we looked around, the more we realised much still remained. The idea for the song came together when we were driving away in the car, I saw a little girl running along the path down to the park and realised that could have been my mum 70 years ago. So it’s a song about change and continuity. The historian Michael Wood, who is one of my heroes, recently made a television series about the English which centred on the residents of a Leicestershire village. So, both of them were excellent reference points and provided a nice anchorage for a song about living in a close community facing the changing world. There is a similar song on English Electric II about community life but that one is centred on those who worked in the Swan Hunter shipyards.
Greg: That is good to hear! That one was a bit of a sleeper but is quite a gentle song about a place which we all know well close to where we live.
Alison: I also have to say that Hedgerow is another personal favourite and a fantastic way to end the album because it seems to leave the door open for the next album. What is the story there?
Greg: It is all based on David Longdon’s Uncle Jack who is the central character in this album. As you heard earlier, he was a coalminer but he also loved the countryside and David’s song, Uncle Jack, is all about this special relationship he had with the landscape. Many of the elements of that song are expanded upon and reprised in Hedgerow. Some of the songs on the album are about dark places and dark subjects, and others are more of a celebration of the English landscape. Jack is a character who is able to link these two threads. Hedgerow ends in a celebratory way and that was down to Andy’s stubbornness. He pushed me hard into writing the song so that we could get back to the repeated refrain at the end.
Andy: The closing section includes just about everyone who was in the studio that particular day including Martin Orford, so we christened them The Hedgehoppers’ Chorus. Even the four Coldstream Guardsmen who were playing the brass parts got roped into singing.
Greg: They are all top musicians and serious chaps but as soon as you ask them to sing it brings a different side out in them. They all collapsed giggling in front of the microphone.
Andy: It was always our plan to get more personalities involved in Hedgerow and I really think we have succeeded in doing this.
Alison: And they all seem to have very specific parts. I see you are down as baritone bee on Uncle Jack, Andy.
Andy: (Laughs). Ah, you noticed that on the album credits. Well, they are all very integral parts of the song!
Alison: Finally, and I have been asked to ask you this by several people, will you be doing any live shows in the foreseeable future?
Greg: Well, we have had a lot of offers for festivals next year including Rosfest in the USA. The reality is that we want to take out a brass band and string quartet with us so there needs to be a gig which is ‘an evening with Big Big Train’ rather than festival appearances. We will probably record a DVD of it too. You also have to remember we have not played live for ten years which poses the question of what size venue would be most suitable for the level of audience we are likely to attract, bearing in mind a Big Big Train gig would be a novelty. It’s really difficult to make that judgement. There are several ideas on the go currently so we would like to do this first and then maybe afterwards we could do something live as just a five piece.
Andy: We have also got to finish the album and then we are putting out Station Masters next year, which includes an hour’s worth of some of our previous material completely re-recorded by the new line-up.
Greg: And we are going to put out a single next year as well. Nick is flying in from the USA to film the video for the song.
Alison: Greg, Andy, I’m sure many of us would love to see you perform live again so we look forward to hearing more about your plans in due course. Thank you for taking the time to talk to DPRP.