Before I get round to reviewing ‘Folklore’, here is my first interview with David Longdon, recorded on 6th March 2016.
Martin – Good morning David, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
David – That’s fine Martin..
M – This actually came out of the blue, a friend of mine called Kevin Thompson, another one who has been into Big Big Train for a long time, had bought two copies of ‘Wild River’ by mistake (which I’m sure you won’t mind!) He advertised it on facebook and said “does anybody want it”. I’d had it in my mind about getting your solo album for quite a while, so I thought, if it’s there, I’ll definitely have it. I put it on and listened to it for the first time and I was really impressed with it. It reminded me of Lee Maddison, a north-east musician and I see it almost modern folk music?
D – That’s exactly what it is. It was musically aimed at the acoustic roots scene because I was searching for a genre that would allow me to make the music that I could hear in my imagination. I’d always liked acoustic music and experimental music so, ‘Wild River’ encompassed a little bit of both of those, there’s also some elements of prog in there too. Over the years, I’d been writing and recording with bands, working alongside a music publisher, band management, record companies and A&R people. I’d also gone through the Genesis saga too so, when it came to making ‘Wild River’, I wanted to make an album that I would like to hear. I was writing songs and getting into the whole recording process just to s see where it took me. I didn’t force a note which was possibly why Wild River took about seven years to make.
M – The title track, to me, I think it encompasses everything that you’ve just said. It’s got a bit of Prog, a bit of rock in it and it’s also got some of that modern folk in there as well, it’s just a really good song. You said it took seven years to make? You were obviously doing that among all the other bits and pieces then?
D – That was right, I’d gone though a divorce during that period and then I’d eventually rebuilt my life, met someone else and then became a parent. It’s interesting because all the people who are playing on ‘Wild River’ are old friends and people I knew from a specific point in my life. It’s a time capsule. It was also the time of moving from the 20th Century into the 21st, so the ‘Millennium blues’ were happening at that time too.
M- Were the songs written of actual experiences of yourself?
D – I was writing music and using different ways of writing. Some of the songs were based on events that had happened in my life. Falling Down was based on a conversation that I had with my father one day. Loving and Giving was autobiographical. Vertigo is about the disorientation that comes when a close relationship is coming to an end and it draws from several episodes that had happened to me. The song About Time was a stream of consciousness lyric – the lesson there was to leave the lyric rather than edit it into something more controlled. I have no idea who Turpentine is – but one day I’ll write a song about her. So the album is a mixture of influences and different subject matter.
I had spent lots of time in recording studios over the years but I’d always worked with an engineer. On ‘Wild River’ I was the engineer and I learnt how to do it as I went along. I recorded Wild River on a Roland VS8-80. It enabled me to be able to record audio at home for the first time and I found it hugely liberating. For the first time, it wasn’t costing me money to record and I could record when i had the opportunity to be able to do so. I recorded the music on the VS8-80 and a friend of mine called Michael Brown digitally transferred it into E Magic/Logic.
M – It seems to be quite an intricate, devil’s art being an engineer…
D – It takes time and experience to learn the craft. There are lots of errors on the album. On Joely, and I was recording Beth Noble the violinist and we were layering her violin and viola parts to make it sound like a string section. My inexperience as a sound engineer meant that I bounced some of the violin parts with the reverb, which means that the reverb is now entirely committed to the track. I can’t take it off. But it was a learning process.
There are many things like that, which you learn by doing them. I wanted the album to take the listener on a journey. I recorded the material and arranged the album to flow from track to track. The album revealed itself over time.
(Picture copyright Simon Hogg Photography)
M- Touching on the ‘no-no’ subject of ‘Bard’ in the BBT forum and the re-mastering of that album, would you go back and redo ‘Wild River’ or, are you happy with it as it is?
D- That’s interesting because we have spoken about, possibly, reissuing it as a Big Big Train back pages thing, both ‘Bard’ and ‘Wild River’. With ‘Wild River’, its initial pressing is now gone, that’s it, the original run has sold out. The temptation is to go – ‘I want to rerecord everything’ but I don’t want to do that with Wild River. I have some good live recordings and demos taken from that time which may be of interest. I may record some acoustic versions as additional tracks to accompany the re-issue. But Wild River is what it is and I am happy to leave it at that.
We (BBT)are going to revisit at least one track from ‘Bard’ on ‘Station Masters’.
Before I met Big Big Train, I sent a copy of Wild River to Greg (Spawton) and Andy (Poole), they listened to and liked it because it showcased the acoustic side to what I do. They also liked my songwriting. We did think, at one point, of re-recording the title track with Big Big Train. That’s another option.
M- I think that would be awesome because, going back to the track, it’s even got bits of blues and soul in it as well…
D- I nailed my colours to the mast with that track! It is about the death of my father. My Dad died of leukaemia and I have felt very bitter about it over the years. I feel that he was taken too soon. He missed too much. The chorus line, “Life is a wild river, not a long, calm stream..” acknowledges that there are circumstances in life that will rip you up. My emotions are very raw on this track. As I have become older, I think it is how we come through these challenges that life throws at us, that makes us who we are.
M- To me, doing the Wild River track with Big Big Train would be really good…
D- That was just an idea and may or may not happen.
M –You’ve probably got enough stuff to keep you going for the next decade without thinking about anything else!
D – Yes, we’ve got some interesting stuff coming up. We are looking at least four recording projects deep into the future now. That’s a good amount of work. It’s a steady process.
M – So, getting onto ‘Folklore’ and ‘Wassail’, was it a conscious decision to go down that, shall we say,’folk inspired’ route. Everyone calls you ‘Pastoral Progressive Rock’ so, would you say it is a bit of a move away from that, to a certain extent? Or was it just the way the songwriting took you?
D- I am fascinated with the themes within folk music, not so much folk music itself. I like the ideas and structures. If you listen to folk music, it has all manner of odd time signatures within it, much like progressive rock does.
It had been a while since BBT had released a studio album because we had been focussing on Stone and Steel and also the live shows which were both expensive project and also time consuming. I had started writing Wassail which I played to Greg down the phone and he liked it. We had a conversation about what we’d been writing individually and eventually a direction emerged. We decided on the title Folklore because it pulled all these musical ideas together as a whole.
Folklore the track, is a song about how folklore came about, how it has been passed on through our human existence. Word of mouth, then words evolving and the written word. Evolving straight through to the digital realm and the internet and social media. We are still making our folklore.
(Picture copyright Simon Hogg Photography)
M – You said you were surprised a bit by the success of Big Big Train recently, would you say that’s down to the digital age and things like facebook etc.?
D – Yes, it’s a fantastic Facebook group that we’ve got. People gather there because of a shared musical interest in the band but there’s much more to it than we could ever have designed. It’s a true community of BBT fans who call themselves Passengers. Big Big Train fans are a loyal bunch, they are demanding in the sense that they expect great things from us. They expect excellence and we fully aim to deliver.
M – I’m a member of quite a few facebook groups and there isn’t one that’s the same as Big Big Train. One question that everyone asks, new members that come to it say, it’s the most active facebook groups that they’ve ever been in and it hardly ever talks about the band it was set up to support!
D – When we’ve got something to say, we say it, when we haven’t we will still chip in now and again. People ask about stuff and we answer it and it’s great. I love the fact that there’s no longer the wall between artists and fans. One of the best things about the Kings Place shows was being able to meet with the fans after the concerts. We are more than happy to do it and we want to talk with the fans. Those shows were our time with them and their time with us. It is a two way thing and that’s important because we value the people that buy our albums and support the band. We couldn’t have done the gigs without our fans wanting to see us play our music live. We can’t make that sort of stuff up and it is a genuinely amazing thing really.
M – Getting back to ‘Wild River’, have you thought about the possibility of a follow up, another solo album?
D – Yes, I have thought about a follow up. I have certain songs that I’ve written that I would like to see the light of day at some point. Uncle Jack was a solo song that I offered to BBT when they asked me if I would like to submit something for the band. Not your typical BBT song but that is part of my role within the band. I am a singer and songwriter, I have my own style and way of doing things which is quite rightly different from Greg’s. The contrast seems to have worked for us as a band and we think that it broadens our appeal.
Make Some Noise, which sometimes gets some stick from some fans because it was unlike anything the band had done before or since. We were finishing off recording some of the ‘English Electric’ drum tracking sessions and we had some down time in the studio. So Greg said to me have you got a solo thing you fancy bringing in to work on? I brought Make Some Noise in. Nick D’Virgilio had recorded the drums put the drums down on it, and as we worked on it Rob Aubrey was in the control room, talking with Greg and Andy, said that it is a single.
I’ve made it very clear about the origins of Make Some Noise, It was originally a solo track and the music is supposed to sound like a young band who are just kicking off and getting really excited by the power of the music that they’re playing with their mates when they were teenagers. Actually it is not as simple as it first seems.The music reflects those bands that I listened to as a teenager.
At that time, we’d been thinking about doing a video because we had been a studio based band and the video would give a sense of what we might look like as a live band. The notion of making a video for something as long as Victorian Brickwork would be a costly thing to do. Make Some Noise is short and to the point and, rightly or wrongly, it got absorbed into Big Big Train and it became a single and a video for us.
We were not trying to have a hit single in any sense as some have suggested. That would be a preposterous notion because it is far too retro in it’s sound. Some kindly soul mentioned that we were selling out but who exactly were we selling out to? There is no big money machine hyping BBT. We are independent and we do it ourselves. So the prospect of Make Some Noise storming the charts was so off radar that it was never even considered.
M – It’s not Big Big Train but it is?
D – Yes, it is not typically Big Big Train but it is. It nods it’s head to bands like Queen, Pilot, Be Bop Deluxe, those classic rock singles. Big Big Train is a broad church, so it seems, I’m not saying we can do anything, don’t go expecting a rampant disco album anytime soon. If it suits the song subject matter and it works, we do it. We serve the music and go where it takes us.
But what would a David Longdon solo album be like? I really don’t know.
M – It needs to be something that’s more signature to you…
D- Exactly. So do I stockpile material for a solo album? If I don’t do another solo album for five years or so, will I still be interested in the material I had written five years ago? So, the answer is yes, I will probably do another solo album at some point. But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. For the time being Big Big Train is all encompassing. There are only twenty four hours in a day. if you want to hear David Longdon you’re going to find me with Big Big Train.
(Picture copyright Glassart Photography)
M – How did you get involved with the Martin Orford album?
D – Martin was bowing out from IQ and his progressive rock career. He was very cut up about the way that the internet had impacted on sales. He was also getting nasty emails from people when he approached those that had uploaded his music and he just couldn’t see a future in continuing. That’s what his song Endgame is about.
Martin was recording his swan song and about to hang up his cape. I was reading an article about Martin and he has a very sharp sense of humour and he’s a very interesting guy. I called Giant Electric Pea one afternoon and left a message, telling them who I was and a little bit about what I’d done. I mentioned the Genesis story and at that point he picked up the phone. We started speaking. At the end of the call he said “I’ll tell you what, if you want to do it, there are a couple of tracks that I’d like you to have a go at singing. If you can sing them better than him, they’re going on the album!”.
I drove down to Southampton one morning to Aubitt studios and Rob Aubrey was the engineer. That’s how we all met. After I’d gone, Rob was on the phone to Greg saying that I think I’ve got a singer that could be right up your street. That was the beginning of my involvement with Rob, Greg and Andy.
M –And also thanks to you for having the gonads to pick the phone up and leave a message..
D – At that time I was teaching music technology and I was in that cycle of being a parent, getting up at 5 a.m. nappy changing and I thought right, if I’m going to do this music thing, I need to do it on a bigger scale than I have done it previously. I had released ‘Wild River’ to mass indifference. To be honest, it was dead in the water. Joining BBT was a game changer for everyone involved with it.
M – You hinted on the Genesis thing, would you mind expanding on that a bit more? Was that an audition set up because they wanted a new singer and they advertised or was that through connections?
D – I have a friend called Gary Bromham, who, at that time, was in a band called The Big Blue and they were signed to EMI. We’d met when I was signed to Rondor Music Publishing and we shared the same management company. Gary was working at The Farm, where Genesis record, in Surrey. He was also working with Nick Davis who was Genesis’ producer at that time. Nick told Gary that now Phil had said he was off, they had decided to look for another singer. Gary, bless him, thought about me and said to Nick that he had a recording of someone who he thought would be good for that.
Gary called me and said “Dave, I hope you don’t mind but, I think I might have got you an audition with Genesis!” I thought he was winding me up because he has a great sense of humour but, he told me what had happened and how Nick had taken my tape to Tony Banks who liked it. There was a song on there of mine called Hieroglyphics of Love, it’s been a very lucky song for me, it got me a publishing deal and the audition with Genesis. Tony waited for Mike (Rutherford) to get back from touring with The Mechanics so he could play it to him. Mike got back off tour and liked it so the next thing is to get me down for an audition and that got the ball rolling.
I went down and did the audition, they had these mixes called ‘Top Of The Pops’ mixes because there was a musicians union rule that states that the music had to be performed live so, for example, if you had a track like No Son Of Mine, you’d have the track from the album and the producers would prepare these mixes by taking the lead vocalists voice off. Then, If they did it on Top Of The Pops, Phil could add a live vocal and that would satisfy the Union’s live element of the performance. They had a few Top Of The Pops mixes of their hits and I sang Mama, No Son of Mine, Land Of Confusion, Tonight, Tonight, Tonight, Throwing It All Away, I Can’t Dance and I did a live version of Turn It On Again, they didn’t have a Top Of The Pops track for that. They asked me if there was anything I wanted to sing and I said I’d like to do In The Cage from ‘The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’.
Tony and Mike were very friendly and spent a lot of time just talking to me because, unlike Ray Wilson who had put records and video’s out with Stiltskin, they knew very little about me. They had to get that information out of me. The next time I was down they asked me to come and jam with them. They were playing excerpts of material that would end up on ‘Calling All Stations’ and I just had to jam along to it. Then they gave me a few songs to work on and write with them. I gave them a few ideas back. I also had to perform a live set with my band so they could see me perform in a live situation.
I never met Ray Wilson at all through the entire process. We’ve never corresponded with each other either. It was rumoured that they may go with a two singer approach, like Mike And The Mechanics but the fact that they had not introduced Ray and I to each other got my spider-senses tingling. As we know, they eventually decided to go with Ray and why not? It’s a long time ago now and I’ve been a bit busy since then (said with a chuckle). As I’ve said before, Big Big Train is the Mothership and my musical home.
(Picture copyright Neil Palfreyman)
M – Just one final question, where do you see the future for you and the band. Cast your eye over a crystal ball, where do you think you will be in ten years time?
D – There’s lots of variables that can happen between now and then. I’m 50 now so I’ll be 60 in ten years time, I hope I’ll be in good health and be able to sing in the way that I do at the moment, I hope my voice and my health stands the test of time. Big Big Train is its own muse, it is its own thing. It’s strange, when a new album starts coming together, we are write songs and build tracks and you wonder where it is all going. Greg will add something, Danny will send something in and Dave Gregory will provide a guitar part and suddenly, bang!, you go, yes, it’s Big Big Train! The good thing about the band is we are not frightened to throw in some unusual elements.
M- More live performances?
D- Definitely, we loved the live shows, they were amazing events. It was such a fantastic experience for all of us. We want to keep the shows special, we want them to be cherished as moments that people will look back on and think yes, that was something special!
M – I think I speak for the majority, if not all of, the people when I say it wasn’t just a gig. It was part of a whole weekend, people took time out to not just go and see the band live, they were coming from all over the world, it was the build up to it and the gig was just the highlight. It was more of a complete experience than just a show.
D – On the Saturday afternoon I was down in the foyer talking to the guys on the merch table. There was one man and his son who came down the escalator and saw me. They came over to talk to me and they’d come from Bolivia! He said they’d walked, they’d been on a bus and a train. They’d also been on a plane to get to these shows in London and I’m so pleased that I met them. It was just the three of us talking in the foyer and I was thinking that to come all this way from Bolivia, it’s just incredible.
(Picture copyright Simon Hogg Photography)
M – I don’t think I can top that anecdote! It was quite an experience, speaking for myself, I joined the ‘Train’ just after ‘The Underfall Yard’ and it didn’t resonate with me when I first heard it. I hate to say it but I did walk away from Big Big Train but, when I heard the ‘English Electric’ albums I thought they were absolutely stunning and went back to ‘The Underfall Yard’ and then it made sense!
D – I suppose, in many ways, people say that Greg tends to write the big, more progressive tracks and I tend to write the shorter songs. We don’t contrive the way we write, we just write what we write and then what we’ve got is what we’ve got. We then talk about it and we come with the next direction of where we are going. We go with what’s right at the time,
Big Big Train has been an amazing experience for all of us involved and it’s given us a lot of pleasure. It is a fantastic vehicle to be working within. I like the fact that you say you came back to ‘The Underfall Yard’ having discovered something later. I guess, when we put Folklore out there may be someone like your good self who heard Hedgerow and thought it was insane, something may hit them and they may go back and discover Hedgerow again and even ‘The Underfall Yard’. You’ve got people listening to the early albums as well, you have ‘Gathering Speed’ or ‘The Difference Machine’, which is great. It’s all good.
M – For me, the song that nailed my colours to Big Big Train’s mast was Curator of Butterflies. Mike Morton of The Gift and I came to the Saturday performance and were on the front row. It’s been a song that we both find quite emotional and we just turned to each other and were in tears at the beauty of it all. The same with Victorian Brickwork, the thing that gets me about that track now is the brass at the end, I can’t understand now why I didn’t like it at first. The brass at the end just makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
D – We’ve been listening to 5.1 mixes from ‘Stone & Steel and we’ve got Victorian Brickwork on there from the London shows. In Blu-Ray high definition with the band kicking and the brass going, it hits home hard. It’s a massive noise and it can be quite overwhelming.
When I first started with Big Big Train I received these lyrics which in addition to poetic moments, consisted of technical, almost industrial, language. I wondered how I was going to approach singing them. I decided to split the lyrics into lead vocal lines and backing vocal parts. Because if I split them up, it would give me more time to deliver and they could overlap each other. I would deliver the lead vocal lines over the gorgeous music beneath and that was the key to it. I also sing them like my life depends on it – like it is the most important thing in the world. It’s not only the words, it is very much the emotional delivery of them.
M – I think you’re right, what a lot of people picked up from the Kings Place performances was that you were not just singing the words, you were almost living them.
D – Yes, I am completely in the moment. It’s been an amazing journey.
I’d like to thank David for taking the time to talk to me.
Coming next will be my review of Big Big train’s ‘Folklore’ album and then my second interview with David which we conducted after the release of ‘Folkore’ and the release part at Real World Studios.