I caught up with Big Big Train’s de facto leader Greg Spawton for a highly enjoyable chat ahead of the release of the band’s highly anticipated new album and a tour which, for the first time, takes in multiple venues across the US, as well as Europe and, of course, the UK.
Progradar: Do you think that ‘The Likes of Us’, while generally moving away from the historical stories of past BBT albums, still has a strong link with the band’s past?
Greg: Yes, I think it does, we were pretty keen not to try and reinvent the wheel with this album. The most important thing to us was to absolutely make sure it was us at the top of our game. One of the issues we had during the covid era when all of the touring gets cancelled was, what do you do now? make an album! and I think that one of the problems for us was that we were almost pushed into the album thing without having a masterplan for the two albums that we made in that time and I’m very much a person who likes a masterplan for albums.
I don’t like albums that are just an accumulation of songs, it needs to be an entity in its own right. There were two things, firstly with the terrible tragedy that we’ve been through, and the new singer in Alberto (Bravin), we knew it had to be us at the top of our game, secondly we needed to make sure we thought about it, planned it and made an holistic album that works as an entity rather than just a collection of tunes.
Progradar: It’s a proper ‘old school’ album where you would listen to it from start to finish. It’s not a Spotify album where you just pick and choose the odd tracks to listen to.
Greg: That’s exactly right! I listen to Spotify etc. myself but I like to be drawn in to a recording. The great albums, ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’, ‘Selling England By The Pound’, albums like that, you put them on, maybe you only intend to listen to a couple of songs, you almost can’t help yourself and they pull you in because they’re so well paced and constructed thematically. You just can’t help yourself and that is what we were trying to do with this one for sure.
Progradar: While the last few albums have all been veery good, to me, ‘The Likes Of Us’ has taken the band back to the heights of ‘The Underfall Yard’ and the ‘English Electric’ duo of releases, do you feel that you are firing on all cylinders and pushing that creativity again?
Greg: To be honest, I think we’re in a battle for survival, David (Longdon) was my musical brother, he was a hugely well loved character and an incredible singer and songwriter. You can’t lose a character like that without potentially losing the heart and soul of the band so, therefore, for us to try to do what we’re trying to do, to carry on and keep the heart of the band going, it is a battle for survival. I think that we can thrive and survive, I am very proud of this album, we sought to look at albums like the ones you mentioned (‘The Underfall Yard’ etc.), learn from what we did then and try and make sure that’s where we are.
One of the things that’s been really beneficial for me is Alberto’s attitude to this. This is a big deal for him as well, he was singing in Italy’s biggest progressive rock band, Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM), he wasn’t one of the older guys in the band, he wasn’t leading the band like he is in Big Big Train. It’s a big step for him and the way he’s put his heart and soul into it, the way he’s following in David’s footsteps without trying to be another David, on all those things, his judgment’s been very sound all the way through.
He’s had a huge impact on this album with songwriting and he’s mixed it with Rob Aubrey as well, that’s taken a big burden off my shoulders, I’ve been carrying this load for a long time. Without David I was kind of frightened that it would be just me, NDV (Nick D’Virgilio) and Rikard (Sjöblom) carrying the burden but we’ve got Alby, we’ve got Clare and Oskar, we’ve got the people that we need to keep things moving forward.
Progradar: Do you feel that the release of the album and the forthcoming tour is bringing the cathartic process to a close after David’s death?
Greg: It will never completely go away and neither should it, I still think of David every single day and I’m sure I always will. Grief is an interesting thing, time doesn’t heal but time certainly helps the scars close over a little bit. I think the thing with me, NDV and Rikard, the three that have been in the band the longest, we were thinking what else can we do, almost, we had that conversation about whether or not it’s right to continue or whether or not WE want to continue.
We’ve all put our hearts and souls into this, as David did, so we felt that we owed it to ourselves, and also to the memory of David, to try to carry on but what we didn’t want to was just to carry on and try to be David again. It had to be on our terms with a new singer who brought his own thing, his own talents in to it, so that’s how we’ve tried to move forward. Yes, it has been a cathartic experience but it will never completely go away, it just never will.
Progradar: The current line up seems extremely strong, does it have the longevity of the classic line-up and does it feel strange to be the last original member of the band?
Greg: It does feel strange in that respect, I’m the ‘old guy’ in the band from every aspect, I’m the oldest band member and I’m also the last person from the original line up, there’s also NDV from the re-booted line-up of 2009 of course. I don’t know how it makes me feel to be honest, I’m still carrying the torch for the band. The main thing is, does the music have integrity, does it still carry the hearts and souls and passions? it sounds like a pat answer but it has to have integrity.
I think you can sniff it, sniff if a band is either coasting or doesn’t have integrity in what they’re doing and I think that, on this album, the attention to detail, you can hear how carefully we crafted the material. People might come along and say that their affection for the band’s previous personnel is such that they can’t really go with the new line up, that’s fine, that’s up to them but I hope that they will at least listen and, if they do go, okay, that may not be for me but the band’s got integrity and it’s kept its soul.
Progradar: I think what you were saying there about integrity harks back to the Spotify generation. I use Spotify, 99% of the time for my running playlists but, if someone mentions to me or points out a record, things aren’t cheap anymore and I like buying vinyl. Therefore I’m not going to lay out £30 or £40 on something I haven’t heard, I will check it out on Spotify first and if I like it, then I’ll go buy it! There are certain artists who I have a history with, Big Big Train for instance, and I will buy most things they release without having heard the music.
Greg: I’m no different, there are a handful of bands whose music I will just buy, for a sense of loyalty, a sense of supporting them, Elbow is a good example. I will always buy their records, I haven’t connected as much with the last couple of records they’ve release as I have with some of their earlier stuff but I’ll still support them because they mean something to me as part of my being really.
I’m like you, I use Spotify as a sampling device, it’s a great way of just checking something out. There’s a wall of music out there now, especially for someone like you and the work you do in progressive rock, you must be inundated with stuff. You can’t not use Spotify to check things out otherwise you just end up going bankrupt frankly!
Progradar: Has signing with InsideOut put any requirements on you as a band where, before, the whole creative process and release was controlled by yourselves?
Greg: We signed with them cautiously, it was a big deal for me to actually to become a ‘grown up’ band and sign but they’ve been brilliant. I was so used to us being completely in control of our destiny and that was the fear, that we would lose some degree of control, they’ve been fantastic though. The thing is, Freddy (Palmer) and Thomas Waber, they knew who they were signing so they know what Big Big Train is all about, it’s that 70’s progressive rock vibe, historical songs, that sort of thing. They fully understand it and they understand our back story, that we’ve been used to doing things ourselves.
They’ve been incredibly respectful, will tell us what they think is right and, at the end of the day, they will make the decisions but they listen to us. I feel totally in partnership with them and they want us to do well, it helps them, as well as us, if we do well. InsideOut is part of Sony Music and Sony Japan have got completely behind the album and have had it all translated into Japanese, really pushing us there and maybe, someday, we’ll get out to Japan. We’re delighted with the relationship, people slag record labels off, sometimes for good reason but I couldn’t speak more highly of InsideOut.
Progradar: You said that Alberto has been brought into BBT not just as a vocalist but, also, for his musical skills and songwriting ability. Has this given an extra dimension when you create new music now or has he seamlessly filled the gap left by David?
Greg: I’ve got to the stage in my life where I’ve been through a couple of terrible tragedies recently, David passed away and my stepfather has had a nine month illness which killed him, you read about how dreadful long term illnesses can be and end of life care at the extreme end of that. I’ve been through a couple of very traumatic things in terms of the people around me that I love so I try to find things in life that are positive because I’ve been though so much that has been negative.
One of the positives is the relationship that I have developed with Alberto, he’s become a very dear friend, we’ve been writing songs together, we talk all the time. When we’re on the tour bus he and I get up early in the morning and we go for a walk together and we go and investigate things. We were at a museum, in Copenhagen I think it was, and we were bouncing ideas off each other about what we were seeing there. He’s very much become a musical soulmate and that’s not to diminish in any way, shape or form the relationship I had with David.
I just feel blessed, absolutely blessed, that I’ve got another person in my life, It’s a different relationship but it’s also a very important one. The relationships I’ve got with Rikard and NDV and all the others have all been important to me and I do need those people around me, I’m not a Steven Wilson, I need to bounce things off other people and discuss things with those around me to make the most of what I can do.
Progradar: It is the band’s first tour of the US, was that a difficult thing to organise logistically and how much are you looking forward to playing in the US?
Greg: Logistically everything is difficult to organise with Big Big Train! Along with all the other complexities of having an American drummer, a Swedish guitar player and all the rest, I then go and choose an Italian singer! Our manager was going, oh my god, no, please! It makes everything really hard and more expensive but you’ve got to go with the people you think are the right people to work with and every decision that’s been made with regard to the personnel in the band has been a good call and we’re multi-national and it’s expensive.
The States is a nightmare, it’s a nightmare because the United States government don’t make it easy for bands to get out there and most bands at our level can’t afford to do it, we can only just about afford to do it. As it did during the Covid era, it’s cost us something like ten thousand pounds in visas and also there’s the bureaucratic rigmarole to go up to the embassies and stuff like that. It’s not to be undertaken lightly, we’re going to lose money on that tour, ticket sales are kind of okay, they’re not amazing.
The States is a huge place, us Europeans, we all know it’s a continent but we still struggle to get our heads around quite how much of a continent it is! You’re not dealing with the UK, you’re dealing, effectively, with something the size of Europe and with all the challenges that gives you. It’s a big thing for us but all I can do is look back on the 70’s bands like Genesis, one of the stories I remember is that they played New York and they went down great, they thought they’d conquered America, of course, they hadn’t even started, they’d just dipped their toe in the water in one city in a huge country.
We’re going to try and go through that process if we can, the visas last for a year so, if we can, we’re going to try and get there twice in the year and see how it goes. We need to build the audience across the world, I have to be honest with you, my hunch is that the Cruise (To The Edge) is going to be just as important to playing the States in itself because I think most of the fans on the cruise are American so, hopefully, they enjoy us and go back and spread the word a bit.
Progradar: The band has always had a strong and supportive following in the UK, does playing live in the UK almost feel comfortable now? if that’s the right word?
Greg: The UK is definitely our biggest fanbase so it’s easy to connect with, it’s still very patchy though. We put the tour out there yesterday and it certainly looks like within a week or two the Manchester show will be sold out and Milton Keynes will be sold out but some of the others haven’t sold many tickets at all yet. Obviously, we’ve got a plan over the next six months to sell a lot more tickets, so we hope to get a number of shows sold out, we’ve got to reach regions in the UK that we haven’t been to before, we’re trying to do that. On the continent, we’ve only played one show in Italy, which is bonkers! We need to get there as well.
The truth is, the future of the band has to be an international thing, we need to be able to play across the world, we have to have listeners across the world because the progressive rock audience is dedicated, it’s hardcore but it’s thinly spread, unquestionably it is thinly spread. If we were a prog-metal band, I think we’d be able to access a bigger audience more easily but with the sort of music that we play, sort of 70’s style prog, it’s definitely harder. The UK is a great place to build from but we’ve got to spread the word across the world.
Progradar: Where is your favourite venue to play live?
Greg: My favourite so far has been Loreley because of the scale and the ‘prog’, when you’re on the stage, if a dragon flew past it wouldn’t surprise you! I also love the Boerderij, the Boerderij is brilliant, we’re doing a weekend residency there, so those two venues. The Boerderij is great because it is a brilliant, purpose built venue, the staff there are fantastic supporters of prog rock and the fans come out.
Progradar: Have you already started the creative process for the next album or are concentrating on this one (‘The Likes Of Us’) first?
Greg: No, we have, there’s lots of conversations about when we’re going to record it and where, as you know, this one was recorded in a room together, we’re going to do the same thing with the next album. There’s talk of it being a concept, or part of it will be a concept album, the management are a little wary about that, they’re like, please don’t do that!
We may smuggle in a bit of a concept, maybe half a concept album and then finish it off, I don’t know, we’re still talking about it. There’s lots of writing going on and I’m delighted that Rikard has written a nice long, chunky piece of music, we’re all looking forward to getting our teeth into it and it’s going to be a good thing.
Progradar: What do you see as the future of the band with all the talk about streaming and people not buying physical product as much anymore? I see BBT as a ‘physical’ band and have all the vinyl, you could say that this grates with the Spotify culture?
Greg: There’s definitely a clash of cultures there, the interesting thing is that the record companies own a significant proportion of the streaming sites so they know that’s the future, realistically. I just hope it can be a future that can incorporate the value of physical product, alongside the value of the ease of streaming.
I think the future for us in the next two or three years is we’re going to gig hard but I hope ‘The Likes Of Us’ is a successful album in terms of sales. We’ve had a couple of Top 40 albums in the UK and I think if we can sneak back into the Top 40 then I think it will feel like we’ve got momentum again. There’s a line in the album, ‘make the most of the light left in the day’ which is what we’re trying to do.
Progradar: I think it deserves to be a success, I think it’s up there with ‘The Underfall Yard’ and the ‘English Electric’ albums, I really do!
Greg: Thank you, it’s important, your word carries weight for people that aren’t sure. I’ve read a couple of responses to your review where people are saying, ‘that’s interesting, you obviously really believe in this album’. The reviews are important.
Progradar: Do you have a favourite track on the album or is that like asking you who is your favourite child?
Greg: It’s hard for me to answer that, on different days, different tracks hit me differently. Sometimes I get a big lift from a certain track, sometimes I get a bit of a wobbly lip from other tracks. I’m wimping out but I genuinely can’t say which of the eights track is my favourite.
Progradar; I find it very similar for myself, there’s times when it’s Beneath The Masts, because I love a prog epic but when I was listening to it as I was writing the review, the one that really stood out for me was, well there’s two, I love Love Is The Light, it’s up there with Curator Of Butterflies, in my opinion and then the other one that really hit me was Light Left In The Day. It’s a brilliant opening track, it’s just everything that I feel is brilliant about Big Big Train in one song.
Greg: Yes, it (Light Left In The Day) came together really well, it’s mostly written by Alby. It’s clever, he’s brought together most of the album motifs, which is a really difficult job to do and I added a little bit at the top of it, the ‘tailenders’ thing.
I think what I like about that is that is does set out our stall, you get a bit of 12 string and a vocal, so you hear Alby right at the top and then you get the brass band coming in and it’s like, whoa! there’s a little bit of warmth comes in.
I think the Big Big Train fans of old will be thinking, okay, I’m on steady ground here, and then you get this four minutes of kind of showy musicianship which a prog band does, like an overture thing. I agree, it’s a good starter, it kicks the album off well.
Progradar: Just one last question, recommend me an album that you like, that you are listening to at the moment?
Greg: Okay, I can do, a recent one, an album by The Twenty Committee.
Progradar: I think I wrote the first review of that!
Greg: Fantastic! I really, really like them, Geoffrey Langley is their main guy in the band. In fact, I said to him it reminds me a bit of the band UK and I don’t think he was particularly aware of UK. It’s got some fusion chops in it, he’s a really talented guy, that’s the album I’d recommend. I could say that Radiohead offshoot band but, no, this is a younger band as well, this is a fantastic album, I’m glad you asked that and I’m glad I get to mention them because I think they need to start making waves.
Progradar: So that concludes the questions, hopefully we’ll be able to catch up on the tour, I’m attending the Whitley Bay gig, thanks for your time, I really appreciate it.
Greg: Fantastic, we’ll definitely catch up there and, no problem, it’s been great to chat again.
‘The Likes Of Us’ is released on 1st March, 2024 and can be ordered here:
The band hit the road for the US, Europe and UK on 1st March, 2024 and tickets can be ordered here:
You can read my review of ‘The Likes Of Us’ here: