“Life is to be lived, and lived well… there’s a feeling of carpe diem across the whole album”: Big Big Train loaded Grand Tour with intergalactic ambitions

Big Big Train in 2019
(Image credit: Press)

With their 2019 album Grand Tour, Big Big Train took the listener on a fascinating expedition through history and art. As the British band continued their rise to the top of the UK prog scene, co-founder Gregory Spawton and late frontman David Longdon told Prog their story so far.

July 8, 1822, Italy. The body of Percy Bysshe Shelley washes up on the shores of the Gulf Of La Spezia. Shelley’s boat, Don Juan, was caught in a sudden storm and he drowned.

Shelley was one of the great Romantic poets of the age, a shooting star whose journey had taken him from sleepy Horsham and English manners to fame, notoriety and, ultimately, tragedy, half a continent away. He wasn’t even 30 when he died, but his name still echoes two centuries later...

November 1, 1611, London, England. The first recorded performance of William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest takes place at Whitehall Palace in Westminster. This dreamlike fable sets rationality against magic on an unnamed island in the Adriatic. 

At the play’s denouement, one of its central characters, the spirit Ariel, is freed from imprisonment by the island’s magician-ruler Prospero, to ride the air until the end of his days, a metaphysical journey of a different kind...

August 20, 1977, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The Voyager 2 probe is launched. Then, 16 days later, its twin, Voyager 1, follows it into the furthest-flung reaches of this galaxy and beyond – the greatest journey in the history of humankind.

Both probes carry copper records containing information about their home planet: music, sounds, images. The spacecraft are due to lose contact with Earth sometime in the 2020s, though scientists say that they may potentially re-enter the solar system 250 million years in the future, completing an almost unimaginable loop…

Those three journeys are very different yet fundamentally the same. All three are intertwined on Big Big Train’s new album, Grand Tour, a musically bold and conceptually dazzling masterpiece that establishes the seven-piece as one of the pre-eminent progressive rock bands of the 21st century.

It takes the idea of the journey – physical, spiritual, intellectual, metaphorical – as its central conceit, spinning off into any number of wondrous and intricately structured worlds, real and imagined.

“It’s physical travel – physically going out of your environment and experiencing different cultures,” says David Longdon, Big Big Train’s singer/flautist/multi-instrumentalist. “But there’s also the idea of travel in terms of time and longevity: things lasting through time, things voyaging through time.”

Greg and I are both 53 and we’re at the point where we want to enjoy what we have while we’ve got it

David Longdon

BBT’s own journey has brought them today to Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios, a beautiful converted mill set in a bucolic valley a few miles outside Bath. Or at least it’s brought Longdon and bassist/founder Greg Spawton here. The singer is working on an extra-curricular project – a collaborative album with Judy Dyble. When Prog arrives, he’s laying down the foundations of a new song, the folky, Gabriel-esque Obedience, as Dyble sits and takes notes.

“It’s a fantastic place. The isolation means there are no distractions,” says Spawton as he gives Prog a guided tour of Real World’s grounds via paths, ponds and a giant greenhouse-come-potting shed on a miniature hillock that turns out to be Gabriel’s writing room. “We’ve never met him,” says Spawton with a twinge of disappointment. “I don’t think he spends much time down here these days.”

Big Big Train themselves have plenty of history of their own at Real World. They’ve recorded parts of all of their recent albums here, using the large main studio and the more intimate wood room to capture different aspects of their sound. It’s here, too, that they filmed Stone And Steel, the live DVD that would act as a precursor to their landmark 2015 shows at Kings Place in London, a pivotal moment in the band’s history.

Ironically, given our very English surroundings, Grand Tour is the least Anglocentric album Big Big Train have made, thematically at least. Previous albums have looked inwards, weaving conceptual webs inspired by the culture, folklore, society and great figures these isles have produced. This time they’re turning their gaze outwards, looking towards far horizons – both real and imagined – for inspiration.

“The grand tour was a 19th-century tradition of young people of means going off into Europe to travel and experience life,” says Longdon, his day’s work done, as the three of us settle on a sofa in one of the studio’s many lounges. “In many cases, it was pretty much people going out and sowing their oats before they came back to the drudgery of marriage and inheriting titles and things like that.”

“This was post-Renaissance, after the scientific revolution,” adds Spawton. “In theory it was partly a way of understanding the classical history of Europe. In reality, it was a bit of a riot.”

I wouldn’t want us to get locked into a two- or three-year period of madness in British political history, which will one day feel very tired. This is a timeless album

Gregory Spawton

The idea of travel and momentum – if not riotous behaviour – provides the spine that runs through Grand Tour. Theodora In Green And Gold takes as its basis the real-life story of a 6th-century Byzantine bear-trainer’s daughter, who rose to become the most powerful leader in the history of the Roman Empire. The Florentine was inspired after Longdon viewed Leonardo Da Vinci’s handwritten notes in a museum exhibition in his native Nottingham (Roman and Italian culture deeply inform several of the album’s songs).

Penultimate track Voyager goes even further, using the eponymous spacecrafts’ travels as an allegory for mankind’s grandest ambition, and also its ultimate destiny. But perhaps the most revealing song on the album is Alive. At just under five minutes, it’s one of the shortest tracks, but it bristles with a sense of joy and urgency.

“Life is to be lived, and lived well, and it’s up to us to experience the time we have,” says Longdon. “Greg and I are both 53, and we’re at the point in our lives where we want to enjoy what we have while we’ve got it. There’s definitely a feeling of carpe diem in that song – and across the whole album.”

There’s a defiance there too, not least in the very first line that Longdon sings on opening track Novum Organum: ‘For science and for art.’ Those five words act as a guiding light for the album. It’s a resolutely intellectual message – one that’s at odds with prevalent cultural and political trends.

In fact, given its timing and its desire for exploration of cultures and ideas beyond the borders of the British Isles, Grand Tour could be read as an anti-Brexit album. It’s a suggestion Spawton bats away instantly. “There’s no political message to it at all,” he says. “It’s about people, it’s about culture, it’s about learning, it’s about discovery.

“My background is in archaeology and I’m very aware that we, as humans, have incredibly narrow time frames in terms of things we consider to be important. Whatever you think of Brexit, this album has a much longer time period – it stretches from the Romans through to 250 million years in the future, when the Voyagers could potentially return to this area of space. I wouldn’t want us to get locked into a two- or three-year period of madness in British political history, which will one day feel very tired. This is a timeless album.”

Andy Poolw and I stuck together through thick and thin for a long time… his departure was a bit like a divorce

Gregory Spawton

In other respects, it’s a very timely one – Grand Tour arrives at a crucial point in Big Big Train’s career. It’s the first album without founding guitarist Andy Poole, the only other member aside from Spawton who’d been with the band since their inception in 1990.

“Andy and I stuck together through thick and thin for a long time,” says Spawton. “In recent years, we grew apart and it became clear that Andy had a different vision for the band to the one that David and I share. His departure was a bit like a divorce in that there was a fair bit of unhappiness for a while. I assume he has now retired from music and we wish him the best of luck for any future endeavours.”

It’s not all about absences, though. This year also marks the 10th anniversary of The Underfall Yard, the first Big Big Train album to feature Longdon and a watershed for the band. Tomorrow, the pair will begin recording a new track, Brew And Burh, for inclusion on an anniversary edition of the album, which is also set to feature a rerecording of The Underfall Yard’s 23-minute title track alongside the existing version.

“A ‘burh’ is an Anglo-Saxon settlement,” says Spawton of the new song’s title. “And brew is obviously a cup of tea. I was trying to find a slightly more poetic way of saying ‘tea and history’.”

“It’s about the companionship of the seven of us,” adds Longdon. “It’s the story of the band and the fans.”

On the surface, the two men appear completely different. Spawton is measured and professorial, Longdon more energetic and more demonstrative. But they’re flipsides of the same coin, not least when it comes to the band: both equally passionate and simpatico in their view of everything from what Big Big Train stand for to the musical and lyrical themes that connect their songs and albums.

I thought, ‘Fuck this, I’ve been dabbling with this band for so long and I owe myself an attempt to achieve big things’

Gregory Spawton

Ironically, the two men had no idea who the other was prior to that. Spawton had founded Big Big Train at the start of the 90s with Poole, releasing a string of albums with a rotating cast of musicians, taking it seriously but never too seriously. Spawton describes the band as “a hobby for the first decade – a very expensive hobby.”

Longdon himself had charted a more wayward career path. He began playing flute for a folk rock band at the age of 14, before passing through numerous bands and getting burned at the hands of various labels (he even auditioned for the vacant role of Genesis singer in the 1990s). The turning point came when he recorded vocals for two tracks on The Old Road, the swansong album by Martin Orford, IQ keyboard player and founder of Big Big Train’s then-label Giant Electric Pea.

It was GEP’s in-house engineer, Rob Aubrey, who spotted Longdon’s talent and joined two dots that no one knew needed joining. “Rob rang me that evening and said, ‘I’ve got the guy that will lift your band up several levels,’” recalls Spawton. “We had a singer [Sean Filkins] at the time, and I’m quite a loyal person by nature so I was a little bit sceptical. We spent several weeks, if not months, talking on the phone, just chatting to each other twice a week.”

BBT were already on an upward trajectory, benefitting from both the work they’d already put in and a slow but steady resurgence of interest in prog. But it was what Spawton describes “as a bit of a health scare” that prompted him to seize the moment and ask Longdon to join.

“It was a carpe diem moment,” he says now. “I thought, ‘Fuck this, I’ve been dabbling with this band for so long and I owe myself an attempt to achieve big things.’ At that point it was just for my songs to be heard more widely. I didn’t even know that David was a songwriter at that point.” 

The first three albums they released with Longdon – The Underfall Yard and the two-part English Electric set – each built on its predecessor, artistically and commercially. Big Big Train slotted neatly into the heritage of classic British progressive rock, a bridge between the genre’s illustrious past (Genesis and Yes were clearly an influence) and its increasingly bright future. In Longdon, they finally had a singer whose voice and songwriting matched their ambition.

Big Big Train is not a run-of- the-mill thing. It’s different just by the very nature of what we do. And we decided to approach it like that

David Longdon

What they didn’t have was any shows under their belt. The last time BBT had played a gig was in 1997, at the now-demolished Astoria in central London. Spawton had subsequently considered it, but any number of factors had prevented it from happening, from the cost of getting a large, multi-national band together to a reluctance to “drive hundreds of miles to play a gig for 20 people.” He admits that there was an element of fear, too.

“Andy, particularly, was extremely worried that we built a good reputation and we were selling quite a few albums in an era when it’s not easy to sell albums – and that we were potentially going to damage the brand by not being great live,” says Spawton.

“When I joined, the band were in the red,” says Longdon. “We did fantasise about doing something live, but we knew it would need a small army to do it. Which it has done!”

Were they not tempted to do it on a smaller scale? “What’s the point?” replies Longdon. “I’ve done gigs on a smaller scale, and, let’s put it like this, joining a rock band is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Big Big Train is not standard. It’s not a run-of- the-mill thing. It’s different just by the very nature of what we do. And we decided to approach it like that.”

That changed in August 2014, when they recorded Stone And Steel here at Real World. That performance would be a dry-run for three shows the following year at Kings Place, an arts hub near King’s Cross station in London. Those shows bagged the band a Prog Award for Best Live Event. Since then, they’ve played five more shows: three at London’s Cadogan Hall in 2017, one at The Anvil in Basingstoke and a headlining appearance at the Night Of The Prog Festival at Loreley, Germany.

“That was a real challenge for us,” says Spawton of the latter. “We were playing to an audience that wasn’t our own, and it was very much, ‘Will this work? Will we fall flat?’ It was a high wire act, but we won people over.”

We spent a long time slaving over what we do – we’ll do what we do in our time, and we’ll do it as well as we can

Gregory Spawton

It also changed something within Big Big Train themselves. Fittingly, given the title and theme of their new album, they undertake their first tour this year – six UK shows this October. Granted, it’s hardly up there with Dylan’s Never Ending Tour in terms of scale, but it’s still a huge step for this once gig-shy band – and a hugely expensive one.

“Putting a band the size that we are on tour, you’re probably looking at six-figure sum,” says Spawton. “It’s not something to be undertaken lightly. But we feel like we’re investing in our own future. We’re not sitting here thinking, ‘How can we penny pinch to make a few hundred quid more?”

The impressive thing about Big Big Train’s success is that it’s all been on their own terms. Theirs is a self-contained mini-music industry in which they remain masters of their own destinies.

“In the last two years, we’ve had every major label in progressive rock get in touch with us,” says Spawton. “We’ve been politely disinterested in them all, because we’re stubborn bastards.

“I don’t want some label telling us when we can or can’t release an album so that it fits in with their release window. We spent a long time slaving over what we do – we’ll do what we do in our time, and we’ll do it as well as we can.”

Almost 30 years after their journey started, Big Big Train continue to move forwards and upwards, gaining momentum, mass and experience as they do it. Long may their own grand tour continue.

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.