For a band based in England who have a drummer living hundreds of miles away in the States, a guitarist over in Sweden and a 17-year void since their last gig, Big Big Train have got it surprisingly good at the moment. And it seems founding member Greg Spawton, who has seen the band peak and trough over the last 25 years, is inclined to agree. “There’s a nice buzz about things for us at the moment,” he reflects. “Long may it continue.”
The prog-folk-rockers are on a high after releasing the impressively rich album double whammy of English Electric Part One and Part Two a few years ago, and they’re most certainly not resting on their proverbial laurels.
Their latest effort, the four-track EP Wassail, mines into English folk influences without losing any of the band’s 70s prog flamboyancy. It acts as something fresh to chew on for those who eagerly clutch tickets for Big Big Train’s trio of sold-out London gigs in August – their first live shows in almost two decades – as well as a bridge to their next full-length effort, the impending Folklore.
“As soon as the gigs are out of the way, it’s really about getting our heads down and finishing the new album,” Spawton says. “That’s part of the reason why we did the EP. Unless you’re selling millions of albums, you can’t afford to sit back and take time off – you have to be working all the time.”
The EP includes three new songs and a live recording of 2009 track Master James Of St George, and it’s a tip-top fusion of grand storytelling and prog chops. With the eight-piece’s output over recent years proving pretty potent, you have to wonder why Big Big Train’s last gig was at a festival way back in the late 90s. But the tantalising allure of creating lush, multi-layered instrumentation in the studio put the stage to the back of their collective mind.
“I loved the recording process,” says singer David Longdon about Wassail. “It’s the only time in my life where I feel like I’m in my element: I come alive when I’m recording. It’s why I’m on the planet, really. And I like progressive rock because it’s like having a musical TARDIS – you can send it anywhere, you can do anything. As long as you have a story to tell, you can go into any style, any genre.”
I like progressive rock because it’s like having a musical TARDIS – you can send it anywhere, you can do anything.
One of the integral reasons why the group – who include ex-Spock’s Beard drummer Nick D’Virgilio, Beardfish’s Rikard Sjöblom and former XTC man Dave Gregory – have eschewed the live circuit is the logistics of translating their big, big (yes, pun very much intended) sound onto the stage. But their London gigs will finally put that right, with a brass section and strings joining in on the live fun too. So has the long wait to play live been frustrating?
“I think any musician has an urge to get under the spotlight,” Spawton admits. “I’m not particularly a performer, but I get the itch. However, the main thing I’m interested in is songwriting, so provided I’m writing and recording and releasing material, I’m relatively happy. Having said that, over the last one or two years, I think the live thing has become something that we’re all very much looking forward to. It’s definitely an itch we want to scratch now.”
The itch has been getting harder to ignore for years, but at least they’ve had records to keep their minds occupied. The first album under the Big Big Train name came with Goodbye To The Age Of Steam in 1994, but line‑up changes in the late 2000s marked a revival of sorts for the group. Big Big Train v2.0, if you will.
“We started off in 1990 as a live band and did the usual thing of trying to build a following with gigs and support slots, and then during the late 1990s or early 2000s, we became a studio project, to be honest,” Spawton says. “When we rebooted the band in 2009, our main interest had always been songwriting – and the albums put our songs out there to people – so I don’t think we were particularly thinking about live performances.”
Meanwhile, the title track of the EP, Wassail, is spurred on by lyrics such as ‘Return to the womb/Deep down in the earth/Wait for the spring rebirth’; pastoral, folky storytelling indeed.
“I’m always looking for stories,” Spawton affirms. “David is the same. We’re interested in historical stories, or just stories from the landscape, things all around us…”
“The next album is called Folklore, but it’s not just about the past,” Longdon adds. “It’s about the fact that we carry around folklore with us, and that we make our own folklore. We have our own modern folk heroes that come out of different mediums. You’re doing it now – you’re turning us into sort of folk heroes, I guess, by journalism. It’s a word-of-mouth thing.”
Big Big Train’s next record is currently slated for an early 2016 release, and it seems that this current core line‑up, which is given extra vitality by violin and flute, will not be slowing down any time soon. The destination – the final stop – seems very far away indeed.
“The day we feel we don’t surpass ourselves, that’s the day that we stop going,” Longdon reflects. “The difference this time is that we recorded the drums for the EP at [Peter Gabriel’s studio] Real World. It has given it a really fantastic drum sound, and that’s inspired the performances. It’s more muscular, and far more focused and honed in. I think it’s a leaner machine, and it works in a more economical fashion. We know what we sound like and we know that’s our thing. We know who we are now.”
_Wassail is out now on English Electric. See http://www.bigbigtrain.com for details. _