Big Big Train’s distillation of prog rock is so striking and colourful that Classic Rock once declared it “the equivalent of the opening ceremony of the London Olympics”. Current album Folklore is their ninth, its original, happy-go-lucky feel the product of eight personalities and a dedication to the art of storytelling which they’ve cultivated over more than 25 years.
With the band members scattered around the globe (England, USA, Sweden…), Big Big Train live shows are understandably rare. They are also impressive – last summer’s three London gigs helped the band join David Gilmour, Steven Wilson and King Crimson as nominees for Best Live Event in this year’s Prog magazine awards. No mean feat.
Forming a prog band in 1991 was a dicey career move.
It was a love of It Bites and XTC (whose former guitarist, Dave Gregory, is a member of BBT] that inspired bassist/sole original member Greg Spawton to start the group. Gigs were hard to come by in those pre-internet days, and after selling only “a couple of thousand copies” of their second album, English Boy Wonders, BBT were dropped by their independent record label, GEP.
Getting the right people is vital.
“We persisted due to stubbornness,” Spawton admits. The arrivals in 2009 of frontman David Longdon and ex-Spock’s Beard drummer Nick D’Virgilio would take the band to the next level. Longdon had lost out narrowly to Ray Wilson as the replacement for Phil Collins in Genesis. “There’s enough in our music to give a tantalising glimpse of what might have happened had I got the job,” he believes.
“I once tried to hand Peter Gabriel a flyer of ours, without recognising who he was,” Spawton says, laughing. “He didn’t take it.”
Like Gabriel, Longdon uses props to enhance the live show, and the timbre of his voice resembles Gabriel’s. “Those comparisons were a curse when I was younger, but I’m more comfortable with them now,” he says.
There’s nothing wrong with being a cottage industry.
BBT have their own label, English Electric Recordings, manage their own career and self-promote their shows. And they wouldn’t have it any other way. Living far apart, getting everyone in a room together is expensive and Spawton acknowledges that it’s a business. “But we are wilfully our own men,” Longdon adds. “I don’t mind failure, but it’s easier to live with your own mistakes than somebody else’s.”
Big Big Train are on a mission to bring back prog.
Despite the presence of a Swede (Rikard Sjöblom of Beardfish) and an American (D’Virgilio) in the line-up, BBT’s music is quintessentially bucolic and English – like the soundtrack to sitting outside a riverside pub on a warm summer afternoon, pint of cider in hand, faithful hound asleep at one’s feet.
“What could be better than those things?” Longdon says, smiling. “We are not a folk band or a rock band, although there are elements of both of those things to what we do. There’s no misunderstanding here; we are a prog-rock band, and we are proud to be one.”
In terms of lyrics, they’re a hobbit-free zone.
Bucking the stereotype, BBT tell less fantastical tales of derring do. Their songs are based on fighter pilots, steam trains, racing drivers, the Salisbury Giant and, in the case of the new album’s Winkie, the true story of a heroic wartime career pigeon.
“We visit a lot of museums, we’ve also found ideas on tombstones,” Spawton says of their inspiration. “But we try to put our own spin onto those stories – to find a human angle.”
The Big Big Train is only just leaving the station.
The snowballing experiences of their last few albums have made the band reassess their goals. Although they refuse to hand things over to a manager or a record label, their ambitions are lofty. “We want to make amazing music,” says Longdon. “And the next step is a huge concept album that will be out in a couple of years.
“The next step is to move into thousand-seater venues,” he adds, laughing. “Greg and I are fifty years old, there’s no time to mess around.”