"There was a strong sense of catharsis. I had to blink away some tears": How Big Big Train picked up the pieces after tragedy

Big Big Train
(Image credit: Massimo Goina)

The river Stour meanders through the stunning Dorset countryside just 300 yards from Gregory Spawton’s door. Quietly brimming with fauna, flora and fungi, it’s one of the songwriter/ bassist’s favourite spots to meander, too; a place for rumination, or just to catch some vitamin D. 

One July day in 2023, Spawton’s constitutional took on extra significance. Excited but a little nervous, he put on his headphones and reached for his Sony MP3 Walkman, then pressed ‘Play’ on the final mixes of tracks for a new album by his band Big Big Train

The music unfolded, and the mixes were good – great, in fact – across a suite of songs remarkable for even existing, given what the group had experienced over the previous 20 months. “There was a strong sense of catharsis,” Spawton tells Classic Rock. “I had to blink away some tears.” 

After a time of calamity, sorrow and uncertainty, Big Big Train’s sixteenth studio album, The Likes Of Us, truly signposted their future. 

The band began in 1990 in Bournemouth. Spawton had graduated from Reading Uni with an archaeology degree and relocated to Wessex, and formed Big Big Train – as guitarist and keyboard player – with bassist Andy Poole. 

Two demo albums later, they’d signed to the Giant Electric Pea label owned by venerable neo-prog group IQ. Influenced by golden-era 70s prog such as Van der Graaf Generator, Genesis and King Crimson, alongside Marillion, It Bites and Prefab Sprout, the songs had dramatic themes ranging from history and mythology to childhood memories. Goodbye To The Age Of Steam in 1994 commenced a run of high-quality modern progressive rock albums exhibiting tight musicianship and ambitious arrangements, which reached an apogee with the Sean Filkins-fronted Gathering Speed (2004) and The Difference Machine (2007). 

In 2009, the line-up strengthened with Spawton settling into a bass role, and guitarist Dave Gregory (ex-XTC) and Spock’s Beard superstar drummer Nick D’Virgilio joining. “One of the cool things I liked about BBT was Greg’s vision, musicality, great songwriting and an unapologetic love of progressive rock,” D’Virgilio says. 

Filkins had left, so producer-engineer Rob Aubrey recommended Nottingham songwriter and multi-instrumentalist David Longdon to the group. Longdon had lost out on becoming Genesis’s vocalist in 1997, but forged on as a solo artist and lauded session player. His superb, soulful vocal and boundless creativity gave BBT – and the already high-achieving composer Spawton – wings. The band gained a legion of ardent fans who called themselves Passengers.

By Common Ground, album 13, released in July 2021, the band had their own label, English Electric Recordings, and were an award-winning, chart-tickling success. Although the seven members were spread across the globe, thanks to D’Virgilio’s “bitching and moaning, asking ‘Why can’t we play live?’” they finally convened and played some rapturously received shows, souped-up by a flat-capped, Colliery-style brass section, adding further grandeur to their cinematic storytelling.

Then, just as their new album Welcome To The Planet, slated for a January 2022 release, was being promoted, and with their first US shows planned, tragedy struck when, on November 20, 2021, David Longdon died following a catastrophic accident at home. The band, and Passengers, went into shock. For Longdon’s fiancée Sarah Louise Ewing, BBT’s official artist, her world collapsed. Spawton reeled from the sudden loss of his creative partner of more than 20 years, his friend, his “brother”. 

While deep in grief and emotional devastation, a practical question the band needed to address was: what was going to happen to Big Big Train? 

“Initially, I couldn’t contemplate the band continuing at all,” Spawton, says, shaking his head. “It took some time. And Sarah was important to the decision because David had spoken about this to her: ‘If something happens to me, the band must carry on’. I felt I had consent.” 

The next step was to speak with BBT’s ‘elders’: drummer Nick D’Virgilio, and Beardfish guitarist/ keyboard player/vocalist Rikard Sjöblom, a permanent member since 2015. Spawton made it clear that if either one of them had any reservations, then the band would cease. 

“David’s passing was just horrible,” says D’Virgilio. “We had so many plans. And David’s life had changed through meeting Sarah. We saw his self-worth grow, he was conquering long-standing fears. Then everything was taken away.” 

“Our friend had gone,” Spawton says, “but we’d all put our heart and soul into Big Big Train for the last decade or so, so we all felt: ‘Okay, let’s see if we can pick ourselves up, find a vocalist, go forward. And of course it was important to find the right guy.” 

Welcome To The Planet was released on January 28, 2022, a reluctant farewell to Longdon. On April 27, Alberto Bravin was introduced to the world as Big Big Train’s new frontman.


Bravin was an outsider, a fan of BBT’s music but one who’d never met Longdon or Spawton. Talent-spotting for a potential solo album, Spawton remembers seeing Bravin play with Italian proggers PFM at Camden’s Electric Ballroom in 2015. 

“I thought: ‘Who’s that young guy singing and playing keys at the back? He should be the frontman!’ I wrote ‘PFM keyboard guy’ on my phone. When we started looking for singers, I thought of him.” 

Spawton had to find out ‘PFM keyboard guy’’s name and track him down. With Bravin also on our Zoom interview call, Spawton is able to address him – who he calls Alby – directly. “It wasn’t that easy,” he says, “Alby wasn’t so into social media…” 

“You sent me a message on Facebook,” says Bravin. “And I didn’t reply [laughs].” 

But he did respond to a subsequent email, and sent demo vocals back for consideration. 

“I was listening to several people’s guide vocals, and my wife Kathy came in the room,” Spawton recalls. “Kathy isn’t a muso, or prog [fan], she just likes good music. She heard Alby and went: ‘Ooh, goosebumps.’ I knew I was on to something.’” 

PFM (Premiata Forneria Marconi), founded in 1970, are the biggest prog band in Italy; Bravin giving them up for BBT was a big deal, but a sacrifice he was ready to make. The multi-instrumentalist and engineer/producer had the opportunity to shape music created in a mould that he loved. In the 60s, Bravin’s father had worked as a waiter in London. Bravin grew up listening to his dad’s original Beatles records, as well as 60s Italian music with “great songs, arrangements and orchestras”. 

Bravin’s presence upped BBT’s Italian contingent, alongside Nick D’Virgilio “and my own Italian heritage,” says Spawton. Bravin’s appointment was warmly received by the majority of Passengers – they missed Longdon terribly, but trusted the band’s decision. His first shows with the band, that September, showcased the singer’s personality, and a look that was more hi-tops, skinny jeans and bomber jackets than tailoring. His training as an opera singer blended with an affection for metal; Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train became BBT’s intro music. Bravin carried BBT’s, and Longdon’s, flame in a congenial and kind-hearted manner that elicited a lot of emotion, alongside D’Virgilio’s touching tribute. Bravin was ‘the right guy’. 

Spawton, Bravin, D’Virgilio and Sjöblom were now at the centre of BBT, joined by violinist Clare Lindley, prog guitar favourite Dave Foster and 30-year-old Norwegian keyboard player Oskar Holldorff, from English Electric signing Dim Gray. The chemistry was undeniable, and led to a wealth of new material.

Ditching their usual MO of working remotely, in May 2023 the group “went old-school” and headed to Trieste, Bravin’s home town in Italy, and spent three weeks at Urban Recording making their new album, The Likes Of Us

It was a happy, harmonious time they spent in Trieste, with bonds deepening. D’Virgilio notes: “The life in the songs on that record is because we were in the same room, and there’s something pretty special about this bunch of people. It was a great vibe.” 

The Likes Of Us will gladden the hearts of Passengers, and anyone seeking adventurous, inviting rock songs with emotional heft. It begins with the gorgeous overture Light Left In The Day, which features Bravin’s voice from the get-go (“Alby is the new voice of Big Big Train, we couldn’t wait five or six minutes in to hear him”), followed by Oblivion, a Dave Foster/Nick D’Virgilio co-write that enabled BBT to “get the guitars out – we’re not a folk rock band!” Spawton says with a laugh. 

Seventeen-minute centrepiece Beneath The Masts was written on a cheap 12-string guitar bought by Spawton while living temporarily in Rome. It was an unwieldy song, informed by the death of his stepfather, which Bravin streamlined. 

“A lot has happened in my life in the last couple of years, and not a lot of that’s been positive,” Spawton explains. “This was a serious attempt to deal with grief and bereavement. I needed someone to enunciate these raw feelings.” 

“That was the most emotional vocal,” says Bravin, nodding. “With me, Greg and Fulvio in the room, we all just lost it.” 

From here we have the punchy, melodic slice of carpe diem that is Skates On, the wild, romantic story of Trieste’s famous castle folly, Miramare, and Bravin’s own Love Is The Light, speaking of a struggle with depression, the start of three songs about friendship. 

Bookmarks is where I talk directly about what happened with David,” Spawton says of this classic, BBT-style ballad. “I was incredibly low, and I had support from my wife and close family. But I found that my oldest childhood friends came to the fore and rallied round.”

Album closer The Last Eleven finds Spawton revisiting his school days, being picked for the cricket team – or not. “I was a weedy kid in the second, ‘extra’ team, the lowest of the lot. However, I was a secret weapon, a really good fast bowler [laughs]. This is about finding people on your wavelength, who stay with you for life.” 

When recording had been completed, Spawton – who’d normally guide the process from start to finish – stepped back to let Rob Aubrey and Bravin do the mixes. BBT were now signed to progressive music champions InsideOut (“I first met [founder] Thomas Waber in 1994,” says D’Virgilio. “Spock’s [Beard] was one of their first bands on the label. I’ve seen him grow that company from a little thing to having Dream Theater and Jethro Tull”). 

Everything they did was set to go up a level and continue the journey – records, touring, promotion, the works. They’ve embraced it wholeheartedly. But The Likes Of Us had to be right first, and that’s what Spawton listened for while on his river walk on that July day in 2023. 

“I wanted to capture the soul of the band,” says Spawton. “We’re going to evolve, but we’re rooted in seventies progressive rock and I didn’t want us to come adrift from our moorings. When I heard the mixes, I just went: ‘Wow. The boys have really nailed this.’” 

“I needed something in my life, a positive thing to face down the wall of pain,” he continues. “Finding Alby as a friend, a colleague, someone to create with and talk shit with has been important. It’s made me feel that this is a band I want to be in. There’s raw emotion on there, but a record we can deliver live. It’s about us, the band, the likes of us.” 

“It’s also about all the people who supported the band through the difficult times,” offers Bravin. “The likes of us, we are together.” 

The Likes Of Us is out now via InsideOut.

Jo Kendall

Jo is a journalist, podcaster, event host and music industry lecturer with 23 years in music magazines since joining Kerrang! as office manager in 1999. But before that Jo had 10 years as a London-based gig promoter and DJ, also working in various vintage record shops and for the UK arm of the Sub Pop label as a warehouse and press assistant. Jo's had tea with Robert Fripp, touched Ian Anderson's favourite flute (!), asked Suzi Quatro what one wears under a leather catsuit, and invented several ridiculous editorial ideas such as the regular celebrity cooking column for Prog, Supper's Ready. After being Deputy Editor for Prog for five years and Managing Editor of Classic Rock for three, Jo is now Associate Editor of Prog, where she's been since its inception in 2009, and a regular contributor to Classic Rock. She continues to spread the experimental and psychedelic music-based word amid unsuspecting students at BIMM Institute London, hoping to inspire the next gen of rock, metal, prog and indie creators and appreciators.