Sunday 29 August 2010

The meaning of life & death, being dumped and sleigh bells!

"Why don't you just call it an album then?" is a question that Greg, Andy and I have been asked a lot recently. I suppose the Far Skies Deep Time e.p is quite lengthy as far as e.p duration goes. That's not a bad thing though in these harsh times is it?

The Far Skies Deep Time e.p is not intended to be the follow up album to The Underfall Yard. I know it may be considered to be so because it has been released directly after TUY but as far as Big Big Train is concerned. It's not.

In our opinion the e.p contains some of our best work to date and it has given us the opportunity to stretch out and explore some different areas. It has been a highly enjoyable experience all round.

If you've followed my last two blog entries, you'll know that The Wide Open Sea is a supernatural tale, featuring a trace of the late Jacques Brel. It is merely intended to be a ripping yarn, a fantasy story and that is all. 

I would like to point out that we, Big Big Train have written this piece out of respect for the work and legacy of Jacques Brel.

The Jacques in our piece is a trace. I am not implying any religious connotations of any sort here. Our Jacques' situation in the piece does not represent purgatory of any kind. The Jacques featured in The Wide Open Sea is preserved in energy form from the intense life force of Jacques Brel, burned into and then suspended in the elements. Like a sophisticated recording, playing and replaying.

Jacques despite his suspicions is unaware of what he is. If you think this is an unfortunate and cruel condition to be in, then consider the predicament of our own human condition aboard this spinning rock, orbiting the sun. We may find comfort in spirituality, family, friends and to a lesser or greater extent, material things but we're really none the wiser as to why we're here - and what 'here' actually is in the larger context of .... 'what?'

Moving on then....

Brambling is a song that is as old as the hills. It is a song of life and concerns a certain rite of passage that sooner or later we all experience.

'And this wound that hurts you so,
Is the hurt you need to grow.'

I endeavored to give the lyrics an 'ancient wisdom' feel to them. It is a song concerning the first time we fall in love with someone and the inevitable heartbreak we feel when it ends. Although it pains us, it is this experience which helps us to grow emotionally.

British Racing Green is a song that Greg has had 'in progress' for ages. Sometimes that's just the way it is. Occasionally it's possible to sit down and everything will come together quickly. Other songs take a while to reveal their true identity.

Greg and Andy sent me the audio file and I set to work. I noticed the lyric points out that the song is set during christmas time.


Okay.... it's going to be a Big Big Train Christmas song then! Bring on the sleigh bells The Poole!

Andy 'The Poole' Poole,  David Longdon adding sleigh bells to British Racing Green
Aubitt Studio: Southampton: July 2010
Sleigh bells kindly loaned by my daughters.
Photograph by Amy Mumford

Don't despair regular BBT spotters, It's not going to be a happy christmas by any means. British Racing Green is a lovely tune. I added a bass part to the chorus, a choir, theremin, plucked strings, flute and delivered the vocal in a sighing manner. The end result sounds something like Prefab Sprout covering 10cc's I'm Not In Love, produced by Todd Rundgren

The e.p is being mixed as I write this post. Jim has (once again) done some great images for the artwork.

You'll not have much longer to wait until the arrival of Far Skies.....

Thanks for your encouraging comments you've sent in to me after reading my blog. I hope it helps to keep you all in the loop.



Sunday 22 August 2010

The Wide Open Sea: Part.2

The Wide Open Sea comprises of eight sections. Here is a brief account of their contents:-

Part 1: The Sea Is My Blood
An atmospheric introduction conveys dazzling sunlight, playing across the surface of the restless ocean, the tumbling power of the crashing waves then at other times, the pummeling rain and the fathoms beneath.

Jacques is aboard The Askoy. He feels at one with the sea, the rain and stars. 

Part 2: From Cradle To Calvary
He is voyaging to Les Marquises islands. It is a highly emotional time for Jacques because he knows that his remaining time is short. He has deliberately occupied his thoughts with the physical tasks of navigating and sailing these waters and also inevitably allowing himself to reflect upon his achievements in his remarkable life.

Jacques feels as though the intensity of his thoughts are somehow scoring a deep mark across the very canvas of life itself! Such is his passion.

However, he suspects something is profoundly wrong with his situation but he can't put his finger on what it is. Despite his grim prognosis, he feels bursting full of life out here at sea but still he wonders... how can that possibly be?

Part 3: The Pleasures And The Dreams of Men
Jacques recalls playing to packed out audiences in Paris 1964. He remembers the zenith of his fame, those intense performances and the profound impact he made. His physical delivery and the acting out of each character and story. The making of a myth and the building of his legend.

David Longdon recording the Accordion for 'The Pleasures and the Dreams of Men'
Aubitt Studio, Southampton: July 2010
Photograph by Amy Mumford

Part 4: The Harbour Lights
Jacques draws inspiration from the people and sings directly to us.  His songs contain acute observations of how we live. He reflects our lives, our hopes, fears and dreams and we recognise ourselves in his music. Jacques fully understands and accepts the responsibility of what he represents.

He finds poetry in the lives of the young, the old, the foolish, the brave, the beautiful, the ugly, the poor and the wealthy alike, as each of us play out our given time on the carousel of life.

Part 5: Far Beyond The Cardinal Points
Jacques has increasing suspicions that all is not as it should be. How long exactly has he been at sea? He feels strangely absent and yet entirely present. How can this be?

Part 6: I'm So Very Far From Here
There are points on his voyage when Jacques feels so far removed from himself, his home, his life and those he has loved and those who have loved him.

How can he recall so much and in such vivid detail? It is as if he is physically present in these scenarios. How does he know he is bound for Calvary?

Part 7: Let Us Speak Of Love
Jacques knows it will not be long before his life comes to an end. He concludes that whatever his circumstances, the most essential thing is to have lived life, to have made a difference to the lives of others,  to have loved and to be loved in return.

Exactly at this point, Jacques experiences a deja vu moment and gently the edges begin to soften and blur once again as a slow comforting forgetfulness descends......

The ache in his chest reins him back in once more, back to his duties aboard the Askoy and his recollections.

Part 8: Calvary - The Sea Is My Blood (Reprise)
What Jacques has an inkling of but does not actually know is this....

Jacques Brel est Mort!

The Jacques Brel featured in The Wide Open Sea is not really Jacques Brel at all. Jacques Brel died in 1978 and is buried in Calvary cemetery. 'Our' Jacques was created from the powerful life force ebbing from the 'real' Jacques whilst he sailed his last voyage to Les Marquises.

Forever cauterised and suspended by magnetic fields, held within the elements. Some may say he is a spectre, an apparition or merely just another ghost story from the wide open sea.

Jacques is a trace*. A residue left behind. Fated to be forever played and replayed over and over. Aware and yet unaware. Here and yet elsewhere.

Jacques is still out there...

Still so far away from himself...

One with the sea, the rain and the stars...

*Trace. Now then BBT fans. Heads up! This is important! What we have here is a seed and from this seed has grown our Big Big Thing! (Shhhhhh.................... not a word to anyone!.....................)

Saturday 14 August 2010

The Wide Open Sea: Part.1

"After this, I don't think we'll be doing another epic! At least not on this scale...." 
So said Big Big Train collectively to themselves during the final moments of the vocal tracking sessions for The Underfall Yard in the summer of 2009.

After completing the album we embarked on some collaborative songwriting and one of the first pieces Andy Poole thought had possibilities was a huge sprawling atmospheric track with the working title of The Wide Open Sea. From the off it was destined to be a huge undertaking.

Brel Book & Candle
The Wide Open Sea lyrics, vibraphone, banjo and Brel book:  All good to go! 
Far Skies Deep Time e.p sessions: Aubitt Studio Southampton UK: July 2010
Photograph: Amy Mumford July 2010

Big Big Train spotters out there will know that The Difference Machine already contains a track called From The Wide Open Sea. When you hear TWOS for the first time the association between the two pieces is apparent. FTWOS is a segment taken from TWOS.

Greg had read an article concerning the last years in the life of legendary Belgian singer/ songwriter Jacques Brel and thought it would make a good subject for a piece of music. TWOS was to be about the time Jacques spent aboard his boat The Askoy II.  In 1973 Brel had begun to sail the world but when he reached the Canary Islands he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. He went to Paris to receive treatment and then eventually returned aboard The Askoy to resume his voyage. Brel later arrived at Les Marquises Islands. He recorded one last album in 1977 called Les Marquises.  Jacques died on 9th October 1978 aged 49 and was buried next to the grave of Paul Gauguin at Calvary CemeteryAtuonaHiva Oa, Les Marquises (French Polynesia).

The title of the song is taken from a line found in Mort Schuman's translation of Brel's Amsterdam.

"In the port of Amsterdam
There's a sailor who sings
Of the dreams that he brings
From the wide open sea..."

I received the raw files from The Poole in the autumn of 2009 and was instructed... 
"Do what you want with it. Let's see what happens..." 

It didn't neccessarily have to be about Jacques Brel at all but I liked Greg's idea. This is a fine example of the many similar interest that we share in common. I have been a great admirer of Brel for many years and I've spent a great deal of time in France, where his legacy is still quite rightly revered. I also have several albums of his material and have enjoyed interpretations of his work by the likes of Scott Walker, David Bowie, Marc Almond, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band and many others. So the opportunity to write a song about Brel's time on board The Askoy was something that caught my imagination immediately.

I researched Jacques' life and death. Listened back once again to his music and watched live footage of his electrifying vintage performances where each song is melodramatically played out. He does not waste a single note and he delivers each line as though his life depends upon it. 

TWOS moves through several different sections so the idea of having each section representing episodes in Jacques' life seemed to be the right way to go.

I tried to keep as many of Greg's sparse guide lyrics as possible. They made a sort of weird sense and captured the spirit of Jacques at sea. The sections came together and I wrote my lyrics around these isolated pieces.

As the track began to take shape I noticed that the timeline of the track was unusual. The thread of the narrative was unsettling. How could Jacques (in our song) know all of these things about his life,  even his own death when he was on board The Askoy and had not yet died?

One Saturday morning I was having breakfast with my daughters and we were listening to a rough mix I'd done to track the progress of the song.

'What's this Dad?" said my eldest daughter "It sounds like ghosts!"


That's it!

The Wide Open Sea will be a ghost story!

TWOS clocks in at approximately 17 minutes, give or take a few seconds and so BBT once again find themselves in epic land but this particular epic is a different beast to The Underfall Yard

Stay tuned.

To be continued...

Saturday 7 August 2010

Good Vibrations

We (BBT) spent the 30th and 31st of July in the good company of  Rob Aubrey at Aubitt Studio in Southampton, recording vocals etc for our new Far Skies Deep Time e.p.

David Longdon: Far Skies Deep Time e.p sessions: Aubitt Studio, Southampton UK: July 2010
Photograph by: Amy Mumford

Friday saw the arrival of the vibraphone! What a clever thing it is too - instant Vision On, gallery browsing music. Those of you old enough will immediately understand me, while younger readers without the aid of Wikipedia will wonder what on earth I'm talking about.

We loved having a proper vibraphone in the studio, possibly because of the whole adventure of sourcing one in the first place! The Poole and I tried very hard indeed to make sure we had one for the session.

We tried everywhere. I tried my local music provision and was asked,
"Do you want one with a working motor?"
"Yes, of course" I replied "why would I want one without a fully functional motor?"
Unsurprisingly in the health and safety conscious 21st Century, it all boils down to risk assessment for heavens sake!

You may well roll your eyes but if the modern hirsute youth in the haste of ... er youth,  happens to stand too close to that whirring vibraphone motor, there may be a danger of their hair becoming entangled in the rotating machinery.......... I know, I know but you can't be too careful....... can you?

Eventually after much enquiry and hard slog, The Poole eventually bagged one! What a trooper! Hat's off to Andy.

It was a non-collapsible vibraphone though! Quite tricky to negotiate through studio doors but eventually it was positioned close by the Aubitt sink unit, facing the control room.

After initial scepticism (why don't you just use a keyboard preset, audio instrument or samples? etc ) worries were  consoled by the wonderful noise generated by the vibraphone. The sound is truly magical. It shimmers and swirls. It blends and blurs magnificently.

At this point you may be asking yourself...

"Hang on a minute, why are a progressive rock band using a vibraphone?" Well, the astonishing Ollie Halsall played one in Patto and that's more than okay with me - check out their track Magic Door)

The vibraphone was included because of a song on our new e.p called The Wide Open Sea. (Please wait for my next blog entry for further details)

The song is important for numerous reasons, not least because it has become the initial stimuli for that Big Big Thing we were talking about earlier.

But Shhhhh..... I don't want to say too much about that at this point.