Friday 27 December 2013

2013 - An Autopsy

Here we are at the end of another year and what a fantastic year it has been, not only for Big Big Train but also for Progressive Rock Music in general. There have been some tremendous releases in our genre this year.

This post is intended to be a brief overview of our year, from my 'behind the mic' viewpoint.

On the 2nd of January 2 2013, we found ourselves on location at the Eastleigh Railway Works in Southampton. As you would expect, it was cold despite the addition of an industrial heater. The works were in use by the railway carriage engineers and we were in awe of the sheer scale of the work that these men carry out, as if it was nothing. It felt most strange performing along to our track in the midst of all this dramatic industrial scenery. Eventually though, after a few runs through, we began to get used to the absurdity of it and we adjusted to the weirdness of it. The video was made to give those who are interested in us, a glimpse of what it might be like, when we perform live. The video was directed by Peter Callow and upon it's release in September this year, it has helped to opened up new possibilities for us.

January 2013 also found me working on material for Andy Tillison. I'd been invited to contribute vocals and had received audio stems. I started working on vocal arrangements for what would become Le Sacre Du Travail the seventh studio album by The Tangent. Andy is 'the voice' of The Tangent and it is his idiosyncratic narrative that is identifiable as the vocal sound of the band. So I concentrated on building my vocals around his top lines. I enjoy The Tangent and working on the material was thrilling. 

Chris Topham of Plane Groovy approached BBT in 2012 with the proposal of releasing EEpt 1 on vinyl.  Initially we thought that having it available on vinyl would only appeal to a small and selective niche market of vinyl junkies but we were wrong. Releasing it on vinyl had a much bigger impact for us than that. The resourceful Marc Catchpole managed to place a vinyl copy of EE pt 1 into the hands of legendary broadcaster Bob Harris, when Bob was hosting the Classic Rock Society awards. We have been labelled as being a 'crossover progressive rock band' by some and this came to be justified when 'Uncle Jack' was played on Bob's show. This opened the door and subsequently other BBT material was broadcast, which has helped to bring our music to a wider audience.

2013 was the year in which we decided to commission and launch our very own Big Big Train Ale brewed by the Box Steam Brewery

English Electric Part 2 came out in March 2013, continuing seamlessly on from where Part 1 left off. Like it's sibling, it too is available on vinyl. It was a tricky process getting the balance right over the two English Electric releases. Although they would eventually be merged into one, both releases had to have their own zen about them - and work together as a whole.

Full Power finally emerged in September 2013. It is a colossal, sprawling- widescreen-Technicolor-epic thing to behold when presented like this. 
The 'directors cut' of English Electric parts 1 and 2 along with four additional new pieces, collated in a new definitive running order and lavishly packaged. 

Make Some Noise was also released at the same time along with its accompanying video and in  an e.p format. Reaction was positive but for a few, the song caused a few raised eyebrows. It's a straight forward catchy rock song with fewer progressive elements than usual. It also kicks off Full Power.

Q1: Is it a new direction for BBT?
A: No.
Q2: Why is it not as typically BBT as the material on EE pt1 and pt 2?
A: The music reflects the subject matter of the lyric. It is a suitable soundtrack to the concept of the song which is about young people forming rock bands. The song features some musical nods to the signature sounds of some of those classic artist who inspired us to start playing in bands. Even the lyric is deliberately untypical of BBT.

When we write songs for BBT albums, Greg Spawton has a particular style to his writing which has been the bedrock of BBT dating back to The Infant Hercules. So when I began co-writing and then submitting material for the band, I did not want it to sound like Greg's writing and I did not always want it to necessarily fit in with what BBT would usually do. I wanted to offer an alternative and show the breadth of what we're capable of. I'm not interested in writing to formula and so I only write what interests me. Judas Unrepentant and A Boy in Darkness are most certainly progressive rock pieces, while Uncle Jack and particularly Leopards are deliberately less so. However, Uncle Jack and Leopards have both been lucky for BBT by being played on Radio 2.

In early September we were invited to attend The Prog Awards 2013. So Greg, Andy and I went off to Kew Gardens. We were nominated in two categories:- Best album and breakthrough act. We won the latter and were absolutely delighted. It was an honour for us to receive the award because it was the readers who had cast their votes.

Highlights included meeting Andy Tillison [actually - it was the very first time I met him which is odd considering we'd worked together on Le Sacre Du Travail earlier on in the year], Steve HillageSteven WilsonRoine Stolt, Pete Trewavas and Matt Stevens. BBT were also name checked by the jovial Mike Portnoy during his acceptance speech for his virtuoso award - thanks Mike!

A big big thank you to Alison Henderson who organised The Big Big Weekend in Winchester, along with visits to notable sites that feature in BBT material alongside cultural presentations by Greg and Alison. A curry was eaten (because that's how this train rolls] and a visit to Aubitt Studio where Andy Poole and Rob Aubrey had Judas on the slab ready for dissection!

I'm thrilled that my fellow Tangenteer Jakko Jakszyk finally landed THE CRIM gig. Much as I've enjoyed the work that  Adrian Belew did with the band, I can't wait to hear what they come up with in their newly resurrected current line-up.

The final two months of 2013 we have been busy getting ready to go into Realworld during August 2014. We have chosen the material that we will perform and shortlisted five tracks to get into shape by the end of January. I have been busy arranging the various layers of vocals in a way that they can be performed by the band. It's sounding good so far!

Thank you to all of you who are on the BBT Facebook group page, who make it such a great place to visit. Thank you to all who voted for us in the various Progressive Rock Polls this year. Thank you to all who support us and spur us on.

Happy New Year to you and here's to 2014



Thursday 19 September 2013

Make Some Noise

It's all go! We won the Breakthrough Award at the 2013 Progressive Music Awards, we have a BBT Ale out and now we have released a single with its very own video.

I wrote Make Some Noise as a retro sounding nostalgic piece about being young and wanting to form a band. I fondly remember starting to play music with my school friends in drummer Sam's attic room throughout one summer. Sam's mum and dad worked during the daytime so we had the house to ourselves and we could make as much noise as possible. Much to the horror of the neighbours - Philip Avenue would never be as quiet again. Sam's parents had recently bought a greenhouse for their garden and with that our band name was born. We were GREENHOUSE.

This song is more of a rock song rather than a progressive rock song and it doffs its cap to bands/artists like The Beatles, David Bowie, Queen, The Faces and all those other bands that caught imaginations and inspired young would be musicians to want to get together and make a racket. It also has a Grange Hill style instrumental section which lead into a rock'n roll style section. [Many notable bands from that time had rock'n roll tunes in their live sets because they were inspired by it when they were starting out - Mott The Hoople and Uriah Heep to name two!]

We were certainly rough around the edges back then but what we lacked in ability, we more than made up for in enthusiasm and hopefully charm. Once we had a few covers under our belt, I tried my hand at writing songs, simply because the band needed them. It was all very exciting and inspiring and now, many years later, we look back on those days with fond memories.

We [BBT] had a drum tracking session at Aubitt one Christmas and Greg said there might be some downtime left over from the session and asked if I had any solo material that Nick could play on. I only write within BBT at the moment and so thinking about solo material seemed unusual. I had my demo of Make Some Noise and it was part of a project I'd been working on called Door 1. Because of the nature of the songs subject matter, it deliberately sounded like a retro rock song and I thought it would be fun for Nick to drum on.

So we did the tracking session and it came time to do Make Some Noise. As we worked on it, Rob Aubrey really got into it and Greg was getting a Jellyfish vibe from it. As a reasonably short and direct piece of rock music, it was thought that it would make a good single for BBT!

So no, it isn't your usual BBT sounding recording. It's us letting off steam (groan) and having some fun.

We are often asked about the possibility of our performing live but being studio based has allowed us to make huge and intimate dynamic soundscapes. Transferring these expansive songs onto a restrictive stage with the strings and brass etc will be a huge logistical undertaking. For me, Big Big Train albums have always been things of fantasy. Make Some Noise shares this same fantasy but only this time it is viewed from the other end of the telescope. In this track we have tried to rein in the multi tracking and present the band in much more scaled down version of itself. After the success of our promotional video for English Electric part 1, we decided to make a video to accompany the song which would show the band performing the track in a live like environment. It affords the fans the opportunity to have a glimpse of what we might be like in a live situation. The video was shot on location at the Eastleigh Railway works in Southampton on 02/01/13. It was well nippy!

The video also features archive photographs and vintage Super 8 footage of BBT members in their early bands. The footage was shot by Tony Withers, Sam's father. So the young lead vocalist that you see moving around was a teenage me.

With love


Saturday 2 February 2013


The story behind Leopards is simple in one sense. Essentially it is a love story but you know love; it can be... complicated. 

Leopards is a song about two people who had gone their separate ways after the end of their relationship. Years pass until one day, by chance the pair meet again.  Their mutual feelings are rekindled and they carefully begin to rebuild their relationship. Inevitably, they both have their insecurities, their baggage and fears.

On the eve of her birthday, he presents her with a small ornate jewellery box which when opened, contains a beautiful Cartier Panther brooch. The jewelled body of the beast sparkles in the light. It must have cost a fortune. She pins the bejewelled feline to the lapel of her dress and as she stands to admire it in the large mirror above the mantlepiece, he drapes her shawl around her shoulders. He gently kisses the nape of her neck as he does so. It may be the champagne or the high emotion of the moment but she finds herself lost for a while in her reverie. 

'Happy birthday darling' he whispers.

But she is troubled by her rekindled love towards her former lover. Back then she loved him dearly and afterwards she then had to learn to live without him. She remembers her terrible sorrow and it has taken time and courage to learn to trust and to give again.

Her dilemma is this:- He tells her that he was a fool to leave her. He says that not one single day had passed since they parted without him thinking of her and regretting his selfish act. He also says that he has changed but the question she asks herself is this:- Are we really able to change?

On one hand, if she does not surrender herself, she will never know what could be. On the other, will her fear of being hurt all over again outweigh her overwhelming desire to love him and be loved by him?

You see! Complicated!

The leopard metaphor within the title concerns itself of course with the old proverbial question 'can a leopard change its spots?'

The gentle rolling acoustic guitar riff is played in DADGAD. Danny Manners adds a swinging double bass. Nick D'Virgilio's drumming is subtle but hits hard in all the right places. I did at one point, consider that it might make a good duet but I changed my mind for some reason, during the recording process. Dave Gregory turns in some incredible guitar playing here, listen how he moves around within this arrangement. Greg Spawton lends a hand with some backing vocals. Andy Poole remarked as we were recording the vocals, that although Leopards is considerably shorter in length in comparison with some of the other BBT tracks, it was no less complicated to record.

The strings were beautifully performed by The Covent Garden String Quartet and the arrangement is once again by Louis Philippe. As you can see clearly in the picture below, recording engineer Ken Brake has collapsed after giving his all!

I thought Louis would be the perfect choice for Leopards and he came up with the lovely swooning string intro that starts the track off. It is also featured at the start of our Big Big Train promotional video, released in order to plug English Electric Part 1. Louis' arrangement gives the track a romantic nostalgic feel and for me it seems to set the piece within a specific era. I can almost imagine it as part of a Powell and Pressburger film.

While I'm on the subject, my favourite film without question is 'A Matter of Life and Death*' Directed by Michael Powell and written by the masterful Emeric Pressburger. I first saw it when I was ill as a child. I was feverish and lay on my parents sofa, watching this incredible movie. It was so unusual that I thought I surely must have dreamed the whole thing. Years later I saw it again and recognised it at once. Check it out, you will not regret it.

If you would like to have a preview of Leopards before English Electric Part 2 is released, it is featured here in podcast No.9 on Louis' site. Louis is being interviewed by our very own [and long time Louis Philippe musical accomplice] Danny Manners

I would also like to take a moment to thank all those who voted for Big Big Train in the recent Prog magazine readers Poll. Thanks to you we did very well indeed. I'd also like to thank all who voted for me in the male vocalist category. I am very flattered and also very grateful for your support.

That's all from me for English Electric Part 2

Until the next time...



*= 'A Matter of Life and Death' was known as 'Stairway to Heaven' in America

Sunday 20 January 2013

Swan Hunter

Greetings from a snow covered UK! 

Here is my blog for the story behind Swan Hunter, a song featured on our forthcoming album English Electric Part 2.

Swan Hunter is a song about the inevitable changing world and how these changes impact directly upon local communities. 

What an awe inspiring picture this is. The name on the ship says it all. Imagine being a child who grew up within this community, in one of those houses. Seeing these huge vessels grow daily until their launch and another would start to grow in its place. Imagine the relentless sound of machinery and construction workers. Your father most likely would have worked there and probably his father before him. It must have been almost impossible back then to imagine a time when this way of life, would come to an end. When it did end, what would the people do? If this is what you know and it has defined your role in life for generations ... 'what do you do, when what you did is gone?'

There is a parallel here between the shipyards and the collieries. When I was a boy I remember my Uncle Jack going off to work. I remember their stories, the community and way of life which had developed around generations of miners. It was how things were. It was the way things happened and it was impossible from within it all to imagine it ever coming to an end. The closing of the pits in the late 20th century would change everything. 

This song centres around a main character. Let's call him Jim.  Jim is now an old man and he is reflecting back on his life as a shipbuilder who worked at Swan Hunter in the Neptune Yard. Imagine Jim, sitting by his fireside and recounting tales to his son about how it all once was and how much life has changed. Jim accepts the impermanence of material things and the inevitable passing of time.

Swan Hunter was written by Greg Spawton and I. It was inspired by Big Big Train artist Jim Trainer. Jim sent a letter to Greg a few years ago, which detailed some stories that had happened in the Swan Hunter shipyards. Jim's family had worked in those yards for generations. Greg thought it would make an interesting story and when I wrote the lyrics, once again I endeavored to find the human story of those who worked and lived in the shadow of those mighty imposing machines.

Jim told me that most of the males in his family were called Jim Trainer! Which must have made for interesting moments on Christmas day when they all received their gifts! Jim said that family members would differentiate between their particular Jim by assigning an identified characteristic of the Jim in question, alongside their shared name e.g Big Jim, Little Jim etc.

So with love and respect, BBT would like to dedicate Swan Hunter to Our Jim or as he is known back home, 'Little Jim's Jim.'

More next week but until then ...