BIG BIG TRAIN’s GREG SPAWTON – “There Is Far More That Brings Us Together As Humanity, Than Separates Us”
August 1, 2021, 2 months ago
As we all know, Covid derailed many rock concert tours that were to have taken place throughout 2020. And one was supposed to be Big Big Train’s first ever live dates on US soil. With unexpected time off the road, the group – which is now comprised of the “core four” of singer David Longdon, guitarist Greg Spawton, keyboardist Rikard Sjöblom, and drummer Nick D'Virgilio – opted to get to work on studio album #13, entitled Common Ground. Set for release on July 20, 2021, the album will be supported by (finally) the North American dates, plus Euro dates, early next year. Spawton spoke to BraveWords correspondent Greg Prato about the new album, tour, and current state of the band.
BraveWords: How does the new album, Common Ground, compare to previous Big Big Train releases?
Greg Spawton: “We had a different line-up, for a start. Covid caused a number of catastrophes for us, so last year we came off tour – we had a tour of the States booked, we had Europe booked, as well. That all fell apart. We were quite a large ensemble – there was seven of us – but three of the band members decided to call it a day. I think Covid just caused them to re-think their lives – in terms of whether they wanted to be stuck on a tour bus and all those things. So, that meant we were down to a core four-piece – me, Rikard, Nick, and David. Over last summer, we were scratching our heads as to whether or not it was feasible to continue or not. In fact, the four of us left were the songwriters, so we all felt, ‘OK. There are plenty of songs left. Let’s get on with it.’ Almost like a fresh start, really. So, we planned to record the album all together in the room at Real World Studios, and then we had a second wave [of Covid] here in the UK, so we couldn’t get Nick or Rikard over, so that caused us issues there. But we carried on anyway, and we made the Common Ground album. What’s it like compared to our previous stuff? I think it’s a bit more of a ‘rock album’ than we’ve done in recent years. But for me, it distills to the essence of Big Big Train – which is a combination of the sort of prog rock sound with rock and folk and all of those things. It’s us as we are now.”
BraveWords: What is the story behind the album cover image?
Greg Spawton: “We have an in-house artist, Sarah Louise Ewing. We’ve been working with Sarah for many, many years now. So, what we do when it comes to album graphics is tell Sarah what the album is about and what it is we want to convey with our songs. And then we broadly leave it to her to work out how to get that image across. The reason we called it ‘Common Ground’ is because for us, humanity has never been closer together and yet, further apart. We’re in an age where the internet has brought us all within…well, I’m talking to you instantly, across the world, and yet, it’s also causing incredible divisions between people, and putting people in their silos. We wanted really to just convey the message – a slightly hippie-ish message – that there is far more that brings us together as humanity, than separates us. So, it’s a kind of a ‘one world album’ I suppose. Which is why Sarah wanted to make the album cover of the hands linking across the oceans – just to say, ‘We are one world. We are a single species. We are all looking for the same stars.’ And that we should find common ground together – rather than spending our lives arguing with people on the internet about various things. So that’s the concept and the broad theme of the album artwork.”
BraveWords: Did the events of last year increase the speed of the album’s creation since the band was off the road?
Greg Spawton: “Yeah, it did. So, we just had to do a handbrake turn, really. Like most bands, we plan quite a long way ahead, and we were planning on being on tour in May and July of last year. So, we would have been writing in the autumn and then probably recording early this year, I suppose. So, we just brought all that forward by a few months – we spent the last summer finishing songs off, booked the sessions, and then got on and recorded it. Maybe six months earlier than we planned. But whether the album would have been very different because of the tour, I don’t know – it’s impossible to know.”
BraveWords: Which songs on the album are most special to you?
Greg Spawton: “Nick, our drummer, wrote a track called ‘Apollo,’ which I absolutely love. It’s a full-bore prog rock instrumental. It’s been nice for me, because I’d been witnessing the writing process – he’d send me snippets as he was writing it. I knew he had something good here, and I liked the way he was able to get round to a beautiful climax. I really like when bands are not frightened to do instrumental tracks. It comes from the tradition of big instrumental pieces. I like the title track, which I think says as much as we can about bringing people together. And then if we’re talking about my songs, probably the song that is closest to me would be ‘Endnotes,’ which is quite a personal song – about finding a new way forward into my middle years. I think what we tried to do with this album is we started off with a few songs that were kind of atypical for us in recent years. And the first half of the album is quite different from the sort of stuff we’d been doing in recent years. And then we found our way back to a more familiar sound recently. And ‘Endnotes’ ends in classic Big Big Train fashion – with a brass band, and hopefully, decent lyrics.”
BraveWords: Which album of the Big Big Train discography is the most quintessential?
Greg Spawton: “Can I choose more than one? [Laughs] The current line-up of the band started with an album called The Underfall Yard in 2009. And that’s where the sound of the band really came together then for me. We brought this brass band in. We had NDV [Nick] on drums for the whole album, David joined the band as the lead singer for that album. So, it really was the beginnings of where we are now. So, that’s important. And I think if I look back at the several albums we’ve made subsequently, I’d probably go with Folklore. It’s not my favorite album, but it’s a good jumping off point for people. So, if people want to know what Big Big Train is all about, I’d probably point them in the direction of Folklore, and say, ‘It’s a good round-up of different things that we do.’ I think those two is how I would answer that one.”
BraveWords: The band’s first-ever North American tour was cancelled due to Covid. Any plans to reschedule?
Greg Spawton: “Yes, it has been. In fact, that’s one of the few good things that’s happened with the whole Covid/pandemic thing – it allowed us to take a step back. We’d been a self-managing band for many, many years…and it got far too big for us to manage now. What the time off allowed us to do was get all of our management in place properly. It’s kind of a boring answer, but it’s important for a band to be able to call on people and know what they’re doing, and can get us further forward. So, suddenly we found ourselves with a proper promoter in the UK and promoters in the US and booking agents – who can really plan these things in a way that we weren’t able to do before. So, the tours have been rescheduled – it’s gone from maybe seven shows to twenty shows now. We’ll be announcing that very soon. It’s fairly early next year, I think. It was going to be just an east coast tour, but it’s across the whole States and Canada now, so it’s a proper, full-on tour. So, I’m looking forward to that.”