Big Big Train, in honour of a great legacy, and confidently heading for the future-EN
Progressive rock fans have seen their beloved genre getting new new blood from quite a few convincing bands that have the fans enjoy their music passionately. Although they may not always love doing so, a lot of interaction, resulting in strong ties with fans, takes place on social media. That’s where part of a special bond is forged. And, apart from that, there is the shared passion for music, be it on record, or experienced together, band and audience, during concerts.
One of those succesful bands honing their craft for many years now, is the British by origin, but meanwhile with more than a hint of international flavour, band Big Big Train. Albums like The Underfall Yard, English Electric part 1 and part 2, Folklore and Grimspound certainly established the band’s name in progressive circles. In the period of a year the band had once more recorded two albums worth of great new music meaning to be released in 2021 and 2022. While Common Ground was indeed released as planned, the sad news of frontman David Longdon’s passing hit home hard. When the follow up to Common Ground was released the band were still very much in grief.
The band took time to think about the future and it was not until months later that the band presented Alberto Bravin of Italian prog flagship Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) as their new vocalist, at the same time introducing Dim Gray vocalist and keyboardist Oskar Holldorff as keyboardist for the tour that was already in the books. The opportunity for an interview presented itself and so Written suddenly found itself talking with both Greg Spawton, bassist, composer and founder of Big Big Train and Alberto Bravin. It turned out to be a fine conversation, emotions abound and, one thing that was very clear, the dynamics and joy shared by Greg and Alberto. We spoke at noon, Amsterdam time, so both morning and afternoon captured in one moment.
WiM: Good morning and good afternoon! Nice to talk to you both like this! First a short introduction to Written In Music. We write about a wide variety of music and one aspect of that is of course progressive rock. Big Big Train has proven to be a determining factor in recent years. For us you were already one of the mainstays of the genre in 2016 in a piece about the state of affairs in progressive rock. A lot has happened since then, you released great albums, shared great concerts with your audiences, in fact the future looked great until that tragic day in 2021 when David passed away. That’s something, as you’ve pointed out yourself, Greg, that still hurts. Yet you have taken the step to continue. What do you think helped the most with that choice? Greg: My band mates have been crucial for me. Being in a band is something unique. You build musical and artistic works together and that requires quite a bit of temperament. It really helps if you know each other, trust and know how to get on with each other. And we did have that when we were faced with this choice. We felt we could take the step into the future. With Alberto as our new singer that most certainly felt as a confirmation.
WiM: A wonderful book about Big Big Train has been published, there was your new album, and now a live album of your famous performance at Night Of The Prog at the Loreley and David’s solo album are coming up. Busy times and yet, you have started the search for a keyboard player to tour with and for a new singer. How do you manage all this if you also have to take the time for social media and interviews? Greg: It certainly hasn’t been an easy few months. I can say that. I think I first saw Alberto back in 2015 when PFM was performing and I made a note: “PFM vocalist: wow!” and I had him in mind for a possible solo album. I didn’t even know his name at first. Yes, the solo album never materialized, but his name was noted and he was at the top of my list when we had to start thinking about a new singer. And no, it was certainly not a shoe in then. Alberto took all the steps that all the other singers had to take that we had in mind. He had to put up with it too, with a band from the UK that sent him an email first of all asking if he knew us and then asking if he wanted to audition with us. And I really thought that that was quite a thing. Maybe we couldn’t find the right person.
In any case, what we didn’t want was a mere clone of David’s voice. We just didn’t think that was appropriate. I wanted a singer with a strong voice and a voice that could touch me. So as a singer who not only delivers a good vocal part, yet does it in such a way that it gives you goosebumps. Yes, Alberto made an impression. He can sing really well and touch you with his singing. And the other aspect was that he was also eager to take the step. His wife was very clear about this. And he went for it. And if you consider that he gave up his place at PFM for an insecure step, I thought that was something too. Because we also wondered how far and where we would go. Would we have a future? What if it went wrong? You have the example of AC DC where it all went well after Bon’s passing, but there were also The Doors where it didn’t work out at all. If I had been in Alberto’s shoes, I don’t know if I would have done it. I have stated that several times. You give up and step into the shoes of someone who was much loved by the fans. I was very, very happy that Alberto wanted to do it. But I also wanted to make sure he really wanted it. We also have a responsibility to him. It’s not only a big step for the singer who gets into a band, it’s also a big step for the band towards that singer. And we certainly didn’t take that lightly.
WiM: Alberto, how did you experience that same process? Of course we talked about that, yes. But when I was approached, I completely jumped for joy. I really really wanted it. My wife encouraged me to react quickly. Act fast, show how you sing, what you can do. Don’t think too much about it, don’t fix and fiddle too much. And I did. And yes, from the first moment I spoke to Greg, to the management, to the rest of the band, it felt really good, I immediately felt comfortable.
WiM: Alberto, you have a voice that is clearly different from David’s. At the same time, what struck me the first time I heard your voice was that both you and David have something life-affirming in your voices. That came in strong. How does that work for you? Alberto: Thank you, thank you. Greg: Yes, goosebumps, it is indeed. You can still have the most amazing technical music, but if it doesn’t touch you, yes, then you may ask yourself if that is what you want. Of course we wanted Alberto to pay close attention to his voice technically, that’s part of it, but it’s mainly that goosebumps aspect. Hence that new song, Last Eleven, which shows that we have a new special singer, it sounds different, but we can still offer that same feeling that we always did. I am truly convinced that we have found the right man.
WiM: And while we’re on the subject, how did Last Eleven come about? Greg: Composing, of course, that’s what I always do. I love to play bass, but writing songs is something I always do. When David died, I just started doing that. This song came to my mind pretty quickly and I did a rough demo with Rob Aubrey. And that demo was enough to give the guys an impression of where the song should go. Including some kind of singing. I warned Alberto about that too. And I sent it to them; we worked remotely. And Alberto immediately brought in a beautiful vocal arrangement. After all, he also writes music and can also work out arrangements for singing. That is really nice. And Nick sent a top drum part. Everyone liked it. That was already very cool. It’s just a song in development. But still; it already sounds great, nearly finished. Perhaps we could wish to recreate the demo, but I guess it might never be the same. We’re going to play it live. That’s for sure. So for us a discovery and at least a snapshot of the band. Alberto: It will be different. Really. In fact, it already is. Greg: Yes, changes are definitely going to happen. The next version will be different, the live version will be different again. We are now simply learning how to deal with this and who brings which input into the new line-up while making music. And yes, we’re already getting pretty good responses to it, which is nice. Very important to us that we did it. This shows everyone where we are now, musically.
WiM: If you ask me, a clear evolution but still, most certainly, vintage Big Big Train. To me it doesn’t seem to be too much of a contrast of what you have done before. How’s that for you? Greg: It’s the best of what we were and it shows how we’re finding a way into the future. Alberto has sent in a few of his pieces and I think they sound very cool, who knows, maybe they will be on the new album. In terms of musical development I am much more evolutionary than revolutionary. Bowie may have changed everything from one album to the next, but I’m more for gradual change. I prefer to take people gradually. When you will listen to our new material later, there will be enough of our BBT DNA in it and at the same time it will sound new. It is all about finding balance. I’m really looking forward to that.
WiM: What I find very special is the way in which you immediately showed such a chemistry in your first joint video, and it seemed as if you had known each other for a long time. That was incredibly beautiful to see. How did you experience that? Greg: I thought that was exciting. I was also nervous. I am shy and if you look inside the band, I lean on the people who are more outgoing. Nick (D’ Virgilio, drummer) does that more, David does that more and Alberto, you will do that more. So it also takes something to allow new people in my environment, but I got along very well with Alberto who is also just very nice. And yes, I am a huge Italophile and really spend most of my vacations there. (Several of the band’s songs also have a link with Italy).
I also move my hands all the time like an Italian (laughs). But as exciting as that first weekend was, I was very happy with it. And yes, rehearsals next week. Alberto: I don’t know any text. (Laughter widely). Greg: My bass guitar is there, Alberto had to learn a lot of lyrics. And yes, I’m not going to say anything about the setlist. Alberto: Yes, you just indicated Last Eleven. Greg: Yeah, that song already has a lot of lyrics. But it takes a lot of rehearsal individually to do it right. Our preparation really runs into hundreds of hours. And we hope that we will all have rehearsed and prepared the same songs later. Alberto: And yet, everything will be different. Greg: Yes, yes, it certainly is. When we play together, it’s just different, but we’ll get there together. (Again, both enjoy their interaction, laughing out loud.)
WiM: It’s been over two weeks since the news came that a festival in the UK (HRH Prog) where you were to play was cancelled. That was an instant blow to the band because it affected your entire tour plans. You were pretty quick and above all clear in your decisions afterwards, while at the same time taking into account what this means for your fans: eventually canceling multiple tour dates. That’s quite a job if you live close to each other as a band, but then again, you might have a chance to go to the pub together and discuss things. How do you tackle this together with the distances between all of you? Greg: Well, just look at our Whatsapp group. There are really a lot of messages back and forth. After all, we are a very international band, with Italy, Scandinavia, the United Kingdom and the United States all represented. We hope that next year we can play together for a few months, because that is of course what we want to be as a band, what we want to do. That is making music together. Yes, and from the rehearsals it’s going to be a lot of learning together, also about each other, because only a limited part of the band has played live together before: for a large part it will be the first time. And not just for Alberto. It really is going to be a steep learning curve. That will be challenging but also loads of fun.
WiM: Your website states that the performance in Zoetermeer will be filmed. To what extent was that already planned or did you take it on after the cancellation of that festival? At the same time, of course, that also requires the necessary preparation. Greg: No, we really thought of that before. Yes, Alberto came in and we had the news that the third show would be filmed right away. Alberto: No pressure (laughs). Greg: No pressure at all. No, it’s a collaboration with the film crew that we developed at Night Of The Prog in 2018. And that’s where we made the contact. That performance there was already a choice just to do it. We now also just spread the word that we are recording the concert. I am also pretty confident: as a band we will be there and ready for it. And the film crew, who often work from De Boerderij, have proven with Loreley that they can do it, so this will undoubtedly turn out fine. And how nice will it be to look back after six months and realize how little I actually move on stage. Alberto: Zoetermeer is a great place. I’ve been there twice with PFM. And that was always great! And a super chef. I do remember that, but it is also important.
After a short break in the conversation, Alberto continues: You also have more than just prog on your website, also a lot of indie. WiM: Yes, that is something we as Written consciously opt for. We focus on more than one genre, music is not just one genre after all. It is also interesting for us as journalists to look broader than one specific genre. Of course, it requires that you are open to it, but that broad orientation on music makes it nice for us to write for Written. Alberto: Cool! I will follow you.
WiM: Wasn’t it difficult to read it in Dutch? Yes, that Dutch is special, but with a little Google Translate you can go a long way.
WiM: It’s great to see you’re doing another warm up show and have asked your fan base to come there too. Your fans, the Passengers, you have a strong bond with them. If you look at your resilience, how important are they? Alberto: I’m a fan of the band and I like prog, but I didn’t know about the Passengers. But they are fantastic. The way I was welcomed! What I’ve noticed now, also on social media, while I don’t like it at all, is how much they are involved in the music and all that surrounds that music and how much they sympathize and support in these times, how they react to the cancellations of concerts, that makes it a really special group of people. Such a large community, yes, not many bands have that. Well, of course there are bands like Manowar or Rolling Stones, where only the music of those bands counts for the fans. You had better not dare to play other music. But what is happening here, the support the Passengers give us in these times of change, which certainly are difficult and trying times, that is really unbelievable. It means the world to us and as it keeps us going and inspires us to carry on in making music. Greg: Yeah, that bond is really special and solid. If you look at how people reacted to the canceled festival, yes. For me, a glimpse behind organizing the tour was really something new. And the connection between one or a few concerts where you expect a large return and the other concerts that are partly made possible as a result of the larger ones, yes, you don’t see that from a distance. So for our tour, that festival was pretty crucial. And when the festival was cancelled, of course, fans didn’t like that, they would have preferred to see us play and of course people were grumpy, it had quite an impact on travel plans, on reservations. But we also saw in the reactions that people understood when we explained it, people understood our choices. And of course they have had to deal with quite a lot already in recent years with everything that has happened, Covid, David’s accident and now this again. That was very difficult for us and for the fans. But we certainly need them, because they also ensure that we continue.
WiM: How did putting together the setlist go? Do you already have them ready as you expect to play them? Greg: We’re still sort of figuring that out too. We have yet to see how the songs sound when we play together. And that could mean we’re going to change numbers. Alberto, do we have 2.5 hours of setlist? Alberto: Yes, yes, yes. Greg: We learn more songs than we might play and we might even change songs from one show to another. I expect that. But we just look at the rehearsals to see what fits best. We haven’t done that before. Before, we really learned what we were going to play, but that room to change up songs is also nice. It also gives people the chance to visit multiple concerts and experience different set lists. With this new line-up we will see how that will turn out.
WiM: And then you will also have such a great keyboardist and backing vocalist on board in addition to the qualities you have, Alberto. You will undoubtedly have a great time with Oskar from Dim Gray. They were fantastic supporting Marillion in Sweden. Alberto: Yes, we are a bit in the same boat. First gigs for both of us. We’ve talked a lot and he’s a great keyboardist. He has an ear for atmosphere and for sound. You can hear that in the music of Dim Gray which is also very cinematographic. With Last Eleven he did that great Moog solo too. Greg did the original and Oskar took that original solo and turned it into what it has become. Greg: Yeah, that was a bit different. You have to start trusting people if you let them in your band. And Oskar asked if he could do something with the keyboard part and then he came up with this. Those cinematographic sounds, which I think are really cool, I want to use them more in the future. And what is special, he didn’t play the organ that often and he picked it up for the first time and he did it really great. You hear that he has an ear for that.
WiM: How do you see this year, is it a year in transition and also a year that does justice to David’s musical legacy and was it intended that way? Greg: We all want to pay tribute to David’s musical legacy, we can’t just let that go to waste, he is inextricably linked to our history. What I don’t want is that that’s what our music is all about. It’s a matter of balance. We will certainly pay tribute to David but we will certainly develop further. Those first concerts now, Alberto will have a difficult job, because those first concerts are the first shows without David, so that will demand a lot from him. Those first shows will just get emotional. And he will have to use his own talent and also have to show himself. And so we come back to what we said at the beginning. Are you sure you want to do this? Because it really is quite something. Alberto: No! Greg: He’s changed his mind. (laughs). You just have to get that balance. Yes, it’s not going to be nostalgia all the time. That’s not possible either. It’s nice that there are bands that can do that, but that doesn’t suit us.
Let it be clear: when David joined, things started going for the band and without David I would not even have been sitting here today. A lot changed for us with The Underfall Yard. And he was one of my best friends. So his legacy is in good hands. But we also choose to do what he would do and that is to continue making music. Because that’s what we do.
WiM: How are you looking at those first concerts, Alberto? Technically I’m going to prepare and I’ll also prepare introductory words for the different songs, but it’s really going to be the moment. It’s also about what’s happening in the moment, seeing how people react, to my strange accent, to the words I’m going to forget. (laughs). Just as David once learned songs from before his time, I’ll have to do the same now. Sure, the situation is different now, but he too had to shape songs his way. And I have to do that in my own way.
WiM: In any case, we will be thinking about you at these performances. Thank you.
WiM: Among our readers there are probably also people who may not know you. They of course missed a lot. What would you say to them to make them come to one of the shows? Alberto: Big Big Train is of course a progressive rock band, but for us it is the song that is always at the core of what we do. And whether you like prog or not, there are always songs that you, even as a non-prog lover, can enjoy with the music of BBT. Not all of my family or friends like progressive rock, but still, they feel a connection to the music of Big Big Train. We just have great choruses in our songs. And yes, of course, there are progressive parts in our songs. Whether those are guitar parts, the keyboard parts, actually we have something for everyone. So everyone can come to our performance and enjoy 2 hours of music.
WiM: Which song should they listen to to get a good idea of the band? And that really doesn’t neccesarily have to end up in the set list. Greg: I choose The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun. There are clearly progressive elements in it, an overture, parts in 7/8, but it also has a very clear song heart in it. We’re a band of songwriters, so in addition to what we’re technically good at, we really have songs that stand out. Just like in the past Genesis, Yes and PFM also just managed to make beautiful songs, also like The Beatles did, but with progressive flavour added, you could say. But they had songs! Yes, I would suggest this as an introduction number. Alberto: I would say Alive, which I think is something that should appeal to several people and that also applies to the more folky The Florentine for me. Greg: Yeah, that also ties into what I mean. Alive does have some technical highlights in the middle and The Florentine does have some tempo changes that really demand a lot from you. Yes, it just always leaves us panic stricken. (Both laugh). Yes, it sounds catchy and accessible, but it does demand a lot from us as a band.
WiM: And if people you know don’t have a ticket yet, what would you say to them? Should we pull them by the hair and just drag them in? Greg: Well, it’s our very first gig where people just stand, not sit. But hey, think about it, a Monday night, just a work and school day, but you come to see the band because by then we will already be on a roll and yes, just come and watch us and enjoy. Alberto: You just have to be there, come to us and enjoy. They are going to be emotional shows and you just have to be there. Emotional for me, emotional for the whole band, but come and enjoy with us.
WiM: Thank you very much for your time, it was simply fantastic to watch your chemistry and the way you enjoyed doing this together, all the laughter! Very nice to speak with you. We’ll see you in Zoetermeer!
Photo’s: Michael Heller