David Longdon responds to interviewer Jordan from www.examiner.com
How did you come to join Big Big Train? Were you a fan previously?
I was invited to Aubitt Studio in Southampton to record a couple of tracks for Martin Orford’s [ex- IQ] second solo album, “The Old Road.” Rob Aubrey was the engineer at the session and mentioned BBT. They had “Summer’s Lease” from “The Difference Machine” out as a track on a Classic Rock sampler CD at that time and he thought that we would be a good match for each other. That was the first time I had heard of them.
Nick D’Virgilio was a guest on “The Difference Machine” and became an official member on “The Underfall Yard.” How did he come to join permanently? Do you think he left Spock’s Beard specifically to work with Big Big Train or was that just part of it?
We had reached a position where we didn’t want to work with any other drummer and had become close friends. We were calling him our ‘permanent guest’ drummer in our publicity material and he just said he’d be happier if we removed the ‘guest’ label, so he joined the band. However, he did not leave Spock’s Beard as a result of joining BBT. His major commitment is touring with Cirque at the moment, where he is able to earn a great living for his family and I think he just didn’t have enough hours in the day for Spock’s Beard and Cirque. For BBT, Nick’s main role is as the drummer, whereas he had many more roles to fill in Spock’s.
The new album, “English Electric,” is named after your record label. How was that decided?
The ideas for albums are planned a long time in advance. I knew that there were plans to make an album called “English Electric” when I first joined the band, and they also had the album cover photograph, too, right there on the band website. So the album title came before the label name. English Electric was originally the name of a famous British engineering company that went out of business in the 1960s. I like the title because it sounds like the name of a genre. Maybe that’s the type of music that we play – English Electric!
It’s subtitled “Part One”; will there definitely be a second part? Has music already been written for it? How will the two (or more) connect?
“English Electric: Part Two” is all written, recorded, and partly mixed. It will be out in March 2013. Both albums are connected with musical themes flowing between the two volumes.
How does the sound and ambition/themes of “English Electric (Part One)” differ from previous work (especially “The Underfall Yard)?”
“The Underfall Yard” received excellent reviews on its release, and the positive reaction to the album made us feel confident as a band, which has then inspired us to be braver with “English Electric.”
To me, “The Underfall Yard” seems to have a very Old English/Canterbury feeling (such as more acoustic guitars, horns, and more lush harmonies, etc). In a way, I think, it feels more like a 1970s progressive rock album than previous entries. Do you agree and was there a conscious effort to lean in a different direction?
I arrived towards the latter stages of “The Underfall Yard” and my role was to sing the existing material. The instrumentation used was 80% in place, so BBT were going in that direction prior to my arrival.
The opening track, “Evening Star,” is an absolutely incredible display of harmony and instrumental melodies. How was it arranged and how does it foreshadow other motifs on the album (such as elements of the epic title track). Where did the idea come from to begin with a sort of introductory piece like this.
Andy Poole wanted the opening section of “Evening Star” to sound as dramatic as possible, and he wanted the ‘new singer’ to be heard as soon as possible and so the first thing you hear is those harmonies. I wanted the vocals to sound emotionally connected. I had to find a human emotional thread to lead the listener through the songs.
When we went in to record the vocals parts, it had been decided that “Evening Star” was going to be the opening track, but at that point it did not sound like an opener. So, I added layered vocals and vocal sound effects, a flute solo, some glockenspiel, mandolin, psaltery and a dulcimer (played with a metal tea spoon from Aubitt’s kitchen). These instruments helped give the piece an exotic and unusual flavour.
With regard to the incorporation of elements of the title track, “Evening Star” was the last thing written for the album so we were able to include and introduce some of the album’s themes.
I don’t mean to insinuate transparent influences or anything, but I must ask this. The harmonies on “Evening Star,” at least to me, closely resemble those on Brian Wilson’s brilliant opener to “SMiLE,” “Our Prayer.” Was that track an influence at all or is it just coincidence (and maybe just one that I alone notice).
I deliberately avoided listening to too much of BBT’s previous releases because I wanted my vocal arrangements to be different to what they had done before. I felt that the pieces needed lead vocal lines with sections of linking backing vocals. At the moment, BBT are a studio based band, and so this afforded the recordings the luxury of being as grand as they could be. There were no limits on having to perform it live, so the album could be a thing of fantasy. Some of the ‘swwooooshing’ effects that you can hear linking some of the sections on “The Underfall Yard” are layered vocals and not sound effects.
I had recorded layered vocals before during my time with Louis Philippe, who is a huge Brian Wilson fan. I too love the Beach Boy recordings, especially “Surf’s Up.” I also love The Beatles, and “Because” is a thing of beauty for me. But most importantly, I wanted the vocals to sound soulful but devotional at certain moments; I also wanted the music to reflect the choral works of English composers
What is the concept behind “The Underfall Yard” song? Is there a concept that runs throughout the entire album?
There isn’t a concept that runs through the album, although there are some linked themes. The title track is primarily about the great Victorian engineers and navies who made the canals and railways that linked far-flung areas of Britain. They symbolized an age of reason and Greg was comparing the achievements of that age with some of the unreasonable things that happen today. It’s not just nostalgia, though; we are well aware of the progress that has been made in recent decades.
“Far Skies Deep Time” is the EP that comes between your last album and your new one. Do you feel that musically, it represents a transition from the sonic approach of “The Underfall Yard” to the one on “English Electric (Part One)”? Were the songs extras from the last album or were they new?
They were a mixture. “Fat Billy Shouts Mine” was something that Greg had been working on along with “Victorian Brickwork” on TUY. I think that he had the idea to merge the two as part of a suite but he later decided not to. “British Racing Green” was a piece of music that Greg had been working on for some time and we both completed it. “Master of Time” was our version of a demo included on the re-release of Anthony Philips’ “The Geese and the Ghost” album. “The Wide Open Sea” was a slow, brooding soundscape that we developed as a band. The eerie opening section was originally featured on “The Difference Machine.”
The EP is over 40 minutes long, which could qualify it was an LP. Why is it not considered the official follow-up to “The Underfall Yard”?
We were in a period of development and didn’t want the immediate pressure there would have been to top “The Underfall Yard.” Greg and I had started to write together, and Dave Gregory and Nick D’Virgilio had come onboard as band members and we wanted to experiment with the process. The songs gathered on FSDT were also songs that were not suited to the themes within “English Electric” and it seemed to work better as a companion piece to “Underfall.”
In general, how does Big Big Train approach writing music? Is there a primary songwriter? Do the melodies come before the music? Etc.
Both Greg and I write individually and together. Usually, the music will have a story attached to it or it maybe it will start with an inspiring title. It might also come out of the way that the music sounds. Personally, I deliberately try to write in different ways because it helps to keep the ideas fresh
You guys always have captivating covers, and they’re usually grounded in traditional art like paintings (rather than, say, photographs, digital art, etc). Who designs them and how is a final one decided on?
The painted artwork is by Jim Trainer. Jim usually reflects the themes within the album. For the cover and booklet of “English Electric,” though, we’ve used the photographs of Mathew Sefton. He’s a talented photographer who finds the beauty in rusty, faded things. He had taken a beautiful photograph of a piece of industrial machinery which had been manufactured by the English Electric company and that became the album cover.
You’ve widely been considered one of the best vocalists in the genre today, and I would extend that to the entire history of progressive rock. How do you feel about that? Is there a touch of modesty to it or are you quite confident and comfortable with the claim?
I do try and make the melodies and vocal performances engaging and I am flattered by the compliments. All I do is tell the stories and make the characters, places, and situations come to life.
Would you say your voice and/or approach to singing resembles anyone else’s? Are there any conscious influences?
I have listened to lots of singers over the years and each of them have their wisdom to pass on. When I was a boy I would listen to The Who and I love both Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend’s voices. Roger has the power and passion while Pete has the vulnerability. Steve Marriott was an influence on me. However, I would have to say that my favourite singer is Jackie Leven. He has the most beautiful voice. Sadly, Jackie passed away last November. I had supported him on several occasions and he was always kind hearted and encouraging.
Of course, like all modern bands, Big Big Train has been compared to other artists, and I think Genesis is usually a main one. While your work is very unique and wonderful in its own way (and certainly more original than most contemporaries), do you agree with such comparisons? Is there ever a conscious effort to model others’ techniques (timbres, layering, etc)?
Yes, we are going to get those comparisons. Greg is a huge Genesis fan. My voice has similarities to their vocalists (which was why they invited me to audition as a replacement vocalist when Phil left prior to “Calling All Stations”).
Who did you grow up listening to? Who do you listen to now?
Some of the bands and artists I listened to include The Who, Small Faces, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Bill Nelson, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Todd Rundgren, Genesis, Yes, Richard Thompson, Queen, Nick Drake, and The Velvet Underground. I also liked listening to classical music and enjoyed works by composers including Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Grieg and Stravinsky.
I’m currently listening to “Orkney: Symphony of The Magnetic North” by The Magnetic North, who have formed out of Erland & The Carnival. I am also currently listening to the latest Damon Albarn album, “Dr. Dee.”
Forgive me for not knowing, but has Big Big Train ever toured America? If not, why not? Do you think you ever will?
We’ve not played in America, although we have had a number of invitations to do so. We hope to play there at some stage.
In terms of the reception and popularity of Progressive Rock, do you think it’s as popular and celebrated as it should be? Or do you think it should remain as a sort of insider genre wherein the number of fans may not be relatively large but their bonds are stronger because of a shared admiration for “their” genre?
Progressive Rock is what it is. As a musician working within the genre, I think it is an incredibly flexible vehicle for creating spellbinding atmospheres and combining them with delicate passages in one moment, then exploding into a contrasting section. Great flexibility and tremendous fun, too. I am delighted that there is an audience out there who are discovering and in some cases, rediscovering Progressive Rock. Prog has eventually and inevitably come in from the cold.
Similarly, I’ve often found that some artists (such as Steven Wilson) don’t like to be labeled as prog. There seems to be a stigmatization about it. Why is that? How do you feel about the classification?
I am more than happy to be considered to be a progressive rock musician, and I am entirely comfortable with the classification.
Well that’s great. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, David. I can’t wait to hear your new album.