Sunday, 28 September 2014

Big Big Train update

Left to right: Andy Poole / Danny Manners / David Longdon / Rikard Sjoblom /
Nick D'Virgilio / Dave Gregory / Rachel Hall / Greg Spawton. Photograph by Kain Dear.

This post is a quick round-up of recent news which we will publish on all of the various BBT internet and social media outlets in the next few days.

Big Big Train recently announced two shows in London in August 2015. The gigs both sold out during the pre-sale and a third concert has now been announced. Tickets for this show will shortly go on general sale. These are the only gigs currently planned in the next year. BBT will be joined for the gigs by the wonderful brass band which featured on The Underfall Yard and English Electric albums.

We will be releasing a DVD and Blu-Ray of our recent performances at Real World studios in the spring 2015.

We have written around 2 hours of new songs (many of which are now at least partially recorded). We aim to complete these songs for album releases in 2016 and 2017.

We are slowly making progress with the Station Masters retrospective release and will try to get that finished off alongside the new songs.

We are pleased to welcome Rachel Hall and Rikard Sjöblom into both the live and recording line-up of Big Big Train.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Questions for the Big Big Train video release

As listeners to BBT may be aware, we are making a film of our rehearsals at Real World studios in August. The rehearsals are an important event for us as they will show BBT evolving from a studio-based band into a band which will be getting ready to play some shows, so we thought it would be good to have a visual record. As well as footage of the rehearsals, we want to include some bonus material on the DVD / Blu-Ray, including interviews and other items. Rather than a static interview with a single interviewer, we thought we might try to answer some questions from members of the very friendly BBT forum (join here) or from other BBT listeners.

So, if there are any questions, we'd be happy to hear from you. The only thing is, you will need to film yourself asking the question and send an email with the video file to us at:

The video file does not need to be of amazing quality (eg phone camera footage is fine) but you will need to ensure we can see and hear you clearly as the footage may end up on the DVD. Please also state your name and where you are from. Questions can be serious, or fun, there are no restrictions and we will need any questions by the end of June.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Lots of pictures of Big Big Train with pink ears

Ahead of our time at Real World and gigs next year, we popped to Enfield today for a fitting of in-ear monitors at Handheld Audio.

Nick has used in-ear monitors for many years but this was a new experience for the rest of us, and a slightly bizarre one.

In-ear monitors need to sit very tightly inside the ear so that the musician can hear all frequencies. This means that molds of the ear have to be taken around an impression of a small speaker which will sit on the ear drum.

The fitting today involved a lot of poking around inside the ear like this:

and this:

and this:

before we had to bite on a piece of plastic and have our ears filled with a pink blancmange-like substance like this:

and this:

and this:

and this:

After five minutes or so, the impression is solid enough to remove and they will shortly be sent off to Ultimate Ears in the States to be made into monitors.

Here we are afterwards, job done (except for Rikard who is having his fitted in Sweden).

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Prog on prescription (or how listeners find out about music which is new to them)

On the BBT forum, Chris Allen posted a thread which asked: 'how did you discover Big Big Train?'

There were enough responses (150 or so individual ones) for some themes to emerge which I thought were worth some analysis and some brief comments.

The first thing of interest was the wide diversity of different channels for finding out about music. There were more than 20 different routes to finding out about BBT.

Five main routes stood out from the others. These were:

  • Personal recommendations from friends or family (16%)
  • Prog and Classic Rock covermount CD's (12%)
  • Links to other bands (12%)
  • Internet radio shows (12%)
  • Prog rock websites (11%)

Other popular routes were Spotify (6%) and iTunes and Amazon recommendations (each at 3%). Our own downloads (particularly the 23 minute freebie of The Underfall Yard) and the Progstreaming website also received a few mentions. 

Surprisingly, some of the best-known social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) were hardly mentioned and Soundcloud and Last FM received only one mention each.

It was interesting that old-fashioned 'word-of-mouth' is still the most important factor. Word-of-mouth has been facilitated by new technology (eg the ability to easily share music and information and by social-networking), so it may be that there is some crossover between these things. 

One listener mentioned that his GP had recommended our music which was intriguing. ('Doctor, Doctor, I'm poorly what can you give me?' 'I am prescribing you a dose of progressive rock'...) 

Internet radio was a popular route, so hats-off to those who put their shows and podcasts together and get them online. I suspect that these shows take a great deal of time and trouble to produce and it is pleasing to see that they result in increased music appreciation. The recent increase in progressive rock on digital radio shows will also surely have an impact.

Big Big Train has a lot of links with other bands through its members and through past associations (eg XTC, Spock's Beard, Anthony Phillips, Genesis, Frost) and some of these links have clearly been influential (one listener described it as 'following the breadcrumbs'). So, for bands thinking of inviting higher profile guest musicians, it may be a good idea to follow this through.

Distribution of music through covermount CD's on Prog, Classic Rock and the Classic Rock Society also appears to pay significant dividends (although, as with all of these routes, the material being distributed has to be of good quality.)

Amongst the listeners who have been following us since earlier days, Cyclops mail-order received several mentions. Malcolm Parker and Cyclops / GFT clearly played quite a part in sustaining an interest in progressive rock before the internet really took off.

Finally, one person did mention seeing BBT live back in the 90's in the Netherlands. I'm a bit sceptical about whether live performances actually create many new listeners as I suspect they are more about playing to the already converted. However, the promotional effort around live shows must also be of benefit. This will be interesting for BBT as we go forward.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Making Music in 2014

Following on from David's recent post about 2013, here is a brief look ahead to our plans in 2014.

As we've mentioned before, we are now gearing up for some live activity. This is a major undertaking for us as Big Big Train hasn't played any gigs since earlier incarnations of the band and, when the current BBT started working together in 2009, we did not expect to be in a position to be playing live again. This meant that the songs on our studio albums became multi-layered recordings (with brass and strings and all sorts of things) and these are not easy to perform live.

We did have the option of stripping the tracks back to more basic arrangements for live performances, but we like the sound of the music we make these days and want to perform the songs in as full a fashion as possible. So, we've decided that we'll be aiming for performances with brass and strings and have been working hard on preparing a number of songs to test out in our August rehearsals at Real World studios. Once we're happy that everything is sounding strong, we'll be looking to make some announcements about a live show or two (not sure where yet but certainly in England to start with.) As we've previously mentioned, we'll also be filming the Real World performances for a Blu-Ray and DVD release at a later stage.

In working through the songs, we've identified a need for a strong additional keyboard player, guitarist and vocalist. I am very pleased to announce that we will be joined at Real World and for live shows by the wonderful Rikard Sjöblom from one of our favourite bands, Beardfish. Rikard is a fine keyboard player, guitarist and singer and so is able to fill all of our requirements in one person. He is a also a top chap which is very important to us.

Alongside our Real World preparation we are well into recording a new studio album, and work continues on Station Masters where we are revisiting some of our earlier songs with the new line-up. So, we are extremely busy and, if you see a little less of us in the BBT forum from time-to-time it's simply because we're working hard on new music, old music, or both.

Finally, the subscription copies of Prog magazine have started to arrive today ahead of going on sale in the shops on the 8th January. I wanted to take this opportunity to say thank-you to everybody who took the trouble to vote for us in the readers' polls in the magazine. The results Big Big Train achieved in the Prog polls (in band, album, vocalist and drummer categories) have given us a wonderful start to 2014.


Sunday, 8 September 2013

Making Some Noise

Photograph by Willem Klopper
Quite a lot happening for Big Big Train at the moment so thought I'd do a blog post just to draw some of the threads together.

First of all, I want to say, on behalf of the band, a heartfelt thank-you to everybody who took the time to vote for us in the Progressive Music Awards which were held at Kew gardens on the 3rd September. We were delighted to be nominated, even more thrilled to be invited and stunned to win the Breakthrough award. It was an extraordinary night at a beautiful location where everybody, wherever they are in the prog firmament, was friendly and approachable. All of the musicians are fans of progressive music and there was a lovely sense of 'we're all in this together' which has seen the genre through some tough times. We would especially like to thank Jerry, Jo, Russell, Philip and the other writers and staff at Prog magazine for their vision in launching the magazine and the awards. Again, they are also fans and, like the musicians, they are trying to run a business in difficult times for the publishing industry.

Team Rock Radio has tonight broadcast a show on the awards including many interviews and excerpts from speeches and it's well worth a listen. It should be available on the Team Rock On Demand service very soon. One of the few disadvantages of winning an award is that you are ushered backstage for interviews and photos so we actually missed much of the ceremony. Philip Wilding's radio show has helped to fill in some of the gaps for us.

In the next couple of weeks we will be releasing two new CD's - English Electric: Full Power and the Make Some Noise EP. The former is the ultimate statement of our English Electric releases and the latter provides an affordable option for listeners who already have English Electric Parts One and Two and want to hear the additional songs. Alongside the new CD's, English Electric Part Two will be released on vinyl through the Plane Groovy label. The double vinyl album features the four new tracks from English Electric: Full Power.

We have commenced work on a new album as well as the Station Masters retrospective and Nick returns to England at the end of September for some more recording. We are also spending a week at Real World next year to try out our planned live show. We are committed to playing a show as soon as we can but want to do a full rehearsal with the brass and string musicians in a controlled environment just to iron out any teething problems. We will be filming the Real World event as it's an extraordinary place to play and we would like to show you what we are up to. All being well, we'll follow Real World with a gig or two and then we hope to be playing live on a more regular basis after that.

We hope you enjoy the new releases and, once again, thank you for supporting Big Big Train.  

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The Early Music of Van Der Graaf Generator

Ahead of their show at The Barbican, I've embarked on a listen through all of the Van Der Graaf back-catalogue.

I haven't yet reached their greatest works (Pawn Hearts, Godbluff, Still Life) but even this far in, it has been an extraordinary musical journey.

It must be 30 years since I first heard Refugees, and I still find it to be an astonishingly beautiful song. House With No Door is almost as gorgeous. Of course, alongside these two languid songs there are tracks with furious riffing and brutal power. Sometimes these can be a challenging listen, but even at their most difficult, Van Der Graaf always had great melodies (a good example being After the Flood where, amongst all the doom and gloom that the band could muster, there are still many sing-out-loud moments .)     

My favourite of these early songs is Lost, an epic song about a failed relationship ('I know we'll never dance like we used to') where the band achieve the perfect combination of complex and challenging music alongside glorious anthemic passages.

Pawn Hearts is next on my listening list. I can't wait to hear it again.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Video review of English Electric Part One

Just ahead of the release of English Electric Part Two, here is Marcel Haster's new video review of English Electric Part One on the excellent Live Prog website.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Curator of Butterflies

The idea for this song started with a short newspaper article. The article was about the Natural History Museum and had a sub-heading of Curator of Butterflies which caught my eye. I was also interested in the final paragraph where Blanca Huertas, the Museum's Curator Lepidoptera describes how, as a teacher, she can explain 'everything with butterflies: genetics, taxonomy, camouflage, life and death'. As you can see from the scan of the cutting above, I underlined the final three words of the article. I tore the article out of the paper and placed it in the trunk where I keep ideas for songs.

When writing began for English Electric I opened the trunk, came upon the article and started work on a song which I called Curator of Butterflies. The chord sequence was composed on an acoustic 12-string guitar with the second string tuned up to 'C'. The melody was written very much with David's vocal abilities in mind. Much of the later musical arrangement was by Dave Desmond (brass) and Danny (piano.) Dave Gregory also came up with one of the main musical motifs of the song so this is very much a track where a lot of people have made significant contributions.

Many of the songs on English Electric have a story to tell but this one is a more philosophical piece. There is a female character in the song but I must stress that this person is not Blanca Huertas. I do not know Ms Huertas and would not presume to write about her. However, that short article about Ms Huertas was the direct inspiration for the lyrics and, in particular, those final three words: 'life and death'. The song is about the fine line between those two extremes. As I grow older I become more aware of my mortality and the mortality of my family and friends. The knowledge that we hold about our mortality means that life can be a beautiful burden.

Curator of Butterflies is the final song on English Electric Part Two and therefore brings to a close this series of pieces about the songs on the two BBT blogs. We do hope listeners find some music to enjoy on the album and we would like to thank all listeners to our music for their support and interest. We would especially like to thank the wonderful community of music lovers which has come together on the BBT Facebook group. If you can judge a band by its listeners, then BBT is a good band.

There will be a special double CD edition of English Electric later on in 2013. This will feature three additional songs and we will revise the track sequencing in the light of it being a double album rather than two separate releases. As we have made clear elsewhere, the three additional songs will also appear on an EP release and will be available for separate purchase as downloads so we are giving listeners various opportunities to purchase the extra songs without feeling the need to buy the albums again. We are also in discussion with Plane Groovy about releasing EE2 on vinyl (with the additional songs on the 4th side of a double release.)

We will tell you about these releases and other things when there is news.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

The Permanent Way

'The permanent way' is a Victorian expression which means the finished track and bed of a railway. I am sure it was intended to be a utilitarian term but it's a phrase which is full of mystery and hidden meaning. 'Way' is an Old English word meaning "road, path or course of travel". 'The permanent way' seems to suggest a longstanding connection between the countryside and the people who work on the land linked by the ancient (and new) pathways running through the landscape.

English Electric is not a concept album but many of the songs are thematic. On The Permanent Way, which is the penultimate track on the album, we have brought together the stories of the individuals and communities working on and under the land who, along with inescapable geological forces, helped to forge the British landscape.

As well as the connections between the songs on the two parts of English Electric we have also sought to explore the links to our 2009 album The Underfall Yard and the 2010 EP Far Skies Deep Time. Many of the themes explored on The Underfall Yard defined our work on English Electric. The title track of The Underfall Yard is primarily about the visionary engineers who made their mark on the land during the 19th century. In that song, the navigators and the engineer can be found:

'Working the way through the valleys and fields,
grass grown hills and stone.
Parting the land
with the mark of man,
the permanent way.
Using just available light,
he could still see far skies,
deep time.'

Where people have helped to shape the landscape it is at the hands of ordinary folk that this has been done. Sometimes this has been at the behest of powerful land-owners and at other times it has been due to the vision of those far-sighted men-of-iron. But in the end it all comes down to ordinary men and women, in communities past and present, working on the land.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Keeper of Abbeys

A few years back we visited the North Yorkshire Moors. We stayed for a few days at an English Heritage cottage within the grounds of an abbey at Rievaulx. I'd seen pictures of the romantic ruins of this abbey throughout my childhood and had always wanted to spend some time there. The cottage allowed us access to the site after hours and so were able to see the ruins in their splendid isolation when all the visitors had gone. At night the abbey becomes a very eerie place which meant a ghost-hunting trip was in order and, of course, we spooked ourselves very badly (there were dark shadows and ravens that refused to sing.)

On our first day at Rievaulx I noticed a man tending to the stones. He was there throughout our stay and worked from dawn until dusk. He was an interesting-looking chap, lean and tall with a square-jaw and a face that had been exposed to the elements over the years. He reminded me a little of Ted Hughes or, in my imagination, Heathcliff.

I became fascinated by this keeper of the abbey and plucked up the courage to say hello. I expected him to be a typically taciturn Yorkshireman but, in fact, he was happy to talk and so I got to know a little bit about his story. He came down from the moors to the valley every day. He loved the abbey and wanted to make it beautiful so he worked hard throughout the hours of daylight. There was, however, an air of melancholy about him which I couldn't put my finger on. At one point he said he had really wanted to travel the world but had never managed to escape.

I walked back to the cottage and made some notes about the keeper of abbeys and later, from those notes, wrote the words that became the lyrics to the fifth song on English Electric Part Two. I have, of course, used some artistic license in painting a portrait of this character (in particular I imagined a reason for his melancholy state) but the song is for the most part a reflection of the man I met at Rievaulx.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Worked Out

As we reach Worked Out, the third song on English Electric Part Two, we have moved from the shipbuilders of the North East (see David's blog on Swan Hunter) back to the mining industry of the Midlands (which featured as a setting in Uncle Jack, Hedgerow and A Boy in Darkness on Part One).

It is difficult to contemplate the immense scale of coal mining in Britain before its relatively recent decline. In the 1920's, there were more than a million coal-miners and the number was still at around 700,000 into the 1950's. By 1994, there were just 20,000 coal-miners.

The loss of so many mines was a disaster for communities which relied on the industry for work. Some have recovered but others still suffer very low levels of employment with all of the problems that lack of work brings.

Worked Out tells the story of a community from a mine which lasted longer than most. The colliery was called Birch Coppice and mined the Warwickshire coalfield until 1987. In the end, the colliery was closed because of a faultline in the coalface rather than for political or economic reasons.

My parents live in Tamworth and rent some storage on a farm near Birch Coppice. I spent a fair bit of time in the late 80's and early 90's wandering around on the land around the farm which was becoming 'edgeland'. Above the farm loomed a huge man-made hill where the spoil from the mine had accumulated. Nature was reclaiming the site and the hill was greening over. In a cutting I found the track bed of a disused railway line (heaven!) and, surrounding it, the remains of industrial workings. In more recent years, much of the site has been cleared and has become a modern distribution centre but there are still large areas of encroaching wilderness.

And, in any case, it is what lies beneath that really interests me. Underneath the ground are the remains from over 150 years of mining. There are shafts (now capped) which reach depths of over 1000 feet. There are 18 miles of workings and passages and the farthest coal face was three miles from the shafts. It was a huge undertaking and all of the visible remains were disappearing back into the undergrowth (or were being buried by car parks and warehouses.)

The same type of story can be found in the landscape all over Britain as the physical remnants of the gigantic undertaking that was the Industrial Revolution are lost. Worked Out is a song about the miners of Birch Coppice but it could be about any of the mining communities which have seen the closure of the pits and the loss of a way of life.

Monday, 14 January 2013

East Coast Racer

Photo: Gresley Society Trust

We are now seven weeks away from the release of English Electric Part Two, and as with Part One, we will be posting a weekly blog about the songs on the album up until the date of release.

The first song on Part Two is called East Coast Racer.

75 years ago, on 3rd July 1938, a streamlined locomotive called Mallard set the world speed record for steam trains, travelling at 126mph on a straight, downhill stretch of the East Coast Mainline.

Mallard has been preserved as a static exhibit and is normally on display at the National Railway Museum in York. Whilst she was made for speed the designers created a machine of extraordinary beauty; if you go to the museum, she will stop you in your tracks.

The story of Mallard has been described by Andrew Martin as being like Chariots of Fire with steam engines and it became, for me, an irresistible theme for a song. However, it wasn't so much  Mallard but the people who designed, made, fired and drove her that interested me. And it is their tale we tell over the 15 minutes or so of East Coast Racer.

It is a story with a wonderful list of main characters; designer Sir Nigel Gresley, his assistant Oliver Bulleid, fireman Tommy Bray and driver Joe Duddington. Alongside those with starring roles was a community of engineers and railwaymen who all played a part in the making of a legend.

But, in the end, we come back to Mallard.

Émile Zola said: 'Somewhere in the course of manufacture, a hammer blow or a deft mechanic's hand imparts to a locomotive a soul of its own'.

In this short sentence, Zola puts his finger on the connection between the maker and the machine. Mallard has outlived its creators but in it, this company of men and the work they carried out, lives on.


Friday, 19 October 2012

Progarchy: 'Pointing Toward Proghalla'

Progressive rock has a very vibrant presence on the internet, with a number of communities and sites all with their particular strengths and idiosyncrasies. Over the years, I have probably visited Progressive Ears, Progarchives and DPRP more often than most, but there are many others, including sites hosted by individual bands (such as the BBT Facebook Group.)

Now, there is a fine new prog site called Progarchy which I strongly recommend. The site functions as a blog and includes reviews and articles. The number of contributors and readers is expanding very rapidly and I forecast that Progarchy will become an essential resource for prog listeners. The site can be found here and followed on Twitter here.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Summoned By Bells

Upper Kent Street, Highfields, Leicester
The title of the fifth song on English Electric, Summoned By Bells, was pinched from Sir John Betjeman's book. Like Betjeman's poem, the song takes a look back at an earlier part of the subject's life, but in this case the memories are from my mum, Doreen, who grew up in a working class area of Leicester called Highfields.

My grandad John was a wheeltapper and lived in a terraced railway house in Upper Kent Street, Highfields, for almost all of his adult life. The photograph below shows the railway yard where he and my uncles worked (Leicester Shed). The row of houses lit up by the sunlight on the left of the roundhouse is Upper Kent Street.

Leicester Shed and Upper Kent Street
My mum has told me many stories about her upbringing in Highfields and, a couple of years ago, we decided to take a family trip back to the area to have a look around.

We found that much had changed. Leicester Shed is just sidings now; Upper Kent Street is gone and the roundhouse is no more. The population of the area has changed too and, in many ways, it's a very different place from when John and Doreen and her brothers lived there.

However, the more we looked around the more familiar the place became to Mum. Many of the old redbrick buildings survive, including her old school. And the park at Spinney Hill where she played is still there (and still popular with the local children). There appeared to be a strong sense of community and, whilst Highfields is just an ordinary place, it seemed to me as good a place as anywhere.

As we drove away, we stopped to let a young girl cross the road. If we had been able to stand in that spot 70 years before, that little girl could have been my mum on her way down to Spinney Hill park. With this image in my mind, more clear to me than the changes in Highfields, was the golden thread of continuity running down from the past.

Summoned By Bells is about my mum's upbringing in Leicester and about our trip back to her childhood home. The early parts of the song are built around Danny's piano playing before the focus shifts to Dave's electric 12-string. The song also features our brass band, led by Dave Desmond, and the recorder playing of Jan Jaap Langereis.

In the next two weeks on his blog, David will be telling the stories of the sixth and seventh songs on English Electric, Upton Heath and A Boy in Darkness.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Winchester From St Giles' Hill

'Alfred had me made (or made me again)'

The third song on English Electric (Part One) is called Winchester From St Giles' Hill.
Winchester is a beautiful and historic city in the south of England. St Giles’ Hill lies to the east of the city and forms part of the western edge of the South Downs. From the top of the hill you can see all of Winchester, and the song is an historical view of the development of the city and of (as Peter Ackroyd calls it) the ‘long song’ of England.
Winchester stands at a number of crossroads in time and provides a narrative of British and English history in miniature. There was a prehistoric settlement at Oram’s Arbour, then it became a Roman town and afterwards, a Saxon capital and stronghold. The Normans built a castle and a massive cathedral. It became a centre of learning with the opening of Winchester College and, in Victorian times, the railways came and with them the modern age.
Michael Wood has stated that 'Geography is history and history is geography' and Winchester From St Giles' Hill seeks to link the development of the city with its place in the landscape.
'A river flowing from the chalkhills through the water meadows and the open fields.
Walls were made and streets were laid down,halls and houses, schools and churches.'
Winchester From St Giles' Hill begins and ends with a flute and piano motif. The theme also forms part of the instrumental section where it is played on classical guitar. Alongside David's flute, a key feature of the song is the beautiful and complex piano playing of Danny Manners. I asked Danny to develop the piano part so that it sounded like a mountain stream racing down a hillside: of such obscure requests, beautiful arrangements are made.
The next song to be featured as we count down towards the release  of English Electric will be Judas Unrepentant. David will be telling the tale of that song on his blog in a few days' time.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Judas Unrepentant

Judas Unrepentant from English Electric Part One appears on the covermount CD of Prog magazine which is available from newsagents tomorrow.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

About the new songs - The First Rebreather

Over the next few weeks, in the run-up to September 3rd, David and I are going to tell the stories behind each song on English Electric Part One. I'm going to kick off with The First Rebreather, which is the opening song on the new album.

The First Rebreather

Like many people, I'm fascinated by the world beneath our feet. Many towns and cities in England are riddled with underground passages and chambers (London, Bristol and Exeter being obvious examples) and a number of books have been published on these hidden places. There is also an organisation called Subterranea Britannica dedicated to the study of man-made underground spaces in Britain.

As BBT listeners may know, we have featured one such underground place in a song on The Underfall Yard called Winchester Diver, which tells the true story of diver William Walker who saved Winchester Cathedral by diving under the flooded foundations. The title track of The Underfall Yard also included some references to the world below.

When it came to writing English Electric, I remembered a story that Dave Gregory told me about the making of the Severn railway tunnel. On the basis that there can never be too many prog songs about diving into flooded tunnels I started researching the story and found an article called The First Rebreather which gave me the song's title.

As soon as I've got a good title, the creative juices normally start to flow and so I quickly set about writing the soundtrack and lyrics to the true story of a man called Alexander Lambert who dived heroically into the flooded Severn Tunnel in 1880. The navvies who built the tunnel and who were hard-drinking fearless chaps were terrified that the river would break in and drown them all. However, when the tunnel flooded, the water was found to be fresh rather than tidal. The navvies had, in fact, struck an immense underwater spring which flowed through a fault in the rock (they called it The Great Spring). Conventional diving equipment was used to try to close an iron door in the tunnel to hold the water back. The equipment failed due to the air-hose continually being snagged.

The tunnel engineer had heard of a man called Henry Fleuss who had developed an experimental diving apparatus called a Rebreather (in effect, it was the first aqua-lung.) Fleuss was persuaded to make an attempt on the tunnel but was so frightened that he turned back and said he would not return to the darkness ‘for £10,000 or more.’ The equipment was handed over to Diver Lambert who carried out a number of dives which involved swimming 1000ft up the flooded tunnel in complete darkness. Lambert, The First Rebreather, confronts his fear in the tunnel whilst the workmen await his return.

‘The first rebreather’ is a strange phrase which sounds almost super-heroic which, indeed, Lambert was.  So, I decided that, for the purposes of the song, The First Rebreather would be seen as a sort of superhuman creature come to save the navvies from the Great Spring.
Lambert would, of course, have looked very odd in his diving gear and, to the superstitious men, I’ve imagined that he would have looked like a Mummer (also known as a Souler). Mummers’ plays generally feature a character who brings back to life a dead person, so that fitted quite nicely as Lambert tries to bring air back to the lungs of the tunnel.
In the song, The Great Spring has also become a character. I remember being frightened as a child by the story of Beowulf swimming into the mere to slay the beast and again, I’ve used that imagery. In Beowulf, his men waited by the water for him to return. He returned ‘at the ninth hour’. The closing vocal section of the lyrics is about the workmen waiting for Lambert to swim back to the surface. As The First Rebreather is also a direct follow-up to Winchester Diver, I have also worked in some references to The Divine Comedy.
Musically, The First Rebreather is built, for the most part, on Dave's insistent guitar riff and Andy Tillison's beautiful organ playing. In the choruses and in the Moog solo section we set out some themes which are reprised in different songs later on (and also in songs on Part Two). The First Rebreather also introduces the sound of our string quartet to the album.
The next song we will be featuring in this series of blog posts will be Uncle Jack, which David will be writing about on his blog in a few days' time.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

News round-up

Quite a lot of things happening at the moment, so I thought I'd do a little round-up.

The new album English Electric (Part One) is out on 3rd September with pre-orders being taken at our new website here.

The track listing is:

1.The First Rebreather (8.32)
2.Uncle Jack (3.49)
3.Winchester From St Giles' Hill (7.16)
4.Judas Unrepentant (7.18)
5.Summoned By Bells (9.17)
6.Upton Heath (5.39)
7.A Boy In Darkness (8.03)
8.Hedgerow (8.52)

On English Electric, we are joined by special guest musicians Andy Tillison (The Tangent), Louis Philippe, Rachel Hall (Stackridge), Danny Manners (Robert Wyatt, Cathal Coughlan)and our brass band and string quartet. Full information on the album can be found here.

We also have an English Electric tee-shirt which will be nice to wear during the blazing hot summer sunshine we're having in England (ahem). Tee-shirt sales are being handled by the lovely people at The Merch Desk. Tee-shirts are available in various sizes and colours and in gents and ladies styles. The Merch Desk also have a special offer tee-shirt / CD pre-order deal which is worth checking out.
Earlier this week, we took part in an interview with Nick Shilton of Prog magazine for a forthcoming feature article on the band. In the meantime, a track from the new album called Judas Unrepentant will feature on the covermount CD of the next issue of Prog magazine which is due out on the 18th July.

I've recently been interviewed by Brad Birzer and the interview has been published here. An interview with David will also shortly be published online.

Our Group page on Facebook continues to grow and has become a wonderful place to talk about music with like-minded people.

We are also active on Twitter and recently heard via Twitter that Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater is now a fan of BBT.

Finally, we are pleased to announce that BBT have signed a licensing deal with GEP. Whilst we are keen to retain our independence from record labels, we recognise that GEP will be able to assist us with distribution and promotion and so we have signed a deal which is right for the band and hopefully for GEP too.

More news soon.

Friday, 20 April 2012

This is London

Just spent a couple of wonderful days in London. I was originally planning a walk along the course of the lost Fleet River (following the directions in Tom Bolton's excellent book London's Lost Rivers) but ended up getting distracted at Kings Cross,  firstly by the construction of a new city quarter on the railway and canal lands behind the station, and secondly by developments at the station itself, with significant progress made on restoring the train shed roof and the newly opened Western Concourse.

To the north of the station, work is well underway on the new city quarter and it is shaping up to be a beautiful area of London. There is a real sense of place and history in the plans and it appears that every effort is being made to create a balanced community with mixed use of the available space (eg education, arts, retail, business, transport, government, leisure). The University of the Arts has already opened and has made use of a range of Victorian granary storage buildings. It looks sensational. A new square is being built in front of the University which leads down to the Regent's Canal. The Canal itself is well used for leisure purposes, although it still has an air of the edgelands about it. However, work is planned to improve the towpath and this should create a lovely walking route up to Camden Lock (just a mile away).

We walked part of the way towards Camden along the towpath and then looped back towards St Pancras station. We climbed a short flight of steps and found ourselves in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, which has been a place of worship for over 1500 years (although most of the current church building itself is Victorian).

In the churchyard, my eyes were drawn to a cluster of disused headstones, heaped up alongside an ash tree. The roots of the tree had grown over some of the headstones and the tree seemed to be trying to lay claim to them.
Photograph by Jacqueline Banerjee
There was an information board in front of the tree which stated:

"before turning to writing full time, Thomas Hardy studied architecture in London from 1862-67 under Mr. Arthur Blomfield, an architect based in Covent Garden. During the 1860s the Midland Railway line was being built over part of the original St. Pancras Churchyard. Blomfield was commissioned by the Bishop of London to supervise the proper exhumation of human remains and dismantling of tombs. He passed this unenviable task to his protegé Thomas Hardy in. c.l865. Hardy would have spent many hours in St. Pancras Churchyard . . . overseeing the careful removal of bodies and tombs from the land on which the railway was being built. The headstones around this ashtree (Fraxinus excelsior) would have been placed here about that time. Note how the tree has since grown in amongst the stones" (source: The Victorian Web).

So, here in the corner of a London churchyard, we found an extraordinary historical site which linked back to one of the great men of our Wessex homelands. And this is what I love about London, and why it calls me. There is so much history in the stones and in the land and so any walk through the city is rich with interest as there is a story on every street.

We stopped for a quick pint at the Betjeman Arms at St Pancras Station and spent some time admiring Barlow's train shed (surely one of the most beautiful buildings in England.) It is difficult now to believe that St Pancras had once been scheduled for demolition. In the 1960's it had come under the baleful gaze (like some Wellsian Martian death-ray) of planners, who were fresh from destroying Euston station just along the road. Thankfully, protests (led by Sir John Betjeman) caused there to be a rethink and the station was saved and subsequently restored (Martin Jennings' statue of Betjeman at St Pancras is a must-see).

We finally made our way back to the starting point of our walk, Kings Cross station. Once the roof of the train shed is fully restored and the appalling existing concourse removed, opening up for the first time in half-a-century the glorious Victorian frontage of the train shed, Kings Cross Station will become (like St Pancras next door) the sort of place you go to not just because you're going somewhere else. It will be another destination in itself in a city which is full of them.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Updates from the BBT forum

Just thought I'd post a couple of updates from the BBT forum for those disinclined to use Facebook.

A post from me last Wednesday:

'A quick update on the mixing. We went into the studio last night to do some snagging and now have mixes of:

East Coast Racer
Uncle Jack
The East Prospect of Winchester from St Giles' Hill
Judas Unrepentant
A Boy in Darkness
The First Rebreather

We reckon we're about halfway there, with another 9 songs to go.

On the way to the studio I bumped into former BBT singer Sean Filkins and had chance for a catch up. Sean's solo album has been picking up excellent reviews and, if you haven't heard it, is well worth checking out:
And a query from Sylvain:
'A question I've been wanting to ask for some time: how will you conceive the two volumes of English Electric? Will each record have its own theme or mood, or will you just randomly separate the songs in two groups?'
with my answer:
'We have thought long and hard about this issue. We want both albums to work as separate releases (some people may buy one but not both) and also succeed as a double CD for those who want to listen to the whole thing in one sitting. There are themes and motifs that are shared between both discs but each volume also needs to be able to stand alone. So, track selection has been difficult! Whilst there is a good balance, overall, I think that volume 1 will grab the attention more quickly than volume 2 (which is a little more reflective and quirky.) That's the plan, anyway.'
Happy Easter from BBT

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Good People

We've been pondering whether to create a forum on our website in advance of the release of English Electric. However, our Facebook group is beginning to do the job very nicely.

Over there you can read learned conversations about the last resting place of the Winchester Diver; you will find out which songs Spotters think should be covered by BBT and you can seek information on our future plans.

You will meet cultured and attractive people discussing English folk music and the size of Nick's cajones.

In short, you will be in good company and, if not already a member of the group, I urge you to pop on over and take a look.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Steve Wilson Interview

If you have a few minutes to spare, I recommend checking out Anil Prasad's interview with Steve Wilson at Innerviews. It's a thoughtful interview with a thoughtful man and worth reading in its entirety.

One of many interesting points that Steve Wilson makes is that prog musicians from the classic bands began to suffer from a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, coming to believe that their best music of the 70's was worthless because they were continually told it was rubbish by their captors, the media. This does offer an explanation as to why so many prog musicians ended up dismissing their greatest work, much to the chagrin of fans.