Sunday 31 August 2008

Release date for English Boy Wonders

The release date for English Boy Wonders is 1st December. It'll be a digipack with a 12 page booklet.

We'll be taking pre-orders from the 1st October until the 30th November for a discounted price. CD's will be sent to arrive by the release date.

The video is a promotional slide show for the album, featuring the new version of Reaching For John Dowland. You can watch it here, or, if you scroll down a bit and click on the link to Big Big Train at YouTube on the right of this page and then select the 'watch in high quality' option, you'll get better quality audio.


Jem said...

Hurrah! I shall be placing my order soon then. :-)


Anonymous said...

Talking to Greg Spawton (bigbigtrain guitarist and songwriter) about the reissue of English Boy Wonders

JT: Of all the albums in your catalogue what made you choose to re-release English Boy Wonders?

GS: English Boy Wonders is our underachieving album and we want to try to re-write our history a little bit to make it the album it should have been. The mid 1990's was quite a difficult period for us. We had to deal with some line-up changes and our record label, GEP, wasn't being especially supportive, so we only had a very small advance. Consequently, we kept running out of money for recording sessions which led to a protracted period of recording with lots of stops and starts. The sessions felt very disjointed and, in fact, we never really finished the album properly, it was released in a semi-complete state with lots of bits missing where there should have been guitar and keyboard parts and textures. It was also released with minimal publicity and, in sales terms, it died a bit of a death. So, it wasn't any fun to make and it failed both artistically and commercially, which seem like good reasons to leave it in the deleted column! But, and there is a big but for us with this album, EBW contains many of our best songs and it's been frustrating for us to have these songs buried on an unavailable album with such a low profile. We've talked for a while about how we might try to make some of the material available again and then we unexpectedly got an offer from our Russian distributers to re-release the whole album. Luckily, we'd taken the precaution of transferring all of the sessions onto Pro-Tools so we had access to all of the original multi-track recordings. So, we agreed on a re-release but on the proviso that we would spend a little bit of time finishing the album off to make it sound as we had always wanted it to and also that we re-mixed it rather than just re-mastered.

JT: What changes can we expect?

GS: Well, we've actually had a blast working on the album again. We've spent far more time on it than we expected to and have done some extensive re-working of the original material. Some songs have been mostly left alone where we couldn't really improve on the originals, but others have been, effectively, remade. We now have access to much better gear as well so it is sounding great. We have proper Mellotron and Hammond and all of the things we couldn't afford in the 90's, so many of the sounds we have used are a lot better.

JT: EBW was a very special album to me, so you can imagine it was with both anticipation and trepidation that I greeted the idea of a remixed and re-recorded version. I'm pleased to say, from what I've heard so far, it all sounds even better than the original. Would you say that the remixed album is closer to the album you wanted to make then, or the album you would make now? Have you learnt any thing from the process?

GS: That's an interesting question and I'm going to answer it by sitting on the fence a little. Many parts of the re-made album are much, much closer to how I originally envisaged them. Albion Perfide is a good example - it was always supposed to have big Mellotron sections at the start and the end and the piano instrumental bit was intended to be more orchestrated for the whole band. Those things didn't happen on the original and we've put that right. Boxgrove Man is another example, where we originally had a guitar solo on the playout which got lost along the way. That's now been re-instated. However, we've learnt a lot about arranging and production since we started working out of our own studio in 2002 and I can't pretend that some of that learning hasn't gone into the album. So, some things are closer in to BBT in 2008 rather than BBT in the mid 90's.

As to what we've learnt, I think the main thing for me is that it's reminded me how important songs are to the BBT sound. We've gone into more and more alternative prog and post rock territory in recent albums and have moved away from conventional songs. It's been nice to be reminded about our earlier more song-orientated approach.

JT: I always felt EBW was an album of extremes, containing some of the longest songs and shortest songs you've written. Ranging from full on progressive rock, to moments of almost bedsitter folk, the songs rocked between the shear bliss of absolute and unquestioning love to the misery of loss and betrayal. I felt it was a very personal album, and there are certain lyrics which are so tangible they have to be true. It’s a real roller coaster ride of musical and human emotions, and there appears to be a common thread which holds the songs together (camouflaged in the individual setting of each song). Was it always intended to create these tensions between the songs, like people out of love and hiding their feelings, or was this just a reflection to your mood at the time? Is there a hidden story line?

GS: About half of the songs on the album are about the failure of my marriage, those bits of the album are a sort of prog rock-style Face Value or Blood on the Tracks. On the re-release, these songs have been placed in two sequences and collected under a separate heading of For Autumn. So, where there was a hidden thread, we've now made that clearer. My love life was a bit of a mess in the mid to late 90's and I went on to write quite a few more songs on the same subject, most of which appeared on the next album, Bard and some of which will be released on When Everything Was Made of Wood in 2010. The other songs on the album are not about failed relationships, although some are autobiographical. I didn't really intend to create tensions between the songs, to be honest. I think what happened is that we treated the album as it was going to be our last one and so used the CD format to include a lot of songs and make what would once have been a double album. This made it a very diverse set. One of the things I like about the re-release is that we've been able to emphasise the individual quality of each song. So, the proggy stuff is more proggy, and the jangly-pop stuff is more, er, jangly. Yet it all seems to hold together as an album very well.

JT: It is a very honest album, was it hard to give that much of yourself? I always felt “Out Of It“ could be taken in two ways, “Don’t dissect me, don’t even try to second guess me, can’t you just leave it alone…” a swipe at your partner, and perhaps the listener.

GS: Whatever makes me want to pick up a guitar or pen and write at any particular time is good for me, although this was new territory and so I was a little bit hesitant to put songs forward at times. The band were a bit surprised and there were a few raised eyebrows at the nature of some of the lyrics. To their credit, they went with the flow and, probably, bit their lips a bit. And you're right about Out of It, there was a dual meaning intended.

JT: EBW is probably the most played CD in my collection. How sad is that? Do you often listen to your own material? And what does it feel like to revisit what is obviously a very emotional set of songs?

GS: After the release of any album, we very rarely listen to it, so this has been an interesting experience for us, especially given the nature of the songs. I'm clearly not in the same place now as I was in the mid 90's, so I was wary about re-visiting songs where some fairly raw emotions were expressed. But I like this set of songs very much and we just had a great time, wallowing in misery all over again!

JT: EBW is a very special album, not least for the honest chronicling of that part of your life, but more so for the shear diversity of styles and moods. Perhaps it was that thought, that this could have been your last album, which inspired such diversity. However, there has been a significant change in the sound of BBT from the early albums, and each album is different from the last. Is it right that Goodbye to the age of Steam was largely composed on classical guitar, Gathering speed on twelve-string and The Difference Machine on electric? (I hope I’ve not picked this up from some unreliable source, or just imagined it). Is this something you've done intentionally to make the sound different and how was English Boy Wonders composed?

GS: No, you didn't imagine that. At the time of Age of Steam I was studying classical guitar, and most of the album started off as a bunch of classical guitar solo pieces. Some of the classical guitar parts made their way directly onto the album, others were arranged for different instruments and then played by the band. English Boy Wonders and Bard were composed mainly on a steel 6-string acoustic and for Gathering Speed, it all came out very quickly on a 12-string. Difference Machine was actually composed a bit more in the head and then onto electric guitars or keyboards. None of this has been intentional, however. I tend to write very little most of the time and then just have huge bursts where a whole album can come out in a few weeks. Sometimes changing to a different instrument helps get the creative juices flowing, other times it is just whatever is to hand. I have to say I do feel the need to make some deliberate changes after our next new studio album, which is all written, and partly recorded. It'll be the third in a series of albums which have been very much rooted in the prog rock genre, and I think it may be time to explore some different sounds after the release of that one.

JT: You’ve talked about EBW containing some jangly pop songs. The early progressive albums by bands such as Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson were very diverse with a mix of short songs and longer (what were later to define) “prog” elements. I never ever felt that songs such as For Absent Friends, Clear Days, or Book of Saturdays were any less deserving, or progressive, than The Musical box, And You and I or Court of the Crimson King. It sounds as if you feel constrained by what the genre has become? Are there specific areas you'd like to include in the BBT sound?

GS: First and foremost, I am a huge fan of prog rock and am not looking to disown what we do or have done within the genre. Indeed, our next album of new material will include our first and maybe only 23 minute epic on it, and I think that song could well be our biggest achievement. However, I was just reading some comments on a forum about Duke and most of the posters seem to hate Please Don't Ask, which I think is a good song. I'm not sure why Please Don't Ask is beyond the pale, while More Fool Me from Selling England is acceptable? These sort of comments do make me feel a bit constrained as to what is expected from the genre and make me a bit wary about stepping off the familiar path. The problem we have is that we have built up a reasonable audience for our music and if we take a wrong step I worry that the audience could drain away. If our CD sales go, so does the band. My hope and belief is that fans of BBT will enjoy us experimenting with the music rather than taking the well-trodden path. There are many different sides to my writing that I'd like to express. That includes the prog influence, the XTC-loving indie-pop side, the post-rock thing, ambient music and English folk. Of course, if you tried to reflect all of those influences on the same album, you could end up with a mess, so I find that different things creep in at different times. On English Boy Wonders, the jangly pop side came through, on Difference Machine we welded prog to post rock. The next album will build on the Difference Machine style, while the one after, which I'm writing for now, will, I think, be a little bit of Raconteurs and a little bit Anthony Phillips with a story-telling approach to the lyrics. It'll still sound like Big Big Train, though. It always does.

JT: Please Don't Ask is a good song but the arrangement is not as strong as it could have been, and Misunderstanding - lets not go there. Steve Wilson was quoted as saying he uses Porcupine Tree for the darker prog rock material, Blackfield for the AOR, and NoMan for the ambient electronic stuff. When it's all good music I'm not convinced it has to be catalogued so distinctly, but I appreciate some things just don't sit well together. Was this a worry you had with English Boy Wonders?

GS: I agree with you about Misunderstanding - its inclusion weakens the album. I like that quote from Steve. As you know, we set up a little side-project band of our own a few years back, called Treefrog. The idea was that we could release our poppier stuff under Treefrog and keep the prog material for BBT. For one reason or another, we never got round to it and most of the unreleased Treefrog songs will be coming out on When Everything Was Made of Wood in 2010. I was very concerned about the diversity of material on English Boy Wonders and I think the reviews were hostile partly because of that. They were sort of 'is this a prog album or not?' But now I feel differently; I think there is strength in that diversity and as a set of songs, it hangs together very well. Of course, not everyone will agree with that view.

JT: There are a lot of historical and archaeological references in your work, from Dragon Bone Hill, to Vespasian, to the theme for Gathering Speed, and many elements of the Bard album. What interests you so much in history?

GS: History is a real passion of mine. I studied archaeology at university and have a very strong connection to the history that surrounds us in the landscape and in ideas. Over the years my interest in history started to creep more and more into the songs. Most of the next album has a historical theme or setting and I think it's going to carry on and develop further from there.

JT: A few lyrics in the BBT songbook flip between time scales as the song moves from line to line (like history repeating itself or running in parallel). I tried to link Reaching for John Downland with the love story in English Boy Wonders assuming you’d used the same approach there and ended up totally confused, but that’s all part of the enjoyment - and one of the reasons I love the lyrics on this album so much. Reaching for John Downland particularly contains some strong visual elements, like fragments of some weird full colour nightmare. Is it important for you to retain this abstract element in the writing, and can you tell us a little bit about the other songs on the album (outside the Autumn suite)?

GS: I love the timeslip approach. I pinched it from an Alan Garner book called Red Shift which tells three parallel stories across different eras, stories which he links in an astounding fashion. I've used it a lot and will continue to do so. John Dowland actually sits outside the Autumn story, though, and I don't think I linked it across at all. It's a true-life story, based on somebody that Andy knew who had a serious car accident. This left him with a temporary brain injury which caused him to have extraordinary, vibrant dreams, full of Lucy-in-the-Sky kind of imagery. I wrote some of these dreams down and then added some of my own ideas just to complete the song. It is a very abstract piece and I think it's one of my stronger sets of lyrics. With songs, often it's the sound of words together that is important and that tends to lead towards an abstract style.

The opening pair of tracks on the album, Big Empty Skies and Brushed Aside are both about leadership, political and otherwise. The setting of Brushed Aside is Robert Falcon Scott's doomed voyage to the Antarctic. Boxgrove Man is mainly about my father. His life was full of ups and downs, and there were many downs in his later years when he lost his way a bit. I've always been frightened of making similar mistakes, but I seem to be making my own. 28 Years is Martin's set of lyrics - I think he was reflecting on his life up to then.

JT: I’m pleased you retained the original vocals, Martin does a great job. I loved his voice and thought this was his strongest work with the band. For a Canadian he has a very English sound. It’s a lot different from the classic rock style of Sean. Was there ever any temptation to rerecord the vocals?

GS: Sean was keen to do the vocals again, and it was certainly discussed. However, we felt we had to draw the line somewhere, so we retained the vocals and Steve's drums, both of which were recorded to a high standard. My feeling was we should keep to the original line-up of musicians on English Boy Wonders rather than parachute any other performances in from players who have worked with us subsequently. Therefore, it's just the line-up we used on the album when it was first released. Martin Orford has done some additional keyboards for the bonus track, Two Poets Meet, but he played flute on the original album so that was ok. Once or twice, it did feel restrictive as we could hear sections that Sean would have added a great deal to, and there were one or two bits where I had to do some additional vocals, but I felt we should stick to the plan. Martin was a big part of the band in the early days and this was certainly his best album. He brought a different style of vocals to the table than that used by many prog bands, a clear singing voice rather than a voice with influences from the classic prog rock vocalists. His main weakness was that he couldn't really step up and belt it out, he had a softer style. Sean has a greater range and control of dynamics.

JT: On the blogspot videos you talk a little about the packaging, it was great to have the chance to do some illustrations for the album, how will these be used in the final product?

GS: The original cover artwork was done by a chap called Michael Griffiths who also did the artwork for Bard. We like the cover a lot, but the artwork didn't transfer very well into the booklet, which is where you come in. The album will be released as a digipak, and that will include a 12 page booklet including all of the lyrics and sleeve notes. The booklet features 12 of your new paintings. It looks fantastic, it's the best packaging we've put together so far.

JT: I can’t wait to see the finished item it’s a real buzz to be associated in someway with one of my favourite albums. You’ve talked about plans for the next album and one after that – it sounds like a busy schedule? Are there any concert plans, I can imagine the remix would be a much more difficult album to recreate on stage than the original?

GS: We do have a busy schedule, and I want to keep the momentum up with a release every year for the next three years. We haven't gigged for quite a while and I think we're missing out on one of the most rewarding and fun aspects of being in a band. But BBT is not a full-time project as we don't earn enough from it, so we need to be careful about how we use the limited time we have. Our music has become increasingly ambitious, so we would need to put a lot of time into rehearsals to make it work, which means less time for writing and recording. My view at the moment is that our future is guaranteed by increasing our CD sales, and gigging could become an expensive ego trip. Having said all that, English Boy Wonders is eminently playable live. Most of the more complicated songs were gigged previously and, although there would be more parts to perform, we've done nothing to them on the re-release that would be too difficult.

JT: So it’s a definitely maybe? I was hoping you might have toured in support of Spock’s Beard - that would have been cool. As even it's been a pleasure, and thanks for taking the time out to talk to me.

GS: Maybe never, maybe sometime, maybe soon. The Spock's gig would have been cool and Nick is keen to gig the material he's recorded with us, but Frost is a bigger draw, to be honest.

Sorry - couldn't resist but post this here. Jim

Anonymous said...

Hi Greg,

Just placed my order. And now............we wait!


David Brown said...

Received my copy of EBW on Wednesday. I think that's the closest to a release date I've ever owned an album! Only played it twice so far - it is a double album's worth after all. Already found myself cranking up the volume as I enjoyed some of the shorter tracks on my drive home today.
One small criticism of the packaging. I DO admire the artwork and the typeface. However with my eyesight I was struggling to make out the lyrics in white on pastel-ish shades (not whilst driving - I might add!!). I'll have to have another look to see if the lyrics are on the website.
Many thanks.