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.