Big Big Inspiration

Music is a very important part of who I am and it plays a significant role in my writing. I've been reminded of that a lot lately and the gig I went to on Sunday afternoon brought those thoughts to the fore once more for a number of reasons. It got me thinking about my relationship with music, what part it plays in my everyday life and in turn my creative pursuits. 

 Music has the power to connect people, to elevate us above and beyond our own limitations and restrictions. In many ways I think music is one of the things that makes us human. I'd be lost without films, TV shows, books and comics but I have a feeling that music is the entertainment medium that I'd be most unable to live without. Probably because I could listen to music while trying to make things for those other outlets myself. I actually tried the making music thing, but having attempted to sing in a couple of bands as a teenager I soon realised that wasn't going to be my most fruitful creative endeavour. 

My gateway to music was through my Dad, I didn't like absolutely everything he listened to but he's someone who tends to have music playing all the time, in the house or in the car, so I was exposed to a lot of music at a young age.  I actually took my eight year old daughter to the concert with me on the weekend and watching her sing along to songs she'd discovered in my car reminded me of learning songs the same way, at around the same age.  

Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.
— Aristotle

As I type this I'm listening to an album that my Dad and I played a lot when I was seven, as that's the age I was when it was released. Time by ELO (Electric Light Orchestra), came out in 1981 and unsurprisingly it was the first concept album I'd ever listened to. The songwriting and the production made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and overwhelmed my young psyche with a range of unexpected emotions. This wasn't just music to dance to or sing along with, this was music to think and feel to, music that told stories. Thirty four years later, the feeling I get listening to this album is the same as it was then and I still know all of the words. It's an evocative collection of songs, conjuring images of the future, time and space travel. The young writer in me found inspiration in this collection of songs when he first started putting pen to paper. Any album with a prologue and epilogue will help teach about about structure, build up and pacing, even if it's only subliminally. 


The album tells the story, through its songs and lyrics, of a man from the 1980s finding himself in the year 2095 and trying to come to terms with being unable to return and adjusting to his new surroundings.
— Wikipedia

Robin of Sherwood was my favourite program growing up, it ran from 1984 to 1986 so I was ten to twelve years old when it was shown on ITV. My favourite character in the series was defintely the Saracen assassin Nasir, played by actor Mark Ryan (who Wikipedia tells me has written for DC Comics, in fact his whole career sounds fascinating). As well as enjoying the acting and adventure on the show, this was the first time I'd really noticed the music on TV. In films I was used to the score being an integral part of the whole experience, but I'd never felt this sensation on the small screen before. Robin (The Hooded Man) was the theme, but the whole soundtrack was something very special indeed. My Dad bought a copy of "Legend" by Clannad, which had all the songs from the series on it and we played that a lot in the house and in the car. Those songs didn't just live on through that cassette copy though (which come to think of it may actually have been my older brother's), it also played almost constantly in my head. Growing up in the countryside meant lots of fields and woods to play in, and those Clannad songs were the backdrop for my own Robin Hood adventures too. Years later I bought my own CD copy and I still listen to it regularly. It was one of the albums I put on when I was writing medieval story "The Lament of Lady Mary" for the Unseen Shadows universe, along with Last Samurai, Kingdom of Heaven and some other selected soundtracks. 

My tastes have changed over the years, but I still have to listen to music every day. Music is still one of the things that inspires me as a person and also helps fuel my own creativity. A lyric, a song title, the production values of an album, a particular riff or refrain, all can spark story ideas or help shape the ones I'm working on. Much of this is relatively under the surface, but there are times when I use music in a more direct sense when I'm writing. 

My one and only screenplay Restitution Day (a Western) is named after a Jerry Cantrell song lyric and contains characters taking their surnames from Cantrell himself and Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready. In my early comic work I weaved in references to the likes of Iron Maiden, The Smiths and The Doors, into the shorts I wrote for anthologies and I've written two separate stories featuring vampire rock bands - the most recent Blood Dolls appeared in the British Comics Showcase from Markosia.  I totally wore my heart on my sleeve in my graphic novel The Interactives, which featured a character taking on the physical appearance of Mother Love Bone lead singer Andy Wood and a group of other deceased rock stars. 

 One of the mini series I'm working on, Viva Las Venus, was loosely inspired by PM Dawn's song Downtown Venus, an old series idea 5th Outlaw took some cues from the Velvet Revolver video for She builds quick machines. I was also planning to delve into another music centred concept with a mini series idea simply called Prog, but the existence of This Damned Band by Paul Cornell and Tony Parker from Dark Horse, probably put paid to that one. I'm currently editing and writing for a Pearl Jam based anthology I put together called no (comic) code, which features almost eighty other comic creators with an affinity to the band too. So I have plenty of out and out influences that come from the world of music. 

For each series I write I usually create a playlist, not necessarily to write to as I try to avoid lyrics when I'm working, but to help shape the tone and feel of the narrative. I might put that playlist on during the staring into space stage of the writing process, be that sat at my desk, in the shower, car or gym. Then when the actual physically getting words onto paper stage happens I shift to the likes of Matt Stevens, And so I watch you from Afar and film soundtracks to stop me from being too distracted. Although silence usually ends up being my final destination once I get into the real nitty gritty of the work.

So what does this all have to do with the gig I went to on Sunday. What was it about that two and a half hour show that made me think so much about how important music is to me, or why and how it helps fuel me as a writer?

The concert on Sunday was at Kings Place, near Kings Cross in London and the band we went to see was Big Big Train. I discovered the British prog band via comic artist friend Marc Laming (Planet Hulk, King's Watch) after he shared the video for Make Some Noise on twitter and made it his 'jam'.  That song was quite immediate and not as overtly prog as the rest of their music, it also reminded me of those teenage bands I mentioned earlier.  I delved into their English Electric: Full Power double album and was instantly liking what I heard.  I was already a big fan of Porcupine Tree and this was a slight left turn from that band, through the prism of Peter Gabriel era Genesis

Fast forward just under two years and Big Big Train have become one of my favourite bands and certainly my favourite current one from this side of the Atlantic. Like many other progressive rock outfits they are immensely popular with other creative people. Fables and Miracleman artist Mark Buckingham is a fellow Passenger (the name given to the band's loyal fanbase, as seen on the official Facebook page) and he was also at the gig on Sunday too. Comedian and actor Mark Benton also put in an appearance at Kings Place and Justice League artist Jason Fabok is also a fan. 

Wish I was in London for the @bigbigtrain shows. Best band in the world at this moment in time IMO.
— @JasonFabok
Photo by Neil Palfreyman, courtesy of Greg Spawton (Big Big Train)

Photo by Neil Palfreyman, courtesy of Greg Spawton (Big Big Train)

So why was Sunday's concert so important, what was it about two and a half hours of award winning progressive rock that felt so enlightening? It was a number of things, taking my daughter with me was part of it, seeing how much she enjoyed the show (we're in the photo above together) reminded me how I bonded with my own Father over shared musical tastes. That took me back to those early albums and early musical experiences that shaped my first forrays into writing when I was at school. Secondly the whole thing was so joyful, the crowd were all complete afficinados of the band and each musician seemed to be thriving on the fact that they literally had a captive audience to play to. Then, above and beyond all else, there was the music, some of the best songs I've discovered in recent years played expertly by a set of extremely talented musicians, each bringing something to the stage that made the whole thing far, far more than the sum of its expert parts. 

With reflection there was a lot I could take away from this concert and from becoming a fan of Big, Big Train and listening to their music. 

1) Collaborate with lots of talented people. 

Fidelity isn't a trait I hold highly in my musical heroes. Artists like Neil Finn, Steven Wilson, Mark Lanegan and Mike Patton record under a variety of names and with a variety of musicians and their discographies have been all the better for it. Members of the Seattle bands that were such a big part of my teenage years have tended to form supergroups and have numerous side projects on the go too. I like the fact I have music by At the Drive In, Mars Volta, Bosnian Rainbows and Antemasque in my collection too.  Big Big Train evolved from being a duo into the eight-piece band they are today (thirteen when they add in the brass section) and each member of the band has other projects and other collaborators. Founding members Andy Poole and Greg Spawton have changed instruments over the years, guitarist Dave Gregory is also in Tin Spirits and was on twelve XTC albums, Rikard Sobjolm also fronts Beardfish in his native Sweden, Nick D'Virgilio was also the Spock's Beard drummer, he's recorded solo records, worked with Cirque de Soleil and appeared on a Genesis album, violinist Rachel Ward used to perform in a duo alongside her Father, vocalist David Longdon and pianist/double bass player Danny Manners have both been in the Louis Philippe band.   I'm remnded that I can write alone and co-write with people, work with a variety of artists and in a mixture of genres to keep my work fresh and interesting. 

2) Don't be afraid to be British.

Big Big Train's award winning song East Coast Racer, which closed the second set on Sunday,  is about the Mallard train, Judas Unrepentant centres around art forger/restorer Tom Keating, they have songs that feature places like Highfields, Upton Heath, London and Winchester. In my own work The Interactives is one of the few British set stories I've written, as the action takes place in both Monmouth and London. Listening to Big Big Train has reminded me that not all my stories need to be in space or the USA.  

3) Take risks, put things together that may not obviously belong with each other.

Prog rock is a genre of music that sometimes doesn't get the respect it deserves (you could level the same thought process at comics as a storytelling medium too), one of the things it does really well is taking lots of diverse influences and experiences into one song, one album, one show.  BBT and other bands like them remind me to try new things, to experiment and to not be afraid of failure. 

4) Don't be afraid to be emotional.

Grown men cried on Sunday, that is the power of the music and lyrics of many Big Big Train songs. You are taken on an emotional journey, powerful enough to make you feel very different by the time the song is over. My favourite comic writers do the same thing in their work, the likes of Jason Aaron and Brian K Vaughan. I'm reminded that this isn't a bad thing to aspire to. 

5) Smile. 

Big Big Train are a band whose lyrics hold weight, but they also seem to approach what they do with a sense of collective joy. Guitarist Dave Gregory smiled almost continuously through the thirteen song show and I'd love to capture that feeling, the unadulterated joy of creation and sharing it with an audience. I'm going to remember his smiling face and use that to push me forward whenever I feel like my writing has hit a wall, or if I'm riddled with self doubt and over analysing my early drafts.

Sunday was an amazing, magical, truly life affirming and almost spiritual occasion, probably the best concert I've ever attended. It will live long in my memory, but the impact on my writing will hopefully be permanent. Music has always shaped me as a person and as a creative and Big Big Train will continue to be a big part of that.