5 questions to Sean Filkins,
5 questions to Sean Filkins
1. What did you do before joining Big Big Train?
SF: I was born and raised in Rochester, England. I grew up listening to my parent’s albums. They always had music playing in the house, Jazz and Classical music plus Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles and the Hollies, then bands like YES, Uriah Heep, and Blodwyn Pig.
I really got into progressive rock music in a big way, buying albums by YES, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Rush, Hawkwind and Gentle Giant plus electronic music by Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Jean Michel Jarre and Robert Schroeder.
I initially started singing in a Contemporary Folk duo, playing songs by Dan Fogelberg, Simon and Garfunkel and even YES, where I used to sing close harmonies and play guitar.
I then played in local covers bands and first started writing my own material in Hounslow based Rock band Vigilante, until I joined Soma, a Space Rock band. We had one album, Dreamtime and did two tours of what was the old East Germany. I left them in 1992 and joined Neo-Prog Rock Band Lorien, formed by Darren Newitt and Mark Mcleod. We had one album release, Children’s Games, in 1995 and did one tour, again, in Germany and also played in Prague.
I left Lorien and moved to the South Coast of England, but still stayed friends with Darren Newitt, [Who has added two great guitar solos to War and Peace & Other Short Stories.]
I joined a Whitesnake Tribute band in 1998, and then formed my own band, The Indigo Pilots in 1999, playing Rock and Progressive Rock covers, later becoming a full on Progressive Rock Tribute Band.
It was in 2003 that I joined Bournemouth based Progressive rock band, Big Big Train as their main vocalist.
2. With no doubt your participation in the BBT line-up on two albums was an added value to the music of this band. Why did you leave that band?
SF: In 2008 BBT began writing material for their follow up to The Difference Machine and I recorded demos for this album. I was not happy with the way things were sounding and also questioned them about sales, as I’d received nothing from either of the two recordings I had done with them. I felt something wasn’t right as I hadn’t heard from them for ages and felt BBT had other ideas. In Feb 2009, I heard via email that I was no longer in the band.
This was the best thing that happened to me musically, as Lee Abraham (Ex-Galahad bassist) who was with me in The Indigo Pilots, was recording his fourth solo album, Black and White and he asked me if I would like to sing on it for him, which I duly did.
3. “War And Peace & Other Short Stories” is an excellent album. Tell me about the recording of your album. When and how did you start the writing process and how did you choose the guest musicians?...
SF: During the time I sang the tracks for Lee on Black and White, I asked Lee about recording my own music and he said that if I had material he would help produce it. I wanted to write a progressive rock album, not necessarily a concept album, but one that encompassed things close to my heart, stories from my family history. I went away and wrote some new material, and worked on older material that I had written from my past. I then worked with my Indigo Pilots keyboard player John Sammes on pre-production, sorting out which songs worked, sorting out sounds and getting ready the six tracks that would finally make the album. I then took these to Lee Abraham’s Dockside studio and started to record “War and Peace & Other Short Stories”, the title of which I had had since 1992, but had never had the chance to use until now. During these sessions the core musicians were Lee Abraham, Bass and rhythm guitar, [Lee also engineered the album] Gerald Mulligan on Drums and John Sammes on Keyboards. I wrote and arranged all the material, music and lyrics, except Learn How To Learn, which was originally written as an acoustic instrumental track by my good friend Geoff Webb, which I re-arranged and added lyrics and music to. John Sammes added some extra musical arrangements to the album mix.
I wanted to get different musicians in to help tell the stories of each track, with their individual styles of playing. These included Dave Meros from Spocks Beard, who I had met through his work he had done on The Difference Machine. I chatted with him at a Spocks Beard gig we had been invited to and he said that if I ever needed help on a project, to give him a call. Gary Chandler from Jadis and John Mitchell from Frost, Arena & It Bites had sung and played on Lee’s album. Lee contacted them both and I asked John at an It Bites gig if he would help. These, plus my old Lorien friend Darren Newitt and all the other guests involved have all done a sterling job with their individual styles and sounds to help me create the music I had written for the stories of each track.
4. Tell us briefly about each “short story” on your album.
SF: “Are You Sitting Comfortably” is really The English Eccentric part 1 for obvious reasons. Also it’s a little tongue in cheek dig at my previous band. I remember a blog I saw where an ex band mate said “There should be more Brass In Prog”. Also my Gran would always say “before we start lets have a cuppa”
“The English Eccentric”. I wrote most of the lyrics for The English Eccentric in 1999, but the rest of the track, music and arrangement, were new to this project. The song is part autobiographical but I have added parts, little idiosyncrasies from people I know and others I have met, to create the character of The English Eccentric. There is a link to the next track, the line “Daddy went to war, we’d always hoped that he’d return”.
“Prisoner of Conscience Part 1, The Soldier.” This was a completely new song for the project, apart from a few lyrics. I’d had the story in my head for years. The character is based my Mothers Father, who went missing in the Second World War while out on patrol. My Mother and Grandmother never new if he was killed or wounded. My Mother always felt that he was alive somewhere, either badly injured or unable to say who he was or why he was. The character in the story is based on him being wounded, his return to England and slowly coming to terms with all that has happened to him and what he’s seen and done. The pain and suffering and the futility of it all.
“Prisoner Of Conscience Part 2 The Ordinary Man”. This was based on a track I had worked on previously in 1999, with a couple of friends. I couldn’t use all that work because I hadn’t written it all, so I had to re-write certain passages and added a new arrangement. I new this part of the story could be extended so I wrote The Soldier to be the prequel to this.
The lyrics went so well as a follow on from Part1. The Soldier, finally realising there is light at the end of the tunnel and that inside there was an honest man trying to survive. My Mother often felt she was being watched by someone, and even glimpsed a man in the distance on a few occasions that looked like her father but stooping and crippled, instead of tall and strong. She always felt he’d survived the War. It’s a sad shame she never found out for real.
“Epitaph For A Mariner”. This track is made up of five parts. Pt 1 Sailors Hymn. Pt 2 Sirens Song. Pt 3 Maelstrom. Pt 4 Ode To William Pull. Pt 5 Epitaph. All segued together to make one track.
It started out as a poem, which I wrote in the eighties, about my Great Grandfather, William Pull. He was a lifeboat man and boatman from Margate in the 1890’s. The song is about him and men like him and their struggle to earn a living at sea. During a great storm, my Great Grandmother was in labour. The shout went up that a boat was floundering off the coast and the lifeboat went out, but he couldn’t go as the midwife had been delayed and he had to help deliver the baby. His closest friends were on that lifeboat and it overturned and all but two were killed. The baby survived, my Grandmother. The joy they must have felt at the birth of their new daughter and the unbearable pain of losing most of your closest friends. A terrible conflict.
The ideas, music and arrangements for Sailors Hymn, Sirens song and Maelstrom were all new to this project. I had my daughter sing Sailors Hymn as the subject matter is about her Great, Great Grandfather. The lyrics for Ode To William Pull and Epitaph are all from the original poem that I wrote plus I added extra lyrics to Ode To William Pull to suit the music.
I came up with the music for Epitaph back in 1991, a song I did with Space Rock Band Soma. What is on the album is a completely different arrangement though and has new music added to this project, as I couldn’t use some parts that we had written as a band. The end finale instrumental, the solos of duelling synths and guitar and the final lament were all newly written for this project. The lament at the end, came about one day when I visited John Sammes at his house. He was playing his mini-grand and I thought it sounded beautiful, a classical piece, then I realised it was my song, the vocal melody from the chorus of Prisoner Of Conscience Part 1. I just had to have it on the album and it was a fantastic way to link this song with the previous songs on the album. For me the whole duelling solos part and fade out piano lament is one of the highlights of the album.
“Learn How To Learn”. This track started out as a new age acoustic instrumental track, written by my good friend Geoff Webb. His track was called “Pastoral” I had heard it while recording at the studio he worked at. It was so beautiful that I wanted to write lyrics to it, which became Learn how to Learn. It’s a more positive track. It’s about trying to come to terms with one’s past and that we should all be looking and working towards a brighter future for all. For this album I wanted to make it a full blow Prog Rock track, so I added the mandolin, mellotrons, drums, bass, electric guitars, church organ and big guitar solo. I then added the Asian themes at the end, the real sitar, tabla drums, and flute, because I felt it was a link to previous tracks and just such a great way to end the album.
5. Are there any news songs in the pipeline? What are your future plans?
SF: At the moment, I am very busy promoting the new album, along with David Robinson at F2.
I have been doing radio interviews, going to gigs with fliers, promoting the music online and constantly trying to spread the word about War and Peace & Other Short Stories, which takes a lot of my time.
There were songs from the early recording sessions for this album that I didn’t use, as they didn’t fit with the rest of the songs, but they are definitely good enough for inclusion on the next album.
I have also tentatively put out the idea of playing the album live to some of the musicians involved with the album, and everybody has been very positive. I am also looking into promoting my own gig. The logistics are a nightmare but we’ll see. I’m hoping it can be sorted out as I would love to play the album live.I have also been contacted by a couple of solo artists about me singing on their next albums, talks are at the early stages, but it’s something that could happen this year which I am looking forward to.