Interview With Sean Filkins

Sean Filkins is an icon of progressive rock that may be best associated with his work in the band Big Big Train. However, as his 2011 opus ‘War & Peace and Other Stories’ made very clear, he is not a talent to be confined to any one project. Like many other progressive rock fans, I was very impressed with his solo career debut, and had a few questions to ask him about his music. Many thanks to Sean for taking the time to answer them!

Conor:What inspired you to pursue and create music of the progressive rock variety?

Sean: My parents always had music on in the house. Classical music, The Beatles, The Hollies, my dad played a lot of Jazz, plus early Progressive music by YES and Uriah Heep I always liked the way Classical composers could create fantastic picture music. Vaughan Williams Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, Rachmaninov’s Isle Of The Dead and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suit are three that come to mind. Holst’s The Planets was the first album I ever owned. Progressive music did the same for me, created fantastic musical landscapes, as did music by Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze. Blodwyn Pigs Getting To This album was one I really got into at the time and I also bought Jon Andersons Olias Of Sunhillow and Squires Fish Out Of Water. A lot of my friends and their parents thought I was mad, or on something, but I got it, I could immerse myself in the music. I remember seeing the photo of YES on the inside cover of Relayer and new that one day I’d be like that.

Conor: What led you to go down a solo route, instead of releasing another album with one of your numerous bands?

Sean: I have been writing my own songs for a very long time now, and have always wanted to do something that I had created myself. I’d recorded a few solo tracks and covers for an acoustic CD I did for my wife in 1998 but nothing on the scale of War And Peace & Other Short Stories. Being in bands is great fun, but when writing albums can be hard work and one always has to compromise in a band. After my break up with Big Big Train, I was playing with Lee Abraham in my Prog covers band The Indigo Pilots and he was recording his Black & White album, which he’d asked me to sing on. During the recording sessions we got onto the subject of me doing my own solo album, which he said he would produce if I wanted and he asked if I had any material. I said I had but not enough for an album, but I jumped at the chance and got to work straight away on writing and arranging material old and new.

Over the years I have had a few disappointments with music and I was still a bit bitter about the BBT thang. I thought this would be a great way to show everybody that I was not “just a vocalist” and hopefully I could write an album that could compete with the big boys that I had admired through the years.

Conor: For fans of other bands you have been in, such as Big Big Train and Soma, what is different for Sean Filkins this time around?

Sean: The main difference is that all the songs and all the lyrics on the album are written and arranged by me. Except for the original acoustic music on Learn How To Learn. Also all the lyrics are about real people, real events. They are all based on my family, on me, my thoughts and fears, how I see things. I also didn’t have to compromise on anything, I was able to tell the stories and use influences in the music that I would never have been able to do in a band and I was also able to use different instruments and sounds to help create the stories and the musical landscapes. When recording, I would take pieces away and listen over and over, to sounds and passages to, until I was completely happy. I thought if I do it that way, if I love how it sounds and could immerse myself in the songs, not compromising, then others would hopefully feel the same way.

Conor: Your solo debut, ‘War & Peace And Other Stories’ was released last year and has since received universal acclaim on many webzines. What can you attribute as the cause of all of its success?

Sean: I’ve got no idea really. Music is always subjective. There are always some who like what you do and others who hate it. I’d like people to say that I have written an honest album, as I said above, one where I haven’t compromised on anything. I don’t think I have released a Genesis, YES or Porcupine Tree covers album although influences of bands I like are there in some of the tracks for all to hear. But I’ve done it in my own way. I’d like to think it’s something a bit different. Also even though the songs and lyrics are very personal to me, people have been able to relate to them as the songs are about real people. This has been one of the best things about doing the album. The personal emails I have received from fans that have said they found the music and lyrics very moving as they could relate to them with stories from their own families.

Conor: Though it is listed as a solo album, there are many people involved in the creation of ‘War & Peace’. How did you get networked with these other creative people and bring them into the fold?

Sean: It is a solo album. I wrote and arranged all the songs and the lyrics. I also new from the start how I wanted the album to sound. What textures I wanted. I did add as I went, but a lot of what is on the album was how I originally envisaged it. Not just the music, even down to the pictures in the booklet I can play guitar, keyboards, drums etc but nowhere near as good as all the fantastic musicians that I asked to help me. I wanted to make the album the best I could, so I asked the help of some the many musicians I know to help me create the music and songs that I had written and I couldn’t have done it without them. In the same way that Jon Anderson, Peter Gabriel, Kate bush etc do on all their solo albums. Even Mike Oldfield gets musicians in to help him. John Sammes is a great friend of mine and he had been with The Indigo Pilots from the start. When I had written all the songs I went to his house to do the pre-production, to see if all the songs, sounds and ideas I had written would actually work when put together. John helped with some of the arrangements where I wanted to link pieces. Lee Abraham and Gerald Mulligan were also in the Indigo Pilots. Gerald had also drummed on Lee’s Black & White album. I had already recorded vocals for Lee and his album had great production. Lee also engineered the album and played a lot of the music to. A very talented guy. I had met Dave Meros while I was with BBT. He had played on The Difference Machine. Spocks Beard had invited BBT to their Astoria gig the year TDM was released and I had been chatting with Dave via Myspace for some time. While we chatted at the gig about music, he said that if I ever needed any bass on a project, all I had to do was ask. I wrote the rhythms, tempo’s timings etc on The English Eccentric especially for the way Dave plays, hoping that he would take up the offer of playing bass on the track. Lee sent him the tracks and I sent him the remit of what I wanted and Dave did the rest. The way he followed all Mully’s fills was superb. Darren Newitt and I had played together in 90’s band Lorien, plus a duo called Lazy Jane. Darren knows just what I like about his playing and again after I gave him the remit, he came up with the two fantastic solos on The Soldier and Learn How To Learn. Initially I wasn’t happy with the Soldier solo and it was hard to say so, I didn’t want to upset a great friend, but I’m glad I told him because what he did in the end was awesome.

I new John Mitchell had played on Lee’s album and he asked John if he’d do the same for me. I met John at an It Bites gig and asked him if he would come on down to Lee’s and play for me. The same went for Gary Chandler. Gary had sung on Lee’s album. I new what both these guys were capable of on guitar, so when they arrived at the studio I gave them the remit, told them roughly what I wanted and what the songs were about and the feel and mood of each piece and they went through the sections while Lee recorded everything. If there were bits I liked we kept it and being the great musicians they are they threw in ideas that they thought would go with the feel of the track. That was the great thing about all the musicians involved. Every one of them really embraced the project and went the extra mile to put down how I felt the music should go. They all got the point of the songs. Garima and Marc Clayton I found over the internet. We actually recorded the Sitar and Tablas at Garima’s house. All the other musicians are either friends or musicians I have played with so it was easy to ask them to come and play for me.

Conor: There is a very strong sense of narrative storytelling in the album. What are some of these stories about, and what inspired you to tell them?

Sean: “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 favourite 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. Part 1 Sailors Hymn. Part 2 Sirens Song. Part 3 Maelstrom. Part 4 Ode To William Pull. Part 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.

Conor: ‘War & Peace’ tends to lean towards the more traditional side of prog rock, as opposed to the side ofthespectrum that draws more from contemporary sources. What bands or artists were inspiring you most at the time of writing the album?

Sean: I like a very eclectic mix of music, ranging from classical pieces to rock, reggae, synth music, some dance and ambient. All kinds. I won’t just like a piece of music just because one of my favourite bands or artist has recorded it. As I said above, I’m a big fan of Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze. I love Hawkwind, The Beatles, especially George Harrison’s Indian influenced tracks. Robert Schroeder, YES, Dan Fogelburg, [wonderful harmonies], Blodwyn Pigs, Getting To This, plus classical pieces by Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, John Foulds and pieces by Vaughan Williams. I like early Porcupine Tree especially Stupid Dream, Signify and Voyage, great stuff, plus recently I have bought Anathemas last two albums. I’ve been listening to a lot of Pendulums stuff recently, great music for driving too as is Van Halen’s first album and anything by Hendrix. I wanted the music on the album to be a part of the whole story, not just a vehicle for the lyrics or just there for the sake of it, so the instruments, sounds etc that I have used have been an integral part to telling the stories of each track. Picture music. That’s why some of the sections have been given time to develope. These songs aren’t meant to be three-minute pop songs, they are meant to be picture music, so the listener can immerse themselves into each track. I haven’t intentionally gone out of my way to copy any of the bands or artists I like but because I am very passionate about the music I listen to, some of those bands and artists music mentioned above has influenced the songs on the album.

Conor: How do you think the advent of the Internet has shaped the progressive rock community?

Sean: There are definite for and against’s. The for’s are that I can use social network sites to chat with fans and media alike. Send out news of albums, music, live stuff etc very quickly to a lot of people. Keep in contact with all the musicians involved. Send out promos, photos etc. I even created my own website so that people can contact me direct, read up on any news and order the album directly from me if they wish. [I can sign any bought this way :O)] It’s a great way to interact with fans and I have met some wonderful people and made many new friends via the Internet since the album was released. It was great to be able to send tracks to musicians as well; Dave Meros and Darren Newitt had music files sent back and forth via the Internet so it made the recording process a lot quicker and easier. Also many Progressive Rock Radio stations and Prog forums have been set up that help promote the music, which is a great thing. Fantastic in fact. The biggest disappointment for me and for any artist, are the illegal download sites [That old chestnut I hear you say] But it’s true. People keep asking me recently when I’m going to do a follow up to War And Peace & Other Short Stories. Well I haven’t broken even yet from recording it. If I could have received just a pound or just something from every illegal download, it would go a long way to helping put money into recording the next album. Yes it’s cool to get something for free, but at the expense of getting one’s favourite artist to make the music one likes, I don’t think so. All it means is that artists like myself bring out albums on a smaller budget. An expensive hobby more or less. Alright if you’re a millionaire. One thing I am very pleased about is that although my budget for the album was a fraction of the cost of some of the Big Boys in the business, the reaction of fans and media alike has been overwhelming, couldn’t have been better in fact, but I bet there are many artists out there creating fantastic music, but without the money to get it out to the fans. We need more fans to buy the music they like directly from the artist, or the music will only belong to a lucky few that can afford their expensive hobby. I’ll get off my soapbox now. LOLOL

Conor: What lies in the future for Sean Filkins?

Sean: Well I’ve been really busy recently getting a band together to play WAP&OSS live. First gig is at The Celebr8 Festival at Kingston-Upon-Thames on the 7th July, [Big thanks to Jon and Geoff], playing alongside The Tangent, Pallas and IQ. I’m still doing a lot of promotional work for the album both online and in real time, doing interviews and meeting fans etc. I have also got a few ideas for tracks for a follow up written down. Music and lyrics, but nothing recorded yet. I recently sang a track for Jeff Green’s up and coming album, Elder Creek. That was a great day, Meeting Jeff and Garreth Hickling also Phil Chelmsford, Jeff’s promoter. I’ve also recently sung backing vocals for John Meriton. He’s recording a contemporary folk album of his own material and wanted some harmonies. So there is plenty being done and still to come.

Conor: What is your view on the current progressive rock scene; any bands you might recommend to a fellow progger?

Sean: I like Anathemas last two albums though of the two I prefer We’re Here Because We’re Here. I enjoyed Nine Stones Close last album Traces. I’m also looking forward to hearing the next album from Days Between Stations, and for obvious reasons Jeff Greens Elder Creek. New bands I’ve heard and liked recently are Technopolis, from Hungry and Brother Ape, also Anubis and Poets Of The Fall, have recorded some great Prog recently. I think in 2011 there were over 1500 prog releases. As with any genre, not all of it is going to be every progheads cup of tea, but it’s great that there has been a re-insurgence of progressive music from around the world. It would be great if some of us could get major label interest again and also get main stream radio play as Prog bands did in the seventies but I can’t see that happening in the near future. Too many people allow themselves to be drawn into listening to “throwawayXfactorunemotionalsh*tenonmusic” and I can’t understand why. That depresses the hell out of me but what can you do. All the time they do, people like Simon Cowell will be laughing all the way to the bank. At least with the internet, our music is slowly filtering out to a wider audience via sites like ProgArchives and via Prog Radio Stations like Tony Romero’s Aiiradio show, Frans Keylard at The Rogues Gallery and Jos Heijman at Symfozone, Kevin Slaymaker, Geoff Banks to name a few. Also promoters like Stephen Lambe at the Classic Rock Society and all those involved with Celebr8 Festival, Classic Rock Presents Prog mag, and labels like David Robinson’s F2, all these mentioned and many others are doing there bit to promote Progressive Music, so hopefully in the future younger fans and younger musicians and bands will pick up on the genre.

Conor: What advice might you give to other proggers that want to make music and get their work ‘out there’?

Sean: Be honest with yourself. Don’t record music that you think people will like but you don’t. Record music that you have written from the heart, that you would like to hear. Be passionate about it and believe in what you write. Don’t stick to the norm. Have influences, use them to help create your own sound, but don’t be an artist or band that completely rips off another bands sound. Don’t worry about getting bad reviews. Don’t compromise with your sound as far as don’t have a “that’ll do attitude”. If you think it might not sound quite right then others will, and if you leave mistakes in, you’ll come to hate what you have recorded. And finally and most importantly, don’t think you’re going to get rich quickly lololololol.

Conor: The most important question I could ask; do you like cheeseburgers? If so, what is your favourite place to procure them?

Sean: That’s a Googly of a question. [A Curve Ball from your neck of the woods :O)] Yes I like cheeseburgers. Food in general. I didn’t get this figure eating rabbit food lolol. The best Cheeseburger I’ve had recently was at a local Bistro called Lu Chino’s in Gosport, near where I live. I had added cheese and bacon put in it. With chips and a very crisp fresh salad on the side. Very nice it was to.

Conor: Anything vital that I may have missed?

Sean: Can’t think of anything. I think I’ve said enough already.

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