Over a decade after the tragic loss of their frontman, a devoted fan base and a high-profile U2/Green Day cover helped put Big Country right back on the map, and for the first new album in years, Bruce Watson walks through every step of this truly amazing Journey.
Bruce Watson's band is back in the saddle, and he's as happy as can be.
Nothing can shake his good feeling: not long tours, not promotional obligations in support of a new album, and not the gaggle of pop puritans who have a tendency to grumble about a band's current lineup not being the original one. That's because he's finally back to doing what he likes to do, which is making new music. He's back up on stage, trading guitar licks with his son Jamie, and rocking out to new songs co-written with his longtime friend Mike Peters.
For those who need a refresher, Big Country have had a rough existence. They got off to a great start, blaring down from Scotland with a smash album produced by Steve Lillywhite. The Crossing was loaded with hit songs, including "Fields of Fire", "Chance", "Harvest Home", and the insanely anthemic "In A Big Country". With electric guitars rigged to sound like bagpipes and a set of iron lungs in the form of the late Stuart Adamson, the world was Big Country's oyster. In 1983, it was commonplace to see Big Country's name in the UK music press mentioned in the same sentence as U2 and The Alarm. The three were in friendly competition, and The Crossing seemed to musically say "Eat our dust, you guys."
But that was 1983, and time has not treated this musical era very kindly. Big Country fought hard to retain the good standing they landed overnight, and for a while, they held on tight. As the '80s turned to the '90s, Big Country's status could best be described as a cult favorite. Adamson kept his band going, song by song, album by album. But the worst struggle of all was occurring in Adamson's skull. A deadly combination of alcoholism, depression, and musical disappointment eventually took Stuart Adamson's life. In late 2001, he was found dead in a Honolulu hotel room, a suicide by hanging. And with that, Big Country was laid to rest with the frontman's body.
So how did it come back to life? Guitarist Bruce Watson gave PopMatters the inside story of how a Big Country without Stuart Adamson found a renewed sense of reason and plenty of creative energy to go with it. Mike Peters, the frontman for the Welsh legends The Alarm, took to his new role as Big Country's new lead singer in a very serious manner. Thanks to a high-profile cover of The Skids' "The Saints are Coming" (Adamson's band prior to Big Country) by U2 and Green Day, all eyes were focused back on the Big Country name. And with that, Mike Peters, Bruce Watson, Jamie Watson, Derek Forbes, and Mark Brzezicki rose to the occasion and made The Journey. Sometimes it sounds like the Big Country of old and sometimes it sounds like a close cousin. But two things are certain; 1) like a friendly face, it's an easy album to become acquainted with and 2) the ghosts of the past are not going to slow down the new Big Country. And with that, Bruce Watson takes us on a tour of The Journey ...
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Congratulations on having your band back.
Yeah, it's a blast! I didn't think it was going to happen. I mean, the day Stuart [Adamson] passed away 12 years ago, I didn't think it was going to happen. And it's just strange how it all turned out.
At what point did you realize that there was still another album in the Big Country name?
I suppose it was in 2007, Jamie, my son, and I got asked to do The Skids' 30th anniversary. It was after U2 and Green Day released "The Saints Are Coming" for a Hurricane Katrina [benefit]. At that time, it was coming on to Big Country's 25th anniversary and the guys in the band said to me "It's the 25th anniversary and we're getting interest on the internet, on our website. How about doing a one-off convention thing?" We've always done a one-off convention once every year or two years. So when we put together a 25th anniversary thing, we decided on a bunch of weekend shows; like a traveling convention. We stopped doing that after awhile, we went back to our normal lives. Then all of the sudden, five years later, the 30th anniversary of our first album The Crossing came up. And again, there was some pressure from the fans to get back together and do the same thing. We did it [before] as a three piece and I basically found out I needed to play both guitar parts, which I cannot do, and no one can do anyways. Big Country had twin guitar parts with me trying to fake it with one guitar. We did a convention about a year after Stuart died and [The Alarm vocalist] Mike Peters came to do the vocals on that. I thought, if we want to do a good job this time, we want to make it sound exactly like the record or how we sounded 30 years ago. The first person I thought of fronting it again was Mike Peters! I've been playing in bands with Mike for years. Mike and I go way back to the early '80s when it was always U2, Big Country and The Alarm were always on the same bill, and I thought Mike's the man for the job. I phoned him, and he was climbing a mountain. I think he was in Snowdonia and he accepted right away. I thought "Oh my God, what have I done? Why didn't he say he'd think about it?" [laughs]
Let's go back to the Skids cover. You were not part of the original Skids lineup, but you helped with the reunion. What was it like hearing the news that U2 and Green Day were going to record "The Saints Are Coming"?
[The guys in The Skids] were amazed. I know a lot of that has to do with The Edge; he used to love Stuart's guitar playing. It was back in the late '70s, possibly '78 when "The Saints Are Coming" first came out, I think that was one of the songs that The Edge used to play quite a lot. It was one of his favorite songs. I think that's one of the reasons why they did it. But when we got the news that they were doing it, it was absolutely fantastic. Apart from the fact that it was for charity, it gave Stuart, Richard [Jobson], Mike [Baillie], Tom Kellichan and the rest of the guys some recognition for something they did 35 years ago.
Jumping back to the new work, you said you wanted it to sound the way it did 30 years ago.
It was like a happy accident. We took The Crossing 30th anniversary tour and we were basically playing the album in its entirety along with some later songs. During soundchecks and downtime, which was quite a lot, we discovered that we could actually write with each other. So we'd sit in dressing rooms, I'd pick up a guitar and Mike would say "Oh, what's that?" And I'd say "Oh, it's just something I've been working on." Then we'd soundcheck the song. Then the next night, we would do it.
Steve Lillywhite produced the single "Another Country". Did he do any work on The Journey?
We actually produced the album ourselves.
So did Steve Lillywhite's production for the single help to serve as a bridge from old Big Country to the new sound?
Yeah. U2 played in Glastonbury just a couple of years ago and we found out that Steve was flying in two days beforehand from New York. We called him up and said "Steve, we've got this song." We had a session booked at RAK Studios where we did the original album. And Steve said, "Well, U2 are flying me out to do the live sound [laughs] for the festival in Glastonbury. I can be there the day before." So we just hooked up with Steve and it was just like going back in time 30 years, in the original studio. We just went in and did it. It was absolutely wonderful. But Steve's obviously based in New York, and we wrote 12 songs on the road, so we rented a small studio in Wales called Aerial just for the intention of demoing these songs. It went really well, it just ended up being the album.
You just bypassed the demo stage?
Yeah. The demo stage was kind of simple. What we would do is set up in a dressing room with an iPhone and we would just play the song in the dressing room. The iPhone would film it and that was our demo! For "Another Country", we went onstage and played it, we didn't even announce it was a new song. Someone filmed it and put it on YouTube, and we sent Steve Lillywhite the link and said "Steve, here's the demo." [laughs] Isn't technology wonderful nowadays? Nowadays you don't need to go into a studio to do a demo, you can do a rough sketch on an iPhone and Mike would take it away and do his lyrics. A couple of days later, I'd be like, "Well, we're playing it tonight, so you better get a title!"
With Mike Peters in the band, has there been a big shift in dynamic?
Whenever we went into the studio to write, it was always a four-way thing. All the members of the band would come up with the music, so all of the songs were recorded as instrumentals. Stuart would then take the tapes away and he would come back with these lyrics and these melodies done and he would put his vocals on top of that. The difference between Mike and Stuart is that Stuart was a guitar player who sang, Mike's a singer who plays guitar. I told Mike that this was the process that we always used. He said he's never done it that way, but we should do it that way if that's the way you always did it. And he enjoyed that process. Basically, the musicians would go into the studio and Mike would come in, sit, and work on his melodies and take notes. The next day he would come back, just like Stuart, and he would have his lyrics and melodies all done. It's just a way that works for us. There's not a right way or a wrong way to write a song, I don't think, but that formula works for us. That's how The Journey ended up sounding like it sounds.
It's interesting that he would adapt to your guys' way of doing things. I imagine he's been rooted in his own way for a long time.
Mike said that the way he does it is that he'll sit all alone with his guitar. He, basically, is The Alarm. He writes the songs for The Alarm from top to bottom whereas in Big Country, everyone's involved from the first count-in to what fades out or whatever. It's more of a band thing, it's not a singer/songwriter thing.
And you can't really say that he's joined Big Country as Stuart Adamson's replacement.
It's a new band with the same name.
There are some interesting echoes Big Country past. Like on the song "Angels and Promises", Mike recites word-for-word the refrain from "Chance". And the song "Return" -- I don't know if this was intentional -- the timed vocal echo reminds me of "Fields of Fire".
There's a lot of references to the past. The Journey is about Big Country. Some people get it, some people don't. There's a few subliminal things in there, and you obviously picked up on two, which is what we want anyway. The album is a story of the band.
And the first lyric is "The past is a foreign country." Now I don't know if the word "country" is supposed to have double-meaning there, but it's interesting to watch you all move away from the past while still acknowledging it so reverently.
Mike did a lot of research into the band. Big Country's got such a wide catalog. We never told him what to write about. He just asked [drummer] Mark [Brzezicki] lots of questions about the band in the past; the process, how we recorded, how we wrote, how we performed live. He really did a lot of homework. Mike's the only guy I would ask to take on this task. If Mike had said no, I thought we would just do it with the original members and play a couple of conventions here and there. Mike's approach to the whole thing has been absolutely amazing. I didn't expect him to go that far with it. It's also a great challenge for Mike to work with other musicians as opposed to him writing by himself with an acoustic guitar like he does with The Alarm. So it's been a great challenge, if that's the right word, for all parties concerned.
Did he end up having a favorite Big Country album?
I know that he liked The Crossing and also knows Steeltown quite well and he knows some of The Seer. It's kind of like me with The Alarm albums. After your fourth album, you become more professional in your songwriting skills or your guitar playing. You find that your songs get better, but you lose a naivety that made the early albums sound interesting. Then you become more aware of your craft.
Would your favorite Big Country albums be one of the earlier ones?
My two favorite albums would be The Crossing, because it was my first time, and an album we did later called The Buffalo Skinners which came out in the '90s. I would say those are my two favorites.
Any future plans for recording?
Yes, we've started writing songs [for the next one] already. We can't help it, we just can't help ourselves. Our set consists of a half-and-half, we're calling it. Ten new songs and ten back catalog songs.
I'm very sorry for the loss that everyone experienced ten years ago. But at the same time congratulations on getting back what you can.
Thanks very much for that. It's lovely.