An Interview with Steve Babb and Fred Schendel :: Glass Hammer :: by Brian Watson
There can’t be many progressive rock fans who aren’t familiar with Glass Hammer, founded in 1992 by bassist Steve Babb and keyboard player Fred Schendel. For eighteen years now they have been part of the ‘third wave’ of progressive rock music that, until recently, remained largely underground and unloved by all but a small core of hardcore fans. What differentiated Glass Hammer, and led to their cult appeal, was their love of prog in its classical form. Their use of analogue instruments, pipe organs, moogs and mellotrons have endeared them to an ever increasing number of fans on both sides of the Atlantic.
For those unfamiliar with their work, there’s a discography at the end of this piece, with links to DPRP reviews where applicable. With the exception of 2009’s Three Cheers for the Broken Hearted, which rated a creditable 7/10, every studio album we’ve reviewed since 2000’s Chronometree has received a DPRP recommendation, as well as the Lex Live disc and the aforementioned DVD of the Belmont concert.
From a personal point of view they are one of only two bands (the other being
Echolyn) that have prompted me to jump on an aeroplane for the express purpose of seeing them perform live. I was fortunate to be present at their Belmont, Nashville concert when they were supported by Salem Hill and joined onstage by a 100+ person choir. Now you don’t see gigs like that everyday. The choir outnumbered
Echolyn's audience by about 2 to 1, for example, when they appeared in Sheffield. There were no journalists from glossy mags present at either gig. Now that progressive rock seems to have come out, so to speak, one can only hope that bands such as Glass Hammer and their ilk gain the exposure they patently deserve.
Geoff Feakes, in his review of 2007’s Culture of Ascent (which featured a certain quite well known singer from Bolton, and a cover of South Side of the Sky) said that “such is the standing of some progressive rock bands each time they release a new album it’s regarded as a major event” which brings us nicely to 2010 and the imminent release of Glass Hammer’s new record "IF", which features a new line-up and a return to the classic prog sound with which they have become synonymous.
BRIAN: I recently interviewed founding members Steve and Fred and, as the release date for "If" approaches, I first of all asked each of them for some background on the new personnel.
Jon Davison: Lead vocals
FRED: A real find. Definitely fate. He fits what we're trying to do perfectly. He's really the voice we've been writing for all these years. I hope he stays on for a good run with us.
STEVE: We’ve worked with lots of great singers, some of whom we plan on working with again. Namely, Susie and Carl. But Jon, we think, is a perfect fit. He’s from Laguna Beach, California, plays bass for Sky Cries Mary on occasion, has a wonderful wife and an exceptionally talented son. We first met him while shopping around for vocalists for a remake of The Inconsolable Secret. We liked what he did so much, and he was so into what we were writing, that we asked him to sign on for If. Fortunately for us he dove in head first.
Alan Shikoh: Guitars
FRED: Everything I said about Jon applies to Alan as well. He's really brought some fresh ideas into the fold, and he not only has great chops but an attention to sound and how his part relates to the whole that has been lacking with us in the past, as least as it relates to guitar. This may very well be the most fully realized guitar on any album we've done.
STEVE: Alan is just twenty-two, so he has a completely different perspective on prog than we do. But he’s surprisingly (for his age) a fan of the genre – and I find that a hopeful idea in general; meaning that young guys are actually into prog. So he’s given us some youthful edge while maintaining the spirit of our expedition into retro-seventies symphonic prog.
In the studio, he’s a blast to work with. There was a lot of laughing going on, (though for Alan it was probably more stressful than I realize) making for some of the most entertaining sessions we’ve done to date.
Randall Williams: Drums
FRED: We were lucky to get him. He fit perfectly.
STEVE: As a bassist, it’s important to be able to lock into what your drummer is doing. He only had scratch bass tracks to work with much of the time, but had an excellent grasp of what we were aiming for with IF.
BRIAN: You’ve said goodbye to quite a few members – Susie, David, Carl and Matt – this must have been tough…Any plans to work with them again?
FRED: Not specifically, but the door is open and if time and circumstances permit we will. We'd like to do an anniversary project of a song featuring a performance by everyone who has played or sung a major part on a Glass Hammer album and bring them all back for that! We do miss them, but on the other hand I think that Glass Hammer has always had distinct eras and this is a great start to a new one.
STEVE: I stay in touch with Susie and Carl. Walter Moore, Fred and I had a reunion of sorts a couple of years ago and we’re all on very friendly terms. Even Michelle Young has been cutting tracks at our studio recently and more or less signed on if we do an anniversary recording in a couple of years. David Wallimann says he misses playing with us, and I’ll take him at his word. So somewhere in the future, our paths may cross again and the alumni will return to record more Glass Hammer. Right now we’re very happy with the band we’re in – just as it is. And as long as the other members feel the same we will keep this incarnation intact for the foreseeable future.
BRIAN: Do you keep in touch with Walter Moore? He was quite badly injured in an assault I believe.
FRED: It was rather serious- not life threatening, but it took him out of action for a good while. I don't talk to him as much as I would like to, it's just a time issue and people moving on to new stages in life. As far as I know he's doing well.
STEVE: He went through some tough times, but is back on track from everything I hear.
BRIAN: You released your first album in 1993 – how has the progressive rock scene, and your sound/approach to music changed since then?
FRED: The scene is probably much more insulated in recent years - I don't know if there are any kids, any young blood being introduced to the music. So the older existing fans are probably more jaded now, harder to impress. I think we've become much better focused on our strengths as players, writers and producers. I don't think our approach has changed per se, but we are getting much better at realizing our vision, especially with the last couple releases.
STEVE: On "Journey Of The Dunadan" we had no idea there was any prog audience left. They found us through Ken Golden’s Laser’s Edge. We couldn’t have been happier, because prog is exactly what we wanted to do. But on Journey, we threw in everything including the kitchen sink – in terms of style, that is. It’s a fun album, but definitely an experiment in what we could get away with. And thankfully, it was proggy enough to put us on the map.
In the scene, everything seemed to shift toward metal in the late nineties. And if I hadn’t spent ten years playing metal in the eighties I’d have probably jumped on the bandwagon. We made the decision early on to just stand our ground and stay as close to our first love as possible – which is seventies prog in the tradition of Yes, ELP and Genesis. As our fan base grew, we began grow more and more comfortable with who we were. We may throw the odd curve ball now and then, such as "The Middle Earth Album" or even "Three Cheers For The Broken-Hearted". But we are staying the course.
BRIAN: Whilst "Three Cheers For The Broken Hearted" didn’t get a bad
DPRP review it was the first album by Glass Hammer not to get a “recommended” rating. Was it a conscious decision to eschew complex arrangements for a leaner, more stripped down sound or did band dynamics (ostensibly a three piece for this album) dictate what could be committed to record?
FRED: No, the personnel was dictated by the needs of the album. We knew very much going in that it was the record we were going to make. It started out as Steve's ideas for a solo album and I convinced him to make it a Glass Hammer project because I really liked it. We knew that it might scare fans, but really, our fans should know to expect the unexpected and that it didn't signal any kind of full time abandonment of symphonic prog. But if we hadn't shaken out the cobwebs by doing it there would be no IF. I love the album. I tend to think that as time goes by and people see it wasn't a complete shift in direction for us they will relax and it will grow on them for what it is, which is hopefully a collection of really good songs.
STEVE: Since it started as a solo project which would involve Susie, I had to move away from the classic Glass Hammer sound and shift toward some of my untapped influences. Fred was doing the same with some of his own material. When we decided to make it a Glass Hammer album, we took a chance. Some of our fans were wholeheartedly behind it, others remain lukewarm.
We have joked more than once that we should have removed all of the track IDs, making it one huge song from beginning to end. It might have been declared a masterpiece! Critics of Glass Hammer had commented more than once in the past that our song writing wasn’t as focused as it should or could be. So, we focused it and took a beating from the same critics! Regardless of what anyone said about it or about any other album we’ve done, we always make the album we want to make. We’ll stand behind Three Cheers, but are eager to move forward and release IF to our fans.
BRIAN: The first Glass Hammer album I bought was Live at Nearfest – how hard has it been to replicate your complex sound in a live environment?
FRED: Pretty hard- we are studio guys, we don't get to get out and play often and it's hard to whip the fingers into shape for gigs. Playing live is a whole different discipline from playing in a studio even if you are in a studio 10 hours a day. If we were a band that toured we'd be so tight it would be scary, I really believe that. As it is, every mistake I make live is a little knife in my head! It's awfully fun though. This current line-up has the potential to kill on stage. I really want to get out and try and play this stuff. I'm going to start practicing it now for next summer...
STEVE: I’ve had fans tell me that they love us live more than in the studio. Especially when we’re in a smaller environment like the clubs we play to warm up for festivals. We’ve got a great sound engineer who studies our music (Brett Noblitt) and we consider him a member of the live band – he’s that good.
I’m always more stressed about the details than the overall sound. I used to tour and play shows all over the country for years on end. So I know what I’m doing live. It is impossible for any band to get tight live (by my standards) until they’ve played on the road for two or three months. That isn’t going to happen with any prog band on earth right now, let alone Glass Hammer.
So we get it as tight as we can and then we fall back on years of experience to pull it off. But when you only get one or two shots a year to present Glass Hammer to an audience, it’s very stressful. Getting treated like prog-royalty is a big ego boost though. And you don’t get that at the studio!
BRIAN: What are your tour plans for 2010/11? Does Europe figure in them?
FRED: We have always wanted to go to Europe, it's just very hard- we'd have to leave families behind, close businesses. But if the economics make sense and the logistics work out, we’ll go in a second.
STEVE: Indeed. Some rich prog fan needs to step up and bankroll a Glass Hammer tour! Any takers? Hello?
BRIAN: Dream gigs – who would you have as support? Who would you love to support?
FRED: Great question. I think we would make a great bill with the Flower Kings or Neal Morse. Of course, we have had Salem Hill with us on shows and you don’t get a better match for us than that. I'd have to say that right now there is no band on earth I'd rather open for than Three Friends.
STEVE: I saw Kansas open up for Yes once, and it wasn’t pretty. So, though I’d love to open for Yes and introduce Glass Hammer to their thousands and thousands of CD and T-shirt buying fans – I’d rather not have to hear the inevitable comparisons. Still, Chris Squire knows where to find me and I could be persuaded.
BRIAN: Do you and Fred still have ‘day jobs’ or does music take up all your time?
FRED: Both - we have a musical day job running a recording studio where we work with some very talented people who are a joy.
STEVE: I tell people I haven’t had a real job since 1992. It’s true. Though I still put in some long hours – I’m involved with music all day, every day. I wish we could devote more time to our own music, but we really love most of the acts we’re producing. We’re incredibly lucky guys.
BRIAN: Can you talk us through the tracks on the new album?
FRED: The opening section of this song up to the verse (and thus the opening of the album) was the very first thing I wrote for the project. Then, it sat around and I was actually going to ditch the whole thing except Steve kept bugging me to work on it because he liked the riff. But I was just stuck. I had another fragment, the mellow middle part, which wasn't a complete song that I thought I could stick in there but it took me a long time to figure out how to bridge it all. The rest of the song was the last thing I wrote for the project! So, it's an interesting piece in that regard, it bookends the whole writing process. It's also the only song I think I wrote all of the lyrics for. Luckily, at that point Jon was in the picture so I knew he would make them work. The main thing I like about this song is that it rocks pretty heavily but also gets in the requisite off-beat time signatures in an organic way and has a very nice contrast between the rocking parts and the chill part in the
centre. And I love the King Crimson-esque bass break down!
Behold, The Ziddle
FRED: I knew going in that I wanted "Ziddle" to be more experimental harmonically than some of the other songs. It's jazzier in many ways; I use the electric piano and Alan used some of his jazz palette. I wrote the main theme in its opening dissonant incarnation first, then came up with the more direct version that became a theme that reappeared in "If The Sun". The lyric idea was based on some things that Steve's son saw in a dream he had, and I reworked. I think his son was a little disappointed that I changed some of the details a little but that's creative license. I had all the elements of a main vocal theme but Jon came up with pretty much all of the melodies for the beginning and end of the song, as well as the closing lyrics. In fact, Jon did an extended vocal version of the song with lots of characters, much along the lines of "Get 'Em Out By Friday" by Genesis. It was brilliant, but not quite the direction I wanted to go. We promised him a version with his full idea would be released somehow as a download or a bonus track - it deserves to be heard!
STEVE: Yes, my son will probably start copyrighting his dreams from this point on since this is the second one to become a Glass Hammer song ("Sun Song" being the other). He’ll insist on some creative control in the future I’m sure. He’s eight.
Grace The Sky
STEVE: I wrote the rhythm for the intro and chorus to this piece on my living room couch. It seemed like a really cool pattern of, if memory serves, 7/4, 5/4, 7/4, 5/4, 6/4, 7/4, 7/4, 6/4. So I wrote down the pattern and headed to the studio the next morning to see if any music would actually fit it in an interesting way. You can soon be the judge of that!
I kept it short – the shortest piece on the album at only around 4:30. But it seemed to say all it had to say in that amount of time, so I didn’t try to flog it into an epic. Jon sang some words from an older song he’d written, thinking I’d replace them all with my own. I may have changed a word or two, but his lyrics fit great and I got so used to hearing them I decided to keep them. The breakdown to acoustic instruments at the end was originally keyboard driven, but as Alan began to lay down acoustic parts I asked Fred to pull out the mandolin, and the whole thing took on a new ‘elven’ sort of flavour. The pipe organ is put to good use here, and I insist on playing pipe organ on nearly every album. It was written mostly on the pipe organ and of course I used the Hammond and Mellotron too. Fred jumped back on steel guitar for this one.
At Last We Are
STEVE: This track starts with what we affectingly refer to as a Beebo section. Explaining what Beebo is would be difficult, but I can try to sum it up without sounding like a loon. (Inside jokes should probably stay inside!) It’s usually a very simple high synth melody played over a bouncy rhythm track. There’s a section in Mike Oldfield's "Platinum Part One" that fits the bill. "Aristillus" by Camel (Moon Madness) is another. Those were both big influences on my writing. Alan added some really cool sitar parts to this, which helped it along a great deal.
This theme was inspired by a music box melody from the TV series Dark Shadows called "Josette’s Theme". My wife and I immersed ourselves in the nineties remake of Dark Shadows where they play that melody over and over in the series. So I wrote what I hoped would be an equally haunting melody which occurs in this song as well as "If The Stars", and "If The Sun".
The lyrics begin with "Came a sound, from the stillness as the morning woke Sweetly he sang, yet urgent". This idea returns in the finale and final track "If The Sun" with the lyrics "I will hear you singing that familiar song that’s haunted me my whole life long". And of course the melody returns more than once in all three of the last tracks which is referenced in "If The Stars" with the lines "This recurring theme beckoned. A song snatched in fragments I heard..." So there is a conscious effort from this song forward to tie the whole thing together musically and lyrically. The song switches gears about half way through to a jazzy section where Alan gets to play some of his more memorable chops, then mellows out and is resolved with another Beebo section. I love our Beebo sections – can you tell?
If The Stars
STEVE: I knew I wanted a song which started with an ambient feel built around the pipe organ, chimes and harp – a favourite combination of mine, then have it slowly build toward a rock section, a off-time section, and finally resolving in glory with a climactic finale. So, that's what I attempted. The harp is perhaps reminiscent of "Lirazel" from "The Inconsolable Secret". Bjork used the classical harp some years ago on one of her albums and that is what provided the inspiration for much of "The Inconsolable Secret" and certainly for "If The Stars". After the opening ambient section, the song gets big and the Mellotrons really take over musically. Jon begins to sing some very poignant lines and I’ll give him credit for most of the vocal melodies which follow. We co-authored the lyrics. Alan had a lot of fun with this one – and I imagine his Steve Howe influences show through. He also played some nylon string guitar on this as well. Fred helped out with a cool mini-moog solo at the very end. The reoccurring musical theme returns more than once. I think it’s pretty obvious when it does, but once again the idea is to loosely tie the last three songs together. "If The Stars" ends very big – much like "Life By Light" on our "Culture Of Ascent" album. Of the Glass Hammer songs that I’ve written all of, or the majority of, this is probably my favourite.
If The Sun
FRED: Again, I wrote the opening of the song first and then it sat for a long time. As epics go, I was amazed at how organically this one came together, it always felt to me like it was progressing in a natural way as opposed to just tacking song ideas together to make a long piece; it doesn't have that "Frankenstein" feel to me. Some themes from other songs found their way in to help tie the album together as a whole and then you get the classic big Glass Hammer ending, only with a little twist. It was a little unintentional joke that at the end of this whole thing only Steve and I get the last word!
This was the first song that Alan worked on, and we immediately got really excited. There was actually a little section of classical guitar he recorded in his bedroom for a demo that's in the final mix; it just had a sound we couldn't recreate in the real studio. Alan is a terrific rhythm player because he knows a million ways to voice chords from his jazz background, which helps him play around the keyboards which, with us, are typically already dense. He was kind of worried about the solos though, he actually doesn't think of himself as a lead player, at least not in this idiom. We think he knocks his solos out of the park- they're intense but melodic, which is what we like.
I think this piece is a tour-de-force for Jon as well. I wrote the first part of the lyrics and Steve wrote probably the last 3/4 of the song, and I think thematically it all fits together as one idea. For me this is the best epic piece we've done to date.
BRIAN: What are you both listening to at the moment? Do you find time to listen to other bands?
FRED: Right now, I'm not listening to much of anything. I checked out "Ziltiod The Omniscient" by Devin Townsend recently and I love the idea and the sense of
humour but it left me a little exhausted after about 5 minutes. I'll probably give it another try though. I really like the dense wall of guitar and vocal Devin gets. I'm not really checking out any other prog these days. I'm having a kick riding in the car and listening to the 80's station- I don't hate most of that music now like I did back then. I really like to check out the production now. Alan, the new guitar player is a huge Pat Metheny fan and he inspired me to dig out "As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls" and the early quartet albums again after 30 years. Great stuff there.
STEVE: Favourite songs at the moment: "Happy Up Here" by Royksopp, "La La La" by The Bird and the Bee, "Expedition Impossible" by Hooverphonic, "The Zookeeper’s Boy" by Mew, and "Sour Times" by Portishead. I’m a huge fan of Hooverphonic and The Bird and the Bee. Other iPod favourites include The Answer, Riverside, Blackfield, The Zombies,
Abigail's Ghost, Muse, and some Celtic artists like Donal Macguire, Cara Dillon and The Medieval Baebes. I listen when I can, when I’m not suffering ear fatigue from studio work – mostly in the car. Not as much as I’d like to though.
BRIAN: What are your thoughts on the current state of progressive rock – in the USA and Europe?
STEVE: It’s hard to say. I think there is a big separation between prog artists and fans of the genre – at least in our case. We’re not really tapped into the scene at large, and stay pretty much to ourselves. I occasionally scan the prog forums and will read the prog magazines that are sent to us. But I can only really comment on the state of Glass Hammer.
Some bright minds need to come together to find ways to expand prog’s fan base. Distributors help a great deal, but the market must be potentially larger than meets the eye. Our audience has steadily grown through the years, but they are scattered around the world. Prog does seem to have a few geographic hot spots, even in the US. But it isn’t at all the kind of audience (in terms of size) that will support the same sort of regional tours that some relatively obscure rock bands cater to.
Our fans are loyal, dedicated – some flying from around the world or driving in from around the country to see a show. Prog fans in general, are cut from the same cloth. There certainly must be a way to convert potential prog fans into supporters of the genre. It has to be done in a way that maintains prog’s elitist vibe; its seemingly cult-like nature; without sacrificing its integrity.
BRIAN: First album ever bought for both of you?
FRED: Magical Mystery Tour, when I was about 6. The first non-Beatles related album I bought was A Passion Play by Jethro Tull and obviously that changed my life.
STEVE: Rush – Fly By Night. And somewhere around the same time I bought Frampton Comes Alive and Kiss’ Destroyer. The battle for my soul was on! Of course Rush led to Yes and Kiss led to Sabbath and Zeppelin. Somewhere in the middle of it all prog won out.
BRIAN: Last album bought?
FRED: Yikes, it has honestly been long enough since I bought an actual CD I'm not even sure. It was probably the compilation Foundations Of Funk: 1964-1969 by James Brown.
STEVE: I bought three at about the same time so I’ll list them all. Muse – Absolution, The Bird and the Bee – Ray Guns Are Not The Future, and Dungen – Tio Bitar.
BRIAN: Sum up "If" in a sentence
FRED: "If a picture paints a thousand words then why can't I paint you, the words will never show the you I've come to know..." oh wait, that's that other guy's "If" isn't it! OK, "IF" is an attempt to capture a classic 70's style of prog while still putting our own stamp on the music, a true artistic collaboration between five people to make the kind of album certain other bands should be making but haven’t for over 30 years.
STEVE: From the lyrics: "When the morning comes, when at last the sun shines clear, I will hear you singing that familiar song that’s haunted me my whole life long."
BRIAN: And in a word…
FRED: Well, the word is "love" isn't it? I don't think Yes would lie about that.
STEVE: We did sum it up in one word when we set out to think of a one word title. "IF". That’s easy!
BRIAN: Thank you both for doing this. It’s really appreciated and I hope that the next time I see you live I don’t have to get there in a Boeing 747! The fuel economy is shocking and it’s a devil to park.