Being somewhat of a fan, having once bought a plane ticket to go see them play live in Nashville, DPRP’s Brian Watson recently got to speak to Glass Hammer‘s Steve Babb and Fred Schendel about, amongst other things, their new album Cor Cordium and what was on their iPod.
Brian: How did you find the critical and commercial response to If, and what do you make of the Yes comparisons?
Steve: The critical response was encouraging, with most reviewers understanding that Glass Hammer changes now and then. The commercial response was equally positive. We gained fans with “IF”, and we saw the kind of enthusiasm for Glass Hammer that we did during the Lex Rex era. As for the Yes comparisons – well, we’ve always been compared to Yes. That intensifies when you add a singer like Jon Davison, who can, upon request, sound exactly like Jon Anderson.
Of course we are influenced by Yes (and other 70′s prog bands) and we’ve never denied that. There was some negative feedback about us sounding too much like Yes and the odd accusation of cloning. True, we use some of the same instruments (i.e. pipe organ, steel guitar, harp, etc) that they used once upon a time, and over the course of a sixty minute long album we may have spent about 2 or 3 minutes evoking the Yes style. Beyond that, I don’t think we write like Yes. We’re primarily a keyboard band when it comes to composition. Even as bassist, I write on keys. Of course Fred does too.
But I have to add this – if we did end up sounding more like Yes on “IF”, we did so with the approval of a lot of Yes fans who have suddenly been turned on to Glass Hammer. It has been a positive thing for us. I have tremendous respect for Yes and their fans, and I think the entire prog movement (bands, magazines, websites, fans, reviewers, etc) owes its very existence to Yes and two or three influential bands. We’re all ‘sons of Yes’ in that regard.
Fred: I don’t try really hard to track down all the reviews and it’s a natural tendency for people to mainly send links to the good ones, but the reviews sites and magazines I like to keep up with all said great things. We knew there would be the Yes comparisons so we had several places on the album where we consciously played that up just to have fun. We never intended to make a Yes album but we did know that, with Jon Davison especially, there would be places where it would sound that way and we wanted to have fun with that. We’ve never hidden that fact that Yes is a major influence and there was no version of Yes in the studio at the time so we felt fine with bringing that sound back to people. I really think it’s only in places.
Brian: How was the writing and recording process this time out? Was there more of a ‘band’ feel to it and how are the ‘new boys’ Alan and Jon fitting in?
Fred: We definitely had more of a band feel. We worked on two songs that Jon had written previously, and he and I worked together on a song. Alan was able to help with arranging early in the process. You can tell that they are a more organic part of the music this time around. Everyone seems to share the same vision for the direction of the music, so it’s a very happy process.
Steve: Jon and his wife practically moved in for two weeks during the recording process. Of course writing had been under way long before that. But he came from Laguna Beach to Chattanooga to write and record with us. Alan, Jon, Fred and I were all in the studio at the same time, shaping the songs, doing last minute rewrites on lyrics and arrangements – all the things bands used to do twenty years ago.
Jon and Alan both get Fred and I (and the whole Glass Hammer vibe) perfectly. We’ve been fortunate through the years to work with people who understand just what GH is and what it is not. I’m grateful for all of them. But this current group has a definite chemistry when it comes to writing. We’re very happy as a band right now.
Brian: This your 14th studio album and the third I think that’s been mastered by Bob Katz of Digital Domain – if you could revisit one of your older titles to remix/re-record to take advantage of modern technology which would it be and can we expect any remastered versions as seems to be the fashion nowadays, 5.1 perhaps, particularly on significant anniversaries?
Fred: I’d have to go back and count, but Bob has mastered most of the albums, apart from a few in the early 2000′s. One of those was Lex Rex and that is the one I think could benefit from another look. Not to try and punch up the loudness, which is the fashion, but to tweak the EQ a bit. Trying to remix the older albums is pointless; they’re spread out across so many different recording formats and archaic machines, like the (Alesis) ADATs- we don’t need that grief and stress! 5.1 on the other hand, is something we are very interested in. The Inconsolable Secret would be a good choice, and the two latest will for sure get a surround mix some day. We have two songs in 5.1 on the Belmont DVD. We have talked about an anniversary project where we would do new versions of older songs, maybe a couple from each album.
Steve: I think Bob could work some magic on Lex Rex for us. It’s the E.Q. of the entire album that bugs me. It could be warmer. I’d definitely reign in the higher frequencies. But Fred and I are the only ones who ever seemed to notice. Of course we’ve dabbled with remixing and re-recording parts of The Inconsolable Secret. But our fans have rebelled at the notion of us tampering with it.
5.1 is very appealing to me. But I don’t think the market place would support it. It would be very time consuming for us as engineers, and only a handful of people would ever hear the results. So until there is a demand for it, it’s just wishful thinking.
Brian: Tom Kuhn’s done the artwork again, and it’s beautiful I must say. What, if any, brief did you give him?
Steve: Tom spends hours agonizing over every detail of the design process. He is an extremely intelligent artist who goes way above and beyond the call when it comes to creating a Glass Hammer album package. We spend hours on the phone (he lives in Germany) and communicating by email during the layout phase. On the whole, he makes the decisions without too much bother from me. I chose him for IF because of his use of color, then learned of his attention to detail later. I trust him for the rest.
Brian: How did you come to work with Roger Dean on An Inconsolable Secret?
Steve: I met Roger on two occasions before The Inconsolable Secret, but it was our promotions company at the time that actually made the connection for the cover art. Ed Prasek represented Roger Dean and Jon Anderson, and did a bit of work for Yes as well. He approached me about promotions for GH after the Shadowlands release and eventually got us involved with Roger, and ultimately with Jon Anderson. Once again, there is a Yes connection. I can’t say enough about how nice both Roger and Jon were to us. Great guys! I had idolized them both since my teen years, so having the opportunity to work with them was a dream come true.
Roger sent us several designs for The Inconsolable Secret and the Glass Hammer logo. He let us choose, then he went to work. Wow! What an honour!
Brian: Your album art harks back to the glory days of 12 inch progressive rock gatefold sleeves. Have you considered (re)releasing vinyl editions of your albums, and what album sleeves do you particularly admire?
Fred: Yes we have considered and are considering vinyl releases. I would love to do it. The albums I liked most are pretty much by the three usual suspects: Roger Dean, Storm Thorgerson and Hugh Syme. Another stand-out is Olias Of Sunhillow, who everyone thought was Roger and wasn’t- that poor guy, nobody remembers who he was!!
Steve: I have to echo Fred. Those are my favourites too. We are talking with distributors about a vinyl release. We’ve just been so busy with Cor Cordium that there hasn’t been time to consider the details. Something might happen in 2012 though. We’ll see!
Brian: I notice that the Inconsolable Secret and Live at Nearfest are both sold out in your online store – any plans to make them available again?
Steve: Yes! We’re slowly working on a redesign of Live at Nearfest. It may contain some bonus material. And The Inconsolable Secret will eventually be re-released with remixes as bonus tracks (hopefully).
It’s worth pointing out here that the entire Glass Hammer operation is run by Fred, my wife Julie and myself. Fred and I handle the writing, the recording and the production while operating a full time studio with help from Julie who runs the office. Then Julie and I take care of publishing, graphics, promotion – every facet of a record company. So the three of us are very busy people. We’re always thinking ahead to the next project, while trying to maintain the back catalogue, and there’s only so much time in a day. All that to say – time permitting, we will get these old titles back in print with some extra goodies attached while trying to promote Cor Cordium and write and produce a new album for 2012!
Brian: Are you still in touch with Jon Anderson and how was it working with him on Culture of Ascent? Any plans to collaborate again?
Steve: I got an email from him a couple of months ago. But we don’t talk as much as we did a few years back.
I got to visit with Jon at his house and spend time in his studio before the release of Culture of Ascent. It was an amazing experience. He shared with me some of his own ideas about how to write music and I tried to soak it all up like a sponge. I heard Yes stories that I’ll never repeat. I’ll confess I know a good bit about how Awaken came together in the studio (which had always baffled me). But what Jon shared went no further than the members of Glass Hammer. After spending a great afternoon working on music with him, he topped it all off by making tea and cookies for me! He, Ed Prasek and I went on to discuss his involvement with Yes and whether or not there would be a future with Chris Squire and the others. So, it was personal and professional. And I wouldn’t betray his confidence.
Certainly, we would love to work with him again. He has an entire band at his disposal should he ever need us.
Brian: What do you make of the new Yes album and what’s your take on Geoff Downes’ foray onto the forums?
Fred: I think it is a fantastic step in the right direction for them. I really hope maybe they can get a little fire back though, for me it’s still a bit on the polite side. But it’s a very enjoyable album and a notch up from a lot of their output since the 80′s. As for Geoff, I appreciate his directness, though we’ve learned it’s generally best to keep out of things and let fans get on with their business. It seemed to work out fine in the end.
Steve: I haven’t heard the whole album yet, but what I’ve heard sounded amazing from a production standpoint. I didn’t read the forums, but heard a lot about it. Forums can be very hurtful places for a writer. You’ve got to have a tough skin if you’re going to read the negative stuff.
Brian: You’ve done South Side of the Sky (on Culture of Ascent) and the Tangent have recently covered Watcher of the Skies as a bonus on their new record. What if any classic prog tracks would you like to cover live or on record in the future?
Fred: Hard to say. Those are usually spur of the moment decisions. It has to be a track you admire, but feel you can contribute to, which is a tall order and a precarious thing, usually.
Brian: As far as I can tell Cor Cordium means heart of hearts and it’s the epitaph to the memory of idolized English Romantic poet and adventurer Percy Shelley, buried in Roma. What caused you to choose this title?
Steve: We thought the title worked well with Tom Kuhn’s ‘flying brain’ image. Also, two of the tracks on Cor Cordium are epitaphs. One is “Dear Daddy” written by Jon who lost his father years ago. The other is “One Heart” (wherein you can hear the words “Heart of hearts”on the backup vocal tracks if you listen close) which was written to comfort my wife during the passing of her mother this summer.
Brian: Can you talk us through the tracks on the album?
Fred: This whole song grew out of the electric piano riff for the verse that had been lying around for months. I thought it would be nice to work it into a more aggressive song overall while keeping the verses very melodic. Alan gets a chance to make grungier noises on this piece. He’s messing around with Robert Fripp’s New Standard Tuning and there’s some micro-tonal tuning in the middle solo so anyone who tries to learn it is going to have some fun! There’s a lot of organ on it as well. We didn’t want it to be the album opener initially because it seemed so obvious, we were going to go with She, A Lonely Tower, but when that song got moved to the end it seemed the next best choice.
Steve: Musically, this song was built around the very cool sounding organ that you hear at the beginning of the track. At least I think it’s very cool! I ran a Hammond organ through a ton of guitar processors and came up with that strangeness. You’ll hear it in the background frequently during the rest of the song. But that’s where it started.
Lyrically, as I said earlier, it was written to comfort my wife. We knew her mom only had a matter of days to live when I wrote the words. She had been crippled for three years and was in tremendous pain, but she was a Christian (and the best mother-in-law and man could ask for!) and knew that she heading home to Heaven. I’ve never witnessed anything more profound in all my life than her passing. Of course my wife and her family were devastated with the loss, and she can’t yet listen to the song without crying.
Fred: The first of Jon’s songs. He had a version that was just him on acoustic, bass and vocals and we expanded it. I added the middle break with the solos and the very Gentle Giant-y part. I think it’s a very strong, shorter vocal song and it actually rocks!
Fred: Also Jon’s song. He had a version from the early 90′s that we worked together to expand a bit arrangement-wise. You can tell the lyrics come from a far more personal place than we would ever normally get into. Hopefully fans will appreciate it. This song probably has the most dynamics and changes of anything on the album. Short sections of the original recording were so integral to the sound of the piece we just used them, for instance, the intro and the little jam with the fiddle, where I overdubbed an accordion. From a production standpoint it was challenging to make the classic sections integrate into the new recording.
Fred: This grew largely out of bits I had and some new sections Jon added. Basically, the instrumental parts are me and the vocal parts are Jon. It wasn’t designed as a longer “epic” from the start, it just grew into that. I think it is probably the closest in feel to something that might have been on “If”. The piano break in the middle is actually based around the guitar intro to Dear Daddy if you listen carefully and it then repeats as the big organ break and guitar solo, so it ties the two pieces together, albeit loosely.
She, A Lonely Tower
Steve: Jon wrote the lyrics for this one, with me looking over his shoulder of course! But its about isolation, and about trying to help a loved one break free of it. We both sort of came up with the idea about using the ocean as a metaphor, but clearly the most obvious metaphor is the tower, considering it’s in the title.
Musically, I wrote the majority of this. Alan added a cool section and Fred endured the prodding of both Jon and myself until he tweaked the ending of the song to reflect the arrangement I’d written for the intro.
One interesting factoid about the writing of this song: The first day I began working it, my studio and home were slammed by a small tornado. The entire region was hit by hurricane force winds in one of the freakiest storms that Tennessee has ever seen. Trees fell everywhere. We lost power for a week. So you just have to picture me sitting at the keyboard one moment, and in the next realizing a storm was coming. I quickly turned off all the computers – just in time. Seconds later – WHAM!. It was over in 60 seconds but it seemed a lifetime.
Then…just two months later I was about to head to the studio again. This time the south-eastern states were by at least 300 tornadoes. Our area had two monster tornadoes and an assortment of smaller ones. Giant trees came down on our house and studio, and scarred us all for life! Lots of people lost their lives though; I’d never make light of it. We came out very lucky in the end.
Overall it was a tough year for us, and not the easiest of circumstances under which to produce an album. Yet Cor Cordium lives, in spite of mother nature’s attempts to thwart us.
Brian: Where geographically would you say your core market is, Europe or the States and what is the most obscure location(s) you’ve dispatched merch to?
Steve: There are hot spots in the world for prog and for GH fans. The north-eastern United States is one, but we probably sell more CDs in Europe. We’ve shipped CDs to American service men in Iraq, and we have shipped CDs to Mongolia. We’ve also sold CDs in Turkey and one fan recently wrote us from the Amazon rainforest.
Brian: Any festivals or one-offs planned in the USA or elsewhere?
Steve: I think the word is out that we aren’t interested in playing. But truthfully, we’re just looking for the best opportunities. There is talk of something in the UK next year – but it’s just talk so far. I really hope GH takes the stage again – and each member of the band has agreed to perform if circumstances permit. Transforming a studio group into a live band is harder than you’d expect, especially for a progressive rock band. This is tough music to record, let alone perform. So we’d want to do it right and for all the work we’d be putting into it, we’d want to do it big.
Brian: Live at Nearfest was the first record of yours I bought. What do you make of the cancellation of the most recent festival?
Fred: Well I think it was a great shame but these things happen. It appears they are going to do one more to out with a bang, as it were. We haven’t been contacted though.
Steve: NEARfest really helped put us on the map and opened a new chapter for Glass Hammer that resulted in a new band which went on to record The Inconsolable Secret, Culture of Ascent and two live concert DVDs. So I’m not happy to hear we’re nearing the end of the NEARfest phenomenon.
Brian: What’s on your car CD player right now?
Fred: Literally nothing. I have no disks in the car. I just listen to the radio.
Steve: Cor Cordium. I took a break from it for about a month and now I’m alternating between it and Talk-radio.
Brian: If I pressed shuffle on your iPod, at the moment what could I expect to hear?
Fred: Well, let’s try it: I’ll list the 1st dozen artists/albums that show up:
Beatles/ Abbey Road, Wendy Carlos/ Well-tempered Synthesizer, U.I. Blue/ Songbird’s Cry (that’s a duo that we produced)Nigel Planer/ Neil’s Heavy Concept Album, Glass Hammer/ Cor Cordium, Trurl/ Do Not See Me Rabbit, Bloodrock/ Bloodrock, IVolare/ Uncertainty Principle, GWAR/ Rangarok, Yes/ Magnification, Frank Zappa/ Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch, Chicago/ Greatest Hits
I don’t think I normally have so much music on there that I’m personally involved with, I must be going through a phase! That’s a pretty good eclectic mix I think.
Steve: I am frequently very non-proggy with my playlists. Don’t be shocked, but it looks something like this:
Glass Hammer – Roses For Emily, Frederik Magle – Polyphony, Royksopp – Happy Up Here, Hooverphonic – This Strange Effect, The Asteroids Galaxy Tour – The Golden Age, Mendelssohn – A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Op 61, The Bird and the Bee – Meteor, Big As The Sky – Summertime Girlfriend The Go!, Team – T.O.R.A.N.D.O., Portishead – Sour Times
It just gets stranger from there!
Thanks Fred and Steve once again for your time, and here’s hoping to see you this side of the pond sometime soon.
Official Glass Hammer Website: http://www.glasshammer.com