Hailing from a place called Moor-door in the lost north of England, Gandalf's Fist have been enamouring prog fans with seven studio albums since their immaculate conception at the dawning of the year of the badger.
Never renowned for their brevity, the band's last two albums stretched across five compact discs! Hoping to be finished in time for breakfast, the DPRP's Stefan Hennig clears his diary to talk with his namesake and Fist stick-weilder, Stefan Hepe.
We discover how the band started life as a failed chat-up line. How they recruited the voice of The Gremlins to star in their most recent concept-opus. And why Stefan was more wowed by sharing a recording with a bloke from Gryphon, than the voice of a band named after a medieval torture device!
DPRP: Who decided upon the name of the band, and what other names were considered?
Stefan: There's quite a story to this band name. I wasn't there back then, so I can only tell it from what I've been told (and Dean and Luke can whack me on the head with a large trout anytime if I'm wrong). So there was this mutual friend of Luke and Dean, and he was constantly inventing names for songs, albums, bands. Whatever you'd imagine, he'd come up with a ridiculous name for it. He used the name “Gandalf's Fist” for a fictitious band to impress a girl in a night club (unsuccessfully, I must add) and when the two decided to release some stuff, they remembered that name. In fact the whole band was made-up back then, with fictitious band members.
DPRP: How did Luke and Dean's relationship develop to such an extent that they decided upon the road of Rock 'n' Roll celebrity?
Stefan: They are like peas and carrots. Together with our bassist Chris, there is a really strong bond of friendship between them, and I am very delighted to be part of that friendship, and that I know these guys. I have never felt so welcomed and embraced before. I met them in December 2013 for the first time for a week of rehearsals for Planet Rockstock in Great Yarmouth; the very first Gandalf's Fist gig. And, I am absolutely happy that Keri and Ben were welcomed the very same way. Having a very hard relationship with my real brother, they are surrogate brothers (and sister) for me. I love these guys. But that wasn't the question, was it?
DPRP: Is there something in the water up far North that helped them decide upon the themes of the earlier albums, and to re-imagine classic tales such as The Wizard Of Oz and Alice In Wonderland?
Stefan: Hahaha, well, I think so, although the water tasted very good and “normal” when I was up there. These guys are so full of inspiration. You throw three words/places at them, and they come up with a breathtaking story after a few hours. And it's been always like that.
DPRP: The whole Clockwork Fable thing was kept so quiet until around the release time. How difficult was it not to broadcast early-on that The Fist were undertaking such an ambitious project?
Stefan: Oh heck, and how difficult it was. But that only crept up once we realised that we were heading towards releasing a triple album (which was totally unplanned at the time). Usually, you don't look at track times, or how many minutes you need to fill a CD, or whatever, you just carry on writing, delving into the story, expanding it, and extending sections. At one point, someone said: “Wait a second, how many music minutes do we have, and how much time will the dialogues take?”. We were well into three CDs by that time already, and were baffled. So, we didn't sit down at the start, saying: “We want to release a three CD album”.
DPRP: Your list of guests on The Clockwork Fable is pretty impressive. Mark Benton's voice was so right for the narration that he provides on the album. Can you tell us how you managed to convince him to do the project. Had he heard of Gandalf's Fist before you contacted him and how much cous cous did it take to get him to do it?
Stefan: He was a follower on Twitter, and at that time it also became public that he was a huge Prog fan. So, with nothing to lose, we asked him if he fancied contributing to one of the most ambitious (and probably most prone to failure) projects in Prog. And not only did he agree to help us, he also said: “Don't worry about other voices, I have a few people in mind that might want to as well”. And off he went. Another famous actor we got was Zach Galligan (famous for playing Billy Peltzer, the main figure in both Gremlins movies) who also followed us on Twitter. So, if you want to avoid being asked for contributions, simply do not follow us on Twitter or Facebook. Or vice versa if you want to help us out sometime!
DPRP: As the whole band seem to be huge Iron Maiden fans, what was it like getting Blaze Bailey to contribute?
Stefan: Well, to be honest I am not really into the Bailey phase of Maiden. I have seen Maiden several times up to the Dickinson farewell tour in 92/93 (I am amongst the thousands yelling at the opening song of the A Real Live One album in Mannheim), and from then on I lost interest in Maiden. But Dean (at least) is a huge fan of that era, and I believe he really shat his pants when Blaze replied positively, and especially when we received the tracks he recorded. Of course that was completely blowing my socks off, and what we tried with the song he's singing on (At The Sign Of The Aperture, a really fantastic Maiden rocker, if I could say so) really worked with his voice. I was also blown away by hearing Dave Oberlé (Gryphon) singing on one of our tracks (first time on A Forest Of Fey in 2014), because Gryphon are my (and Dean's) absolute heroes. THAT was completely out of this world for me. I couldn't believe it. I still cannot, although I managed to arrange a meeting with him in a pub down in Surrey, which blew my socks off even more.
DPRP: Did you expect the public reaction to The Clockwork Fable to be so positive? I mean a group of young blokes (and a lady), who should be trying to emulate the likes of Louis Capaldi, but producing a triple CD concept album. What do the neighbours think?
Stefan: You usually don't expect anybody to like what you do. Also, we “just” record/write music that we would listen to. And we do. Some musicians say they never listen to their stuff – we do. The Fist is in my commuting rotation every now and then, and I know for a fact that all the others do the same. That's our aim: to record our favourite album over and over again. So when people like what we do, it's always a muchly appreciated bonus. Personally, I don't think my neighbours even know what I'm doing (apart from my day job, and I'm not even sure they know about that). There were a few interview features in the local newspaper, but that didn't disturb the weekly shopping event with my wife.
DPRP: After producing, what I imagine was a time consuming and energy sapping venture with The Clockwork Fable, whose suggestion was it to do a prequel, and what were the reactions of the rest of the band?
Stefan: Well, this might sound like something I just made up, but I swear it's entirely true. Originally, we planned to make a Christmas EP (rather than a single). So we noodled around, when suddenly Dean found a folder of unused demos for The Clockwork Fable, and after reviewing all of them, we decided to release this as an EP instead. More and more songs turned up, suddenly they threw new ideas at each other, one thing added up to the next, and at some point we had “a double EP”. I am NOT making this up, seriously! This band IS crazy! So, once we had this collection of songs at hand, we thought we couldn't just release them as a loose collection of songs, as those demos were part of the story; just not released back then. So we needed a story and dialogues. Dean dug out the story, and Mark (Benton) again was in, as well as all the others who played a role in the Prologue. We wrote a few new songs, introduced a few new characters, and ended up with a double album (just like the Fable, totally unplanned for in the beginning). So it was a full band decision, somewhere between producing an EP of old demos and releasing a double EP, which soon became a double album. Coming to think of it, I still want to be in the first band releasing a double EP!
DPRP: Have you decided whether The Clockwork Fable will be something you will return to, if not now, then somewhere down the line?
Stefan: Well, that's something we really can't answer in an honest way, as with The Clockwork Prologue, it's not planned at this time. We might do just that, but it will come to a perfect surprise for us if we do.
DPRP: The whole Cogtopolis concept provides a huge world and history to discover. Have you been approached by any production companies to discuss developing the idea further?
Stefan: Yes, indeed we have, but talks are still on the way, so we cannot reveal anything about it. That said, we're open for everything, as long as we keep creative control over it. If you have an idea, get in touch.
DPRP: You've announced your spot on next years HRH Prog weekend, are there any other live appearances Fist fans can expect?
Stefan: Nothing planned at the moment. We want to repeat what we did with the Fistival in Workington (Cumbria) in 2017, but there are no active plans at the moment. In fact, we usually work on an “invitation basis”. We do not actively look for opportunities, but are invited to festivals/gigs. It is not easy planning anything, with the band spread across Britain, and one member living in Germany. That's quite a logistical effort every time.
DPRP: What can the unsuspecting public expect next from the Fist camp?
Stefan: At the moment, we're focused on plans for the HRH X concert(s) in London and Sheffield. You know, getting transportation, accommodation sorted, as this time it's all different with two venues. However I'm pretty sure either Dean or Ben will come up with some musical ideas, which will spark the whole Fist machinery into another rocket-ride again.
DPRP: I can only think of ending the interview in one way, and that is to ask about the local badger population's reaction to being continually associated with a Northern Space Prog Rock band, whose over-generous consumption of hop-based fluids, on a too regular occasion, has been causing immense disturbance to the badgers' nocturnal activities?
Stefan: There's an order to refrain by his majesty, King Dah'ks in place, that doesn't allow me closer than 500ft to a question like that!
Gandalf's Fist — The Clockwork Prologue [2CD]
Having placed Gandalf's Fist's, The Clockwork Prologue, in my top 10 albums of 2019, I decided to search for recent Fist reviews within the DPRP archives. Sadly, there was a distinct lack of reviews of one of England's (and a little bit of Germany's) best kept prog secrets.
(Ed: The band has released a long list of singles, EPs and live recordings, plus three earlier albums: Road To Darkness (2011), The Master And The Monkey (2011), and From A Point Of Existence (2012). Many of these are available from their Bandcamp page.)
The latter of those two reviewed discs was where I first discovered the bizarre world of Gandalf's Fist. The album cover, along with the band name, whetted my appetite. Then reading that both Clive Nolan and John Mitchell had lent a helping hand (or had been blackmailed to; the truth has never become clear), along with Troy Donockley, then I took one of my many punts into the unknown (as you do being a fan of the progressive genre), and ordered a copy.
Little did I realise that the purchase of one CD would lead me down a path of unexpected wonder, interspersed with equally lavish helpings of the bizarre. The Fist's early releases were sometimes re-imaginings of stories from the past. My first experience, A Forest Of Fay, was a crazy retelling of Alice In Wonderland, which, let's be honest, the original source material could easily have been written by someone who, it could be said, appears to have been more than just dabbling in certain illegal pharmaceuticals.
Then came the announcement that this little known band were to release a three CD, concept album. Well, the word 'concept' had me from the start. Then, when the full scale of this epic was announced, it became apparent that Gandalf's Fist were far from your average band.
The concept, based around an imaginary cyberpunk world called Cogtopolis, was so carefully crafted, that it had its own language, maps of the world, and even a visitor guide, produced to help the traveller become familiar with their surroundings. It was then revealed that the world of Gandalf's Fist reached much further than Cogtopolis, and previous, apparently unrelated releases were linked into the Fist's universe.
This epic had a company of well-known actors providing the voices for its array of eclectic characters, along with a myriad of musicians and singers, further adding to the wonder of The Clockwork Fable. And so, with very little fanfare, in May 2016, this magnum opus was delivered to the unsuspecting public.
From that point on, when you visited any progressive rock concert, there appeared to be at least one person among the audience who would be proudly displaying a Gandalf's Fist t-shirt. Should you dare approach one of these people? If so, you did so at your own peril. You would end up being convinced of the wonder that is Gandalf's Fist, in a way that is usually reserved for the door-step religion sellers who frequent many a street.
You would be told of the wonder of the music, ranging from folk rock to space rock, from classic 70s prog, to the NWOBHM, and everything in between. Then you would be told of the Badger community linked to the legend, the undying love of cous-cous, and the sad plight of a mechanical boy who gave his life to save a world. By which point you would either be enthralled enough to seek out this mythical band, or you would withdraw and look towards the safety, familiarity and non-threatening aural comfort of Genesis' Calling All Stations.
Gandalf's Fist are a quintessentially English entity, in the same way as Monty Python, The Two Ronnie's and Morecambe & Wise were. The band's view of life stems from a time of innocence and adventure, which has become lost over the recent decades. That being said, the band will, I imagine, be like Marmite, in that you will either love or loath them, and there will be very little middle ground.
A further unusual aspect is that the band's “foreign” member, turns out to be a German, who understands the English sense of humour. This being the drummer, and main internet presence, Stefan Hepe.
Part of Stefan's initiation may have been being brainwashed by the higher order of badgers and weasels, to cement his full membership of the band. If this is the case, then he has also been imbued with a true passion for everything Fist.
To accurately convey what Gandalf's Fist have delivered with The Clockwork Fable, would take a better person than myself to get anywhere near describing the immensity of the dream of two university friends, from 'Up North', who have managed to turn it into a reality.
The vastness of this musical adventure is simply breathtaking. You have the character actors delivering the narrative of the story, and the music being the journey of adventure through the magnificently-imagined world of Cogtopolis. To help with the musical delivery, you have such highly regarded luminaries of the music world such as Blaze Bailey (who you have to wait until disc three for his contribution, and if you are a fan of Iron Maiden, then the wait is well worth it), and Arjen Lucassen providing the singing parts for the character Armistead, who is the keeper of the knowledge of the aperture. Well, to discover what that is, and if you have the slightest curiosity, then you may be ready to take your first steps into being a convert of the Fist.
After the release of The Clockwork Fable, the band returned to two of their earlier releases, Road To Darkness and A Day In The Life Of A Universal Wanderer. Using the additional technology and finance now available to them, they remixed both albums, adding the real drums of Stefan Hepe and other musical retouches to bring things closer to what they originally imagined. For the Universal Wanderer tale, they added the wonderful voice of new friend Mark Benton, who narrates the story. Both were re-released as 'special editions' in 2017 with new cover art.
You would imagine, that after producing such a momentous product, Dean, Luke and the rest of the sextet's next full release would be something more conventional. But the Fist being who they are, took the inspiration from George Lucas, taking a step backward in time in the telling of their tale, further expanding the Cogtopolis story, and released a prelude to their magnum opus. This time however it was in a streamlined release; merely a double CD!
Three years after The Clockwork Fable, The Clockwork Prologue was released. While the list of contributing voice actors on this release was expanded, the guest musicians were kept to a minimum, only adding violins and the returning Melissa Hollick, who again contributes the singing voice of Eve to the production. It appears the musical confidence of the band had developed to such an extent that the need to include guest musicians was not needed for the prologue.
This has not in any way reduced the quality, but the new-found confidence has enabled the band to develop further, and produce an equally accomplished product as its predecessor. This should easily establish Gandalf's Fist as one of the leading lights in the progressive rock field. A band whose ideas are so youthful and carefree that it reminds me of the dreams of my youth; the naive curiosity and sense of adventure that we should nurture and encourage. It is a great example of the ideology that music can deliver.
As I have previously said, for anyone who wants their music to deliver any degree of social reflection upon society, then this might not be for you. However, if you have ever read Douglas Adams or gained any satisfaction in the escapism that the films of Marvel or Star Wars may bring, then I would be surprised if you did not become a convert to the wonderfully mad world that is Gandalf's Fist.