After a bit of a break from epic prog on the more pop oriented Three Cheers For the Broken Hearted, Tennessee's Glass Hammer return to what they do best on If, their latest release of bombastic, 70's flavored progressive rock. Sea of Tranquility Publisher Pete Pardo caught up with founding members Steve Babb and Fred Schendel to talk about the new line-up, past members, the new CD, and what it's been like to be a part of the Glass Hammer machine for nearly 20 years.
SoT: Things have changed a bit for the band since the release of 'Three Cheers For the Broken Hearted'-can you talk a little bit about the thought process of the band leading into the recording of that album (which was a bit of a departure for Glass Hammer), the reaction from the critics & fans, and the subsequent reshaping of the band leading up to the recording of 'If' ?
Fred: We mainly wanted a break from the hugeness of it all, the big epics and concepts. Steve wrote a couple songs for a solo album that were, on the face of it, not very "Glass Hammer-y" but I liked them and had some similar ideas, and I thought it would be fun to work on that. We did try to do songs like that early on in our career, with limited success, and I thought we could now produce that kind of material the way we wished we could have then. And it was nice because it let us work with just the two of us plus Susie, which made for a very enjoyable, streamlined process.
In my mind it was very successful as we did pretty much what we set out to do; which was a little rock and a little psych all mixed up. It's Rush, King's X, The Zombies and The Monkees. What could be more prog?
It was really a recharging of the creative batteries so we could come back and tackle a project like If, and get back in that traditional symph prog mindset. I think a lot of fans were worried that we were going to continue that direction and stay away from what we had been doing on albums like Lex Rex and Inconsolable Secret, but we knew all along it was just a detour. We've always done that; made little side journeys and come back again.
SoT: Many people are quite happy with the return to grandiose symphonic progressive rock on 'If' -how has the feedback you have received directly been so far?
Fred: Well, extremely positive, it's what people had hoped for and of course it was really what we had planned. We just got lucky and found the right people to do it with, at a time when we seemed to have some good ideas writing-wise.
Steve: Every day I'm reading reviews, fan emails and forum posts that just make my day! If seems to have generated the kind of enthusiasm that Lex Rex did for us several years ago.
SoT: There's a profound influence of Yes on the new CD-was that done intentionally, or is it just due to Jon Davison's voice being somewhat similar to Jon Anderson, and the nature of the songs that were written?
Fred: It's kind of all of that. To some degree I think both Steve and I hear that voice when we write and always have to some extent, and when we heard Jon we just thought, heck, we need to go for it. In some spots we encouraged him to play it up a bit but mostly both he and we were really more interested in him finding his own voice that fit with the Glass Hammer sound. But we have integrated some Yes vocabulary before, like the pipe organ or steel guitar, so it was nice to have that other element to work into what we do as well. We figure that Yes doesn't really sound like classic Yes anymore, so we could be forgiven for doing it here and there. It's a good sound.
Steve: Several CDs we've done have been compared to Yes. We're comfortable with the comparisons by now, and naturally, they are one of our favorite bands. But the intention is never to clone Yes or any other group. We let our influences show, and we do so proudly. I can certainly hear bits of ELP, Camel, Genesis and other classic prog bands at work in our music, but I still think Glass Hammer has its own, unique sound; its own twist on the symphonic-prog style.
SoT: Alan Shikoh has an interesting guitar style-it's apparent he is well versed on progressive rock guitar, but there's a certain jazz flavor to his playing as well. Can you talk a little about his background?
Fred: He's a Pat Metheny fan and classical guitar player. He's very well versed in traditional jazz playing but he also knows the prog style quite well. It's great because he can really get the flavor of the classic guitarists. He knows the idiom pretty well, but I think there is a "freshness" to what he does with us. And I do think next time around we should explore the jazz style a little more, not as a band maybe but in terms of what he plays to what we're doing.
SoT: As with just about any GH album, there's a wealth of keyboard sounds and textures here on the latest release. What types of instruments did you both use on 'If' ?
Fred: Well, mostly it's back to very traditional sounds, the bedrock Hammond, Mellotron and Minimoog style synth, though we're employing a lot of hi-tech gear to get them. I did pull out a Fender Rhodes electric piano sound for one song, which I really like and may try to do more of on the next album. It doesn't get used in prog enough, it was mainly Patrick Moraz and the Canterbury guys that used it. And there are some modern soft synth textures here and there. One thing we talk about and never get around to is a more lo-fi approach, taking old nasty keyboards and running them through stomp-boxes, trying to get weird sounds that aren't as stock as the organ or 'tron. Alan loves that kind of approach, so we'll see.
Steve: I am nearly certain my Yamaha CS-5 monophonic synth made it on the album. The Taurus pedals are actually sampled from my old set. I did play a good bit of pipe organ on the album, and always love to add that texture. It's the ultimate keyboard! I tend to rely on soft-synths for just about everything I play these days.
SoT: Seeing as both of you play keyboards on the CD (though Fred obviously the bulk of them), how can the listener tell between the two of you?
Fred: Actually, I play few to none on Steve's songs this time out. I played a little lead on the end of If The Stars, I don't play any at all on Grace The Skies, I'm just playing steel and acoustic guitar and mandolin. So Steve plays a lot on this album but it's segregated, it's one of us or the other. To some extent, Steve plays more atmospheric parts and I play busier, more lead-y type parts but that's a broad generalization.
Steve: Fred is certainly my favorite keyboardist and a phenomenal Hammond player. But keyboards are my primary instrument when writing, so usually if I wrote it – then I play it. If you hear a ripping Hammond solo, it is probably always going to be Fred. If you hear pipe organ, pianos and harp sounds – it is most likely me. I played all the keys on "Grace The Skies", "If The Stars" (except for the moog lead at the end) and "At Last We Are". Otherwise, it's Mr. Schendel.
SoT: Now that the new line-up is set and the new album out, are there any live shows planned in support of 'If'?
Steve: We have had one offer for a festival outside of the USA, so discussions have begun! We have to see if it is possible, logistically speaking. But we all want to play if the details can be ironed out. It's a huge time commitment for all involved!
Fred: Jon is ready to come out from the West Coast and do it and I've love the chance to play these songs. And Alan is ready to go as well.
SoT: One of the problems with GH in the past has been the numerous line-up changes, leaving Fred & Steve as the only real 'faces' of the band that fans & critics can latch on to. Do you think this version of the band will stick together for a while and bring some solidity to the group?
Fred: It feels like it will. We all work well together, and since this album was largely written before the line-up came together all the way, there's an even better chance to grow the next album organically. We always get to a point where we need to try something new but I would be surprised if this group didn't last several albums, and maybe even more if it goes well.
Steve: From the inside, it doesn't feel like a problem at all. In fact, it is our secret weapon. If we had stopped the first time someone other than Fred or myself quit or rocked the boat, we would never have made it past the first album! And that would have been a shame. Glass Hammer is basically a working name for Fred and I to record under. Occasionally it operates as a band name as well. Right now, it certainly feels like a band and I hope it stays exactly the way it is for the foreseeable future. But when the day comes that Jon or Alan feel the need to move on – I don't think that will necessarily mean the end of Glass Hammer.
As long as Fred and I do prog together, there will be a Glass Hammer. We've never been a traditional band, and that of course is a big reason that Glass Hammer has made so many albums. Eighteen years worth!
SoT: For the first time in a few years, there's no female vocal presence on a GH release. What are the former GH 'ladies' up to these days, and will we see them working with the band in the future?
Steve: There have been many GH ladies! Susie moved to Florida and is expecting her third son. Of course that played a part in the recent changes in the lineup. But we think she'll be back one day and we hope to record with her again. Bethany is in Atlanta, and Flo is in Nashville – still pursuing her own musical career. Sarah Snyder still records here at our studio for various projects, usually for choirs. The Adonia String Trio is still together and mostly pregnant! To go further back in time, Michelle Young just wrapped up a jazz recording here at the studio a few weeks ago. They're all thriving and all still good friends.
SoT: Walter Moore is also absent after numerous stints with the band. What is he up to these days?
Fred: Well, he's out there gigging and working. I wish I had more time to keep up with him, I could give a better answer. But as far as I know he's in good health now and doing well.
Steve: I miss him! Hopefully our paths will cross again one day. I'd love to have him sing a track with us again in the future.
SoT: GH has had a host of vocalists over the years-what stood out about Jon that made him the right choice for 'If'?
Fred: He just does, it's partially that we always heard a voice of that style in our heads when we write, as I alluded to before, but beyond that he just seems to fit effortlessly. His approach to words and music are very compatible with us. He's a good musician as well; he plays bass, which could free up Steve to play keys in a live situation.
Steve: Because our keyboard playing is usually so dense on the recordings, it is sometimes difficult from a mixing standpoint, to work our singers in and make them really stand out. Jon literally just drops right into the mix. His voice cuts through all that denseness with very little needed in the engineering department. He knows how to sing poetry and fill it with emotion without losing the technique. His range is dead on for how we envision our music.
SoT: "If the Sun" is the monumental epic that closes the album, and besides all the amazing instrumental passages, there's some thoughtful lyrics to the song as well. Can you talk a little bit about that piece, both from a lyrical as well as musical standpoint, and what it takes to put together a song of that length?
Fred: That song was pretty much written straight through from beginning to end in order. I started with that quirky little riff and then it just sat for a couple months but there didn't seem to be any good way to continue. And then one day I got the next bit and just kept going until it seemed like it was over. This is the music, mind you. I had vague ideas for lyrics but after two or three tries and failing miserably to say what I wanted, I gave up. In the end I wrote words up until around the atmospheric part and then quit and said, here, you guys figure it out. And I think Steve wrote pretty much everything else to the end, although Jon may have some stuff in there as well, I'm not sure off the top of my head. It's probably not readily apparent but the song brings a certain closure to some things I had written about in the past, as well as something of an answer to Beyond, Within, the opening song. I don't think If is a concept album but it does have a theme that presents itself.
Steve: The last three songs definitely tie together lyrically – at least the themes are continued throughout and resolved with the very last lyric of "If The Sun". Jon wrote the line, "If the sun could launch a thousand dreams and carry us away...". But Fred is right – from about the half-way point until the end, I wrote all of that. It took two or three sessions to get it done. I hope it all makes sense to our fans – it does to me. In a way, it kind of refers back to Culture of Ascent. Those lyrics left the singer on top of a mountain – something like Everest. "If The Sun" finds us looking beyond even that, to something higher up. It's all very spiritual of course, and loaded with metaphors.
SoT: How difficult was it to switch gears from the shorter, poppier songs of the previous CD to the more epic, proggy nature of the latest album?
Fred: It was easy. We really needed that break and a chance to flex our mental muscles in a new direction for a spell. It's like taking a musical vacation. I think almost everyone will agree it had the right effect. Writing If was very fast, much like writing Lex Rex.
Steve: I was totally burned out on the epics after Culture of Ascent. For a short time I even considered never going back that way again. Fortunately, I came to my senses. It's what we do best! But our fans have been kind enough to indulge our little experiments from time to time, and it's those breaks like Three Cheers (still a great album, in my opinion) that make albums like If possible. Three months after the release of our pop-prog album, I was ready to dive into 'epicness' with a glad heart!
SoT: The cover art of 'If' is very Roger Dean influenced, adding another element of the 'Yes' feel to the CD. Can you talk about the creation of the artwork and what inspired it?
Steve: Tom Kuhn of Designerloge in Germany is our new, dedicated, hard-working cover artist and designer. He threw himself into the layout, spending at least as much time as some of us did producing the music. It has the Dean feel, but done in a new way. Much the way I assume we have the Yes feel, but done with our own distinctiveness. His use of color is mainly what caught my eye. Dreary looking covers have been all the rage for the last few years. I'm done with dreary for the time being. His image, strange though it may be, is a real eye-catcher. And that's what an album cover should be. We think Tom, like Alan and Jon, is a perfect fit for Glass Hammer.
SoT: Lastly, have you been keeping up with your contemporaries on the prog scene much these days? What bands, or new music have you been following this year?
Fred: Not much, there's a lot I'd like to check out but I'm really very musically insulated these days. I have almost no idea what's going on out there. Maybe it's for the best! Who can say.
Steve: I love reading reviews of Glass Hammer where we are supposedly inspired by one or more of these contemporaries. Truth is, I have probably never listened to an entire song by any of them. Salem Hill is one exception, of course! I do listen to some of the bands who haunt the fringes of prog, such as The Mew, Devin Townsend, Blackfield and a few others. But I have never really listened to any of the other Third Wave bands. I still love my albums from the seventies – when it comes to classic symphonic prog that is. And I mean no disrespect to the other groups. I just don't have the time to check them out as I would like.
SoT: Thanks a lot! If there's anything else you'd like to let our readers know, please feel free!
Steve: Thanks to you for doing the interview! Please let your listeners know we'd love to meet them on the Glass Hammer forum at www.glasshammer.com or on our Facebook page. Do drop in!
Photos Courtesy of the Glass Hammer Website
(Click here to read our review of If