One of the most consistent and beloved bands of the modern progressive rock scene over the last 20 years has been Tennessee's Glass Hammer, and they have once again scored a major triumph with their latest release Ode to Echo. Band founders Fred Schendel and Steve Babb recently caught up with Pete Pardo to talk at length about the new album and all that is going on in the world of Glass Hammer.
SoT: A lot has gone on in the Glass Hammer camp since we last saw the band with the release of Perilous. Jon Davison, who has sang lead vocals for the last few albums, has now joined Yes as their vocalist, and you have brought back some familiar names for the new CD Ode to Echo. Can you talk a bit about the turn of events since your last CD in 2012?
Fred: The biggest change is really Aaron Raulston making his studio debut with us. He really gives the band a new kind of drive. I think in some sense we always thought the If-Cor Cordium-Perilous cycle would be a trilogy and now we're moving on to a new phase. It's a bit new, with Aaron and Kamran moving more to the fore instrumentally, and a bit classic, with the return to the multiple vocalist approach.
Steve: I think I must have said in at least a half-dozen interviews that we would very much like to have Carl and Susie back one day. In my mind they have never been out of Glass Hammer. We just waited for the right opportunity. Jon, Carl and Susie also have great respect for one another, so it is a very happy situation we find ourselves in at the moment. We are fortunate, as songwriters, to have so much talent to work with in our singers. Also we have really enjoyed being involved in Cruise To The Edge and The Moody Blues Cruise. The band is playing live again and currently looking for the right opportunities to do so even more.
SoT: Ode to Echo, seems more of a vocal oriented album, though it still contains plenty of the trademark instrumental flourishes that the band is known for. Was it your intention to write songs that gave more emphasis on the lead & backing vocal harmonies this time around?
Fred: Somewhat, for sure. We knew we were going to use multiple singers again, with the emphasis on Carl, and then Suzie and Jon, with the cameos from Walter and Michelle. So, if you have five singers it will be a fairly vocal album.
SoT: Great to see Carl, Susie, Walter, and Michelle contributing to the new album. How easy was it to get everyone involved in the recording of Ode to Echo?
Fred: Easy- a few phone calls and it was a done deal.
Steve: I made sure Jon and Carl met one another on CTTE last year and we all talked over how this would work. I want to keep them all happy! Susie has made it plain to me that she'll always be there for us. Walter and Michelle have remained our friends and hopefully this won't be the last time we hear from them on a Glass Hammer recording.
SoT: Can you talk a little bit about the lyrics behind some of the songs on the album? Misantrog, I Am I and Ozymandias all seem to have somewhat of a central theme...
Steve: I'm on a kick about malignant-narcissism right now, having just done a lot of research on the topic. I would never have done the research though had I not suddenly found myself, my family, and in one instance – our band, victimized by not one, but several of these people. My hope is that through "Ode To Echo" and interviews like these, that we can call attention to the dangers of dealing with malignant-narcissists and psychopaths. I know we can't go into too much detail here, but I do encourage your readers to google this personality disorder and see if they can learn to recognize it when they are confronted with it. It is so common these days that nearly everyone will know or eventually come across one of these dangerous people, and they need to know how to react and how to defend themselves when it happens. In this case, knowledge can literally mean the difference between life and death.
"Misantrog", "I Am I", and "Ozymandias" all deal with one aspect or another of malignant-narcissism. This is also reflected in the cover art which features the classical figures of Narcissus and Echo.
SoT: With Jon's commitments to Yes, how much will he be involved with Glass Hammer's future from both a studio & live perspective?
Fred: It's a fluid situation. Probably to about the same extent for the foreseeable future; i.e. a little on the albums and not at all live. We'll see how that evolves as time goes on. It would be nice to do some kind of live show with Jon some day.
Steve: To me it is very much like asking about any member of Glass Hammer's involvement with Glass Hammer in the future. Every one of us is involved in a number of other bands or projects. Jon just has a job that makes it a little harder for him to be involved with us whenever we have a whim. Susie has four young children and lives two states away – same issue. Carl is the front-man for Salem Hill and runs a company. As I understand things, Yes has nearly always had the same issues to deal with too, the difference being that we actually speak to one another and consult each other before making drastic decisions! lol We'll just cross those bridges as we come to them – as friends.
SoT: The cover art of Ode to Echo is a little bit different than some of the more Roger Dean influenced artwork of recent albums. Who did this for the album and does it have any tie in to the songs at all?
Steve: Michael Xaay Loranc, a death-metal guitarist from Poland! I discovered his work on deviantart.com and knew he was someone I could work with. He does fantastic work. He and his team are also responsible for redesigning the Glass Hammer website. You should check it out. It's a complete overhaul. Of course Xaay also designed the new logo for the band as well. As I mentioned before, the cover art refers to the myth of Narcissus and Echo. He is staring at his reflection, and cannot be bothered to notice her. Narcissus is not a good guy at all.
SoT: Glass Hammer plays sporadic live shows-are there any plans for live concerts from you this year?
Fred: Right now, only Quebec is confirmed, but we're building momentum as a live band again and this might be the year, or 2015 might be the year we finally do England and Europe. And we'll always go to any festivals that want us.
Steve: The Quebec City show will be a lot of fun and we are all looking forward to it. We're headling the Saturday night show of The Terra Incognita Festival on May 17th. Lots of great bands will be there. We may attempt another Chattanooga concert in mid-summer with the hope being we can do a live CD recording. But that isn't settled yet. Certainly, we are looking to play out more. Our attitude on live performances has changed a great deal in the last two years.
SoT: How did you get David Ragsdale & Randy Jackson to come guest on the album?
Fred; David is a friend of Carl and has guested with Salem Hill so he was easy to get. Randy we met on Cruise To The Edge 2013 and we were thrilled he wanted to do it. We had Roye Albrighton from Nektar lined up but he had to bow out at the last minute to do his European tour so I hope we can get him back on board next time out. I'd really like to get Thijs van Leer to play something, just because really- I think we may have a contact for him now.
Steve: Don't forget Rob Reed of Magenta! We work with his UK label for distribution there, so that was easy to line up. I was a huge fan (and still am) of Zebra back in the 80's. So it was real honor to work with Randy and get to know him.
SoT: Crowbone is one of the most gorgeous songs you guys have ever done. Can you talk about that one, from a lyrical perspective, as well as the process for working in those lush musical arrangements and layers of vocals? Must have been a challenge to put that all together.
Fred: Thank you! That was one of those songs that just evolved effortlessly- I think I wrote the main sections in about 30 minutes working with Robert Low's words and musically it just came together immediately- there's tracks on the final recording that we put down on the demo. And the vocals also just presented themselves- I sketched out the harmonies on a demo and that's what we did. It's great when things work like that.
Steve: I'd encourage your readers to check out Robert Low's historical fiction, especially his Oathsworn series. Vikings! Very popular right now of course, but he's an expert on the topic and has become a good friend via email. The lyrics for Crowbone were written for his novel by the same name, but never used in the final draft. He sent them along to us and that's how it all started.
SoT: The band has now been together for nearly 22 years, with 14 studio albums and a host of live albums under your belt. Do you think by now that Glass Hammer are looked at by critics & fans as a 'classic prog' band, instead of the 'new wave of modern prog' tag that's seemingly followed yourselves, Spock's Beard, The Flower Kings, and Porcupine Tree around for, well, 20 years or so?
Fred: I don't know, really. I guess that must be the case but I don't feel like a classic band yet- even taking into account that I think we really hit our stride around 2000, which is still 14 years ago!
Steve: The bands from the seventies are really showing their age now. They're in their golden years to be sure. I'm sad about that! But yes, with the seventies prog-acts aging as they are, I suppose that leaves bands like Glass Hammer to be the 'new – old guys'! Though I'd point out that Kamran Shikoh is only 26, which puts the average band member age at about 36, or something like that!
SoT: If you take a look into your crystal ball, what does the next 2-3 years look like for the band?
Fred: Pretty good- we have plenty of musical ideas, I think we're more solid live than we have ever been and that helps us in the studio as well. So we should have lots of good work ahead of us.
Steve: Barring unforeseen circumstances (I'm not going to curse us by being overly optimistic!), I agree with Fred. Everyone is ready to write, record, rehearse and perform. We're excited, I think. Not just Fred and me – the entire band. We should start on the new album for 2015 in just a few days or a few weeks at most. We have no plans to slow down!
(Click here to read our review of Ode to Echo)