With the recent release of perhaps their best work to date, Lex Rex, Tennessee’s Glass Hammer gets set to conquer the prog world. Bassist, vocalist, keyboard player, and songwriter Steve Babb discusses the hot new album, his partner in crime Fred Schendel, the Glass Hammer discography, and the upcoming NearFest appearance.
By Pete Pardo
Sea of Tranquility: Glass Hammer has a few new items out on the market right-the VHS concert/video compilation This Way to Evermore, The Middle Earth Album, and Lex Rex-how has the reaction from the fans and media been towards all three?
Steve Babb: Our main focus was Lex Rex - and it seems to be a hit. The Middle-Earth Album is also growing in popularity due to the Lord Of The Rings films, and the fan related websites (like theonering.net) that go out of their way to promote us. The video is doing well, and better than expected actually. It was just an add-on for the die-hard fans. But some prog dealers are picking up copies, and the word is spreading without any intervention from us. The fans like it - and that's the only thing that matters. David and Goliath is a new release too. Its not done under the GH banner of course, but it is obviously Glass Hammer - just for kids. It’s moving slower than anticipated, but the distribution just hasn't kicked in yet. It actually has the potential to outsell every GH album put together if it catches on. We'll just have to see.
Like I said, Lex Rex is the main focus of our promotional effort. Lex Rex is the Glass Hammer flagship so to speak, and it has been well received. It is going to be our most popular album yet.
Sea of Tranquility: Explain the story behind The Middle Earth CD. You had mentioned that my review of the CD was right on-are some listeners or critics not getting the message that it was supposed to be a "fun" project?
Steve: Most of the prog critics don't know how to take it. We even warned them, and tried to turn down their requests for promo copies. But they insisted and we fell for it. However, there really aren't any bad reviews of that album - just some mediocre ones.
If you're a fan of Tolkien - you love it. If you're a fan of Tolkien and prog - you love it even more because it’s a prog band doing it. If you're exclusively a fan of prog - your just going to scratch your head and wonder why a prog band is singing pretty elven ballads, and drinking songs about dwarves, trolls and goblins! And that's understandable. We're kind of crazy here in Glass Hammer world. I don't expect everyone to get it.
But yes, it was a fun album. And you had no trouble coming to that conclusion. Perhaps you are as crazy as us?
Sea of Tranquility: Perhaps I am!!!
Sea of Tranquility: Seriously though, back to Lex Rex-many people (myself included) are calling this your best work to date-can you talk about the creation of this album, including the writing process, the concept of the lyrics, finding the right musicians, etc..
Steve: It was a hard album to make, but charting its progress is fairly simple. The music came first, then the story idea, then the lyrics. It began around May or June of 2001. Fred wrote some songs, then I wrote some songs, then Fred wrote a song and I stuck some music in the middle for variety of style. Then I wrote a song and Fred stuck some music in the middle of it for the same reason. Of course I'm oversimplifying - but that's kind of how it went. The concept was mine to grapple with - and grapple I did. My first child (a boy) was born at the half-way point of the lyric process. He was born early and had a tough time at the hospital. It was devastating to my wife and I. However, the situation turned out great - he's a big healthy boy! But those first few days took an emotional toll. And the first few months of adjusting to a baby in the house? Man! I never knew that people could survive for weeks and weeks with so little sleep! I tried to write but couldn't. Finally I gave up in despair and the whole album sat on hold for around 3-4 months while I learned to be a daddy. It was a much-needed break. When I went back to work on the lyrics, they just seemed to flow. The things that had eluded me for months all fell into place in just a few hours at the computer. As for the players - the guitarists were added for the fun of it. We like Bjorn Lynne and Charlie Shelton, and we wanted them to add some tracks for no other reason than that. David Carter has been my friend for over 20 years. I always include him, when he has the time. They're all great players - and they don't mind plugging the occasional hole for us. But Fred is a great guitarist himself. He's playing more and more of the guitar parts these days, and could have performed the whole album if he'd wanted to. The singers are all good friends of mine. We add them because we need them. I like having the occasional female singer, or a different male vocalist that pops up in the mix. It keeps the album from growing stale vocally, and keeps the listeners entertained. They're all very talented people, and we know their strong points and weak ones. There's always been a female vocal element to GH music, and luckily we work with some very talented female singers here at the studio. They're usually only too happy to help us record. Its very challenging music, and they don't often get the chance to be challenged with other forms of music.
Sea of Tranquility: Why did you both decide to do most of the lead vocals (and guitars for that matter) this time around for Lex Rex?
Steve: Because we could! Friends advised us to do so, and we are willing to spend the hours and hours it takes to do it right. Our back-up singers are often far more talented as soloists that we are. But we're after a very particular sound - a male dominated sound with just a bit of female vocals in the mix. We know some very talented male soloists - Walter Moore has done a lot of work with us, and Robert Streets (sings the part of David on our release David and Goliath) sings equally well - in almost the same style. They are both classic rock singers. But that's not the sound we're after. As for the guitar parts, Fred just gets better and better. Now he's a keyboardist, a drummer and a guitarist. Hey - he doesn't really need me does he? Oh yeah, I still blow him away on bass.
Sea of Tranquility: The keyboard and guitar parts have a very vintage, early 70's prog sound on Lex Rex. Many reviewers have hinted at a strong Yes vibe on the instrumentation-was that done on purpose, or is this just a natural progression for Glass Hammer to a more muscular and busy musical style?
Steve: The original recordings are even busier. We thinned out the mix a great deal on some of the tracks because there was just too much going on. Of course, we love Yes! I'll never deny it. My favorite albums are Close To The Edge and Going For The One. We love that big sound and we'll always have a fascination for it. As for the analog synths, that's just the sound I'm after. It has nothing to do with trying to be retro (our 2000 release, Chronometree was an exception of course). I love my Yamaha CS-5 and will try to use it anywhere it fits. Fred has a mini-moog - same story. We just love the sounds.
Sea of Tranquility: For me, tracks like "Further Up and Further In", "A Cup of Trembling", and "Centurion" are just outstanding, old school prog-rock. What are some of your favorites on the CD and why?
Steve: I love the vocal sections of "Tales of the Great Wars", "One King", and the big ending of "When We Were Young". I've always wanted to hear us sing like that - and I'm very proud of it. Musically, I loved doing the keyboards and 8-string bass parts on "Heroes and Dragons". In fact, I played more keyboards on this album than I've done on previous ones. When you work with someone as good as Fred, its hard to find a place to fit in! However I have a lot to add when I put my mind to it. We don't sound anything like each other, and that helps the music to breath I think. My two favorites are probably "One King" and "When We Were Young". The reasons are mostly vocal ones, but they move along musically at a great pace too. They hold my attention.
Sea of Tranquility: Glass Hammer now has a handful of past releases in its discography. Can you talk about each album briefly, and how you feel about them now?
Steve: Gosh! It is hard to be a good promoter of these albums while commenting truthfully about some of them. Because I tend to look back on the negative stuff - what I should have done, what I could have done better, etc. So I'll start by saying that I'm proud of each of them - though some more than others.
Journey of the Dunadan: The negative stuff first; we didn't know who our audience was and we threw in every influence we had. New age, metal, ballads, prog, etc. It was done on a very limited budget, and the audio suffers a bit. The drum sequencing was admirable, but could have been better. The narration should have been dropped. Oh there's more I'm sure. The good stuff: It put us on the map. We got massive exposure. We discovered a niche. And it still sells well to this day, and people still love it.
Perelandra: Mostly I love it. Great audio, and the beginnings of our true Glass Hammer style are emerging. The song "Perelandra" is still one of my favorite mixes, and "Heaven" one of my favorite compositions.
Live and Revived: Great memories. The live stuff has tons of energy. The studio tracks reveal a side of GH that may never be heard again. Not our crowning glory, but a good album nonetheless.
On To Evermore: A confusing album to make. We seemed to be all over the map with styles again. It’s a very 'neo' album. However, a whole new group of fans came along as a result. All in all I'd say I'm still proud of it. I loved the mix on "Twilight On Longview", and no matter what anyone says - I love "The Mayor of Longview". (It was a silly song - yet sonically pleasing) Of course I wrote both of those. I don't always like the stuff I've written after time has passed - but I still like those.
Chronometree: Killer keyboard chops make this album a must for fans of the Hammond organ or mini-moogs. I just love it for a number of reasons, but mainly because Fred gets to rip on the keys.
The Middle-earth Album: I laugh every time I hear the hobbits and dwarves singing along and bickering in the background. "As I Walk" is one of the prettiest things we've ever done. It was fun to make and one of the few GH albums I return to frequently.
Lex Rex: Everyone says it’s our best, and I agree with them! We worked very hard to make it an album we'd be proud of for years to come. This is my favorite of all. And it’s the album we were struggling to make all along.
Sea of Tranquility: What other side projects do each of you have going on right now?
Steve: We run a studio, so there is a lot of interesting projects that pop up from time to time. And if it is appropriate, we throw ourselves into the projects as producers and take a more creative role in the direction of the music. Most recently we co-produced an album called Remedy Raised that relies somewhat on our sound. We loaded it with Mellotrons, Fred's percussion, and my bass. Fred sings backup, and GH vocalist Susie Bogdanowicz sings lead on two tracks. Its not Glass Hammer, but it does show the influence. Otherwise, we aren't developing any side projects of our own. They are too distracting, and rob us of the time we need to compose music for Glass Hammer. That's our creative focus for some time - Glass Hammer.
Sea of Tranquility: Will guitarist and veteran Wyzards co-hort David Carter ever be a full-time member of the band?
Steve: There's the studio band - Fred and I, and whoever else wants to contribute. But creatively it is our baby and will remain so. That's the current plan. The 'live' Glass Hammer, which hasn't appeared in years now, is also in flux. David owns a business and is very busy. Walter Moore lives over an hour away and can't often get here. We're playing NearFest in 2003, so this is an issue. We'll be constructing a new Glass Hammer - possibly from scratch.
Sea of Tranquility: What are your thoughts on the up-coming NearFest show
Steve: We're excited about doing the show. However, I'm not too thrilled at the prospect of rehearsals - I abhor them. They're too much like work! And no, the lineup isn't complete. Robert Streets (who sang on Lex Rex) may be there as our drummer, along with his wife Carrie, who also sang on the album. Walter and David aren't confirmed yet, but we have options at this point. This needs to be a group of like- minded people - assembled for the purpose of having a great time, and doing the best possible show at NearFest. We will probably do a number of shows, so the band needs to be tight, communicating and happy about the work at hand.
Sea of Tranquility: What are some of your influences and favorite albums?
Steve: Chris Squire on bass, Wakeman on keys. Michael Oldfield, Camel, ELP, Genesis - you get the picture. I'm a traditional prog fan. My favorite album of all time is "Going for the One" by Yes.
Sea of Tranquility: And a great one at that…