In Conversation With… Glass Hammer
By Jem Jedrzejewski
After hearing Glass Hammer’s Chronometree, Middle Earth and their most recent release, Lex Rex, we thought it was about time we found out a little more about the chaps behind the music. The option of hopping on a plane to Chattanooga (of choo choo fame) to meet up with Steve Babb and Fred Schendel was not really possible and the logistics of us all being available at a certain time not to mention the different time zones involved ruled out a telephone interview at short notice. Thankfully the Internet came to the rescue and with the patience and cooperation of Steve and Fred and a few emails batted back and forth, we are delighted to welcome the masters of the concept album, Glass Hammer, to The Hairless Heart Herald…
Warning: This article, like all others on this site is © The Hairless Heart Herald 2002 and must not be reproduced in any form without our express permission (and/or an obscene amount of money). All photographs are reproduced here by kind permission of Glass Hammer.
Welcome, chaps. Your latest album, Lex Rex, has just been released. What has the response been like so far?
Fred: Well, it's still a bit early in the game but what we've got so far ranges between good and embarrassingly good. I think it's safe to say that our positive feelings about the album are being echoed by people that have heard it.
And quite rightly so. I have read the Glass Hammer bio on your website but am still not clear if you two, whilst at the core, are the only members of the band. When performing live you obviously need additional musicians; Are these other musicians always the same people or do you take the 'Alan Parsons' approach of continual change in live personnel?
Fred: Steely Dan might be an even better comparison. In that case it's Donald Fagen and Walter Becker writing and running the show, and they pretty much get whoever they need, be it live or in the studio, to get the sound they want. Who those people are depends on who's available and who's appropriate for the task at hand. That's pretty much how we work too.
Your mention of Steely Dan is interesting as a number of prog musicians I've spoken to in the UK when asked what they listen to, reel off a list of prog bands adding Steely Dan. What is it about Fagen and Becker that draws such a wide audience? I'm a big fan of SD myself and went to see them when they came to the UK a couple of years ago.
Fred: My reference to Steely Dan is more about the similarity in how their project is organized than a comparison to their music. However I really like Steely Dan, especially the three or so albums up to and including Aja. Becker and Fagen are just such consummate craftsmen that I think it really resonates with prog musicians even though they do more of a jazzy/pop than anything that could be called prog. As for why they’re popular in general, they just have a way of writing a song that goes in an odd direction and it's really catchy. Fagen has an interesting voice and lyrically they're actually thought provoking a lot of the time. They do have a really unique way of approaching their songs. Unique for pop anyway, jazzers might not be as impressed!
From the sleeve notes I can see you are both multi-instrumentalists. How do you decide who plays what for any particular piece and does that differ when you perform live?
Fred: It depends; on albums Steve plays all the bass, I play or otherwise cause to come into being the drums, all the steel guitar and any guitar that doesn't require someone better. The songwriter, or writer of any given section generally plays the main keyboard parts. I usually do the organ and the solos, and Steve tends to do the orchestrated and ornamental-type mono-synth parts. So we have some areas we tend to claim for our own. Things like pipe organ and Mellotron parts tend to be whoever gets to them first! Live, I'm pretty much the keyboard player and Steve's the bass player, but we still play other things in spots.
One only has to listen to one of your albums to tell that you are fans of the classic prog of the 70's. Do you use vintage keys, amps, keys or samples to recreate those luscious sounds?
Fred: The organ is the real thing, and many of the lead synth sounds are a vintage Minimoog or Yamaha CS-5. I have Memorymoog that has an incredible sound but it's sat out the last couple albums. Eventually I'll get it refurbished. We sneak a ringer in occasionally, usually the Yamaha CS-1x or a Korg DW-8000. It's creepy to me that an instrument like the Fairlight is now considered vintage; that shows my age. I guess that means that our Ensoniq Mirage sampler is actually vintage! I should start using it more. All the guitars are actually done with modern "amp-modeling" type equipment that recreates vintage sound with a lot less hassle. This time out we used a combination of direct bass through a Sansamp and also live Ampeg heads and cabinets, and that worked really well.
I’ve got some video footage from a programme that was broadcast in the 80’s which covered the Fairlight (and the Synclavier). It was a pricey bag of tricks back then, especially the series III.
And the big question on instruments is do you use an actual Mellotron both in the studio and live on stage?
Fred: We've used real Mellotron on Somnambulist's albums, but we don't use it for our own- it's just not worth the hassle to me. I hope sales don't drop because I said that!
If that stops a purist from buying an album, he or she is missing out on some great music.
Fred: I love the sound, but since the original was an analogue tape sample, I think it's a bit ludicrous to suggest that a digital update of that same sample won't work as well. Not that there's no difference; there is. But for our purposes it doesn't warrant the extra expense and bother. There will probably be a real Mellotron available at NEARfest next year; I suppose it would be a shame not to take advantage of it. Could be dangerous though!!
(Yes, Glass Hammer will be performing at NEARfest 2003)
I mentioned in my review of Lex Rex that a section of the track Further Up And Further In reminded me of Gryphon in style, specifically from their 'Treason' period. Was this in your mind(s) when you wrote the piece?
Fred: No I don't think so. I've heard Gryphon and I like them a lot but I haven't heard them in a long time and I don't think they turn up as an influence. I'll have to go check them out again now! I do remember they had the scariest recorder player I've ever heard.
The bassoon and crumhorn player, Brian Gulland, used to sport a wild head of hair and bushy beard and appeared on stage barefoot, but I think the keyboardist, Richard Harvey, used to play the recorder but I could be mistaken. I last saw them back in 1977 so now I am showing my age!
I confess I have only heard three of your albums; Chronometree, The Middle Earth Album and Lex Rex all of which are concept albums. Are your earlier works also concepts and how did you come to the decision to go down the 'concept' route?
Steve: I have always been a fan of concept albums, since I was child actually. I loved the story telling albums that were made for children. I remember getting freaked out by a version of Peter and the Wolf when I was really little. I never got over it I guess.
But two albums from the 70's were top on my list - though most progressive rock fans would find them kind of cheesy. "Ulysses - The Greek Suite" which featured Ted Neeley of Jesus Christ Superstar fame,
Now JCS was a great album (if you have seen/heard the film version, try and get hold of a copy of the original stage version)
Steve: …and Jeff Wayne's "War of the Worlds" with narration by Richard Burton (I think?).
Yes, it was Richard Burton.
Steve: So our first album was an attempt on my part to recreate the vibe I got from those two albums. And some might say the cheesiness even came through. That was "Journey of the Dunadan", a concept album about the character Aragorn from The Lord Of The Rings. "Perelandra" also had a storyline, which was later expanded on "On To Evermore". "Live and Revived" is not a concept album, and though "The Middle Earth Album" is all Tolkien inspired, the songs aren't really connected in any way. It seemed to me that we were established as storytellers shortly before the release of Perelandra. Fans were asking, "What is the next album about?" I don't know how that happened with only one album, but I felt compelled to make it a tradition. But I love to spin a good yarn, and I think I am getting better at it. "Lex Rex" was a fun story to work with, and makes much more sense than my previous ideas.
Camel, also known for it's concept albums, tends to dwell on the sadder stories in life though the message of hope within disaster is always there. Glass Hammer concepts, on the other hand, seem to have a more upbeat 'gung ho' feel about them and any negative side is tinged in irony, i.e. if the subject is happy in their seemingly pointless quest it doesn't matter. Is this a positive attitude that is reflected in your lives or just the result of careful observation of others?
Fred: Are you saying Tom from Chronometree is a Don Quixote type character? There's a thought. You mentioned that you haven't heard Perelandra. It's definitely a lot darker lyrically than the other albums, though it also has an uplifting ending. I think lyrics and music both will ultimately be an expression of the writer's feelings, whether consciously or not. You can certainly tell what mood I was in around the time of the material on "Live and Revived", and that was certainly conscious- I had to get that stuff out. Now Chronometree might be more of an observation than a direct expression of an inner idea but I think that's clear when you hear it and, anyway, it's just whimsy. And the choice to be whimsical probably means something about our frame of mind at the time. And maybe that's more the unconscious at work.
Steve: I don't like dwelling on the negative aspects of my own life. I don't have any need to share any of that with anyone, and it bores me when other writers do. I don't want to hear about how bad their lives are. However, I love a great story - dark ones full of treachery and betrayal, or uplifting tales of glory and triumph. As long as it hold my attention, as long as there's a surprise or two along the way. "On To Evermore" seems pretty dark to me - it doesn't end on a happy note. It’s all based around the story of a lonely sculptor who cuts a deal with a demonic sorcerer to bring a statue to life. He's carved his ideal of the perfect mate - he wants her alive. He gets his wish, only to see her run off with the sorcerer. There's your irony. The character from Lex Rex searches for glory all of his life. He finally finds it embodied in the "King of Glory", then helps Rome put the King to death. He dreamed of finding glory "at the point of his spear". And surely he does just that. Irony! The Middle Earth Album is another example or our dark side. It sounds rather happy in most places. But the subject matter is fairly horrifying if you read the lyrics! Trolls trying to eat pretty maidens, dwarven warriors cleaving skulls with battle-axes, barrow-wights rising from their tombs, Elven lovers torn apart forever, laments for a dead wizard - you get the point. Not to totally disagree with you - because there is a lot of happy music swirling around in our heads that often makes it onto Glass Hammer albums. But I do think there is much about it that is dark as well.
Point taken. Quite clearly, humour features throughout your work both musically and sometimes lyrically and vocally. Are you inspired at all by comedy?
Fred: Definitely. I'm one of those idiots that do Monty Python routines by heart in my crappy English Accent. I have the Alec Guinness Ealing Studios Collection on DVD. I've seen Fish Called Wanda about 20 times. I'm an English humorist at heart, I think. I'm always trying to lighten us up but Chronometree is the only success I've actually had!! Steve (wisely, I imagine) clamps down how silly I would actually be left to my own devices. I've threatened to write an epic 40-minute song on the next album about my feet (they're Legends, get it?) But I'm guessing that won't actually happen.
Steve: No, it probably won't be allowed! Fred can do a solo album about his feet if he wants too. But Glass Hammer albums need to be a little larger in scope - larger even than Fred's feet! You know though, The Middle Earth Album has a bit a comedy mixed in with the death, murder and mayhem. There's the tune about the stinky dwarf for instance. They're all pretty funny in a dark sort of way. I love comedy. I always said that "Chronometree" was the Seinfeld of concept albums - a concept album about a concept album - an album about nothing! (Don't know if you're up on Seinfeld or not.)
Sorry to see the series (Seinfeld) end. Must have seen each episode three times over the years.
Steve: Bands that take their music too seriously need to watch Spinal Tap. Parody yourselves before others do it first! That's the spirit of Chronometree. There'll be more funny stuff on our future recordings - you can bet on it.
Excellent philosophy. I know Lex Rex has only just been released but are there any plans as yet for the next album?
Fred: Well, next we make the album that we don't put out- it's a tradition. Then we get on with the actual new album. I have some definite ideas, but as we get into things, who knows what will happen? Lex Rex isn't anything like what we had planned prior to starting on it; it just evolved. The best albums go that way, I think. Maybe that's why we 'can' one album for every one that comes out- get the plans out of the way and then just get on with something inspired. I just hope the upward trend of Chronometree / Lex Rex / The Next Thing continues. This one seems like it will be hard to top, judging from the early response. Maybe we should quit! We could never do that though. Maybe on this next album we'll really sell out, everyone will hate it, we'll both quit the band and then regroup and come back with something really excellent, having got that bit out of the way.
Steve: Yeah, Fred and I haven't really experienced a falling-out yet. Maybe we should split over creative differences. Maybe the whole "Fred's Feet" concept album could explode into something worth disbanding over. Heck, maybe we'll even slug it out on stage at NEARfest next year? What would the prog press say about that? Or maybe we should just focus on doing a worthy follow up to Lex Rex. We'll just have to see!
Please, not another prog split; not over feet! Even if The Next Thing turns out to be The Next Best Thing (now there’s an idea for a title) it’s bound to be worth waiting for.
Do you have any plans to tour in the near future and is that likely to include any countries outside the US?
Fred: Well, we're committed to NEARfest and with all the work that will entail I'm ready to play as much as possible next summer. If anyone can get Glass Hammer overseas without us haemorrhaging money to do it. I'd absolutely love to go. We'll entertain all offers.
Is there any chance of a video or DVD coming out of the tour?
Steve: I 'think' there is an excellent chance of it. But video proved a real distraction for me last year. I get all caught up in editing video, and forget that I'm a musician. Music comes first from now on! If there is time and money enough to pull it off - we'll do a DVD. I'd love to!
You mention a video. Tell us a little about it. Does it feature live stage performances?
Fred: It has some, basically whatever we could dredge up out of the GH camcorder vaults. Some of it- is not the greatest quality, but it's pretty cool to see if you're a fan. That's why I'd like to see a real pro-shoot done of us next year. Let's hope!!
Steve: It has great historic value to a GH fan. There are old shots of us from 1993 doing bits from the first album. There's even some footage of David Carter and me in the early 80's doing our glam metal thing! Funny stuff! There are a couple of scripted videos, and some working shots from Lex Rex. There are a couple of previously unreleased tracks, and even a video from Chronometree. It is a must for the hard-core fan - and that is who it was created for.
Is the video available in PAL format as well as NTSC and is it available in the shops?
Steve: We're not really pushing it to the progressive rock dealers or to the stores. They're all focused on Lex Rex right now, and that is the way it should be! But it is available in both formats, and you can get it on the GH website - http://www.glasshammer.com/.
Lastly, Can you tell me why you chose the name 'Glass Hammer'? It conjures up a few ideas but I've no doubt they're all wrong!
Steve: The true story of how we came up with the name stems from just before Fred and I were to start recording together. I found a book that listed hundreds of sci-fi novels, and gave a short synopsis of each. I came across the name "Glass Hammer" and said to Fred - "Hey - sounds like a good name for a band." Fred agreed. It was the first name we considered and we've stuck with it ever since. Never did read the book though! Isn't that silly. We need to make up a better story - something really heavy and meaningful. If you have any ideas let me know! (Laughs)
Too late chaps, the cat is out of the bag! Many thanks for the informative and entertaining answers. Until next time…
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