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When it comes to creating symphonic prog one of the leading band's out there these days is Glass Hammer. I've been following these guys for years so I thought it was time we had a little chat. Here's my conversation with Fred Schendel and Steve Babb the creators of Glass Hammer.

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Jerry Lucky: I remember while writing the Progressive Rock Files, I came across the story of how you guys met in a record store or something like that….in Chattanooga of all places…what were the details of that first meeting?

 

Fred Schendel:  Not a record store, a music store.  Steve had been working there and I worked there a while when I first got to town, but Steve was on the road right then so it was a while before we met.  David Carter, who has played with GH on several occasions, worked there as well and now he owns the store.

 

Steve Babb:  1986, and yes, I think David Carter (Wyzards – Glass Hammer) made the actual introduction.  But I remember hearing about Fred while I was on the road.  A friend from college had drafted Fred into his band, and he told me over the phone about this amazing keyboardist who could play like Rick Wakeman.  This same friend gave Fred a cassette of some of my synth projects – so he wanted to meet me as soon as I got back.  He gave me a cassette of my own, which stayed with me through the next two years of traveling.  On that tape were many songs that would later become Glass Hammer numbers. 

JL: Now that part of the country isn’t exactly Prog-Rock-Central is it?

 

FS: Well, not many people listen to it but a lot of proggers live here.  We're right between Nashville and Atlanta, Somnambulist is from Chattanooga, Neal Morse lives in Nashville, Adrian Belew lives in Nashville, several bands like Timothy Pure were in Atlanta- there is a fair amount of prog in this area, in addition to all the country and rap. 

 

SB:  Let’s not forget Salem Hill.  They’re in Nashville too.

 

JL: So both of you had obviously been interested in prog before you met…where did it all start?

 

FS:  I grew up in a household with lots of classical music and my sister listened to The Beatles.  Those initial influences are what I think combined into a love of prog.  I played church organ when I was 12 and that opened the door for music like ELP that made use of big keyboards. 

 

SB:  Strangely, J. R. R. Tolkien led me to prog.  I was a church pianist by the age of nine, and by seventeen I was trying to be the next Gene Simmons on bass.  But – I was a Tolkien fanatic, who discovered the title “Rivendell” on the song list of “Fly By Night” (Rush).  This led to being influenced by Geddy Lee, which in turn led me to Chris Squire.  I was playing in a punk band and simultaneously in a southern-rock band my senior year of high-school.  My punk rocker buddies were former prog-heads, and fortunately for me they were giving away there entire pre-punk album collections.  I was given a stack of albums that included ELP Works, Fragile, Close To the Edge, Going for the One, The Yes Album and several Black Sabbath albums. It was the perfect combination of influences at exactly the right moment in my life – and I never got over any of it - metal, prog and Tolkien.  I’m a living prog-cliché!

 

JL: Now for those who don’t know…fill us in on your real day-jobs.

 

FS: We run a recording studio called Sound Resources that literally grew out of our trying to make Journey of the Dunadan on our own.  We record lots of local artists, including Glass Hammer albums like Eric Parker, and we do commercial and jingle work as well.  Also, I play in a church band.

JL: Are there times where the business of Glass Hammer gets in the way of making the bread and butter?

 

SB: Splitting our time between the studio business and GH has worked so far. So you could say the studio is our bread and GH is our butter. They both generate income. In 1993 we set a goal to make a living by creating music all day long. It took about 2 years to get on our feet and since then we’ve been able to do so, fortunately. We even make music in our spare time.

 

JL: How’d you come to pick that name – Glass Hammer?

 

SB:  I found a book with brief reviews of hundreds of Science-fiction titles.  I saw the name of a cyber-punk novel “Glass Hammer” by K.W. Jeter and liked it.  I asked Fred if he thought enough of it to name the band “Glass Hammer”, and he did.  Fred and I don’t argue about very much, unlike many other musicians I know.  Picking a name was easy.  On a side note, we have never read the book. 

JL: Both of you are multi-instrumentalists…you write and are able to perform everything…I’ve often wondered in a situation like that where you have to turn something over to another artist to perform…how tightly do control that…or conversely how much freedom do you allow?

 

FS:  Generally, when we pick someone to play it's for the style that they bring and we try and let them express themselves.  Singers have it the worst because we will typically give them words and melodies already written to sing.  I'm trying to do less of that, let them have more investment in what they're singing about.  Players like Dave Walliman and Matt Mendians will get demos with my ideas for guitar and drums on them we always let them do more or less whatever they want, although Steve and I reserve a veto power. 

 

SB:  We are ‘benevolent dictators’.  Freedom is enjoyed by all within our circle who ‘get’ what we’re doing.  We also help them in their various enterprises, so it all should even out. 

 

JL: Is there such a thing as a formalized Glass line-up? Or do you prefer to keep it fluid?

 

FS:  We have been pretty stable for 5 years now, really.  Carl Groves has been on loan from Salem Hill and there will be a change there going into the 3RP show, and we're stripping down do the main band - no strings.  We do like to shift things around, keep it fresh, but the core band of Steve, Matt, David and myself is pretty solid at this point.

 

SB:  We’re working with Robert Streets now as lead vocalist for the 2009 live shows, and hopefully for some new studio work.  He produced the vocals for “Culture of Ascent” and sang some backups on “Lex Rex”. Thankfully, Carl is cool with that – and we’ll continue to work with him on other projects.  Robert lives in the same city with us, and is at the studio several times a week.  It just made sense – not having Carl drive from out of town for rehearsals. We’ve never had that one identifiable, trademark voice as most bands do.  So changing singers now and then is pretty much the norm for us.

JL: Do you mind me asking what happened to Walter Moore?

 

Steve:  As we were preparing for our Belmont concert three years ago, and due in large part to the distance Walter has to drive for rehearsals, Fred and I began to feel as if Walter’s ability to make a firm commitment to GH was hampered, enough so to call it quits.  There were other factors, and all things considered, it was just time to move on.  So – Carl Groves stepped in.  Fortunately, he was already in the line-up as an auxiliary keyboardist. Walter and I email back and forth now and then, and there are no hard feelings on my part.

 

JL: Do you ever see a time where you’ll do more live performances? How challenging is that for you?

 

FS:  As mentioned, we will do 3RP in the Summer and, we hope, a small tour of the Northeast.  And we're always looking for an excuse to go to Europe and maybe this year will be the year.  Technology is making it easier to have things like the keyboard rig I need in a laptop computer, ready to go anywhere.  It is hard to rehearse because the band lives in two different towns but once we have the show together this Summer and it will only involve 5 people and not 12 plus a choir we'll be ready to go play anywhere we can.

 

SB:  We ‘think’ we may be able to rehearse with four members in one city, and our drummer in Nashville, via ‘e-jamming’ software.  David Wallimann has used it with no latency issues.  We will probably give it a try this spring, and it should save us lots of time and lots of miles.  If it works, GH may be seen ‘live’ more often. 

JL: In the past you’ve made no bones about your love of fantasy lyrics. But you also write about many other subjects both spiritual and secular…is it possible to describe how a Glass Hammer composition comes together? Inspiration? Arrangement?

 

SB:  As a songwriter, I’m inspired by certain aspects of the Christian faith – mainly the larger themes – such as the fall of man, redemption, the battle of good and. evil, and Heaven.  There are also movies and novels by the dozen, where I pickup certain feelings or ideas that resonate. My rule is fairly simple, at least over the last several years.  I only write lyrics or develop concepts for albums when the source material is deeply inspiring.  The source material may consist of a couple of novels, a documentary and the odd sermon – as with Culture of Ascent.  The Inconsolable Secret’s inspiration was a hodge-podge of poetry, sagas and Pre-Raphaelite paintings.  Inspiration guided the arrangement, I think for Fred as much as for me. With me, it’s nearly always about the inspiration, and the need to convey some idea that is so nearly inexpressible – it requires poetry, a full band, choir and symphony to make sense of it.

JL: The Inconsolable Secret was a pretty tough act to follow…and in some ways it’s created a Glass Hammer style (choir, strings, etc.), and I know you released The Culture of Ascent, but did you find it a challenge to go forward?

 

FS:  Well, there's news afoot as far as Inconsolable Secret goes. It's been eating at us; we worked so hard getting the orchestral side of that album together and we got so burned out we never really finished it to our liking and it has been a thorn in our side.  So we're addressing that, reworking it, adding to it and remixing it.  Unlike George Lucas we won't disown the original version but we will be giving people a new perspective on it; hopefully revealing what we feel is the realization of the potential that was in that project.  We think it will surprise people.  Beyond that, our philosophy now is that we have nothing to prove in terms of just being bigger, bigger, BIGGER!  We want to explore music that rocks, that is concise and elegant and still has the Glass Hammer style, as you say, in terms of having an emotional payoff.  We have avenues to explore. 

 

SB:  The Inconsolable Secret is my favorite project by far.  This upcoming version of it will really cap off the entire Glass Hammer symphonic experiment.  I doubt we’ll ever go down that particular road again.  It is not in us to top that effort, though we are deeply committed to a complete overhaul of the project with hindsight to guide us.  This will probably be the major Glass Hammer release of the year. So, while we cannot make anything ‘bigger’ than that album, we can make that album bigger!  We’re adding new compositions to it, new singers, new mixes, new bass guitar, new everything (nearly).  Then we’ll spend a fortune on mastering (gasp), and let the critics have at it!

 

JL: Where do you from here?

 

FS:  We have lots of ideas for music.  We'll keep writing, recording and hopefully, playing more than we ever have in the past.  It would be nice to get a higher profile as a live act.  That's one thing Spock's Beard and the Flower Kings have been able to do consistently that we haven't.

 

SB:  I’ve got a new project underway with Susie Bogdanowicz (Glass Hammer vocalist) called “Roses For Emily”.  We should have an album released by this summer if all goes well.  And we’re starting to gather ideas for a new Glass Hammer album (probably an EP with a full version to follow in 2010).  Expect something completely different from us this time around.  We’ve had our phases, with the last one starting around the time of Lex Rex and culminating with Culture of Ascent and the Tivoli DVD.  So – we should release three big projects in 09:  The Inconsolable Secret “Revisited”, Roses For Emily and a Glass Hammer album with a new lead vocalist. We’ve got at least a couple of concerts this year – The Three Rivers Prog-Festival (3RP) in Pittsburgh being the main event. We’ll be busy.

JL: The Desert Island Question…if you were stuck on a desert is and with only 5 discs…what would they be and why?

 

Fred Schendel: 

1) The Beatles: 1962-1966; 1967-1970.  Have to have Beatles and as compilations go these are very good.
2) Jon Anderson: Olias of Sunhillow. On a desert island, something like this might give one the will to carry on.
3 ) Jethro Tull: Thick as a Brick.  Tough call between this and Passion Play.
4) Chris Squire: Fish Out Of Water.  Among the most pretentious albums ever made.  I love it unreservedly. 
5) Godley and Creme: L.  A weirder and more consistent record than any of the 10cc albums so it gets the nod. 

Steve Babb:

1) Going For The One by Yes.  My favorite album ever!  I had a chance to sit with Jon Anderson in his studio and quiz him about how that album was made.  I get chills every time I hear “Awaken” – probably the one song I could not live without.

2) The Lord of the Rings ‘soundtrack’ box sets by Howard Shore.  My wife and I saw Howard Shore perform his Lord of the Rings Symphony with The Atlanta Symphony and Choir – front row.  I think he’s probably my favorite modern composer – a heavy influence for “The Inconsolable Secret”. 

3) Olias of Sunhillow by Jon Anderson.  Such a strange and wonderful piece of work.  I remember the first time I laid eyes on it – I was intrigued by the artwork.  After hearing it, I’ve always had a copy around. 

4) Okay – I’ll give up number five if you’ll give me one mix CD of my current favorites.  That’s cheating, but I’m really into shuffling tunes on my IPod these days.  At least one or two songs by the following artists:  Bjork (Aurora, Hidden Place), Hooverphonic, Dungen, ELP (Jerusalem, The Endless Enigma), The Bird and the Bee, Devin Townsend Band, King Crimson (maybe Moon Child and Court of the Crimson King).  I might get by with that.

 

JL: Hey guys, thanks for taking the time to chat. I wish you all the best in the future and look forward to those new projects. 

Steve Babb
Fred Schendel