CLASSIC ROCK SOCIETY INTERVIEW
Glass Hammer, from Tennessee, USA, officially began in 1992 when longtime friends Steve Babb and Fred Schendel began writing and recording the Tolkienesque concept album "Journey of the Dunadan". Their relationship, however, goes unwittingly back to the 80's, where both were busy writing and performing, albeit separately, with two other friends who would later become part of Glass Hammer - Walter Moore and David Carter.
Babb and Carter were in a band called Wizards, a power trio a la Rush or Triumph, with influences from the likes of Rush, Sabbath, Nugent, and Kiss. Babb, however, already sought to express his predilection for 70's symphonic-progressive bands and Yes and ELP-inspired music evolved in Wizards. They disbanded in '83, but both were involved in various traveling bands up until the formation of Glass Hammer in '93.
In 1984, Schendel and Moore met in the small Tennessee town of Oak Ridge. The two of them played together in several local cover bands and eventually formed The Obvious in 1985, with Walter handling vocals and guitar and Fred playing keys, playing covers that included Genesis, Rush, ELP and Pat Travers. At the same time, they had a three piece original prog band on the side, called Just Add Water. While there are no recordings, some music has since resurfaced, reworked, as Glass Hammer songs, including "Something's Coming" and "Time Marches On". After The Obvious broke up in 1986, Schendel and Babb met in Chattanooga, working together for several years before forming Glass Hammer.
The first album, "Journey of the Dunadan," a concept album based on the stories of J.R.R. Tolkien, came out in 1993. As the title and project suggests, it is an album of sweeping grandeur and richly complex music with a narrative tale. Primarily a two-handed affair, there are guest musicians, including Carter on guitar on one track. But when the issue of live work came up, they realized the need for musicians, at which point Moore, drumming, was recruited, along with Michelle Young, on vocals and keyboards. Glass Hammer toured for a while, playing smaller venues and conventions around the Southeast, with Babb on bass and lead vocals, Schendel on keyboards, organ, and lead vocals, and the aforementioned other musicians.
Q: Looking back at the first Glass Hammer album - what were you hoping to achieve with that album?
STEVE: I was very naive about the prog scene at that time. So naive, in fact, that we really didn't know there was a scene. I thought that Fred and I could bring about the revival of prog, or at least introduce it to a new crowd. We figured, 'Hey! A lot of brainy types read Tolkien, and brainy types listen to prog - let's get the two groups together!' So we did our progressive rock thing with a Tolkien theme. To a certain extent it worked well. As for the prog revival -- well, that was already underway before we started. We sort of bumped into it by accident. It really has peaked by now and the average music listener is never going to catch on to it.
I don't think there is ever going to be a true 'revival', and I've come to realize that this is probably for the best. We want as many people involved and enjoying progressive rock as possible, but not to the extent that we must involve complicated distribution deals with corporate record labels. A situation like that would ruin the labors of the last ten years.
Here's a thought. Let's not invite them or the rest of the world to our happy little gathering. I'm not anti-corporation or anything like that. I just don't think the record label execs understand what we're doing. Remember Echolyn and Sony?
Q: Did you realize the scope of your ambitions?
STEVE: Well, we didn't move mountains. But little mounds of earth were scooted around a bit.
Once I read a review in Big Bang that credited Glass Hammer with the revival of the progressive rock 'concept' album. This was definitely an ambition of ours. I don't know if we were truly responsible or not, but I like to think we had something to do with it. Otherwise, I'm just happy when from time to time I pull out a copy of 'Journey Of The Dunadan' and listen to it without being embarrassed. I am still proud of it. It has stood the test of time, and it put us on the map!
In 1995 they released the follow-up album, "Perelandra", with guitarist Carter on several tracks and now a permanent part of the group. Continuing the themes of epic tracks, complex passages, and mythical narrative, they toured with some success in the southeastern USA.
Q: Your second album is, again, mythical in many ways - what is the story behind the album?
STEVE: It's a very twisted tale. We wanted to be very vague in the telling of it, and I think perhaps we were too successful. The tale combines equal parts of David Lynch's 'Fire Walk With Me' and C.S. Lewis's Narnia. Mix these; then stir in my own peculiar notions of glory, Christianity, and forgiveness, and you have the recipe for the 'story' behind Perelandra.
To summarize: the demon Lliusion saves the life of the infant 'Perelandra'. He does this because he can see the 'Perelandra' of the future and knows she will be beautiful beyond compare. Since she was returned to life through the aid of a demon, 'The Lion' begins to track her and watch her throughout her life. The Lion (representing Christ in an odd sort of way) attempts to save her from her fate with the demon, but she is lured to him nonetheless. Lliusion inevitably 'has his way' with her, which results in her death. After much doom and gloom (Into The Night), she awakens to find herself in Heaven. Happy, happy, joy, joy! The end.
The story was just a back drop. What I really wanted to convey was a 'feeling'. I wanted to create an musical atmosphere of beauty and innocence, that was occasionally darkened with a hint of evil - the musical equivalent of a 'soul' if you will. Then, with the last track 'Heaven' I wanted to associate words about the Heaven of Christianity, with music that was uplifting and full of joy. I wanted the listener to 'feel' Heaven in the music. The idea of Heaven is something that beckons to me every day. It is the place of perfect harmony, perfect joy, and dreams realized. I just wanted to share that.
Now I didn't come up with all of it. And without Fred Schendel none of it could have been realized. He wrote about half of the album, and put the finishing touches on Heaven with some great pipe organ work.
Q: Did you seek to make many changes to the band or style of music from the first to the second album?
STEVE: Yes! You can tell that Fred and I were warming up to the idea of using guitars as the album progresses. There's only one electric guitar track on our first album. Perelandra was going to be about the same. But the further the album goes, the more of it you hear. We were slowly drifting towards a 'band' sound, and way from a 'project' sound.
Whilst Glass Hammer took a break after the departure of Young, Schendel and Babb released an album of fantasy-themed electro-ambient music under the project name TMA-2. "Artifact One" is trance music and electro-dance beat, which may not appeal to the prog fans, but highlights the breadth of musical interest within the band.
In 1997 GH released "Live and Revived", a limited-edition collection of live rehearsal recordings and unreleased material written just after "Journey" was released, and 1997 also saw the release of an album by Wyzards, "The Final Catastrophe". A slight change of name and back were Babb and Carter, together with their former bandmate Bill McKinney, recording several songs from Wyzards' history as well as a new 18-minute epic written just for the album. Even Schendel guested on Hammond organ and keyboards.
Q: Can you reconcile the fact that you play in bands with such diverse styles of music - are there any crossovers at all, or are you trying to please all of the people all of the time?!
STEVE: Well, we took a stab at techno for a three reasons. One, I happen to like some of it. I'm a keyboardist, so sequencing and electronic experimentation are right up my alley. Two, a friend of mine put up the money and started an electronica label. It cost me nothing to attempt to break into main stream commercial music. Three, dance/techno/electronica was about to be a BIG thing. I'm not against making money. We did manage to ride the college charts for several weeks.
However, I still like a lot of music that your average progger would hate. I'll probably always dabble in other types of music. Fred loves funk! I used to play in a punk band. I know we've bounced around a lot, but look at Todd Rundgren. You never know what you're going to get with him. I happen to like that approach. It's about songwriting, skill, and production - not about style. We primarily write prog, but from time to time you're going to hear some other stuff from us! I think the same can be said of Yes, ELP, Tull and the rest.
In early 1998, a second TMA-2 album came out, "Tick Tock Lilies", again ambient-fantasy-electro tracks. But in March 1998, the next Glass Hammer release came out, "On To Evermore". A continuation of the story of "Perelandra", and more guitar-based than earlier efforts, it would receive critical acclaim from many sources and go on to be recognized as one of the better albums of 1998.
Q: In what way is this album a continuation of 'Perelandra'?
STEVE: The story runs parallel to Perelandra. Lliusion is up to his tricks again. Not only has he abducted the heroine of the previous album, he has taken the wife of her adopted father, 'The Mayor of Longview'. He's also cut a deal with a lonely sculptor and brought to life the statue of 'Arianna'. None of this works out so well for anyone involved!
A lot of the music was written near the completion of production on Perelandra. So, the style and the sounds bear many similarities.
Q: There is definitely a lot more guitar in this album, together with one of my favorite songs 'Only Red'. Was this intentional?
STEVE: Yes. We were certainly ready for guitars by this time. They are still mostly an afterthought with us, but we're trying to get beyond that. Not a lot of Glass Hammer material is written on guitar. We're going to make a better effort of it on the next album.
This year sees Glass Hammer release a retro-prog masterpiece "Chronometree", enhancing the sound through the guest musicianship of Terry Clouse and CRS fave Arjen A. Lucassen, as well as new GH vocalist Brad Marler. But, whilst the Chronometree album may be reaching the ears of British fans only now, the band are putting the final touches on their newest project, "Live from Middle-earth".
Q: What is the story of 'Chronometree'?
STEVE: It is the story of a pot head progger named Tom. Set in 1979, when Tom begins to go a little crazy. He begins to hear voices speaking to him from his Yes albums! He decides that these voices are actually aliens instructing him to build a time machine. It just gets worse after this. The most ridiculous thing about this story is that it is 'mostly' true. I embellished a story from Fred's teenage years. Tom is a real guy who Fred had not seen or heard from in around seventeen years. Then, within two weeks of the release of Chronometree, Tom signed the guest book on the Glass Hammer website! He wasn't offended by our retelling of his pot induced theories. He's just a nice guy. I was hoping that your average progger would see a little of Tom in himself. I know I have been a 'Tom' from time to time. We all take this stuff too seriously! Heck! For all I know Jon Anderson might be an alien. Lyrically, he could really be telling us anything. It's all up to your personal interpretation. Right?
Q: When listening to it, the sound of Keith Emerson and of Steve Howe circa 'Awaken' are clearly heard - were you trying to evoke those halcyon days?
STEVE: Oh yes! And we always will be trying just that! The recording of the steel guitar on Chronos Deliverer is literally the first time that Fred ever attempted the instrument! The Hammond organ is a new feature here at the studio, so we'll be using it to death from here on out.
And as for Steve Babb, what of his life? Babb started playing music at age 9 when he started on the piano. He began his musical career as the pianist for a small Baptist church three years later.
Q: Your Christian upbringing and belief is a strong thread within your life and music. How do you reconcile being a Christian in a music industry that is more often associated with evil, certainly with the heavier elements of music?
STEVE: Well, I'm a Christian musician living in today's world. I've got very few choices as to where I'll be playing or who will be listening when I do. As for the industry -- I don't think I'm really a part of it. We're independent of it. In my wilder days, when faith was the last thing on my mind, I made many attempts to endear the 'industry' to my music and my abilities. I suppose I was a part of it then. But evil can't be found in a guitar or a keyboard. It might be found within the lyrics of a few demented morons who crank out the nihilistic nonsense that pollutes the airways. But that doesn't affect me. Hey, I like a lot of that stuff! I truly enjoy some of it.
Being a Christian doesn't mean hiding your head in the sand. It's a great big messy world of sin and evil out there! What's a Christian to do? Well, if he is a true Christian, he'll engage the world on his terms, or on Christ's terms to be more exact.
Babb enjoys the classic progressive rock favorites such as Rush, Yes, ELP, Genesis and Camel as well as Mike Oldfield and Todd Rundgren. His influences stretch further to classical composers like Mozart, Wagner, and Cherubini.
Q: How did you get from Weslyan hymns to Wakeman epics in your musical tastes?
STEVE: Hey, Wakeman is just a modern hymnist. Let's face it. He's a Christian organist. And it's not that great of a leap from 'A Mighty Fortress' to a lot of Emerson's work.
I still love the BIG hymns. I record Handel's Messiah with an 80 piece orchestra and 100 plus singers every year! Handel ROCKS! He rocks no less than ELP.
Q: Is it fair to say that your musical influences all tend toward the symphonic in scope and breadth?
STEVE: Not all. I do like the extended forms of 'thematic' music. I want to explore it all my live long days. However, I like a number of other forms of music, and for no particular reason that I can fathom. Liking it is sometimes enough. I'll be influenced by whatever I'm enjoying at the time. I'm very 'liberal' and free thinking when it comes to writing music. I'm not a prog - purist. I go where the wind blows me.
Q: You have non-musical influences such as Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, Michael Moorcock and director David Lynch. How do these influences manifest themselves in your music?
STEVE: Tolkien is easy. If we're singing about hobbits or dragons, it's no doubt Tolkien inspired. Lewis? Well, if you see us attempting philosophy or apologetics with our little poems, that's he. Lynch? I'll probably not go down that confusing pathway again. All of the subtle sound effects and hinting around in Perelandra can be credited to his style of movie making. I think we just freaked people out with all of the vagueness. From now on, if we're attempting to 'say' something, we'll probably just say it.
However, Fred and I are both 'very' inspired by movies or books. We just saw a movie about Gilbert and Sullivan. Within three weeks of its viewing we'd written around an hour of music and lyrics in their style.
We've got two new albums in production right now. One is the Tolkien inspired collection, which will feature the ambiance of a Middle Earth pub, complete with rowdy dwarves, hobbits -- all singing along to their favorite band (Glass Hammer, of course). Then, there is the much rumored "Faith and Reason". Over ninety minutes of music has been shoved aside for this album. We've fought with it for almost two years now. I think we've started over for the last time and should have something concrete within a few months. Also, we're writing and producing a musical called "David and Goliath". There's always something interesting going on at our studio "Sound Resources". Keep checking our website http://www.glasshammer.com for details on all of our musical misadventures.