– The Glass Hammer Interview
In which we discuss progressive rock, the benefits of YouTube, and “My Sharona”
Steve Babb & Fred Schendel of Glass Hammer
August 21, 2010
Interviewed by Barry Nothstine – Soul Frequency Radio - http://www.soulfrequency.com
Prolific progressive rockers Glass Hammer return in mid September 2010 with their album IF. IF marks a return to a classic symphonic progressive rock sound heard on the Chattanooga based band’s earlier releases. Tollbooth staffer and Soul Frequency Radio host Barry Nothstine recently discussed IF with the heart of Glass Hammer: writers/multi-instrumentalists/vocalists/producers Steve Babb & Fred Schendel.
Nothstine: Hi Gents: Long time no, talk. How are you?
Schendel: I'm doing great, thanks!
Nothstine: You have been
busy boys. Just last year you took a decidedly pleasant left turn on the
Glass Hammer freeway with the amazing psychedelic/prog/pop wonderment of
Three Cheers for the Brokenhearted (one of my top CD picks of 2009
on Soul Frequency Radio). Now I hear you have been busy concocting a new
album. Tell us what you have been working on? What makes IF different
from other Glass Hammer projects? I hear that you have some personnel…can
Schendel: After having the chance to explore something new with Three Cheers it felt very natural to start writing the big epics again, and that's the direction of the new album. It's a synthesis of what we liked about all the GH albums from the 00's in one package. And I think it really sounds like a cohesive band effort, which admittedly can be hit or miss for us. Everyone was on the same page artistically for this project and it shows.
We came across Jon Davison on YouTube and just thought, that's the voice we’re looking for, let's call him. GH has been lucky to have had many fine singers in the past but Jon fits this material so well that it’s scary. Alan Shikoh is a young guy who has been involved in past projects at our studio. I knew him primarily as a gifted classical guitarist and jazz player, which makes for a potentially great prog guitarist so we called him up. It turned out he listened to the two Steves, Howe and Hackett, and knew exactly what we were after. He knew how to set up his guitar and amps for the classic sounds. He plays guitar the way I try to and can't. Same with Randall- he's the drummer I wish I was.
Nothstine: What are the lyrical themes of IF? Where did the name come from? What inspired you to switch gears from the psychedelic pop/prog of Three Cheers to the classic prog sounds of IF? How about the music of IF…how does it compare/contrast with your previous work?
Babb: Lyrically, the album begins with the notion of one searching for his place in the great scheme of things. He’s pondering space, inner and outer. Song two ("Behold The Ziddle") is a dream sequence or a nightmare where the character-voice of the album realizes he’s created something dark inside of himself and he has to break free of it. Following that, most of the album deals with the idea of being lost and trying to find your way back home. There’s a spiritual level to it, but it also operates as a kind of metaphor for where Glass Hammer is trying to go – back to where we started. There’s a singer mentioned in the lyrics, and some reoccurring melodies which sort of haunt the listener on the last three songs. There’s a concept brewing there, but it’s open to interpretation.
Schendel: Again, I think if you listen to IF you can hear echoes of things we were working toward on Chronometree, Lex Rex, all the last six albums or so; even Three Cheers. This album was easy to do- it was written and recorded very fast for us. Nothing was a struggle to "make fit"- it all worked. Lyrically it's themes we go to a lot – looking for truth and meaning, pondering mysteries of the universe and existence. We knew all along that this would be the next step after Three Cheers. We just needed to make that album happen as the bridge.
Nothstine: Tell us about the creation of your music…how does a Glass Hammer album move from creation to completion? What is your favorite part of the process of creating an album? What is your least favorite part? You guys have worked together for a long time…how many years has it been? How has the Babb & Schendel creative team managed to stay fresh (and not kill each other) after working on so many successful projects? Steve: What is the best thing about working with Fred?
Fred: What do you enjoy most about working with Steve?
Schendel: Well, by far the favorite part of this album was hearing what the new people were doing. New albums get stale from familiarity quickly; you get sick of them from overexposure and working on them gets to be a chore. This one stayed enjoyable through the process because the music was evolving beyond what we expected. We would hear Jon’s vocal ideas and we'd just go "Whoa!" And I had the best time ever producing guitar sessions. It was like being an old married couple and having affairs with young women without feeling guilty. Steve and I get grumpy with each other at times but we really know how to not drive each other nuts. We love what we do so we have no problem staying together. Steve and I are very complimentary in our strengths; we can always dig each other out of a creative hole. That's a good thing about working together.
Babb: It usually starts with some conversations about possible musical directions and whether or not to do a concept album. Then we both begin to write and present ideas to one another. That happens over several weeks – though in truth each album is written in a matter of days – just spread out. Then we send these ideas (in the case of IF) to Jon and Alan who begin to comment and contribute ideas. As soon as a melody is established we begin writing lyrics – and during that process we’re recording drums, keys and guitar. I laid down about half of the bass during this phase too – but didn’t really wind up the bass till near the very end. After everything including lead vocals are in place, we spend about a week cutting backup vocals, about another week mixing and listening to final tracks, and then it’s off to the mastering house. The whole project took around six months from start to finish. As for working with Fred, I wanted to write and work with him since the time I heard his first cassette – and that is so long ago that I won’t even mention the year. He’s easy to work with. We ‘get’ each other. He can put up with my nonsense and I can put up with his.
Nothstine: What has been your most rewarding project that you have worked on together? Which project would you like a "do over" on and why?
Schendel: IF, by far. Inconsolable Secret would be second but it was so ambitious; I love it but it fried us in the end and I don't think we ever finished it in our own minds. Now it's out there and for many fans it is what it is and should remain so but we still want to do a revisit and show what we initially envisioned it to be. We won't do a Lucas and try and disown the existing version, we'll merely offer an alternative. Other than that, I think Perelandra is still the best from the 90’s period. I'm mostly happy with Chronometree on. There's always things you wish you could fix but that's life, you never really perfect art. The only "do over" I would strongly consider is maybe doing new drum tracks to some of those albums and replacing the samples we had to work with back then.
Nothstine: Tell us a few of your favorite songs. Any genre. Surprise us. Any guilty pleasures that you are hesitant to admit?
Schendel: Lot's of
classic 70's pop: “Pick up the Pieces” by Average White Band. Heard
that on the radio yesterday so it's on my mind. “Isn't It Time” by The
Babies. “Fopp” by Ohio Players is a great song. I don't know; there's
thousands and it's hard to have things just pop into your head. “Frankenstein”
by Edgar Winter, there's some great instrumental proto-prog. “Low”
by Cracker; it’s sort of a stupid four chord song but the groove is great.
“My Sharona” – laugh if you must
Babb: These are all
over the map – but here’s a few of my non-prog favorites for the last couple
of years. “Happy Up Here” by Royksopp, “La La La” by The Bird and
the Bee, “Expedition Impossible” by Hooverphonic, “The Zookeeper’s Boy”
by Mew, and “Sour Times” by Portishead. I’m a huge fan of Hooverphonic
and The Bird and the Bee. But I listen to everything from obscure classical
choral tracks to 60’s pop and psychedelic. My most recent guilty
pleasure would have
Nothstine: You guys surround yourselves with great players and vocalists. But I have to tell you, some of my favorite Babb & Schendel moments are when you sing (“When We Were Young”, “Heroes and Dragons”). Will fans get to hear the voices of Babb & Schendel on IF?
Schendel: Sure, lots of background vocals and a very short lead section or two. I think we work best that way!
Babb: I think when we sing in the right spots we do okay. And I’ll admit, we’ve got something going on that’s unique when he hit it just right. But on the whole we’re happier handing over the vocals to ‘real’ singers. Regardless….thank you very much!
Nothstine: This one is for Steve: What is your favorite bass to play? How do you get the just the right sound?
Babb: I’m playing a Yamaha Nathan East bass and have been since The Inconsolable Secret. I’ve also got an 8-string that makes an appearance on one track of _IF_. I record the bass differently on each album, sometimes mic’ing a rig, sometimes running direct, sometimes a combination of both. IF was recorded direct, from a pre-amp directly into our console. I basically taught myself bass, and did a bad job of learning how to pick. But that’s how I get that sound. I play the bass as if the world was ending – which is a dramatic way of saying that I use a lot of force in my right hand as I pick. I’m heavy-handed I guess. But that’s the sound. Most bassists have a lighter touch, or at least I’ve noticed that from years of working in the studio. I just pick really, really hard.
Tollbooth: Fred: What is your favorite keyboard sound? What king of magical tweaking do you perform to obtain the right sound?
Schendel: The organ. The Hammond is my first and best love. I'm like a guitar player, I find the "perfect" sound but I get bored and try new things so it always changes. I'm always fooling with new gear, and a lot of the old gear is falling apart so I'm forced to experiment. I'm partial to the organ sound on Chronometree. Now it can be told: that was not a real Hammond. It was a Hammond module going through a Mesa Boogie amp into a Leslie. I wish I still had that rig.
Nothstine: What would you both like to say to fans of Glass Hammer? Any parting thoughts?
Schendel: More than anything else, thank you. Our fans are the best. I think a really great era for the band is just starting so stick with us!
Babb: Join our forum or our Facebook group. We love to meet our fans. And thanks much for supporting us through the years. We’re looking forward to hearing their thoughts on IF.
Nothstine: Thank you
both for your time, and for the years of wonderful and memorable music.