Though it’s possible the weight of the band’s recent publicity has been hinged on their vocalist Jon Davison lending his voice with prog legends Yes, the fact remains that Glass Hammer stands as an intriguing (and terribly underrated) act of their own. The symphonic rock template has been a staple of progressive rock for generations, but few besides Glass Hammer have seen fit to bring the sound into the 21st century. With a bold new album Ode to Echo, there’s never been a better time to check out these US proggers.
Many thanks to Steve Babb and Fred Schendel for responding to this interview.
Greetings! First of all, what’s behind the name, ‘Glass Hammer’? Is there an interesting story behind its choosing?
Steve: I came across the name in a book which listed sci-fi and fantasy novels and gave brief descriptions of each. “The Glass Hammer” is considered one of the better cyber-punk novels and was written by K.W. Jeter. I mentioned the title to Fred as a possible name of our project. It went something like this. Steve – “Hey, how about Glass Hammer?” Fred – “Sure, sounds good.” Oddly that’s all the thought that went into it, though it has certainly come to fit who we are and what we do. Something fragile, light shines through it – yet it represents something powerful. Of course, in reality it is also completely useless! Well, not completely. I have an actual glass hammer that can be used as a paperweight.
What first attracted you to the sound and scope of progressive rock?
Fred: I grew up listening to classical music first, and then The Beatles. So prog was the logical fusion, in my mind, of beat-driven pop and the longer forms and theme driven approach of classic orchestral music.
Steve: In my teens I was heavily into Tolkien, but knew nothing of prog. Flipping through albums in a music store I noticed the song title Rivendell on Fly By Night (RUSH) and immediately bought it. That was my gateway album. A couple of friends of mine who were getting into punk (it was the late 70’s) noticed my purchase and gave me several prog albums they no longer wanted. I was hooked. Having been a church musician since age 12, I was really drawn to rock that could bear the weight of a pipe organ. That progressive rock lyrics could also be used to tell stories – big ones, well that was also a big draw for me.
Fred: It is very gratifying, because it’s a bit of a departure from the preceding three albums. On one hand it’s a return to a shorter song driven format and on the other it’s a more democratic album than the immediate predecessor, Perilous. We wanted it to have a bit of a harder edge, and some more fusion oriented influences are there as well. So we’re glad people are responding to it.
Steve: Our fan base is growing, and that is exciting. Ode To Echo landed us a big distribution deal here in the U.S. recently. We didn’t look for it – they came to us after noticing the trend. It’s great incentive to keep moving forward.
What was the inspiration behind Ode to Echo, any stories behind the choice of name, writing of songs, planning of the album, anything that might help shed some light on this latest opus?
Steve: The cover art and the lyrics for at least three of the bigger pieces on Ode To Echo (Misantrog, I Am I and Ozymandias) speak to an important issue for me. It was in interviews like these that I hoped to explain it better. I wanted to call attention to Narcissistic Personality Disorder and to encourage people to do their own research in order learn more about narcissists, psychopaths and their victims. Practically everyone comes into contact with these monsters at one time or another. It is important to learn how to spot the disorder, and to protect yourself and your family from it.
The name of the album refers to the nymph Echo in the myth of Narcissus. She is the victim, and I dedicated my work on the album to victims of NPD and adult-children of narcissists – ACONs.
If you and your readers are not familiar with this dangerous disorder, a little time looking into it on google will reveal why you should be aware of it. Imagine a world where millions of people are walking around, living among us, blending in – but without consciences. They can pretend, but they have no empathy. That IS the world we live in! Scary, huh? I found out the hard way and would really like to emphasize that people educate themselves so they will know what to do when (not if) they find themselves employed by, related to or in a relationship with one of these twisted people.
What was the process of songwriting and composition like for Ode to Echo? I quote a YouTube user on the album’s sound that it’s “[s]o different, yet totally Glass Hammer”. What is new to the creative process this time around?
Fred: Nothing new really, apart from the fact that Kamran Alan Shikoh had a chance to have more writing input, and his jazz influence allowed me to explore some latent fusion leanings. For instance, shifting more emphasis to Fender Rhodes piano affected the sound a lot. We’ve been trying to have a stronger guitar presence for the last four albums and on this one it really started to work.
Steve: Aaron Raulston is our new drummer and Ode To Echo was his debut album with Glass Hammer. I think he has brought a new energy to the band and perhaps listeners are picking up on that.
Do you have any favourite tracks from the new album, moments that you’re particularly proud of?
Fred: I think mine would be Misantrog and Panegyric. Misantrog was a pretty successful mini-epic in my opinion, a song in that 10 minute butter zone that has a lot going on but doesn’t wear out its welcome. If you break it down it’s really a five minute song played through twice with a little embellishment but it works. Panegyric is a song with a private meaning for me with a very simple direct lyric where I wanted to have some old fashioned Glass Hammer grandiosity, a little dissonance and a grand climax and I think I basically got away with it.
Steve: I wrote the music for The Grey Hills in two short sessions. The lyrics really came naturally and in a way, just appeared on the page as I typed. Sometimes I write an opening line with no idea where it will go and the words just start flowing. That happened with The Grey Hills, which is perhaps not an epic track, but very much a Glass Hammerish piece of music.
Fred: Only because it sent us back to a multi-singer format which has always worked well for us. It’s really been fortuitous in the long run.
Steve: It is all about timing for us and Jon. It worked out well for him on Ode To Echo. As a rule, we would never alter schedules for Glass Hammer recordings based on another band’s work, no matter who they are. That might make things tough on Jon in the future – but everyone needs to have a job and we understand that.
While many of the modern-day symphonic prog bands (not least of all Transatlantic) feel terribly rooted in the past, there’s a handful I think of- Glass Hammer included!- that seek to update and renovate the ‘symphonic’ style for the 21st century. What is your attraction to this perennial style of progressive rock, do you think has potential for a greater relevance in the current scene of music? Are there any other excellent symph-prog acts you might recommend to a fellow listener?
Fred: I just don’t analyze it that way myself; we just make music and leave the analysis and greater context to others. And I don’t really follow other current bands very closely; it’s largely a matter of time management really. Being in a band and running a studio full time gives you musical tunnel vision for your own work. I don’t want to hear more music at the end of my day; I listen to talk radio or watch TV. All the bands I hear in passing that are highly thought of deserve it, from what I can tell. Obviously I’m partial to Salem Hill, the band Carl Groves leads. But I’m really not collecting music from current bands. IZZ are really, really good, and everything I’ve heard from 3rd Degree I’ve dug. Both were on the bill with us in Quebec recently and did a great job.
Steve: It’s like adding rooms to a house that was never finished. Some of the rooms look very much like others you have visited, some provide an incredible new view on the world outside, some are poorly designed while others seem to have a purpose – a real reason for being there.
Glass Hammer brings more to the table than a mere love of old prog albums. We’re into movies, books and many other genres of music. We have life experiences due to the time we grew up in that the ‘first wave’ cannot possibly share. All these things and more combine to give us our uniqueness – which I hope people can experience when listening to what we do.
I’m with Fred when it comes to the new bands. We aren’t ‘proggers’ in that sense – collecting new albums and taking the time to appreciate what’s going on in the scene. There just isn’t enough time, though now and then I will hear something that moves me. Steven Wilson’s The Raven That Refused To Sing is one example.
But to quickly answer your question about relevance… Though I don’t see a time where prog bands will reach ‘super group status’ again, I do think the audience is expanding. The time is right for prog to ‘step up’, but it has to happen naturally – grass roots.
What advice would you give to other musicians- in prog or otherwise- trying to make music and get their voice out there?
Fred: Just do the best you can do and don’t skimp on production. Unless you have a track record in production hire a producer that knows what they’re doing.
Steve: I may eventually offer that advice in book form, seriously!
First, you have to hone your musical and songwriting skills. Second, find others who share your ‘vision’. Third, nearly kill yourself producing and recording the ‘vision’. Fourth, actually release the ‘vision’! Fifth and finally (for now), learn to promote. This last bit is as important as all the others combined. If you can’t promote your music, no one will ever care about it.
Any recent prog albums that you might recommend? This year’s been incredible for music so far.
Fred: Not really; it’s my fault, I haven’t heard any!
Steve: See, you guys get to enjoy prog! We’re too busy making it! We are all lucky in our own way I suppose. I’m glad 2014 has been a good year. When prog thrives, Glass Hammer thrives. So, naturally I will recommend Ode To Echo.
What are your favourite sorts of cheeseburgers?
Fred: If we’re not talking home-made or expensive boutique burgers like Five Guys then not much, at least in our market. I’m a sucker for the Whopper. They’ve held the quality standards up at least to some slight degree. Burger King and maybe Hardees. Every other fast food burger is essentially Soylent Green at this point. No one who wasn’t alive in the 80s can imagine how good, say, Wendy’s used to be. But now they’re garbage.
Steve: The ones we grill here at home are my favorite. Beyond that, the basic McDonald’s cheeseburger wins the award for burger neatness and efficiency. From years on the road I learned it’s the only one you can eat while driving. It won’t come apart or drip grease in your lap. Maybe it’s not the prettiest or best tasting cheeseburger, but it can keep you alive when you’re stuck behind the wheel. Fred can keep his Whopper.
What lays in the future for Glass Hammer?
Fred: I think we can keep doing an album a year for the foreseeable future. We’re quite inspired at the moment, we have a lot of new blood in the band and it’s really keeping the momentum up. I would like to experiment with doing a new all original album as a live concert and film it. That’s an idea we’ve kicked around for a while now; perform a whole new album of original material in concert and record that as an album and video. A bit like Joe Jackson and the Big World project, or Todd Rundgren and Nearly Human, except he didn’t video most of that. And hopefully a lot more live playing than in the past.
Steve: We have our first rehearsal as a band today for brand new material. That is very exciting for us. I think we all came back from The Terra Incognita Festival in Quebec City really ready to plow ahead. I hope we can do some bigger projects like Fred mentioned – we both want to do that. If those ideas prove logistically too complicated we are perfectly content to keep going as we are; releasing albums and performing festivals and concerts.
The final words are yours.
Steve: Frodo Lives!