Something Else! Interview: Steve Babb and Fred Schendel of Glass Hammer

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As Glass Hammer reissues 2005’s Inconsolable Secret, it’s easy to connect those early attempts at broader narrative concepts with the band’s recent epic release Perilous.

“It’s probably a little more integrated than Inconsolable Secret was,” Steve Babb tells us in a new SER Sitdown. “That was more of a song cycle, rather than a single integrated song. We were sort of headed that way, maybe, back then.”

Of course, this being the ever-evolving Glass Hammer, they took a few side roads to get there.

The band, co-founded by Fred Schendel in 1992, has made a career of the unexpected — something that both delights and sometimes, with albums like 2009’s Three Cheers for the Broken-Hearted, admittedly confounds their fans. Along the way, there has been a Tolkien-inspired debut Journey of the Dunadan, a comedic concept album called Chronometree that traces a fan’s obsession with the lyrics of Jon Anderson and, beginning with 2010’s If, a series of collaborations with Jon Davison — who, in a twist, has also served as a successor to Anderson with Yes since 2012.

Yet, and this is a credit to the steady leadership of Babb and Schendel, Glass Hammer’s albums have still ended up sounding of a piece, like interlocking adventures that weave together into the fabric of a single, fascinating journey. We caught up with the duo as they completed work on this new edition of Inconsolable Secret to talk about how Glass Hammer got here …

NICK DERISO: Whether it be because of lineup changes or simply new artistic tangents, you’ve kept things interesting. Three Cheers featured a much leaner sound, there was a heavier feel to Culture of Ascent, while the newly reissued Inconsolable Secret aspires to a broader narrative.
STEVE BABB: Not that we want to drag people down these strange paths with us, without some foreknowledge of what we are about to do, but occasionally we do need, I think, to go somewhere else — if only for a minute. (Laughs.)

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: When Jon Davison became Yes’ third singer since 2008, the question quickly became: Could be put his own stamp on this iconic prog group?]

NICK DERISO: Change can sometimes be jarring to fans, but it seems like those kind of left turns help keep the creative juices flowing for you.
STEVE BABB: I think so. Fred once referred to Three Cheers as a palate cleanser. (Laughs.) Three Cheers was fairly unappreciated by the majority of our fans. We probably should have renamed the band for that one album. But it did cause us to look at a different way of doing things when we did If. I don’t think you would have had If, had there not been Three Cheers. We still like Three Cheers.
FRED SCHENDEL: We like it a lot. I think it fits better in context. When albums come out, people never quite know whether we are going on these tangents and staying there. There were some people maybe worried we weren’t going to go back to more of a symphonic type of sound. We always assumed that we would, but that was something that we felt like we wanted to do, at that time. Now, when you look back on it, it’s just another album in a string of albums, and I think people find it easier to deal with.
STEVE BABB: To me, I think Perilous feels like part of a natural progression — from If to Cor Cordium to Perilous. I don’t see it as too much of a different path.
FRED SCHENDEL: The only real difference was, this wasn’t song based.

NICK DERISO: Certainly, the new album illustrates more than ever Glass Hammer’s grasp of narrative forms. Let’s talk about the genesis of this story, which focuses on life and death and the hopefulness that faith provides.
STEVE BABB: Frequently, we like to tell a story with the music and the lyrics. But that can get tiresome now and then. So we don’t do it every time. With Perilous, it seemed like it was time to try to involve ourselves in the big concept again. The story idea began because of some personal experiences of my own — the kind of things Glass Hammer didn’t use to go into, personal issues. But this had been pretty intense. I had a friend that was diagnosed with cancer, and I spent a lot of time with him near the end of his life, just going over life and talking about regrets, and hopes and fears — a lot about fear. Throughout those conversations, I began to write the lyrics for the music that Fred and I put together. I think it was more Fred’s task to make the music tell a story, along with the lyrics. It’s a very dark subject, but we did try to show some optimism, even though on this album it only shows up at the very end.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Glass Hammer boasts plenty of connections with Yes, not least of which is Jon Davison. But ‘Perilous’ showed there was much more to this group than that easy comparison.]

NICK DERISO: As you advanced the Glass Hammer template for concept pieces by essentially creating one album-length track, what were the musical challenges?
STEVE BABB: It seemed to come together fairly organically. The kind of thematic ideas that we had seemed to not want to organize themselves into songs. So we kind of decided early on that it might be a neat idea to tackle it as one extended piece, because it actually gives you more leeway. It was a challenge in a couple of spots where we realized: “OK, this has to bridge to this next thing. How are we going to do that?” We wound up with a couple of bridge pieces to do that. We knew there were going some solo things; (Kamran) Alan (Shikoh) wanted to do the classical guitar choir. It was just a question of where the best place was to fit that in. For the most part, though, it was written in a fairly linear fashion.

NICK DERISO: I find it interesting, and usually overlooked, the way that humor finds a place in your work — even within your darker themes. Do you wish more people recognized the times you are having a laugh?
STEVE BABB: The album Chronometree, lyrically speaking, was just a huge joke. I think it caught on because they did relate to it. Everybody knew that, hey, we kind of all mirror this guy who took things too seriously. That’s what the album was about, a guy that just went way too far with the music and lost his sanity. It was an album that turned a lot of heads.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Yes’ Jon Anderson talks with us about the twin inspirations of Tolstoy and Vangelis, and how mountains once actually did come right out of the sky.]

NICK DERISO: As beautiful as they are, I’ve never tried to read too much into Jon Anderson’s lyrics. Dig too deeply into that kind of tone poetry, and you could easily find yourself lost.
STEVE BABB: It’s strange, though. Of all of the lyricists that I admire, his lyrics — whether I understand them or not — are the easiest to memorize, even without intending to do so. I can sing just about the whole of Close to the Edge, and it’s easy to remember. I love what he does.
FRED SCHENDEL: I think Jon Anderson’s lyrics are one step removed from Magma, where you just make up your own language. He’s much more interested in the sounds of the words, and I think that’s great. Personally, I like his earlier lyrics rather than the lyrics later on in his career when he started making sense, honestly.

NICK DERISO: Over the years, the guitar has begun to slowly play a more prominent role. Is that a credit to Alan’s arrival, or more of planned development?
STEVE BABB: Alan was somebody we knew, and we felt guitar was something that needed to be more a part of the music. He just kind of came into it, maybe to do a couple of songs with us. But, as we worked with him, we realized this was probably going to be a permanent situation.
FRED SCHENDEL: He just seems to fit very organically within our style. It makes it much easier to give him a more prominent role. Say, with someone like (former guitarist) David Wallimann — who is a phenomenal player, and a great guy. He’s a tremendously talented human being but his core aesthetic, you might say, is a little bit different than ours. We loved what he did with us, and I think he enjoyed playing with us, but I think he’s happier doing his own thing — because some places we would find it difficult to figure out exactly what he was going to play on top of what we were doing. I think for Alan, it comes more naturally.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Co-founding bassist Chris Squire raved to us about the impact Glass Hammer’s Jon Davison has made since beginning his tenure as frontman with Yes.]

NICK DERISO: Jon’s tandem stint as Yes’ frontman is bringing a lot of new-found attention to Glass Hammer. With reissuing Inconsolable Secret, is the hope that they’ll discover more of your legacy work?
STEVE BABB: One of the great things about Glass Hammer is, we have a history. A lot of people have just discovered us over the last few years, but once you start to look back, you see that things have morphed — as far as singers go, and other members. This is just the way life plays out for us. We’re happy that way; we can adapt.

Purchase the new reissue of ‘Inconsolable Secret,’ which includes the original two-CD set plus a third remix disc featuring Jon Davison and Alan Shikoh, through glasshammer.com. The album, with art by the legendary Roger Dean, boasts a new 12-page full-color booklet with lyrics.

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