Interview Steve Babb and Fred Schendel (Glass Hammer)

"Being artists, we can only hope we've done something worthwhile with Valkyrie"

(January 2017, text by Henri Strik, edited by Peter Willemsen)

As far as I'm concerned the American progressive rock band Glass Hammer recorded again a true masterpiece with their new album Valkyrie (see review). In my opinion they return to the grandeur and compositional skills of the heydays of albums like Lex Rex (2002), Shadowlands (2004) and The Inconsolable Secret (2005). The new album brings them back to the position where they belong, namely being America's leading progressive rock band. Therefore it's time to go deeper into this new album with core members Steve Babb (bass guitar, keyboards, backing vocals) and Fred Schendel (keyboards, guitars, backing vocals).

Steve Babb

Would you please tell our readers of Background Magazine a bit more about the concept of the new album Valkyrie?
Steve Babb (SB): “Well, at the core, it's about trauma or PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, HS). It's about survivors and the people in their lives who help and love them. Valkyrie really has a simple storyline. A soldier goes to war, leaving behind a girl who loves him. What he does and what he sees in the war is so horrible that he cannot return home. He becomes a prisoner in his own mind. The girl pleads with him to come home and tries to encourage him, but as the songs unfold it becomes clear that she'll have to go to him. The hero needs a hero, for he's too broken to save himself.”

Who came up with the album title and weren't you afraid that people would confuse it with the Tom Cruise movie with the same name?
Fred Schendel (FS): “Steve came up with the title and yes we did worry somewhat about confusion with the movie, being a war film, but a greater concern was the connection with Richard Wagner. In the end it seems to have turned out okay.”
SB: “Once I lock onto a title for a project it's hard for me to go back. I love Norse mythology, so I know very well about the Valkyries. That being said, it was re-watching the Tom Cruise movie which jogged my memory and led me to thinking about what an appropriate and cool title Valkyrie would be for our project. I'd shopped around through hundreds of ideas but Valkyrie was the only one that ended up making sense to me.”

Was it difficult to write and record the album and did the result meet your expectations?
FS: “It was time consuming, but I wouldn't describe the process as particularly difficult. The process went smoothly, which was probably a good early indicator that it was going to be a good album. We had a good time rehearsing and recording it; I don't think there was ever a point we were worried that it wouldn't turn out well.”
SB: “Lyrically speaking, it was difficult at first. It started with a completely different idea. There was actually a different set of lyrics and a totally different story for the album. We decided that the story I was attempting to tell was too complicated. It wasn't working. The inspiration finally came for the war story, and it all came really easy once that was determined.”

Did you use a real pipe organ on the album?
FS: “I played a Hammond organ at one church, but as for the pipe organ: not this time, though we have in the past. The church we were recording in had a large, live room that was perfect for tracking drums, but not for a pipe organ. The organ you hear on the title track is just a keyboard.”

Fred Schendel
The credits mention 'providing the recording space for live rhythm recording'. Would you please explain that phrase?
FS: “Yes, as I alluded to in the previous answer, we used the church to set up and record our basic tracks live. We wanted a larger space than what we have in the studio. After doing the rhythm tracks we went back to our studio for some overdubs, but all the drums, most of the bass guitar and a lot of the keyboards and lead guitar come from the tracks we put down at that church.”

Fred, you're the main keyboardist in the band. However, most fans know that Steve played the keyboards as well. How big is Steve's role on the new album as a keyboard player?
FS: “We reverted to a live mode for the album, which means that everyone sticks to his main instrument. Steve probably has a couple of minor keyboard parts here and there on his songs, but I played almost every part on the album because we were doing the tracks largely live and trying to keep overdubs to a minimum.”
SB: “So I guess we ended up keeping my organ tracks for the title track, and some of the keys on Fog Of War and Dead And Gone. I write using keyboards quite a bit, and then Fred will step in to replay in his own style. On other albums I've done more, but this album was meant to be performed live. It's not impossible for me to juggle keyboards now and then while playing bass, but I prefer being a bassist on stage.”

Susie Bogdanowicz
Between 2004 and 2008 the line-up had three female backing singers: Susie Bogdanowicz, Bethany Warren and Flo Paris. Later on Susie became the female lead vocalist on several Glass Hammer albums, including Valkyrie. Could it have been possible that one of the other two singers would have taken over her role on Valkyrie?
SB: “Susie is actually Bethany's older sister, and as such she introduced us to both Bethany and Flo, the latter being an acquaintance from church who ended up recording a solo album with us at our studio. We knew we needed − or wanted − more backing vocalists when we performed Lex Rex, so we drafted these two along with Susie. I'm still in touch with both Flo and Bethany through social media, but in a very limited way. I still think of them as family, because the time we shared was very magical for Glass Hammer. Some of our best work includes those two girls. However, Susie has been the one we've collaborated with most through the years, so she was the natural pick for Valkyrie.”

Fred, on older albums you played on the lap steel guitar. As far as I can tell you don't play on this instrument this time. How come?
FS: “It wasn't a sound texture we needed to revisit this time around. If we had done slide guitar Kamran Alan Shiko would have played it. I think he wanted to try and add a bit of steel on spots, but we just never really got around to it.”

Would you tell a bit more about the images of war and soldiers in the booklet? Who did the fantastic artwork?
SB: “Michal Xaay Loranc has done our studio album artwork since Ode To Echo (2014). He also developed the current Glass Hammer logo. I gave him the basic idea of comic book art, or something like Hayao Miyazaki or Moebius might have done. This wasn't in his style at all, but the idea was to ask everyone involved to do things for Valkyrie that they'd not done before. I was also somewhat inspired by the album art for Warrior On The Edge Of Time (1975) by Hawkwind. Xaay took all of my ideas and then did his spin on it. He used the album lyrics to design the art and choose the photography for the booklet. I allowed him to run with his own ideas for that. Xaay is an incredibly talented graphic designer. His cover really captures the essence of our soldier's dilemma so that the listener already has an idea of what's about to transpire when they first play the album.”

In my review of Valkyrie I stated that the album brings back the grandeur and class of the heydays of Lex Rex, Shadowlands and The Inconsolable Secret. To what extent do you agree?
FS: “It's difficult for us to make observations of that nature objectively, but that was certainly the hope. It was something we were striving for.”
SB: “The albums you mention were amazing, especially Lex Rex and The Inconsolable Secret. You're able to hear Valkyrie now the way we can only just now appreciate these older albums. Being artists, we can only hope we've done something worthwhile, but it will be years before I can compare it to previous works. I'm glad you think we pulled it off though, and we all appreciate you saying so.”

In my opinion Valkyrie brings you back to the position where you belong: being America's leading progressive rock band.
FS: “Well, in my opinion that's a judgment for the listener to make. All we can do is trying to make the best album we can at any given time and put it out. On the one hand I don't know that we're trying to win in some game of who's the best, but on the other it's certainly gratifying to hear assessments like that because it means that we've made a good record and people are enjoying it. So I find it very rewarding and flattering from that point of view.”
SB: “It's always great to be appreciated. I think that the very nature of how Glass Hammer works is confusing to many people. So when we take twists and turns along the way, such as doing albums like Three Cheers For The Broken Hearted (2009), or IF (2010), fans are sometimes baffled: “Why don't they stick to one singer?” That's a sentiment I've picked up through the years, and it's one I've addressed in numerous interviews, so I won't repeat myself here. I'm willing to concede that we were the leading American prog band in the past, and that we slipped from that height over time, and that we are once again restored to former glory. I even think I know why, and it has taken me years to sort this out by listening to what we've created, how we've progressed and what fans say about each album we've recorded. It's not about showy instrumental chops and epic length songs, though that's important. It's not about who is singing, how clever my lyrics are and how fantastic our recordings are: creating audiophile quality albums became our focus for a time. For a while we thought all of these things were what would make us great, and if we slipped up at all, that's when and how it happened. It comes down to this. Do the combination of great playing, epic storytelling, lyrics and melodies cause the listener to be drawn in and immersed in the world we're creating? And if it does, do they have an emotional reaction? Does it tug at their heart strings? Ode To Echo and The Breaking Of The World (2015) did not perhaps. Valkyrie does, just like Lex Rex and The Inconsolable Secret. Fans don't want an album of great songs from Glass Hammer. They want the music to sweep them away into its story. They're romantics, like us. We'll try to remember that going forward.”

I think Valkyrie is a true masterpiece just like the abovementioned albums, and undoubtedly one of my musical highlights of 2016. I sincerely hope that it's the start of another triple masterpiece series! Do you consider Valkyrie a masterpiece yourself?
FS: “We're too close to it yet. I find sometimes it takes years to decide how I truly feel about one of our albums; there has to be distance from its creation. All I know right now is that I still enjoy it, which is not always the case. I couldn't bear to hear The Inconsolable Secret, which is considered one of our best records by many, for years because of how fatiguing the recording process was. So my highest praise for my own work is that I can listen to it and not hate it.”
SB: “The ambition was to create a masterpiece and going by most reviews and tons of e-mail and comments from fans it appears we succeeded. Like Fred, I still like to listen to Valkyrie. We're getting ready to perform it live in 2017 so I'll be listening a lot as we rehearse. Playing out a few times in the coming year will certainly effect how we write and record the next project. We'll be working hard together for months and hopefully we will become a closer group of friends as we do. That bodes well for future collaborations. We'll try to make you a string of hits!”

Glass Hammer, from left to right:
Fred Schendel, Kamran Alan Shikoh, Aaron Roulston, Steve Babb and Susie Bogdanowicz

In November I read that Glass Hammer was going to do their first European show at the 2 Days Prog+1 Festival at the first weekend of September 2017 in Veruno, Italy. Soon I found out that it was going to be the only European concert. Is this true and if it is, why aren't you going to do a European tour?
SB: “We are truly an indie act. Glass Hammer is essentially run by Fred, my wife Julie and me. We have tons of support from our bandmates, but it's the three of us that do all of the behind-the-scenes work. As such I already wear many hats. One hat I don't wear is that of a booking agent. I have no skill for such things. We just don't tour like other groups; some of that is due to logistics and some to being cautious about how we choose to spend our time. It's more beneficial to us spending months in writing and recording than in rehearsals and risky touring. I realise that some other prog bands book as many dates as they can, but I've always found it more to our advantage to play fewer shows, but bigger ones. They're expected up to five-thousand prog fans at Veruno. That's great! Rather than play club dates in Italy we'll play one show only to the exact same people. Still, while in Veruno, we are told we'll be meeting with other promoters who might like to line up future festival appearances for Glass Hammer. That's our hope.”

I also read that you're going to perform Valkyrie in its entirety plus some classic Glass Hammer compositions. Do you intend to film this Italian concert for a possible DVD release? I know that a very small film crew is present there every year to capture some of the performances at the festival.
SB: “Yes, we do plan to film with that Italian crew with the hopes of releasing a DVD. This will be a very ambitious show, so we'll want to capture it.”

Would you please tell us some more about the plans you have in 2017?
FS: “2017 will be so taken up with playing live that it's unlikely there will be another new album, though anything is possible. However, we will be writing and I'm sure that we'll at least start the process in and around rehearsing for these shows.”
SB: “Indeed, I expect we'll hit upon some inspiration while rehearsing and spending time together over the coming months. We've got a lot of ideas up our sleeves and a lot of things we want to try and experiment with. I'd expect a new album in 2018.”

Well, gentlemen, thank for your time!

More info about Glass Hammer on the Internet:
       Glass Hammer Website
       MySpace (samples)
       review album 'Three Cheers For The Broken Hearted' (2009)
       review album 'IF' (2010)
       review album 'Cor Cordium' (2011)
       review album 'Perilous' (2012)
       review album 'The Inconsolable Secret' (2013/2005)
       review album 'Ode To Echo' (2014)
       review album 'The Breaking Of The World' (2015)
       review album 'Valkyrie' (2016)
       review DVD 'Live at Belmont' (2006)
       review DVD 'Live at The Tivoli' (2008)
       Interview Glass Hammer (January 2011, about album release 'IF')
       Interview Glass Hammer (February 2013, about album release 'Perilous')

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