IMAGINARY PROG ROCK BANDS AND TIME TRAVEL.
No, it’s not the latest Doctor Who (although singer Susie does have a passing resemblance to the new Doctor), but the latest concept album Chronomonaut from Tennessee’s prog rock icons Glass Hammer. This veteran band has racked up an astounding number of albums in their 25+ years together, and built itself quite a reputation in the prog world. Listen in as we chat with Steve Babb, one half of Glass Hammer’s creative genius about everything from dead rock stars to death metal.
Hi Steve, Would you call the new album a sequel to Chronometree, or more of a revisitation? Why go back to that storyline in particular?
Steve: Chronomonaut is Part Two of Chronometree, but it also works as a standalone album. Musically, the two albums are nothing alike. The character Tom really resonated with proggers back in 2000 when we released it. Tom was a quirky teenager at the time of that story, but at the core, Tom was a prog fan. Everyone could see a little of Tom in themselves. Not so long ago when some of my prog and pop heroes began to, well, to die…that’s what got me thinking about Part Two. Squire, Emerson, Lake, Wetton, Bowie…the list goes on. It really hit me as it did everyone. So I reasoned that our character Tom might also be deeply moved. He’s grown up now and reached middle age. I thought about how age and the passing of heroes might affect or trigger him.
You mentioned Emerson and Lake’s passing. An older friend got me hooked on ELP and I got to see them the night before I left for bootcamp, about when Glass Hammer was getting started. I’m thoroughly a metalhead, but I have to admit Carl Palmer has to be the best drummer I’ve ever seen. Who brings gongs on tour so heavy that they break the stage? All 3 of those guys were just over the top.
Steve: Yep….I’ve always loved ELP. They aren’t universally loved in the prog world, which I find strange. I got to meet Carl Palmer and have done 2-3 shows where he was on the bill with us. Tarkus and Trilogy are my faves.
Truthfully, you want to do concept albums that people can relate to. We’re all growing older. If our fans could relate to Tom as a teenager, they can certainly relate to Tom as an adult prog-rocker who still takes his music way too seriously.
You and Fred Schendel have been the core of Glass Hammer for 25+ years now. Is the use of the time machine a neat way to go back and revisit some of your own band history?
Steve: It’s a neat way to go back for sure. But it’s also an excuse to musically go back in time and do some things we haven’t done in a while, or in some cases things we never did. Some of the album deals with the 80s and we had some fun dabbling in synth-wave tracks on Chronomonaut. There’s a psychedelic vibe to a few tunes as well.
You’ve taken this band for the long haul, you’ve played some really interesting gigs like ProgPower. Is there anything left on your bucket list for GH to do yet? Places to play, maybe bands to play with?
Steve: We’d love to go to the UK and perform and to be perfectly honest, we’d love to be paid for the performance! We just do not travel anywhere to perform if the band members can’t be paid for their work. That’s why, more often than not, we don’t tour. It doesn’t make sense. The shows you hear about us performing pay great; travel, food, lodging, etc. They treat us like kings. We could book our own tour, of course, and hope for the best. But I’m not a gambler and neither is Fred. We’ve had a great year, with shows in Quebec, Italy, Jersey and Cruise To The Edge. We’re mainly interested in staying in the studio for now. Still, the UK beckons.
You’ve been much more of a studio band than a touring band. Is there a certain magic that’s lost when you can’t play live, or is that the only way to live two lives (making a living outside music)?
Steve: There’s a reason why there has been a Glass Hammer for twenty-five years and there’s a reason we have been able to put so many albums out. Well, there’s probably several reasons, but one of the big ones is that we only play key shows at key times. It’s just way too much stress on us and our families to try to live like we did in our twenties – on the road. That’s what I did for around 5 years. I didn’t even like it then! Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE to perform and I absolutely love to meet our fans. But it is no small feat to rehearse a prog band and recreate these studio albums. Fred and I are full time musicians, whether with Glass Hammer or by producing other artists. In that, we are truly blessed. Our time is usually split between Glass Hammer projects and other studio projects. It’s worked so far.
Are there certain shows, or even certain lineups, where you feel the band was at the top of its game?
Steve: I have very fond memories of the band we took to NEARfest in 2003 with Walter Moore as guitarist and part-time lead vocalist. We were still finding our way though. That group, fronted by Carl Groves (Salem Hill) a few years later, that was special too. We found ourselves backed by one hundred member choirs and strings sections a couple of times and it was absolutely epic. The recent band we’ve had has really benefited from Aaron Raulson, the most solid drummer we’ve had, and from Susie fronting the band. She’s a fan favorite. So, basically two periods for me. 2003-2007 and 2015-2018.
The band is down to a foursome now. How does that free up or hinder the creativity vs. times when you’ve had more band members?
Steve: Nothing against former bandmates, but to quote Fred in a recent conversation, “This was the best thing that could have happened to us.” Fred and I were suddenly left to ourselves and began to rely on each other again without feeling the need to consult another creative band member on every decision that we made. That was never required of us of course, but we tried really hard to make our former guitarist (and all the others members too) a big part of the creative process. It worked for a while. Now we’re back where we started; two guys writing everything and being helped along by some incredible singers and musicians. Aaron and Susie are 100% Glass Hammer band mates for sure. But they are content to let Fred and me set the course for the band.
Who inspires you as a bassist?
Steve: I still love the early recordings of Geddy Lee (Rush) and Chris Squire (Yes) and will probably always sound like a mix of the two. There are other players I admire for different reasons, but I play like I play, and I owe it all to those two guys.
Prog rock has passed the half century mark now and bands like Yes and King Crimson have been rocking that vibe the whole time. The scene has ebbed and flowed a bit over the years. Where do you see prog music going in the future?
Steve: I literally have no idea. I don’t hear the magic of those original acts being replicated. Musically copied, yes. But the magic? I don’t hear it too often. I hope the scene stays healthy though as I hope to be recording prog-rock albums well into the future. My finger isn’t on the pulse anymore, if it ever was. We just do what we do and keep plugging along, hoping our fans will come along for the ride.
There’s been a proliferation of progressive tendencies within more extreme subgenres, like death metal in the last decade. As a prog musician, how does that make you feel? Like a proud stepparent- or- get that garbage away from me! That’s nothing like our music!
Steve: We dabbled in Stoner / Doom metal on Valkyrie and even just a little on Chronomonaut! I love those subgenres! In fact, that’s where I see the hope. I’ve always loved the obscure music scenes and when I do hear something new that inspires me, it usually comes from that direction.
Where do you find your sources of inspiration for lyrics and music? I know you had a Tolkien inspired album (as has Blind Guardian and others), and C.S.Lewis has found his way into some of your music, including Chronomonaut. Prog seems almost drawn to the fantasy world. Do you have to make a conscious decision whether to make a concept album or not?
Steve: It was a painting of The Lady Of Shallot by John Waterhouse which hangs in our studio that inspired The Inconsolable Secret. The story-telling approach to the lyrics came from Tolkien’s The Lays Of Beleriand. The title came from a quote by C.S. Lewis. That quote inspired the finale of Chronomonaut. I’d encourage readers to google “the inconsolable secret” and read what Lewis said about it. That one quote sums up my approach to every concept album and most of my songs. I’ve always believed too, that God can speak through art. He can speak through anything He wants frankly. I make it a point to ask Him to speak through our music and to inspire me to say the right things in our lyrics. So, my faith is a huge part of my creative process. Movies also inspire us, both Fred and myself. Admittedly, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the music and the original TV series has been a source of much inspiration. You can see it in the music video we just released and hear it in the song itself – “Melancholy Holiday” from Chromononaut.
How much does your faith come into play with writing for Glass Hammer? Is it easier to put your heart out there and not have it shouted down by the mainstream than it was years ago? I look at a guy like Neal Morse, and it seems he is as well loved as a Christian artist as he was back with Spock’s Beard.
Steve: Glass Hammer is not a Christian band and we do not play Christian music. We are Christians who play in a band and my lyrics are shaped by my world-view, which happens to be a Christian world-view. I think it’s important to make the distinction. I have never felt comfortable marketing my music to “the church”. I want Christians to gravitate to us naturally when possible and I want non-Christians to be able to enjoy our music without feeling like they’re being evangelized. If my faith shines through the music of Glass Hammer, and non-Christian listeners pick up on it and are interested – fantastic! That’s my hope. We’re just providing entertainment for proggers and in a way that is not sneaky at all, and not overtly preachy – Glass Hammer points the way. Lex Rex is the closest thing to just “putting it out there” that we’ve ever done. If we do a Part Two (and I have ideas for that), we’ll be putting it out there again. But only because the story involves a Roman soldier’s confrontation with Jesus Christ. It’s just a story, just a legend, and just my take on it. It’s still not the Gospel.
Well put on the faith questions. You can be a light wherever you find yourself. Not everyone is an evangelist. Your art is a gift from God, so using it makes Him (and us) happy.
Steve: Here’s a bit of verse that sums it up for me. It’s part 2 of ” Mythopoeia” from The Breaking Of The World.
I saw the light undimmed in ancient glory
Refracting it, it birthed in me a story
I wrote of kings and queens
I wrote of things unseen
Of castles never dreamed
Whose towers ever gleamed
For that is where my heart led me
And ever just ahead I saw that brilliant star
It whispered through the night
It secrets, pulsing bright
Telling me of tales which were my own
The more I wrote, the more the star would show me
The more I wrote, the less the world would know me
It laughs but I care not
I wrought what I would wrought
The world soon lost its hold on me
Some could hear, some could see
For those I would persist
Stand proudly in their midst
The world will pass away
And all its thoughts are dust
What kind of flavors and storyline will we find on Chronomonaut? Anything you would like us to know about the making of the album, or how it compares to Chronometree?
Steve: On Chronometree we met our character Tom who was convinced he was communicating with aliens via his prog rock album collection. Oddly enough, he is based on a real person! Chronomonaut is my made-up sequel to Tom’s story. Now he’s grown older and he reminisces about his failed 80’s prog band, “The Elf King”. According to the story, we even know Tom and helped him record a song. To bring the character more to life, he has an online presence and his own YouTube channel. Search for The Elf King on YouTube and you’ll hear the song we helped him record! lol. So Chronomonaut is a really quirky piece of work and there are many pieces to the puzzle, mostly in the form of videos on the Glass Hammer YouTube channel. On Chronomonaut we also find that Tom is suffering from “chronic nostalgia” and now thinks his albums are helping him to find the way back in time to a point where he can change all that went wrong in his life. I won’t spoil it by saying more. You’ll have to hear it to know how his story works out!
Suppose some of readers are hearing about Glass Hammer for the first time and want to check you out. What’s a GH primer? To what albums would you send them first, for a proper introduction? The new album, or something else in your extensive back catalog?
Steve: It’s really hard to sum up Glass Hammer in an album. It’s equally hard to sum up any Glass Hammer album by just one song. When you hear Chronomonaut you’ll understand. Songs taken out of context don’t do a good job of describing the album as a whole. But if I were pressed, I’d go with the fan choices. Chronometree, Lex Rex, The Inconsolable Secret are absolute musts if you’re going to become a Glass Hammer fan. IF is another good one. They’re all very different from one another of course. Chronomonaut will be well received I think. I hope it can take its place alongside the other “classic” Glass Hammer albums.
Where’d you hire that creepy guy who stalks Tom in the “Melancholy Holiday” video? 🙂
Steve: We thought it might be fun, and kinda creepy to have me pushing Tom from one scene to the next. It’s probably not an Oscar-worthy performance but I do a pretty good job of staring and walking in a straight line!
Ha, ha! Thanks for chatting, Steve. Good luck with the new album, and hope to see you on one of those rare live shows someday!