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Glass Hammer to Re-Release The Inconsolable Secret

posted Jun 1, 2013, 6:10 PM by Sarah Brehm   [ updated Jun 1, 2013, 6:14 PM ]

Glass Hammer is Chattanooga’s progressive rock secret. The band formed in 1992 when Steve Babb and Fred Schendel wrote and recorded a concept album based on the character Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, titled Journey of the Dunadan. Over the past twenty years Glass Hammer has had a variety of band members—including vocalist Jon Davison who is currently singing for Yes—yet Babb and Schendel have remained at the core of their thirteen studio albums. On June 25, Glass Hammer is set to re-release 2005’s The Inconsolable Secret, which you can pre-order from their website. I sat down with Babb and Schendel to discuss the re-release and their thoughts on Christianity and music.

 

Sarah Brehm: The Inconsolable Secret is a concept album. Can you talk me through the story?

Babb: Lyrically, it’s based on a poem that I wrote. If you were to just pick up the lyrics, which will be printed in the booklet of the re-issue, and you tried to really figure it out, you’d know it was about knights, you would know that there is a princess and a king and a battle, and you’d probably detect there is an allegory, and it’s probably a Christian allegory. I think as you listen to the music, we’ve always tried to make it that you’re free to kind of interpret it however you want.

Tolkien detested allegory; C.S. Lewis used it quite a bit. They were good friends and critics of each other, and I love them both. Tolkien’s problem with allegory was that usually the moral or the allegory consumed the story. So, I tried to do something that could stand alone as a story and if you want to read the metaphors and interpret them as Christian I think they very much are. The king represents God; the princess represents either the church or an individual. There’s a witch in the story who represents temptation; there’s an evil knight who represents pride and the fall. All of that wrapped around a story about a curse.

There’s a quote from C.S. Lewis that started it all—“I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence.” (from The Weight of Glory).

Brehm: What’s the name of the poem?

Babb: It’s called “The Lay of Lirazel.” We’re releasing an audio version of the poem, and it tells in-depth—it’s over two-and-a-half hours long—what the story is. 

Brehm: So the poem came first and then the album.

Babb: Well the music was probably being written simultaneously. It was Fred’s idea that we should write an album that was a soundtrack to something. And I just came along and tried to fill in what that something would be. So music simultaneously to the poem and we just pulled what we could out of the poem and re-drafted it to make it fit the music—very complicated, probably too complicated!

Brehm: Are the lyrics verbatim to the poem?

Babb: No, they’re adapted. That’s why as a writer, I kind of insist that people come along and read [the poem]—or now they can listen to it. Which, admittedly is asking a lot of a music listener, but with progressive rock frequently being about epic ideas, hopefully our audience will embrace this epic poem. 

Brehm: Was it hard to focus just on writing the poem, or were you already thinking about how to adapt it lyrically? 

Babb: No, I just went with it. To be honest, every time we start to write, I pray. And one day—I chalk it all up to God—some inspiration will come, and then I just fly. It all starts to come out; there’s no thinking about it at all. My wife can tell you, cause she watched me write most of it, that I’d come out of the room with fifteen pages of stuff that rhymed perfectly. And I don’t know how that happened—I’ve just read so much that it all just kind of spilled out. 

Coming back to it lyrically though to try to make it fit it into the music it was a little unwieldy. I tried to smooth it out the best I could.

Brehm: What made you decide to re-release The Inconsolable Secret?  

Schendel: As soon as we released it initially, we decided that we weren’t entirely happy with it. We liked it in terms of composition, but we had a philosophy when we did it initially that we wanted it to be very stripped down, all direct, very ’70s type of production where there weren’t a lot of overdubs. We wanted it to be not over produced, which is kind of ironic when you consider conceptually what a huge thing it was. It seems almost a bit of a paradox that we took one philosophy with the production of the album that was almost diametrically opposed to the philosophy in the creation of the album.

It was such a gigantic undertaking; we just hit a wall at some point where I don’t think either of us could work on it anymore. We were at a point where we had to just stop and put it out. As soon as that happened, and we had a chance to catch our breath we started thinking very much about how if we’d continued to work on it, what that might have entailed.

Especially in the drum sound, we took a very minimalist approach to the way the drums sounded—this has nothing to do with the drummer. Matt [Mendians] did a terrific job; he played great on that record. We just felt that maybe we hadn’t made the kind of production decisions that we would have if we hadn’t been so worn out when we mixed the thing down. We just really started thinking about how we might have made the whole thing bigger sounding. That was the genesis of our desire to revisit it. Once we started actually doing it—this started around 2008—it took three or four more years of just kind of occasionally taking it out and listening to it, then getting busy on a new project, and shelving it. It took forever, but eventually we got to a point where we had remixed it and done some more overdubs; at that point we had met other musicians, like Kamran Shikoh who’s the guitar player of the band now; we thought it’d be nice if he added some guitars because that album really doesn’t have a whole lot of guitar on it.

Steve contacted Jon Davison and got him into the band as a singer. We initially did that specifically for The Inconsolable Secret project, and then he became our full-time singer because we liked the results.

Babb: There’s another thing that stopped us along the way which was when we let our fans know that we were thinking about re-doing it. They’d say, ‘Why?’ Nobody was complaining about the sound of the original album except us.

Schendel: Kamran still asks us that, you know, ‘Why did you feel the need to do this?’ He loves the album in its original form. And it’s like ‘No, you don’t understand. We heard something in our heads and this is not it.’

Babb: From a production standpoint this was an expensive project. It’s a double album, but you can’t just sell it for twice the price. So we just made it even more complicated now and made it a three-album set, hopefully satisfying the fans of the original because they’re in there as they were, and then there’s this third disc. I don’t know how it will be received. I prefer the new mix of this. We had it re-mastered by a guy who’s an audiophile, Bob Katz, who never touched the original. He’s been more excited about this album than he’s been over anything we’ve done in the last five or six years.

Schendel: The Inconsolable Secret went out of print, the original one. It’s the only CD that we put out that did go out of print. It’s selling on eBay for over $350. A lot of people really wanted to be able to buy it, and when we did this re-release we didn’t want to simply throw a completely different version of the album out. I wanted to be sure that we released the original version of the album as well as our re-imagining of it.

Babb: Bands that play complicated music should be complicated.

Brehm: How did you choose what songs you wanted to re-do?

Schendel: The original album is very much divided up into kind of rocking, proggy tracks and more orchestral tracks. Frankly, the more orchestral, softer sounding tracks didn’t need to have anything addressed with them. It was mainly the ones with drums that we wanted to beef up. Those tended to be the longer songs, you know, fifteen minute, twenty-five minute songs—those are the ones that we re-visited for the most part.

Babb: We added new choral parts, new singers, new guitar parts, new keyboard parts, re-tweaked the bass, re-mixed drums—just a kind of total work over.

Schendel: All in all, I think this version is much more polished.

Babb: And some people don’t like polished.

Schendel: We made it very clear—there’s no right answer. Whichever one you prefer, it’s totally okay. We just want to give you the option.

There are some things that really get pushed back in this version. There’s some kind of key nice little moments that really stick out loud and proud on the original version that kind of disappear into the overall sound picture of this one. Some people are going to get upset that their favorite little cool moment is sort of hard to hear now.

Babb: We could spend a hundred years working on this thing. This album started in 2004 and we’re still mastering it.

Schendel: This is the end. No more Inconsolable Secret.

Babb: It was the inconsolable album.

Brehm: What’s your favorite song from The Inconsolable Secret?

Schendel: I choose not to look at it that way. It’s still an integrated work to me. I like to listen to the whole thing.

Brehm: How does being a Christian, and how does your faith affect your art?

Babb: Well, I hold Christian artists to a ridiculously high standard. To me—and please don’t think that because we write progressive rock that we don’t find very simple pop music perfectly enjoyable because I love a lot of it—but I think rock probably reached its peak musically as far as what it could do when progressive rock gelled in the ’70s.

So I kind of like to think of it as, you know, that Christian music should, at least in our case, employ rock at its best. Beyond that, lyrically from time to time we go down what I think are Christian trails. Our last album, Perilous, it’s all about facing mortality—definitely a Christian angle if you look for it. The album has plenty of references to ‘father’ and trying to get home—a lot of it is about trying to get home, which is my metaphor for heaven.

It’s really down to, to put in Christian phraseology—we feel led. 

Schendel: It doesn’t affect my art in the sense that I make conscious decisions about it. I have a worldview, and my art is going to fit that worldview. I don’t want to do anything artistically that’s going to send the wrong message or inadvertently put out a message that I disagree with or think is inappropriate. But I don’t really sit down and go ‘How am I going to bring this songwriting in line with my Christianity?’ Generally, it’s not really a conscious process. I don’t worry about it. 

Babb: Sometimes God just shows up. That was kind of the point behind the inconsolable secret that I think Lewis tried to say in that quote if you read the whole thing, is—and this is my take on it—God will insert himself anywhere he chooses. He may do it through a Christian band; He may do it through a completely non-Christian source. I think he is quite capable of showing up in the middle of art, especially if you invite Him there. But I tend to think that if you’re going to do that, you need to clean the house up—it needs to be your best. 

Schendel: I think that with a lot of modern praise music that get’s played in church—you can argue about the music itself all day long—that’s a completely subjective thing; you can argue about whether four simple chords are good enough or whether some more thought should have gone into it. Lyrically it’s a whole different situation. You can look at the lyrics purely objectively and realize that a lot of them come up pretty lacking and probably written by somebody that was just kind of spewing some good thoughts out of their head, but maybe from a purely theological standpoint they don’t really hold up.

There was a joke on Southpark—the Cartman episode where he joined the band and, you know, we just cross out ‘baby’ and write in ‘Jesus.’ Jesus is my girlfriend, apparently.

Another pet peeve is when you start analyzing it and realize how self-centered and egotistical it is. It’s all ‘I do this. I worship You. It’s all about me, and I’m worshipping. Yay me!’

Babb: I’ve visited churches, and I’ll hear the most profound sermon, but it’s sandwiched in between literally second-grade level music. So I know that the audience—as sometimes they’re called now—the congregation has the capacity to comprehend high-level thinking. But musically everyone just sort of undercuts that. That’s why I’m not invited to play in worship bands anymore, because I can’t keep my mouth shut.

Schendel: For the record, I play in the band over at Silverdale Baptist and this negativity is not directed at them. I wouldn’t be in that band if I didn’t feel good about being with them. They have a great worship leader and he picks good music and the level of musicianship in that band is really high. We’ve gone back and forth on should musicians even be on stage? What’s the line between it being a performance? What if the whole band was just in a pit? The general response was like ‘Well, you have to have something to look at.’

Babb: Unfortunately the audience is trained so that if they see a band then the attention is going to the band and there’s going to be applause; you get into the same situation that I think the devil found himself in somewhere eons ago when his job was to reflect the glory back to the Creator, but he decided that he actually kind of liked it and decided that he would be the center of attention. That didn’t work out too well for anybody.

Schendel: That’s another thing at Silverdale—the band doesn’t jump around, there’s no real lighting to speak of, so it’s not a show in that sense. They do put us up on the big twenty-five foot screens—even that makes me wonder. It’s like there’s a shot of a musician playing, you’re checking that out; you’re watching the hands playing. Do we need that? What is worshipful about my hand doing this on a close-up? I don’t see the need for it. That’s one issue I have—why should we be featured on the screens?

Brehm: In terms of new albums are you writing anything?

Babb: Yeah, we are.

Schendel: Right smack in the middle of it.

Babb: It’s probably going to be put together in a very cool way for us, which is the way most bands actually do this. We sit here in a studio all day and we write, and what we haven’t had is a local drummer. Now we do. So we’re going to work our parts out in rehearsal like a live band and we’re just going to record it like we play it live. I think we’re going to get a much leaner, meaner result out of it. Aaron Roulston—that’s our local drummer.

Schendel: Who’s also in a praise band.

Brehm: Any plans on when that’ll be released?

Schendel: I think we’ll have it by the end of the year. I don’t want to jinx us. We’ve kind of been on a schedule of every October putting out an album. We’ll see if we can hold to that. That might be a little ambitious for this since we do want to actually rehearse it and learn how to play it before we record it.

Babb: This year we put a lot on hold to play four shows. For hours and hours and hours we’re practicing and nobody’s writing. Played one at Rhythm and Brews and three shows on a boat.

Schendel: A very nice boat.

Babb: And then we were done. Probably won’t play again till maybe this fall.

Brehm: Do you enjoy playing live?

Schendel: I do, but it just takes our focus away from the writing and recording which is what we really tend to like the most. But I really do like playing live.

Babb: Having the band, especially now with Aaron—who like prayed to be in our band—

Schendel: Yeah, he had apparently harbored desires to play in Glass Hammer for years, and when we invited him his Facebook page exploded. When it came time to look for a local drummer, he was someone I played with in a little praise band, and I just remember thinking ‘That guy would probably be really good.’ Once again, there’s probably a God thing going on right there.

Babb: Back to your question. As I’ve gotten older, now I’m starting to wish that we could play live more. The clock is ticking.

Schendel: Part of the problem is that a lot of the music we’ve recorded without an eye towards performing it live. It becomes incredibly difficult and stressful to work it up and figure out a way to perform it live. That’s another reason that on this coming album we want to put an emphasis on arrangements that we can reproduce live out of the gate so we don’t have to stress so much over playing it.

Babb: Playing live is like juggling while doing calculus. It’s not easy.

Schendel: When you go out on the road and play fifty shows it gets to where you can play in your sleep. But we’re always at the very beginning of that process—perpetually. We’re at the beginning where we’re starting over, we’re re-learning it and doing those first couple of shows. If we kept going and playing just another couple of weeks—five or ten more shows—we’d just be that tight; it’d be amazing. But we’re always doing that, and then that stops. Then a year later it’s like, here we go again.

Babb: We’d like to step that up and actually play more often. That won’t happen.

Brehm: Do you ever think you’ll stop Glass Hammer, or are you just going to keep going till it’s not fun anymore?

Babb: That’s kind of the rule. There’s always some inspiration that comes along. I think there’s a certain amount of pride that’s behind it. It’d be hard to stop because we seem to have a growing fanbase after twenty years; it doesn’t seem like our best work, our best album is behind us, even though we’re certainly touting this album that came out in 2005. We always have new ideas. As long as there’re actual new ideas coming I think we’ll keep doing it.

Schendel: Glass Hammer has been about five, six different bands. It can be anything, so we’re not restricted to having to recreate one specific sound or specific idea all the time, so that keeps it from getting boring. We can be what we want to be.

Babb: A bass player and keyboard player are goods things to build a band around. If we’re at the core of it, the other faces can change, but there’s something similar about it all. You can listen to our first or second album from twenty years ago, and you can listen to what we’re doing now you can still tell it’s basically the same guys.

Brehm: Anything else you want to say about The Inconsolable Secret?

Babb: I think we’ve covered everything, besides the fact that we’re still enormously proud of it. It will probably remain the most epic thing that we’ll ever do. I think it was Bill Bright, who was the head of Campus Crusade—I think it was him—he had some plaque on his wall that was basically ‘Striving to do something more than you can actually do.’ That’s what The Inconsolable Secret was about originally. I said, ‘Let’s do something we know we can’t do, that we cannot possibly pull off. We don’t have an orchestra; we don’t have a choir; let’s do something with an orchestra and a choir. We’ll pray, and God will have to show up.’ In other words, strive for something you cannot do and let Him fill in the gaps.

 

Words by: Sarah Brehm

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