Category Archives: Interviews

Interview with Multi-Instrumentalist and Composer Ben Craven

Ben Craven
Australian progressive rock phenom Ben Craven has attracted worldwide attention in the progressive rock community with his second album, Great & Terrible Potions. The superb concept album mixes conventional songs with orchestral soundtracks. The artwork was made by legendary illustrator Roger Dean, who made the famous covers for Yes, Uriah Heep, Greenslade and Asia.

Craven discusses his musical background and various projects with Progressive Rock Central.

When did you start playing music?

I was 6 when I took up the violin. Unfortunately I was never very good at it since I hated practicing and was only ever taught to play the notes on the page. Luckily I learned a bit about music theory along the way, which could then be applied to other instruments.

What kind of musical training do you have?

That was it! I picked up a guitar fairly late in the game when I was 17, and everything started to fall into place. By that time I was more interested in not taking lessons and not studying music, so as not to take away the magic, and I wanted to rely on my instincts instead.

I’m sure formal training could have brought my technical skills up to speed much faster. But then I would have missed out on the exploration and self-discovery and interesting mistakes that all go towards forming your own musical identity. As with everything perhaps the best approach is somewhere in between.

How many instruments do you play?

Ben Craven - Photo by Michelle Aziz
Enough to be dangerous. Early on when I started writing I decided that the best way for me to get ideas out of my head was to be able to play them myself. So I’ve picked up different instruments over the years as a means to an end, rather than with the intention of mastering any one of them in particular.

In the 1970s when Mike Oldfield was doing it, being a multi-instrumentalist was remarkable. Now not so much. I can play piano and drums well enough for my own needs, and if you can play guitar you can have a crack at most stringed instruments, which I like to do. There’s some mandolin on my first album, lap steels all over the place, and I recently bought a pedal steel that needs my attention.

Which is your favorite instrument?

Fairly obviously I lean towards guitar, electric mainly. More than any other instrument I think it responds the most to the personality of the player. And on top of that there’s so much sonic territory you can explore with the choice of guitar, amplifier, pickups and effects.

But having said that I can imagine I’d be fairly contented if fate placed me in the role of a lead bass player, or decreed I must play keyboards.

When did you discover progressive rock?

Apparently I was subjected endlessly to Dark Side Of The Moon in the womb. I can believe it. I remember when I was 3 or so being particularly keen on a tape of Days Of Future Passed by the Moody Blues. So these sorts of things were in my blood before I realized it, and certainly before I had any notion of musical genres, or the unfashionability of prog at the time.

Gradually I became a huge fan of Pink Floyd, and this led me to reach out to Yes, King Crimson, ELP and Genesis. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Heart Of The Sunrise or Close To The Edge.

Who can you cite as your main musical influences?

Ben Craven - Photo by Michelle Aziz
Pink Floyd, Yes and Mike Oldfield are fairly obvious influences I think. The Beach Boys perhaps less obvious. Brian Wilson is a rite of passage that a lot of writers seem to go through. One day Beach Boys songs are catchy little things with pleasant harmonies that you take for granted. The next day after delving a little deeper they’re right at the pinnacle of pop music and you can’t go back.

Film music composers like John Williams, John Barry, Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith are also incredibly influential. They can take the classical format and produce a 3-minute theme which is as good as anything I’ve heard. My favorite movies are the ones which are strong enough to withstand fantastic scores, and listening to the score on its own can be as good as watching the movie.

I was very upset when John Barry and Jerry Goldsmith passed away, and I’m incredibly grateful that John Williams seems to be just as strong as ever. It’s encouraging to take their lead and assume I still have 50 years of writing ahead of me!

How does the composition process work?

I’m sure it’s very different for different people. But for me there’s the inspiration and then the perspiration. The raw diamonds in the rough, the little nuggets of musical inspiration, can happen anywhere, anytime and be triggered by anything. Brian Wilson called them “feels”. It’s incredibly important to capture them at conception and let them develop as much as possible in those brief moments before the conscious mind takes control again, as it generally likes to do. Later on comes the completely different process of being a craftsman, choosing arrangements and song structures, and consciously making decisions about lyrics. That’s the hard work, but it makes all the difference between a finished song and an unfinished snippet.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

Ben Craven - Photo by Kris Anderson
That’s a difficult question. Musically, mostly I have to inspire myself these days. Otherwise the bulk of my musical inspiration would come from looking back, which isn’t altogether healthy. Fortunately it’s very easy for me to get excited about the act of musical creation, the thrill of hearing a piece of music evolve, and all the creative possibilities I can play around with until it’s finished. It’s pretty much self-sustaining and I haven’t got tired of it yet.

On the bigger scale, I take most of my inspiration from people who have managed to make a living out of creative freedom. Whether it be in film, art, books, whatever. It somehow makes a piece of work much more interesting to me if I know it’s exactly the way the creator intended it, and it’s done with conviction.

Tell us about your first recordings.

I had a dual cassette recorder and a cheap children’s keyboard with miniature keys. I discovered there was a “mixing mic” input on the back of the cassette recorder, which let me record one live overdub as a tape copied. It was a crude way of making multi-track recordings, and by the time you were finished the first track was lost in tape hiss and had been completely detuned. Still, great fun.

When I was 16 a friend introduced me to MOD trackers on the PC, which was a 4-track system using samples, note information and awful sample rates. But suddenly I was able to get ideas out of my head into a band format. I moved onto basic MIDI and followed sequencers as they grew to include audio tracks, until desktop computers were powerful enough to handle multi-track audio. Then I started recording demos for my first album, Two False Idols. By the time audio plugins were within my reach, I knew that I could also be the studio.

Your most recent album has made a splash in the progressive rock community. Why did you decide to do it as a solo project?

Ben Craven - Great & Terrible Potions
I explored progressive rock in a social vacuum. It’s not something any of my friends were particularly interested in, so I spent a lot of time listening alone. Likewise, with a few exceptions, my songwriting has generally been a solitary activity, with nobody around to criticize, improve or dilute it, and I’ve become accustomed to working that way. So when it came to record Great & Terrible Potions, I was cursed with very definite ideas on how the different instruments should sound, and I wanted to see them to fruition. I ended up being my own band, and tried to give different musical personalities to the virtual band members.

I imagine that if I’d lived in London or LA [Los Angeles] I would have met enough like-minded musicians by now to have formed a band where everyone contributed creatively. That was my intention on my first album, Two False Idols, but it never worked out that way.

You used the legendary graphic artist Roger Dean for your album design. How did you connect with him?

After the album was recorded, I explored the idea of releasing it through a local record label. The head of the label loved it and suggested that a Roger Dean cover would go very well with the music. Well, duh! Pipe dream, I thought, so I disregarded it almost straight away. But it turned out he had a friendship with Roger. We made contact and eventually came to an agreement.

Of course I’d previously met Roger and got his autograph in Sydney when Yes toured Australia in 2003, but I was just another Yes fanboy and I’m fairly sure he didn’t remember!

I’m incredibly pleased with how it all turned out. I think the painting is beautiful and it matches the dark and sinister atmosphere of most of the music very well. And it’s still hard to believe I’ve worked with one of the greatest cover artists in the world.

How important are the other art components, aside from music?

The music is most important, but I have a hard time separating some of the great classic rock albums from their iconic covers. And I’ve always been a stickler for poring over the artwork or packaging, whether it was a gatefold vinyl cover when I was a kid, or a CD booklet. It doesn’t hurt to titillate the other senses at the same time.

Now that digital downloading is taking over, I think it’s more important than ever to give people a reason to buy a physical copy. The artwork and the packaging, even the medium, can help with that. I’ve been hassled by a few people demanding to see Great & Terrible Potions on vinyl. I’m delighted to say it’s on its way in a few weeks, with a Roger Dean gatefold sleeve!

Will you be continuing to work as a solo artist or do you plan to form a band?

I can’t imagine not working as a solo artist for a while. It was a long and considered decision to put my name on the front of Great & Terrible Potions, rather than use an imaginary band name. Potions is an independent release, so with my limited funding I’ve been promoting and hoping to build up the “Ben Craven” name.

However that leads to a few problems playing live. I’ve actually just started rehearsing with a 3-piece band, reinterpreting the songs in a band context for live performance. Somehow we’ve managed to distill the symphony orchestra and soundscapes on the 11-minute ‘No Specific Harm’ down to just us!

Do you have any tours planned?

Not at this stage but I’m hoping we can do some small tours once the show is polished.

Have you been approached by any progressive rock artists inside or outside of Australia?

Not really. I don’t think Australia has a very strong progressive rock community, and I’m still fairly unknown to boot. Having said that, I’m incredibly easy to contact and open to considering all sorts of collaborations!

How’s the progressive rock scene in Australia now?

I think Australian progressive rock is doing much better overseas than in Australia. A few bands like Unitopia and Anubis have done very well, and Sebastian Hardie has a new one out too. But there’s very limited local radio support and the population is just too small for sustained live work. Most of the prog rock market appears to be overseas. In fact my biggest sales have been in Europe.

Making a living from music is not easy, are you a full time musician?

I’m afraid not. I’m the musician, the studio and the label, which means I fund the lot and need a day job! The advantage of that situation is I have complete creative control and don’t have to worry too much about compromising my work to meet a particular deadline.

If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with whom would that be?

I’d be thrilled to work with any of my musical heroes from any aforementioned bands. I’d equally be as thrilled just to have a drink with them. I think Billy Sherwood has the right idea, producing tribute albums and collaborating with everyone he wants to! Bill Bruford or Nick Mason please give me a call to discuss your session fee for playing drums on my next album.

What was the first big lesson you learned about the music business?

That nobody really cares. The music “business”, like any business, is there primarily to make money. These people need to make a living. If you as an artist can help the business make money, the business will be friends with you. But mainly because of your potential for making income, rather than your artistry. Artistry and commerce working hand in hand is a precarious position fraught with danger.

Ben Craven - Two False Idols
But once you choose not to take any of this stuff personally, it’s up to you whether or not you want to work within those confines. Great & Terrible Potions was made outside of the business. I can’t see how I could have done it any other way.

Are you working on new projects?

I’ve just finished working on the vinyl version of Great & Terrible Potions, and the LPs should be arriving at my doorstep any day now. I’ve also completely remixed and remastered my previous album, Two False Idols, which is available on Bandcamp shortly.

I’m halfway through a concept album about a turn-of-the-century Oklahoma outlaw who just happened to be called Ben Cravens. It’s a strange combination of country and prog. But I’m itching to start working on the natural follow-up to Potions. The demos have been completed for a while and I’m really looking forward to finishing them off. It will probably have more symphonic elements and teeter on the edge between film soundtrack and rock album.

Interview with Steve Babb and Fred Schendel of Glass Hammer

Glass Hammer - Photo by Julie Babb
Symphonic-progressive rock band Glass Hammer is one of the leading acts in the genre in the United States. Glass Hammer formed in 1992 when multi-instrumentalists Steve Babb and Fred Schendel began to write and record Journey of the Dunadan, a concept album based on the story of the Ranger of the North, Aragorn, a fictional character from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. To their surprise, the album sold several thousand units via the Internet, The QVC Shop-At-Home Network and phone orders, leaving Babb and Schendel convinced that the band was a project worth continuing.

Although many musicians have appeared on Glass Hammer albums over the years, Babb and Schendel have remained the core of the band. Both play a variety of instruments, but Babb mainly concentrates on bass guitar and keyboards while Schendel plays keyboards, various guitars and drums. Their latest album is Cor Cordium. Co-founders Steve Babb and Fred Schendel discuss their music with Progressive Rock Central.

Cor Cordium seems to have a connection with your previous album If. Is this a second part?

Fred: Well, it’s stylistically related, for sure but it’s not consciously a continuation of an exact same sound.

Steve Babb - Photo by Julie Babb
Steve: We’ve expanded on the strengths of the new band members that came along for “If”. But there was no conscious effort to re-create or surpass anything we did on “If”. We just wanted to make another good album; and I think we’ve done that. There are similarities, but that’s as far as it goes.

How has Glass Hammer’s music evolved throughout the years?

Fred: It’s funny because we’re always interested in making music that doesn’t sound exactly like the music we’ve already made, and even though some might think that’s what the genre is all about we get in real trouble sometimes because of it. We’ve been trying to mix trying new things, i.e. going a little harder with Culture Of Ascent or psychedelic with Three Cheers, with refining what we do as a classic sounding symph band. We try and identify our strengths and work with them. I think we’ve learned enough about what this current version of the band does well with these two releases that the next will really be something amazing.

How does the composition process work?

Fred Schendel - Photo by Julie Babb
Fred: Generally, I think, we just sit down and see what kind of ideas and themes come to us. Then it’s all about arranging and extending those ideas, and seeing how one thing can logically lead to something else. Composing is 50% arranging, if not more.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

Fred: Oh, I think it filters in from everywhere. Of course, all the music you grow up listening to, but I think anything that you hear might have ideas in it that lead you somewhere. I honestly don’t know sometimes. It’s safe to say that a lot of it is classical music and the prog bands of the 70’s. But I personally listen to funk, pop, punk and all kinds of stuff.

Steve: Movies, books, art, life experience – all that plays a part for me. I certainly remain inspired by my favorite bands from the seventies, but also a lot of non-prog bands that are new to the scene. I’m a Christian too …. a lot of inspiration comes from my faith. And a lot from my wife and son too!

Making a living from music is not easy, are you full time musicians?

Fred: We have a recording studio, so we’re full time producers of music and sound-related endeavors even if we’re not always acting as musicians.

Steve: Making a living from anything isn’t easy anymore. Any one who is working and making money is struggling day by day to do so. But I guess musicians who can make a living, any living at all, have nothing to complain about. Music production pays the bills for us, no one is starving. We’re fortunate!

Steve Babb - Photo by Brian Tirpak
Are you all based in the Chattanooga area?

Fred: Right now the whole band is indeed local, apart from Jon Davison who lives in California. Which is a bummer for us but that’s just how it is! We’re trying to find a drummer from here that can join us full time.

Nashville is known for country music and Memphis for blues, is there something about Chattanooga that set the ground for one of the best progressive rock bands in North America?

Fred: The music scene here is dismal. It’s just a coincidence we lived here and took initiative to get our music recorded and out into the world. Before 1993 that would have been next to impossible living somewhere like Chattanooga. But we started around the time when the world-wide web became a viable marketing tool and pro-grade recording equipment became affordable.

Steve: The eastern-Tennessee region has a number of prog bands to its credit. Salem Hill, Neal Morse, Glass Hammer (of course), and once upon a time there was a band called Somnambulist who Fred and I got to produce. But it’s coincidence. The general populace is unaware that bands like GH exist here.

Did your success stimulate the progressive rock scene in Chattanooga?

Steve: We’re better known in Chattanooga as producers. And as such I think we’ve had a positive impact on a number of artists. But very few Glass Hammer fans hail from our home town. There really isn’t a prog-rock scene here, and we certainly haven’t put any energy into creating one.

Your band follows the great progressive rock tradition of the 1970s, with epic songs and fantasy artwork. How important are the other art components, aside from music?

Fred: I think it’s very important. We, as people, really contribute nothing as far as any kind of image. It has to come from art. That’s the visual side of what we do. We love having good art as a compliment to the music.

The keyboards you use like mellotron and organ are some of the most cherished by progressive music fans. What keyboards [models] do you use? Where and how did you get them?

Fred Schendel - Photo by Brian Tirpak
Fred: Well, we do own a real Hammond organ (a CV with a Leslie 147) and a real Minimoog and some other old analog synths, but they are next to impossible to keep working. I’ve had the Minimoog since 1979; my parents, bless them, got it for me when I was 15. We use a blend of the real ones when they work and various software emulations. I know enough about how things should sound I can fool most of the people most of the time. I was an endorser of Nord keyboards for a while and I can’t recommend them highly enough. The Nord Electro and Nord Lead synths are wonderful.

Steve: I’ve had a Yamaha CS-5 synth since 1980. I still pull it out and use on Glass Hammer albums now and then. It’s getting a little noisy, but it has a charm I can’t find in other keyboards or soft-synths.

If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with whom would that be?

Fred: Well, at this jaded point in life I don’t know if I have a fantasy along those lines any more. Jon Anderson was at the top of the list and we got to do that. I would have to say if I had a chance to meet Thijs Van Leer and collaborate, with him on keys or flute, that would be amazing. There are hundreds of musicians out there that getting to work with would be a huge honor. But, I don’t feel particularly motivated to seek them out.

Steve: I’d love to be Todd Rundgren’s bassist for at least one project. Working with Bowie would be cool too. I’m actually happy and, I think, extremely lucky to collaborate with Fred, Jon and Alan; along with many of the former Glass Hammer members. GH is my ‘dream band’. I’m totally serious about that!

What was the first big lesson you learned about the music business?

Glass Hammer - Cor Cordium
Steve: I’ve learned a lot of lessons through the years, but the first big lesson was simply this: Do the music that makes you the happiest without any expectation of assistance from the ‘music industry’. Start a project and see it through. I guess that’s really two lessons, but they kind of go together for me. A lot of musicians seem to dream big but never complete anything. And they seem to think that some record company mogul is going to drop out of the sky with a big check and a contract. It doesn’t work that way. Be prepared to go it alone!

Fred: For me, once I learned to let go of the performing musician fantasy and think about becoming a producer who sits behind the board it all worked out. Now I get to do Glass Hammer and I don’t have to work at a computer store.

Do you have any tours planned?

Fred: No, but we are actively searching for some venues to get this version of the band out and playing!

Are you working on new projects?

Fred: We are putting a song together for a new Colossus project with an H. P. Lovecraft theme and it’s going to be fantastic. And we’re thinking towards a new album, and our initial idea is to make it VERY huge.

Steve: That’s it. I’m hoping we’ll start writing soon. We’re talking a lot about what the new album should be or could be. Now it’s time to get to work!

Interview with Progressive Rock Legend Jon Anderson

Jon Anderson - Photo by Tami Freed
Jon Anderson, the legendary progressive rock vocalist that fronted Yes for many years is back with numerous projects. The most interesting by far is Open, a long musical suite with four movements produced by Jon and Jane Anderson that has brought back the wondrous sounds that Anderson is known for. Jon Anderson composed the music and wrote the lyrics. Stefan Podell made the orchestration and additional music.

You made many progressive rock fans very happy with Open. When did you start working on this project?

About a year ago…I started with an acoustic guitar, put down a framework, and then Stephan Podell did a wonderful orchestral arrangement…We talked about how best to make ‘Yes fans’ enjoy the journey, I think that was my motivation…

What instruments do you play on Open?

Just acoustic guitar.

And in general, what instruments do you play?

I’ll play anything, not great, but just enough to make it work…I love piano, and guitar mostly.

Who else participated in the Open recording?

Jane Luttenberger Anderson on angel Vocals; Stefan Podell on music and orchestration, 12 string guitar, classical guitar and bass; Zach Tenorio Miller on piano; Zach Page on electric guitar; Alexandra Cutler-Fetkewicz with Jon Fink and Susan Lerner on strings; Kevin Shima on acoustic guitar and vocals; Brian Hobart on Percussion; Stephan Junca on drums and African Percussion; Charles Scott on drum kit; Cal Poly A Cappella group (Robert Foster, Ian O’Rourke, Madelyn Frey,Jacob Stringfellow, Aaron Wolfe, and Amy Stevens); and additional backing vocals by Billy James.

The complexity of Open reminded me of your legendary solo album Olias of Sunhillow. Will there be more music in this direction?

I’m just working on the next ‘opus’…called ‘Ever’

You’ve had recent solo tours, including one with your with your old friend and former Yes colleague Rick Wakeman. How did that work out?

Rick Wakeman (left) & Jon Anderson (right)
Rick is fun to work with, he’s playing better than ever, and the songs we do are great to sing. Audiences love the banter between us,…and the new songs really have a different energy.

How is Rick doing health wise?

He’s really very well.

Will you be recording more with Rick Wakeman?

I hope this next few weeks we will work together.

Argentine Stick virtuoso Guillermo Cides mentioned recently that he will be working with you and Australian Truey Marks on a new project in 2012. Can you share some details about that?

Ask him to contact me please…

How do you find the time to play in so many projects?

It’s that time of my life, after nearly dieing in 2008, I realized I should try and finish my work…well, there’s more than I would believe…so I just keep working on the music…it helps everything…

You are a singer and also a songwriter. How do you work as a composer?

I usually sing with guitar, record everything I do, almost everyday a new song comes…it’s wonderful.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

The divine ‘love’ that surrounds us.

I’d like to take you back to the early 1970s. Yes made albums that are considered progressive rock masterpieces. I’m talking about Fragile, Close to the Edge, Tales from Topographic Oceans and Relayer. What was happening at that time that led you and your band mates to compose such incredible music?

I was driven to try new music, we were being told to write ‘hit songs’…I just felt it would be a waste of the talent within the band, so I chose to escape, and help create new music…it is wonderful to look back at those times; we were in perfect ‘harmony’ with each other.

If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with whom would that be?

I would start with Tony Levin, Billy Cobham, etc etc…

In this age of economic turmoil and social unrest, do you have a message you’d wish to impart through your music?

Change is good…and Change we must…

Jon Anderson
What music genres, groups or CDs are you currently listening to?

Amharic music…Ethiopian…

We interviewed the Senegalese singer Baaba Maal and asked what song was he completely addicted to – the one song that he will sing along with every time – and he told us his song was “One Love” by Bob Marley. What is your one song?

‘I will fix you’…and a million others…

What do you like to do during your free time?

Paint, cook, watch Soccer and ‘American Football..walk with my Janee.

What country would you like to visit?

China, I’ve been there 3 times, amazing culture……..Africa…India.

Which is your favorite city?

Paris.

What was the first big lesson you learned about the music business?

No such thing as a free lunch…

What other projects are working on?

A zillion projects…tons of them…