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An interview with Glass

“To read the reviews now, many, many years after the music was created, and read how well it is received only fills one with a sense of destiny – the realization that there is a time for everything, and everything has it’s time”

Have you ever thought that maybe you should just pack in that guitar and give it all up? We all have those thoughts sometimes.

A little while ago I received a double CD from a band called Glass. The album had the odd title No Stranger to the Skies and I had never heard of the band. Being one of those people who like to go through a booklet from cover to cover, the first thing that struck me was the interior montage of pictures, studio sheets and others paraphernalia from the seventies. This of course piqued my curiosity. If this band was from the seventies, how was it I’d never heard of them before?

As I listened to the music, my first thoughts were that it was seventies-inspired, but it sounded quite fresh, not dated. The music was well written and well delivered. So I had to have a talk with the people behind it.

Glass is a three-piece band, composed of brothers Jeff (bass) and Greg (keyboards and bass pedals) Sherman and Jerry Cook on drums. I had the immense pleasure of chatting with both brothers (Jerry unfortunately being unavailable at the time). The conversation was the most pleasant I ever had with people I’ve never met before. These are very friendly people taking life the right way and who told me a very inspiring story. A story about never giving up. A story about three guys who worked hard and waited a long time but who are now reaping the fruits of their labor; No Stranger to the Skies has been critically acclaimed everywhere. And it’s about time!

Here is their story.

Glass ‘grew up’ as almost all bands did in the ’60s. Jeff formed what was to become Glass in Port Townsend, Washington, a small town about 50 miles away from Seattle, when he was 13 years old with several school friends. After several years and several personnel changes, the band lineup was himself, Jerry Cook on drums and his younger brother Greg on organ and bass pedals. “Our repertoire was not unlike other bands of the day, a mixture of popular music of the time, including The Beatles, The Byrds, The Doors, The Who, etc.”, says Jeff.

The watershed moment came on September 6, 1968, when Jeff, Jerry and Greg attended the Jimi Hendrix concert in Seattle, Washington. One of the backup acts on that night was the British band The Soft Machine. “The three of us were inspired by The Soft Machine’s performance, including the fact that they didn’t have a guitar player, something that seemed to be a requisite for all bands in the ’60s. Within months, the band stopped playing the usual popular fare at local dance halls, renamed itself ‘Glass’, and started writing our own original music.” Jeff moved from electric guitar to electric bass, and the keyboards/bass/drums sound of ‘Glass’ was born.

“The decision to drop vocals and go all instrumental was not a single conscious decision, but resulted more from a series of decisions made by the band over a period of several years.” These were decisions concerning the direction that the band’s songwriting was taking. In the beginning, Jeff was the main songwriter, composing almost all of their material. He was also the only vocalist in the band during those years. Naturally, many of the songs he wrote were for vocals and guitar.

“Over the next few years, several major changes happened in the creative forces driving Glass. One was the emergence of Greg, whose songwriting was solely in the instrumental vein, as an equal songwriting partner.” Also, their music took on more of a symphonic sound, opening itself up to a variety of influences, including Classical and Jazz. “It was during this time when we wrote the 30-minute symphonic concept piece Broken Oars.”

I asked them how was it that it took so long for your music to come out on CD?

“Good question”, says Jeff, never at a loss for words (all delivered with a very contagious humour). “The answer is somewhat complex. First, you need to understand the time frame that all the music on the CD was created in. The earliest tracks on the CD (from the piece titled Broken Oars) was created and recorded in 1973. The latest track, For Ursula Major and Sirius the Dog Star, was recorded in 1977.” Two years after they officially disbanded. Almost all of these pieces were long symphonic recordings.

“Compact disks didn’t exist back then, neither did the technology for creating inexpensive, self-produced recordings with a relatively low number of pressings. Furthermore, the greatest invention of the information age, the Internet, was not accessible to the public then. This lead to a situation where in order to sell any substantial number of a record release (the formats then were vinyl and cassette), you needed to tour constantly, and you needed to have lots of radio airplay. In a classic “Catch-22″ situation, the majority of radio stations would not play music from a band unless they were signed to a major record contract.” For a band such as Glass, who did not play hundreds of live tour dates a year, and whose music was far too esoteric to be played by any major radio stations of the day, “the situation was bleak”. Although it was seriously considered, in the end, it was deemed unfeasible to bear the cost of having an album pressed at that time.

Another technological change that made the CD possible was the digital revolution. In the ’70s, all recording was done with analog equipment. “The masters that comprise the Glass archives are all studio masters in the form of reels of tape. Some are mixed-down to 1/4″ tape, while others remain in the original 2″ multi-track format. It’s a known fact that this form of tape deteriorates after years of storage. When Glass decided that the project was going to go forward, one of the first chores was to transfer all the recordings to digital format. During this process, It was a concern that the tapes may be damaged, or even worse, ruined. Fortunately, neither of those things happened.” With the music safely converted to digital, it was then easier, faster, and ultimately cheaper to go into the studio and work with the original recording to get it releasable.

In 1975, Glass decided that they should try their luck on the European market. “It was decided collectively by the members of Glass that we might have better luck soliciting the broader attention of “The Music Industry” powers-that-be if we somehow could get the band to Europe. After all most of our musical influences (i.e. The Soft Machine, ELP etc) called Europe their home.” A demo tape of new material was written and recorded in the spring of 1975 in Seattle, Washington. “With long-time soundman Erik Poulsen behind the board, we laid down three complex tracks in two days. That demo then became our latest offering and the core around which “The Plan” to move the band to the homeland of it’s musical forefathers.”

“In retrospect, the naiveté with which this plan was developed seemed almost childish.” (I tend to disagree with Jeff on this particular point, there’s nothing childish in attempting to attain a hard to reach goal. I further believe they should be commended for the effort of trying to get the band into a new market – A-J.) But one must bear in mind when reading this that by this point the band had existed for some six years creating their own music and self-funding entire lives around it. “Beyond the basic need to survive, we were starting to need outside confirmation that there was even a place for us in the financially viable music world. We were in for a huge awakening…” In the summer of 1975, armed with a dozen reel-to-reel copies of what would later come to be known as the HHR Tape (named for the Holden Hamilton and Roberts studio where it was recorded) and some newly printed promotional packets, Jeff and Erik Poulsen departed for England and Denmark respectively. As quixotic as this unfolding tale may sound, both Jeff and Erik were able to get some sympathetic ears to listen to the fruits of our labor. “In London, I was even able to track down famed Soft Machine producer Sean Murphy. It was he who informed me that not only was it unlikely a British management company or label would be forthcoming with the estimated $20,000 advance Glass had figured it would take to move themselves and their families to Europe, but also that the economic climate in England (and Europe for the most part) was such that all the music producers, personal agents and managers were endeavoring to break their acts in The States. In fact, the US was looked at by promoters there as the Mecca of success to be “pilgrimaged” to until your artists either became a household word or, like the original lineup of Soft Machine did (after two extended tours supporting Jimi Hendrix), disband in disgust. In short, they thought we were nuts!”

Six weeks after he had landed, Jeff returned to the US with some new contacts (should Glass ever happen to make it England on their own) and some vague promises by promoters to “listen to anything new we might want to send their way”. Erik returned some weeks later with similar results. In short – the people that heard the Glass HHR Tape were impressed but there was just no money anywhere to embark on the kind of enterprise Glass had envisioned as a result of the trip. “We ended up further in debt and disillusionment. The idea that perhaps someone wasn’t going to “discover us” now loomed as a very real possibility in the peripheral of the bands collective insecurity.”

I asked them what prompted them to take the old recordings and release them 25 years later. “Despite the fact that the band was in essence in a deep freeze, there was always some level of interest in “doing something” with the recordings, especially by myself”, says Jeff. “When the World Wide Web came along and we discovered that there was a burgeoning Progressive music scene fueled by the Internet, it provided the needed impetus to start the long process of getting the tapes to CD. It was also helped along by the fact that the three members of the band are more than casual friends.” Two are brothers, and the third is a lifelong friend whom the two Sherman brothers grew up next door to in Port Townsend. This lifelong friendship was instrumental in keeping the communication flowing. “And that communication was essential in keeping the project alive.”

We spoke about the critics of the album, as they have all been quite good. I was wondering how it felt to read these critics now. “As you can expect, it feels very good! The Pacific Northwest has never been a hotbed of progressive music, and when the band was playing back in the ’70s, we were quite used to the fact that our music was not going to be attractive to the average music fan on the street, and even less likely to be reviewed. (We did score a couple of in-print reviews in the University of Washington student newspaper “The Daily”, largely because our hometown friend Bill Cartmel was an editor on the staff).” As any progressive musician has undoubtedly learned, you develop a thick skin to deal with the lack of acceptance by the average music fan. Glass was no exception. “We basically reached the point where we were creating music to satisfy ourselves and ourselves alone. When you do this, you run the risk of appearing to be arrogant, but it really is not that. It’s simply the fact that we had to reach the point in our own minds where we knew the music we were creating was good, and valid, and we didn’t need to hear from an outside source to validate that fact.

“To read the reviews now, many, many years after the music was created, and read how well it is received only fills one with a sense of destiny – the realization that there is a time for everything, and everything has it’s time. In hindsight, it’s easy to say that Glass simply was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fortunately, we stayed with our creative vision instead of abandoning it.”

We discussed the fact that No Stranger to the Skies is a double album and a lot of people consider that a risk for a debut album. “After reviewing the volume of music we had, the choice was a simple one. In fact, at one point we were considering a four-CD boxed set. The biggest reason that didn’t happen was that the cost was very prohibitive. As far as risk, the biggest risk you are taking is whether the thing is going to sell enough copies to make a financial profit, and profit was never the motivation for doing it in the first place.” And that is obvious throughout their music.

There are still more of the old recordings. Recordings those of us who have heard No Stranger to the Skies would very much like to hear. As we discussed this, there was a very interesting exchange between Jeff and Greg. A very friendly exchange, mind you, but one which made me smile. “Once we decided that it was going to be a two CD set, the hardest task was deciding what music was going to be left off of the CDs. There is a difference of opinion (friendly comments from Greg) within the band on the ‘releasability’ of some of the older material. From a songwriting standpoint, it’s all very strong, and the musicianship is strong also. In fact, some of the early musicianship is stunning. The issues that are in debate have to due with the recording quality. Some of the recordings are pretty crude recordings. It is a matter of where do you draw the line.

“We also are dealing with the issue that up to this point, the progressive world really hasn’t heard what Glass can do now, in the year 2002. For the first time in twenty years, at BajaProg 2002, Glass played twenty minutes of new material. Due to the clever arranging of drummer Jerry Cook, it was intertwined into the older music seamlessly, so most of the audience probably didn’t even realize that it was new. At some point, we want to be considered for the music we are creating in the present, not for the great music that was created in the past.

“We don’t want to further the notion that we are riding on the coattails of past successes, from a songwriting standpoint. We probably have 7 or 8 CDs worth of unreleased material from long ago that keeps calling to us from it’s place in the closet, but, both songwriters (Greg and Jeff) also continue to write new material.

We talked about upcoming live ventures. Good news on that front! “We are in the process of planning a small tour of small venues in the Pacific Northwest (from Portland, OR up to Bellingham, WA.”

And for the near future? When can we expect a new album from Glass? “Glass is currently rehearsing new material in their rehearsal studio in Seattle, WA, with a tentative time frame for release around September of this year.” Mark it on your calendars. Meanwhile, if you haven’t already done so, get No Stranger to the Skies (NSTTS). “The current plan is to release it on Relentless Pursuit Records (our own label), with worldwide distribution handled by various other distributors.”

Here’s a bit from the last email I received from Jeff:

Back from BajaProg and refreshed! We blew them away my friend!

I’m sure they did!