Neal Morse - Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, Flying Colors, The Neal Morse Band - Uber Rock Interview Exclusive Print E-mail
Written by Michael Anthony   
Saturday, 21 February 2015 03:20

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Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, Flying Colors. Neal Morse has been a founder member and integral part of some of modern progressive rock’s most celebrated and popular bands and collaborations. And yet, since leaving Spock’s Beard, he’s also been an astonishingly prolific solo artist, releasing an impressive string of prog and non-prog albums that have continued to dazzle and wear their creator’s ‘Testimony’ on their sleeves. Uber Rock’s Michael Anthony spoke to Neal about his first album of 2015, ‘The Grand Experiment’.

 

Hi Neal, how are you? I’ve been listening to and enjoying the new album [‘The Grand Experiment’ –released on Inside Out Music on 16th February]. What would you like to tell us about it?

 

I’d like to tell you that it’s the greatest thing you’ll ever hear in your whole life. Well, maybe it’s not that great, but it’s pretty good (laughing)…. The main thing was the participation of the whole band in the creative process from the very beginning. That gives it a really cool freshness, and I really like it a lot. I’m very pleased with the way it came out. I particularly like the opening song, ‘The Call’, and I really like ‘New Jerusalem’ from the bonus disc.

 

You mention the ‘whole band participation’. Of course, you’re putting it out under the name The Neal Morse Band rather than it being ‘just’ a solo album.

 

Yeah, that’s why it’s our first Neal Morse Band album. We’ve been kicking around the idea for several years of getting together and just creating in the room to see what would happen. It can be a little uncomfortable sometimes. I’m used to writing a lot by myself, and when I come together with groups like Transatlantic and Flying Colors, although we do a lot of writing in the room, I also bring in a lot of stuff and I’m used to having a lot of material already there waiting. So this was kind of like flying without a net. I think it turned out really well, maybe partly because of that.

 

It’s structured a bit like Transatlantic’s ‘Kaleidoscope’, with two longer tracks at either end and the shorter tracks in the middle. Was that by design?

 

Mike [Portnoy, drums] is really the overview guy. I think he wanted to put it all on one disc and just not release ‘New Jerusalem’, and so not have a bonus disc, because we didn’t really have enough material for a bonus disc. But then he had the idea of releasing a few live cuts from Morsefest to augment that, and that seemed like a great idea. So that’s what we did.

 

I’ve got to ask you about Mike, as his presence is a common thread in much of your recorded output. You must feel a real chemistry with his approach?

 

Oh yeah, definitely. We’re definitely simpatico in a lot of ways, which is really surprising because we’re so different in a lot of ways too. But we’re both quite driven and we like to work pretty quickly and get things done. Mike is a really fast worker. I mean, once he starts tracking his drums it’s like a freight train, man, you’d better just get out of the way or you’re gonna get run over! He’s amazing! And so yeah, we definitely have a lot in common and we’ve become such good friends over the years. He’s been a great blessing to my life.

 

 

So what does he bring to your music, as it were? I mean, one might think that he brings a rockier edge. Would that be fair?

 

Well, yes that. But he brings a lot more than anyone would ever know. You’d have to be around. I mean, at some points during the making of this album it was like, “Hey Mike, maybe we should call this The Mike Portnoy Band instead!” I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean he was just so enthusiastic and he has this thing he says all the time which is like, “Oh come on guys, just try it this way. Make my sonic fantasy come true.” And who can resist that, you know? Who doesn’t want to make someone’s sonic fantasy come true? So we’d try it that way and he’s just like, “Oh man, that’s so awesome, that’s awesome, we’ve got to do it that way,” and his enthusiasm will very often carry the day.

 

You are known for your conceptual approach to your music. What can you tell us about the lyrical themes of the new album?

 

Well, it’s spiritual stuff. The lyrics to ‘Waterfall’ are about getting in that beautiful spiritual place where the Lord washes away the things that are troubling you, washes away sin and the past and all of that. And ‘Alive Again’, you know ... for the most part it’s very spiritual stuff. ‘The Grand Experiment’ is a little less so, because it’s kind of about life being like a grand experiment and it’s about my wife keeping me more grounded – I tend to be a little bit adventurous, maybe too much so sometimes, and she keeps my feet on the ground.

 

The lyrics were also very collaborative. It was a funny way to make a record. We got together and did the basic tracking but then for most of the overdubbing we were doing that at our own houses, and so sometimes I was working on lyrics and I would call Bill [Hubauer, keyboards and vocals] on the phone and sing it to him like, “Hey, what do think about this lyric?” And maybe it was a part that he was supposed to sing because Eric [Gillette, guitars and vocals] and Bill also sang lead on this album in quite a few places. It was a funny thing to be kicking around the phrasing of lines and lyrics on the phone. I would do voice memos of how I was hearing it and I’d send it to Bill and he’d text me back and, you know, there was a lot of that going on.

 

You mention Bill and Eric who play keyboards and guitar on the album, and you’re a multi-instrumentalist, so how in the song writing process did you decide who played what part?

 

Well, that was an interesting thing. Basically, for a lot of it, we just did what we felt to do. I was on the Flying Colors tour while they were doing a lot of the keyboards and guitars, and when I got to it at the end of October, I listened to what was there and just began to put in what I thought it needed from me. And, you know, that was interesting too, because there were some sections that Bill wrote that I didn’t know how to play – I didn’t know what the notes were and some of them were going by so quickly I couldn’t really make them out. So I had to call him up and have him tell me what some of the notes were!

 

It sounds very natural, the way you blend as a group?

 

Oh yeah, I mean it really has to be, I think. If it doesn’t flow, you’re not in the flow and I don’t think anything of any consequence is going to flow from it. Yeah, I really felt like we definitely got in the flow on this record and it’s a beautiful thing.

 

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You’ve mentioned Transatlantic and Flying Colors in other answers, and, of course, last year you were so prolific. How do you manage to separate out ideas for the different bands and projects?

 

Well, you know usually a piece of music will call out where it wants to live. Like, for example, the song ‘Shine’ [from Transatlantic’s ‘Kaleidoscope’, 2014]. I wrote it well before the ‘Momentum’ [Morse’s 2012 solo album] sessions. I could have put it on ‘Momentum’, but I just had this feeling. Your instincts just go like, “I think this might be good for Transatlantic,” and you don’t even know if Transatlantic will want it! I didn’t play it for them, I just kept it. So I don’t know, I think certain songs just have that feeling to you, like “This would be good for Casey to sing” [Casey McPherson, Flying Colors vocalist]. Sometimes Mike [Portnoy] will say, “You know, I think this might be better on one of your pop solo albums.” It’s all very instinctive and we’re just going from our gut.

 

Another question related to your prolific output –how on earth do you manage to stay so creative and productive?

 

I’m a musician, I’m a writer. What I love to do is write. When I’m on vacation I actually write more songs than when I’m at home! I mean, I’m just happy to be in the flow. I wrote a song this morning for a worship album that I’m writing for, and I think it’s good, so I’m just happy always thinking about what the Lord wants me to create now. And I do very often think about the concept that we impose limits on ourselves – that we cap off our creativity and what we’re capable of. I think there was an author who spoke 48 novels into a recorder. He couldn’t write it all down so he just spoke it.

 

So is there a connection for you between your creativity and the spiritual side of your life?

 

Many times in the morning I’ll get up and I’ll pray and I’m praying for guidance. And I’ll really feel like the Lord wants me to write something. It’s almost like, to me, it’s the still small voice of God whispering in my ear, you know, do this, do that. And so many times when that happens I’ll come in here to the studio and I’ll just start playing and things will just come out. Or I’ll wake up in the morning very often with whole pieces of music playing in my mind, and sometimes the Lord has to kick me a little bit to get me out of bed. Sometimes I’ll be like, “Ah! I’ll remember it. I don’t want to get up!” I don’t know if that sounds weird to you, but that’s how it is for me. My spirituality and my musicality are very much connected.

 

Yeah, I was getting that sense as you were answering earlier. I think it’s very refreshing from a fan’s perspective. You know, there are bands who take three, four, five years between albums but you just seem to be banging them out at the moment.

 

Well, you know, I really prayed a lot about whether this album should come out so soon. I wanted to take a break after Flying Colors and Morsefest and all that. But I really felt the wind at my back to continue on and to get this thing out. And, if we were going to tour in March, then we needed to get it out in February, which means we needed to have it done by December. We managed to pull it off, but I tell you I’ve never cut it so close on any album ever. I mean, when we delivered this album we were more than a month late to when we were supposed to deliver it. The manufacturers shipped it to the distributor in America on the last day before they were going to have to bump the release. They asked for it two weeks before that. We were just super late with it. We made it just under the wire. And I’m thrilled about the whole thing.

 

 

So you’re on tour in March?

 

Yeah, we’ll be in Europe in March and in the States at the end of February.

 

Of course, you have a rich back catalogue by now. Without giving too much away what can people expect from the set list?

 

Well, of course, it must be a secret, but we’re going to do some stuff from all kinds of different eras of my career. We may even dig back into some earlier territory that might be a little bit unexpected.

 

And beyond the tour in March, what does 2015 hold for Neal Morse?

 

I don’t know. I mean, I know that hopefully we’re going to have a live Flying Colors set later in the year. We’ll have a Morsefest extravaganza package. I’m not quite sure what else. I’m working on some worship music right now, so there will be a worship album this year, I’m very sure now. I’ve been writing it and it’s really gelling. And I think there are going to be some surprises towards the end of the year – but I can’t talk about that!

 

Cheers Neal, very grateful for your time. All the best!

 

You’re welcome. Take care, man. God bless you.

 

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Band Photography by John Zocco

 

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