Neal Morse likes to keep busy, and a simple look at his résumé speaks for itself: co-founder of the progressive rock band Spock’s Beard (which he left in 2002), member of supergroups Transatlantic and Flying Colors, as well as a solo career that over 19 studio albums goes from pop to prog to worship music. So it’s no surprise that 2014 was a busy year for the talented multi-instrumentalist: he started it with a new Transatlantic record and tour, did it again with Flying Colors, headed out to Progressive Nation at Sea, held his own festival (Morsefest) and now releases a new album before taking the material on the road.
I had the chance to chat with him ahead of the February 10th release of “The Grand Experiment” and explore the songwriting process for the album.
With so many projects going on, one might think it’d be a challenge to keep so many plates spinning, but Neal keeps a clear vision of each of his babies.
“They all have their own identity in my mind, and I try to do one thing at a time, as much as possible” he says. “Sometimes that’s not possible though; for example, I wrote a lot of the lyrics for the Flying Colors album while I was on the Transatlantic “Kaleidoscope” tour. I remember writing a lot on the bus. And I wrote a lot of the lyrics for “The Great Experiment” while on the Flying Colors tour. I’ll be walking around cities and thinking about what’s coming next. But I can only do that when I’ve got that gig in my hands and in my mind. But as far as what music I give to what band, it’s usually pretty clear. Usually the songs will scream out whatever they should be.”
Morse’s usual recording process is to write everything in advance before showing up in the studio. “I used to be rather paranoid about whether things would turn out in the short space of time we had available…so I would fill all the space in advance!” But this time he showed up empty-handed, and let the songwriting process be a band effort. “This was the first time that I came in with nothing, and really no expectations either. It WAS a little scary; it was a Grand Experiment, no pun intended.”
The initial songwriting session actually happened a year ago. “We’d gotten together, the four of us without Mike (Portnoy), about a year ago. We wrote about 35 minutes worth of music. And then we sent that to Mike, and then it was last September when we got together to do the session.”
Picking up where they left off wasn’t difficult, and the band (Eric Gilette (guitar), Bill Hubauer (keyboards), Randy George (bass) and Mike Portnoy (drums)) wrote in a very organic manner. “We didn’t really talk about it: we got in the room and we listened to some of the stuff that we had done before. Mike had already mapped out the stuff that he really liked. He suggested that we start with this one piece, and I believe that piece became ‘Alive Again’.”
That piece is a near 27-minute epic that will probably be a fan favourite for years to come. But it wasn’t planned as a long piece right from the beginning. “We just kind of kept going! We followed it where it wanted to go. I remember we tried several different verses but we liked the chorus. I believe it was Eric Gilette who brought in that chorus, but he had just a part of it. That’s how it works: somebody has a piece of an idea, and the other guys help flesh it out. We worked on the verses quite a bit, and then we followed it around to where we felt it should go to, and wound up at 27 minutes!” And like all great pieces, it never feels dragged out or too long, and just flies by. “I think The Call is like that too. You don’t really realize it’s a 10-minute song: it seems much shorter.”
When I asked if we can expect to hear this tour-de-force piece live when the band hits the road, Morse unequivocally answered “Oh yeah! Absolutely. It’s a great one, I think.” I think a lot of fans will be pleased by this choice.
This concept of letting the music evolve naturally was very important for the band. “We usually start off somewhere; we start off with something that somebody has, and then we kind of jam around with that” he explains. “We’ll play around with it and think of where it should go. And then you start taking it to other places, and maybe there’s another piece that we really like, and want to get to. So you want to go from point A to point B, but don’t know how to get there. So we start jamming to figure out how to get there. And one person has this idea, one person another idea. Sometimes it really cruises along, and sometimes it seems like there’s a lot of disagreement. Sometimes it’s like sliding down a mountain, and sometimes it’s like pulling teeth. But it all came out in the end in a beautiful way on this album.”
With such talented musicians, it is highly likely that the material will keep developing while the band is on the road. “That happens a lot on tour: a song evolves and changes, you add and subtract things, so we’ll see what happens. I would imagine it WILL evolve.”
The constant factor in most Neal Morse projects is drummer Mike Portnoy, whose workaholic schedule make the busy Morse look like a slacker. Neal describes their partnership in a very yin/yang way: “It’s fast and furious! We both like to do a lot, and we like to do it pretty quickly. We make a good team I think. He’s strong in the big picture, and I’m strong in the smaller things and the details. So I think that we work quite well together.” His distinctive drumming style is a big factor on this album, and from a compositional point of view is probably one of his best performances ever.
Portnoy recently described the album as “IMHO, pound for pound this line-up is as strong as any prog band out there, and this very well may be the PROG album of 2015!”, and he might just be right even though we still have most of 2015 to go. But I asked Morse if he ever felt limited by the prog rock tag.
“No because if I want to do something else, I just do it.” He answered. “If I want to make a pop album, I just make a pop album. If I want to make a worship album, I just make a worship album. If I want to write a musical, I just write a musical. I have total artistic freedom, actually. There’s no one breathing down my neck, I can pretty much say and do anything I want to. I’m really thankful for that — I don’t know how many artists can say that they get to do whatever they feel. And I think it’s great. And you know, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to sell very well, but that’s not really the point of music anyway. Sales is not the point.”
A lot of this freedom comes from the fact that Neal has been running his own label, Radiant Records, since 1998. “Contractually I think I’m supposed to give the parent companies (Metal Blade and Sony) something. I’m supposed to keep in touch and give them demos while making these albums. I’m supposed to give stuff to Inside Out but I never do: I just give it to them when it’s mastered and done! (laughs) Sometimes they’ll say “When do I get to hear this thing, come on!”, and they really wanna hear this thing, but I don’t like people to hear stuff until it’s really everything it’s going to be. I don’t want them to hear a lesser version, I want them to have their mind blown when they hear the completed thing.”
Over the years, Neal and his band have recorded many great cover songs, and the Deluxe Edition includes a cover of “MacArthur Park”, a song that I was vaguely familiar through disco queen Donna Summer’s version. But the band used the blueprint of the original version by Richard Harris and turned it into a great prog song.
“You’d have to ask Bill Hubauer ’cause that’s his arrangement. Honestly, the only thing I contributed to that song was my vocal in the middle. The guys did everything else. I was kind of not too excited about doing it because I thought it was a really dumb song. (laughs) Yeah, the lyrics… (laughs) Mike and everybody else just loved it, and it IS totally cool. Bill’s arrangement is awesome. And if you can get past the “somebody left the cake in the rain” thing, it’s really great. (laughs)”
Neal Morse brings in a lot of pop sensibilities and a great sense of melody to this album and it’s not surprising when you hear him name a few of the things he listens to these days. “I listen to quite a bit of classical music, I like to listen to Mozart and Beethoven. I took my son to see the symphony play the Legend of Zelda music a couple of weeks ago, which was fun. I listen to Christian radio a lot actually, and I’ve been listening to John Mayer; I like his kind of acoustic/songwriter albums “Paradise Valley” and “Born and Raised.”
The band hits the road soon for a short tour, and will be in Montreal at La Tulipe on February 25th. I asked him if fans can expect any surprises from the show. “The surprise will be that we turn up and actually play this music well! Cause if that happens, that’ll be a shock! (laughs) You can expect a great night of amazing music, and who knows? Maybe some surprise guests; we’ll see what happens out there. And we are going to do some exploration into the past, yes.”
The Grand Experiment will be available on February 10 as:
-2CD & DVD Special edition digipak featuring a bonus disc of unreleased studio and live tracks plus a ‘Making Of’ DVD
-180g LP + 2CD featuring the full standard album on CD plus the bonus CD
-Standard edition jewel case CD
The Neal Morse Band will play at La Tulipe on February 25th 2015.
Check out more work by Jean-Frederic Vachon at Diary of a Music Addict.