I caught up with the multi-talented Neal Morse before the holidays to talk about his latest album, ‘The Similitude of a Dream,’ and his upcoming tour that will bring him and his band to Montreal on January 31st at Club Soda. “How cold is it in Montreal?” he asks me outright from the comfort of his Tennessee home. On that day, the thermometer stands at a mild -6C. “-6? That’s not too bad,” he says kind of relieved. I remark that he seems to have a knack for touring Canada in the dead of winter. “We have a way of doing that,” he answers laughing. “We have done a lot of tours in winter.”
Double concept albums are generally regarded as the epitome of progressive rock. So it’s not surprising that the Neal Morse Band followed their amazing 2015 album ‘The Grand Experiment’ with ‘The Similitude of a Dream,’ a double CD loosely based on ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress,’ a 1678 Christian allegory by John Bunyan. The choice of subject had been on Neal Morse’s mind for a while, even though he’d never read the book. “Well, it was suggested by someone on the internet and I just filed it in the cabinet in the back of my mind,” he explains. “I didn’t necessarily want to do it. I never read the book but I knew kind of what it was about, I’ve heard people talk about it”.
Despite not being completely familiar with ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’, the book would act as the spark that ignited the musician’s inspiration when it came time to write for this album. “I felt like I needed some kind of direction,” Morse explains. “Sometimes it can really help to have a story to draw the music forth and draw the lyrics and the whole thing out. And so I Googled the synopsis of the story on my phone and just started writing some stuff.” That initial burst of creativity happened in December 2015, and the following month, the rest of the band joined him, minus drummer Mike Portnoy who was busy with one of his many projects. Working from voice memos that Morse had recorded into his phone, the band started building the songs.
“It’s amazing to listen how much of the album is in those little bits,” he goes on to say. “The dark theme, some of the lighter themes and ‘City of Destruction’, ‘Back to the City’ and bunch of others were the germ kernels, but wouldn’t be anything if I hadn’t brought them to the band. They got inspired, and brought all their artistry and gifts to it. It wouldn’t be anything without the band.”
“I just had a lot of little, you know, songs, snippets and themes and things” explains Morse. “I don’t think that any of us were really sure that this was for sure the way we should go, and so afterwards, when it all really started to come together, we really felt like it was something special.” In the end, every member contributed to the songwriting. “Some of the stuff we wrote in the room together,” he explains. “There were some bits that came from older demos of mine, some older demos of Bill’s, there were bits that Randy and Eric brought in. Mike’s role is kind of like the gleaner; he figures out the best parts of everybody’s bits and fits them together. It’s just amazing how it all came together” he explains proudly.
Pretty quickly, the story of ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ proved massive enough that Morse felt a double album was necessary to tell it properly. “I went into the studio and just started sketching a lot more ideas out. We spent so much time at the beginning just setting up the story: if we were really going to explore this thing at all, or even just scratch the surface, it had to be a double.”
Make it a double
Initially, drummer Mike Portnoy was against the idea of making this a double album. At the time of the writing sessions, Dream Theater, Mike’s former band, had just release a double concept album (‘The Astonishing’) and he wanted to avoid comparisons as much as possible. “Of course he says now he’s excited to have the albums compared because he thinks that ours is so much better,” laughs Morse.
“Mike’s an interesting guy,” he adds. “He’s really strong willed: he got the idea in his head that it shouldn’t be a double right at the beginning, and it was really hard for him to change. It’s really a credit to him that he did change and he can now say: ‘I was wrong, you know, and the guys were right.’ I mean we went to really fighting with him on it being a double. Up by his own admission he said: ‘I was doing everything I could do to stop it.'”
Mike Portnoy’s enthusiasm for the record became obvious when, a few weeks before release, he described it as “the defining album of my career”. Neal hesitated to approve Mike’s assessment. “I have difficulty comparing albums because it’s so much a matter of taste,” he explained. “I think it’s definitely up there. For me as a Christian and as a believer, I just feel like God just really had his way on this one yet again.”
“And the thing I really like about it is how song oriented it is. It’s got a lot of catchy choruses and I think that’s important even in prog. I think that’s one of the reasons why Spock’s Beard’s ‘Snow’ was so popular or is so popular still. I think that progressive rock artists these days often draw back the song writing element. Everybody loves a good song, you know, and there are so many good songs on this record.”
Expanding to a double album came with some sacrifices though, and the band couldn’t find the time to record any of cover songs, like Morse has often done in the past. “We just figured that the bonus thing would be the making of,” he explains, “and it’s a very good one. I think that the special edition to this is very special indeed.”
The challenges of streaming
The album’s been gathering rave reviews since its release, but one place where you won’t find it, or any of Morse’s output, is Spotify and other streaming platforms. “The only one we do is iTunes, but downloads. It just kinda doesn’t seem right to me to give away perfect digital copies of your work,” he says. “It’s very difficult, very expensive, very hard to make a record like this and it costs a lot of money. In fact, I’m still paying the bills. And streaming is ridiculous: you get 20,000 streamers and a check for a few dollars. There’s a lot of different schools of thoughts about it, but for me it isn’t just all about dollars and cents either. It’s kind of the principle of the thing to me, and I wish that the all music industry would say no to it.”
It’s a difficult business if an artist with a loyal fan base like Morse’s, probably one of the last demographics to still buy albums, struggles with the financial aspect of recording an album. “Yes it is, it’s a very difficult business to survive in,” he acquiesces. “I think everybody knows that and so if you want your artists to be able to create the work you love you need to support them. It’s gonna take everything you’ve got to make some of this stuff and you can’t do it in your spare time. Of course I’m very thankful to even be where I am and even be able to make music for a living, so praise the lord.”
The tour, and what’s next
It should come as no surprise that the band is playing the entire ‘Similitude of a Dream’ album, from front to back. “We can’t get around that, there’s no other choice” he says excitedly. “We do the whole thing, and in the venues where we can, we have video behind us. I’m really excited about it, it’s gonna be an amazing concert. It’s gonna be the best tour that we have ever done.”
With an album barely out in stores, and a tour starting, you’d expect Neal Morse to be entirely focused on this project, but the musician’s already getting his next one off the ground. He recently gathered his Flying Colors bandmates (which also include drummer Mike Portnoy) for writing sessions for their upcoming second album. “You can expect some really good stuff hopefully next (this) year,” the singer says. He does not have a clear timeline for it though, since getting all the musicians’ schedules to align is a very difficult task. “Because we didn’t finish writing the album, we are gonna have to get together to finish that” he explains. “Then we’ll have to see what the schedule is.”
The Neal Morse Band is out on tour now. Don’t miss their Montreal concert on January 31st at Club Soda, at 8PM. Tickets are on sale here.