American singer, multi-instrumentalist, bandleader and progressive rock composer Neal Morse has kept himself as busy as ever despite the current pandemic times. He recently announced the release of “Sola Gratia”, his new solo progressive rock concept album, on September 11th, 202, and prior to that we will see the arrival of the third installment on his albums of cover songs in a trio format with the usual suspects Mike Portnoy and Randy George. Featuring their renditions of classic tracks by the likes of King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Gerry Rafferty, David Bowie & more (including their cover of ‘No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed’ featuring vocals from Yes singer Jon Davison), “Cov3r to Cov3r” will be released on July 24th.
Contributor Jorge Pozo took the opportunity to talk to Neal about the two aforementioned endeavors and a bit of everything else that is happening in the Morse world nowadays. Read the transcript of their conversation below.
Thank you very much for giving us some of your time to do this interview, Neal. I’ve been listening to the new “Cov3r to Cov3r” album for the last couple of weeks. This one’s coming out eight years after its predecessors. Moreover, I like this one a lot. I have a some favorite tunes: “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed,” “One More Red Nightmare,” and “Let Love Rule”, and that one surprised me a lot for good reasons. (I love Lenny Kravitz).
You know, it surprised me too. When we set out to do these things, that was a song I never sang before. I heard it somewhere. I thought, “Oh, that’d be a really cool song to do, especially right now, you know?” And, I was amazed at how good that one came out. I must say, if I do say so myself. (laughs)
What was behind the selection of the songs for the new Cov3r to Cov3r album?
We each made a list and then we just picked. Mike picked some from my list, and I picked some from his list and we had more songs, and we didn’t have that much time. We recorded this when Mike was here doing his drums on the new Transatlantic. It took him a little longer to get the drums right, for him to be happy with it. So, we hoped to have a full day at the end or maybe a day and a half. But we only had from about three o’clock on the last day to the end of that day, and with a dinner break that doesn’t leave very much time, you know? So, Mike did all his drums, I think, in about six, seven hours, which is amazing.
Yeah, it is. And it’s great to see that the other two Cover to Cover albums are being repacked with this new one.
That was all Mike‘s idea. You know this is something that he’s been wanting to do for a long time as it’s always bothered him that the other ones (“Cover to Cover” 1 and 2) are not on vinyl. I pretty much turned it over to him ‘cause I got involved making my new prog-rock album. And so I’ve been working on that pretty much, and I did all my parts on this, I think in December, maybe, January, and then I just kinda turned it over to Jerry [Guidroz] and Mike to do the rest. So I think I didn’t do much, I wasn’t that involved in the artwork or any of the major decisions.
Oh, that’s cool, I’ve always been longing for vinyl versions of the first two albums, so it’s cool to have those finally… Would you be able to point out a common theme between the songs of the new album?
Uh, no, not really. I mean, it was pretty much like we were just picking songs that, A: we liked, B: we thought we could do a good job on, and then, some that we probably could do pretty quickly. We didn’t have that much time. So we couldn’t do things that were super involved. I was glad that we got stuff like the Yes tune and the King Crimson song as those are some of my favorites. They’re a little more complicated, so they take it in their time.
Many people think that doing a covers album is an easy way out, but a lot of thought goes through the process of picking the songs, making the arrangements, etc. Can you tell me what kind of process you went through on this one?
Well, mostly, we played the songs in the room together and then embellished them later. Of course, it’s much easier to do a cover album than it is to write a concept album. To be honest, I spent two weeks on “Cov3r to Cov3r”. On my new album “Sola Gratia”, I probably spent three and a half months on that, so it’s a lot more time commitment, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about how much the listener enjoys it. That’s what it’s all about.
One of the most curious choices this time around was “Baker Street.” It’s kind of gloomy but also uplifting. How did you approach that one?
We played it live. Randy wasn’t here. It was just Mike and me. And so initially it was just guitar and drums. And I liked it when Randy put his bass on it, and it was just guitar, bass, and drums. It was pretty raw. It was kind of cool. We wound up putting all this stuff on it, all the keyboard embellishments. And when I started singing the verse, it really started to feel good to me. I always liked that song, but it would never be something that I would even think of covering. That was really a Mike and Randy thing.
Tell me about the recreation of the riffs of King Crimson’s “One More Red Nightmare,” which sounds really heavy here, maybe even more so than the original.
Yeah. I went up tracking a lot of guitars on that. I actually couldn’t get the sound I wanted on the last chord. So I went up going down [he starts mouth riffing the song], you know, and wow. And I would just play the bass notes on the heavy guitar tracks. Then I came in with a “wawa wawa” sound, just playing the last chord. [makes guitar sounds with his voice]. So I have to do a lot of things to get it to sound the way I want it to. There’s also an electric sitar [starts making sitars sounds with his voice]. I think I tracked some other sound effects with it. So it’s like, I’ve spent quite a bit of time getting that to sound as I wanted. That must have been like ten tracks of guitars just to get it done.
Mike Portnoy sings Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy,” and I think that was the obvious choice, him being the drummer. Tell us about this song’s choice, which is not an obvious tune when it comes to the whole Beatles canon.
Oh yeah. That was Mike‘s choice. I always liked that song, and it was Mike who suggested it, and it fit the bill. We liked the song. We could sing it pretty well. We thought we could do a pretty good job on it. And it was easy to do.
I know YES is a band that is dear to your heart, so tell us about the choice of “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed.” What was it like to work with Jon Davison?
Well, that was a Mike choice as well. We didn’t have very much time. So Mike said, “Hey, do you want me to just put the record up on the computer, and I’ll play to it?” And then we built the track around that, and I sent it to Randy, and a friend of Randy‘s [Jonathan Sindelman] did a lot of the keyboard stuff, too. And then we sent it to Jon. We know him pretty well from the YES Cruises and stuff. And Jon sent back this vocal. Except for Mike and me being together, that whole song was done remotely.
Cool! How would you compare seeing YES in the ’70s to seeing them nowadays with a completely different lineup? Do you still feel the same about their music?
Well, there’s nothing like the original lineup, especially meeting them when I saw them. It was with Bruford, Chris Squire, Wakeman, and Steve Howe [and vocalist Jon Anderson]. Probably most people would say that that would be kind of the Holy Grail of YES lineups. Plus, I was 12-years old, so my memory of that is probably overblown. It’s just so different when I see a concert today, it’s just a different experience than when you were 12 years old. But I think they’re doing really well on the prog cruises where I’ve seen YES several times. And the last time I saw Steve Howe, actually it was with Asia when they did that most recent tour. It was great, the best I’d ever heard him in 20 years.
What can you reveal so far about “Sola Gratia”, and how does it relate to “Sola Scriptura”?
I started this album about the Apostle Paul. It starts up with Paul persecuting Christians. So, I guess the thing that it has in common is this kind of persecution and then revelation and deliverance. But I think in some ways it has a similar tone to “Sola Scriptura”. There’s some pretty heavy stuff, and it’s a heavy subject matter. And it’s the first album that we did entirely remotely. It’s kind of my quarantine album. And it’s coming out September 11th and it’s going to be released on Waterfall, my streaming app, a couple of weeks before the release date. Therefore, people can get familiar with it before Morsefest in September, and it will be one night of covers on Friday night, and then on Saturday night, we’re going to do this completely new album. I’m really excited about it, but people can hear it early on Waterfall so they can get to know it.
Is it a double album, triple album? Are you bringing Paul Gilbert back to deliver another blistering guitar solo?
No, no. Eric Gillette does a guest spot. It is an hour and five minutes long, and it’s one continuous piece, um, 14 individual tracks that all run together. I think it’s as good as anything that I’ve ever done. I think if you like “Sola Scriptura”or “Question Mark”, you’re gonna like it. Mike takes a full-on drum solo in a song called “Seemingly Sincere.” And when you hear it, you’ll hear it’s a little bit of a different flavor for me.
“Sola Scriptura” has my favorite guitar solo of all albums, ever!
Yeah, that’s a good one. This time I picked up Eric for the solo department [laughs]in the second to last chapter of the new album. It’s really great.
Are there any ideas for a new Neal Morse Band album?
Yeah, we are going to work on a new one. I had suggested that we try to get together in July. But we have to wait longer because of Covid-19.
How are the preparations for Morsefest for this year?
We’re super excited about doing Morsefest in a different way. It’s all about the music. I’m really excited to play this music for the first time, and all kinds of fun things. We have the virtual VIPs that we’re going to play charades online. The first person to guess what movie title Mike is acting out, or the first person to put it online, will win something. Cameras are going to be backstage, and we’re going to be interacting with people virtually. Therefore, I think it’s gonna be entertaining.
Aside from Morsefest, are there any talks with promoters at all for for other shows at this point?
Not for me, maybe for other people, but not for me.
There’s a new Flying Colors live release coming out soon, when can we expect it?
I should know what the release date is, but I don’t [laughing]. But it’s in the fall for sure. Then “Jesus Christ The Exorcist – Live from Morsefest 2019” will be coming out in December.
Talking about the Flying Colors live release, that one is from the London show. Will it feature songs from the Morsefest show?
Yes, I can confirm that. That is the case, it’ll be in there. Not the whole show, six tracks, which is still a lot of material, over an hour.
We will ever see the rest of the show on an upcoming Inner Circle release?
I don’t know yet. That’ll be in the future to discuss.
I also heard on an interview that you were aiming to have Transatlantic at Morsefest 2020, but the Coronavirus got in the middle of things. Can we expect Transatlantic on Morsefest 2021, or is it too early to tell?
Well, we are going to try; that is our goal. We couldn’t have Transatlantic before the virus, because Pete [Trewavas] was locked up the whole year with Marillion.
Are there any plans to re-release your solo albums on vinyl? “Sola Scriptura”, “Question Mark”, “One”, “Testimony 2”, among others?
You know, I need to talk to some companies about that, I’ve talked about it. I think we’ve even prepared it, but I haven’t actually done it.
When are you going to post more Music Appreciation Class videos. Those where you play your favorite songs and go crazy on it?
(Laughing) Oh, well, I need to do one. I haven’t done one lately. Thank you for mentioning that. I think a lot of times they get taken down because you’re supposed to have the rights to the music to play it. So I don’t know. I’ll do it. I’ll do another one soon, though.
We’ll be waiting for that one, for sure. Have you ever considered writing a concept album telling the story of King David? I think that would be an incredible story to tell. I think also that you would do a fantastic job telling it.
Well, thank you. I mean, that’s how a lot of these things start: people make these suggestions that go into my mind and then, you know, I’ll start hearing some music, and I’ll start thinking about it. And then I’ll think, I wonder if I could use that towards that kind of a story, it’s something that I will consider it.
Anything else that you would like to tell your fans?
Yeah, it would be a great support for me if you join Waterfall. Go to www.waterfallstreaming.com, and all my albums–and it’s like a hundred albums, tons and tons and tons of all your favorite Neal related albums–are on there. So, yeah, that’d be great. Thank you.
Thank you for your time, man. Well, have a great day. Talk to you later.
All right, Jorge. You take care, brother. Bye