Born in 1960 to a musical Californian family, American multi-instrumentalist and composer Neal Morse is arguably one the most prolific musical composer in the prog-rock scene nowadays, and probably even beyond the genre boundaries. Neal played in many bands in his youth, learning and mastering several instruments along the way, eventually forming the progressive rock band Spock’s Beard with his brother Alan in 1992. Many years and bands have passed and Neal remains as productive as ever, I’d dare to say his musical output has done nothing but increasing lately, with The Neal Morse Band attaining worldwide recognition and universal praise since the collective debuted with The Grand Experiment in 2015.
Hot on the heels of the massive success of their The Similitude of the Dream album released in 2016, Neal and his partners in crime – Mike Portnoy, Randy George, Bill Hubauer and Eric Gillette – have now put out the follow up to that epic effort, aptly named The Great Adventure. With fans and critics raving about it, author and interviewer Rodrigo Altaf caught up with Neal and they discussed the new album in detail. Read their chat below:
Hi Neal. It’s great to speak with you again! The last time we spoke was in January 2018, and you were releasing your solo album “Life and Times”. Since then a lot has happened, and of course, on a personal level, your daughter got married, so congratulations man!
Yeah, that was awesome. That was a weekend full of memories and tears, one I will never forget!
I saw a video on the Facebook page of the Neal Morse Band jamming at the wedding reception, and you guy played “Back in Black”, which is probably the most non-wedding song of all time! [laughs]. I should say also congratulations on the new Neal Morse Band album, The Great Adventure! I clicked with it instantly!
Oh Great. I’m glad you like it!
I know that you guys decided to continue with the story addressed in the previous album, “The Similitude of a Dream”. Was that decision taken after the first album was finished, or did you know beforehand that there would be a sequel?
Oh, the decision was definitely made after the first album was finished. When I started writing I didn’t even want to [make it a sequel]– I remember coming home from one of the legs of the Similitude tour and wanting to just get some rest, but you know, just feeling that kick inside to go into the studio and write a little bit. And I think even as early on as spring of 2017 or even earlier than that, like during the winter, I started to jot down some ideas about that indicated we’d be going to lead towards the sequel. But I wasn’t sure either. I didn’t really have the whole picture. I just had a couple pieces though. It took a long time for us to sort it all out.
I think it was very clever how you used the last sentence of Similitude, which is “Let the great adventure now begin” and use it in the title of the new album. Probably the proggiest move you guys have ever done!
That was Mike‘s idea. I remember him saying “if we ever do a sequel, we need to call it The Great Adventure”.
So there was kind of that writing on the wall about possibly having a sequence at some point in time. It was in someone’s head, I think, right?
I was kicking it around and I was, I was kicking around ideas. Way back when I think I wrote “Vanity Fair”, for example, pretty early on and I started reading the second part of The Pilgrim’s Progress book where the wife that was left behind changes her mind and decides to follow the husband and all that. But you know, I wasn’t that inspired by the second part of the book. I ended up sort of doubling back and using more things that we didn’t get to in the first part of the book, but I don’t know, it’s all really loosely based on the book anyway, so it doesn’t really matter that much. It matters whether it touches people’s hearts as it is now.
I saw the videos you guys released with the story of how the previous album, Similitude of a Dream was recorded, and there was some tension there, and at some point you guys argued at length about putting it out as a double album or not, and a few other things. Was there a similar kind of tension this time?
Oh yeah, there was more because it seemed to be more of a consensus that we didn’t want to do a double and we didn’t want to do a sequel. I think the whole band felt that way and I was open, but I wasn’t sure enough to push it through, you know what I mean? On Similitude, when we came to start working on the second half and Mike wanted to wrap it up, I felt pretty sure that we had enough good stuff for the second half that it warranted an exploration. But this time it was just a whole different process. We got together in August of 2017, I guess it would’ve been before the last run of the Similitude tour, we got together and we put together some ideas, and some of the rough sketches at the time included “Vanity Fair” and another thing called “Talking” and another sketch called “The Clock is Ticking”. That ended up being part of “I Got to Run”. And then we got together with Mike and in January and then we created a whole album, actually a whole single disc album. And I just sat with it and I personally, and I guess I wasn’t the only one, we all felt like it wasn’t really quite there, it was good, but it wasn’t quite what we needed it to be. So while I was taking breaks from the Life and Times tour, I was coming home and kind of working on that and I felt like I was going to have to present it. If it was going to go through, I was going to have to make it happen so people could hear it and go “yeah!”. And so I did a whole other demo of it. There’s many different drafts of this album! There’s an August draft, the January draft…and then the March/April draft of mine. And then we got back together this last August and did the final version.
I know you guys took your time writing the album, and it took a bit longer than your other efforts. Did you write music for the next album while on the road? Can the touring environment be a creative space for you?
Yeah, actually one of the main themes – the orchestral part that opens disc two, which is one of my favorites – came to me in Warsaw. We were having a day off in Warsaw, so it’s called “The Warsaw Theme”.
I need to ask you about that line on “Welcome to the World”. What on earth is a taciturn iconoclast and who came up with that line?
Oh, that’s me! I read a lot, and sometimes I come across some big words that I like to look up. Taciturn is a moody and dark sort of guy, and iconoclast is a challenger of beliefs. But honestly, I don’t know where that came from, but it sounded very cool, so we decided to use it.
You mentioned John Bunyan’s book “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, and those who read it said there’s a lot more to the story than what’s addressed in the albums. Would you consider writing more songs and albums addressing the full story or not?
I don’t think so at this point. You know, but then we never thought we would do these two albums either! [laughs]So I’m, I’m afraid to say what we might do in the future because I just don’t know. I’m kind of resting between things right now, so I don’t know what would happen next. I really don’t have a clue.
I may be jumping ahead, but it’d be cool to have like an edition with both albums and the booklet expanding on the story and giving insights into each of the composition process, the recording process etc. Is that something you guys would consider doing?
Yeah, sure. Yeah, I think that’s a great idea.
Speaking a little bit more in detail about the new album. There’s a song called “Hey Ho, Let’s Go”. I thought it was going to be a tribute to the Ramones, but it actually sounds more Beatles than The Beatles to me!
Oh yeah? [laughs]For me, I always thought that track was sort of Supertramp-esque to me. I think it became more Beatles sounding honestly, when Eric sang lead on it. His voice sounds so bright on it that it probably explains the Beatles sound it acquired. It’s a pretty catchy tune, and I love it. Oh yeah, it does. We should do a video of that one eventually!
I listened to the album several times since we received it, and another song that grabbed me was “Vanity Fair” and the transition between that and “Welcome to the World Pt. 2”, which is quite heavy. And there’s a Tom Morello-inspired solo there from Eric, right?
Eric does an amazing solo on that track. And when it comes to that sort of circus thing, that vaudeville part, it was totally a Bill Hubauer creation at the sessions. Originally it was just a joke, like when we were just goofing around because I had written that “diddle-did, diddle-dat”, that ending of “Vanity Fair”. I think he was on an accordion sound and started playing it all fast and we were just goofing around. And eventually I said “that’s cool, man, I want to put that on there!”. And I think Bill was surprised, because he thought it was just a joke, but I like it!
My favorite song so far is The River, which I think it borrows melodies from Overture and from “Welcome to the World” as well. And I hear some Genesis on that track, am I right?
I’m sure you’re right [laughs]. I am always influenced by Genesis, they were tremendous influence on me.
I have a question about the vocal arrangements. Obviously you take the bulk of the singing, but everyone else has their share of leads, and the backing vocals are a big part of the band sound as much as other instruments. How do you guys decide who’s going to take which part?
Well, our general thing is that Eric’s in the middle, Bill’s on top and I’m on the bottom because that just seems to be the best blend. Every once in a while we’ll change that because we just think “oh, you know, maybe Bill should be in the middle on this one or maybe even I should be in the middle of it”. It kind of depends. But that, that’s our general rule is that Eric‘s in the middle and Bill’s on top. I’m on the bottom because it just sounds the best.
A lot of articles about the chemistry between you and Mike, and about the injection of energy from Eric. But let’s talk about the unsung heroes of the Neal Morse Band for a bit, Randy and Bill. How do they contribute to the overall son of the band and the composition process?
Randy has a lot of really good ideas. He tends to throw in riffs mostly, like the riff that starts the second song on the album. That’s a Randy riff. And he does a lot in terms of arranging. He’s good at looking at all the ideas in that and figuring out how to fit things together. He helps a lot with logistical things, which is also really needed, and he’s just really, really helpful in million different ways. And Bill writes full on, you know, songs and brings them in from time to time. Arguably one of the best songs on Similitude was his. I wrote the lyrics and we changed some of the things in it, but “Ways of a Fool” was Bill‘s. And the whole theme on this one, the dark melody is mostly based on Bill’s stuff. So Bill brings a lot to the table. He brings a lot of music and a lot of really heartfelt ideas. He’s great.
You’ve had several different lineups in your solo career, particularly guitar players and keyboard players until this band solidified like a musical entity that it is today. Did you enjoy that diversity when you have a lot of lineup changes or are you happier now having a permanent partners in crime?
Oh, well, I still get around with other players. I was just working with Flying Colors some weeks ago, and then I did the Jesus Christ, The Exorcist musical, which is with a lot of different people. So I enjoy that, but you know, the Neal Morse Band is special. It’s a special mix of ingredients that is just definitely one of my favorites I’ve ever been a part of.
How would you say your faith has impacted your career musically and in terms of career choices?
Well, I honestly, Rodrigo, I pray about everything. I mean the making of this album is all a result of faith and prayer. My daughter’s wedding was a result of faith and prayer. For me there isn’t anything that is kind of separate from that. I’m always praying and trying to do what I feel like is God’s will in all things. Anything that happens with me that’s a blessing or that is good, and even the negative things, I all take it to be God working. And I’m looking for Him and to be doing his work through what I’m doing is what it’s all about for me.
Your music may sometimes not explore religious themes necessarily, but are you able to appreciate other forms of music since becoming a Christian? Like, Black Sabbath for example? Or can you appreciate what Slayer brings to the table?
Sure, man, I just played “Back in Black” at my daughter’s wedding! [laughs]. But seriously, I don’t really like heavier, darker stuff that much. I never had really, I mean, even before I was a Christian, most of the music that I liked was generally of the lighter nature. I was a Sabbath fan when I was like 12 years old, but as soon as I saw Yes open for them, that was it for me. I kind of moved over to the progressive thing. But I appreciate all kinds of music. I wouldn’t necessarily buy it and listened to it in my house, but generally what I’m looking for is to be lifted up and be built up spiritually, you know, so with any kind of art, if I feel like it’s kind of a negative thing and not a good thing to put in my spirit, then I’ll kind of move away from it.
Can I ask you what the status is on Flying Colors? You just posted a picture of you guys jamming and working on the new album some weeks ago. Do we have at least a tentative release date for album number three?
No, we don’t. I’ll be hoping that this would come out in August, but I have no idea if that’s going to happen or not. That’s just my personal hope.
Who’s the most troublesome in Flying Colors when it comes to schedule? Is it Steve Morse, you or Mike?
Honestly it would be Steve. Steve is the busiest with Deep Purple, for sure. They tour and record a lot and they don’t seem to be slowing down, man. They’re really going at it!
That would have been my guess as well. But going back to the Neal Morse Band, there are already almost 50 dates announced for the new tour. Can we expect to see more added?
I don’t know if there will be more added. If you want to see us, and I think everyone should, you have to find us in one of those dates.
Well, last year you came to Toronto on the Life and Times tour, and I had to miss it, because the Sons of Apollo played here the day before, and you know how things are – my wife got the upper hand, and I could only watch one of those two shows. But you have a date in Toronto in February of 2019, and this time I’ll make a point of seeing you guys!
Yeah, that’ll be cool man. Come and see us!
I will. Thank you for your time Neal, and all the best with the new release!
Thank you so much. God bless! Bye!