Morse Code

An exclusive chat with modern prog icon Neal Morse

The Neal Morse Band / Photo by Robert Smith

Ever since founding Spock’s Beard in the early 1990s—and subsequently starting Transatlantic and Flying Colors with other genre heavyweights—Neal Morse has been a leading force in modern American progressive rock. Of course, his own narrative solo material is a major draw too, as each release continues Morse’s beloved intersections of deep songwriting and playfully intricate instrumentation.

His latest outing—and the third LP with The Neal Morse Band, which also consists of drummer Mike Portnoy, keyboardist/vocalist Bill Hubauer, bassist Randy George, and guitarist/vocalist Eric Gillette—The Great Adventure is no different. A direct continuation of 2016’s revered The Similitude of a Dream, the two-disc concept album has received plenty of deserved acclaim since releasing last month. I recently spoke with Morse about the pressures and processes behind The Great Adventure, as well as his recent stint on this year’s Cruise to the Edge festival, his purposeful use of a trademark formula, the intersection of spirituality and music in his work, and much more!


How much pressure did you feel to follow-up The Similitude of a Dream (one of your most celebrated albums ever)? Did you know the entire time you were writing TSOAD that it’d have a continuation?

It’s funny: you don’t want to feel pressure and there should be no pressure. There should be no comparisons made between works of art, and yet you understand that everyone’s going to compare whatever you do to the last album [laughs]. You have to try the best you can to cast that aside, and honestly, I didn’t necessarily want to do a double album or do a follow-up. I’m really always seeking after what God’s will is or what I’m feeling wants to happen, you know? What does this piece of music want to be? I had just a few pieces of the puzzle of what The Great Adventure is now. Just a couple slices of the pie; it wasn’t until we all got together last January that we created a single-disc version of it.


Oh, really?

Yeah, the band definitely didn’t want to do a double or a follow-up. They didn’t think it was a good idea and I didn’t want to try to push them toward that. I was feeling that maybe we should do—I had a few things that I thought were pretty good for a Similitude 2, but I thought, Well, maybe it’s not time. Maybe we’ll do it later. There are songs that I held— “Shine,” for example. I think I wrote it three or four years before, but I held it for Transatlantic. Sometimes you’ll feel something and—I had written “Vanity Fair” and maybe a couple of other things that wound up not getting used but were pointing toward a Similitude follow-up.

Anyway, there wasn’t enough stuff and the band didn’t want to do it, so we just went and created. One of the bits that I had was this “love that never dies” concept. Not the whole song but just this bit of the recurring theme. The first version of [The Great Adventure] had a couple of twenty-minute pieces that would’ve bookended the album, like a lot of the Transatlantic albums. There’s two big pieces and then maybe three shorter pieces in the middle.

 


Yeah. That makes me think of how Ayreon’s The Theory of Everything is really just four twenty-minute pieces broken into about two dozen tracks. It’s kind of a staple of the genre.

Exactly. That’s what we were thinking, and I considered making this “love that never dies” idea sort of like the recurring lyrical theme from “Stranger in Your Soul.” The line “Awakening the stranger in your soul” ties in because you say it throughout the song different ways. The heavy song has it and the light, pretty song has it. That’s kind of what we did in the first draft, but I ended up feeling like it wasn’t everything that it wanted to be and it was meant to be something more.


If it’s not ready yet, it’s not ready yet.

Right. That’s what I felt; not everybody felt that way [laughs].



I think you told me the same thing for the last LP. You didn’t know if it was going to be a double album at first and the majority opinion swayed it that way.

It’s a step by step process. It seemed almost insurmountable to me because as I explored it more, I began to receive a few more pieces of the puzzle and I started taking all of the stuff we’d written together—“I’ve Got to Run” and “Dark Melody,” which was mostly a demo that Bill brought in for Similitude—and turned them into a two-and-a-half hour version of The Great Adventure.


Oh, wow.

Lo and behold, the band liked it well enough to work on it, which is what I felt we should do, too. I try not to push, though. I want people to feel it themselves instead of because you’re forcing them into it. That’s especially true with music.

The Great Adventure, the new album by The Neal Morse Band


There are a lot of examples of sequels coming too late and/or just feeling unnecessary and maybe diminishing the power of the originals in the audience’s mind.

That’s the big problem with sequels, right?  In any form, even like a Pixar movie. People will say, “Well, the first one was pretty good. I don’t know about this one.”



Plus, the Internet these days is full of people comparing and nitpicking things and feeling ownership over it.

You try to forget about all of that and stay true to yourself. We did the best we could to find what this really wanted to be. I’m so pleased to be playing it. We’re all really feeling it. That’s super important, and to see that audiences are feeling it, too.



It’s getting a lot of really positive reviews, including mine for Rebel Noise. I gave it 4.5/5.

Oh, great! I probably read it. I do read that stuff.



Cool. Along the same lines—and I’m always interested in this kind of thing—how did you decide what to reprise between the two albums?

That was at the very end. That happened in August 2018. There were three distinct sections, I think: August 2017, January 2018, and then August 2018. Once we committed to making it a continuation of Similitude, Mike was like, “Well, we should probably mention some things from the first album.” Then we started figuring out the when, where, and how of it all. When that clicked, it helped us transition from one thing to the other sometimes as well. “Freedom Calling,” for instance, starts with a reprise of something from the previous one and then goes into this other thing. That was significant.



I’m sure. It’s very seamless. I’ve always loved continuity like that. Moving on, to what extent is the storyline of The Great Adventure set in stone and literal vs. open to interpretation and cryptic?

It’s certainly open to interpretation. I mean, I don’t know how many people care about the original book, but I read one review by someone who knew the book and was confused by what we did with it. Here’s what happened: the second half of the book is from the wife’s perspective. She has a change of heart and follows after her husband. I thought that was really compelling and cool, but it didn’t work for us to sing from her perspective. I even have some stuff in my phone for that, like “Christiana’s Song.” I was trying to find something there but couldn’t. It wasn’t until after the January sessions that I thought of doing it from the point of view of the angry abandoned son. I didn’t study it carefully; I saw that one of the sons was named Joseph and I thought it was the eldest but apparently, he’s not. People who are really into the book might have a problem with that, but I don’t think it matters that much. I could have called him anything.



Most likely.

Anyway, what I did—and what’s confusing people—was that I found that the most captivating stuff to write about was still in the first half of the book, so I kind of made up a lot of stuff about how the son would feel about his father leaving him in the City of Destruction, and then I circled around to have him go to a lot of the places his father journeyed to that weren’t talked about in the first record.



That’s really clever.

I didn’t go as carefully through it, though, as I did for the first album. That one is more in line with the book, whereas this one grabs pieces from here and there. Then I made up the idea that he gets to the river, of this place of crossing, and finds that his dad has already crossed over. It’s then his turn to cross over. I found that touching, and when I come across an idea that touches my heart, I feel like I should write about it. Hopefully, it touches other people, too.



Absolutely. Again, it has to be organic and heartfelt instead of forced. If you had to pick any favorite tracks, which would they be?

I have so many, and as we’re playing them, they’re changing. I’m really enjoying “Venture in Black” and “Hey Ho Let’s Go!” I like Mike’s singing on “Venture in Black” and that dark theme in it. Of course, I love “The Great Despair,” and “A Love That Never Dies” is so wonder to perform live. It moves the audience in ways that we can’t. The music and the spirit of God working together in that closing—it’s just a beautiful thing to be a part of.



I have seen some people mention that The Great Adventure is also a tad formulaic and familiar, and I admit that I’ve noticed how a lot of your solo albums follow a similar structure. How do you respond to such criticisms, and do you ever worry about that? Do you do anything consciously to avoid it?

I do know it. My response is: I don’t ever get tired of having my salad first, and then my main course, and then the dessert, you know? There are a lot of things in life that kind of are the same or similar every time you do it but you wouldn’t want to change it because that’s how it wants to be [laughs]. With classical music, I don’t get tired of the symphony orchestra format and the way they usually have a bright and more rapid number to start with, and then the second movement is usually slower and then the third and fourths follow a pattern. If something’s good and it works—I mean, sometimes we’ll try not ending with the big, slow stuff. A good example is “At the End of the Day” by Spock’s Beard. We thought, We cannot go back and do the big theme again, so we ended with this sort of Genesis-esque thing instead. When we played it live, it was more satisfying to return to the big theme at the end. We’re just trying to do what feels right and satisfying, and if that means it’s like other things, then so be it.



That’s a good way to handle it. So, you all just returned from Cruise to the Edge, where you played with NMB, Transatlantic, and Flying Colors. What were some of the highlights for you in general? Did you get to meet anyone for the first time or not get to meet someone that you wanted to?

Well, I was pretty busy rehearsing and practicing in my room. We’d only performed our set twice and I had all the stuff from Mike’s set, too, so I didn’t get around to see much. I missed Jordan Rudess’ set and I really wanted to see it. Oh, and I can only hear so many notes while I’m working; if I’m focusing on what I have to do and then I go see someone else play, I’m worn out. I need space, so I missed a lot. I wanted to see PFM and I didn’t. I did get to see Brand X, though! I came down for rehearsal for Mike’s show and they’d gone over and I’m so glad they did because I probably wouldn’t have seen them otherwise. They were the standout performance for me. The drummer and the keyboard player, in particular, blew my mind. The keyboardist [Chris Clark] did a solo that was as good as Chick Corea. It was a lot to take in but I loved it.

 

It sounds amazing. How does preparing for CTTE differ from a standard tour?

It’s a one-off thing with Mike’s set, so it was a short set of Flying Colors and a short set of Transatlantic. I haven’t played that material in a while and there was very little rehearsal, so you have to be ready to get out there and nail it even if the wind is blowing and your badge is hitting you in the head and the organ isn’t working right [laughs]. Mike didn’t want any of us out there to spoil the surprise. It was great fun, though. I love playing with all of them.

 

What do you do to keep it interesting and fresh while touring?

I pray a lot, so for me it’s all about what God is doing. It’s not about me. I’m trying to be a vessel for God to use, and that’s what makes it interesting. It opens my eyes. When you’re focusing on yourself, you’re not seeing what’s happening with others, so it’s all about what’s happening outside of me. It’s beautiful to see how much people can be moved. Some people are crying by the end and some just look like the happiest people on Earth. The thing that’s great about this music is that it’s a small audience—or at least it’s smaller than a lot of other genres, but the people who are in it are so in it. It’s a deep thing and that’s what I’ve always wanted, even if I didn’t always know it.



That’s what I’ve always admired about your solo work. You have the prog fans, the faith fans, and then the intersection of the two. I lean entirely on the prog side since I’m not religious, but I still appreciate how much people connect with it on a spiritual, life-affirming level.

Spirituality touches beyond religion. Before I was a Christian, I felt something very deep from lots of pieces of music. It’s not about religion as much as it is that transformative or transcending sense of power and beauty in the music.

 

I bet. What else are you working on now? I’ve heard that the new Flying Colors LP will come out in the summer.

Yeah, I’m going to send out an email about that very soon, actually. We’re hoping for an August release. The Jesus Christ – The Exorcist album is coming out in June. The 14th, I believe. We’re working on videos and other things for that. It’s different than my other work, definitely. It’s a little less progressive and more Broadway. More mainstream song-oriented, probably. I can’t wait for it to come out.

 

 

Me too. Any details on Morsefest 2019?

That’ll be on August 30th and 31st. We’re not announcing any more details yet but it’s something people won’t want to miss.

 

What music are you enjoying these days? Which artists do you enjoy and think more people should know about?

I always like what Casey McPherson does, and I mentioned Brand X. Oh, and Spock’s Beard was great on CTTE. That was fun. The new Steve Hackett album is something I still need to hear. He didn’t perform it on the ship because he said that they weren’t ready to do it yet. He’s always great. The Sea Within, too, with Roine [Stolt] was a highlight. Seeing him and Casey together was great. I should’ve mentioned that earlier!  

 

It’s a shame that Daniel Gildenlöw [Pain of Salvation] wasn’t there, though.

At first, I was taken aback by Casey doing Daniel’s parts. They’re such different singers but it was wonderful. The whole band is great.

 

Absolutely. They made a very impressive debut album. My last question is about development of the Waterfall app, which is sort of like Spotify for your catalog.

Yeah. I first started talking to developers I knew who were capable of doing something. They’d usually say they didn’t have time and suggest someone else. One person led to another, and then I finally found someone on the internet to manage it. It was a long process, and my goal was to get it ready for the release of The Great Adventure. We almost made it! The Apple iOS thing was a couple days late and we didn’t want to launch without it. That was essential. I’m really enjoying it because I’ve found that in modern life, what you listen to or watch or even eat is often just what’s around. It’s what’s easy to access; if it’s too difficult—like in the studio. I only had so much percussion and timpani on this record and Jesus Christ – The Exorcist because of one of the guys who helped me set-up the percussion room with mics. It was ready to go, whereas if I had to figure all of that myself, I might not have done it. I’m just being honest [laughs].



That’s understandable. It’s a lot to keep track of.

A lot of the time, we’ll do what’s at our fingertips, so having everything I’ve ever done with these different projects—and Randy’s stuff is there too—is so useful. I’ll just throw on a track I haven’t heard in a long time, like “My New World,” and appreciate it again.



It seems perfect for your fans since there’s more of a communal/family dynamic between you and them, rather than the typical artist and audience dichotomy. You can all share it and be connected.

Exactly. I just want them to have the same experience I’m having with it, and I think they are.

 

 

 

Jordan Blum

Jordan Blum is a professor of writing. He is the founder of the creative arts journal The Bookends Review and a contributor to Prog, the world's leading progressive rock magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JordanBlum87.

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