An incredibly long chat with modern prog rock kings Spock’s Beard
For roughly twenty-five years, Californian troupe Spock’s Beard has reigned as one of the most influential, consistent, and revered names in American progressive rock. Initially fronted by Neal Morse (whose subsequent solo career has also been stellar) before drummer Nick D’Virgilio took over lead vocals following 2002’s masterful Snow (and departed in 2011), the band’s recently released 13th studio effort (and third with singer Ted Leonard), Nosie Floor, finds the band perfecting its blend of wacky complexity and welcoming catchiness. I recently spoke with Leonard, bassist Dave Meros and keyboardist Ryo Okumoto about the new album, their upcoming European tour with Roine Stolt’s The Flower Kings Revisited, the impact of genre label Inside Out Music, satisfying/subverting fan expectations and much more.
Tell me a bit about the album’s cover art and title.
Dave Meros: We each always come up with a list of potential album titles that we’ve collected over a period of time, and when the time comes, we send the lists around. There are some funny ones, some serious ones, and some totally inappropriate ones that would never be chosen but they’re still good for a few laughs. In the end, everybody liked Noise Floor, and nobody disliked it, so that was the winner.
Not too many images come to mind when trying to picture what an album called Noise Floor would look like, and it took our art guy a while to come up with something, but I think it looks great. It’s one of my favorite Spock’s Beard album covers, actually.
Ryo Okumoto: I had about 80 percent to do with the cover. It’s very different from the ones we’ve had before. It’s more contemporary and, you know, when you have to decide the title and the cover, you have so many options. We had around 50 to 70 titles to choose from. Once we chose Noise Floor, we came up with some options but couldn’t use them due to copyright and stuff like that. Anyway, we went to Thomas Ewerhard for the image; he designed for most of our albums. He’s excellent. He gave us five different drafts and we chose that one.
They definitely fit well together. Considering that this is your third studio record with the band, Ted, I wonder how much you still feel like you’re living a dream or fantasy now that you’ve gone from fan to formal frontman.
Ted Leonard: It definitely still feels like a privilege. When you’ve been on two tours and can smell the guys’ socks from across the bus, you lose some of the sense of awe [laughs]. Not that anyone has particularly stinky feet, but you know what I mean. We’ve all been friends, so I never felt like the odd man out or the new guy. I mean, of course on the first couple of gigs, it was definitely freaky, but it’s felt very normal ever since, you know?
Totally. Any favorite songs on the album?
RO: My songs [laughs]. “To Breathe Another Day,” “Box of Spiders,” and “Beginnings.” I hadn’t written for a while and just decided to step in this time. I’ve been working on those last two songs for five years. I kept changing the arrangements and sending it to everybody for feedback. I had, maybe, fifteen different versions of those songs by the end. I like them very much; I don’t care what anyone else says. “Box of Spiders” was difficult because it’s very me from top to bottom. It’s a lot of different odd time signatures and melodies but it’s more melodic than how I used to write instrumentals. I really like it and I’ve been so into it for five years. I was in the studio almost every day. It worked out great, though, and people like it, so I’m happy.
DM: “Box of Spiders” was particularly hard to track because of a lot of seemingly random stuff going on; plus, there are at least 20 totally unpredictable time signature changes. Anyway, I have a couple favorites that stand out above the rest for me personally, but to pick just one, it would be “Somebody’s Home.” I really love the emotional feel and the power of that track. It’s really inspired writing, especially from the bridge onwards.
TL: Yeah, both instrumental tracks were written by two people and almost entirely without influence. “Box of Spiders” was Ryo and “Armageddon Nervous” is John’s thing. The former made this one mainly because we like the title [laughs]. Also, if you opened a box of spiders, there would be so much chaos going in every direction, so that fits, too. I love instrumentals as a fan, but when you’re the singer in the band, it’s not as fun. It’s like, “Oh, we’re doing one now? Okay.” Hopefully, if we do it live, I’m involved. I think the last one we did live was from X—“Kamikaze”—and I just walked away on that one. I just got a beer or something, so it worked out well for me.
As for my favorites, probably “Beginnings” and “One So Wise.” Those two, and I love “Somebody’s Home” because it’s close to my heart.
I really like the acoustic guitar work on “Somebody’s Home.” It reminds me of Steve Howe’s style in Yes.
TL: Yeah, that’ll be fun to play live. Al [Morse] and I wrote that middle section harmony part, but the problem was that we only recorded it with one mic, so neither of us could tell who was doing what when we listened back. So, when he got into the studio, he pretty much recreated it on the spot. Now I have to learn whatever he did, as opposed to it being something that naturally came off of my hands. It’ll be fun, though.
No doubt. In general, it’s rare that a band can be around for so long and maintain their quality.
RO: We don’t think about that at all, though. When Neal left after Snow, we said, “Okay, but we have to keep going, right?” So, we kept going and we struggled a bit on Feel Euphoria, but we kept writing and recording and playing and touring. We kept doing what we should’ve been and fortunately, the record company still wanted us to do it. We don’t have any hits, you know? We’re in the middle between unknown and famous.
Well, when people think of the 1990s resurgence of progressive rock, they certainly think of you guys.
RO: Especially in America, I think, and especially with the melodies. It’s different from the European bands. The thing is, each member is an incredible player independently.
Definitely. So, how did you guys decide what would make Noise Floor and what would make the bonus disc, Cutting Room Floor? Were there any heavy disagreements about it?
DM: Oh yeah, we had plenty of discussions. We all finally became exhausted and were able to agree on something in the end though. Thomas [Waber], the president of Inside Out Music, had a lot of input into song choice and the running order of the songs as well. He has a really good ear for such things, and more importantly, an objective opinion. We’re all so inside of the whole thing that our judgement is often clouded.
TL: It’s supposed to be a democracy, but people will always get their own interests in there. It can be a mess, but at some point, we just resort to going to Thomas. He has a good handle on album order and that sort of thing, so we lean on him. Once we realized that we were getting nowhere in determining what should be, we just said, “Thomas, what do you think?” The only thing we ended up differing on was that he wanted Noise Floor to be alone and not release those other four songs.
Hmmm that would’ve been a shame.
TL: Yeah. He wanted a shorter album; he has this idea that reviewers who aren’t familiar with the band are more likely to warp their heads around fifty-five minutes than they are, like, sixty-five or more. I see his point about that, but I also know that prog fans may not be thrilled about that, so I wanted to put the other four songs on another disc.
RO: A lot of prog albums are 75 minutes, and I thought that was okay, but what do I know? I’m just the musician and writer, so it’s better to leave it up to the record company and Thomas. He knows the business part of it.
It seems to have been the right call, and you’re not the only band who’s done that. Just recently, the eponymous LP from The Sea Within came out and they also split their twelve songs into eight on the main and four on the extra disc.
TL: It may be easier on the reviewers, though, especially ones in major magazines. They may not even listen to the bonus disc; they’ll put on the main one and then review that. I see Thomas’s point from a marketing perspective. Then the question became, “Okay, what songs are going to go on that bonus disc?” I just offered “Vault” to the slaughter pretty quickly because it seemed unfinished to me.
TL: I’d purposefully written it without a middle section because I wanted to have a bit more collaboration with one of the other members, so I was hoping Al or John [Boegehold] or Ryo would jump in—there’s an obvious place after the second chorus where it really shifts gears abruptly into the bridge. That wasn’t supposed to be abrupt; it was supposed to be an insertion point [laughs], so I just decided to give it up. A lot of the guys liked the song, but I just thought it could go.
Sounds like a good reason to remove it, and we’re always our own harshest critics. What stuck out to me, and it’s not always the case, is that those songs seemed up to the quality of the other ones.
TL: Yeah, we recorded them all with the intent of including them, with maybe one or two scratched off. Like, we knew we would choose between the two instrumentals. It worked out this way, though. A lot of people appreciate those bonus songs. A couple YouTubers, not so much, but what are you going to do?
Oh, have there been some negative videos?
TL: Just for “Days We’ll Remember,” really. One guy was like, “Is this for five-year-olds?” and someone else said, “This is lame. It’s not prog!” Like, why is it automatically lame if it’s not prog? Is Led Zeppelin lame? Personally, I love the simplicity of it.
Definitely. Especially with you fronting the band, you guys have become more commercial and accessible, but I don’t mean that in a negative way. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily.
TL: In a few songs, there’s definitely been some of that. I think I have a very pop kind of voice.
That’s true. There are enough “prog” moments in it, and if the songwriting is still good, what’s the issue? In general, I don’t get why fans take these things so seriously and personally. If they don’t like a band’s new album, don’t listen to it. Listen to the stuff you do like. It’s really nothing more than that. You don’t have to denounce them and make a big deal out of it online.
TL: Some people feel like you’re ruining the legacy, which isn’t true at all. The first six albums will always be there; they’re not going anywhere because we’ve just made a thirteenth. It’s also that the “brand” is being placed on a change in the line-up. We’ve had two very drastic ones—well, three with Jimmy [Keegan] leaving. There’s always going to be that pushback.
TL: When Brief Nocturnes came out, I really thought that we’d see a lot of that. I was pleasantly surprised at how little pushback we got. If we’d released The Oblivion Particle first, it would’ve been different [laughs]. That seems to be the consensus, anyway. This one is being received well in general, I think. Only morbid curiosity leads me down to comment sections, and usually it’s pretty bad. There’s always one person who says, “If it’s not Neal, it’s not Spock’s Beard!”
It always sounds like Spock’s Beard, though, even though each era has its own personality.
TL: That’s why I like a song like “One So Wise.” That intro is very much classic Spock’s Beard. We’ve talked about, you know, “Do we really want to use mellotron again?” I have no issues throwing in a nod to the past; some people do, but I don’t. Now, if we’re writing the same song over and over again, that’s an issue, but sounding like that older stuff is, to me, what every fan wants.
I think so, too. On that note, though, what was it like to have Nick play and sing (a bit) on the album again?
RO: That I can really talk about! I’m so picky about drummers. I play a lot of fusion songs and those fusion drummers can really play, but Nick is the best I’ve played with because he drum-sings. He doesn’t overplay; he has a technique and when he plays, the drums sing. It’s hard to explain why but that’s what I really love about his playing. When he stepped into the vocals after Neal left, I really argued about it because I wanted him to be on the drums. When we were going to tour, we’d need someone else to play drums, so I wanted to play with him. But that’s what happened and after that, when he left, Ted came in and then we finally got Nick back here. I was so happy. You can hear the difference on this album; it’s much warmer and more musical because of him.
DM: It’s always great working with Nick, but having said that, we never really played with him in the traditional sense. He played using demo tracks as reference at Sweetwater Studios, with a couple of the songwriters overseeing things. Then his tracks were compiled and sent to the rest of us to put our parts on.
TL: We really wanted him to do more but there were logistical issues. We even brought Jimmy in to have another tenor so it didn’t sound like the last two Journey albums (with Steve Perry basically doing all of the parts). No one else could sing as high as Jimmy and me except for Nick, but he wasn’t around, so we wanted to use him more than we did. As for drumming, he’s hands down my favorite drummer that I could ever get. There’s a lyrical quality to his playing. It’s like he plays the song but it happens to be through the drums; he’s a songster and the drums happen to be his voice. It’s very natural, and his interpretations are second to none, even on the fly. That’s why he played on my solo album from a few years ago. He only needed a take or two to nail it and then we’d move onto the next song.
TL: Exactly. I don’t think I could call the differences between him and Jimmy qualitative, but there’s a different flavor, for sure. Nick is more dynamic and Jimmy is more rock.
I can see that. He’s very distinctive, even with other bands, like Big Big Train and The Fringe. Also, there’s an interesting parallel between Spock’s Beard and Genesis in that with both bands, the original singer left after the sixth album (a concept album with religious themes) and was replaced by the drummer. Going back to what you were saying about fan reactions, though, what do you think of how people reacted to him being announced as the drummer for Noise Floor?
RO: At first, he was in the band officially again, but after we finished recording Noise Floor and started getting gigs, he was getting really busy with other things. He knows what he needs to do and wants to do, so he couldn’t commit to us afterward. It’s okay, though; it’s going to work out. We got Mike Thorne from Saga for this upcoming tour and Cruise to the Edge. That’ll be good. Nick is always in our thoughts, though, so whenever we get an offer to do something, we’ll ask him.
TL: We were trying to coax him, for sure. Part of me was hoping that the album would turn out as good as it did and that would make him carve out some time in his otherwise busy life. He messaged me the other day about the album—he really likes it—but there wasn’t a chance of him really coming back. That’s a bummer, especially in not being able to tour with him or Jimmy. There’s not going to be a guy who’ll replace their vocal and drumming prowess. That said, Mike’s a great drummer and he can sing. Usually when you’re watching Saga and there’s a two-part vocal, he’s probably the second voice.
DM: Yup. Mike brings awesome drumming and vocals to the table, and his vocals are very important since both Nick and Jimmy were really important to the band in that regard. I’m not sure how he was initially involved; I think Ryo and Ted met him at some point and really liked him not only for his playing ability but also his personality.
I think so, too. Moving on, what themes/topics are explored on the Noise Floor?
DM: I’m not really sure, to be honest. I haven’t paid that much attention to the lyrics! I’m a caveman who plays bass.
TL: With John’s songs, it’s always a mystery to me. He writes like Neal used to write: there’s a cryptic nature to them, so I’ll speak to my songs. “Somebody’s Home” was actually written about my stepson, Chris, who was born brain dead. He was supposed to live for only three days but he ended up living sixteen years.
TL: He was under constant care from nurses on staff at the house, of course. His mom was obviously there, too, but she’s a lawyer so she wasn’t there all the time. Anyway, one of the things that struck me were the anecdotes that they’d talk about. So, for example, when his mom would walk into the room, his heart rate would change. They never saw any brain activity, but his heart rate would change. That would happen when they played music as well. Just the thought that somebody was in there but, for whatever reason, had a disconnection that prevented him from showing it in any way really struck me, so that’s what that song is about.
I had no idea.
TL: The funny thing is that while Al and I were writing that at his house in L.A., my wife called and asked if I knew that it was his birthday. I said, “Wait, what?” It was his fifteenth birthday. So, I wrote the song and then he died this past Christmas. Now “Somebody’s Home” means something completely different.
TL: Anyway, “Vault” is about the work that my wife does with at-risk youths. She works at a place where some of the kids are from the foster system and others just have behavioral problems and the parents don’t know what to do. Others are rescued out of sex trafficking. We started a non-profit that provides lessons and guitars through contributions. We don’t just pay for them; we couldn’t afford that, but we’ve gotten donations and then at the end of their eight-week course, they walk away with the guitar that they’ve been using.
That’s amazing. Very altruistic.
TL: Yeah, and the song is about a particular student who was on all sorts of depression medications. She had a really hard time waking up in the morning, so that’s in the first two lines—“Empty cup / I can’t get up”—and then it kind of shifts and the bridge is about Malala Yousafzai, a Muslim woman who’s spoken a lot publicly about oppression and women’s rights and things like that. I saw her speech one night and then ran upstairs to write that part. She really touched me, and I felt that those two topics would work well together, so that’s where the bridge came from.
That’s interesting. It’s always great to represent such important things in your work.
TL: Absolutely. With “Have We All Gone Crazy Yet,” which was a bit of a collaboration between me and Al, it’s pretty much self-evident, especially if you pay attention to the news or social media. Everything has gotten so polarized and there were a lot of lines that someone would suggest that were politically charged. We’d laugh at them but then decide that no, we can’t include them.
That’s probably for the best.
TL: In my case, it would’ve been very apolitical. That’s just how I am. I don’t see much point in dividing ourselves along those lines or berating someone because their life experiences led them to a different conclusion that yours did. To me, both sides talk about the idiots on the other side. It’s not necessarily idiocy that led them to certain conclusions. A lot of the time, it’s a lifetime of factors.
Exactly. There’s too much toxicity now with things like group polarization and confirmation bias.
TL: Right, and you’re never going to have an intelligent conversation about anything or change someone’s mind. Maybe you don’t need to, though. I don’t know.
Probably best just to let it go. Going back to the album, was the writing process different here compared to the previous ones?
DM: I’ll start by saying that there was no conscious or predetermined decision to do this, but there was more collaboration on this album. There were no whole-band collaborations, but more collaboration between two and three people. (Previous albums had more single-writer songs.) There was also more “rearranging in the studio” on this record than any previous record.
TL: Yeah, there was definitely a conscious choice to not have it be another John Boegehold album. The Oblivion Particle included, I think, two songs of mine [“Hell’s Not Enough,” “Minion”] and maybe one of someone else’s [Al and Ryo, “The Center Line”] and then one from Stan Ausmus [“Tides of Time”]. The rest was John. That was partially because we were so busy in those prior two years. We really set out this time to have more band collaboration.
I wonder how many casual fans know how much John is involved. I’m sure the diehard ones do.
TL: I think most people do, and if he says something online about it, people will see it.
What led to “To Breathe Another Day” being the first single/video, and what was the inspiration behind such an informal, DIY approach?
DM: Well, it’s the first song on the album, so the label thought it should be the first single/video. It’s probably the most accessible song on the album, and high energy as well.
TL: A lot of those decisions are just “strongly suggested” from the label. They said, “It’s the opening track and it comes out with a lot of energy.” I think that one of the concerns with this album is that there’s a lot of mid-tempo stuff, which is why that first song is so energetic. It’s obviously not the most proggy; I haven’t heard anyone say that it’s their favorite, but it’s a strong song. I don’t think anyone hates it, either.
I can’t imagine why they would. It’s really catchy and upbeat.
DM: Very true. The informal approach of the video was mainly because of a complete lack of budget. We are kind of spread around geographically so it would have been lots of airfare and hotel costs to even get us in the same city for a couple days, and then of course the cost of producing the video itself if we hired somebody to do it. So, we voted to not even do a live video. That didn’t go over so well with the label, but they did understand our situation, so they asked if we could do a play-through video like a lot of bands do these days. We didn’t really discuss how we would approach it, but Ted and I couldn’t really take it seriously, so without knowing what the other guys were going to do, we both did pretty silly performances. The video turned out pretty funny, but you should see the parts that they didn’t include; those were way funnier than what did get included.
TL: Yeah, the label said, “We want to do a video for it,” but it was after the fact and after we’d already mixed it. They sent us a video of a band that was filming their parts as they recorded it—with multiple cameras—and then they probably edited it themselves. It was just four squares with each person doing their part.
That’s an inventive way to do it.
TL: Yeah, but again, we’d already recorded the track, so I said, “We’re just going to lip sync it, then?” I thought it was a silly idea, so Dave and I both saw the humor in it and decided to make it funny. That’s why I hammed it up and Dave used his wind machine. He’ll do things like put cool lights on the wheels of his hand truck; everything is tricked out for him. He’s funny like that.
I like the video. Also, the need for a music video has kind of gone away since television has given way to the internet. A lot of artists are doing it with a low-key, DIY vibe, like Devin Townsend’s video for “Animals.”
TL: Right. I mean, Dave, Al, and Ryo are really playing their parts; that’s what prog musicians want to see. That’s more interesting than some thematic take, like the “Submerged” video, which had a theme that nobody got and had nothing to do with the song. It was just invented by this dude from Hollywood who said, “Yeah, I kind of see it as a love triangle. Is that what the song is about?” and I said, “Well, not at all, actually, but sure, let’s go with your take.” The whole low budget part of “To Breathe Another Day” was funny because there were comments on it like, “The guy who directed this didn’t use a good camera. What kind of budget did they have for this?” Yeah, okay, budget, right. Guy who directed it. Right. That’s hilarious. There was no budget or director; it was just use putting our cameras on at home and playing along.
Exactly. That goes back to what you were saying before about fan expectations/critiques. They didn’t get the joke behind it.
TL: That makes it even funnier.
You recently announced a tour with Roine Stolt’s The Flower Kings Revisited in the UK to celebrate twenty-five years of Inside Out. What can you say about that, as well as about Inside Out in terms of Spock’s Beard and modern progressive music in general?
RO: Without InsideOut, we’d have nothing. Thomas was our tour manager for the first tour we ever did in Europe; he put it together and he was on the bus and all. We had such a good time. Each venue had 50 – 75 people, but every tour that followed in Europe—after every album—we’d have double what we had before. He really put us out there, so the label is everything to us. It wasn’t always such a big name in progressive music. Not when we started, but it worked out. I think we did something for their ten-year anniversary and fifteen-year one. Now it’s 25 years and he’s still like family.
DM: InsideOut is an oasis for prog music and they’re doing quite well with it. I think they must be the biggest progressive rock label currently. We’ve been with them from the beginning (except for X, which was on Mascot Records) and they’ve been really good to us. We look at them as friends as well as record label people. As far as how we relate to the label, I guess at this point we’d be called a “legacy band.” As Ryo said, one that’s not their biggest seller but has history and loyal following. The bands that are really selling albums and big numbers of live concert tickets are the newer, harder-edged progressive rock bands (the darker stuff, with lots of shredding). We’re definitely not that, but we still sell enough albums to keep going.
TL: For me, it’s the label that all four or five of my bands have been on. I think Enchant was the first band on the label, which is why the tenth anniversary show was Enchant and Spock’s Beard (with Nick singing) and California Guitar Trio. They’ve been a part of my life for the last twenty-five years. Thomas is a friend and he used to be able to beat me in tennis [laughs]. They’ve been a huge part of the whole scene, too. I guess a lot of the major—or midsize—people out there right now are on that label, like Haken, Devin Townsend, and King’s X. They’re a big part of the resurgence that prog saw in the early ‘90s. A lot of people would credit Dream Theater and then Spock’s Beard as bands that fueled it, too.
Dream Theater for progressive metal, for sure. When I think of the progressive rock side, I think of Spock’s Beard and a band close to where I live, Echolyn. Going back to the tour, how will you determine which band will open each night?
DM: I think TFK will open, not because Spock’s Beard want to be “The Headliners” or anything like that. It’s just that’s the way both bands preferred each night to be scheduled. I think it’s about eating and sleeping habits more than anything else [laughs]! With the setlists, we’ve already started arguing about that. Sometimes it’s quick and painless; this time, not so much.
TL: We’ve talked about alternating, though. I think Al would prefer to open in most cases because he loves to travel around town and see the sights. When you’re the opener, you don’t have to be there until the headliner is done soundcheck, so you get another hour and a half to hang out. I think we’re both doing 90 minutes, too, so it’s still a co-headlining show no matter who goes on first. I’m excited about it. Of course, I know Roine, and I think Jonas [Reingold] is playing with them; I’m not sure who else populates his band, but Jonas is always a hoot. Roine is always not [laughs].
TL: He’s just very serious and introspective. It’s hard to get him to really chat. Anyway, it’s a good package for the fans, and even though it’s a short tour, I think people from all over will try to make it.
Are there any plans to tour the United States?
DM: Sorry to say, no. It’s just too hard for us to get something together in the U.S. If we were in our 20s and were willing to drive a cargo van around for 18,500 miles on a tour and sleep in it on occasion (along with our gear), then we could make a U.S. tour work. We’re too old for that kind of thing, unfortunately, and if we try to get any fancier than that, we’ll lose money.
TL: There never really are, right? Well, Spock’s did an opening slot many years ago with Dream Theater, which is funny because there were all sorts of line-up conflicts that resulted in different guitarists and bassists. It’s just really difficult to make American tours work because of the costs involved and how far apart each gig is. Unless you’re flying between them, you better be playing to at least 1,200 people a night or you’ll lose your ass. The bands that hop in trailers are cool, but we’re too old for that. I’d do it, but I’m the youngster in the band at forty-six [laughs]. We’ll do one-offs, though, and festivals.
In keeping with the idea of playing with people, if you could work with any artist in the studio or on stage, whom would you pick?
RO: Sting. That’s it [laughs]. He’s so musical; he combines all types of music and he can sing and write and play. He’s incredible. Oh, and Stevie Wonder. Those two.
TL: I’d love to go out with Kansas. That’s always been a dream. I’ve gotten to play shows that they were also playing, though. If it’s totally hypothetical anyway, I’d love to play with Jellyfish. Spock’s Beard is kind of the Jellyfish of the prog world, with the melodic influences and all. I’ve heard Dave say that, too. I heard that Roger Manning and Andy Sturmer are thinking of doing it again, which is surprising because those guys really didn’t like each other.
Strong picks. Dave?
DM: I could have told you this in a heartbeat when I was younger, but at this point, I guess I’d say it would be whoever would provide the most comfortable, fun, and low-stress experience. To tell you the truth, at my advanced age, I don’t really get too excited about touring anymore. These days, it’s more about staying healthy and getting enough sleep than it is conquering the world like it used to be.