Neal Morse interview: "Every time you make an album you have to create it a fresh, or like this is the first album you've ever made"

04/09/2012 @ 14:48
I don’t think I have to say anything about Neal Morse. He’s an endless source of music, a real and in the same time great musician who has created his own legacy in the (progressive) rock music and continues to create non-stop in top level of inspiration and performing. We had the chance to talk about his solo career, Transatlantic, Flying Colors, Spock’s Beard, Mike Portnoy, Daniel Gildenlow, progressive rock music and even more. We all bow down in front of his talent...

Hi Neal! Once again I feel the need to the thank you for the never ending music you offer to all of your fans and followers. It’s become something precious and I am grateful.
Well, thank you very much! I’m grateful too. It’s wonderful to have people listening to your music that really care about it. I really appreciate that.

So, last time we spoke on the phone about two years ago, you had just released "The Whirlwind" with Transatlantic and you were planning the upcoming tour. I then told you that I considered the album a masterpiece. Now, with time passing by I can tell you that I think it’s the best progressive album that came out the last 20 years and one of the best ever made.
Wow! You think the Whirlwind is the best progressive album of the last 20 years, that’s saying a lot! Thank you! Well, we definitely felt some inspiration when it was going down. I’m really grateful for the meeting of the minds and the melding of ideas that happens with Transatlantic, I think it’s very special. We don’t always agree on everything about which direction the music should go in, but that’s part of it that makes it interesting. There were times when making the Whirlwind when I thought perhaps we were making choices that weren’t the best, but now it just becomes how it is and some of those things, I think worked out great and some of my favorite parts of the record. So, you know I’ve learned to let go and trust and I think the Whirlwind is a wonderful piece as well.

Neal MorseThe tour that followed was also epic and I guess it was a big success. On the "The Whirld Tour" DVD, each one of you shines more than has ever shined before. Was this tour really something special?
Oh yes, it was something special! A very special time. I felt like in a way we were all at the top of our game and I hope we still are, but yeah the Whirlwind Tour was really an interesting time. I learned a lot on that tour. I learned about listening. The audiences were amazing and the band was just great. It was just a real blessed time, I’m very grateful for that.

I guess finally "The Whirlwind" gave Transatlantic the status they deserved from the first two albums, as now people talk about that super project that overcomes all other. Do you feel that you went to the next commercial level with this album and tour?
I don’t know about commercial level. Transatlantic always seemed to sell pretty well. The tour was more well attended than, I think the last tour we had done. We sold out several shows and that was something that we hadn’t done before, so that was pretty exciting. But the record sales were, oh I think maybe just a little bit more than before, but not a lot more. But I’m more interested in the creative levels and the spiritual levels and all of that, and I think we really soared in those areas.

If it is true, then I can’t help but asking why not making Transatlantic more active? I mean the main constraint was Mike’s tight schedule, but now without Dream Theater it has to be easier. I think Roine mentioned at some point that he needs just a nod. What’s keeping you from doing it? It seems right, the chemistry seems to be better than ever and people would love to see Transatlantic more often.
Well, we were going to get together, we were trying to get together to work on a new record this month actually, but it just didn’t seem to work out with the different schedules with the people in the band. So my thought about it is, it will happen when it’s supposed to happen and to try not to push too much on it and just let things unfold. Of course, Mike has quit Dream Theater, but he is now very busy with other many different projects. Pete is also very busy. Generally the scheduling problem with Transatlantic is with Pete and Mike because they tend to be the busiest.

Neal MorseThe DVD from London is simply magnificent. One of the best shows ever captured on DVD. And I haven’t heard anybody’s voice combined better with yours than Daniel’s Gildenlow’s. There are parts that I can’t even describe how wonderful they sound, like on "Camouflaged In Blue" for example. Have you considered collaborating with him or making him a member of the group?
Yes, Daniel is awesome! Isn’t he great? What an amazing talent and what a wonderful guy! He’s actually really funny too, in addition to being a great musician and singer and writer as well. He’s a lot of fun to hang out with. To my knowledge Transatlantic has never really talked about adding him as a permanent member. I think we generally have thought, when making our records, that the four of us was boarding on too many chefs in the kitchen already. I think that we’ve generally thought it to be creatively pretty full. In fact sometimes there’s a challenge getting everyone’s ideas in there. I wouldn’t anticipate that, but Daniel is great.

Then it seems that your relationship with Mike Portnoy has come closer than ever. He still plays on all your solo albums and you made Flying Colors together. He mentioned that you were one of his closest friends that helped him get over his departure from Dream Theater, with the "Testimony 2" sessions being a healing process for him. How do you see your connection? What did you advise him during that period?
Yes, Mike’s a great friend and a great person. We had a really nice time together when I flew up to his house last month to work on the commentary on his Testimony 2 Drum Cam DVD. And it’s always good to be with him. I think mostly how I helped Mike through his Dream Theater departure we were working together quite a bit, and that was nice. It’s good to stay busy and to keep the creative juices flowing, but I also contacted him a lot just to see how he was doing and to make sure he was ok. And it’s always nice to know that people care about you. 'We all get by with a little help from our friends', to quote the Beatles. And I also prayed for him a lot and still am and I think that helps and makes a big difference.

Neal MorseThen, "Testimony 2" is once again a fantastic album. How come you went back to continue your story? Weren’t you afraid that people would compare it with the first one and it would be a difficult task to create something equally good?
Yes, I was concerned about repeating myself and also with people comparing it to the first one and it not being as good. But I had to lay all of that aside and just go for it, you know like I usually do. You know, everytime you make an album you have to try and cast off any comparing to anything else that you’ve done, because that can always haunt you and you can often feel like what you are doing is as never good as the past. So everytime you have to create it a fresh, or like this is the first album you’ve ever made. And to continue my story, it was a suggestion from a friend of mine in Holland, he sent me an email when I was in the valley of decision about what these pieces of music and where this thing was going. I had a feeling like it wanted to be something, but I wasn’t sure what it was and I got this email and it said, 'Hey, have you thought about doing a "Testimony 2"? The apostle Paul gives his testimony 3 times in the book of Acts.' And so I prayed about that and I considered that and I began to feel like yeah, I began to feel that kick inside, that wind at my back to yes that this was the right thing to do. So that was why I went on ahead with it and I think it was a very blessed time, a very blessed year. Touring it was great, so I’m just very thankful.

Have you ever considered that you over-expose yourself to the world with your solo albums, especially the ones talking straight about your life? I mean, not all people have the best of intentions. And on the other hand, you could pass your messages easily through stories like you did on "Sola Scriptura" or like you did on "The Whirlwind" which I believe is a deeply spiritual album...
It is funny, or maybe funny isn’t the right word is a different experience to tell your personal story in song, like I do on "Testimony" and "Testimony 2". It’s great actually, because a very honest sharing of your experience from a very real place and I know that people can get that. When I’m singing about Jayda’s healing in the song "Jayda" from "Testimony 2" for example, the audience can feel that this is a reality, at least for me this is my experience. And I think that’s great, I think that’s what we really desire from artists is to share something authentic. So it’s been a real blessing, but it’s been a challenge sometimes, you can feel very exposed.

Then I also read your biography and it really gives another point of view on who you are and how things shaped you as you are today. Won’t it be weird when your children read the book? Or have they done already?
My kids are so busy reading for their school work, they’re both in advanced classes in like, History and English and they still haven’t read my book. They think of reading as only something that you do in school. But I’m sure they’ll get around to it eventually and they’ve heard almost all of that before anyway because we’ve travelled around to a lot of places where I’ve given my testimony, so I don’t think they’ll be shocked by anything in there.

Neal MorseHow did you decide to have two different backing bands on your "Testimony 2" tour for the US and the European part? You do change a lot of musicians from one tour to another. Is it difficult to keep a steady band playing with you? How do you find all these awesome musicians every time?
I don’t know how I find all of these awesome people! Isn’t it amazing! Well, the American band, I put together from people that I’d worked with before mainly, with a few exceptions. You know, I had added a few people. But the European band, Collin put together and all I can say is that we were just really blessed. I mean he added Ben, the violinist just in the last 3 weeks before the tour started, he just found him and he was such an amazing find. I mean what a great band. I’m hoping to be able to put a few things out from that European run because it was just great.

To be honest, when I got the latest DVD "Testimony 2 - Live In Los Angeles" in my hands I was skeptic  about it, cause I already got so many DVDs from you that I thought 'oh well, what more could this one offer?' and when I saw it I finally said 'He did again! How did he manage to do it again?!?'. It’s like you are a 'maestro' on stage with great musicians following you on a top level and each time it’s unique. How demanding is all this to come out so good?
Well, I’m really glad that you appreciate it and enjoy it because I worked very, very hard on it. In fact, I put more time into that production, "Testimony 2-Live in Los Angeles" than any other live DVD or concert release I’ve ever done in my career because I mixed it. I touched it up and I for the first time, did all the editing decisions. I made all the editing points and so there’s good things about that and bad things about that. If you like it, then it’s good. But also, if people didn’t like it some of the split screens, then well it’s my baby, it’s all my fault. So I take the credit and the blame. But I’m really glad you were blessed by it. Yeah, I don’t know how it keeps being so good over and over. I’m always thinking that I’ll run out of gas at some point, frankly. And I mean that creatively, not energy wise or anything like that. I just mean, that creatively I’ll just be written out or however you want to put it. But God keeps giving over and over. I have to give God the glory because I feel like he is the one that inspired and is really the wind behind the whole thing, he’s the power behind the whole thing. And if you tap into that, you’ll never run out, because he never runs out. So that is really exciting!

Neal MorseAlso on the DVD, there’s your 'reappearance' with Spock’s Beard on High Voltage festival. How did it really feel?
It was really fun to play with Spock’s Beard at High Voltage, it was a gas actually! It was a real lift. I mean I love to see the guys. I was really excited that most of them came to my set the previous day because I don’t think they’d heard "Testimony 2", even though they sang on that part, I doubt that they sat and listened to the whole thing, ya know. So I was really glad to be there and to sing about what was going on with me and why I quit. To be singing about those things to them was a real thrill for me. Yeah, it was great! High Voltage is always a really good festival. And the only thing that was a little strange for me was I had to wait back behind the stage while they were playing their set and it’s just kind of funny to hear some of the songs that I had written, played while just standing behind the stage just listening to them play. It was a little bit surreal, but I came out and did the end of "The Light" and "June" and it was all good. I really enjoyed it, they’re really great guys.

I continue to be a huge fan of their music after your departure and to be honest I’m glad that they continued and did so great. But, after Nick’s departure it doesn’t make any sense to me keeping the Spock’s Beard name. I don’t mean to be disrespectful and I truly believe they’ll come out with great music, but hey 'this ain’t Spock’s Beard'. What’s your point of view on that? You should have an opinion, it’s your legacy there...
Well, I think the world of Ted and of course I love Nick as well. I think that they’ll do great! I hope that they do, it’s not really any of my control anymore. I’m just pulling for them. I actually got together with my brother Al, last month to write some music with him for their new album. So I’m hopeful that’ll be a really good one.

I’d like you to ask a few questions about you new project Flying Colors. I was sent the promo a few days ago and I can’t stop listening to it. Fantastic job once again! Amazing! For me it’s pretty obvious that most of the melodies came out from Neal’s head? Am I right?
Actually not. It was a real melting pot, a real meeting of the minds with Flying Colors and so I wouldn’t say that any one person stood at the helm any more than anyone else. It was a very mixed bag of involvement from all the players and also from the producer, Peter Collins, he added a lot too. So no, I can’t take credit for it. I’m really glad you like it.

Neal MorseIt must be the first time you take a role that’s not on the spotlight in any band you‘ve been. How does it feel to have that role?  I bet it is going to be even more difficult for you on stage. You can’t let the microphone for anyone else! Really, do you plan any live appearances?
Well, we’re working on trying to schedule some live dates. There’s a real scheduling problem. Lots of issues with Steve’s schedule with Deep Purple and all the things that Mike is doing and everything that is going on with everyone. So I’m hoping that we can pull it together and do some dates and that it will be great. It will be really different, but I look forward to that. I’m looking forward to trying on a different hat and seeing how it fits.

It’s not new to you being with a Morse in one band, but it is weird he is not your brother, hehe. How come you collaborated with Steve? What came first, the Flying Colors or his appearance on "Testimony 2"? I always believed that Steve needed a great songwriter to support him ...and here you are.
Well, I just really felt to collaborate with Steve. He was having some PR work done by some guy that does PR for me, whose name is Bill Evans. Bill had suggested that we work together. He had mentioned that Steve had wanted to work with me and so again I prayed about it and I began to feel like it was something that the Lord wanted me to do. So we went back and forth for a long time trying to get together. And finally he told me that he had a two day window that he was free if I wanted to fly down to Florida to write with him, that I could. I remember feeling like, if you don’t go now, it may not ever happen. So I flew down there and drove to his house, which was quite a journey. You know, I think he lives about an hour and a half to a two hour drive from any near airport. And I sat with him and wrote for two days and really had a great time and we really clicked and it was very interesting and different for me. It was a great honor to work with the great Steve Morse. That was really how it began and then Flying Colors happened the following year.

Neal MorseOn "Fool In My Heart" I have the feeling you’ve been playing some Beatles tunes with Mike once again and you just came with a song. Then, there are elements from modern bands like Muse. Are you familiar with that stuff? Do you have any favorite tune on the album?
Yes, there’s lots of different styles represented on the Flying Colors album. I thought "Fool In My Heart" was kind of Beatleish. I had written that on my own. I think all that we added was Casey’s bridge and Steve came up with that little intro thing. But I thought it was cool, for me I think I wrote "Fool In My Heart" at that time I’d been playing, my son Wil had really gotten into the "Sgt Pepper" album and he and I had been playing "Sgt Pepper's" and "With A Little Help from My Friends". So yeah, "Fool In My Heart" is a little bit like to me "Help From My Friends" and to have Mike sing it was really cool. Do I have a favorite song on the album? I like "Kayla" a lot. I like "Better Than Walking Away" a lot. I like "The Storm" a lot and I like "Infinite Fire" very much. You know, it’s hard for me to pick favorites, there’s a lot of good stuff on there.

I bet you have your next project already inside your head. Can you tell us what you are thinking about?
As a matter of fact, it’s not just in my head any more. It was two weeks ago, but I’ve written a new progressive album that will be release in the fall of this year. The working title of the album is “Momentum”. Mike just arrived last night and Randy is here and we are going to begin cutting tracks today.

So, in retrospect, after all this music you‘ve created, I believe that you are the greatest musician in progressive rock music for the last 20 years. I guess, it’s you or Steven Wilson, but I’d give my vote to you. Don’t take it as a compliment, it’s the truth! So, who would be your favorite prog musicians for the last 20 years?
I guess it would be Spock’s Beard, Flower Kings. I’ve heard a lot of really cool things too, but I’m just not that hip to all of the names of everything, I should keep up on it more. I really like some of the things I’ve heard from “Frost”. They seem like they are really really good. And there’s some other small Indie prog bands that I’ve been thinking are really really cool, that band, what’s the one from Russia that kind of sounds like Spock’s Beard? I thought that was really good, what was it called, like “Circus” or something. Yeah, I thought they were really good, whatever their name is. I don’t remember it right now.

This time there were strong rumors of you coming to Greece for a concert but it never happened. Was it really discussed? How possible is it to come here in the near future?
We would love to come to Greece and play. It’s just a matter of getting the right promoter, and getting everything together you know so it will work for us to come. I don’t ever recall getting a solid offer from Greece last year, there might have been one and it just slipped my mind, but you know when you’re figuring out a tour there’s a lot of things to consider. Travel time and travel costs and all of that stuff. So it’s often very difficult for us to get to all of the places that we’d like to go, but we’d love to come there some day. You sort it out and we’ll show up!

Neal MorseSo Neal, I once again thank you from the bottom of my heart. As a loyal fan -for more than a decade-  I feel grateful about the music you’ve offered, but also for being a person who stands so strong on his beliefs. You’ve helped people without knowing it...
Well thank you man! That is so nice of you to say! I’m really grateful to have people like you who are listening and considering what I’m saying in my lyrics and considering God and all that he has to offer for everyone. So it’s all good man! Thank you very much!

Hope to meet you one day. Till then, keep doing what you do.
Hope to meet you too one day man! Alright, well you can count on it, we’ll keep it up, we’re starting in today! Alright, all the best to you and all the fans in Greece. God bless you!