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Progressive Rock Interviews

Neal Morse

Interviewed by Bob Cooper
Interview With Neal Morse From 2003
MSJ: This interview is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2003 Year Book Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.


Editor's Note: As many of you probably know, shortly after this interview was conducted, Morse announced his decision to leave the music profession. He will be sorely missed, and this is most likely one of his last interviews in that capacity.
MSJ: Do you guys ever plan on playing in Portland, Oregon? I don't recall you ever playing here before.
No. We'll never play Portland as long as we live. Actually, it is hard to say when we will play there, because the west coast is kind of spread out. We did make it to LA and Sacramento this last time, but no further north. But I would love to play up there. I actually played up there a couple times with Eric Burdon. I can't remember where we played, but we did.
MSJ: Sure, it is pretty much the thing to do to just rent a van and hit the Seattle/Portland/Vancouver BC stretch as a sort of low-budget vacation, and it's kind of cool. I know there is interest in Spocks Beard up here. I suppose the main buzz now is your new cd Snow. I had heard of SB when a friend turned me on to your V album, and suspected this one would be as good, but I am just blown away at this whole album. Not only do I appreciate the concept album format, but I believe this is some of your best material to date, and it has a major grip on me, much as Quadrophenia did when it came out. I know I am going out on a limb by comparing the two, but it really has a strong story. And I didn't even hear all of the album-just the one-cd version.
Oh, you have to hear the whole thing.
MSJ: That is all that the record company sent me, and now I hear there is even a special version with bonus material that I have to seek out. Anyway, Snow seems to be the story of an albino kid who goes through many trials and victories. What else can you tell me about the story?
Well, it's actually the story of Scarface put to music, in a way. The first single is going to be "You Cockaroach". Wow- you are the only person I've said that to. It must be getting late in the day.
MSJ: An exclusive!
Actually, it's the story of an albino kid who has been blessed with the psychic gift of healing, and spiritual vagueness. (laughs) He has the gift of spiritual vagueness!
MSJ: Hey, that is something that many strive for but rarely attain!
Yeah, so he goes to the big city to heal people and help people, and he can see into peoples' lives and see events that will hurt them, and somehow through this they are healed. He more or less brings them into the presence of God, and he starts this big organization. Then on the second disc he falls and becomes a street person himself. His friends find him and lift him back up and bring him back to God in the end.
MSJ: With all this story line going on, have you or anyone else thought to make a film based on the story?
No, I have not. And I would not want anything to do with it if someone did. Making the record was hard enough. It was a lot of work, and it seemed endless. It was the thing that wouldn't die.
MSJ: Well, for my money it was not a waste of time at all, and your pain and labor really paid off. It seems like things that are difficult to work on sometimes have the greatest rewards if you stick to it.
Yeah, it can be. That's true. I remember talking to the president of our label in Europe when I was really up against it, and saying, "what is going on". I mean things were going on with this record that were insane. Big reels of takes of vocals that were mysteriously erased. They were just blank, and the safety copies were blank as well, and nobody knows how it happened. I had to re-sing most of it. Even starting at the very beginning. Last year I flew out to work on the album. Nick was deathly sick and couldn't do any work, so I was going to fly home. That was on September 11th. So I ended up having to drive 2000 miles back to Nashville. See what I mean? And even up in mastering we got the master discs and some of them would play and some of them wouldn't play right. And I noticed these bubbles on the discs…weird. So I was telling this German record company guy who is a friend of mine about all of these things, and I was just going off and ranting, and he goes, "oh, this is very good". So I say "What??" He says every record that he has ever worked on that are a supreme pain usually turn out doing very well.
MSJ: Sure - no pain, no gain. Now you have to work on getting some radio play so people will get to know the music, which isn't all that easy when most stations are hung up on that playlist crap, and are afraid to stray into actual good music for fear of being shunned by the villagers, so they play this garbage that they are probably paid off to play while the good music goes unnoticed.
Well, the sad thing is it has always been that way.
MSJ: Our only solace is the renegade radio stations who have that night time DJ who is willing to risk his job to sneak us some of the good stuff, and those brave souls are the foot soldiers that will someday turn things around for prog rock, and all music that has thought invested in it rather that hopes of extreme wealth attached to it. I could go on forever.
That's true, and that is the secret to getting radio play. You have to get that one guy somewhere who is bold enough to play the record a lot, whatever it is. And then it has to create a buzz, so that then everybody else will get on board if somebody else has tried it and it works. The trouble is finding that guy.
MSJ: I see that same scenario here with the local bands that are trying to venture out and be heard, and it really is difficult but necessary to get some airplay. But here you are an established band, and have been around since 1992.
Yeah, I think we started out in '91 actually, but we didn't put out our record until '95.
MSJ: Was it all the same lineup as it is now?
Hmmm…actually we were only using Ryo only as a hired hand at the live shows, and he just got into our blood so we put him in the band, and now look at us.
MSJ: What is in the plans next? Will you tour this album more or take a break, or just keep writing more stuff?
We don't actually have any tours lined up just yet, but we are working on that. We have had some scheduling problems, and I don't want to make any commitments until we know exactly what is going on.
MSJ: As for the songs on Snow, did you first make demos at home before bringing them into the band?
Yeah, I did. Some of the songs are actually pretty old like Solitary Soul and Wind At My Back are several years old. So is Carrie. I wrote those on the Spocks Beard tour bus in Europe several years ago. I knew I wanted to work them in, so I started to work up this framework. I went through a lot of different periods and changes in the time since, and it has evolved into the mass that you now have before you. You have heard the whole thing, haven't you?
MSJ: No, all I have is the abbreviated single disc version that the publicist sent me, but it has a strong selection of tunes, the favorites of mine being Second Overture, Fourth Of July, and I'm The Guy. I especially love the feel of these tunes, and they should become SB classics.
Yeah, I'm The Guy was one that was real spontaneous for me to write, and it seems like it wrote itself.
MSJ: Throughout the record is a decisively Beatle-esque feel.
Yes, the slide guitar is very George-esque for sure.
MSJ: And Second Overture…definitely a Yes influence there, as well as a bit of Kansas. Would it be accurate to say that the prog sound was an influence in your musical development?
Definitely - Yes was my primary prog band. Yes first, then I think ELP next, and then Genesis and Gentle Giant, then King Crimson came a little later. Then of course Zappa and The Who, Led Zeppelin, and many others had my attention.
MSJ: Do you consider yourself more of a guitar player or a keyboard player?
I am more of a keyboardist, really. I play much more keyboards. In Spocks particularly, as I only play the acoustic guitar stuff. My brother Al plays all the electric guitar stuff. In writing I do dabble in guitars, just to try ideas from that viewpoint.
MSJ: Do you have other projects outside the Spocks realm that you are working on?
Yes, I am in Transatlantic with Mike Portnoy from Dream Theatre and Roine from the Flower Kings and Pete from Marillion. I have that and I also have three solo albums. Neal Morse- Neal Morse, It's Not Too Late, and a Christmas album. All of that stuff is available at www.RadiantRecords.com, which is my record company's website. Really, to try to support a family in a niche genre like this, you kind of have to have a lot of feelers out there. Do you know what I mean? It kind of all adds up to a living, and any one thing on it's own would not do it.
MSJ: It sure doesn't hurt to delve where you can. The solo albums are a necessity that many artists put off until they have nothing else to do, but they are a key part of defining you as a musician. Sure-everyone knows you are in a band, but it isn't always clear which members are responsible for which sounds and it's not until you hear one of the guys isolated that you begin to see the picture. Yes was that way with me. They sounded so big and busy, but it wasn't until they started releasing their solo stuff that I began to appreciate each ones individual contributions. Being very analytical by nature, I love to see my favorite bands in their dissected forms. So having your own record company must facilitate that well for you. What made you start Radiant Records?
I wanted to have a little more hands-on with my career. I wanted to do more of the things myself rather than wonder whether or not someone else was doing their job, and to have more control. And I needed to do whatever I could do to make a little more money to support my family instead of paying someone to do what I wanted done. For a while I was on tour with the Eric Burdon Band, and I didn't really like being away from my kids, so I wanted to quit that so I could find other ways of supplementing my income. So that was the main reason and doing solo albums was another. So then Transatlantic came along and it all worked out, praise God. I am really grateful for that.
MSJ: Did you actually start Transatlantic, or is that Mike's band?
Mike was the instigator, but I've come into somewhat of a leadership role as well. We are all pretty proud of that band, and with pride comes a sort of ownership I suppose.
 
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