The Neal Morse Band

"To always try things and never really know what's going to fly. That's the real 'Grand Experiment'"
on Fri, 02/06/2015 - 12:10
The Neal Morse Band

Neal Morse's unstoppable creativity gives us the chance to talk with him a lot and we'd never miss a chance. Especially, when he returns with a new challenge, like the formation of his solo band, along with which he composed and releases the amazing new album "The Grand Experiment". Read below what was different this time around and all the interesting things he had to say.

Hi Neal. I hope you're fine. It's always a pleasure and a privilege to talk with you. After all, you're one my musical heroes.

Oh, thank you man!

I guess with all this creativity you have, you need new challenges for yourself to keep everything you do fresh and interesting, right? And having your own band is something new to you...

Oh, yes, this was totally new. We had never got together and collaborated, not in this way before, not even with Mike and Randy. The closest thing that maybe I've ever done, that was collaborative as this, was Flying Colors. But, even then, Flying Colors uses a lot of stuff and bases of things that are created before we got together, song ideas that we already have. This was really coming fresh with nothing, it was collaborating in the room, although we did use some bits that we had from before and ideas that we brought in and we liked. But, generally, it was very collaborative, very exciting.

You've been playing together for some time and you've toured together with these guys, so did you have any ideas that came from being on the road and you've been showing to each other or did everything come out of nowhere in the studio?

It was pretty much coming out of nowhere. In fact, I got some demos of things before we got together, but we didn't really work on any of those. So, we just wind up doing what we did...

Mike Portnoy and Randy George have been on your side on almost all the records you've done, at least the prog/regular ones. Was their role different this time around?

Yeah, it was different because we had Bill and Eric collaborating with and that changed the whole dynamic. In fact, many of the albums that Mike, Randy and I have done together, I already had 99% of the album already written. They would just come in and help me in a few things, maybe add a couple things, kind of arrangement stuff... And that was actually their contribution. So, it's definitely a different experience and a very good, very heart full, I'm very happy with that.

Now, I'd like to know what keeps your relationship with Mike fresh. You've made many albums together, he's in your band for more than ten years and of course you are both in Transatlantic and Flying Colors as well. That's a collaboration you rarely find between musicians...

It's a real blessing you know. We do seem to get along musically and personally and he's a great friend and a great musician, no question...

Some people tend to say that he's not the easiest person to work with. I guess that's not the case with you. Do you feel that apart from any musical connection, you're helping him on a spiritual level with your friendship?

Well, yes. I think there's something spiritual going on in our friendship for sure. I'm really thankful for that. It's true, Mike can be demanding at times. You have to know and you have to learn to not give him too much direction early in the day for example... (laughs) And by early I mean like 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon... (laughs) But, pretty much, he produces himself. It took me a while to get used to that. I would start giving him instructions on what I wanted to hear and sometimes that was kind of frustrating for both of us I think. And now I've learned that if I just kind of let him go, ultimately when he makes himself happy, I'll be happy. I have to let him try things and discover things on his own and not give him too much direction.

You know, dealing with people in the studio is like a real art form. Just like trying to help people and knowing how to help them get the best performance and all that. It can be really interesting and everybody is different, so you have to work with people and get their way. But, Mike is incredible. Most times, I just stand back and watch him work, it's incredible.

Now, Eric and Bill have done an amazing job on the album. What was their overall contribution and which parts that they offered you love the most on the album?

Let's see... Well, Bill is very well represented as a composer on this album. One of my favorite themes, one of my favorite parts of the whole album is the beginning of the album, with the vocals and then that sort of classical -I don't know what to call it- the instrumental section that starts the album. That was actually something that Bill had, it was a section of something else that we kind of pulled out and in the end this piece is now called "The Call". That would be one of my favorite contributions that Bill made.

My favorite contribution that Eric made is the chorus to "Alive Again". He kind of had that idea 'I'm alive again' (editor: sings the melody of the chorus) and we worked on it. I wrote some extra words for it and it turned out great.

The Neal Morse Band

I think what really gives extra boost to this album is the work you've collectively done on vocals. The harmonies are just awesome. How much work does it take to come up with great vocal harmonies? Would you consider this element as basic in your songwriting approach?

Yeah, first of all, my dad was a choir director. I grew up listening and singing harmonies. Most of the groups that I liked where very vocal harmony oriented, from The Beatles, to Yes, to Crosby, Stills & Nash and on and on. Harmonies have been something that I always loved, so yes it's a part of my music approach and also it's very important to the other guys as well. Harmonies are very important for us, yeah.

Did other members contribute on lyrics as well? Some songs have the trademark spiritual themes of yours, but others are quite different like "Agenda" for example. What did you draw inspiration from this time?

We just got together and started throwing things against the wall, sort of speak, so to just see what felt good. Of course, I am always inspired by my thoughts about God and Jesus, so all those thoughts kind of made their way in there. Bill is also a christian and so that's an inspiration for him as well. And so is Eric.

"Agenda" is actually a song that I had written before we got together, the only one that I brought in and they actually wanted to do... (laughs). I don't think we changed it much from my original version; we just kind of went out from what I already had. I wrote that song last year, during the "Songs From November" writing period...

So, that's maybe why it's kind of different from the rest of the stuff...

Yeah, sure... That's actually different, because the approach was totally different. Even for me as a songwriter it's kind of a different song... Sometimes different things just come out, you know...

I just saw that you're shooting a video for it. Two videos from one single album must be kind of a new record for you! Tell me about it...

Well, yeah, it's cool, cause my son Chad he was editing and filming stuff out in California, but he's moved to Nashville now and I was telling him that we could do a better video for "Agenda" and he said 'let's see what I can come up with', you know... So, we tried some really crazy stuff and I think it's going to turn really cool, but I'll let you know...

It's no surprise that you have another epic song with "Alive Again" and it's once again awesome. I think you're the best by far in composing such epic songs and making them flow so easily. Does it come natural to you? When do you know you're heading for an epic song like that?

Well, when we're coming together, Mike has a lot of ideas about that. Mike's really good at putting pieces together to create epics and he's been doing that with Transatlantic for years. I don't know, it's hard to describe, you're just on a journey, it's like an adventure and take turns that you feel are good. And if everybody agrees that it's a good way to go, you're going to go that way, till you feel you need to take another turn and you need to figure which way to go and people throw their ideas about 'let's do it this way', 'oh no, let's go this way' and eventually something flies and everyone agrees that it's good and we'll go towards that direction. Eventually, you decide it's time to end it... (laughs). It's really a 'Grand Experiment'.

So this is the actual "Grand Experiment" in the album?

Well, the whole album is a "Grand Experiment", really. I mean creativity and experiment. You're always trying things and you never really know what's going to fly and that's good. You feel good, you like it. Ultimately, it's hard to say. Only try and see if you've made something great or not.

...and that's when I realize I haven't yet congratulate you for the new album, which is great. But, I guess you must have understood that I really like the album and I consider it as one of your best efforts in the last years...

Thank you, thank you so much! I'm so glad!

Talking about epics, I sometimes I get the feeling that parts of the song could easily stand out as single tracks. Do you ever think of taking parts out of the context and make them separate songs, let's say for the needs of a live show? Or is a piece meant to be performed as a whole?

We talk about that sometimes, when we're working on a piece. Like, for example, "Waterfall" I think, we've talked about putting that in another epic, put that in something else, and I said 'I think this song should be a standalone song'. We have to make those choices and ultimately you just shoot from the hip and just go for it.

The Neal Morse Band - The Grand Experiment

You mentioned "Waterfall" and my next question was about it. This time around the acoustic piece is not a typical ballad, but it gives me the vibes of more American music, more Nashville country stuff. You live in Nashville and it's considered the capital of country music and in times you've proved you can play excellent country as well. Do you think that the environment there influenced you?

No, I never even thought about that. To me I thought it was more like a Crosby, Still & Nash or Genesis kind of song. I don't know, I never really think about that. Actually, it was very collaborative. Bill brought most of the chorus and I think I contributed the verse and some other words, but I wasn't thinking of country at all...

Well, it's obviously not country, but for some reason I got this idea stuck and probably I was wrong...

(laughs) Well, that's alright.

Since you live in Nashville, would you see yourself making a country album, so that maybe more people in your hometown will take notice of your great talent?

(laughs) Nooooo... I mean... I've written some country songs and I think they're good. I could see maybe having an actual country artist to record them, sing my songs. But, I should never try to sound like a country artist. I just don't sound like that authentic at all...

Alright, you know better, but I was thinking about it when I was watching Dave Grohl's documentary and it came to Nashville. I kept thinking that he wasn't aware of the best musician in this town...

Oh, thank you...

You cannot continue to ignore the fact that you're considered among the leaders of progressive rock music and one of the most important personalities of the genre. Yet, it seems that no matter how successful prog is becoming, there is a limited number of people actually supporting it by going to gigs and buying records. Do you agree? How do you view it from the inside?

Well, to be honest, I'm just thankful. Aside of the business side of things and how many people show up and all that, I'm just really grateful that there is an audience for this kind of music. The Lord has made it possible for me to be a part of it and for me to just create music from nowhere, music that I love and to have completely artistic freedom and be able to make a living doing it. I mean, it's the greatest thing ever. So, I am just really thankful that there is a prog audience at all. So, thank you!

I had the chance to be at the Transatlantic show in Berlin and talk with Pete and he told me that you're having bigger audiences with each tour. You do tour a lot with Transatlantic, Flying Colors and your solo band, do you agree that more people are attending the shows and get interested in this kind of music?

Well, there has been an up selling, especially with the Transatlantic tour, which did quite well. We headlined Lorelei and there were 3,000 people or what it was... For a prog band, a new band -I mean not one from the '70s- that's pretty good. So, I feel good about everything that is happening...

Now, how was MorseFest? Some fans of you all over the world would love to have attended such a gig and we can only imagine how nice it must have been. Tell us a few things on why you decided to do, how did it go and if you're planning to do it again...

I'd love to do it again. We're talking about doing it again next fall and it was great! It was really well attended and the band was amazing, the facility was great, the fellowship and the camaraderie of all the people... We spent a lot of time together, we did a worship service the one day and two different VIP meetings, we did the 'name that tune' gaming... It was just really fun and really rich, great, spiritual and musical experience...

Would it be possible to do something as special as that for your fans in Europe maybe?

Yeah, we've talked about it. I don't know. It's something I've been thinking about.

So, you're soon heading for a tour with The Neal Morse Band. What should your fans expect from this tour?

Oh man, the most amazing music and thrilling musicianship, great songs, great quality of sound, I think it's going to be really-really good. Not to be missed...

Before we end this conversation I'd like to ask you something different. Some people claim that artists shouldn't over-produce music, trim the fat of their ideas and present only the best of them, so as to build a better reputation for themselves. I trust you don't agree with this argument and I don't agree also. The musician is meant to compose, record and perform music, not to play over and over again the same things. What's your position on this?

I think everybody should do what they feel to do. There's a time for all things. For me, it's all about being the will of God musically. I think that's where the best results will happen. That's what I am trying to do, even if it doesn't make sense. Sometimes, if it doesn't make sense to us, we'll say 'oh, you shouldn't do that'. But I feel that this is what the Lord wants me to do, then that's what I have to do.

I think your choices have been proven right and your fans should feel grateful for them...

Well, thank you Chris. I appreciate that...