This album is going to stand the test of a time and be a classic
Ι consider Neal Morse one of the most important current artists in rock music and judging from his musical contributions I think he should be recognized as "classic", at least in the field of progressive rock. His decision to form The Neal Morse Band a couple of years ago, helped him reach for something bigger and he achieves it with the stellar new album, "The Similitude Of A Dream". Maybe it’s time for this band to get the recognition it deserves. Let’s see what Neal himself has to say about it.
Hi Neal. How are you doing?
Good! How are you?
I’m fine and having the chance to talk with you makes it even better.
Every time I have the chance to talk to you, before the actual interview begins I feel the need to thank you for your music and everything you stand for. Especially lately, you’ve been there with your music through some really somber days. So, thank you!
Wonderful! Praise the Lord! I’m so glad to hear that.
Well, let’s get straight to the point. I want to congratulate you for your brilliant new album. How do you feel about it?
Oh, I feel great about it man!
If I am not mistaken, it’s the first album of yours that’s not released through Inside Out. How come this collaboration ended?
Oh, wow, no one is asking me about that! I’ve been wondering when someone was gonna ask me about that... (laughs)
Well, it seemed to me like it was time. There were a couple of business issues that I don’t really want to go into, but I just felt like it was the right time for us to venture out with Metal Blade. We’ve been going with Metal Blade in the States, so now we’re going with Metal Blade/Sony worldwide. It’s a better deal for us. We love the people at Inside Out, we’re very thankful for them and the collaboration that we had, but we felt that it was time to move on.
As you may understand Mike’s praising words for the new album have got everyone excited and raised the bar of expectations. How did you feel when you read his post and about the buzz it created?
I was kind of amazed and I’m a little bit different... Well, of course, I am different than he is... we are all different, of course (laughs). But, I am a little bit fearful to build something up too much and then feel I might let people down. If you tell somebody “you’ve got to see this movie, it’s the greatest movie ever” then they might not like it as well, as if you tell them to watch it with an open mind. Sometimes you can build people up. So, my concern was that he was gonna build people up too much and then, you know... it wouldn’t be as great as they were thinking. I can’t believe the things he said about that. That’s Mike, that’s what he thinks...
But, I think it’s great too. I don’t know if I would say the things that he said. They were “wow”, over the top. Comparing it to “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway”, “Tommy” and all that. I prefer to leave all these in the ears of the listener.
I can speak as I listener I guess and I can be considered a bit heretic, because I don’t find it strange comparing your works to older classics, as in my books you are already a classic artist in rock music, so that’s fair enough...
Oh, great! Thank you!
And that’s the first thing I’m asked about the album. “Is it as good as Mike says?”. And even though I think people can misunderstand it and be a subjective matter, I think Mike has a point. It’s in the league with these albums...
Wow! Wow! Well, that’s great. You know, this is one of the first interviews I’m doing and I’m excited, because so far everyone I’ve talked to has felt the same way, so it seems we’re on a really good road.
I have tried to dig deep to your discography over the years and if I had to I’d characterize the new album as a mix of “Snow”, “One” and “Sola Scriptura”. Would you agree with that mix?
Oh, I don’t know... Well, I try not to compare my albums. People ask me a lot about that, about comparing albums. To me they’re kind of like children, you love each one. But, I can see that. I can see the heavy elements like in “Sola Scriptura”. The thing that I could see it has in common with “Snow” and “Testimony” is the song part. I feel like “Similitude Of A Dream” has a lot really strong songs and that’s important. I think this album is going to stand the test of a time and be a classic. I really do.
The album is loosely based on John Bunyan’s “A Pilgrim’s Progress” and you… deliver it under “The Similitude Of A Dream”. Please tell me why you decided to write a concept based on this book and what was different in your approach?
The thing about going from the book is it gives you ideas; it gives you inspiration. For example - this happened many times during the writing - we would come up to a point where we didn’t know which direction to go, so we’d look at the book and go like “well, what happens with the guy next? Oh, next he meets Sloth!”. Or something like that. So, we were like “Oh, what would Sloth sound like? Okay, it needs to slow down”.
Or what would it sound like when the guy gets the pack off his back for the first time? And you think “Oh man, it would be so exciting! He’d start running, right?”. If you’re used to be in way down and you are having trouble walking and then this tremendous weight gets lifted off of you, you’ll probably shoot off running... So, I wrote “I’m Running”.
So, that’s the value of having some kind of a story to write from. It gives you a lot of material you might not come up with on your own.
It just occurred to me that it makes more sense if you think that the word “Prog” is hidden in the title of the book...
Oh, yeah, yeah! We thought about calling it “Pilgrim’s PROGress”. Or just “PROGress”. Accenting the prog thing. We kicked around a lot of name ideas. We really struggled to come up with a name. And then Bill Hubauer found out that the original title of the book was not “Pilgrim’s Progress”, but a really long title which includes “The Similitude Of A Dream”. And so we thought “That’s kind of weird enough, that’s cool enough, let’s call it that!”.
What came first, the idea for the concept or the music? Or maybe both evolved at the same time?
Many times I just start writing as I just come into the studio and turn the piano on. I just start playing when I am feeling inspired. Sometimes I’d wake up in the morning and I’d feel this voice in my heart saying “write it - write it - write it”.
So, I started writing but I felt like I had some good ideas, but I needed some direction. And so I remembered that somebody had posted – on Facebook I think: “Hey Neal, have you ever thought about doing a concept album on “Pilgrim’s Progress”? That came to my mind, but I didn’t have the book; I never read the book. So, I just called up the notes on Google and I started writing the germ of the ideas for many of the choruses. The germ of the idea for the album begun that day in December when I looked at the ideas.
But, I was just kicking in around. I didn’t know if we were actually going to do it, but we wind up doing it obviously... (laughs). That’s my favorite part of writing, when you are just throwing things against the wall, you’re just trying things, throwing out ideas. It’s great. Before it has to be really good! (laughs). When you’re just throwing out ideas and they don’t have to be good yet. That’s a lot of times when you come up with your best stuff.
Well, I guess you know a thing or two about creativity...
You don’t have any burdens on you yet. There’s no other opinions, there’s nothing else. You just create really freely. And that’s when the best stuff happens, I believe.
As you said before and I totally agree, one main advantage of this album is that it has strong songs. So, did you work on separate songs from the beginning or did you have some main themes and ideas and you morphed them to various songs?
Well, then we all worked on it together. I have these little bits and then the four of us got together without Mike, because he was too busy in January. I think we got together to write for four days or something like that. And that was when the Disc One really came to light in a lot of ways. Of course, when we got with Mike in March - when he came in - it changed a lot from there too. And I honestly don’t remember how it all went down. We just all started painting on the canvas together and a lot of ideas were flowing from each guy in the band. That’s part of what makes it so magical!
You’ve been working as a team with Mike and Randy all these years, but I think Bill’s and Eric’s input this time shows even more here in comparison to “The Grand Experiment”. How differently did you work this time and how much has your collaboration evolved by now?
We always just go in, we just dive into it and create and create and create. It’s just awesome. I think our creative relationship is just the same as it ever was, from Day One. From the first Transatlantic album... I talked to Mike many times in the 90s, but we actually met physically in a lobby of a studio in New York, where we made the first Transatlantic album. Then we just walked in and started straight away, writing and recording what would become “All Of The Above”. And it’s just this kind of mad creative freight train, it’s just chugging along and you got to stay on your toes. You got to stay up with it, it moves quick.
I don’t have the booklet and the lyrics, but I could Eric and Bill play some roles in the concept?
You mean as far as singing goes?
Yeah, do they play some specific characters with their voices?
No! We tried to do that! We wanted to do that! But it just didn’t work out musically, because so much of the album is sung by the main character. Like for example, if I was gonna sing all the stuff that the main character sings, I’d be singing like 90% of the album, really. It just didn’t make any sense, so we took a different approach. We decided we would divide up the vocals in the best way that made sense. Even up to the end we weren’t sure always what that was... In fact, there are certain parts of the album where Bill sung it, Eric sung it and I sung it and then we kind of listened to it all to see what sounded the best. We went more for what we thought sounded the best, than for characters.
In my opinion, this blending of voices is just fantastic. It’s one of the main advantages of the album that you change the voices. It gives extra points in many levels...
Oh yes, what a blessing to get to sing together with such great voices...
...and also proves that there is no ego like “I have to be the main singer”. I have to say I admire it...
Yeah, it’s a great bunch of dudes man. No doubt about it.
You’ve released a video for “City Of Destruction”, which is way better than previous video efforts that you’ve done. Tell us a few things about it and how end up with this song as your choice?
Well, that was kind of a hard choice too, cause there are so many good songs. It was tough to make that call, we talked a lot about that as a band. We finally settled on “The City Of Destruction” because we didn’t want to do something from later on the album story wise. It wouldn’t really work so well to release something later in the story. That was one of the reasons why we chose “The City Of Destruction”. Of course, also it’s a great song. We felt that it was a good introduction to understanding the album.
The reason why it’s better quality is because as a label, Radiant - my label - we decided that this was the album that we wanted to spend more money on. So, we were investing into it and so we hired a director and a crew and flew everybody out to L.A. and did it up right, because we think this album totally deserves it.
I’d love to go through a track by track analysis but I think that we’ll need time we don’t have for all 23 tracks, so I’ll pick some moments that I love out of them and you’ll tell me your thoughts about them. OK?
First one! On “Draw The Line” though it starts like a straight-forward, up tempo song, there’s this amazing line that Eric sings “if only for one day, something so beautiful”. How did this twist occur?
Well, we were looking at the book. And what’s happening there in the story is that these two characters, Pliable and Obstinate (that’s their names) they go out on the road and they meet the main character, who in the booked is named Christian. They’re trying to get him to return to the city, they tell him that he’s crazy and being an egomaniac thinking he knows a better way. So, they’re trying to get him to turn around and then the main character starts to tell them “No, you got to go with me, it’s going to be better. Don’t go back”. And the character named Pliable says “Hey man, maybe I want to go with you. I think I want to go with you”. In fact, in the book he goes with him and in our story too he goes with him.
And it’s really Pliable that sings “Back To The City”. Pliable is the character that’s saying “Look I trusted you”. What happens it that then Christian and Pliable fall into the Slough Of Despond and Pliable says “Hey you lied to me! You said everything was gonna be great! I’m leaving! I’m going back to the city! I’m going back to the City Of Destruction”. And so he leaves and he leaves his friend there to die in the swamp. And that’s what the whole section of the album is about.
“The Ways Of A Fool”, I guess, is Bill’s song in a way, as his performance really stands out. But, also, when you come to sing the same line after the instrumental part it really shows how the different voices can make it so much more interesting and complete. Do you agree?
Oh yeah! That was one of the things we set out to do from the beginning. That was one of Mike’s ideas also, that we wanted to have as many voices singing, as many parts as we could that made sense and sounded good. So, we definitely wanted to utilize everybody’s voices and I think we definitely did that.
When I heard your performance on “Breath Of Angels” and the choir I thought straight away “this has to be one of Neal’s favorite parts on the album”. It’s that kind of sentimental climax you really know how to make, isn’t it?
Oh, I hope so! I hope everyone feels that the way I did when I wrote it!
What about the gospel choir there?
Oh, that’s the McCrary sisters! It’s a group of gospel singers here in Nashville. I did a gig in Nashville a couple years ago and they were on the same bill, they were part of the same festival and I met them. They sung on the last Flying Colors record and anytime I want that sound I’m like “they’re the people for that gig”, cause they got that sound.
How amazing is the saxophone on “Shortcut To Salvation”! How come you didn’t use more of Bill’s wind instruments?
Well, we looked for places to use Bill on his wind instruments, but it turned out to be better to have the guy that played the solo. This was somebody that Randy had found out in L.A. and the guy did it great, we all loved it, so we went with that instead.
Another favorite moment of mine on the album is the chorus on “The Man In The Iron Cage”. Who came up with it? Great hard rocking tune overall.
Oh! I came up with most of that, actually. I sat in here during a snowstorm, last February, after our initial writing sessions in January and I kind just sketched out a really rough sketch of a bunch of ideas for the second disc. We kind of took a lot of the riffs and picked the ones that we liked the best. But, yeah a lot of them was based on the ideas that I had sketched out. The band took them and rearranged them and became “The Man In The Iron Cage”.
The main riff has a Deep Purple feeling, doesn’t it?
Oh, I thought it was more of a Zeppelin thing. That part that reminds me of Deep Purple is in the instrumental bridge [editor: Neal sings the melody]... Well, that’s still kind of Zeppelin... That song reminds me of a Zeppelin with a Neil Young chorus or something...
I already can imagine how great it will be to play “Freedom Song” live, certainly a highlight. Kind of the cowboy - Crosby/Stills/Nash moment of the album, right?
A perfect blending of your voices...
It turned out great, didn’t it?
Yes, it did. Kind of the songs you nail, in the vein of “Sing It High” or something like that... That’s where I’d place it.
Yeah, it definitely has a “Sing It High” vibe. I love those things. I’ve always liked that kind of contrast. Like for example, the acoustic guitar, sort of bouncy, finger picking bit in “Starship Trooper”, with the vocal harmonies. I’ve always really enjoyed that. You know, from Crosby, Stills & Nash and all of that, just to be able to throw those kind of songs in. It’s a nice break for your ears, cause there’s so much to listen to and there’s so many heavy parts and so many notes, it’s just nice to do a little toe tapper every now and again.
Then, what can I say about the piano part on “The Mask”? I was thinking when I was watching you playing “Love Beyond Words” live with Spock’s Beard this summer, that you’re such a great piano player. Also, a stunning vocal performance on this one… Is it a standout track or what?
Oh yeah! “The Mask” is really becoming a very popular one. A lot of people are commenting on that. The classical piano piece was also born in that same snowstorm in February. That’s when I wrote that bit. “The Mask” song is based on a piece that Bill had. He started playing that piano riff and we all liked it. I just started singing over it. One really interesting side note is I hadn’t written any of the lyrics for it. It was all just kind of mumbling. We knew kind of what it was going to be about, but I hadn’t written any of the lyrics and Bill put in that heartbeat sound effect where it is before he knew that I was going to say the word hear right there. It was amazing!
Tell me how “The Battle” was written and how challenging it was. One of your best instrumental pieces I have to say. Is it like the storm before the final calm musically?
Sure! When I was sketching out the second disc stuff as I was hearing it, I was thinking “oh well, it definitely need to go into some kind of crazy battle thing”. Actually, how it started was I took a bath and I turned on Pandora classical radio and I was just chilling. They played this piece by a composer named Scarlatti, a classical Italian composer. I don’t really remember it, but there was some kind of [editor: Neal sings a classical piano melody] figure in there. And so I came in and started with that and then wrote this whole big piano thing. I originally sketched out “The Battle” on piano and then when the band got to it we added and subtracted and did the whole thing to it. Basically, where it all started from was this piano sketch that I did and then everybody played to it and rearranged it by there.
And of course the top moment of the album comes with the great finale of “Broken Sky”. Did you try to capture all the best melodies of the album and all the emotion to create a climax like that? I understand why Mike said it brought tears to his eyes...
Yeah, it’s beautiful. I’m really happy with the way it all turned out. Amazing! Actually, the whole “Long Day” theme, the very end (“It’s been a long day...) and the very beginning of the album that was something that I had written on a demo that I had made like a year previously. That part we took out of a previous demo and added it on at the end and I think it’s amazing how it all fell together. Just amazing.
I guess, when you speak your heart and your beliefs on a spiritual level like you do, you want your audience to take something from it. So, what would you want your listeners to get after listening to “The Similitude Of A Dream”?
I’d like people to come away from it with relating to it from their own journey and their own spiritual battles. I think that we all go through those at some level or another. Also, as someone who is a Christian, to understand that it is part of the walk to be going through these different spaces and to be going through trials and difficulties. And that people, but also thoughts in your own mind, will try to take you off course. There are a lot of things that will discourage us in our walk with God and I’d like for that album to be a great encouragement, maybe even a lesson in that.
Are you planning to present the whole album during your forthcoming live shows? If yes, what space does this leave for older material?
Not too much! We’ll be doing the whole album, so there’s not much space left. We got to do the whole thing.
Now, I have to tell you I traveled all the way from Greece to see you performing with Spock’s Beard on Night Of The Prog in Germany...
...and it was one of the best things I’ve ever seen in my life...
Oh, that’s great!
Seeing it from the first row I sometimes felt like transcending in another time and space, getting lost in the music. How was it for you?
Oh man, it was great. That was really a peak experience for me. It was great to see how that album had impacted so many hearts and lives. You could see people crying. It was just a really good vibe there, wasn’t it? You could feel God, you could feel love, you could feel all the good and the heavy emotions too. It was a very special experience.
So, what’s the future holding for you apart from the tour with The Neal Morse Band? Any conversations about Flying Colors or Transatlantic maybe?
Nothing about Transatlantic, but Flying Colors is meeting in December to write for a week. I don’t know how much we’ll get done, we’ll see. We’ll see how the music flies, but I’m very excited to be getting together again with Flying Colors.