"If you're willing to make the investment and live with the music you'll enjoy it more"
It was just a couple of hours before The Neal Morse Band would hit the stage of Lido in Berlin to present its latest album "The Similitude Of A Dream" live in its entirety. The band is in perfect shape and the album is getting them to new heights, so it was a perfect chance to meet Randy George (bass) and Bill Hubauer’s (keys/vocals) backstage and chat with them about a lot of interesting stuff regarding the band, prog and music in general. I had a good feeling about this interview and I was proven right, as both Randy and Bill are not only amazing musicians, but great persons as well.
Firstly, let me ask how you are doing. Are you tired?
Randy George: A little...
Bill Hubauer: I was tired yesterday. It’s slightly good today. We take a day off after tomorrow.
How many dates do you have left?
R.G.: It’s seventeen in Europe and one in Israel, so it’s eighteen. And I think this is show number five...
Is this getting somehow a routine for you, like getting into a loop going over and over again to the same places or it feels fresh every time you come back?
R.G.: Well, we are hitting some new places this time. We’ve played in Berlin, but we haven’t played this venue for instance. Not every time that we go back to the same place is the same, but there are places that are like in Zurich, we go to the Z7. That’s like a home, because it has all the amenities that we need right about that time: laundry, showers etc. It’s a comfortable place for us to hang out, very friendly. As long as we have a few of the amenities that we need available then we’re good.
But, I think it’s always fresh every time, because we’re bringing new music. The fans are coming with new excitement. The fact that we bring a different show each time is what keeps it from being stale and old. It keeps it fresh. People are excited to hear some new music.
B.H.: Plus we didn’t tour the last year. It’s been two years since we’ve been here. Or a year and a half… So, we’re always looking forward to coming back.
"The band has gone through a massive growth phase with this album [...] We’ve been placed on lists with people like Leonard Cohen and Metallica"
Do you see this thing getting bigger with each tour and every album?
B.H.: It seems like it is. It’s getting bigger...
R.G.: Oh yeah... The band has gone through a massive growth phase with this album. This album has opened the band up to a larger world in general. We employed a lot of publicists and we got a lot of new press. We got recognized in much bigger music publications and in bigger music circles. We’ve been placed on lists with people like Leonard Cohen and Metallica and the Monkeys and the album charted on #7 in Billboard, which is the first time we’ve ever had an album chart anywhere near that high. So, yeah the band is growing, the audiences are growing, we’re selling out shows, it will turn out something great. We sold out more shows in this tour than we had in any time in the past (laughs).
It’s forced me to re-evaluate some things that we need to do, in terms of how we operate internally. That’s because we can’t get away with the way we used to do things when it wasn’t such a big deal. But, coming in with a production that has as much involved as this one does, it’s a little bit of an adjustment. Cause, like you said, when we come back to some of the same places they assume they know what we’re gonna do and they don’t understand that our production has grown a lot. Now everybody sort of had to re-evaluate the needs, so that they can meet our production needs. I think that’s a good thing. We’re doing things that are fun make the shows more enduring.
Even though you’ve been playing music together for some years now, it’s only the second album you release as The Neal Morse Band and it’s a true masterpiece. Does this somehow make you anxious as how you’re gonna to this or is it too early?
B.H.: (laughs) I don’t know... I felt really good about “The Grand Experiment” and I wasn’t really concerned about if we could top that. I don’t think we think like that. Because, when you spend so long working on the album by the time it actually gets into the hands of the fans we’re out... I’m not gonna say we’re tired of it, but it’s not new to us anymore. So, we don’t really think about it. We don’t get to experience it for the first time the way everybody else does, so we don’t think about it like that.
We’re really happy with the way it came out. I don’t know... I suppose when the time comes to do the next one we might be influenced by what we did on this last album, but I hope not. I hope we can approach it fresh and let each album be what it wants to be.
"We are really just at the beginning of discovering what we can do together"
How much is your cooperation within the band changing from album to album? Randy, along with Mike you’ve been with Neal for many years and maybe you can see the evolution of the writing/composing. So, how much did it change with “The Similitude Of A Dream” and how much do you see it changing in the future?
R.G.: Well, I think that putting a solid band together, that’s just gonna be the five same guys every time change is inevitable. Up to 2012 where it was just Neal, Mike and I and, the three of us we did the same thing. But, other times Neal would have a great deal of the material already written by the time we came together. Mike and I just simply added our influence, sliced it up or do what we had to do to make it an album.
Once Bill and Eric came on board then it became clear that as a band we can write together and now it’s different, cause different people are writing the music. It isn’t just Neal’s music anymore. We’re collaborating together and Bill and Eric have both brought amazing composition skills into this band. They’re both amazing players and composers on their own. So, what they add to it is really quite credible. We are really just at the beginning of discovering what we can do together. If anything, it’s just going to continue.
"The biggest challenge for Neal is to try to put the breaks on his preparation for the album, to create space for everybody else"
B.H.: I think it took a lot of discipline for Neal to not write too much before we all got together. I mean, obviously, he’s an incredible composer so if we come together and he has a lot of material that he’s already been working on, it’s hard to not just say “hey, let’s do all this stuff”. But, because Neal is really committed to a collaborative effort, he’s really trying hard to not do that (laughs). To not bring in a whole bunch of material. So, that we can all work together and do it together. I think that’s probably been the biggest challenge for Neal, to try to put the brakes on his preparation for the album, to create space for everybody else. He’s been really good at doing this so far...
"As an artist your listening becomes very prejudiced in the beginning and when you are in the creative process. You have to let go of these prejudices, so that you can accept that this final version of it is now something different than what you sort of wanted it to be"
You know, from the outside everything seems to be smooth, like pieces falling together when you write music and stuff. Is it so or is there is kind of a creative frustration sometimes? Don’t you have any conflicts about ideas or egos getting in the way?
R.G.: Yeah, sometimes we’ll try things several ways and we’ll sit down and objectively listen. It maybe takes some time so you say things like... “well, let’s revisit it tomorrow”, “let’s listen to it later, we don’t need to solve this today”. When you give yourself a little time it begins to become clear.
I’ve often had ideas that don’t make it to the end of the album. By the time the album starts to really solidify and come together, some of the ideas just don’t fit anymore. That’s a natural thing and that’s ok. It may not have been what I saw or thought, but I don’t let it become an issue of frustration as much as I feel it’s give and take. Because I know at the end everything is going to be good regardless.
Sometimes regardless of how you perceive what you’re doing, as the artist your listening becomes very prejudiced in the beginning. What it becomes in the end is sort of half what we intended to do and half what actually happened. You have to learn to re-listen and accept it on its own terms, so that you can be happy with it. And that’s another give and take thing. It’s easy to sit and say “Ahh, I don’t like that he did that”, but sometimes you have to say “Ok, let’s go with that”. Cause the fans are going to love it.
Fans are gonna accept your music as your present it. So, once you present it, that’s it! You can play with it a little on the live stage and maybe make some adjustments, but you can’t reinvent it. You have to say that now it belongs to the fans and the ages and that’s how it’s always gonna be. You can just decide that it is what it is, rather than be frustrated for what it isn’t.
"About a month before each tour I probably practice at least four hours a day"
You play really a lot of music every time you hit the stage, not to mention some special events like MorseFest and the thing is that you make it seem easy. How difficult is it to come to that level to make it seem like that?
B.H.: For me, it’s a little different when I’m playing music that I wrote or helped to write versus music that was before me. It had been quite a long time between when we finished the album and we started the tour, so I had to re-learn and remember all of my parts for the album, but it came back pretty quick. But, it just takes a lot of hours! About a month before each tour I probably practice at least four hours a day.
(laughs) When we do MorseFest it’s about six hours of music and the problem with six hours of music is it takes six hours to practice it one time! You know what I mean?
If you really think about that... How many times do you need to practice a really hard piece of music before you perform live? Multiply it by six hours! (laughs). It takes a lot of time...
"This genre of music has so many layers and so many details put in, that if you’re willing to make the investment to listen and spend time with it and live with the music you’ll enjoy it more"
In another interview I conducted last night with another artist he mentioned that he wouldn’t play more than 90 minutes set and that’s certainly not the case for you. You play two and a half hours or three hours set. Don’t you feel somehow outliers in an industry that kind of tries to put artists in a box? Also, do you sometimes think that the way you offer more stuff can be attractive to some people, but also a constraint for some other?
B.H.: It takes an investment. In any kind of art... If you are going to look at paintings in a museum, if you just walk by quickly you can be like “that’s pretty”, “that’s nice”, “I like the colors there”. You’re not seeing really the artistry. If you stand and you study one painting for a long time and look at the brush strokes and look at the details and things like that, you’re gonna get more enjoyment out of it.
And I think this genre of music has so many layers and so many details put in, that if you’re willing to make the investment to listen and spend time with it and live with the music you’ll enjoy it more. Because these fans are more patient with the music, they seem to enjoy longer performances better. They don’t get bored. Somebody who’s not used to listening to 20minute songs maybe after 90 minutes is ready to go home.
But, I do thing we’re always gonna be careful to not play too long. I think sometimes we have played too long... You want to leave them wanting more. You don’t want them to be looking at their watch before we’re done playing (laughs).
Well, maybe I’m not the one to say. I usually have to make a big travel to watch you perform, so if you’re travelling for ten or twelve hours, a three hour set seems ok to repay it...
"If you wanna go to McDonalds and get a quick hamburger and drive-through, go for it! That’s just not us!"
You just put out a double concept album. If we were talking ten years ago someone would say that a double concept album is outdated, so 70s... But, nowadays more and more bands move towards this direction. What do you think about it?
R.G.: Well, I think that mainstream ideas are the minority. They always have been. People just come to accept it, because it’s the easiest thing to get hold of and digest; the songs are three and a half minutes, they don’t have to spend too much of their time with it. There’s nothing wrong with that, if that’s what you enjoy. Most people who like this kind of music, they’re not satisfied with that. They want to spend their time, they want the whole course, they want to start one course at the time and eat a big, seven course meal. If you wanna go to McDonalds and get a quick hamburger and drive-through, go for it! That’s just not us!
B.H.: But, I will say that one thing that I feel always important is that one album should be able to consume the album in a reasonable amount of time. If it’s a single disc, as a listener, personally the last thing that I want is an eighty minutes single album. I like to listen to the whole album and I don’t have eighty minutes to do it. So, fifty minutes or fifty five minutes, that’s good. When we had to make the decision, “Is this gonna be a really long single album or double?”, I said “Please, let’s do two fifty minute discs, instead of one eighty minute disc”. I think with our new album you can listen to disc one and then you come back later and listen to disc two. They both stand alone. I’ve told this idea to a lot of people who disagree with me. For me, I like it a little bit shorter.
Then, there’s the lyrical side of the music. We all know that Neal has a way to present the lyrics of the album and a certain field he writes about. Is that cool with all of you? Do you all agree with the way it’s presented?
R.G.: Are you referring to his lyrics of faith? Faith based lyrics?
"People who like this kind of music have much less in common with church and religious ideas. They’re just people who feel things on much deeper level and they see things in greater detail."
R.G.: Sure! We all agree! We’re all Christians. But, we probably have a slightly different perspective on that, than people think. When people hear it and think: “Christians? They’re Christians? Ahh, I don’t want to be preached at”. And I get it. Those are stereotypes and there’s plenty of them in the world and they ruin it, because that’s far away from what it really means as you can get. I think that the people who like this kind of music have much less in common with church and religious ideas. They’re just people who feel things on much deeper level and they see things in greater detail.
"For us, music is the focus. And if you are here to see us, your focus is going to be on the music."
For us, music is the focus. And if you are here to see us, your focus is going to be on the music. It’s not about going out to party with your buddies while the band is playing some soft ballad songs and talking in the background.
We’re filling the niche of music that we grew up enjoying and that’s one thing we have in common: busy, long songs, concept albums...
"I have really no idea what Tori Amos is singing about. But, whatever it is, she means it. I sense it’s important to her and there’s this passion there, so I enjoy that."
B.H.: I think it’s whatever appeals to you. To me the most important things is for the singer to feel passionate about what they’re singing about. And I know Neal, when he writes lyrics he writes them to be delivered. He can deliver these lyrics in a way that he can feel every night that he has to sing these songs. He can feel that...
There’s a lot of artists that I like, like Tori Amos, the piano player and vocalist and I have really no idea what she’s singing about. But, whatever it is, she means it. She has so much passion in her voice! I don’t really understand what she is singing about, but I sense it’s important to her and there’s this passion there, so I enjoy that.
"Take a book that is written in such a dead language, that is just so drop dead boring and make it that exciting. It’s a true gift! If he can do that to a book like that, imagine what he can do…"
The reason I made this question is because as Randy mentioned there are stereotypes, especially in rock music. And some people when you tell them about Neal Morse will say “Come on! Christian music?”. No, it’s spiritual music...
R.G.: Exactly! It’s a big difference! It’s a very big difference.
I’ll tell you this. This album “The Similitude Of A Dream” it’s basically “A Pilgrim’s Progress”, it’s based on the book. So, the ideas aren’t necessarily original. We’re singing about what’s in the book; a small part of the book, which is huge. Prior to doing this, I thought that anything related to or with the name of “Pilgrim’s Progress” is gonna be awful and nobody will want to hear it.
And yet, Neal has somehow managed to take that and make it exciting! And fresh! And something that people really just want to keep coming back to hear more and more. Neal has a unique way of expressing things. He really performed a miracle in bringing this subject to life in this album, lyrically. It’s not something to be taken lightly, because not a lot of people could have done that, with a book like “A Pilgrim’s Progress”.
"The best part is the certain moments when we perform and that I just get swept up with the audience."
So, which song or part of the album is your favorite?
B.H.: It’s hard to say...
R.G.: I don’t think you can really take one and say that this is my absolute favorite part. I think that the whole thing is just wonderful. Truly I didn’t have a chance to listen to the whole album front to back until literally we were done and even then it took me a couple of weeks to really absorb the whole thing.
But, to answer your question, at first “The Ways Of A Fool” was one of my favorite pieces, just because it’s the kind of song I’ve have always wanted to write. “So Far Gone” is a song that I just thought has such passion and soul. Anything where the vocals are gut wrenching and really pulling you in… There is a moment in “The Confrontation” where we reprise “So Far Gone” and Bill does a vocal thing at the end of that; that is just wonderful. I mean there are plenty of places that I have a little favorite bits and pieces.
Then, on a whole other level a favorite part of the album is “Breath Of Angels” and then the reprise at the end with “Broken Sky/Long Day Reprise”. What I love about that so much is watching how the audience responses to the band playing that live and what happens emotionally in those songs. Musically, it’s not about being exciting and flashy and technical. It’s about being simple and allowing the emotion to come alive in those moments. Everything you’ve been doing being put into that and all of a sudden that’s released in those songs. So, that’s a favorite thing and it has less to do with it being my favorite song and more to do with the affect it has when we play it. So, there’s a lot of ways to look at that...
B.H.: When we were writing there were moments, that we’d feel the emotion when we were creating it in different ways. When we started getting back mixes from Rich [editor: Rich Mouser, producer and sound engineer], the first time I heard “So Far Gone”, when Neal comes back singing the “Makes No Sense” part, there... (laughs). I was sitting with some friends and they were talking and I put my headphones on and listened to it... I started to cry! And I picked up to see if they noticed that I’m sitting here crying for no reason that they could tell... (laughs). So, you know, you’re moved by that. I’ll agree with Randy that the best part is the certain moments when we perform and that I just get swept up with the audience. I am watching the audience, I am watching the faces, cause I want them to experience the emotion of a certain part the way that I know that I did when we did it. Usually, I can see that in someone’s face and it’s really powerful. The end - the “Broken Sky” and the “Long Day Reprise” at the end - is always amazing...
"I hate to say less is more, cause that’s not always true. But, less is more if less of you allows what’s really important in the song to flourish"
What is the most important thing that each one of the five of you brings - not only in the studio - but mostly on stage and helps you make something bigger than the sum of its parts?
R.G.: I think all I can really do is go up and do what’s necessary to support the music. If everybody’s attitude is to support the other guy and you’re sitting there and you’re listening to yourself against everybody else, it’s all about letting everybody live in the music and live in the mix. A lot of bands go wrong, because they don’t know how to do that, so everyone is playing for themselves and you can tell the difference. Maybe some audiences like that because the music is so thrashy, there is no music about it; it’s an attitude and that’s a whole different thing.
I hate to say less is more, cause that’s not always true, but less is more if you allow what’s really important in the song to flourish.
Mike does the same thing! He never overplays. If it’s not really required he doesn’t need to overplay. I don’t think anybody does. I think we all try to... We try! There are places where we think “How can I make this more interesting?”. Then you realize in the end doing more isn’t what’s gonna help it, sometimes doing less is what helps it.
"It’s really important to really know your parts without thinking about it before the tour starts. So you can be in the moment on the stage to communicate"
And you can all show off if you want to...
R.G.: I think if the album comes together and it’s greater than the sum of that parts, as long as you go out and play it right, you do it well, you’re gonna repeat that...
B.H.: I think I would add that it’s just that it’s really important to really know your parts without thinking about it before the tour starts. So you can be in the moment on the stage to communicate. You can’t communicate with anyone else on the stage if all you’re thinking is how you’re gonna play your parts. If you’re just sitting there and doing this from doing this and my total concentration is here, how can I really play with anybody else? So, you have to be all automatic and then you’re making eye contact... and you’re looking... and someone does something cool... and you have this community. You’re all communicating and that how I think you can get the synergy, that’s how you can get it to be more of each of us playing. If each of us all is thinking about is what we’re playing, it’s never gonna be more than just what we’re doing. The only way to make it more is when you’re not thinking about what you’re doing and you are in the moment with everybody else and you’re sharing with each other and with the audience.
"Because of the change in technology and the world and the way things happened, it’s enabled the prog world to thrive"
My last question as our time is running out. As a follower of prog music I think that many people that are into this music consider that right now there are two leaders in the scene: Steven Wilson and The Neal Morse Band. From your side, do you see that as well or is it me and secondly do you feel some kind of responsibility to help this kind of music and the community (bands, fans etc) grow and become more stable? I think there is a potential for it to be bigger...
R.G.: I think there are a lot of good bands in the prog community. It all depends on what your perspective is. Is somebody on top because he draws the most people? Are they on top because they have the most interesting music? What exactly would you consider to be on top? It’s all a perspective thing.
I think than Neal and Mike together have had very strong musical presences in previous situations. Mike with Dream Theater and Neal with Spock’s Beard and then they did Transatlantic. They’ve done a lot together to really give them such a huge musical presence. So, it all sort of played in to The Neal Morse Band.
Steven Wilson, he does his thing. People love what he does and that’s great! He’s doing well and I’m really glad that people respond to his music the way they do. He’s a talented guy! But, I can think of a dozen other bands out there, equally as good and equally as interesting and equally as talented, that don’t get the love and that don’t have the huge show and the huge audiences.
The paradigms have shifted because of technology so much, to the point where it’s almost made record companies obsolete with they do. It’s almost made radio obsolete for what it does. Because you have the internet! You have technology and you can tailor your tastes. It’s all about like “the radio station is what I want it be. I’m now my own program director. Somebody else isn’t gonna dictate what I listen to. I’m gonna dictate it to myself”. And I think that’s opened up a world of opportunities for artists like us. In the 90s when Spock’s Beard and The Flower Kings broke on to the scene, they just did what they wanted to do and people were able to say “I like that, I’m putting that to my playlist. That’s what I’m bringing in to my world”.
I think because of the change in technology and the world and the way things happened, it’s enabled the prog world to thrive! Now we have our own cruises! It’s a wonderful thing. And, yes, I hope it continues. And it’s changing even still, because we’re seeing a lot younger audiences for us. We will continue as long as we’re able!