Steve Morse: Searching for the Air

By Roy Rahl

If you’re reading this article chances are you’re a fan of master guitarist Steve Morse. If that’s true you’re also very likely to be a fan of high quality kickass music. That being the case, it stands to reason that you’re a huge fan of the group Flying Colors, whether you currently know it or not. Therefore, if you haven’t already purchased a copy of their recent album, Second Nature, you should go do so immediately.

Seriously. Do it now. It’s alright, I’ll wait …

When listening to Second Nature, it’s difficult to comprehend that Flying Colors is a side project for its members. The music is just too well composed and performed to be an alternate gig. It goes to show that when you put together talent like Steve Morse, Mike Portnoy, Neal Morse, Dave LaRue, and Casey McPherson you can create one amazing “part-time” band! 

Flying Colors just wrapped up a whirlwind tour that began in the United States and finished in Europe. Classic Rock Revisited spoke with Steve Morse while he was in Germany enjoying a rare free moment not spent on stage or traveling from one country to the next. He was eager to talk about the new album and how the creative process works when several extremely talented and very busy artists decide to record an album. It was a sincere pleasure to talk with such a hardworking and humble superstar. Morse is a class act on and off the stage. 

Roy: Second Nature is the second album from Flying Colors. How was the preparation and production different from the first one?

Steve: Well, to start off with, we did conference calls. I had a Skype account that allowed me to call people’s cell phones wherever they are. And the group conferenced and we talked. Most of time we did it from our studios so that Neal, Mike, myself, or Dave or Casey could play ideas and other guys could comment on it. We couldn’t play together because of the time lag but we could throw an idea around. So we had quite a number of ideas from that.

Then, we had an email type drop box for recorded bits and demos that people made on their own, knowing that if an idea gets thrown in it’s going to get changed ... and shredded. Then we went to two separate get togethers where we flushed out and wrote the songs and recorded them. That happened about a month or two apart. Then, like the last time, we all took our homework home. Then we’d get it overdubbed and they would change the lyrics and rerecord the vocals and then do the drums. So, it’s been actually months. But it wasn’t a full time job.

The difference is that we used the internet to connect. So, it has its advantages as well as plenty of disadvantages for recording and revision.

Roy: Is spontaneity an issue when writing over the internet?

Steve: No ... it’s just, one thing that we really like to do is play something together and we couldn’t do that. But, it was good for airing a lot of ideas and seeing how people felt in real time about each idea. So, that was valuable.

Roy: You have so many talented songwriters it must be tough to get a word in edgewise sometimes! [Laughs]

Steve: Well, there’s lots of ideas. There’s no shortage of ideas. You have to really stay on the ball to keep up. Just imagine you’re walking through Times Square or a busy airport where there’s a crowd that’s moving with a certain pace. If you slow down to tie your shoe you can get run over. It’s like that! [Laughs] You don’t want to daydream. You stay with it.

Roy: One of the things I really like about this album is the diversity of the pieces. You’re able to transition from hard driving pieces to progressive pieces fairly seamlessly.

Steve: Well that is the personality of Flying Colors right there. Transitions are no problem; time changes are no problem, they’re expected; and tempo changes. A song is really just more like a series of little paintings.

Roy: Take me through the making of “One Love Forever”. I love the guitar parts in that song.

Steve: Well, that was something Casey and I were kicking around, just playing. And Casey also happened to like that old American - European folk sound.

Roy: Yeah, there’s almost a traditional Irish sound to that piece.

Steve: Yeah. Whatever style is being played everybody follows whatever it is because we have decades and decades and decades of experience doing covers. We’ve all done plenty of cover gigs. It’s the little details of making something seem like a certain style. It’s no problem.

It turned into a heavy part. It’s another example of Flying Colors. It goes from sort of a 6/8 feel to a straight 4/4 in the chords. You know, and it felt weird to do it at the time but everybody liked it.

Roy: When you’re dealing with time signature changes it often feels awkward at first until you finally find that sweet spot.

Steve: Yeah, you just get used to it and committed to it. That is a good example of how Flying Colors changes its feel. Instead of, like, you know how some people research the top forty. They start with all those progressions and stuff like that. We just don’t care. At least I don’t. All I care about is making music good. I just don’t care anymore if anybody plays it on a radio, or ... you almost don’t have to care if they buy it anymore. The record companies care because they got a lot of expenses to pay back, you know. [Laughs] Or, we do, if we ever get royalties, indirectly.

Roy: But as a musician if you start caring about what they’re thinking you’re going to lose your instinct.

Steve: Yeah. And here it seems like going back in time when nothing mattered except the music. But then, I mean, it’s really always like that. But sometimes there’s an overwhelming return that, the song needs to be this kind of a thing and that kind of a thing. There just wasn’t any of that. The record companies weren’t bugging us. There were no producers, so the band just did its thing. It’s fun writing with them, and I think you can hear that.

Roy: You’re at a stage in your career where you don’t really have to prove anything anymore. You can do it for the love of doing it.

Steve: Yeah, yeah.

Roy: My favorite song on Second Nature is “Cosmic Symphony”. I’m a prog guy so I like the big drama. It seems like there was a lot of collaboration on that one. It sounds like there were a bunch of different ideas put together to form one integrated effort.

Steve: It is. It’s three different tune ideas. The middle one for the first time was an idea that Dave had brought in. Rather than stretch it out and put in a chorus and make it like a theme it just seemed like a really good way to get a short punctuate between two other ballads. We just experimented with themes. The lyrics then were pretty much made as if it was a single piece. Although musically it’s really several pieces.

Roy: That slower central portion where you’re riffing behind the vocals you have a sound that ... when I’m listening to it I’m hearing kind of a laid back Hendrix or a Stevie Ray Vaughn going on back there.

Steve: The third part, yeah. That’s just trying to get something dreamy. Yeah, reminiscent of a Hendrixy, sort of real loose fantasy vibe.

Roy: It sounds like you’re improvising, and it’s a wonderful sound.

Steve: Well, those are improvised, but once it gets recorded then playing live you tend to remember how you did it because you’ve heard it a bunch of times. You hear it in the mixes and things like that. It’s strange, like, all the solos and parts I do improvise. I try to find something I like and that becomes the record. And I still improvise those parts live; the shape of them.

Roy: You’ve been a guitarist your whole life and I know you’ve had numerous influences in your past. Do your influences change over your life? Do your find different artists influencing you?

Steve: I think it does. Sure, it changes. For instance, when I was young just seeing somebody play was a huge deal. I got to see Hendrix play; I got to see Clapton play with Cream and Jimmy Page with Led Zeppelin. And those kinds of experiences ... Randy California with Spirit and McCarty with Cactus ... those made huge impressions on me and were very influential. Like John McLaughlin with Mahavishnu Orchestra. I was the first person in front of him in the audience. And, yeah, those were huge moments.

And then, later in life I find myself working with guys like Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and John Petrucci. They’ve become influences. Although not in the sense that I’m going to copy their style of playing. But just, you know how they approach things and how they work it. A sound problem, for instance. You’re on stage and very obviously you're having problems with hearing where the tempo is because the monitor shuts down and there’s no way around it. And it’s just like, how was that handled? How did they improvise certain stuff and things like that?

So, of course, hearing someone like John Petrucci play very rhythmically ... that’s a big inspiration. And again, not that I want to try and copy his style, but John’s an inspiration to me. He took the whole technique, you know, always working on trying to get that picking every note, alternate picking, and then took it to a higher level. [Laughs] It’s very exciting!

Roy: Tell me about your guitar setup for the tour. Is it different from what you recorded with?

Steve: Nah, it’s pretty standard. I use the Steve Morse Signature Head; the Engl head. It’s got a really good clean sound ... a really clean, clean sound. And the distortion has a certain smoothness about it that I really love, and it allows me to play those melody lines that, you know, they’re like solos. They were solos but became melodic lines after hearing them enough times. That and my Music Man guitar. I use a few pedals but they are really small and sound really good. They’re made by TC Electronics. They’re called Flashback Delays. There’s a slot where you can put in your own personal settings. Once it’s programmed it stays in. So these tiny little pedals sound like the old rack mounts. They let me tweak it just the way I want it.

Roy: You can just store it and have it that way forever.

Steve: Yeah. It’s got modulation in it and a certain amount of degradation. Just the overall warmth of it, I can really play it to death. I’ve got a couple of those and two Ernie Ball volume pedals to control them. The delays are a hundred percent wet. They’re normally off because the volume pedals are normally not used. So when I need them I just push down the volume pedal and the delay comes out of the second amplifier. And normally that’s my other path, the other amplifier. And you don’t need a lot of volume because most of the time you use delay you’re not using as much as your direct signal. So basically the direct signal stays on and is always there, and the effects amp comes and goes depending on your situation.

One thing that I’m doing for the first time that’s different is I have two effects loops. I’m putting a TC reverb pedal that again has my own settings on it and a miniature delay pedal that sounds exactly the same as the regular delay pedal that they make. It doesn’t have a bunch of presets. It just has the one that I put in there. So it allows me to put in a little bit of air, like for that Hendrixy part.

Roy: It just kind of opens it up a little bit.

Steve: Yeah. I use it so it doesn’t sound too dry and funky. And normally I don’t use an effects loop at all. But it seems to be working fine.

Roy: It sounds like you’re having a good time on the tour.

Steve: Oh yeah. Well, musically it’s always a good time with the band. Everybody associated with it is really hard working. One guy thinks we should spend twenty hours a day doing this and another guy thinks we should spend twenty-two hours a day doing that, and pretty soon it’s all the time that you have ... all the time! [Laughs]

Roy: You’ve played so many guitar styles throughout your career. You’ve played the Southern style Dixie Dregs, you’re cranking out the classic Deep Purple, and then you’re coming into progressive Flying Colors. Not all musicians can switch modes like that so effectively. As a guitarist, how does your mental approach to the music change when you’re going from style to style?

Steve: I don’t really see much difference in the one style to the next because I just consider it all tonal music. In other words, the chord changes are, you know, there’s plenty of common tones. There are distinctions, say, between Franks Zappa’s Mother’s of Invention and what I call tonal music. Yeah, technically he is tonal, but he goes way farther out. He wrote stuff that was more, I guess, angular, than I really do.

But apart from a more extreme example like that I just don’t see much difference. There’s only a few little things that seem to be associated with what people recognize about a style. People just like those not too surprising tones mixed with a few surprises. Most musicians can say, “hey, let’s reggae that line” and instantly everybody will know what he means. It’s just, you know, a certain pattern that you play on the drums, a certain pattern you play on the guitar and on the bass and suddenly it sounds reggae. It doesn’t take a whole lot to do that. Now to make it unbelievably powerful like Stevie Ray Vaughn, the blues shuffle, perhaps that’s a whole other deal.

Roy: This was a pretty short tour and the majority of it was in Europe. Are there going to be any additional dates or a second tour in the US?

Steve: We don’t know, because we’re all working full time with other projects. Mike’s got a lot going on with his own band. So we’ll just have to see. You know how I said the time signatures and tempo changes are a signature of the band? Us not knowing what’s coming next is another signature of the band! [Laughs]

Roy: One last question for you: What other projects do you have in the pipeline after the tour finishes?

Steve: Well, the big one is Deep Purple. We’re doing a new album and we’re going to have Bob Ezrin again. So that will be really good. Bob did a great job producing the last album, called Now What. And, I’ve been writing some with my son, who’s an accomplished guitarist and a great writer! I’m finding, you know, after so many years of wanting to develop his own thing and doing his own thing, finally he wants to get together working on that stuff. It’s sort of like very neo-classical mixed with some power metal.

Roy: Wow! Well that’s got to be a blast!

Steve: He’s just the shredding, you know, technical guy.

Roy: That sounds like a lot of fun.

Steve: Yeah, it is.

Roy: Steve, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me from Germany.

Steve: Thank you very much, and thanks for doing this.