Neal Morse: The Progressive Standard Bearer

By Roy Rahl

Neal Morse is a fascinating individual with many musical facets. Whether he is playing with Transatlantic, Flying Colors, The Neal Morse Band, or his numerous solo projects, Morse brings a steadying and spiritual influence to his music. He is a prolific writer who is comfortable playing in just about any musical style and is not afraid to present a wide array of them on a single album.

The Neal Morse Band recently released The Grand Experiment, an album that is a must own for any lover of progressive rock. It is a powerful collection of songs that span the width of the progressive genre. The group recently finished up US and European tours, and has additional European dates scheduled for early summer, including the massive Night Of The Prog festival in Germany featuring other greats such a Steve Hackett, Fish, and Camel, to name a few. He also has Morsefest coming up in September. Clearly, Mr. Morse is a very busy man!

I was able to speak with Neal about what it is like to write with numerous bands and songwriters. We were able to discuss many of the songs present of the most recent albums from several of his bands. It was a real pleasure to speak with such a sincere and talented individual.

Roy: I’m really happy to speak with you. You’ve had a very busy year. Are you finally starting to get some rest?

Neal: Yeah, you know, I have. It hasn’t been that busy the last couple weeks, and it’s been good. I’m writing a little bit and spending some time with the family. Good quality time. It’s all great, man.

Roy: It’s really interesting to speak with you because you are a man of many bands. With so many projects how do you keep things organized? Do you ever wake up in the morning and wonder which band you’re performing with on a particular day? [Laughs]

Neal: Ha! I focus on them one at a time, and when I’m writing I usually have a specific project in mind. Although sometimes things just occur to me, those kind of sound like “oh I think this might be good for Transatlantic or Flying Colors or for one of my solo albums”. I can usually feel out where they should be and it usually works out that way.

Roy: It must be pretty interesting because you’re shifting different talents and different styles rather than being with the same five guys all the time.

Neal: Yeah. I like to even write more of a variety than that. I like to write different things. I make worship albums, pop albums, and I’ve written a couple musicals. I’m working on a musical write now. I like to kind of mix it up and not always be working on the same kind of music because I just enjoy variety.

Roy: What can you tell me about your musical?

Neal: Oh! Well this most recent one ... I don’t know what to say about it. It’s like a Broadway type show. It’s very different. It’s not proggy at all. It’s very Broadway. It’s ensemble numbers and duets, funny songs and very serious, dramatic songs. It’s about the power of music being used to help heal people. It’s a very powerful story. I’m very excited about it. I have a couple collaborators I’m working with on it. So, yeah, it’s going great!

Roy: You also have Morsefest coming up in September. How did the idea for Morsefest come about?

Neal: Well it actually started with the pastor of my church. He asked me if I would do a concert at the church. And I thought, “well I’ll think about it. I don’t know. It’s quite a lot of work”. I was like “I don’t think he understands how much goes into all of that”. [Laughs] The church kind of had to be changed a lot. We had to bring in sound and lights. It’s a very expensive and involved process to put on a real concert.

I don’t know; I just started to think about it and kicked it around with my wife. It was actually her idea. It was like, “well the thing is most of your fans will be coming from out of town. So it will have to be attractive enough to make people want to come from a long distance. It should be like the Testimony album and another whole album you maybe haven’t performed or something really special enough for people to travel in for.” So I said, “Well, the One album has never been performed.” Mike [Portnoy] never lets me live that down! [Laughs]  He’s been bugging me for a long time, like “we gotta perform the whole One album”, you know.

So that was how it started. It wasn’t called Morsefest. We were going to do those two albums in Nashville. Mike started calling it Morsefest and then it kinda stuck. And now we have logos and tee-shirts and all this stuff. I kind of wanted to change the name because I don’t really want it to be about me so much as about the Lord. But Morsefest it is. That’s how it happened.

Roy: And it’s a full weekend of events, too. Right?

Neal: Yeah! At this next one we’ll be doing the entire Question Mark album and Encores.   The next night we’ll be doing the entire Sola Scriptura album hopefully with some very special guests. We’ll see who we can get.

Roy: Progressive music is my favorite music. You’re a very spiritual person; it’s an integral part of your lyrics and music. How does songwriting in the progressive music style lend itself to your expression of spirituality?

Neal: Well, wow! It’s perfect. I always felt like most of my favorite progressive rock had a real spirituality to it already. It’s sort of otherworldly, you know, at its best. So it fits really well. What’s so amazing for me as an artist is I can just write whatever I’m feeling and express my heart completely in any kind of music I feel.

With progressive rock you can kind of put it all together, classical and jazz and pop and rock; even some country flavored things and bluegrass and whatever else you can think of. You can just put it all into one thing and it’s cool. The prog fans are very open and it’s open-ended. Just a “create however you feel to” genre. It’s perfect for me.

Roy: You can express yourself in a grandiose manner if you like or tone it down and speak on an individual basis. That kind of expression.

Neal: Oh yeah, You can do some things that are really contrasting like in classical music where it’s very quiet and then very loud. It’s a whole different kind of music than pop and regular commercial music.

Roy. I’d like to talk about The Grand Experiment, if I could.

Neal: Sure!

Roy: I was shocked at how much I loved that album from the first run through. Usually it takes me a while to warm up to new music, but that is an extremely powerful album.

Neal: Thank you, man. Thank you!

Roy: I read where you came into that album with no set pieces to work on. Do you typically have songs ready for the guys when they get together or do you like coming in and just seeing what’s gonna turn up?

Neal: I usually come in with quite a lot of music already written. I don’t usually know what the other guys like yet. Mike doesn’t like to do that beforehand. I used to think he didn’t like anything that I wrote. [Laughs] But he just doesn’t like to discuss it before we get together in the room. But many times we will do long sections of music that I’ve already written if we like it the way that it is. And then sometimes don't; we play with it and shape and mold it. Still, you have a lot of stuff to start with. For The Grand Experiment I didn’t come in like that. I didn’t come in with anything.

Roy: Are there any kind of time pressures that you have when you’re writing an album without any preconceived ideas?

Neal: Oh yeah. Our schedules permitting I think we only had eight days. So yeah, I didn’t know if we were going to make it this time!

Roy: Really!

Neal: If memory serves, we spent the first three days on the last song, “Alive Again”. Maybe even three and a half days. So it seemed unlikely that we were actually going to finish the album. [Laughs] Of course, that was just the writing, arranging, and getting the drums and bass down. There’s a lot of work that has to happen after that. That’s what I mean by finishing the album, just finish the basic tracking.

Roy: You seem to have a nice relationship with Mike [Portnoy]. You work very well together and you’re in a lot of bands where you work with him.

Neal: Yeah, for me it’s like pretty much all of them! [Laughs] It’s a great collaboration that works really well. It’s been such as blessing. I just pray that it will continue. We will be more and more blessed as the years roll on, you know?

Roy: Your cover of “MacArthur Park” is brilliant. I’ve always loved that song. I was a kid when it came out. What made you choose that particular song?

Neal: That is Bill Hubauer’s baby. Bill basically created that whole thing. I think Mike challenged him to do it, or mentioned it quite a while ago. “Somebody’s gotta do a prog cover of ‘MacArthur Park’”, and Bill took it on. He basically did that whole arrangement and we just played to it and sang to it.

Roy: It’s a fantastic piece that kind of lends itself to the progressive style with so many changes in style and time.

Neal: Yeah, it’s great. It’s quite a piece of work.

Roy: I have a special place for “Waterfall”. The vocals and guitar work are amazing. How did that song develop?

Neal: Bill had a demo and it had a lot of parts to it. We took some different parts. I think there’s parts of that demo that we used for like a verse in another song and then we used a theme from it. And then later on this chorus of “Waterfall” was part of this whole epic demo of Bill’s. We really liked that chorus, and I think I suggested we make that a standalone song. And just in the room we started to just play on acoustic guitars and I think I kinda wrote the verse. Then Eric was playing too, so I don’t remember who developed what exactly. I think that, you know, we all started making up that opening theme and then the whole arrangement of it kind of happened all together.

But it was Bill’s chorus and then I changed the lyrics later slightly. I can’t remember what his original lyrics were, but I labored and labored over those few lines. It’s funny; lyrics can be quite a puzzle sometimes. They’re so simple but they have to be just right. You have very few syllables but it’s all gotta rhyme and flow. And I think Randy helped with some of the lyrics too as I recall. So it was quite a collaborative thing.

Roy: It must be great to hear live and perform live. The vocal harmonies are stunning.

Neal: Oh yeah. Live it was a real centerpiece, you know. We would come out and sit on stools and do that song in the center of the set. Bill played his clarinet at the end and Randy would go over to the keyboards and do the Tron and synth melody and stuff. It was pretty special.

Roy: Can we talk about Songs From November for a bit?

Neal: Sure!

Roy: It’s quite a different direction from The Grand Experiment. It’s so laid back and “west coast” so to speak. Was this a collection of songs that you accumulated over time or was this a product of your environment at the moment?

Neal: I think I wrote most of them in the November of 2013 probably. I think that’s when I  wrote most of those songs. A few of them from before and few of them came later, like right in the midst of making the album. I think “Wear The Chains” I wrote right when we were tracking stuff. So that would have been more like March or April of 2014, I think. And then I think the song “Tell Me Annabelle”, that one I wrote when I was like twenty-three or something. That was written in the eighties. But most of them were written in that November.

I don’t know, I was just in that kind of a space. Sometimes I get in this mood where I just want to write simple, kind of feel-good songs, you know?

Roy: But you tackled some pretty introspective topics on that album too.

Neal: Yeah that too. But to me it’s like Songs From November by and large is what I would call a feel-good singer songwriter album. That’s how I think of it, anyway.

Roy: I’m fond of “Wear The Chains”. You’ve got a great opening line, “The dreamer’s all got day jobs”. It’s spot on about what happens sometimes when dreams are confronted with reality.

Neal: Well I’m glad you got that one. I haven’t heard very many people comment on it. That’s my big kind of social statement on that album. There’s some lyrics in there that I felt really expressed what I was trying to say. Like that last verse about the vision of the cruise ship that everybody’s dying to get on ... “no one could afford it but we gave our lives to board it though we all knew it was going down”. It’s like we’ll give our lives to things that we know really aren’t going to provide what they promised but we don’t know what else to do. We just keep going on, you know.

Roy: I was a part of that generation too. I remember the whole “this is how we’re going to change the world” mindset. And then reality got in the way and all of a sudden we were a little bit more interested in how were we going to survive versus what are we going to do to fix the problems. Then sooner or later we’re part of the problem.

Neal: I was talking to a friend of mine that I think is incredibly gifted who works at a corporation. He was talking about how the upper echelon executives have special parking for their Porsches. I thought, yeah, “special parking for their Porsches has replaced the rebel torches that used to burn inside their mind”.

Roy: Exactly. The dollar replaced the dream.

Neal: Yeah, totally. Yeah.

Roy: A bit about Flying Colors, if we could?

Neal: Sure.

Roy: I was fortunate enough to interview Steve Morse while you were touring over in Europe. He really seemed to enjoy working with you and everyone. That seemed like it was a really fun project.

Neal: Oh yeah. Flying Colors is a lot of fun. It is. Everybody is so amazing. It’s so unique, you know. It’s just a unique blend of amazing talent in that group.

Roy: Is your approach to writing music with them different from, say, a band where your name is the name of the band? Do you defer more? How does the songwriting process change when you’re in Flying Colors versus, say, the Neal Morse Band?

Neal: Sure. The process is different in Flying Colors for me. Although I’ve kind of gotten into this thing of being a little more laid back, you know. Letting other people create more and just pulling back a little bit and seeing what other people will come up with. I did that more with the Neal Morse band this time and I think it’s borne really good fruit.

I kind of learned to do that more in Flying Colors because there’s just so many great cooks in the kitchen. You gotta back down some times or it’s just not going to work out, you know.

Roy: You had some logistical issues to deal with them as well, right? As far as people being all over the world and getting together and putting everything together?

Neal: Oh yeah, It was pretty tough just between Steve’s schedule and Mike’s schedule. Their calendar’s are pretty full.

Roy: Do you have difficulty with that? Some musicians just like to sit in a room and hammer something out. Do you have problems doing things over Skype or over the Internet? Sending tracks back and forth and working with it? Are you able to write that way or does that present problems?

Neal: Oh, I can write that way. But I think when it comes down to it if you’re really going to make a record you’ve got to at least get onto the room for a few days to hash stuff out and track it together. You can only go with Skype and file sharing so far. I think you’ve got to get together, really.

Roy:  Yeah, the emotions ... it seems like it would be tough to feel them over the internet. I mean, you get the raw product but you’re not getting that interaction.

Neal: And you’ve got to get down to the nitty-gritty and really track it. Skype’s great for kicking ideas around. But when it really comes time to make the record you better get together, I think.

Roy: Tell my about “Fury Of My Love”. There are two versions of it on the album: the original and the acoustic version. It seems like it’s a very important piece to you.

Neal: “Fury Of My Love”, I had the idea for that chorus when we were in Paris, actually, playing with Flying Colors on the first tour. I remember we were playing right near Montmartre and I was walking down the steps of Montmartre and ... I don’t know, I just kind of heard that chorus. I came back down and I sang it into my phone. I’m sure it was a little bit different. But then when we were doing Skype stuff many months later I played that chorus for the guys and they really liked it. And then Casey had that verse from a different song and we just kind of put them together and I think it created a really winning song.

Roy: It was beautiful. Both versions of it are very strong.

Neal: Thank you, man.

Roy: Any chance of Yellow Matter Custard getting back together?

Neal: I don’t know. That’s Mike’s baby. Mike puts that stuff together. So, if they give me a call we’ll see what we can do.

Roy: It’s not often that musicians of your stature perform in a tribute band, so to speak. What made you decide to do it?

Neal: Well, the first time around it was for a Modern Drummer festival, I think. It was just something Mike thought would be fun and unique. That was the first time we did it. And then the second time Mike was just in the mood, man. He’s been the one who put those things together. It’s always been fun.

Roy: I’m a diehard Beatles fan too. Fifty years later I still know all the songs by heart.

Neal: Yeah, it’s amazing isn’t it?

Roy: Well, I really appreciate you taking the time with me, Neal. I know you were running around a lot today.

Neal: Well, I appreciate it, Roy. Thank you, man!

Roy: I’m looking forward to your next piece, whichever band it’s in!

Neal: Alright, man. Thank you!