Steve Morse: Flying High Again

Words By Jeb Wright
Photos by Joey Pippin

When it comes to great guitar playing, great drumming, great keyboard playing and great bass playing the names Steve Morse, Mike Portnoy, Neal Morse and Dave LaRue are some of the first names to come to mind. Music veteran Bill Evans had the foresight and wherewithal to get the four aforementioned virtuosos in the same room together for nine days to form a new band and record an album.

Joining the musicians was vocalist Casey McPherson, who was recommended by Portnoy. While Casey was younger than the rest of the band, he was instrumental in making sure the group, known as Flying Colors, stretched out and pushed themselves to create original sounding music.

In the interview that follows, Steve Morse admits the musicianship was nearly overwhelming. Ideas were thrown around and changes were done on a dime, which pushed the band to challenge themselves both technically and creatively.

Morse discusses the recording sessions for Flying Colors, including the many arguments they had and even compares the process with his new band to his days with the Dixie Dregs. At the end of the day, Flying Colors could be more than just a project, as the band is looking for ways to play live outside of Morse’s commitments to Deep Purple’s touring and recording schedule.


Jeb: Flying Colors is a great band. Bill Evans, who is a music industry vet, put this together. How did it all come about?

Steve: Bill had been asking me if I would like to do a project with Neal Morse. We both fit into that genre of symphonic, instrumental rock. I said that I thought that would be awesome but, the usual thing with Deep Purple was that I didn’t know when I could get away. We finally got together and it went very well.

Jeb: You didn’t have a whole lot of time to write or record this album.

Steve: Neal and I spent about a day and a half together and we had nine days with the band. We had the album done at that point. It was just a matter of having people do their overdubs and the mixing after those nine days.

It went really quickly because there was so much energy in the room. We almost had too many ideas. Here is a good antidote for you that will describe how it went: Neal was working on a song with us in the studio. There was something about the chorus that wasn’t working for us and we wanted to change it but he was arguing because he wanted to keep it the way it was. He got up to get a drink and by the time he came back, Casey [McPherson] and I had changed the chorus. He came back and we played the song and he said, “What happened to my chorus?” I said, “Get a drink; lose a chorus!”

Jeb: Neal Morse is a great talent. Is this the first time you have collaborated with Neal?

Steve: Yes, Neal is a wonderful guy on many levels. I really respect that he is very spiritual and I think that really helped us, as we had so much energy to corral with the group.

I had heard of Spock’s Beard, his old band, because people used to always ask me if we were related. People have said, “When are you going to make an album with your brother?” Come to think of it, he kind of looks like he could be my brother [laughter].

Jeb: It really is rare to have that much talent together at once.

Steve: What made it work is that we all had a lot of respect for each other. Every member of the band is used to having their own band and being the one who has total control. We all did a great job of being able to disagree with each other on certain decisions, but, we were allowed to make our case, and most times, even though we disagreed, we were able to go along with the majority for the betterment of the project.

We had very, very lively discussions going on during every idea, for every song. I think that is why we were able to write the album so fast; everyone had an opinion, instantly.

Neal, Casey and I, with the chords, had a lot of arguments. I would say, “I really like the song but what if I did this with that chord.” Casey was saying, “I really like what you guys are writing, and it is cool and it feels good, but it just sounds like ‘80’s music to me.” Casey is younger than us, so often times, everyone was happy with the music but him. We had to find the common ground.

Jeb: Casey has some guts to speak up to guys like Morse, Morse, LaRue and Portnoy!

Steve: Nobody was shy in the band. Like I said, we had some lively discussions. Sometimes, we had to pull it out of Casey. We would all be going, “This is really great” and then we would see Casey sitting there like he was lost. We would go, “What is going on?” Casey would say, “There is something about it that is not selling me.” It was good for the project and really made us work hard.

Jeb: You are not an egomaniac musician and neither is Neal Morse. Did that make the process of having all that creativity manageable?

Steve: I certainly appreciated it and I really respected the amount of talent that everyone has, that’s for sure. I’ve gotten a little bit spoiled by always getting to work with great musicians. What really blew me away was the writing process. I was spewing out ideas and so were they, and nobody had a chance to get a word in edgewise. I was actually struggling to keep up. I really think this is one of the favorite albums I have ever been involved in.

Jeb: The song “Kayla” has the mixing of styles on it. I really like that song.

Steve: I like that song too. It’s a mixture of sounds, like you say. The entire album is really a blend of sounds.

Jeb: “Infinite Fire” is a nice 10 plus minute song with great guitar playing on it. It is my favorite track.

Steve: Neal and I worked on that song the most, together. We had a different chorus for it but everything else was pretty much there.

Neal sent me a demo of it to do a guitar part on – this was before the band was even together. The demo was so good that I made a fool of myself gushing over it. I told him how fantastic he did on the demo. We had some ideas on that song that actually ended up turning into parts of other songs; “Kayla” had bits on it that came from writing that song.

Jeb: Where did Casey come from?

Steve: Mike knew him from a band he was in that opened for Dream Theater. Mike knew he was very talented and that he was able to go farther than he was going in his band, style wise. Mike knew he would really stretch out in this setting.

Jeb: Will you play live together?

Steve: We are bouncing possible dates off each other right now.

Jeb: Tell me about working with Mike Portnoy.

Steve: Mike is an animal. He is relentless on the drums. He is a trip; I can’t believe how creative he is.

During the day, we were trying out ideas and my head was just full of things and they just blew me away. Mike just seemed to know what was coming next, no matter what we were doing. Mike would say, “Lets do that part once and then go into the other part and come back and then do it twice.” Casey would reply, “Let’s change this part to this….” If I daydreamed for a second then I was lost.

Jeb: How was making this album different than the albums you made with the Dixie Dregs?

Steve: When I recorded with the Dregs, we accomplished things every time we rehearsed so in that manner, it was like this project. I was the one, however, in the Dregs, that was bringing in the ideas for the band to do. I would bring in an idea, even if it was just a twenty second little bit, and I would get the band to do that part. The next day, I would bring in something else and on the third day we would tie everything together to one tune.

In the early days, I actually brought in charts. I stopped doing that because when we would play gigs – I am talking very modest gigs, like playing for free in the park – and some of the guys would show up with music stands. I decided that if I didn’t give them music, then they wouldn’t bring music stands to gigs.

One of my trademarks was that I would start with the most difficult parts that would be in the tune. I would make them learn the hardest part and often they would go, “Just let me go home and work on it.” I would say, “Give me five minutes of your total attention, right now, and we will work on it.” Within five minutes they would, easily, be able to handle the part.

Ultimately, I think that gave everybody a lot more confidence because they would have somebody pushing them. I would push them really hard sometimes.

Jeb: Flying Colors seems like everyone was pushing and pulling and throwing it against the wall and seeing what stuck.

Steve: Everyone was really pushing everybody. I was working close to capacity during those moments where the songs were changing. Normally, I can spit out ideas really fast but Neal would just say something like, “I think an F# minor would work better over this part” and Casey would go, “What about doing this?” I would have the scenario change twice within one minute and it was really hard to keep up.

Jeb: Do you see your career, at some point in the future, going away from Deep Purple and more into the area of Flying Colors?

Steve: Yes, I definitely do. I don’t think Deep Purple can keep up the level of touring that we do, forever. I have always pushed them, sometimes too hard, for some control in the scheduling so that I can book stuff when there is a touring gap.

The problem I keep running into is that when a gap becomes available, then it is too late to book the dates for my solo stuff. I don’t find out about the dates being totally open until pretty late in the game. That is my only complaint with Deep Purple; I wish I had more control over the schedule. I think it is naturally going to slow down, somewhat.

Jeb: After almost two decades is it still fun to play “Highway Star” and “Smoke on the Water?” I mean you are playing with rock icons.

Steve: I have been with them for eighteen years. If I have a difference of opinion with them when writing music, I don’t think about who it is that I am arguing with, I just think, “You’re wrong.” They think the same way about me. We are just like brothers in that sense. We have differences of opinion, as things like that do happen. I have a tremendous amount of respect for every member of that band and they have the same respect for me.

Jeb: I hear a new Deep Purple album is on the way.

Steve: There is one coming up. The way we do it is that we record some ideas without vocals and then we present the ideas to Ian [Gillan]. There is more writing sessions scheduled in May, and then we will start recording in June and July.

Jeb: My last one goes back to a comment you made about Neal and his spirituality. Are you a spiritual person?

Steve: Yes, but not so much like Neal, as he is very openly Christian and he walks the walk and talks the talk.

Jeb: Every time I see you in Deep Purple you’re wearing what looks like a Native American choker. Is that part of your spirituality?

Steve: I have been involved in a few benefit situations for Native Americans who got screwed by our government. I think it is the classic case of a bureaucracy out of control.

I am more of a witness than anything else. I am a supporter of not forgetting the fact that we came here and unnecessarily took over more than we had to. People should be able to work together and live together. We didn’t have to humiliate them, take everything from them and practically commit mass genocide against them.

When people shoot at you then you shoot back but that is not always what happened. The government did terrible things to them.

One of the benefits I was part of was to help this wonderful lady who was being affected because our government changed their minds and was now taking back the land, which was horrible scrubland to begin with.

This nice elderly lady was raising sheep on that land. She spun wool and made dye from plants on that land to make things from the wool she spun. The government was going to move her and kick her off that land because they found some minerals in the ground. I really can’t stand things like that and I had to help her because she was such a wonderful person; she is dead now.


Jeb: I live on the Kansas and Oklahoma border so I understand what you’re saying.

Steve: When you destroy someone’s culture, then you take everything away from them. You are nothing without your culture. When your culture is passing stuff down from grandfather to son to grandson and that gets interrupted, then you destroy more than you can ever know.

Jeb: I will never look at you the same when I see you wearing that on stage.

Steve: I have a collection of them. I love indigenous art from around the world. I have some that are made here, some that are made in Australia, some from Asia and some from Africa. It all looks Native American in nature and that is one of the things I like about it. It is interesting to me that a lot of the indigenousness art around the world is very similar looking in nature. I am very glad you asked me about that.

Jeb: In closing, is there anything else you want to say about Flying Colors?

Steve: You did a great job of covering everything. The main thing that I ask is that people don’t prejudge what you think it will sound like. I think there is a tendency for people to assume what any music that I make with guys like Neal Morse or Mike Portnoy will sound like and people should not do that, as this is different than what you might expect. I also think this is one of the easiest albums to listen to that I have been a part of.

Jeb: I will try to talk people into actually buying it instead of stealing it off the internet.

Steve: [Laughter] That would be nice!