Latest Release: Jesus Christ: The Exorcist (Frontiers/Inside Out)Website: www.nealmorse.com
Progressive rock musician Neal Morse is truly prolific. His discography is not only vast and varied but he has worked with some incredible musicians in a variety of styles to produce and create an array of projects. This includes groups such as Transatlantic which still continues to this day, when schedules permit. Having left his flagship band Spock’s Beard on committing to a spiritual path, he ventured into a solo career as well as either starting up of continuing other band projects, all of which are well regarded within the music community.
Only last year, Morse released an epic progressive rock opera in the form of Jesus Christ – The Exorcist which is chock full of musical influences, references points, great songs and guest artists galore. Spurred on by a comment to reimagine the legendary Jesus Christ Superstar over a decade ago, the massive project finally came to fruition in the form of a sprawling double album.
For those Australian fans that have followed his career or otherwise since discovered his musical output over the years, Neal has finally found the opportunity to play a couple of shows on the East Coast. He will be playing in acoustic mode as a solo artist with a plethora of material to cover in a unique setting. As he recently landed in the country, Loud Online was pleased to discuss his brief yet very promising first ever tour to Australia.
Progressive rock fans never thought you’d be in Australia but it has finally happened.
My wife booked this vacation here about two years ago and then I while I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I should do some shows while I am there’. Haha, so the vacation came first and the shows second but I’m really excited about it. I will be playing some new stuff or at least new versions of older stuff actually and I think that is going to be really cool.
The Jesus Christ: The Exorcist project and rock opera would have taken a lot of work. The pre-production must have been staggering.
Well, yeah, that project, I started in 2008 or 2009, way back was when it began and then I got the record deal for it about ten years later. So, it happened in these spurts. It was really interesting, how I was right in the middle of a re-write when Michael Caplan from New York called me and he was really excited. He said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a record deal for you, you’re not going to believe this,’ and I said, ‘Wow, that is amazing because I am right in the middle of this re-write,’ and I wasn’t sure how it was going to go but it went so well. I am just really thrilled at how the album came out and it is really fresh in my mind because I have been listening to mixes of the live version that is going to come out in the spring of this year. Jerry Guidroz [engineer] sent me the mixes and I’ve been listening to it and I am really pleased with how it has turned out but yeah, it was a project that was on and off for ten years.
These days, with something like that, are you sending audio files all around the place?
Ah, yes, somewhat but you know, a lot of people came to studio such as vocalists Jake Livgren [Protokaw], John Schlitt [Petra] and Rick Florian [White Heart]. So, there wasn’t as much file-sharing as one might think. Bill Hubauer [keys] and Randy George [bass] did all that stuff that we were all doing and Eric Gillette [drums] came to the studio. Man, he did so amazingly as he is also a great guitar player, keyboard player and singer.
Did the label have a hands-off approach and just advise you of a deadline?
Pretty much, yeah. It is pretty cool, you know but I have never had a label lean on me very much for anything. We just tell them what we are planning to do. Sometimes there are struggles if you’re not on time and you’re not delivering what you’re expecting to give them. But we just tell them and we’ve never had any trouble. There have never been any really hard and fast creative decisions on their part. We’ve made all of the creative decisions in all the bands and projects that I have been involved with and we’ve delivered the albums so everybody is really happy so it is great.
Have you noticed that higher profile projects like Transatlantic or Flying Colors have given musicians like Mike Portnoy and Steve Morse a creative outlet?
Oh yeah, but then every band is an outlet in that it is a new experience. You have to figure out what works with those groups of people. Yeah, it is also an outlet for me as it is totally different. Both Transatlantic and Flying Colors are very different people and very, very different projects. I am honoured to be a part of it.
How would you say your song writing has evolved of late given your involvement in projects?
Well, I am just in it, everything that I am doing, I am just totally in that. I don’t really think about evolving, frankly, to be honest. I just find myself getting inspired by a musical idea or a piece of music and I try to follow each thing to where I think it feels like it wants to go. If I get a sense of, ‘oh, this feels like it should be part of a bigger piece or that it should just be a section in a project,’ then I might save it for that. Sometimes that has happened but other times I will play things for Mike [Portnoy ] or I will play a brief piece of something for the band and no one may have any feelings about it or may say, ‘You know, this might be better to be on one of your singer / songwriter records,’ but most of the time I just kind of have a sense of it. I really try to follow each thing whether it is a simple three and four minute song or whether it is a two hour, full concept album which is when I will try to discover what it is that it is supposed to be in its purest form. That is the fun and the challenge of it; it is in the discovery.
Do you then have to put on your production hat and concern yourself with song lengths and instrumentation and stop thinking about writing?
Yeah sure and it happens really naturally yet with the band, of course, we do that together and I don’t always get my way. It is the nature of a band that things get changed and you learn to trust everybody and the real challenge of that is asking when should I or when is it the right thing to stand up or stand firm and say, ‘No, no, this needs to be this way’ and sometimes you have to force things through and try to convince people. Sometimes there is no room for that to happen and you get disagreements so it is then a matter of picking your battles a lot of the time. Really, I just end up praying that it will all turn out well in the end.
So doing this coming acoustic tour would free you up to do whatever arrangements of songs that you so desire?
Yeah, and it is totally up to me and I was just practising at my home in Nashville the other day and I initially thought, ‘Well, I think I will pretty much do mostly what I did on Life and Times acoustic gig that I did about a year or so ago.’ But then I started fooling around with other things and now I am actually doing a largely different set. It is all really good and natural for me to do some different things so these shows are going to be including some things that have never been played before, at least by me, solo.
Do you find that your vocal delivery changes when playing in a solo acoustic setting?
Yeah sure, it is different experience. When you have a band behind you and you are singing with other people, you kind of adjust to that. Really the main thing I feel like about these acoustic shows is where the keyboard would be when I might need to sing. So I am trying to have it be a really kind of personal sharing kind of thing which is very different from a big rock show. A lot of times with a band, the talking points are also on the set list, right, so you’re pretty much doing the same show every night. The lighting guys, production and video crew and everybody else are wired in with all of this stuff so there isn’t very much freedom to change things much at all. You can take away or add a song or change a song, maybe but you know, it is really going to be a similar show, especially on the last Morse Band tours where we were doing an entire concept album. The only thing that might vary was the encore but it actually never did because like on The Great Adventure tour, it was a great gig and with the way that it flowed, I wouldn’t change a thing. I am just saying that the acoustic thing is really cool and different. It allows me to take requests. Somebody might call out some obscure old song of mine and if I think that I can actually pull it off, I might just do it. I may even scrap the whole second half of my set list and do a bunch of other stuff. That makes it really fun for me and I think it is fun for the audience.
Indeed. It is funny you mentioned that because with really big bands, you can see how some things are choreographed to the hilt and there is no spontaneity at all.
Oh yeah and I’ve noticed that a lot of musicians get really comfortable with the set. I remember when I was playing with the Eric Burdon Band in the nineties and we had our set and Eric’s songs were pretty short. I asked, ‘Hey man, what do you think about swapping out one these hits for one of these hits?’ because we had been playing the exact same set for six months. I’ll never forget the drummer and bass player saying, ‘Well, you know, we’re getting comfortable with the set, you know, so we don’t really want to change anything around’ and I thought, ‘Wow, comfortable?’ I just wanted to do some different things but everybody is different that way.
I’m curious about the differences between say the progressive rock scene and the Christian rock scene given you’ve interacted with people from Petra, Whiteheart and Theocracy. Do you notice a very different approach to song writing and projects in general?
To be honest, I had not really worked in the Christian music world. I am a Christian and when I worked with vocalist Matt Smith of Theocracy, John Schlitt and Rick Florian, they just come as guests on my stuff. I don’t really know how it works in the Christian world or at least in the Christian recording world. I am pretty much in my world. Mike has this phrase that he always says, ‘There is the real world and there is the Neal world’. I am kind of in my own world of guys that I work with and companies that I interact with and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Presumably progressive metal compared to doing what say Petra does would be quite stifling?
Oh yeah, I don’t know. I have a kind of a short musical attention span and that is why, if I do a bunch of prog albums, I need to do another kind of album. I just like to do different things. If I do the same thing, I just get a little bit burnt out on it. I would enjoy doing a Petra type of album but then I would want to go back and do something like Transatlantic.
How would you say your new material is different to the work you did with Spock’s Beard?
Well, it is not totally different. Certainly, I have just been working on the new Transatlantic album and it is definitely in the wheelhouse of Spock’s Beard. It is different from Spock’s Beard because that was its own thing, you know, and it was unique as the members themselves are but the movement of the music has some similarities. Things like the big theme parks but the big difference between Transatlantic, my material and Spock’s Beard is that Spock’s Beard always wanted to go shorter on sections whereas Transatlantic always wants to lengthen sections. So, if you listen to Spock’s Beard, they are jumping around from thing to thing a lot quicker than Transatlantic does. But, yeah, I am excited because I have created a Spock’s Beard medley which I haven’t played in years that I am going to be doing this coming Friday and Saturday night. So that is going to be kind of a neat thing.
Have you listened to the full three LPs of Jesus Christ – The Exorcist in one sitting?
I don’t think that I have, actually. When you’ve worked on something for so long, you pretty much know how it goes. I have listened to some of it and I have checked out the vinyls but I don’t think that I have sat there for two hours and listened to the whole thing.
How do you find it compares to Jesus Christ Superstar, which is an obvious impetus for the project?
Oh yeah, well it is quite different because it is through my lens. There are some similarities, of course, you know, the high singing, for one. When I was writing it I was thinking, ‘Wow, I don’t have to write for my voice, I can write for something like the guys that sang on Broadway or that sang on Jesus Christ Superstar,’ so I wrote all of these really high parts. I love it. I was listening to the live version and for me I am just like, praising God, I feel like I have a really blessed piece of music but you know, that is for other people to decide. There is a lot of really great music on Jesus Christ Superstar as well.
Do you find time to keep up with current prog bands at all?
I do, from time to time particularly when you’re at some place like Cruise to the Edge so you get around to see all of these guys playing live. So, I will see bands like Haken or Big, Big Train or Frost*, and what a privilege with guys like Adrian Belew and of course, Marillion and just to see what they are doing. I can’t think of all the bands but Brand X were killer on the last cruise. So, it is fun to get around and see what everybody is doing.
So, there is hope for all the King Crimson fans that prog will live on.
Oh yeah, yeah, sure, there are lots of cool young bands. Some of them I am working with that I am trying to help who are really, really good and their music will be coming out later this year. There is a lot of new music to be excited about.