Among prog rock fans, when they hear the name, “Neal Morse,” bands such as Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, or, more recently, Flying Colors come to mind. Of course, really hard core prog rockers think of Neal Morse as an amazingly prolific artist in his right.
That hold on the mind share of fans of the genre will grow stronger with the release of Morse’s latest solo project, “Grand Experiment,” a project that is as bold in its approach to creating as it is in its musical brilliance.
I recently called Neal (my second interview with him) at his Nashville area studio to chat about “Grand Experiment.” After a bit of small talk, I asked him if the album pre-prepped or was this a “winging it” kind of project.
“Most of my albums are 90% there - before I fly people in to record them. Sometimes a little less, maybe, sometime even more. The “Testimony” album, Mike just played to what I had already recorded on the computer at that time. They vary. I think the one album that we messed with a bit more. Some albums we shaped more than others when Randy, Mike and I got together.
“Generally, yeah, it's pretty mapped out. I like to kind of feel like I've got enough really strong material before I commit to going in that far. But this time I felt to take more of a risk and not prepare really anything and just get together with the guys and see what happened. I think that's why this one seems to have a real fresh sound and feel to it. It can really all be accredited to the band.”
Is it fair to say that this album is a prog improvisation project or is that a fair way to describe it?
“No, I don’t think so. I don't think it will come across that way at all. I think it comes across like a really strong, fresh, prog project with some rock and pop songs in there too. I think it comes off like a Neal Morse album, though, with a different twist and a lot of other singers. It's very accessible - in fact maybe even more accessible than some of my other albums.”
It stands to reason that this approach had to have some surprises so I asked if there were any using this approach.
“For me, the whole album is a surprise, really. Many different things happened that surprised me. ‘The Grand Experiment’ song surprised me by how good it came out. I had that chorus and that riff that I was playing on keyboard. I think of it as kind of a piano and organ riff. Eric (Gillette) started playing it heavy and we started playing a little faster. Then Mike had this idea, he was just sloshing away on the drums going, ‘oh yeah, it'll be awesome !’ and adding his ideas to it.
“I'm thinking, ‘Okay …’ You only know if it is anything ‘til it all kind of comes together with the words and everything. I was still seeing how it was all gonna turn out ‘til we put it all together and I went ‘Wow! This really came out really special!’ That's part of the adventure and the mystery of creating in a group. That's why I think groups are so cool is that stuff happens that you would never expect and you would never create on your own.”
As for whether or not the lyrics and been pre-written, Neal said:
“The words were not entirely created when we shot the video. We couldn’t use any of Mike’s video footage, hardly, of him singing because he hadn’t written the words – his little after parts in the verses – he hadn’t written those. So he was mouthing the wrong words in the video so we couldn’t use any of the shots.
“We shot that at Morsefest and we were still in the middle of overdubbing and we weren’t really done with all of our parts yet. It was amazing that it all came together as well as it did because it was kind of very spontaneous.”
Within a group, the dynamic is such that members don’t always receive a change in the formula of what has worked in the past. I asked Morse if there was any resistance to this freewheeling approach.
“I think Randy (George) and Mike (Portnoy) were totally into it. I think Bill (Hubauer), maybe, was a little uncomfortable. He would say to me, ‘I know you worked like this before,’ because I have with Flying Colors and, to some respect, Transatlantic is that way, too. A lot of adventure going on.
“Bill usually maps things out. He’s a pretty organized sort of guy, too. I don’t know, man, you’re sort of flying an airplane by the seat of your pants and you’re not sure how you’re gonna land!”
Neal and the guys always come across as having a lot of fun making their records and videos, coming across as being quite crazy, sometimes. I asked if the zaniness took place in the studio as much as it does on the videos.
“Mike, himself, is a nut! He ranges from a very high powered New York business man to, like, a two year old child within minutes. He can be really intense and really serious and super driven. Then, the next thing, he’s standing on the table making noise like Jerry Lewis or somebody. You kinda never know what you’re gonna get!
“I’m probably a little more staid in the studio. Playing live, I’m more animated. I think I enjoy that maybe a little bit – not that I enjoy it more, it’s just a different experience. I love being in the studio, as well.”
What was the most fun for Morse and the band working in this manner?
“Well, it was either breakfast or dinner. I’m not sure which. But I would have to say dinner, I think. I love recording at home, ‘cause my wife and son cook these amazing meals. That’s definitely a fun part. Recording “The Grand Experiment” was awesome. That was a very fun one to do. Some of the extra tracks were really fun. I really enjoyed recording “The Call,” you know, with all the different changes and all the things that were thrown into that one. That was a gas. It’s a hodge podge of hard work and the most fun you’ve ever had in your life at the same time.”
As for negatives to using this approach, Morse said:
“Well, sometimes I wasn’t sure if what we were doing was good enough. And there were times I was doubting. That’s not a good place to be.”
Did any of those doubts materialize?
“No, they didn’t materialize on the album. You know, once it all came together, it becomes great and how it should be. A lot of things work themselves out. When you’re collaborating, you’re trying things. It’s like you’re traveling, and you go down a road, and maybe some people in the car are like, ‘I don’t know. Maybe we should turn back.’ But, eventually, you arrive. You get there. And we definitely got there on this record.
When I asked Neal if there were there any epiphanies or “lightbulb moments” regarding previous albums while you were working on this album, he said:
“No, I don’t think so. There were a lot of things that we thought about, and when we started to do it, I thought, ‘Oh yea, this is really going to be special.’ I really don’t compare things too much.
“A lot of times, I’ve forgotten what I did before. People actually tell me, ‘Oh, that sounds like something you did before.’ I don’t really think about what I did before very much. So I need people around me to keep me honest, so to speak.
“When we came up with the a cappella beginning, Eric, Bill, and I just started singing that in the room. That was a real special moment. I was like, ‘Oh, yea, what a cool way to open the record.’ I can’t remember if I’ve ever opened a record with a cappella three-part vocals on anything I’ve been involved in. I was just really happy about it. I think the beginning of the album particularly has a great, fresh energy.”
I asked Neal if he was taking anything from his “Grand Experiment” method of album making to future projects.
“I try not to hold on to methods. It’s easy to think that, because something worked once, we should do it again. Sometimes that’s good- you know, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. For example, I’ve used Rich Mouser to mix for years, because if you love it, why change it?
“I try not to predict the future because I never know what the Lord has in store. But I’m pretty sure we’ll do another Neal Morse Band record. If we do, I’d really like to be together when we do some of the overdubbing, particularly the vocals. It was a challenge to get all of the vocal phrasing right when you’re not in the same state. But we did manage to do it through the miracles of modern technology and new cutting things. It was a crazy way to make a record.
“After the initial sessions, we were all overdubbing in our respective homes. And sometimes I’d listen to a mix, then I’d text Bill and Eric, ‘Hey, man. I don’t like the phrasing on this line.’ or ‘I’d like to change the lyrics to this line. Eric, can you sing this?’ So he’d sing it, send it to Rich in California who would then line it up and tie it into the master that he’s mixing. Then he’d remix the session, send me an MP3, and I’d listen to it on my phone from whoever knows where I was. I was traveling a lot during that time. I was on vacation with my family and whatnot. So I’d listen to it on my phone and go, ‘Yea, cool, approved!’ or ‘Maybe we should phrase it a little differently…’ Sometimes I would sing things the way I wanted them phrased into the Memos on my phone, and then send it to the guy. There’s a million different ways to sing a line, you know what I mean? The line that we kept texting and e-mailing to each other was ‘This is a crazy way to make a record.’”
I posited that he must be thankful for the types of technologies that improve affordability and prevent him and the band from settling for something that is less than what they envisioned, he agreed.
“Yea, it’s a matter of affordability, and also being able to do other things we already have planned. It would take a lot longer if we all had to be in the same place at the same time. Also, we all get to be at home with our families for the holidays. A lot of this took place during the holidays, and that would be pretty rough. So yea, I’m thankful.”
I asked Morse which song from “Grand Experiment” he would use as the album’s calling card.
“For me, it’s ‘The Call.’ I think everyone is really well represented on that. It’s real ‘progy.’ It’s got the three part harmonies. It’s got different guys singing lead on different parts, and everybody’s killing it. Mike’s killing it. The instrumentals are great. To me, that’s the quintessential Neal Morse Band song right now. That’s how I feel about it.”
I tried to pry out of Morse whether or not there was any left over material that from Grand Experiment that would be used for the next album.
“We used pretty much everything between this and the bonus disc. There are some other ideas we didn’t get to, but everything that we got to is on the three disc special edition.”
As for tour plans in support of Grand Experiment, Morse said:
“Well, we’re doing seven or eight shows in North America starting February 21 in Nashville. We’re doing a few dates in Canada as well. L.A., Chicago, East Coast. And then we go to Europe, and we’re doing nine dates in Europe. So we’ll be out for about three weeks, maybe a little more, which is just right for me. I don’t like to be away from my family that long.”
And after the tour?
“I’m working on a piece for musical theater, actually. It’s very different than anything I’ve done before, so I’m hoping to see about getting that on the stage. I’m also writing some worship songs, more singer-songwriter songs. Then, later in the year, there’s probably going to be a MorseFest Deluxe package with both the live albums and the live DVD. The whole MorseFest experience will probably be coming out in the fall. I’m not sure what else will be coming, but I’m sure it will be good. I know there’ll probably be at Flying Colors live this year from the last tour. And maybe some other surprises.”
Morse fans, no doubt, can’t wait to see what those surprises are. In the mean time, they can indulge themselves in his “Grand Experiment” for a musical extravaganza.