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Interviews   

Neil Morse : generosity and sincerity


We already mentioned Neal Morse’s particular relation to faith in our last interview with him. A relation which inspires him hope that he tries to share without imposing it. When he ends an interview saying “God bless you”, there’s nothing aggressive in it: it’s just a sincere attention.

But music’s the most important, and the message carried through his lyrics has a meaning only because it makes sense with the spirit of his songs. And talking about music, he explained us the way he composes, how his last album Momentum was so quick to write, and also his recurrent inspirations that he can’t get rid of and which he laughs at.

« You know, sometimes if you have material for a really long time, by the time you record it you’re already sick of it. But I didn’t have that opportunity with this album. »

Radio Metal: Apparently, when you invited Mike Portnoy and Randy George to record the album, the album wasn’t even written. And then you experienced some creative explosion. What do you think triggered that?

Neal Morse : To be perfectly honest, I prayed about it, I felt inside that if I booked it, if I booked the time with Mike and Randy, that I would have the music. The creative process is really interesting, I don’t know if I entirely understand it. I just begin to wake up with ideas in the morning, and when ideas are coming like that, you can write a lot of music really quickly. So yeah, I wrote the album really in about two weeks and then I demoed the stuff up in about a week and the guys came in the last week of January. I think that’s the reason why some people have said that the album has a freshness about it, that it seems to sound a little fresher to them than some of my other records. I think maybe that’s why, it was just really fresh when we recorded it. You know, sometimes if you have material for a really long time, by the time you record it you’re already sick of it. But I didn’t have that opportunity with this album.

Don’t you think that on the other hand, writing instinctively, like that, is risky because it can maybe make your music more predictable?

Well, yeah, sure. Or you could just be wrong! You could think that you have some real inspiration and then maybe later on, on reflection, you’ll listen and go “You know, that wasn’t such a good idea after all”. That’s where Mike and Randy are such an important piece of the puzzle, because I sent them the demos and they both got back to me – Mike didn’t, really, but Randy got back to me and he said that he felt that it was exactly the right track, you know, to make an album that was less intellectual, simpler, a little easier to listen to than some of my previous records. It was just the right album at the right time.

« So I was just kind of laying around watching TV […] and I watched a TV show called Hillsong and the name of the guy’s talk was ‘Momentum’. […] It really felt like the Lord was speaking through that. »

On the title track of the album, we can hear you sing: « You’ve got some new momentum, you better keep going. ». Do those lyrics symbolize your state of mind and your thoughts about your musical career?

Yeah, pretty much. Like I say in the liner notes on the album, the first week of January I had just come home from being on holiday and I had thought that maybe we were going to do a new Transatlantic album, in the first part of January. But as it turned out Mike and Pete [Trewavas, bass], their schedules couldn’t connect so there I was sitting home, wondering “It’s kind of the beginning of the year” a lot of times it’s time to reflect on what to do that year, a lot of times people think about maybe changing direction or whatever. So I was just kind of laying around watching TV, thinking about what was next and praying about it and I watched a TV show called Hillsong and the name of the guy’s talk was “Momentum” and to sum up his message, it was “God gave us momentum, don’t be afraid to make some changes but keep going in the direction that God put you in”. It really felt like the Lord was speaking through that. That’s how I was feeling about me and my music and where I was at, we’ve got momentum and I feel like I want to continue with it.

This type of progressive rock is a genre you’ve been practicing for a long time. Plus you played with Mike Portnoy and Randy George. You’ve been playing with them for a long time. Do you think all those elements helped you to write faster?

We’re certainly used to working together. But some different things happened this time. Randy came out early and we wrote the framework for “Thoughts Part 5” in a day. I believe it was a Friday and Mike was coming on Sunday, I think. We all took Saturday off, as I recall [laughs]. But it was different for Randy and I to get together and write beforehand, we hadn’t really done that before. But one thing that’s so cool when you’re used to working with people and you trust them, you can just feel really good about getting together. I just had such a peace about knowing that it would all work out when we got together, that if I was off track in any way, that they would help me get on track, and they surely did. I’m really happy with the result.

« I want to share the hope that I found through Jesus […]. But I also want people to enjoy the music. I feel like it’s important to have the music be something that will help people feel the words. You know, I just try to write words that are appropriate to the music. »

Your albums are always very hopeful. Do you try with your music to share with the listener the hope you found in religion?

Oh yeah, I definitely want to share the hope that I found in religion. Of course, I don’t really like “religion” so much as a word, because that makes so many people think of the fact that there’s a lot of dead religion in the world.

Maybe “religion” isn’t the best word, maybe “faith” would be a better one.

Yeah, maybe “faith”, I’m not offended by “religion” it’s just that certain words conjure up certain images to people. But yeah, I want to share the hope that I found through Jesus and the work that I feel like he’s doing in my heart and my life and about how I’ve been delivered. But I also want people to enjoy the music. I feel like it’s important to have the music be something that will help people feel the words. You know, I just try to write words that are appropriate to the music. So like in “Thoughts Part 5” the words are not really very spiritual because it wasn’t that kind of song. So I’m trying not to force it. It has to flow naturally to come across as something sincere, something that they can feel, that they can sing to. It’s not just about me or my experience, it’s about us.

You’re a very prolific, almost hyperactive musician, just like Mike Portnoy. Is this one of the reasons both of you are friends?

It might be. It’s part of it, we are alike in certain respects, we’re both very “get it done” kind of people. We make decisions to get something done, then we want to see it get done in a timely fashion. That might have something to do with it, but there are a lot of things with us that are different as well. But we just appreciate each other and our friendship is growing, I really love him, he’s a wonderful guy.

Could you give us an update on your other projects like Flying Colors and Transatlantic?

Yeah, sure. Flying Colors, as you probably know, is going on tour next month. So I’m going to start practicing for that next week I think. So Flying Colors is very much on my mind, the tour and there’s also going to be a Making Of DVD and I think they’re going to shoot a live DVD while we’re out. So there’ll be more Flying Colors stuff. Transatlantic right now is on hold waiting for schedules to permit for us to get together, so that’s what’s going on with the projects.

Okay, and do you think that Daniel Gildenlöw will participate to the next Transatlantic record?

I don’t know, that’s something that we’ll get to talking about in the future.

Okay, and about Flying Colors, wasn’t it hard to get all those musicians, since this is some kind of “super project”?

It was hard to schedule it. The scheduling is a difficult thing, a lot of times on email, people are very interested, but then when it actually comes down to getting together, that’s the hard part. That’s when people actually have to commit to the time and, you have to get the funding to make it all happen, you know? But Flying Colors seems to be working really well.

« I have to be careful sometimes about what I listen to, because it’ll show up in some mutated way in the middle of a Transatlantic song, or something. »

You regularly participate to cover projects. Does covering other bands give you some perspective on your own music?

You know, I’m always learning from other writers and other records, it does influence me sometimes. When you dig into a record and you start really listening to it and listening to what they played and how they approached it, you know, it certainly does impact me, but everything impacts me. I have to be careful sometimes about what I listen to, because it’ll show up in some mutated way in the middle of a Transatlantic song, or something. It’s a funny thing. I have a fun story for you. You know the Transatlantic Whirlwind album? I was asked to help at my children’s school, they were auditioning kids for the Charlie Brown musical. So they asked me to play while they auditioned these kids. What they auditioned them on was the song “Happiness” from Charlie Brown. So I played it for about an hour-and-a-half as all these different kids came in and sang to it. Then two weeks later, I had this musical theme in my mind [sings it at the top of his lungs], you know one of the main themes from The Whirlwind. And it wasn’t until later on that I realized it’s loosely based on this song from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the musical: [singing] “Happiness is two kinds of ice cream, Pizza with sausage, climbing a tree…” [laughs].

So didn’t you get a lawsuit for that?

No but I might now that I’ve sung it to you.

[Laughs] Okay so I’ll try to keep it secret.

No, I don’t think it’s close. What I mean was that things will come into my head and then they’ll come out in these weird ways. Sometimes you’ll think of it later and go like “You know? That was influenced by this thing!” you know? I have to be careful I don’t listen to too much Pop or I’ll write something that sounds like « Move Like Jagger » or something.

« [The Beatles] were the first group that I was really into when I was just a kid, you know. So I kind of relate to it almost as if they were my musical parents. You know, like when you’re a father, sometimes even when you don’t want to, you’ll find yourself sounding like your parents. »

About that, it really looks like The Beatles are a big part of your artistic life. Their influence is very important in your music and you created Yellow Matter Custard, a tribute band to the Beatles with Paul Gilbert and Mike Portnoy. Could you tell us more about your relationship with The Beatles?

They were the first group that I was really into when I was just a kid, you know. So I kind of relate to it almost as if they were my musical parents. You know, like when you’re a father, sometimes even when you don’t want to, you’ll find yourself sounding like your parents. Like you’ll be correcting your son and going “Oh my God, I sound exactly like my father!”. Well that’s the way it is with the Beatles, sometimes I don’t realize until later on. I’ll be listening to something and think that I didn’t mean for that to sound as Beatley as it does, like “Freak” on the new album. I really didn’t mean to be singing it with a slight English accent, but between the way I sing it and the way the strings are, it’s totally Beatley. Which isn’t bad, it’s just funny that I don’t even mean to sound that way and I still do. It just seems to be the way that it is.

So do you consider yourself as the son of the Beatles?

Well, no, there’s a lot more influences in there. It’s like all kinds of musical influences come into my heart and mind over the decades that I’ve been alive and now it all comes out in these different ways and it comes out. You hear all kinds of influences here and there from all kinds of different things as you listen to my records, you know? But hopefully, there’s a certain amount of originality to it as well.

And is there another band that you would like to do the same thing with as you did with the Beatles with Yellow Matter Custard? A whole tribute band to that band?

Well that was really Mike’s thing, I just tagged along. Mike’s the one that always wants to do these tribute band things. I don’t know if I’d really do it on my own, it’s just not really my thing. But I’m glad Mike invited me to do it, it’s been really, really fun and that’s how I got to know some of these great guys like Paul Gilbert, Kasim Sulton and Matt Bissonette, you know, so it’s been a really good experience. But I just hope Mike invites me along on the next one.

To wrap up, do you maybe have one last thing to say?

I would say “Hey, God bless you!” and you’re in France right? We’re hoping to put together a concert for the Momentum tour and I hope to see you all there. And God bless all my good friends in Français.

Interview conducted on August, 7th, 2012 by phone
Transcription: Stan

Neal Morse’s official website : www.nealmorse.com
Album : Momentum, will be released on September 11, 2012 via Century Media Records



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