|Posted on February 5, 2015 at 7:35 PM|
Neal Morse - a man and musician whose life and musical paths have been both numerous and diverse. Never one to shy from facing a challenge, as the man himself said to us, “life is full of surprises.” With his new album The Grand Experiment (reviewed by Manchester Rocks here) and a batch of US and European dates just a few weeks away, Neal gives us an insight into writing the album and the upcoming tour.
2014 was quite an intense year with the Transatlantic and Flying Colors albums and tours. Did you feel ready to start on your own album at the end of all that?
Not really! I prayed about it a lot and felt like we should go ahead and push this album through so that we could tour in March. I did a festival called Morsefest in November in my home town, which was incredibly great, extremely grueling work wise, and so I wanted to take some time off after that. But I didn't feel like that was what I should do. So, I asked the guys if they wanted to work their tails off too and try to get the album finished by December 1st so it could be released in February. Obviously, they said, “yes” and we went for it! We were actually a month late delivering the album but the labels have been kind and are releasing it anyway!
Did the time spent on TA and FC meant you didn’t really have too much time to write or prepare your material for the new album?
Well, yes, I didn't have much time to prepare for this album, but the cool thing was that I didn't really want to be prepared for this album anyway. What I mean is, I thought it would be best if I came in with nothing and we just created in the room, and I left a lot of room for the other guys to do their thing, which is exactly what happened. I think that's one of the reasons why it sounds as fresh as it does. It was very spontaneously made, and I think you can feel that.
Was it a bit nerve wracking this time around having usually had most things in place?
Yes! At one point in the middle of the week, I wasn't too sure it was all going to turn out, not that I don't trust the guys or anything like that. I just thought maybe we were gonna need more time and I knew we didn't have any other openings in our schedules. I find recording many times to be a constant test of trust and learning to relax and let go and let things happen.
You also involved the band members much more in the writing this time – did that relieve the pressure of recording a different way?
Somewhat... It all depends on if you're really agreeing with the direction things are going or not. When you agree and you're digging it, then it's really easy. But if you're having doubts that's when the challenge comes. But as I said, it all worked out amazingly well and there are many moments when I knew that it was going to be a stellar record.
So - who wrote what? There was mention that Eric (Gillette, guitar) came up with the ‘Alive Again’ chorus and Mike suggested the heavy verses on the title track….
Yeah, as I remember Eric brought in the “Alive Again” chorus but not with completed lyrics. Bill brought in the very beginning of “The Call” and the chorus of “Waterfall.” The “Grand Experiment” I suppose was primarily written by Mike and myself as I wrote the chorus and he kinda wrote the verse, but that was all done in the room with everybody throwing in their two cents as it was going along. So it's difficult to say who wrote what in that type of situation, and it really doesn't matter at that point. What really matters is when you hit your space bar and hear the music, if you're turned on or not.
Can you give a bit of insight into a couple of the songs -
‘The Call’ seems to be quite personal with the lyric about following your heart and moving on….
I worked a lot on those lyrics... as I mentioned earlier, Bill brought in the “leave it all behind you” beginning, but his lyrics to that I didn't feel were as good as they could be, so I changed the ending to be "following the call." I don't know that I've ever really changed somebody else's words like that but he was eager for me to do it. It was only four lines, but they are crucial four lines to the album, I think, and they had to be right. I must have tried dozens of alternate lyrics just for those four opening lines. In the end I think we did get it right. And the rest of the words sprang forth from the simple thought of leaving it all behind and following the call and I think that's a real important message for people right now.
‘Alive Again’ also seems to have that celebratory feel of being reborn…
Yeah that whole lyric sprang from the simple line “and I feel like I’m alive again” and everything kinda sprang from there until we got to the weird middle part, and then I didn’t know what to say. It seemed to want to have some kind of creative gibberish kind of thing cause it fit the quirky music. So I’m not really sure what all that stuff in the middle is all about, but it sounds pretty cool. And then towards the end, “the man inside” section, is an arrangement of something that Bill had been kicking around. And he and I wrote the words to that together. And it’s about feeling lost but finding peace inside.
‘Waterfall’ has a gorgeous pastoral feel with the acoustic guitars and harmonies – almost like the early Hackett sound – are they 12 strings and was that the atmosphere you tried to capture?
We actually have a 12 string a 6 string acoustic, a 6 string electric and a nylon string on that song. I don’t think it sounds quite like that, but that’s technically what’s on there. I wasn’t really going for a Hackett sound but I can see how you might think that. I’m definitely influenced by Steve and all his wonderful guitar work. I’m complimented that you think it sounds like him.
Did we detect some different lead vocals on the album at some points? (the acoustic guitar bit in ‘Alive Again’ springs to mind)?
Yes! That was very important to all of us. We’re trading lead vocals for much of the album! Eric singing lead on the chorus’ of “The Call” and “Alive Again,” Bill singing lead on “the man inside,” and also the “leave it all behind you” section of “The Call,” and we’re trading off leads in “Waterfall.” That’s something that I miss about a lot of groups I grew up listening to is the trading off of the lead vocals.
Once again, the band is based round the trio of yourself with Mike & Randy. Is it quite a strong musical and personal bond you three have?
Indeed! They are great guys, great players, and great friends, not only that but we help one another in a variety of ways; we advise one another on different things. It’s pretty cool.
You also did the Morsefest at the end of last year, which you mentioned earlier. Is that something you’d do again or even fetch to Europe?
It’s definitely something I want to do again. It was an amazing success far beyond my imagination, and we hope to be scheduling it soon. As for Europe, I don’t know…
We’re looking forward to the UK date in London when you tour the album with the band. When it comes to making up a setlist – does Mike ‘king of setlists’ Portnoy get his opinions in and push for a three hour show or can you pull rank and rein him in?
Mike is the king of the set lists! However, he is also reasonable… sometimes! We have worked out a set list together that I think is going to be incredible. Can’t wait to play it all for you in London.
Beardfish are with you as support again (as they have done with Flying Colors) – are you a big fan?
Oh sure! They are great guys.
Finally, after the whirlwind of 2014, what’s in the pipeline for the rest of 2015?
Not nearly as much! After the tour I will be doing some writing projects, and then we will have a Morsefest extravaganza box set coming out in September, hopefully a Flying Colors Live sometime in 2015, and who knows what else. Life is full of surprises.
Words & Interview: Mike Ainscoe