Interview with Neal Morse

For the first time ever prog icon Neal Morse came into a recording session with his long time friend and collaborator Mike Portnoy, Randy George, Bill Hubauer and Eric Gillette...with NOTHING! He had no prepared material at all. Neal comments,"I wanted to see what it would be like to create freely in the room with no preconceived notions. It was quite a risk!" On previous albums, like the Testimony album for example, Morse had the entire album written in advance."I used to be rather paranoid about whether things would turn out in the short space of time we had I would fill all the space in advance!" This album was totally different. "I made a lot of room for the other guys to create and express themselves and the result is outstanding! We wanted to experiment, do something a bit different, and see what everyone is capable of...we found 'SPADES!' The results are obvious! This was a "grand experiment" that produced something far beyond anyone's expectations!"

Guitarz Interview with Neal Morse of The Neal Morse Band

Scott > Hi Neal, thank you for agreeing to do an interview w/ my website Guitarz

Give our readers a short but descriptive label for your style of music.

Neal: The music I'm mainly known for is called progressive rock. It's a bit hard to describe, but I would say that it is music that goes outside of normal song structure usually, but not always, and involves combining many different styles of music (ie. classical, jazz, rock etc..), but not always! Part of the thing with prog is that there really aren't any rules. That's why I love it so much.

Scott > What's going on in your musical world these days?

Neal: Right now I'm waiting for this winter storm to lift so the band can arrive, and we can begin rehearsals for the Alive Again tour that is about to commence. The big news with me is that The Grand Experiment album has just been released, and is getting pretty amazing reviews, and we're on the edge of beginning a month long tour to support it.

Scott > Where do you live, play live, and record ?

Neal: I live and record in Nashville. I have a home studio. I know that's shocking haha. .. Everybody has a home studio now :) I play live all over the world and not usually in Nashville although I'm playing here this Saturday night.

Scott > Are there a lot of places to play your style of music in and around your area? If so, could you name some venues?

Neal: No, not really. I don't think there are many places around that would really understand what I'm doing. Having said that, I suppose you can play this music in any old rock club if they'll have you. The thing that's different about what I do also is that much of my music has a very strong Christian message which makes it even more unusual for the music world. Anyway, I don't play here very often and the place we're playing on Saturday night is called Rocketown which was started by Michael W. Smith, the Christian artist, but we just rented a room there. It's not like they booked us, but it's a nice place, and I recommend it.

Scott > So please tell us of any new musical projects that you are currently working on? 

Neal: I've been writing some music for musical theatre. A guy came to me last year and had an idea for a theatrical piece, and he was looking for music for it, so I've been working on that, and also writing some new songs unrelated to anything. I'm always writing actually cause it's my favorite thing to do.

Scott > What is the name of your latest musical endeavor and tell us how that came about?

Neal: My latest album - The Neal Morse Band, The Grand Experiment was released in North America February 10th, and really was a grand experiment as far as I was concerned. I had felt for a while to make an album with my touring band which included Mike Portnoy (ex. Dream Theater), Randy George, Bill Hubauer, and Eric Gillette. We've played a lot together but we've never created an album from scratch together, so in a sense this is our debut album together as a band. I usually come into a session to make an album like this with a lot of material already written and arranged, however, this time I intentionally did not. I came in with nothing... and came out with everything! I made a lot of room for the other guys to express  themselves, and they stepped in with both feet, and I think that's one of the reasons why this new album is so fresh and exciting for people.

Scott > How did you get hooked up w/ Mike Portnoy, Randy George, Bill Hubauer and Eric Gillette for your album "The Grand Experiment"?

Neal: Originally I began working with Mike Portnoy in the late 90s. He called me on the phone (we had a mutual friend) and asked if I wanted to do a side project with him. Obviously I accepted. And that side project became Transatlantic. Randy called me in about 2002 and asked me if I wanted to be guest on his solo album and then dropped a very unsubtle hint that if I needed any players that he could play bass or guitar or whatever I was needing. Obviously, as time went on, we all became much more involved with one another creatively and personally. Bill and Eric came into the fold when a few years ago I had some YouTube auditions as I was looking for new members for my tour band. I was looking for people that could play and sing this material, and I got way more than I could have ever imagined.

Scott > How do you come up with your songs? Is it one song writer or more of a collaborated effort with other musicians?

Neal: I write in all kinds of different ways. The Grand Experiment was, as I said above, completely a collaboration. However some of my albums I write by myself. Certain albums of mine, like Testimony for example, couldn't really be written in a group. It's too much of a personal statement. Other albums like the Transatlantic and Flying Colors albums are tremendous group efforts. So, I like to write in many different genres and with many different types of people - it keeps things interesting.

Scott > How often when you start an idea for song, does it actually get finished?

Neal: I almost always try to finish anything that I start. By start, I don't mean just having a melody I sing into my phone. I mean if I get to the point where I'm actually writing lyrics and writing the song, then I will finish it because I can't stand to have things half done. Even if I'm going to shelve it I'd rather shelve it whole than have a bunch of fragment s around.

Scott > I was wondering if you ever hear music in your dreams and turn them into songs?

Neal: Absolutely! That happens to me with alarming regularity. In my younger days one of the reason that I began to believe in God was because of just that. I just knew it wasn't coming from inside of me but it was something I was hearing from another place. Much of the music that I've written all my life I've woken up in the morning and just heard, from the early Spock's Beard albums to today.

Scott > Are you a schooled musician or a self-taught player?

Neal: A little bit of both, but I consider myself essentially self taught. I had 4 yrs of piano lessons when I was a little kid. And a little bit of guitar lessons, but most of what I've learned I've learned on my own.

Scott > So, what type of guitars do you play and why?

Neal: I play a lot of different guitars. I have a Gibson electric that I love, and live I play the same fender strap that I've had for a hundred years. .. it's just home, ya know. I also have some Babicz acoustic guitars that are just wonderful.

Scott > What type of amps do you use? Do you use different amps for the studio vs live shows... If so, why?

Neal: I like my Mesa rectifier very much. I use it in the studio all the time, and use it live when the venue / promoter will provide one for me. Otherwise many times I have to use whatever they could get, but that is my amp of choice currently. I also have an Orange amp that I like a lot.

Scott > Do you play any other instrument besides guitar?

Neal: I play keyboards, bass, and a little bit of drums, but ... I should be the guy like on the old monkey's albums where it says "drums by Mickey Dolenz, fast drums by some other guy"! :)

Scott > Do you have any endorsement with instrument and gear companies?

Neal: Yes, I do. Babicz guitars, and Yamaha for everything.

Scott > How did you first get into the music business?

Neal: My dad was a choir director so I got my first paying gig singing in an opera when I was 9 years old. Then me and my brothers got totally into rock music of the 60s and 70s and began to play local high schools and whatever else we could do. All I ever wanted to do was play music as far back as I can remember so I set out to make it in the music business at a very young age. I spent a long time just playing in clubs and what not. I don't know if that counts as the music business or not. But, the first record deal that I got was in '95 when the first Spock's Beard album was put out by some independents. It was basically just guys that were fans of prog music that were running labels out of their garage. One thing led to another and we've been able to do fairly well I suppose.

Scott > Who have been your main influences on your career to date?

Neal: The Beatles, first. Then Yes, and Genesis, all the big prog guys, like Crimson, Toll, E.L.P, and other regular rock guys like The Who. I also liked a lot of singer/songwriter people like Simon and Garfunkel, Elton John and quirky stuff like Steely Dan.

Scott > How has your guitar playing evolved over the years?

Neal: One of my first major influences as a guitarist was Johny Winter. I learned a lot of his blues licks. That was really where I started as a guitarist. That's what I would call home base and then I started all kinds of things... classical guitar and whatnot. I think my playing has evolved as I think I've become more musical and outside of the blues scales and things. I've also picked up a lot from great guitar players that I've worked with like Steve Morse, Paul Gilbert, Roine Stolt, and my brother, Alan. After you hang around with guys like that it definitely changes you.

Scott > What are you listening to these days?

Neal: Mozart, just 5 minutes ago. I listen to a lot of Christian radio, some of my favorite current albums are John Mayer's acoustic singer/songwriter stuff like Born and Raised and Paradise Valley - nice stuff to play around the house.

Scott > Do you have a dream car?

Neal: Not really... I drive a plug-in Prius and I love it. but, when I was in my late teens I had '69 red MGB convertible. I have to confess my heart goes pitter patter when I see one. :)

Scott > I also don't want to forget this... Tell us about any other things you may be in involved in or any special interest besides music that is close to your heart?

Neal: My main interest besides music is the Lord and church, and my family, of course. I'm also really into skiing, and we are going skiing as a family right after the tour in Austria. We're going to ski during the day and have church services during the evening. So I'll get to basically have all my favorite things happening at once!

Scott > Who did the albums art work and the concept?

Neal: Thomas Ewerhard. He used to be the staff guy at Inside Out Europe, and still does a lot of their artwork although he is freelance now. He did a great job, huh? As far as the concept goes I had one that I gave him, which was to have it look like some kind of old medicine show or something, and he tried several of those, but nobody liked it. So I just asked him to come up with something else, and he threw us the cover that we currently have, and we all just said, "yeah, great!"

Scott > I would like to thank you for your time and candor with our loyal readers and keep on fighting the good fight to bring us some awesome music.

Neal: Thank you very much, man. God Bless.


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