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11th February 2015
METAL DISCOVERY: Congratulations on the new album, ‘The Grand Experiment’, which I gather was, indeed, one big experiment, as you started the recording sessions with no prior preparation or compositions. Was that quite a fearful as well as creatively liberating experience?
NEAL: It was a bit scary! But such is the nature of experiments I suppose. I think I'm a little fearful when so much is on the line with an album like it is on every album, really. So many times I will over prepare to make sure we have enough good material to do. But, this time I felt like I should not do that at all. My intention was to leave a lot of room for the guys to express themselves and I think we can hear the payoff in the freshness of this album.
(Neal Morse on pushing his artistic parameters)
"I'm always trying to press into the borders of my creativity, to reach beyond whatever I might be hearing in my own mind and into another realm. I think we all were trying to do that with this album…"
Interview by Mark Holmes
Official Neal Morse Website:
The Grand Experiment (2015)
Neal Morse, the onetime keyboardist/vocalist/composer for Spock's Beard, has had something of a prolific solo career since exiting the extant prog rock band he co-founded with his brother, Alan. Aside from his musical autonomy, he's also been a prominent creative force in other musical ventures such as the long running prog rock 'supergroup' Transatlantic and, as of 2012, another eminent supergroup, Flying Colors. 2014 proved to be something of an industriously busy year for Neal with the release of new albums from not only Transatlantic and Flying Colors, but also another solo record. And his prolificacy continues into 2015 under the guise of The Neal Morse Band, alongside ubiquitous sticksman Mike Portnoy, bassist Randy George, guitarist Eric Gillette and keyboardist Bill Hubauer. The fruits of their collective labour? 'The Grand Experiment' which was, as the album title suggests, a big experiment. Metal Discovery quizzed Neal to find out more...
The Neal Morse Band - promo shot
Photograph copyright © 2014 John Zocco
Official Neal Morse Facebook:
Thanks to Freddy Palmer for arranging the interview.
MD: Do you think creating music in that manner engendered a more naturally progressive vibe to the music? It kind of shines through in the songs.
NEAL: I don't know exactly… It's not really an exact science… Making albums is a bit nebulous. I think that there is definitely a vibe about this album that's unique. I think it gives it a really exciting and fresh feeling that is so important to good music. But, ultimately, what happens with it now is up to the listeners.
MD: And did it force you into pushing the boundaries of your own creativity, or do you think that should always be the essence of genuinely progressive music?
NEAL: I'm always trying to press into the borders of my creativity, to reach beyond whatever I might be hearing in my own mind and into another realm. I think we all were trying to do that with this album… And also mainly trying to do what feels right in that moment. Sometimes, something very simple is just the exact correct thing for that moment in the song. So, we try to follow the music where it wants to go, and it usually leads us to a good place.
MD: I’m guessing there must also be a large degree of trust involved amongst each of the musicians by making music spontaneously, so would you say ‘The Grand Experiment’ was a good test and, ultimately, consolidation of that trust?
NEAL: Yes, I think so. I think we are building on our musical, spiritual and personal relationships with each other in the band, and that can only lead to better and better things. I'm so excited to be about to go on tour with all these guys… It's just gonna be amazing! They are the best in the world.
MD: Compared to entering the studio with all compositions complete, did the lack of creative preconceptions and expectations for the recording sessions prove to be a more relaxed experience, or was there an element of pressure involved too?
NEAL: Well, you have to learn to relax. It seems that a lot of times in life there's plenty you could be nervous about if you want to. But you can also relax and find peace if you want to as well. For me, it's a matter of trusting God that the path I'm on is the one that he chose and so I trust him that he'll work it out. And it's not all on my shoulders. I think if I felt like it was all on me to make it all work out, I'd probably be a lot more intense and difficult to work with :-)
MD: Can you foresee yourself repeating this way of working again, in the future, either with the same guys or different musicians?
NEAL: Sure! It was awesome! Yes, I don't know when or what the future holds exactly… I don't have a crystal ball… But I would imagine we will make another record in this fashion.
MD: Were the lyrics also written in spontaneous fashion, alongside the music, or did you allow yourself a bit more breathing space to write them, after all the music had been recorded?
NEAL: The lyrics took a lot more time. They always do for me. Lyric writing doesn't pour out of me like music writing does… That doesn't mean that I shouldn't do it or it's not my gift because I feel like I should write lyrics, it just takes me a lot more time and thought. So, while I was on the Flying Colors tour in Europe, I would take walks and think about the lyrics for this album. I remember walking around Barcelona and pondering just the four lines that are the chorus of ‘Waterfall’, for example. Just trying to get it right. Walking into Starbucks and still humming it to myself. Then kicking it around with Randy (who was tour managing), on the bus, and Randy helped me shape the lyrics for ‘Waterfall’. Then, I had some lyrics for some other sections that I would send to Bill and Eric and they would make suggestions as well, so even though we were far apart we were still collaborating. It was an amazing process.
MD: The various band members assume lead singing duties at different points, so was it predetermined that you wouldn’t be the sole lead vocalist on the album?
NEAL: Yes, that was something we discussed in the beginning that we wanted to do. I always loved when different people sang in bands and that was something that we all wanted to bring to the table for this album. One voice can be a little bit limiting I think, and their voices added so much to this record.
MD: The reviews seem to be overwhelmingly glowing thus far, which must be reassuring, satisfying, and a relief knowing that people out there are getting it, and that the experiment has worked a treat?
NEAL: It's incredible! I don't think I recall an album I've been involved with that got such glowing reviews in recent history! It's pretty crazy… Oh yes, I'm glad, particularly for the band, because it's a real affirmation.
MD: You have some live shows planned in support of the album, during February and March this year, in the US, Canada and Europe, so what can people expect from these? Will you be performing ‘The Grand Experiment’ in its entirety?
NEAL: We plan to do most of the new album, of course. Which should be incredible! As well as some surprises from my past… I think the music will be well represented from all points in my career so you can expect some surprises from the old stuff too.
MD: The inaugural MorseFest took place in your hometown in November last year – how was that experience for you and do you have plans for this to become a more regular event?
NEAL: Yes, we are talking about doing another one this year! We just haven't nailed it down yet… Oh man, it was amazing! For me, personally, it was kind of like the closing scene in ‘It's a Wonderful Life’! My brother was even there! It was an astounding weekend on every level. Can't say enough about it...
MD: The press blurb to advertise MorseFest stated: “Hear the music in the very place it was inspired!” So does your general environment always play a significant role in helping to shape, and contribute to, the aesthetic of your compositions?
NEAL: I don't really know… Sometimes I'll have the most amazing inspiration in the strangest places! So I don't know that the environment matters as much as the Spirit of the Lord moving and things happening in that way, and I'm really interested in his working. That's what really takes it over-the-top for me! And that can happen anywhere at any time.
MD: You seem to have a perpetually busy schedule with all your different musical outlets, so just how do you fit everything in, and ensure that you’re never spreading yourself too thin?!
NEAL: It seems to work out! I do get a little stressed sometimes when I have a lot of things I feel like I need to be doing and then other things I want to be doing and then other things I feel called to do! There can be a lot going on but I try to find the right balance between music, family, spirit and friends and everything else. That's the great challenge of life isn't… Balance.
MD: Finally, do you anticipate 2015 being a less manic year than 2014, or is it going to be full-on busyness with another packed schedule?
NEAL: It looks like it's going to be a bit more mellow. With the Transatlantic and Flying Colors tours in 2014 it made for a pretty packed year along with everything else, Morse Fest etc. So 2015 should be more mellow but we'll see what happens… Things have a way of filling up! God bless you.