Neal Morse of Spocks Beard Talks A Life Of Intelligent Musical Opuses (INTERVIEW)

When talking about Prog, inevitably Spock’s Beard will come up in the discussion. I mean, how can it not? Yes, ELP and Genesis may have been the genre’s biggest stars in those early days but Spock’s Beard was the new generation’s messiah of intelligent, mind-bending sounds. And one of their greatest achievements was the 2002 musical story of Snow.

Almost two hours in length, the opus was never played in it’s entirety until 2016 at Morsefest, when members past and present gathered onstage to give it it’s proper live due. That performance will now be available come November 10th on CD, LP, DVD and BluRay, a Prog lover’s dream come true.

Neal Morse, who formed the band in 1992 with his brother Alan and drummer Nick D’Virgilio, recorded with the band through six albums before he followed another muse, his newfound Christianity, to other musical projects. Snow was his last album with Spock’s Beard, as he left soon after it’s release.

In the years following Snow, Morse would record about ten solo gospel albums, four albums with Transatlantic, two albums with Flying Colors and several albums with his own solo band. Along the way, he formed a stimulating musical partnership with former Dream Theatre/current Winery Dogs drummer Mike Portnoy, their most recent venture being last year’s Neal Morse Band’s The Similitude Of A Dream.

For the son of a choir director who started playing piano by age five, music has always seemed to call to Morse. Now living in Nashville, Glide spoke with Morse last week about his allurement to Prog, his return to Snow, how real people inspire his music and a sneak peek into his upcoming solo album.

How long have you lived in Nashville?

I moved here in 1995. In fact, I don’t know if I could live anywhere else because I need to be near a music center and also near an airport that isn’t too bad to fly in and out of. So Nashville is still good for that. Plus, there are so many great people here. It really is inspiring.

You have this big record/video coming out next month, which is Spock’s Beard performing Snow at last year’s Morsefest. When did you know you were going to do Snow in it’s entirety there?

When everyone agreed to do it (laughs). I kind of felt a little bit funny about it because Nick had been trying to get us together to do it at different points for several years. That’s why I think in the liner notes he says, “Well, it’s about time.” (laughs) He had been trying but I just usually had too many other things in the fire and I just didn’t feel like it was the right time. It’s a big undertaking and it just also has to feel like it’s the right time and everybody has to want to do it. At other times, I don’t know, I just didn’t feel all of that. But this time we did and the stars aligned and we actually played the entire album from start to finish at Morsefest and then in Germany in Europe at the Night Of The Prog Festival about two weeks later.

Did you know from the beginning that you were going to record the show for release later on?

Oh yeah, because we’d recorded the other two Morsefests and released them to the fans. It’s a pretty special thing that happens here and happens at that festival. You can really feel the energy and the stage setup is so cool. There’s this amazing video team that comes in from Lexington with like ten guys, ten amazing guys. It’s some of the best filmed Progressive rock, I think, you could ever get your hands on. We flew in Rich Mouser, the guy who originally mixed the album, to do the sound and he mixed the live album also. It’s pretty much impeccable sound, lights, film, the whole thing.

How does it feel going back to Snow?

It was interesting for me. I felt like it was timely for me in some ways, like for what was going on in my personal life. I was going through a difficulty when I first started to listen to the music. I remember I was actually on vacation with my family and I was walking on the beach in California and that’s when I first started to practice. When I’m going to practice to do an album, or something I haven’t done in a long time, the first thing I do is just listen to it a bunch of times. So I was just walking and listening to it and, I don’t know, it reached me, it touched me in a different way, for where I was in my life. And there was another thing going on, which was I’m leading a church here in Nashville and one of the things that we do is that we go and serve at the National Rescue Mission.

So also during this time that I was working on this album, I happened to be in the dining room around a lot of homeless people – I was kind of cleaning the tables and whatnot – and there I was thinking of all this. You know, when you’re working on an album and you’re studying it, it starts looping in your head. So all this stuff about Snow and his homeless Mission and the street people, it just seemed like it was just all coming together in a really interesting way for me and all of that, I think, affected the performance.

Since it is so intricate and complicated, how long did it take all of you guys to prepare to do it live?

I started, personally, about six weeks out. Then we couldn’t get together for very long because the whole band couldn’t get here, I think, till Monday afternoon, I want to say, and then we had to take Friday off because we did Storytellers on Friday. So we really only had three full days together to rehearse it. It was kind of a cram but everybody did their homework and it came out great.

Was there a song from the record that maybe hit you more closely than others when you were performing it?

I don’t know, I mean, the part that touched my heart the most was “I Will Go” and made a live reprise at the end. If you watch the DVD or the BluRay, you will see me getting pretty choked up there. It was really an emotional performance. I was really in the moment of the whole mood of each segment of the album. So when it came to the tormented parts, I really felt pretty tormented (laughs). I did, I was going through it with the whole album. And one of the things that happened was in the first half, I made some mistakes, well, we fixed them and I’m just being honest, but I made some mistakes in the solo piano piece that really kind of upset me because I’d practiced that so much and then to make those mistakes it really kind of upset me. So I used that kind of upset in the second half. I think that was part of what made it good in a weird way.

How much of this character is you?

Oh I don’t know, not much (laughs). I don’t have any kind of a special gift like that. I don’t know how much I have in common with Snow really except I can relate to a lot of his feelings at different points of my life. You know, I’ve felt like I was dying; you know, “Help me, I’m dying.” I’ve felt like alienated and alone and I’ve been rejected like he gets rejected. So I can relate to a lot of that.

That’s a hard thing to go through, for anybody, no matter what age you are, to feel that alienation

Yeah but I think it’s good that I went through the more alienated years, if I could write something like “Solitary Soul” from my heart and understand it, be able to really feel it.

You mentioned working with the homeless. Does that put reality into your music more?

Mainly what goes on in my mind is what is possible when I look at them. We serve at the men’s Mission so it’s all men where I’ve been working and I mostly see what’s possible, cause I’ve seen and I know several guys that have been there, been in the Mission and now God has lifted them out of there and they are doing amazing things and they are dynamic people making a difference. That’s what I see when I look at them. I’m like, I wonder what God can do and will do with that person?

So you see potential there where others may choose to ignore them or feel sorry for them

Sure, it can be very sad if you look at it that way. But yeah, there is a guy named Brett Swayn who runs a place in Nashville called The Cookery [] and he was at the Mission for quite a while and then he started working in the kitchen and then he got a job working in the kitchen of a restaurant. Now he manages this restaurant in Nashville that is amazing and they actually hire homeless people and train them in the kitchen to be chefs. He’s an incredible guy. So there is a lot of hope.

You’ve been playing music since you were a little kid. Was that a natural gravitation or did someone plop you down at the piano and teach you to play?

I was naturally gravitated but I don’t think anybody gravitates to the stuff you learn when you’re a little kid starting piano, you know (laughs); those kind of dumb little songs or something. But once I learned how to play “Let It Be,” or something like that, then that was when it all really began.

That’s normal music, that’s not Prog

(laughs) Oh I started with Beatles. I didn’t start playing Prog till a little bit later. I was born in 1960, so when I started playing piano I was five and when I started playing guitar, I was nine. And Prog didn’t even happen till like 1971, 1972, you know what I mean. So I was playing music before Prog was really happening.

Creatively, when did you start hearing these more intricate sounds that comes with a label like Prog music?

When I first started writing, and I started writing when I was twelve, some of the first things that I wrote were Prog-y. In fact, I took some of the pieces of a piece I wrote when I was twelve called “The Constant Flow Of Sound” and put it into s Spock’s Beard song. It’s the last song on The Kindness Of Strangers called “Flow.” Some of that was written when I was twelve. So I wrote some Prog when I was really young. Then I kind of got out of that and started writing just regular singer/songwriter kind of songs. I went through a bunch of phases. I wrote kind of new wave music for a while. I was trying to be like Elvis Costello for a while. I was trying to be like Billy Joel for a while. I was in a Styx/Journey band. I was trying to make it in all kinds of genres and I didn’t really get back to Prog till I was in my early thirties, and that would have been the 1990’s, when I started writing the music that would become Spock’s Beard music.

Who did you like the most? Yes?

Yeah, it was Yes. Yes was my primary. I loved ELP and I really got into Gentle Giant. I got into King Crimson later, a little bit, like at the Red album [1974]. Jethro Tull. I got into Genesis late actually. I got into Genesis at A Trick Of The Tail [1976] and then worked my way back.

You had Peter Gabriel doing all this weird stuff back then. That should have caught your attention very early.

I know! (laughs) A bunch of my friends were going to go see Genesis at the Roxy Theatre on the Selling England tour and I could have gone but I was like, “I don’t know, I’m not that into those guys.” (laughs) I met Peter Gabriel at the Prog Awards in London and I told him, “Yeah, I had a chance to see you back then but I didn’t go.” I didn’t tell him I wasn’t that into it! (laughs). Now, I could just kick myself to death because I’m totally into it. I don’t know why, I was just slow coming to the party with Genesis. But I think what it was, was that I was a snobby teenager. I was! I was a music snob teenager and my band could beat up your band and Yes was my band (laughs). It was like, everybody else was lame to what I had decided was cool (laughs). So I wasn’t exactly open.

Why do you think the rapport between you and Mike Portnoy is so good?

Well, it’s interesting cause we are very kindred. We’re a lot alike in some ways and we’re just completely polar opposites in other ways. I don’t know how it’s happened. We’ve always wound up doing so many things together. I think he said that he’s made more albums with me than any other person in his entire history, which is saying something cause he’s made a lot of albums with a lot of people (laughs). But it’s a special friendship, a special chemistry there and appreciation. He’s so great, not just as a player. I think most people know that he’s an amazing producer and arranger and a great gleaner of good ideas. I was telling a guy today that Mike is such a good person to pick out the really cool parts of what you’re working on and draw them out: “Oh yeah, you need to do more of that, repeat that. You need to repeat that phrase. You really should develop that part.” You know, he’s really good at picking out the good parts of maybe something that is kind of meandering. He’ll find the gold in there. He’s really good at that.

Would you say that you are the main instigator of ideas in the bands that you are in – from Flying Colors to your own band and Spock’s Beard?

It depends. In Spock’s Beard, I definitely was. In the Neal Morse Band, I am but it depends on which piece. I bring in a lot of stuff but “Waterfall,” I worked on the verse but it was almost entirely Bill Hubauer, for example. So it depends on the song. “Agenda,” I pretty much wrote that and the band just took it on. So it depends on the song really. And in Flying Colors, it’s definitely not. That is a very democratic or five-way contribution thing.

Is Flying Colors going to be doing anything?

We were trying to. We got an album started last year but it’s hard to get everybody together.

In what ways does your brain change when working with the different bands that you work with? Do you have to be in a different mindset or can you sit down and write music and know which way it’s going?

I usually have something in mind. Like sometimes I’ll write a song and go, I need to save this for Transatlantic. I did that with the song “Shine.” I had written that before whatever my previous solo album was, I think Momentum [2012]. I could have recorded it on Momentum but I felt it should be for Transatlantic and so I saved it. Sometimes I think something will be good for something and then it’s not. I submitted “We All Need Some Light” to Spock’s Beard I think three years in a row and they declined and then Transatlantic did it and it became kind of a big song for Transatlantic. You just never know. I did some demos for Kansas and it didn’t get used. Then we lifted a bunch of stuff that is some of the main themes and melodies for Similitude from the Kansas demos. So I thought it was for one thing but it was for something else. It all works out in the end.

What was the epiphany moment when you knew you wanted to be onstage forever?

Oh I was a performer from the beginning! There is a famous story in my family and, you know, it’s funny. Of all the interviews that I’ve ever done, I’ve never talked about this story. We were camping at Big Basin in California and all of a sudden my mom is freaking out. “Where’s Neal? Where’s Neal?” I’m like two years old and my brothers and sisters were like four, five and eight, probably. “Where’s Neal? Where’s Neal?” At campgrounds sometimes they’ll do these presentations, like the ranger will do a presentation in like a little amphitheater on the campground. So they couldn’t find me and all of a sudden they hear the crowd laughing and applauding. And I’m up onstage running to either side of the stage lifting up the curtain and looking at people and smiling, and then running to the other side of the stage and lifting up the curtain. I’m entertaining the crowd (laughs). I don’t remember that, I was two, but my mom loves to tell that story. My mother, by the way, was not amused (laughs). My brothers thought it was hilarious. They remember it.

For you, what was your first big I can’t believe I’m here moment?

I remember when Spock’s Beard finally made it to the big room at the London Astoria. We came out and played the Astoria and it was like full and we were like, wow, have we arrived? I think we’ve arrived somewhere. This is pretty amazing. That was one but I’ve had so many since then. One of them would be on the Prog Nation Cruise and performing “You & I” with Jon Anderson and Transatlantic to close the cruise on a beautiful night. I mean, singing with Jon Anderson was one of those pinch me kind of moments. Playing Sweden Rock with my Dutch band and my son coming out and singing “Cradle To The Grave” with me and people being moved to tears. It was amazing. He was probably ten and now he’s twenty-one.

Is he a musician too?

He is, he plays keyboards and bass and he sings, but not professionally. He doesn’t want to be a professional but we play in church together often.

What do you think was the most important thing you gained musically by your father being a choir director?

Oh wow, a lot; and not just being a choir director. He was just a music guy and music was his love. And he passed that on to all of us. We all have a love for music. And learning to sing intricate harmonies at a very young age has been a big part of my career.

So what happens next?

Next is my singer/songwriter album. I’ve written and recorded a singer/songwriter album that is about to be mixed and it will be released February 1st. I think it’s going to be called Selfie In The Square. It’s a lot of songs that I wrote on the road on the Similitude tour. There is one song called “Selfie In The Square” that I wrote when we had a day off in Luxemburg and I was like, man, my wife would love it here today. So I wrote this song about how great it would be if she was there. A lot of it is just kind of nice stuff like that.

One really interesting song is called “He Died At Home” about a soldier suicide and that is a very touching song. Mostly it’s a feel-good album but then there’s that song which is very heavy. It was triggered by somebody that I know, by a roommate of a guy. I had actually never met him but I was having lunch with a friend and he was like, “Would you pray for my roommate?” Then he texted me when we were playing in Paris and he said, “My roommate overdosed and died.” So I started to think about writing a song but I didn’t really know much about the whole PTSD and suicide issue. So I went to a coffee shop and I googled it and I came across this article in The Guardian about a guy named William Busbee, who was a soldier in Iraq that came home and committed suicide. And the article was mostly from the mother’s perspective so it was really, really touching. So I wrote the song really based on that article.

Did the song come fast?

It came in a day. I think I wrote the whole thing that day, most of it. Maybe I honed it the next day but we shot a video for it last week with just me and some string players. I think it’s going to be really great. I have great expectations for this new record.

Is it predominately acoustic-based?

Yeah, most of it is acoustic guitar based. There are a couple of piano-based songs but it’s more like normal songs, not Prog-y hardly at all. Prog guys will like it, I think, and their wives will like it (laughs).

Will Mike like it?

He likes my songs (laughs) and my regular song albums too. I think he will.

Are you going back out on the road?

No, no, not right now. I’m planning to tour the Selfie album in February, March and April. I’m going to be doing solo gigs. It’s about the Snow album right now but there is always something coming up. You can’t let any grass grow under your feet, right.


Live photo by Joel Barrios

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