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InterviewsA Conversation With Neal Morse

Posted on Friday, January 02 2004 @ 02:11:30 CST by Duncan Glenday
Progressive Rock He started one of Progressive Rock's most successful recent bands. He quit them suddenly in favor of a religious calling. He produced a double album that is unabashedly Christian, the Testimonial of his religious awakening. His "Testimony" is on almost every top-10-of-2003 list. He is Neal Morse, ex-frontman for Spock's Beard and Transatlantic, and he has found a profound happiness in his life and his music. Duncan Glenday caught up with Neal shortly after the conclusion of the recent European tour, and enjoyed a wonderful, rambling conversation rather than a formal interview.

Neal Morse : Hi, Duncan. Where are you?

Duncan Glenday – Sea Of Tranquility : Hey, Neal. I'm in Maryland, which seems to be in the middle of the snowbelt right now!

NM : I wish we could get some snow here in Nashville – all we've been getting is this really cold rain

SoT : What prompted you to go to Nashville, Neal? Do you have family connections there, or was it a business or a music decision?

NM : Well I thought it was a music decision. Basically – as you can hear on the Testimony album – things were getting pretty bad for me in LA and I was ready to try anything. I'd been writing some country songs for a girl that I was dating, and I had something that I thought was pretty good so I came out to visit Nashville because I had one of those South West tickets that I had to use within a year. So I came out and popped into the Bluebird and they were telling the audience to be really quiet and they would shush you while the songwriter was singing and I thought "Oh this is great, they're listening!" So I came partly because of that and partly because I knew people here. Cherie, who is now my wife, was here, and we'd known each other from the old party days in California.

SoT : Was the girl [for whom you wrote the country songs] Cherie, now your wife?

NM : No, that was someone else.

SoT : So how would you compare Nashville with LA, in terms of the overall lifestyle?

NM : I like it a lot! Nashville's perfect for me. It's affordable, it's like the holy-music center, there are a lot of studios, and a lot of musicians. A lot of great music stuff going on which I'm not involved in that much, but it's nice to know that when I need players I can just call some people and say "Do you know anyone who plays the pan-flute?" and you can always find players here and get studios if you need anything. And it's so affordable. You can live just half-an-hour outside of town at about a third of the cost of the same thing in California.

SoT : When you were growing up in California – did you have any formal or classical training, or were you pretty-much self-taught?

NM : Well you could say that I had classical training because I was in a classical family, and they put me in 5 years of piano lessons when I was young – but then I quit and took up guitar when I was 9. I had a few lessons on guitar, and quit all lessons when I was about 10. I wish I would have stayed in. When I hear really great people play, like Jordan Rudess, who are so well trained – there's no substitute for that training. But I quit because I wanted to play rock & pop music.

SoT : On the other hand, Neal, isn't it possible that freeing yourself from the shackles of that classical training may have opened you up a bit, musically?

NM : Well that's possible too. That's why I say it's hard to say how things would have turned out if I'd gone a different way, but I sure wish I could play like those guys. I went and saw the National Youth Symphony because – Eric Brenton, the man I'm playing with now, he's playing guitar and violin and stuff with me has moved here, and his kids are both classical musicians in the Nashville Youth Symphony. Man, it was so awesome – they have this 14-year-old pianist girl who came out and played a Beethoven sonata – it was just insane, and it was way beyond anything I could play when I was 14. But you know, people can get into a mindset and they aren't perhaps quite as creative as they could be. It would be good to have both if you can. That's what I'm trying to achieve with my kids.

SoT : Are you putting the kids into lessons?

NM : Yes – piano training. We're dealing with reading right now. He's just discovered that he can play by ear. Up until now he could read something up to a point and then just play by ear, which isn't bad, except that he's losing his reading skills.

SoT : How old are your kids, Neal?

NM : Five and Seven.

SoT : This is the age for them to learn music! My kids are almost grown and they're just trying to pick it up now. But it's never really too late, is it?

NM : Well yeah, you should remind them that Hendrix didn't start playing until he was like in his late teens.

SoT : Neal, obviously I've been listening to Testimony and I've been scanning your web site. One of the things that struck me as perhaps a little unusual is that from the time you started feeling these religious stirrings until the time it really came through to you and you experienced a religious break through – it was a very long period of time. Is that unusual?

NM : Yes, I think it is a bit unusual. I would just ascribe that to God's greatness and His mercy. He knows what each of us needs, and he knew how to phase me. It was really brilliant the way he did it. He didn't give me too much at one time. He just asked me to take these little steps. Right in the beginning I just felt like God was in the whole thing. But if God had asked me to quit Spock's Beard earlier on I would just have said "Well forget it!" Certain things happened that changed my heart, little by little, and it was just wonderful.

SoT : So – no set formula.

NM : Right! I don't think so. You know, He works differently with everyone. With most people, it would be a more immediate thing. It's mind-blowing how differently God works, and how he's always full of surprises.

SoT : Are you involved with a more traditional church, or is it one of the more modern denominations?

NM : It's pretty traditional – it's Pentecostal, and there's no set program. We leave everything loose so the Holy Ghost can work, you know. If someone feels a stirring in their heart they can just get up and speak, and if someone feels a song they can just get up and sing. So it's very "improv". Do you know what I mean?

SoT : Yes, I do – I think it sounds pretty inspiring.

NM : Oh it is, it's wonderful. We're searching for the mind of the Lord all the time, so we want to let the Spirit have His way, not some man, or some group of men. We don't have programmed song services either. We try to be open to the Spirit and open to the needs of the moment.

SoT : Neal, I'm sure you must have been asked this question a thousand times, so I won't dwell on it. You quit Spock's Beard. Of course I've read about it and you've told the fan-base quite a lot already, but I saw a lot of controversy about your departure. What were the most extreme responses that you received from the fan-base – both positive and the negative?

NM : The extreme positives were like "Praise God", you know, I'd get letters from like-minded people, and the ones that really inspired me were the ones like – "Man, you've inspired me to step out further in God. I've been holding back", or "I've been in this job that I knew wasn't right and God's been calling on me but I was too scared to jump out", or "You've inspired me to go further in my walk with God." There were quite a few of those.

SoT : And were there more positives, than negatives?

NM : Well, I saw more positives, but that's probably because my wife – you know – [laughs] she's an Internet comber and sometimes she'll edit what I am exposed to [laughs]. One negative that stands out in my mind was somebody that was part of the Spock's Beard street team being really hurt that I had known that I was going to quit, and I still had them do the promotion of Snow that they had worked on. That really hit my heart – but I didn't really think that it was wrong. First of all, Snow is a great album and stands on its own. And –Spock's Beard is still going on. It's not as if Spock's Beard was going to end. So it was a good thing for everyone to promote the band, and to promote that album.

SoT : What is your ongoing relationship with the individual band members in Spock's Beard at this point?

NM : It's good! I spoke with Ryo yesterday, actually, talked about what's going on with his life. Actually I don't think they even know about this – I need to send them all an E-Mail: There's probably going to be some re-issues of Spock's Beard catalog stuff. The record companies were asking me for additional help with that, so we'll be dealing with that.

SoT : If you could remove yourself from your obvious involvement with Spock's Beard and look at Feel Euphoria from a musical perspective – what would be your musical critique?

NM : I think it's real good, and they did a really good job with it! Nick and Al particularly are shining, I think Nick's vocals are great, I can hear that Al stretched out a bit more, I think that's real good. I was expecting it to be a bit more hard-edged. You know they're more on the rock side, and I think that I wrote too many pretty parts for them[ laughs]. They wanted to rock more than I did, but the more Christian and the older I became, the more pretty stuff I wrote – It's just where my heart is. We all write from our hearts, hopefully, and that was happening to me naturally. But I think Feel Euphoria is really good!

SoT : With regard to Testimony - are you aware of any other Christian contemporary music that is in any way similar? Progressive music that is specifically Christian in nature?

NM : There are some. Kerry Livgren has put out quite a bit, also Randy George who's playing bass with me now – his band Ajalon has a couple of Christian prog CDs out now. But not many that I've heard that are on the scale of Testimony. I think it's unique.

SoT : I'm not familiar with Ajalon, I'll look them up.

NM : It's good stuff, it really is! You should listen to it.

SoT : So do you think that with their music, and with Testimony, you may be breaking new ground and creating a new sub-genre called Christian-Prog or something?

NM : Well we can only hope! I'm going to write from my heart and do what God wants me to do. I'm not really interested in markets and things. If I was I would have stayed in Spock's Beard and Transatlantic which were selling really well. I know there's a small group of people that are Christians and love prog, but I think if it was really going to create a sub-genre, it would be a matter of first expanding the audience. And I think that would be an act of God, really. I can just do what I do and hope for the best.

SoT : And speaking of markets – has Testimony been successful? Are you selling well?

NM : It's selling well, yeah, and the Europeans are particularly excited. The tour went really well – I've never seen so many posts on the Internet from people saying "This is the best show I've ever seen".

SoT : Really? Congratulations!

NM : Yeah – I was really astonished by that. But I don't really accredit that to myself – I think that people felt something from God at the show, and that's what put it over the top. Maybe it's the material itself, and the subject matter. I'm sure that's what makes it a more powerful thing, and it isn't just that Mike Portnoy and the rest of the guys and I are playing so well. I believe that people were feeling the Spirit.

SoT : Are you working on anything now? Any follow up plans for Testimony?

NM : I'm kicking around for ideas. I don't know what I'm going to do next. I may do something completely different, but I don't have any firm ideas.

SoT : Then what keeps you busy from day to day? Are you able to kick your heels up and enjoy your kids?

NM : Well I've been doing a lot of that and it's been great. My daughter was sick a couple of weeks ago and we had to spend the whole day with her and take care of her, and it was like "Oh, thank you Lord". I've been spending a lot of time with the family and it's just awesome just to be able to do that. A lot of my friends have to go out and work, and I'm so grateful! And right now Inside Out in Europe is really hot to trot on several things. The Testimony DVD is ready to be worked on and for some reason they're on the fast track with that, also they're wanting me to work on the Spock's Beard reissues, so there's always things. And I've been wanting to slow down so I can write some new music and clear my mind … so that's what I'm doing this week.

SoT : Speaking of writing new songs – how does the creative process work for you? For example is it concept first, then lyrics then melody? What sort of sequence works for you?

NM : It's usually music first, sometimes it's music and lyrics, but usually music first. And a lot of it happens in my sleep.

SoT : Really? Tell us more?

NM : I keep a tape recorder close to the bed, and a lot of times I'll stumble out of bed and mumble something. Sometimes it's good to sit in the studio and play the piano by myself and it's good for me to be alone. Sometimes I get ideas just riding along with the kids. At Chuck E Cheese I once started hearing something that wound up being on the Snow album!

SoT : [laughs] I've been to Chuck E. Cheese so often I'll probably find it if I listen carefully!

NM : [laughs] Yeah, it's one of those really irritating ones – you know them! But I think a lot of writers are like that. You never know when it's going to come. I've been feeling like something's coming. [Sings] Something's coming, don't know what, what it is…

SoT : [laughs]

NM : Yeah, Something's coming, you don't know it is, but you know it's going to be great. If you start hearing things it's probably going to be good.

SoT : In your private time – do you listen to a lot of progressive music?

NM : Not right now. When I'm driving I usually listen to music that kind of soothes me or builds up my faith somehow, and I've been listening to a lot of mellow Christian artists. But I do like more aggressive progressive things. I don't know – I listen to all kinds of music.

SoT : At Sea Of Tranquility we focus on progressive rock, progressive metal, fusion, and so on – so I was wondering if you have any thoughts on any shining new progressive acts, that you may be keeping your eye on.

NM : Yeah, I've seen you guys. But I don't really keep my eye on that sort of thing. I'll tell you there was a promo that Inside Out sent me – I put it in and was immediately impressed thinking oh, this is really good stuff. Some new band called "The Tangent". [Duncan laughs…] I was like Oh wow, I wonder where they found these guys, this is great, and the guitarist – this guy's nailed Roine's style exactly, I just love that wall of sound! [Duncan laughs uncontrollably] So I was getting all excited, and then the vocals start- and it's Roine! [laughs]

SoT : Are you still in touch with them? Roine and the others?

NM : Yeah, sometimes when money comes in we have to talk about that. And of course I've been working closely with Mike, and I've been in touch with Pete and tried to get him to come out to the London show. And Roine and I are in touch as well…

SoT : The cover art on Testimony – what is that? On the surface it seems pretty simple – a kid holding his hands up. What's the significance behind it, if anything?

NM : Well I'd been so immersed in the music and I woke up one morning and I thought Oh My God, I've got about a week to deliver this whole thing, including an album cover – what are we going to do? And I started praying about it. And it was like "Show me, Lord. I don't care what the album cover is, this is your album, Lord!" [laughs] I saw that it was mostly white, and it had this image off to the side. I thought it was a child praying or something, and I thought initially it was going to be like a pencil drawing – that was the image I had in my mind. So I thought well, I'd call up Joey, my neighbor, and see if he could take some pictures of my son Will, and maybe I could somehow realize this image. And I started listening to the album, and listened to "In The Land Of Beginning Again" with the kids playing and stuff, and I thought "What if he was running through a field?" I wanted to portray something that was total freedom. Jesus said: "Lest you come to me with the heart of a child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God", and I was thinking about this whole thing, and Brother Steve, my pastor at church, had been talking about the whole concept of the heart of a child. So we went out into my back yard with a photographer and started taking pictures – and that was one of the ones we took.

SoT : Any more tours planned for Testimony the immediate future?

NM : Well, there isn't anything planned right now. We shall see. The Europeans are already talking about the possibility of coming back. I'd love to, but I just want to be in the will of the Lord. Right now I haven't been feeling anything in prayer about that kind of thing, so I'm just hanging out. There's a lot in the Bible about waiting on the Lord. "He who waits on the Lord shall renew his strength". As humans we're always in a hurry and want to jump out and do the next thing, but sometimes the right thing to do is just hang out and wait. The Lord's not in a hurry. So that's where I'm at right now.

SoT : Regarding the musicians who played with you on Testimony – are you looking to build a formalized band with them, or do you think your future work would be done with whoever is available at the time?

NM : I don't know. I'd like to use the same band if everyone would do it and is available. It was a wonderful Spiritual experience. You know, the most incredible thing was I didn't hold one audition, those were the eight guys that God brought. All I did was pray about it and I got the perfect band. It was great! But recording? Like I said I'm just sitting, not really doing anything right now, just praying for the will of God.

SoT : To what extent was Mike [Portnoy] able to contribute to the creative process on Testimony?

NM : It was his idea to add the solo section in "The Break Of Day". Oh, he's got a lot of ideas and he was kind of filling them out. He's full of ideas, man. He's good!

SoT : You're surely aware that Progressive music seems to be more of a guy thing than a girl thing, but my wife was blown away by the opening track, "The land Of Beginning Again". So who knows, you may have a prog convert!

NM : Well that's great, Duncan!

SoT : She has the CD in her car right now, and is playing it a lot. Have you found that it has that sort of universal appeal?

NM : I think Testimony is an album that crosses all kinds of lines. People in my church – and as I said, it's a pretty old-fashioned church – they've been touched by it. The church has been touched by it. I'm praying that it has a longer life than other things I've been involved in, and that the Lord will keep using it.

SoT : Neal, I think we're out of time, so I'd like to close by saying that I hope Testimony proves to be everything that you wanted it to be both in terms of getting your message across, and in financial terms – putting bread on the table and taking care of you and your family.

NM : Yeah, the Lord's taking care of us. Thank you.

SoT : Are you familiar with Sea Of Tranquility?

NM : Oh yeah, I've seen it tons of times.

SoT : Well thanks, Neal, and I know you'll keep Christ in Christmas

NM : Thanks, Duncan. Praise God. Please remember – people can find out more by visiting Take care.

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