Something Else! Interview: Christian prog-rocker Neal Morse

Neal Morse, former frontman for Spock’s Beard, joined us for an SER Sitdown in advance of today’s release of his long-awaited Testimony 2 on Radiant/Metal Blade Records. A follow-up to 2003’s autobiographical progressive rock epic Testimony, this extraordinary new multi-CD project delves further into a devastating health scare for his daughter that ultimately led Morse to faith-based recording, and his departure from his old band.

Morse also talks about working with Spock’s Beard again on Testimony 2, the hopes for a full-fledged reunion project, his cherished tenure as a sideman with Eric Burdon (co-founder of both the Animals and War), the lasting impact of Yes on him as a youngster and his on-going love affair with the Fab Four …

Nick DeRiso: I found some fans’ initial reticence to your move into Christian-themed progressive rock a little disingenuous. After all, when did they all of a sudden start paying attention to the lyrics? As much as I like them, let’s face it, we’d be hard pressed to say what most prog songs are even about.
Neal Morse: I don’t think about that kind of stuff too much. Let the Lord have his way. I don’t know how these things work. I hope that people will receive it. The great thing about music is, it’s like the Trojan horse. People love music so much, if you give them enough good music, you can sing about things that they might not want to think about. When I think about Yes’ lyrics, especially when I grew up, there were a lot of lines that really made me feel something. There are certain lines, they still make me feel something good — almost in a deeper way than something I understood clearly would. That’s the great thing about art. It digs deeper. Labeling is always a problem. The less we label music, in general, the better. That’s just man’s way, though. We want to know what something is.

DeRiso: You go much deeper over the course of Testimony 2 into the heart problem that struck your daughter, and her miraculous recovery — something that precipitated your departure from Spock’s Beard and into faith-based recordings. Did you find that hard to talk about at first?
Morse: I don’t know why, but when I wrote Testimony 1, I think I spent so much time writing about my state of mind in the 1980s and early 1990s that then by the time I got to 1995 in the story, I was already into the second disc. I just cut to the chase. I basically fast forwarded to about 2000 when I really became a Christian. So, on this album I am really going in depth into the period between 1996 and 2001 and the breakup with Spock.

DeRiso: What was it like working with Spock’s Beard again on the new song “Time Changer,” a vocal piece that recalls the band’s earliest successes?
Morse: I had written it and demoed it in late November, early December. When I first had the idea of throwing in the vocal thing, I was sitting outside with my guitar, laying ideas down and it wasn’t until later when I thought: ‘I wonder if those guys would sing on it?’ Our relationship has gotten better and better. Everything seemed to have been getting more and more healed up. I emailed and asked and they said, ‘Sure.’ They sent in their parts. We never actually got together in the studio. But still, to me, it’s very sweet. When I hear it, I smile and go: ‘Yeah, that was a cool time.’ I kind of get a warm fuzzy.

DeRiso: Obviously, there are many who would love to see a larger reunion project between you and Spock’s Beard, even a tour. Is that possible, or have you grown too far away from those early songs?
Morse: I don’t know. I’ll just have to see what God has for us. I take it all one step at a time. I’m not sure, maybe at one point that might seem like the right thing. I never thought I would do another project with Transatlantic (a prog-rock amalgam featuring Pete Trewavas of Marillion, Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater and Roine Stolt of the Flower Kings who reunited in 2009 after a seven-year haitus). But it felt like God’s will. I just stay open. I’m just happy to be friends again.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Neal Morse confronts the triumphs and pain of his tenure and ultimate departure from Spock's Beard on Testimony 2's "Crossing Over."]

DeRiso:: Since you left Spock’s Beard, your most consistent musical collaborators have been Randy George and Mike Portnoy. What has made that relationship so lasting?
Morse: What people probably don’t realize is that Mike and Randy have great musical minds. They are way more than good players. Mike is an amazing gleaner; he’s amazing at picking up the best parts of things. I think because he’s a fan of not just of mine but all kinds of music, he has the mind of a listener in a way that I don’t. I just kind of do whatever I’m feeling. He can pick out the best sections and put things together with other ideas. That’s what he does in Transatlantic, help us pick out the best things from our demos and put them all together. And it all works. As for Randy, there are many times when we are creating these albums, and you are on a journey. We don’t know where we are going. You come to a crossing, and you know you need to go somewhere else — but you’re not sure how to get there. We’ll venture off and want to get back to where the demo was. Many times, Randy has had the key idea that led us back. As far as personal things, there’s a real bond between us all. A lot of love and appreciation.

DeRiso: When you decided to dig deeper into some of your musical influences on 2006’s Cover to Cover, I saw what appeared to be strong link with the Beatles. How did they impact you?
Morse: I was a Beatles manic. They would be one of my primary musical influences. For years, I would listen to old tapes of me — and I sound like I was doing a John Lennon impression. Still to this day, even when I try not to, I sing with little bit of musical accent. The Beatles are sort of my musical parents. You know how you find yourself sounding like your father when you least expect it? It was like that. I listen to Cover to Cover more than any of my prog albums, though. To me, that’s a great feel-good album.

DeRiso: Eric Burdon is one of rock music’s underrated legends. Describe what playing with him was like.
Morse: Man, it was fun. I had a blast. I didn’t have any high notes to hit. It was the easiest paying gig I ever had. Eric was really cool, very kind to me always. He very much wanted me to find my space in the band. He’d give me tons of freedom. I always enjoyed being around him. I’d love to see him again. I miss him.

DeRiso:: Prog rock has proven to be a very adaptable vehicle for your work, allowing you to tell grand tales and to explore sweeping themes. Are you surprised that more people haven’t taken their own faith message into this medium?
Morse: To be honest, the only reason I did prog rock was because I was a miserable failure in trying to be successful in the mainstream. I had this awakening at 30 years old. I was miserable and depressed. The truth is, many artists are, even if they have a record deal. It’s fraught with all kinds of tough things. I was trying to be successful in the music business, and I tried everything — Journey bands, edgy punk bands, the singer songwriter thing. Nothing ever stuck. Then I had this awakening: ‘I didn’t get into the business to make money. So, go back to your first love.’ What I loved the most, when I was a kid, was Yes and Genesis — big pieces of music. So I started to write like that. It was borne out of not being able to be successful in another thing. I think my career is kind of fluke. Of course, believing in God, I thought God had a plan. But I’m not surprised other people aren’t into it. Prog rock is a very small market; not that many people are into it right now. You have to really be able to play. It’s very difficult to write and make a prog record. I’m just thankful to have an audience of any kind. I love the prog audience. For them, it’s just about the music. It’s not about how cool you look or how young you are. It’s about what it should be about — does the music touch you? I love prog so much, because it’s so free to create in. I feel like if I have an idea to write something like Bach or a pop song, I can use it. If I have a jazzy idea, I can use that. You can follow the music where it wants to go. I think that’s what we should all be doing as musicians.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.