Something Else! Interview: Alan Morse of Spock’s Beard

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Guitarist Alan Morse joined us just before his band Spock’s Beard gathered to shoot a video for “Submerged,” offering his thoughts on their newly released album Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep and the band’s new frontman.

Ted Leonard replaces Nick D’Virgilio, who in turn had replaced Neal Morse — co-founder of Spock’s Beard with his brother Alan in the early 1990s. Each time, the group has found a way not to survive, but to thrive.

Morse describes this latest transition as seamless, and he says fans are responding: “People really seem to be loving it, as far as I can tell,” Morse tells us, in an exclusive SER Sitdown. “The fan reaction has been pretty unanimously positive. We couldn’t be happier, as far as that goes.”

Together with Dave Meros, Ryo Okumoto and Jimmy Keegan, they’ve created a double-disc triumph in Brief Nocturnes that returns Spock’s Beard to its original alchemy of mainstream prog and straight-ahead rock, even as it mixes in new sounds. Their new 17-date European tour begins tonight in Belgium …

NICK DERISO: First, let’s talk about the new album – which seems to hearken back to the band’s original melodic progressive rock vibe after more recent forays into darker, heavier sounds. Was it as much fun as it sounded?
ALAN MORSE: We had a lot of fun. We’re especially having fun playing live. I can’t say it’s all fun and games making a record, though there were moments. It’s a lot of work. But I get the same vibe off of it. It’s fun to listen to, for sure. Part of that is just having new people involved, and so you have different stuff happening. You get some fresh ideas. It works out to be pretty cool. Not that I would intentionally go out and start changing people out just for that reason, but it worked out well. As we were going through this, I was thinking about King Crimson. There’s sort of a model, or a template, for how you could successfully navigate this sort of thing. Hopefully, we’ll continue to do so. Obviously, we’ve been through a couple of iterations — but, hopefully, this will stay set for some time, because I’m really happy with it. Ted’s just a really cool guy, and we’re all pretty much on the same wave length. We all like the same kind of stuff. We’re all on the same page.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Spock’s Beard took a big chance when it decided to redo Yes’ epic progressive-rock classic “South Side of the Sky” back in 2002 – a chance that paid off big time.]

NICK DERISO: Do you find it’s gotten easier, this being the second change at the frontman position?
ALAN MORSE: We’ve gotten a little practice with that. (Laughs.) Hopefully, we can not have to do that again any time soon. Ted is just working out awesome, though. I’m really, really jazzed about the lineup now and I can’t wait to go out and play. I think it’s going to be a blast. I am really looking forward to touring. It’s been a long time, and I’m ready to get out there. We’re trying to set something up to record some of the shows. Some people are like: “Well, you’ve done so many of these things,” but I feel like it’s a different lineup, and a new record. I think it would be something worth going, and people will hopefully want to see it.

NICK DERISO: What changed followed Ted’s introduction?
ALAN MORSE: We recorded in basically the same way that we usually do, the way we have for a million records now. We went in with stuff pretty well demoed up; most of it was pretty well defined. This time, actually, was pretty interesting in that a lot of it was done remotely. We would sort of send out tracks to people, and they would record stuff and then send it back — because we can’t really afford to take three months and all sit around the studio and do it. But with the technology that we have now, we can send tracks to people and they can record stuff at home and send it back to you. It works well most of the time, but sometimes it doesn’t work so great. That was a big difference, for sure. Of course, I would rather have everybody be there together; it’s much easier that way. Much more immediate and direct. You can just go: “Can you play a little more this, or a little less that,” and that’s it — rather than sending tracks back and forth. But, you do what you can.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Neal Morse’s 2011 concert momento ‘Testimony 2: Live in Los Angeles included an emotional, long-awaited reunion with his former bandmates in Spock’s Beard.]

NICK DERISO: It’s certainly changed the nature of recording, but at the same time some of today’s albums simply wouldn’t have been made if not for the ability to do these things remotely.
ALAN MORSE: I had some guys play on my solo record (2007’s Four O’Clock and Hysteria) that I never even talked to. (Chuckles.) It was all email. I would send tracks and they would email them back, and I sent them a check and that was it. It was pretty amazing. It came out great, but it’s tricky because if things don’t line up right you have to do a lot of tweaking to make it come out the way it’s supposed to be. But I was really happy with it, and I still am. It was fun. My wife plays one of the songs from that record during her yoga class. I haven’t listened to it in quite a while, but when I do, I’m like: “Oh, yeah. That’s kind of cool.”

NICK DERISO: In the years since your 1995 debut The Light, prog rock has come back above ground. It must have been very different in the early 1990s, though. What emboldened you to try?
ALAN MORSE: It seemed pretty insane at the time. We didn’t really expect a whole lot. We kind of just went: We want to do this, and we don’t care that nobody likes this kind of music anymore. (Laughs.) We’ll just do it anyway. We’ll probably end up just doing some shows for our friends. It’ll be fun, and weird. And, well, here we are, still at it. We talked to people that had done some prog records — and the prognosis wasn’t very promising. But, what the heck? It seemed like it would be fun.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: ‘Brief Nocturnes’ is the closest Spock’s Beard has come to rekindling the successes of their original era – even as they hint as to the path they’ll take forward.]

NICK DERISO: Fast forward a couple of decades, and fans have come to play a key role in funding your new album projects. Do you pine for the days when labels would foot the bill, or does being unbound creatively balance the ledger?
ALAN MORSE: It’s got its pluses and minuses. Back in the old days, you had a powerful record company and they would handle everything. That sounds good, in a way. But I’ve never really been able to experience that. We’ve all pretty much had to forage for ourselves, to some extent. Nobody really pressured us too much to change — or at least, no one that we actually signed a deal with. There was this company that we were talking with about doing some records, when we were first getting started, before The Light. They wanted us to change a bunch of lyrics and stuff. They were saying: “This whole thing about Kennedy, I don’t know. Maybe we should change that. What? You can’t say Kennedy? (Laughs.) “You may have killed him, but you can’t kill me” — that’s controversial now? But we’ve never really been pressured to change stuff since then. We walked away from that; it was too weird. But, otherwise, creatively that hasn’t been an issue.

NICK DERISO: For all of the comparisons to Genesis over the years, Spock’s boasts some of the classic Kansas sound on “A Treasure Abandoned” from the new one. That song has been gestating for some time now, right?
ALAN MORSE: Yeah, I guess it is sort of — what would you call it? — Kansas-ian, or something. (Laughs.) Yeah, I guess it is. Having Ted singing on it, I think he sort of sounds like that guy anyway. But I don’t think about that stuff so much. You just go in and make records, and see what happens. Of course, you sometimes intentionally tweak it so it doesn’t sound like somebody, but most of the time we just go for it. I wrote that opening theme five years or more ago, and than I kind of lost the tracks — because the computer it was on ended up sort of disappearing. So I couldn’t finish it. But (longtime Spock’s Beard songwriting collaborator) John (Boegehold) had heard some of it, and he said: “That’s pretty cool; if you’re not going to do anything with it, can I write something with that?” I couldn’t do anything with it, because the computer was gone. So, he wrote the whole thing around it, and it came out really cool. We were actually going to put it on the last record. There was some talk about it. But I said I didn’t want to, at that time, because what John and I felt like it should sound like was too different, so I felt like it wasn’t going to come out right. But ultimately, I’m real pleased.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Neal Morse discusses his emotional return in 2011 to the themes of ‘Testimony,’ working with Spock’s Beard again, and his on-going love affair with the Beatles.]

NICK DERISO: I was surprised to find “The Man You’re Afraid You Are” tucked away among the bonus tracks. It’s a brilliant, at times twisted, musical journey — from prog quirkiness to Beatle-esque hooks. That should have made the official album.
ALAN MORSE: I kind of felt that way, too. But it’s hard to be objective about your own stuff. When it comes to the Beatles, that’s probably my biggest single influence. There’s a part in there that is just so George Harrison, with the slide guitar. I remember recording it, and just thinking: “Wow, this is over the top.” (Laughs.) But it was really fun; I dig it. I think it’s great.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, 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 U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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