Few musicians in any genre can match not only the output but the quality of releases from Neal Morse. After the enormity of Transatlantic’s The Absolute Universe releases earlier this year, he is back with the Neal Morse Band, now NMB, and their incredible double album Innocence & Danger. Recently, Neal Morse made his second visit to the site to talk about this release.
Please press the PLAY icon below for the MisplacedStraws.com Conversation with Neal Morse:
On deciding not to do a concept album – Well, we didn’t talk about it before we got together, I don’t think, there might have been an email or two, but what I remember, which sometimes is not entirely accurate, just ask my wife…what I remember is when we got together, as is our custom, we usually get here and set up in the morning. I’m a morning person and most of the guys are too. So they get here earlier and then Mike stumbles in, he doesn’t stumble in, he gets in around lunchtime and then we eat and we talk about it. At our first meeting on this one, it was definitely decided two things, it was going to be not a concept album and it was going to be a single. So we got to we were half right. We had just done two double concept, very elaborate and listening that I would call kind of a little bit, in a sense, heavy lifting. A lot of my favorite albums are heavy lifting, so nothing wrong with that. But it just seemed like it would be nice to make a Trick of the Tail after Lamb Lies Down or whatever. So that’s what we set out to do. That’s a funny analogy because there are similarities between the beginning of “Do It All Again” and the beginning of “Dance on a Volcano”, the first song on Trick of the Tail. Look what I did there. We just started writing and recording, as we do, going off of little motifs of Bill’s (Hubauer), I didn’t bring anything in this time, but we wrote a lot of the room and I wrote a lot of stuff before the sessions began. Then we just started just following the muse, I guess you’d say. 1:10
On the two parts of “Not Afraid Anymore” – Well, I wrote the lyrics and I wrote the basics of both of those pieces in the mornings before the sessions. It has parts from other guys, too, but the initial bits and the basic structure, I was kind of the captain on that one. The only reason why they’re called “Not Afraid, Part I and Part II” is because that just came out of my mouth when I was writing the songs and (sings) “I’m not afraid anymore”, oh that feels good. Then at the end of that chorus, (sings) “I’m not afraid”, in the bigger song and I don’t really know why. Sometimes things are just coming. Hopefully, when you’re creating you’re channeling the spirit of God. That would be my hope. It is like it’s kind of like in the scriptures. It says, “What he who has an ear hear what the spirit is saying to the church”. Maybe God has some kind of message that he wants to put out there or something. That’s what I hope. I don’t know that. I just know that that’s just what came to me and it felt good. So since they had this lyric lyrical commonality….”Not Afraid I & II” is sort of like Steely Dan’s “Your Gold Teeth, I & II”, they’re just two different songs that happen to have the same lyric in them. 3:59
On returning to the concept of “whirlwind” – I was kind of freely associating when I was writing these words. So is that in “Another Story to Tell”? (sings) “You’re caught in a whirlwind”. What a whirlwind is, kind of a storm, and for me, it’s always been a metaphor for the times when there’s a lot of different currents and wind and things that are happening in your life or in the world. So I suppose I come back to that because I’m really interested in the one who calms the storm. A lot of these songs are about the troubles of life, the turbulence, and then the one who brings peace into that turbulence. 7:10
On picking Innocence & Danger as the title – Well, you’d have to have to ask the other band members because I voted against it. We were kicking around album titles and we were having trouble agreeing. I can’t remember what the one was that they really wanted, but I didn’t like it and they didn’t like the one that I liked, which was Destination. I wanted to have some kind of a title that sounded like a classic album to me. I like one word, titles that aren’t related directly, like Revolver or Fragile. I like those kinds of things, so we were looking for that. Then I think it was Randy (George) who started sort of combing the lyrics of the album, looking for things. Then in the email, he said, “What about Innocence & Danger?” And everybody went, “Oh, yeah, I love it, love it”, and Michael (Portnoy) kind of went into a whole, “Oh, yeah. Then the epics can be on the Danger disc and the shorter songs going to be the Innocence disc. Then when we play MorseFest we can have the Innocence Night and the Danger Night!”. He’s just like he’s just going off into the cosmos and I’m still like, “Well, I don’t like it, but I guess if you guys do, it’s OK”. Then when I saw the album cover with the masks that Thomas Eberhart came up with, I really warmed up to it. Sometimes in the creative process, it can take you a little while to warm up to things. I’ve learned to trust the team, too. So, yeah, that’s the story on that. 8:19
On the change from Neal Morse Band to NMB – (It was) just wanting to have more of a band identity. We had talked about that early on. I think before we put out the first record, The Grand Experiment. At that time, we had talked to the label or the distributors, and the business people were opposed because they thought it was going to be harder to get retailers to stock the album. That was the idea at that time. Of course, the music business is ever-changing. I think the band and I agree, it’s confusing for people. That there’s the band and then I also do solo work, and so the idea is to differentiate between that. 10:31
On determining which songs work for his various projects – Sometimes there’s something that you write that you have that band in your mind when you’re writing it and you feel like it’s really there’s no doubt in your mind. When I wrote “Not Afraid” that morning. I mean, we’re here we are working on this album. I wrote it for our three voices. We reworked it when we got together. I just want to make it clear we didn’t record it just as I originally conceived it. Everybody kind of had a little bit of a hand in that, especially the bridge. It was Bill that changed the chords in the bridge, which I think is just wonderful, the modulations there, he’s wonderful with that. But, some songs just really scream out a certain group. There’ve been things I’ve submitted and Mike has said, “You know, it’s a great song, but I think you should save it for a solo album. It seems more like a Neil Morse song”, I’ll go, “Oh, ok”. So sometimes it’s whether the bands choose to record it or not. I originally submitted “We All Need Some Light” to Spock’s Beard, I think three albums in a row because I wrote, “We All Need Some Light”, I think in 1996 or something a long time ago. So I submitted it like 1997 and 1998 to Spock’s and they just didn’t want to do it. So I submitted it to Transatlantic and they wanted to do it. Then it became our, I think our most downloaded song ever or something. So yeah. I mean sometimes you just don’t know and you run it up the flagpole. 11:50
On creating their epic arrangement of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” – Well, what happened was we had too much material to fit on one disc as we had planned. It was kind of like at the end of the eight days or whatever it was, Mike showed up and said, “Hey, guys, I’ve put everything into a folder and we have like eighty-two minutes of music”. I was like, “We do?” I had no idea. Then it was like, well what do we want to relegate to a bonus disc? We didn’t feel like there was material that was B material really as we listened down. So then the problem was well we have too much for our single and not really quite enough for a double. So, what can we do? Eric (Gillette) and Randy were leaving in the morning. They had flights home. The way we usually plan is like everybody comes to do the initial writing and then everybody leaves on a certain date. Then Mike does his drums with Jerry (Guidroz) and me breezing in and out kind of thing. So that was the plan, but then I think it was like on a Sunday night we went, “Let’s do a cover, can we do a cover?” Then Mike was like, “Oh, I could just bang out some covers and send the tapes to everybody and they can fill it in later and we can pad the album”. Bill was like, “I don’t like doing covers just like the originals. I want to do something different with it”. Then so on that Monday, he suggested we kick around a bunch of different ideas. I think Bill had ideas for, and already has arrangements for, “I Can See Clearly Now”, “Green Grass and High Tides”. There was a bunch of different songs that he threw out there, and I was like (saying no), I was feeling kind of like a jerk. Then he said, ” I have a few just bare-bones ideas for a “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. I’m like, “Well, that’s one of my favorite songs ever. Let’s try it”. Then was so it was kind of like, let’s approach “Bridge Over Troubled Water” like Yes’ “America”. So if you think about it that way, you’re like, “Oh, yeah, yeah”, you can hear some influences there for sure. Then that’s when the fun began. So Bill and I just sat in there before Mike showed up. Again, because he doesn’t come till like 12:01 or something, so, it’s like 10:00 in the morning and we’re like, well, let’s see, it starts off with the piano going (sings the part). My son learned this song exactly, I know that I know that piano part. I know it really, really well. So it’s like, “Well, what can we do with that?” You try to take all the elements of the song and then do something. So I’m like, “Well, we just start off (sings the beginning)”, and then like “America” had some organ thing in the hole. Right? Bill’s like, “Oh, yeah, I could do that”. We should release the original demo thing that we did? It’s so like a space holder, everything’s practically a space holder. I started playing these chords and then I guess you could play the melody, (sings) “When you’re weary”, I started playing on acoustic guitar over it. Then Bill had all these ideas for that walking bass, I think. So we did this whole intro and then we land on the song. Then once we started the song, we stayed pretty straightforward for the first two times through anyway. Then it was like, “Oh, well, let’s go”. Then Mike shows up. Now Mike’s there and now we’re hashing out the guitar solo part. Mike had a lot to do with that whole part. He had kind of had a vision for that. Then, well, what do we do now? Well, let’s do the intro again. One of Bill’s things that he had from the very beginning of the concept was… I just wanted at some point to do the big slow down, (sings) “Sail on Silver Girl”, with ‘trons and key bass. So after that, you’re basically home-free. 14:14
On setlists for upcoming NMB shows –I don’t know yet. All I know, honestly, I believe in letting the gifts work. Let the gifts work. Somebody’s got a gift, let’s lean on it. Mike has a tremendous gift in setlists and song organization. So I kind of leave that to him. I mean, maybe that sounds weird, but I do. I’m happy to do it. I’m happy to take hats off, you know, like, “Hey, I’ll give that to you. I’ll work on the lyrics for this new thing I’m working on”. So I know what we’re doing at MorseFest ’21. That’s October 8th & 9th. That’s going to be the Neil Morse Band, the Innocence night, the Danger night. Then we’re going to do some single-night dates in the States. But I still don’t know what those setlists are. I would imagine we’ll be doing probably a lot of the new record as much as we can. Then I’m sure we’ll throw some things in from the past as well. 20:09
On upcoming projects -I’m working on (a project), it’s a book about a guy named Brother Andrew, who is a guy who felt called by God to smuggle Bibles behind the Iron Curtain in the 50s and 60s. I felt like God kind of commissioned me to start writing songs for it, so that’s why I’m working on it now. I don’t have any idea where it’s going. I don’t know if anybody’s going to like it or not or what it even is yet. I’m just kind of in that in that throwing things against the wall phase, and I’m really enjoying it. I think there are some really good songs for it. So I’m working on that now. Then there are other really special things to be announced soon that I can’t talk about yet. But follow me on Twitter and you’ll see it all. 21:29
They took the name from a lyric in The Beatles song “I Am the Walrus”: ‘Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye…’ On March 26, 2012, Morse released the first album of the newly formed band Flying Colors Mike Portnoy on drums and vocals, Dave LaRue on bass, Neal Morse on keyboards and vocals, Casey McPherson on lead vocals, and guitar, and Steve Morse on lead guitar. In 2014, he gave life to another group, The Neal Morse Band with Mike Portnoy, Randy George, Eric Gillette and Bill Hubauer , that released its first studio album The Grand Experiment in 2015.
As had become Morse’s pattern, he followed that album with a tour and live DVD. Momentum was released on September 11, 2012, an album that, in structure, featured several shorter songs and one epic. In recent years, Morse has recorded two more cover albums with George and Portnoy Cover 2 Cover in 2012 and Cov3r to Cov3r in 2020 , a guest-heavy prog rock musical retelling the life and Passion of Christ Jesus Christ the Exorcist , released in 2019 , and a biographical album in the vein of Sola Scriptura based on the conversion and writings of Paul the Apostle Sola Gratia , released in 2020.