Neal Morse: Relying on God's Guidance and Blessing
The year was 1995 – and the album was called The Light – and that was technically the beginning of the music world’s exposure to the one known as Neal Morse. Spock’s Beard was formed in 1992 by Neal and his brother Alan Morse, and with that first album hitting the wider music world in 1995, it did not take long before the impact of the band was felt in the rock world as the band quickly climbed in popularity and fame in the circles of the prog elite.
This fairly quick rise to fame for Neal allowed him to get involved with monster drummer Mike Portnoy of metal band Dream Theater, and they became part of the “super group” (as some would say) Transatlantic, which included two other prominently known prog musicians.
Six albums later, and just ten years from its inception, the future of Spock’s Beard was unsure, and after just two amazing albums, Transatlantic appeared to be dead in the water; for lead vocalist and founding member Neal announced his departure from both. He had recently become a Christian and was feeling led to pursue a musical and lyrical direction along those lines of conviction.
In late 2003 the world was presented with the first Christian released solo album by Neal, simply titled Testimony, and it featured his former bandmate Mike Portnoy on drums, giving it even more interest for fans in the prog world. A two-disc release, it is a musical masterpiece (in my opinion), a concept album describing Neal’s early music career, his introduction to Christianity, his ultimate conversion and the blessings God had brought to him in recent years.
In the twelve years since that first Christian release, Neal (with Portnoy in tow, playing on every single studio release) has released eight Christian prog albums, seven worship albums (many of which contain mostly original material), two more Transatlantic releases, two with the new “super group” Flying Colors (yes, with Portnoy on drums there too), and a few very cool cover song releases.
And now, 2016 brings us album number nine from the Christian prog side of Neal’s world, The Similitude of a Dream, and is yet another two-disc concept album, over 100-minutes of music, that is loosely based on the 1678 puritan classic Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Once recording was complete, drummer Mike Portnoy declared:
I honestly think this is the album of my career. Neal and I have now made 18 studio albums together, and I consider The Similitude of a Dream the absolute creative pinnacle of our collaborations together. I've always had a soft spot for double concept albums such as PINK FLOYD's 'The Wall' and THE WHO's 'Tommy', and I can bravely say that I think we've created an album here that can sit side by side with those masterpieces. Bold words, I know, but after a career of almost 50 albums, I honestly consider this to be one of the defining works of my career.
After spinning the review copy a bit, I was able to catch up with Neal to discuss things about the whole process. One thing worth noting, Neal rarely gets much attention from the Christian media press, so when I explained briefly the history of Heaven’s Metal magazine’s focus on Christian music, he was a little surprised, and he jumped right into the discussion from that angle:
Neal Morse: This is a very interesting album from a Christian perspective. Pilgrim’s Progress used to be required reading in England in previous times. Paul Whitehead, who did the artwork, I believe is the one who said that he had to read it in the English schools. And another lady that I talked to said that it was required reading in her Baptist school when she was young, in America. I did not know any of that and thought it was interesting. It is quite an interesting book from a spiritual perspective.
Jeff McCormack: For the longest time, the book was touted as the bestselling book that ranks number 2 only to the Bible. So it held a prominent place in church history for hundreds of years. I did not have to read it growing up, and did not discover it until the late 80’s after I got more serious into my Christian studies and into the Reformed Faith. Bunyan is considered one of the Puritans, the high, Reformed church theology of the time.
NM: That makes sense, because it is a pretty hardcore book.
JM: And if you understand the time frame, a lot of what he was writing about was also aimed at the church during his time. The Church of England was in charge, and Bunyan was in jail for his preaching…well, you know what I mean, you have covered the whole Martin Luther persecution and Roman Catholic church issue (on 2007’s Sola Scriptura album). So the book is a stab at the church, their abuses, as well as the easy-believism and theology taught then.
So after making music for so long, and making so much music in recent years, what is it that keeps you inspired to create?
NM: It’s God! Especially from the beginning to end on this album. I woke up last December, and a lot of times I wake up in the morning and I’ll either start praying, or I’ll already feel something in the Spirit like “go and write it.” I feel like the still small voice of God led me that morning to come out and write. Very early in the morning I started to plunk down some ideas, but I felt like I needed some direction. And I remembered that someone had sent me some communication, though I couldn’t remember who or when it was; but they suggested that I do a concept album on Pilgrim’s Progress. It stayed in the back of my mind. But I didn’t have the book, and have never read the book.
So I pulled up the online Sparknotes edition and kind of read it and started thinking about the story. I was like, okay, so he leaves the city of destruction…so what would that sound like? He faces this monster, what would that sound like? He’s saying goodbye to his wife and kids, what would that sound like?
So I just started to write the very germ kernels, I didn’t write the album by any means. The inspiration just started that very day. Then the next day I wrote some more. And that was about it, I worked on it for about two days, maybe four hours each day. Then in January when the band was getting together to write, I just sent my voice memos from my phone off to the guys; I hadn’t demoed any of the stuff or anything.
When we got together I think the band was kind of like, yeah there is some interesting stuff in there, but I don’t know if we should go that direction or not, but let’s start exploring. Then as they started exploring, and they had brought some ideas, and we started to play in the room, essentially “all roads led to Rome.” All roads led to this Pilgrim’s Progress concept. It all started to fit together, even the stuff they had brought started to fit. It just became apparent as we took each step that this is the path that God has for us, and it is amazing how it all turned out.
Well, then Mike (Portnoy) came. For that session in January it was without Mike because he was too busy. Then in March we got together to basically write and track the album, and Mike was really fighting against it. He really didn’t want it to be a double for various reasons, so he wasn’t into it. So there was a real struggle there, we had our own drama going on. But finally, when we got on the same page, and he stopped resisting, the album really just wrote itself, I feel. It just poured out. God just totally orchestrated the whole thing – it was incredible.
JM: Well, I would feel cheated if it didn’t have a least two discs. I always buys the deluxe editions of your releases, and they most always come with a second disc, and three is even better, so I would have been bummed if it were a single disc. (laughter)
NM: I think this was one of Mike’s concerns – we wanted to make sure it is what it wants, and needs, to be. He kept saying that most double albums could be cut down to a single disc. Most times there is a lot of fat that could be cut out. And yeah, I agree.
What’s really funny is, I am known for writing really long pieces, yet I am usually the one who wants to cut things shorter. But this time, we were 45-minutes in and he wanted to start moving towards wrapping it up, but we hadn’t even touched on so many parts of the story. It is such a long journey the guy goes on, and I knew I liked some of the things I had sketched out about the man in the iron cage, sloth, the mask section and some of the other things. I wanted to keep exploring, but he really didn’t want to, and we really butted heads about it.
But that can be part of the struggle, and I feel that God is in the struggle too. I feel like the struggle that we had, which was one of the worst we have ever had here at Radiant Studio – it was just a really rough day where I had to finally call it and just say I am done and leaving.
JM: And then in the end Mike comes out and says what he says about the album as a whole.
NM: Right! It’s like we had what I call “miserable Monday” and then “miracle Tuesday.” We had our own little death, burial and resurrection here at Radiant. It was amazing, because after Tuesday…well, I think it was by Thursday night that he had finished tracking all of his drums and he gathered us around and said “boys, I think we’ve made the album of our careers.” It was a real amazing turnaround that he had, and I think God was in all of that. It was an amazing journey that we had writing it.
(As reported on the Radiant Records site, Mike had stated:
OMG...I am BLOWN AWAY.. I am completely FLOORED...By the time I was rounding the album's grand finale, the goose bumps were so overwhelming I actually uncontrollably wept like a baby!!! (I swear.....) In my 30+ year career, I consider myself to have made 2 masterpiece concept albums: Dream Theater's Scenes from a Memory & Transatlantic's The Whirlwind...
Ladies & Gentlemen, In my opinion, we have ABSOLUTELY TOPPED them both! THIS is THE ALBUM of mine (& Neal's) careers...it's so monumentally EPIC and perfect in every way....)
JM: Had any of the other guys read the book, or were they mainly following after your vision on this?
NM: It was pretty much me that was checking the book out, but Bill Hubauer also was reading the book. I don’t know if he had read it before, but he was reading it, and he kind of filled me in on a lot of ideas that he had that he thought we should touch on. The other guys were really more concerned with the music. It was Bill and I that were more interested in the story.
JM: So this is album two as The Neal Morse Band (the addition of “band” to the name instead of solo work), but does it still mainly follow suit that everyone contributes to the music, but you still write the bulk of lyrics?
NM: On this one I wrote all of the lyrics, but on Grand Experiment I didn’t; a lot of it was bits the other guys had worked on. I think I wind up doing more of the lyrics than other people, probably just because I have fallen into that role.
JM: And because the band is named after you so you have to do it, right? (laughter)
NM: Ha ha, not necessarily, not really.
JM: So here is an off-the-wall question along the lines of that topic. The last album began the full band effort direction, and you have other members singing more on that. On this album, I feel there is even more other voices being heard more often due to the many parts on this release. So it seems more and more that “Neal” is becoming less of the focal point – of shall I say, VOCAL point – and more of a musician in the band that also sings some. So I was just curious if you ever thought of giving this a real band name instead of your solo name?
NM: We did talk about it, we actually did. But we decided to stay with The Neal Morse Band mainly because business wise, when it comes to retail, when people would be looking to decide if they were going to stock the album, a new band name would be a harder sell than if they said “Oh, the Neal Morse Band’s Grand Experiment sold pretty well, so okay, we’ll take it.” So in my mind, it was that kind of a decision.
JM: So, you have done a lot in your music career, and you have done quite a few concept albums both solo and with other bands. Is there any story, any project in the back of your mind, or a musical challenge that you’d like to eventually tackle? Anything on your bucket list you would like to accomplish soon?
NM: Yeah, you know, I have written several musicals for the stage (pieces and parts of a few have been released through his Inner Circle Club – check out The Exorcist, Homeland, and Hitman – JM), and I would love to see, in my life time, one of them staged and actually performed. Another bucket list thing is I would love to do an album or a performance with a real live orchestra; I’ve always wanted to do that. There are a lot of things I would love to do.
I’d love to make an album with Peter Gabriel, but hey, most of the world would like to do that. We also are really blessed and happy with what we have.
JM: You are a full time musician, correct? Do you find it easier to maintain that lifestyle today than it was in the past, or is that a reason you are in so many different projects – in order to keep things coming in?
NM: I am really blessed and grateful to be able to support my family, including two kids in college now. I have some pretty extreme bills, but somehow God always makes a way for us to make ends meet and I am so thankful for that.
I pretty much live just by doing what I feel God wants me to do next, whatever that is; whether that is a band project, or starting a church, or doing worship tours where I don’t get paid, or whatever. And God always just takes care of me and my family, so I am just really thankful for that.
JM: Do you find your musical career to be easier to maintain these days than in years past? You have no label restraints, and you release so much, is it easier these days to maintain a music career?
NM: Yes, in the sense that I have the business aspect set up and in place, and I am more established. I have kind of an established audience, and the Inner Circle Club is great support and really helpful. But oddly enough, I still find myself wishing I had more time to write.
Like the first few days of this week, in between interviews which take up a lot of time – which is all good, all good stuff, but like Monday and Tuesday I overdubbed and mixed this blues album for the November Inner Circle release. And for the rest of the week I am working on fixing up the Morsefest 2015 audio. And I speak at church most Sundays, so I have to prepare a talk. And I hope to take my wife out of town a couple days next week. So there is just a lot to do all of the time, my schedule gets filled up. It is all good – I feel like I am in the Lord’s will, but sometimes I wish I just had more time to kind of just create freely with no agenda.
JM: C’mon, can’t you just create more time – just cancel everything. (laughter)
NM: It is kind of like my song on album Songs from November called When Things Slow Down, you know, when things slow down I’ll sit and I’ll just write. But then the next thing comes up, and you have to do that, but when I am done with that, but then… you know, it’s just the way life is I guess.
JM: Yeah, I think everyone has that issue; you just get to more fun things than most of us. (laughter)
HM: Yeah, I am not complaining. I just got back from a beautiful trip in Mexico City where I got to do this benefit concert for a children’s school down there, and it was just a beautiful experience. God is so good to me.
JM: Since you brought it up, Songs from November was such a different album for you. It is obviously not prog, and also not in line with your praise style releases either. I found it to be one of the most beautiful and touching album I have ever enjoyed. The music, the harmonies, everything just seemed perfect. The song My Time of Dying makes me tear up every time. It is such a moving album, and then you released six more tracks from the session as an Inner Circle disc, making it even better.
NM: Yes, we recorded extra and let people pick the best for the album. But some of the extra ones are really cool.
JM: I put them all on one disc and consider it one great album. It is an absolute favorite of mine.
NM: Thanks Jeff, that is great to hear, I am glad you like it.
JM: So how did it go over with the fans, being it is different than your normal stuff? People know you do different things, but where does this one fit in – is this a third Neal Morse entity?
NM: Honestly Jeff, it didn’t sell very well.
JM: Oh, that is truly sad to hear.
NM: In my world, doing music that is “out there” and not commercial, is commercial, and doing normal songs is no commercial, for me. Because the people in my audience, in my fan base, they’re not big fans of just like normal songs. I was sorry about Songs from November not selling better, but maybe it will find more homes in people’s hearts as time goes by.
JM: I admit, I was taken back when I heard the first video you released (above), and I knew it would be different, but I got it anyway, and listened to a few times, and it captured me, and I loved it. It is sad to hear it did not go over as well with others.
NM: It probably was marketed that well either, but we’ll see what the Lord does with it over time.
JM: So you release everything on your own label (Radiant Records) and you get distribution through Metal Blade Records, but do you have any marketing that gets your material distributed in the Christian market?
NM: No, I don’t. I haven’t had any luck making any inroads into the Christian market actually. It’s kind of funny.
JM: Hmmm, that is sad to hear. I would think Songs from November would fit great in the Christian airplay market, as well as your praise releases. With all of the mainstream hoopla over your quitting your bands back in the early years because you became a Christian, and your albums being clearly and openly Christian in content usually, it seems odd you haven’t gotten more attention than you have.
NM: Yeah, I don’t know man, it’s one of those things, just one of those things you know. I don’t know. I would have thought there’d have been a little more attention for all of that. You know, I am happy to be where I am, and I am definitely not preaching to the choir, so that’s great.
JM: Maybe you could try to go on tour with a larger name Christian band to get some additional exposure in the Christian market. Have you considered doing that? I know, go on tour with Stryper, that would introduce you to a new audience and be a different experience.
NM: Yeah, it would be. We’ve tried all kinds of things. We’ve played at Christian festivals, we’re open and just want to reach everyone God wants us to reach.
JM: And your series of praise albums, do those get any real distribution, or mainly just directly through you for the most part?
NM: No distribution, I just do them because it’s in me. I play a lot of praise and worship music, and sometimes I just want to write good praise and worship music, and I think this last album, To God Be the Glory, is a really good one. I just feel like I need to be a good steward of whatever God gives me, so I do the recording, and I put the music out there, and just trust God with the rest.
JM: So with your main reach being in non-Christian circles, do you get a lot of flak and blowback from that, or are you pretty much accepted?
NM: Yes, I do (get flak), I was just looking at Twitter and a reviewer from a metal magazine said he “Is listening to the new album and really enjoying it, which is amazing considering it is Christian content.” You know, there are a lot of people in the world of rock music that just don’t want to hear anything about the Lord, and I understand that. I am just grateful that there is enough people that do.
*Band photos by Robert Smith