As one of the most beloved vocalists/guitarists/keyboardists/songwriters (did I leave anything out?) in the genre, progressive rock icon Neal Morse is constantly working to satisfy expectations and provide new joys for his fans. I recently spoke with him about the release of the fourth Transatlantic album, 'Kaleidoscope' and his future projects.
Mike said that he came up with the title for 'Kaleidoscope.' Is that true? Anything to add?
Yeah, that was Mike’s idea. He has a lot of overview ideas, which is a great complement to me because a lot of the time I’ll just follow the music where it wants to go. I’m not an overview guy; I think about that stuff much later. I’m almost strictly music oriented. I hardly think about anything else as far as, you know, the big picture concepts. It’s wonderful that he does that because it’s a blessing and very needed.
Who designed the cover art? It’s a clever way to incorporate the Transatlantic blimp into a kaleidoscope image.
It’s interesting. When we were on the Neal Morse Band/Flower Kings tour, our engineer, Jerry Guidroz, found some app on the iPhone that makes any image into a kaleidoscope image. He showed us pictures of guitars and such in the form of kaleidoscopes, and that gave Mike all kinds of inspiration for what the cover should be. I think it was his idea to use the blimp as part of the image. Then Thomas Ewerhard took the idea and made a great thing out of it.
How would you compare the sound and approach of this album to previous work?
I constantly aim to make an album that’s good [laughs]. To me, to make a great album is enough of a challenge, and we did look at different approaches at different junctures. I always trust try to do the music that I’m hearing and that’s in my heart at that time as best I can. Mike thinks about changes more. He’ll suggest new things to try. For me, I set out to make the best Transatlantic record possible in the moment.
Is there a central theme that ties the five songs together?
No, not really. We do have some interweaving musical scenes, which happened by accident. I didn't even know that when we recorded “Shine,” Roine [Stolt]—or was it Mike? I don’t even know who came up with the idea [laughs], but so we do the basic writing and tracking and then everyone goes off to do their parts in their studios or tour buses and then they send their parts in. It’s really wild; I usually don’t hear what they did until the final mix. So I was surprised when I realized that one of the choruses from “Into the Blue” is reprised at the end of “Shine.” I’m pretty sure it was Roine’s idea. So there’s some interweaving ideas but the songs are separate for the most part.
How long would you say it took to write and complete this? Did anyone come up with most of the demos, for example?
Not really. I had demos, Roine had demos, and Pete had demos. We all came in with demos and we shared them. It’s a funny sort of unwritten law that we don’t talk about the music until we get together. We don’t talk about which sections we’d like to do before we’re in the room together. So I didn’t know, you know, ahead of time what people liked or didn’t like, or what they wanted to do or not to. The element of surprise is quite nice, I think. We start with one person’s demo and go from there. We started the sessions with “Into the Blue.” The funny thing is that when I sat down to write demos for it, I noticed that there was a setting on my keyboard that had choir in the left hand and synth lead in the right hand, so I just sat down and the first thing that came out of my hands was the opening of the track. From there we went all over the place, from Roine’s stuff to Pete’s stuff. Mike had a wealth of ideas about how to organize and reinterpret the sections. My original demo for “Into the Blue” sounds way different. So yeah, we just kind of start somewhere and then it goes where it goes. How it comes out is just how it comes out. It’s a wonder.
Would you say that this album took less time to make than previous ones?
I think this one might have been a bit faster than The Whirlwind. I’d have to check the archives, I guess. We had like fifteen minutes of finished music within the first two days, which isn’t usual for us. Or maybe even the first day. I was stunned by how quickly it went.
You’re known for your bonus tracks and cover versions. Can you discuss any of the ones that come with 'Kaleidoscope'?
Sure. After you’ve spent six or seven days embroiled in creating prog epics, it’s really nice to do some shorter, easier things. We kicked around ideas at dinner and blew off some steam with some covers. Sometimes we’ll change them up and sometimes we’ll record them pretty much as they were originally recorded. I think that the fact that we’re singing them and playing them puts our mark on it. I’m really glad we got to do “And You and I” by Yes. That’s one of my “mountain top” songs, as I’d call it. Songs that I want to sing on a mountain top. I’ve been singing that song since I was a kid, skiing and stuff.
Can you discuss the processes for shooting the video for “Shine,” which is Transatlantic’s first music video?
Yeah, it is. InsideOut got the guy who did the London DVD to do the video, and it was Mike’s idea to have a video. The challenge was deciding which song to use, and to be honest I would’ve opted to clip out—I mean, if you’re going to do a video for your album, you want it to represent the album as best it can and get people excited. The best parts of any transatlantic album are the epics. I mean, everybody knows that. The shorter songs on the album are good, but I don’t think they really represent Transatlantic. I would’ve chosen a section from one of the longer songs. Probably the first section of “Kaleidoscope.” But the other guys didn’t want to do that so the only choices that made any sense were “Shine” and “Black as the Sky.” We chose “Shine” because we thought it would lend itself better to a video. The director ran with it from there; he chose the location and we just showed up and played through the song a million times. I had no idea that making a video would be so tiring [laughs]. I was actually singing and playing because I didn’t want it to look fake, so by the end of the day my hands were really tired.
How do you view the legacy of Transatlantic thus far?
It’s great. There’s the whole notion of the supergroup, and it’s funny because I was thinking about how some bands started that way but became so big that you forget that that’s how they started. You forget that ELP and CSNY were supergroups. I think it’s great that we’ve become our own animal.
Yeah, no one looks at it like it’s a side project. Is there any news on a new solo disc or second Flying Colors?
Yeah, we just finished the writing for the second Flying Colors disc in December, and it was pretty rough. I had to fly up to Mike’s place in the middle of a storm in Philadelphia, and I was stuck at the airport at 1:00 AM. All of the hotels were full; it was a nightmare. I had to rent a car at 3:00 AM and drive to Quakertown, PA. It was quite an experience, but we got it done. Hopefully it’ll be released later this year. I’m also working on another singer/songwriter type solo album. It would be like my 'It’s Not Too Late' album. Normal, good songs. Sometimes I like to get away from the prog blanket, you know? I love it but it’s good to do some solid three minute songs sometimes too. Hopefully it’ll be released in the summertime; I should probably talk to the record company about that, actually [laughs]. There’s also a proper Neal More Band prog album that I’ve been writing with the band. That happened in November and it was very fruitful. It’s more of a collaborative effort than before. I’m looking to create something a little different. That should come out in early 2015. We’ve got a lot of good music still to come. It’ll be a great year in prog!
Thanks for speaking with me, Neal.
*Note: Most of this interview will also appear in issue #201 of Rock Society.