Much like Pete’s interview, it took several false starts and missed appointments to get Neal on the phone to Basil, but thankfully it did go ahead. We had Roine lined-up too, but technical issues scuppered the first effort and then he ran out of availability due a hectic rehearsal schedule and the start of the tour. Anyway, here’s the evergreen Neal Morse…
Neal Morse interview for DPRP by Basil Francis
Basil: Hi there. It’s really great to speak to you.
Neal: OK, you too.
Basil: What are you doing right now?
Neal: Well, it’s 7:30 AM here in Whittier, California. I’m drinking tea and talking to you and afterwards getting ready to do a final rehearsal for the Transatlantic tour. We have a lobby call at 8:30 because we have to go to the Mexican consulate to get a visa.
Basil: Oh right!
Neal: We have to show up at the consulate, it’s insane! Mike Portnoy is supposedly going to be in the lobby at 8:30, but we’ll see if he actually is.
Basil: You’ve got quite a tour ahead of you, haven’t you?
Neal: Yeah, it’s quite a schedule. It’s going to be great! I’m excited, man. The band is just wonderful. Even the rehearsals are enjoyable for me. I’m having a good time.
Basil: We were sorry to hear about Daniel Gildenlöw going to hospital and send him our best wishes.
Neal: Oh yes, that was a real shame. We’re all broken up about that. What a terrible thing!
Basil: Do you know how he’s doing at the moment?
Neal: Well, he’s on the mend, but it’s slow going. That’s about all I know. He’s still in quite a bit of pain and the doctors are telling him he needs to rest up for quite some time.
Basil: How’s his replacement, Ted Leonard, doing?
Neal: Good! Yeah, Ted’s doing great.
Basil: Is he all ready for the tour?
Neal: Well, you know, we’re all getting ready. *laughs* It’s our last day today. It’s going to be great!
Neal: Really good! Everything I’ve seen has been really positive.
Basil: We at DPRP gave you a very good review, with an average of almost 9 out of 10.
Neal: Oh wow, that’s great! I haven’t seen it, I’ve been so busy.
Basil: How does it feel to work with the Transatlantic guys once again?
Neal: Well, it’s really good. I just… I can’t even think of the word… I feel blessed to be able to play with these guys. They’re such amazing musicians and creative people. It’s really an honour, that’s all I feel.
Basil: You’ll have to say “Hi” to Mike for me, as I’m a huge fan of his. Speaking as a drummer, he really opened the doors for me.
Neal: Oh yeah, sure. I’m a big fan of Mike’s too. He’s amazing.
Basil: When did talks start to happen about Kaleidoscope? When did you and Mike and the guys decide it was time to come back into the studio and record?
Neal: Well, I think we started talking about doing another Transatlantic album about 2½ years ago now. I remember we were talking about it before I even made the Momentum album. After you make the album, there’s a time lag from when you start making it to when it’s done to when it gets released. I think Momentum was released in September 2012 but I started working on it in January. If that’s right, then we started talking about Transatlantic in November 2011 and about getting together in January. I remember writing music then with a little bit of Transatlantic in my mind. At that time I wrote Shine. I wrote little bits of musical themes as well, some of which ended up on Momentum. The simple reason why it took so long for us to get back together and play it was just scheduling, especially Pete and Mike whose schedule didn’t cross until 2013. We’ve been wanting to get together for longer than that. I know everybody has had the desire but there’s so many different things going on and it’s hard to find the time when everybody is free.
Basil: You’re certainly all very busy people!
Basil: How did the title Kaleidoscope come about?
Neal: That was Mike’s idea. We were just sitting at dinner during the sessions. Mike’s an ‘overview guy’ as well as a ‘detail guy’; he thinks about the big picture of the album early on, much more than I do. He’s there thinking about the name of the album, the possible covers, how it should be laid out, stuff like that.
So, yeah, it was his idea. I don’t think he had a particular concept. He had the idea that we would use different colours for all the song names but that didn’t quite work out and we didn’t want to force it. We decided that Kaleidoscope was a cool name for an album and that it had cool art possibilities which, of course, it does. We all agreed to it and that’s how that happened.
Basil: Yeah, it is an interesting title and I suppose there are a couple of colours in the song titles such as Into the Blue and Black as the Sky. I hadn’t thought of that before.
Neal: Yeah. I think that’s where the silver lightning reference comes in, in the Kaleidoscope song. We were brainstorming about how we could put more colours in the lyrics.
Basil: How is Kaleidoscope different to the last Transatlantic albums?
Neal: Well I think it’s a further exploration. It’s further reaching out and it’s a further expression of who we are. It isn’t a really markedly different album for us. There’s some elements that I don’t know if we’ve really approached before. In particular there are some Uriah Heep influences that haven’t occurred before. It’s things like that, but I think really it’s a further expression of who Transatlantic is and who we are as people.
Basil: It’s no big secret that Transatlantic always put incredibly long songs on their albums. Why is it that you guys decide to this so much?
Neal: It’s a natural thing for us really. We’re prog fans first. We love prog and we love the epics of the past. Coming from there and having those influences that we have, it’s just natural to us to go from one thing to the other and express that original theme in a quiet way and then in a loud way towards the end. That’s what I love about writing prog. It’s a totally different writing style. Structurally, it’s more like writing classical music.
Neal: It’s like the difference between a short story and a novel. You can go much deeper into the music and into whatever you’re singing about. One thing that I think people really like about Transatlantic is the four guys expressing themselves in all these different ways. There’s a lot of room there.
Basil: OK, so when you’re in the studio, do you know you’re going to write a long song or does it just occur naturally?
Neal: We usually start by recording some demos and sending them around. One of the interesting things about Transatlantic is that we never discuss each other’s demos or anybody’s ideas until we actually get in a room together. We might have each other’s demos for six weeks before we get together. We’re listening but we never discuss, it’s funny.
We get in there and we talk about the parts that we like and pick out the best parts of everybody’s demos. We usually start somewhere and then Mike is really good at gleaning out all of the best bits and thinking of ways to fit them together. A lot of times we’ll just start from one place and it just follows a general flow. Everybody just goes, it’s like a train.
Basil: Going back to The Whirlwind, what made you guys push for a 78-minute song?
Neal: I was pushing for a double album, actually! There were more ideas that we had and I just thought “Man, let’s just make it a double!” *laughs* But the other guys didn’t want to.
But about The Whirlwind itself, it just flowed out that way. I really don’t know why things come out like they do. You’re just following the music the way it wants to go.
Basil: When writing, do you ever consider what the music is going to be like to play live?
Neal: I don’t and I should! *laughs* It’s one thing to think “Oh yeah, that’d be cool to throw this in here and throw that in there,” and one thing we do a lot is we change the chords almost every time we do a chorus. We rarely repeat anything exactly the way it was. There’s always a lyric changed or a chord changed or something so it makes it very challenging to play live. *laughs*
Basil: A fun challenge though, I imagine.
Neal: Yeah, sure it is.
Basil: Of the tracks on Kaleidoscope, my personal favourite has to be Into the Blue and as I say in my review, it’s possibly Transatlantic’s most cohesive to date. Would you mind telling me what the lyrics are about?
Neal: I can only speak for my section. What’s interesting about Transatlantic is that everybody writes their sections and they have their concepts and their lyrics. For example, Roine writes about different topics than I do. Still, I think it works together; somehow it adds a cohesiveness to it that is really cool.
In my section, I’m speaking to somebody who’s maybe a little older and who’s perhaps become a little discouraged with God. I’m saying “God is still here for you. He’s still calling for you. You can still draw nearer to Him and live in the centre of His will.”
Basil: Tell me about The Dreamer and the Healer.
Neal: I’m just speaking about God in general. The Jews have all kinds of different names for God, such as “God the Counsellor”, “God the Provider”, “God the Comforter”, “God the Man of War” detailing all the characteristics of the Lord. But people can take that however they want to; I’m not trying to shove anything down anybody’s throat. That’s simply how I feel about it.
Basil: This of course relates to your solo work where over the last decade you’ve been influenced by Christianity and God. On your solo albums you often make explicit references to Jesus and God, but you don’t do so on any Transatlantic albums. What makes you do this?
Neal: It just seems to be the right thing to do. Transatlantic is not a Christian band. I’m grateful, and I always have been, that the guys are as cool as they are with my spiritual lyrics. I remember when I was writing the lyrics to Stranger in Your Soul, which is really about receiving the Holy Spirit, I asked Roine “Am I going over the line? Is this too much?” But he said “No, no, it’s good!” The guys really feel some of those things as well. I’m trying to do whatever the Lord’s will is in this moment with these people at this time. That’s what I felt about these words.
Basil: Well there’s definitely something to them. I can remember seeing you guys on the very final Transatlantic show at High Voltage 2010 in London. It was a ninety minute set and you guys only played one song, The Whirlwind, and did The Return of the Giant Hogweed with Steve Hackett as the encore. In the final section of The Whirlwind however, there was a moment where you looked directly at me for about ten seconds or more whilst singing the lyric “Don’t be afraid, come and take his hand!” It felt like you were looking into my soul! I’m not a Christian myself, but it made those lyrics really come to life for me. It was a very personal and uplifting experience for me and I want to thank you for that because it was a unique and special moment that I’ll always remember.
Neal: Oh wow, that’s wonderful, that’s great! I don’t remember that!
Basil: I wouldn’t expect you to.
Neal: There used to be some kind of a barrier between me and the audience as if I were simply performing. Now I really want to be with people. I like to really look at them, sing to them and try to impart something that I’m feeling to them, so I’m glad you felt that. That’s great.
Basil: In my review, I’ve commented that Shine is a lot like We All Need Some Light from the first album, whilst Beyond the Sun is more like Bridge Across Forever from the second. Did you guys recognise this when writing the music?
Neal: No, not really. When I wrote Shine, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen with it. When I wrote Beyond the Sun, I was on a plane in Canada. It was in May 2013 and Transatlantic was about to get together to make this album. It reminded me of my dad’s passing because when we made The Whirlwind, my dad had passed away two or three weeks before that. That was why I wrote Rose Coloured Glasses; it was for my father. It just brought back all those feelings.
Basil: The title track Kaleidoscope is more eclectic in its nature with vastly differing pieces of music. Again, what are the lyrics about?
Neal: I don’t know. It’s a kaleidoscope of things. *laughs* In my part of the song, I’m talking about people getting caught up in the corporate world and getting drawn away into worldly matters when it isn’t where your heart is. I’m saying “Come to the spiritual side of things.”
As for Riding the Lightning, that came about when a nurse testified in my church. She was saying when they defib people, when they shock their heart, they’ll tell them “Hey, get ready to ride the lightning!” But then she said “Now that I’ve received the Holy Spirit, I feel like I’m riding the real lightning.” *laughs* So, again, I’m talking about the Holy Spirit.
Roine’s bit in that is about not getting too caught up in your money and worldly things again. Pete’s bit is a soul-searching thing. Then we come back to the spiritual thing where I’m saying “Yes, we can ascend to the Holy Spirit!”
Basil: Which of the album’s tracks are you most looking forward to playing live?
Neal: Oh I don’t know. I’m loving it all. It’s awesome. I suppose one of the more fun songs to play is Black as the Sky. I was having trouble getting that in my hands, especially that difficult part in the middle.
Basil: Yes, in my review I ponder whether that section is going to be extended when played live.
Neal: I’m glad it’s not! It’s very difficult to play!
Basil: In previous years what’s been the most fun song to play?
Neal: I guess either All of the Above or Stranger in Your Soul because they’re so deep and the audience has so much fun. A lot of it is interactive when we play it live. When the audience are having a great time, so are we. We’re not by ourselves up there. I enjoy the things that the audience enjoy.
Basil: Of the tracks on the bonus covers disc that accompanies the special edition of Kaleidoscope, which is your favourite?
Neal: And You and I. That’s one of my favourite songs ever.
Basil: I used to play that song over and over when I first bought Close to the Edge.
Neal: Yeah, same.
Basil: What do you think makes Transatlantic so popular?
Neal: People really enjoy the unique combination of ingredients. It’s like a dish that you get at a restaurant. You know, Pete and Mike are the foundation, the bread and the cheese. I’d be the topping and then Roine is the secret sauce.
Basil: Oh, wow, the ‘secret sauce’! You are often seen as ‘the singer’ and ‘the songwriter’ yet you turn your hands to everything, notably the role of keyboards player. Do you ever feel your role as instrumentalist is eclipsed by other roles?
Neal: No not really. I don’t even think that way. I just feel lucky to be able to be a part and be able to play. I’m just glad to be in music.
Neal: It’s a different expression. Working with these four guys in this way is its own thing. I mean Roine is so creative and Pete is such a great bass player. Something about those four ingredients just make a different dish.
Basil: Again, back to the ‘dish’ analogy. How has the band evolved over the years?
Neal: I think we’ve grown closer together as people. It’s a little hard to tell when you’re in it, but I think we’ve also grown as musicians.
Basil: Do you change your approach to writing and playing music when you’re in Transatlantic?
Neal: No, not really. I’m always trying to follow the music where it wants to go. That comes first. Then you present it and see what the other people think and you take it from there.
Basil: Are you looking forward to the Progressive Nation at Sea Festival in just a few weeks?
Neal: Oh, very much! Are you kidding?
Basil: I just wish I could afford it!
Neal: Not to be missed! It’s going to be unbelievable!
Basil: Which bands are you most looking forward to seeing?
Neal: Oh, I don’t know! There’s so many killer ones. *pause* I’m looking forward to seeing Spock’s Beard, man. I’m looking forward to hanging out with them too, that’ll be cool.
Basil: I believe you added a guitar part to their latest album Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep.
Neal: Yes, I did.
Basil: How was it to work with them again?
Neal: It was really great. All I did really was get together with my brother to write and that was lovely.
Basil: Do you feel like you could be working more with Spock’s Beard again in future?
Neal: I don’t know. It depends if they ask me. I’m always happy to work with friends.
Basil: Now for more of an interesting theoretical question. Personally, I could never see Transatlantic being formed of anyone else but the classic line-up, but if you were to leave the band and were able to name your replacement, who would you choose?
Neal: Oh my, I don’t know! I never thought about that.*pause* Oh wow, I don’t know. That’s a stumper! *longer pause* Could it be anyone?
Basil: Yep, just think of one person.
Neal: Ah, I don’t know! Err, Peter Gabriel. *laughs*
Basil: Peter Gabriel? Wow! He could certainly do the singing.
Neal: Peter Gabriel is pretty much my favourite artist.
Basil: That would be an interesting line-up, I’d definitely go see that.
Basil: How do sales of Transatlantic albums compare with those of your solo work, of Flying Colors, etc?
Neal: Transatlantic sells quite a bit more, usually. We’re quite a bit more popular. I don’t know how the sales turn out but it’s more.
Basil: Well that’s the thing. I believe in the 70s, after Yes took their hiatus, the sales of Going for the One eclipsed the sales of all the band’s solo albums put together. Some cite this as a reason that ELP reformed to record Works, which is essentially three solo albums put together.
Neal: I think that’s right, yeah.
Basil: I know you’ve only just released this album, but do you think you could see yourself doing another Transatlantic album in the future?
Neal: We’ll see. You never know which way the Transatlantic ship will turn.
Basil: Speaking of that ship, who designed the Transatlantic blimp that appears on all the album covers?
Neal: I think it was our artist Per Nordin. I don’t know if it was his idea or somebody else’s. I know that he designed it. But that was a long time ago, I don’t really remember.
Basil: When you’re doing the more complex vocal arrangements on your songs, how do you decide who should sing what?
Neal: Usually we go with people’s ranges. Pete has a higher range, Mike has a lower range and I’m in the middle. Roine does his ideas of things which are usually a little different. Everybody does what they hear really.
Basil: Are there any other forms of art that inspire you?
Neal: Yeah, sure. I’m inspired by lots of different things, films, paintings. I think God is the ultimate artist. For example, I could be inspired by a sunset.
Basil: What sort of films are you inspired by?
Neal: Anything that really touches my heart. What have I seen recently? I saw 42, which was about Jackie Robinson, and I thought that was really inspiring. I watched Hotel Rwanda with my son and both of us were moved. It’s just really inspiring how he’s trying to hold it together to save everybody.
Anyway, I have to go get ready, I have a lobby call soon.
Basil: OK, well it’s been great to talk to you. Make sure you say “Hi” to Mike for me!
Neal: I’ll do that, man. We’ll see you on tour!
Transatlantic official website: http://www.transatlanticweb.com
Tue Feb 18, 2014 Progressive Nation At Sea (18-22 February) progressivenationatsea.com
Thu Feb 27, 2014 Madrid, Spain La Rivera
Fri Feb 28, 2014 Barcelona, Spain Razzmatazz 2
Sun Mar 02, 2014 Milan, Italy Alcatraz
Mon Mar 03, 2014 Rome, Italy Orion
Wed Mar 05, 2014 Pratteln, Switzerland Z7
Thu Mar 06, 2014 Karlsruhe, Germany Substage
Fri Mar 07, 2014 Munich, Germany Muffathalle
Sat Mar 08, 2014 Berlin, Germany Astra
Sun Mar 09, 2014 Cologne, Germany E Werk
Tue Mar 11, 2014 Antwerp, Belgium Trix
Wed Mar 12, 2014 London, England The Forum
Thu Mar 13, 2014 Tilburg, Holland 013
Fri Mar 14, 2014 Tilburg, Holland 013
Sat Mar 15, 2014 Paris, France Le Bataclan