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Backstage With Steve Morse

The American guitarist talks about working with Mike Portnoy and Neal Morse as part of their supergroup Flying Colors

Tushar Menon Nov 26, 2012
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Flying Colors. Photo: Bill Evans Media

In an interview with the Paris Review, Gabriel Garcia Marquez talks about how he did not use a tape recorder during his stint as a journalist. ”˜The best way’, he says, ”˜is to have a long conversation without the journalist taking any notes [”¦] When there is a tape recorder, I am conscious I am being interviewed; when there isn’t a tape recorder, I talk in an unconscious and completely natural way.’ As I listen to the tape of my interview with Steve Morse and Neal Morse, on the evening of the live debut of Flying Colors in the UK, I am glad I did not heed Marquez’s advice. Both Morses were gracious, at ease and articulate, and it would have been a real shame to miss out a word either said.

I was ushered into Steve Morse’s dressing room, and was introduced not only to the legendary Deep Purple and Dixie Dregs guitarist, but also to his guitar, on which he was practising a familiar riff. “That’s still hard to play,” he said, almost as if we were continuing a conversation that had been interrupted by a doorbell. He was referring to the introductory riff from “All Falls Down, the heaviest song off Flying Colors’ eponymous debut album. It was as good a place to start our conversation as any. It soon became clear that his guitar was going to annotate everything he said.

What’s the story behind “All Falls Down”? It stands out as unique on what is already an eclectic album.

Well, Mike [Portnoy] started playing that beat and I entered with this riff.  I had a chord progression. It was classical. I just put it on top and added a few riffs.

How long did it take for the dynamic of this particular supergroup to sort itself out? How democratic was the writing process?

One of the things I suggested early on was that nobody brings completed tunes and that we also have somebody there as a referee, a producer. But instead of a being a producer in the studio, perhaps being a producer in the writing. That was the most important thing to me, because it could go in all different directions. Peter [Collins, Flying Colors producer] was there to settle the disagreements and he did a great job of it. We were in Neal’s studio, with Peter in a smaller room separated by glass. He could hear everything we were playing and would say things like “You were doing something the last time”¦ I liked that better.” 

Is Flying Colors likely to turn into a full fledged band and perhaps record a follow up album?

Everybody wants to make another album. We all like each other. I think there is a special chemistry in the writing, recording and even live.

A common difficulty guitarists experience is falling into a rut defined by scales and patterns that they grow comfortable with over the years. How do you counter that?

That’s always possible. Any time you group things in a repetitive fashion you will tend to do that if you’re not thinking. That’s why I work on solos a little differently. I don’t plan them out. I try a lot of different approaches and record them all and see which one feels good. It’s all about feel, not so much whether I’ve done that kind of lick before. When I do solos with Deep Purple, like on our new album, the producer Bob Ezrin says “Well you do that a lot, so don’t do that” To which I say “OK”¦ I’ll try not to.” He steers me to play more simply for some of the songs.

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Peter wanted me to play with more emotion. He didn’t care so much about what style it was, he just wanted to make sure it sounded authentic. So I like to have somebody with me when I’m doing solos to help me judge, because all I can do is record and listen.

Does that approach differ a great deal from the actual songwriting process? How instinctive is songwriting for you?

For me, it’s very instinctive. Tonal music, well, our tonal music, is very simple. Indian music has more different choices for tones, whereas ours follows a pretty predictable pattern, but even with seven notes in an ordinary scale, you can mix it up in a way that is unique”¦ I can always come up with ideas in tonal music- that’s easy.

It was at this point that the door opened and Neal Morse joined us. ”˜Would you like to continue with both of us?’ Steve asked. A nod in the affirmative and we went on.

Flying Colors is your fourth different band with Mike Portnoy. But this is the first time you’ve collaborated with the other three members of the band. Steve mentioned the role that Peter Collins played as a referee. How did you feel about playing a less dominant role than you’re used to in other bands?

Neal: It was great. It was different. Different group. Different time. Different dynamic. It was awesome. There were times when I felt like I wasn’t being heard, but that’s just the nature of a collaboration like this and I think it was good to have a producer to referee things. I prayed about it a lot. I felt like we should do the sessions, so I had that assurance. I was praying every morning and for the first several days I felt like I should hang back and see where I could help. I didn’t feel like the Lord wanted me to lead it.

Steve: That’s completely untrue! Neal was always telling us what to do! Seriously, though, I’d never really worked with anybody that was so fast and instantly had so many ideas. Normally, I’m the guy that overwhelms people. But here, it was like the bus was pulling away and I was running after it!

Neal: That’s what I felt about him too! Now that I think about it, there was a whole set of ideas for a song that we never used. It was a kind of acoustic thing”¦

Steve: We should bring that back”¦ I remember the first session had stuff that ended up on “Better Than Walking Away,” “Blue Ocean” and “Infinite Fire.” We had an awesome chorus too that got thrown out.

There must have been a large amount of material that never made it to the album.

Neal: There was a sense of “Get a coffee, lose a chorus” because things were changing so quickly. I mean that quite literally. I went out to get some coffee one time and came back and the song had completely changed, and I said ”˜What happened to the song?’

Steve: Part of the problem is that everything Neal comes up with is going to work and going to sound great. Everything I come up with, I guarantee, is going to work. But whether it will work for this band is a whole ’nother thing [sic]. So with that song, I remember you had a chorus and I was thinking, it’s missing something”¦

Neal: Do you remember which song it was?

Steve: No, I just remember you coming in and saying ”˜Where is that chorus?’

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Neal: And you said ”˜This is what happens when you go out and get coffee!’

Steve: Yes, but it was while you were gone, not because you were gone.

Neal: The nature of the process was such that that was the way it was moving. It’s like a train rolling and you can’t get off.

Are the two albums, Flying Colors and The Whirlwind by Transatlantic indicative of a desire to return to secular music?

Neal: We’re all on a walk with God and I just feel like I’m being obedient to what he wants me to do. I felt like he really wanted me to collaborate with Steve. So then, you have to let it be what it is. I didn’t feel like I was forcing my lyrics on the band. I am glad that it worked out that the other lyric writer [Casey MacPherson, the lead vocalist] is also a Christian. I think we wrote all the lyrics, actually. I don’t think Mike or Steve or Dave [LaRue, on bass] wrote any. So there isn’t anything we’re saying that is difficult for me, as a Christian, to deal with.

Is Transatlantic likely to do something soon? Mike Portnoy and Roine Stolt have been hinting at the possibility of the band convening in 2013.

Neal: I think it’s likely to happen next year.

I asked Steve a similar question earlier – how instinctive and visceral is your approach to songwriting, given the highly complex and layered quality of the finished product?

Neal: One of the things that I really enjoy about writing this kind of music, which is more in the classical style of writing than in the pop style, is taking musical themes and asking how else we can use this. Can we make this heavy? Can we make this light? Can we make it quirky and playfully fast? Can we combine it with another theme? Sometimes a theme changes so much, I often wonder if people even recognize it.

Not that it really matters if you don’t. If it just flows by you and you enjoy it, then that’s what really matters. We love doing that. That’s the stuff that I’ve loved in music all along. I take my son to the Nashville symphony and point out things like it. ”˜Listen to the theme”¦ Now it’s in the flutes. Now it’s in the violas. Do you hear it? Do you hear it?’

Finally, I wanted to ask you about your recent autobiography, Testimony. How different was it for you to approach a non-musical undertaking of that magnitude?

Neal: That was really hard to do. I thought I’d be done [with the audiobook recording sessions] in a day and it took me eight days! It was really hard! It was like a performance.

I would go on long walks and talk into a recorder, and most of it ended up being totally unusable. It’s because you don’t talk and write the same way. The editor, Paul Braoudakis, took out a lot of what I enjoyed the most. I enjoyed describing things. I read Bob Dylan’s book and he’s wildly descriptive, so I started to really enjoy trying to put readers in the bar that I was in in 1982. To smell the smells and hear the sounds. What was on the radio? What were people wearing?

That really heightened my senses. Once you start describing things in great detail, every room you walk into, you’ll experience in a different way. I’d like to write more, just to experience life at that level. It was almost like waking up from sleepwalking.

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