As the former frontman of Spock’s Beard and a current member of Flying Colors, Transatlantic, and of course, his own band, Neal Morse has spent over 20 years being one of the biggest artists in American progressive rock. Naturally, his newest narrative effort, The Similitude of a Dream, is another brilliant venture into complex instrumentation, gorgeous songwriting, and clever conceptual continuity, which he’s overjoyed to discuss, in addition to the pressures of recording and the joys of touring.
Hey, Neal. How are you?
Good, Jordan. Good to talk to you again.
You too, of course. To start, I wonder what some of your favorite albums of 2016 are. Are you looking forward to any in 2017?
Oh, well let’s see. That’s a tough one for me [laughs] because I don’t think I’ve listened that much, you know? It’s true. I like the new Haken album [Affinity] and the Anderson/Stolt record, Invention of Knowledge. And man, I don’t even know what’s coming out next year.
Ah, okay. Well, those are two great records from this year, anyway. So obviously The Similitude of a Dream has gotten a lot of positive feedback so far, but I’ve also seen some criticisms from listeners. Specifically, that you repeat yourself musically and narrative. How do you respond to such criticisms and what do you do to ensure that you don’t repeat yourself?
Well, the band will toss out ideas or say, “Well, is that too much like something else you did, or like some Yes song, or whatever”. A lot of times when you’re writing, you have those concerns; sometimes you’ll be really inspired about something and you’ll really feel it, but then you’ll think, like, Oh, wow. That’s exactly like this Supertramp song. It definitely happens. I try not to worry about it too much because I’m just kind of moving forward in God, and I try not to worry so much about what people think and just trust in God.
That’s a great way to approach it.
That’s the only way for me. If you start to worry about all the different things that people think, you’ll go crazy.
You’ll always have some negative feedback, but if you get more positive feedback and believe in what you’re doing, that’s all that really matters.
Along the same lines, are you ever apprehensive about overhyping your work, or anyone else in the band doing that? That expectations may be set so high. I always wonder if artists are worried about that.
I was concerned about it, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Also, as a record company person also — because I’m the head of Radiant Records — I know that it’s going to be good for sales because people are going to want to check it out more. I can’t feel bad about that, but it kind of makes a little bit nervous just because I don’t want people to be disappointed. Sometimes, if people are expecting too much, they might not enjoy the album as much as they may have if they hadn’t heard anything about it, you know?
It’s all good, though. Mike [Portnoy] speaks his mind and —
I guess you already knew what prompted me to ask that, at least in part?
Of course, I’m not implying that it’s at all disappointing. I think it’s an amazing record, obviously. But yeah, Mike and a few other people really did build it up, so I was just wondering if you thought that might be a bit dangerous. As you’re saying, though, it will definitely help sales and inspire interest.
Yeah, it’s great. It’s doing amazingly well.
As it should be. It’s based on John Bunyan 1678 text, whose full title is The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream. What made you decide to name the record after the final few word of the original title, and how did you decide how much of the book to use as an influence? You’ve said that the LP only touches the first 75 or 80 pages of the book, right?
Yeah. You just follow your nose, your instincts. I came to a place in the story where I thought, Well, I think we’d better get this guy back to the city. We better start getting him saved and freed. He needs to get that pack of his back now. In the book, the guy gets the pack of his back and then he enters the Valley of Humiliation, and then he meets the monster. I decided that meeting the monster and battling it should be the pinnacle of the album, even though it only happens around page 80 in the book.
It’s an interesting take on the spiritual walk, you know? A lot of times, we think, Okay, we’ll just step in and we’ll have arrived. What I like about the book, and the album as well, is that they show all kinds of different spaces that we go through and all the things that try to bring us back from that and to detour us and to turn us around and not keep stepping out of faith.
Wow. That’s really heavy.
It’s what I still think is really exciting about the story.
It feels very climatic at the end of the record and very much resolved after the confrontation.
We skip a bit ahead after that to get to the happy ending. I did the same thing on Testimony, actually. It just felt like it was the right thing to do at that point. You want to get to the satisfying place and end on a positive note. Sometimes you have to skip a bit of the story. It reminds me of that Monty Python thing: [imitates English accent] “Let’s skip a bit, brother! Let the people just feast upon the lands and the orangutans and the sweets” [laughs]. Yeah, so it just felt like the right thing to do.
It gives the LP a sense of closure and a conceptual continuity, as it reprises “Long Day” at the end. So The Similitude of a Dream is also the second album released by The Neal Morse Band, with the first being last year’s The Grand Experiment. What did you guys learn from that first effort and what did you do differently here, if anything?
Not really, to be honest. As far as what we did, it was pretty similar. The four of us (including Bill Hubauer, Randy George, and Eric Gillette) got together without Mike first; we also did that with The Grand Experiment because Mike was busy and we wanted to get the ball rolling. I feel like it was very beneficial to do that for both albums. We kicked around a bunch of ideas and it was great. When Mike joined us, that’s when the rubber really started meeting the road. That’s when we’re going to start tracking the album for sure.
Before that, we’re just throwing things at the wall. The real struggle when Mike came in was a primary disagreement between me and Mike and some of the other members: some of us were feeling like this album really wanted to be a double, but Mike was just dead set against it.
In an interview I read of his, he said that he did everything he could to keep it from being a double album. He was really fighting. We were nice to each other, pretty much, but it finally got so tense that I left the studio. I was like “Let’s just pick it up tomorrow. We’re not getting anywhere”. It was bad.
In fact, Jerry Guidroz, our engineer, has made a lot of records with us and he said that it was the most he’d ever felt at Radiant Studios. Yeah, it was rough. You don’t always agree in every collaboration. It’s just part of the nature of it.
Sure. That reminds me of the famous stories of the Beatles recording The Beatles (“The White Album”) at Abbey Road. I’m sure it wasn’t that bad, though.
Oh, no, it wasn’t that bad, but a lot of great art is made with tension and conflict. There certainly was this time.
Maybe it benefited the music in the end. It certainly feels justified in being a double album.
Well, we all think that now, but a lot of the time it’s hard to tell when you’re on the journey.
Definitely. One thing I noticed about it is that Bill and Eric seem to sing more, especially as lead vocalists. It adds more variety, and their voices fit really well. How did you guys decide who would sing certain parts?
We talked about doing that at the very beginning; we all agreed that we wanted more shared vocals. When it came down to it, I couldn’t really hit some of the higher notes — like I wasn’t really comfortable singing the high chorus in “So Far Gone,” so I thought that I should give it to Eric. There were other parts of the album that we all sang lead on, on rough mixes, and then realized who should actually do it on the official version.
Other times, for instance, I’d hear Eric sing something and feel that it didn’t make sense context wise, so Bill should do it. There were a lot of emails going back and forth about who would sing what.
So it was based on narrative decisions as much as musical ones? Does each voice represent a different character or purpose?
We wished it worked that way! It wouldn’t have, though, because about 90 percent of it is from the main character’s point of view. There are only a few bits here and there from other people, so it wouldn’t have worked, so we had to pick and choose. Sometimes it was just important that a different voice said something at a specific time. It adds a different perspective.
Exactly. There’s a part about a minute into “Confrontation” when Bill hits a really high note. It always blows me away.
He’s great. He and Eric are both amazing.
A common trademark not only of your’s, but of the genre in general, is the tendency to reprise moments throughout a song or album. How did you decide what to bring back and when? For example, “City of Destruction” appears again in “Confrontation”.
Well, that part coming back was inspired by the book. The monster guy basically says, “Oh, you’re from the city of destruction? You need to go back”. I was reading their conversation in the book and the guy is trying to get him to go back, so it makes total sense for that part. Many times, there are moments when we’re working on a completed section and then someone will suggest, “You know what needs to go in there? This theme from this part. We’ve only done that once, but it really should recur”.
Mike’s very much about — like if there’s a major theme, it needs to show up in at least three different places on a double concept album. We definitely try to use all of the appropriate themes in every way that we can.
It makes it a more rewarding listen when you catch something like that after a handful of listens. It really shows how clever and resourceful you guys are.
We love that stuff, too.
Do you have any favorite tracks from the new LP?
Oh, man. Let’s see. I really like “Back to the City” a lot. To me, it’s not a song-by-song collection; it’s one lengthy piece. I love “The Mask”, “So Far Gone”, and “Breath of Angels”. I love a lot of it, honestly. “Iron Cage” and “Freedom Song”, too. I’m really into it. I’m probably that wrong guy to ask [laughs].
I think my favorite is “The Ways of a Fool”. Speaking of that, you guys released four tracks from the album (“The Ways of a Fool”, “The Man in the Iron Cage”, “So Far Gone”, and “City of Destruction”). How did you decide which ones to release?
That was tough, actually. Mike wanted it to be in sequence; we didn’t want to release any out of sequence, which is why we put out “City of Destruction” first. It was challenging to make those decisions. We had to hash it out together. I think it was the right move to put those out early, though. It set the stage and helped the release go well.
They’ve all gotten music videos, too, with “The Ways of a Fool” receiving the most artsy treatment. What went into the making of it?
It’s Christian Rios’ baby. He’s done video work for us before, so we just sent him the track and he worked on it and sent that back. He asked us to shoot ourselves singing the song against a white backdrop and made that out of it. It’s a very interesting and cool video. I dig it.
Me too. You’re starting to tour in support of the album in January, and your first stop is in your hometown of Nashville. Was that always the plan, or did it just work out that way? What other stops are you looking forward to the most?
I live in Nashville and I have a space to rehearse in, so it just makes sense economically to do it here first. We do a kind of warm-up show here and then move on. Really, man, I look forward to playing everywhere. I can’t wait to do this whole album with video behind us. It’s going to be incredible. We’ll be adding theatrics as we go; whatever we can do that works and isn’t completely corny.
You’re also a part of Cruise to the Edge, which takes place in early February and includes many other progressive rock bands. Whom are you most eager to see and/or play with? Can you reveal any collaborations or surprises?
There’s not much that I can talk about, to be honest. It’s going to be incredible, though. I’m sure of that. As far as the collaborations, there are going to be some interesting ones, but I’m not a liberty to talk about that. It’s not to be missed. That’s all I can say.
I bet. I always wish I could go, but I don’t think I can. I’m hoping to see you in New York about a week before it, though.
Oh, great! It’s gonna be great. You need to be there, man. Make a point of it.
I’ll try. Well, thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Neal. It’s always a pleasure. Congrats on the album, too.
Thanks for your support, Jordan. Take it easy.