Having delivered The Similitude Of A Dream, a sprawling, imaginative concept album that served in part as a retelling of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, in 2016, it may have seemed unlikely that The Neal Morse Band would return with a similarly ambitious epic. When Morse and his bandmates convened in early 2018 to work on that record’s follow-up, the intention was to record a streamlined, single LP. When those sessions were complete, some questions still lingered in the air as to what shape the new record should take.
A year later, fans were treated to the new Neal Morse Band album, The Great Adventure, which is another concept LP that follows a similar trajectory to the collective’s previous effort. Joined by drummer Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater, Winery Dogs, who also doubles on vocals) as well as Eric Gillette (guitar, vocals), Randy George (bass) and Bill Hubauer (keyboards, vocals), Morse has once more done the unthinkable and topped himself.
In addition to this new LP, the band has undertaken a tour. Morse has also been preparing his musical, Jesus Christ: The Exorcist, for a June release via Frontiers Records and, later this year, will issue another album with Flying Colors, the band featuring him, Portnoy and Deep Purple guitarist Steve Morse in its ranks.
Morse recently spoke with KMUW about recording The Great Adventure and his role as an independent artist.
What were some of the things that complicated the process? Making The Great Adventure took longer to make than your previous albums.
The band didn’t want to do another double album or a follow-up to The Similitude of a Dream. I was kind of feeling it but didn’t want to push it. I wanted it to happen naturally. We got together in January of 2018 for about two weeks. The projects that Mike and I do, we usually finish in that time. We track the drums, everybody goes home with the tapes. We did do that this time except Mike didn’t finish the drums. We did a single album version of what would become The Great Adventure. It wasn’t a concept.
I came away from it feeling like, “Hmmm.” I sat with it for a little while and then in February I just felt like it wasn’t what it needed to be. Around that time, something clicked. I thought about writing from the perspective of the abandoned son. I didn’t come up with that concept until after we’d written a lot of the music together in the room. A lot of the stuff that we’d written to that point had this angry edge to it. If you listen to “Dark Melody” or “I Got To Run,” “Welcome To The World,” it has this edge to it. I didn’t know what we were writing about at the time. I had that idea about the abandoned son and it all kind of clicked for me.
Then I had to get with the guys. We had a Skype call. I had to drop the bomb that I didn’t think the album was what it needed to be. That was met with a variety of responses! [Laughs.] Some were, “I disagree.” Others were, “I think it needs work but not that much.”
At the end of the day you’re collaborating but it’s The Neal Morse Band. When moments like that arrive, how do you handle it?
There’s a lot of give and take. Everybody lost something that they loved on this album. And everybody gained. There were whole songs that were cut of mine that I really loved. But if the team said, “I think the album is going to be better without this track,” I had to listen to that. We pick our battles, though. If a guy feels super strong about a part, we’ll hear him out. For instance, when I said the album needed work, there was enough questioning going on that we agreed to let it sit and percolate.
This band has been extremely collaborative over the last three albums. At what point did you say, “I’m going to open this up” as opposed to writing everything yourself?
It really was a matter of prayer. Randy had been suggesting it for a while, the idea of us just getting together and writing from nowhere. I love to do that but it’s kind of risky. You don’t know if you’re going to come up with anything that’s great. It’s safer when you come in with stuff that you already really, really like. Before the The Grand Experiment the guys were really my touring band and they were playing material mostly that I had written.
Then I said, “Let’s try this.” I don’t think I came in with anything that time. I think the album came out great. For me, it was a real affirmation from God that we were on the right track. It was a real challenge because I’m the guy who is on the business end of things. I’ve got to front all the money for everybody to come. It’s rather expensive getting the engineer and not knowing if you’re going to come up with anything. But it’s really paid off.
How much conversation goes into the presentation of the live show when you’re ready to tour?
Some people start thinking about that much earlier than I do. Mike is very much about production and lighting. He began talking about that, and the other guys did too, a long time ago. I, on the other hand, was ordering costumes and clothes to wear about seven days before the first show. Some of which didn’t arrive until after the first show! [Laughs.] I try to be a better planner but sometimes I don’t get inspired until closer to the moment.
You run your own label. Was that something you anticipated doing early on or did it become a necessity over time?
It just happened naturally, actually. Early on, I found out that the small record companies that were selling Spock’s Beards CDs would buy them from me at a wholesale price. That was the beginning of Radiant Records. I’d pay for the manufacturing and start selling them. It made a lot more sense financially. Later on, I wanted to be more hands-on with my career. I don’t really like throwing it out into the atmosphere and hoping that someone else is promoting it. If you let yourself go with a label, maybe it will work out, maybe it will really be great if they give you the attention would like to have. But nobody’s going to care like you do.
You don’t have to worry about whether you’re a priority for the label based on something an executive is saying.
Right, but if you want to go to a stadium level, something like that, you’re going to need other people. I remember watching one of Ed Sheeran’s documentaries and he went through that. “If I want to be on BBC One, I’m going to need a deal.” But doing what I’m doing it’s rather unlikely that I’m going to have that level of success. I’m probably not going to be on BBC One. [Laughs.] We’d like to. We think that we deserve it! [Laughs.] But we’re doing really well with what we have.