Interview Neal Morse:
"I'm always attracted to the most dramatic elements"
(July 2019, text by Michel Stolk, edited by Peter Willemsen)
In 1992, Neal Morse formed the progressive rock band Spock's Beard together with his brother Alan. The band is considered to belong to the forefront of modern progrock music and was therefore very successful in that musical genre. In 2002, Neal left the band, he became a born again Christian and started a solo career. I have been following the music of Spock's Beard and Neal Morse from the very beginning. So I'm honoured to ask him some questions about his latest project Jesus Christ The Exorcist (JCE) (see review). For me, this progressive rock musical is an incredible milestone in the already impressive musical career of Neal Morse
Neal Morse: “Right now the new stuff of Flying Colors is flying into my mail box as we speak. No pun intended! Yeah, it's a busy time but not too crazy. God is good, you know. I'm finding time to do some writing this week, so that's very cool.”
Actually, I was quite surprised that this rock opera came out so quickly after the release of The Great Adventure (see review) by The Neal Morse Band. Can you tell our readers something about the development of the album in relation to time? I understood that the idea was about ten years old.
“Well, I started and created the first draft of JCE in 2008, and I kept a lot of the material from then, so all I needed to do was a rewrite, and I had no idea how long that would take. The Great Adventure had been in the works for many months. The thing was that they both came to my head at exactly the same time! I had the last two weeks of July in 2018 to finish the rewrite and record all the demos and get them out to the singers so they could learn their parts, and then the first two weeks of August were slated for The Great Adventure. It was a pretty intense time! I remember that we started with The Neal Morse Band on August 2 because that's my birthday. Anyway, I feel like it was really inspired all the way through and not a struggle to write. When the juices are flowing and the ideas are coming it's beautiful and easy, and that's the way the rewrite of JCE was for me.”
I'm curious to learn how you can link all the characters that come along in the rock opera to the right people. Personally, I think that you have succeeded particularly well in using the right voices for the different roles. Can you tell something about it? “
Well I've known Nick D'Virgilio and Ted Leonard of course for a long time. I thought of them immediately: Ted as Jesus and Nick as perhaps as Peter or Judas, well he would up being Judas of course. I first met Ted when Enchant was opening for Spock's Beard in the nineties. We spent some weeks on a tour bus together when we were much younger! Everyone else I met at various times, some of them just before we did the musical at Morsefest! For example, I had never met Rick Florian before.”
And did people immediately agree with their role, or did you have to make an effort for this?
“Some of the people I knew right away would be right for the roles. Others came in at the last minute, like Talon David. It was actually my wife's idea to have Talon do the role of Mary. She's a wonderful young lady that went to school with my kids and she was part of the drama department and got all the leading roles at their school. I was trying to find someone recognizable in our prog music community, but I never could find anyone and so when my wife suggested Talon. I was actually pretty desperate at that point because it was only a few weeks before we had to do the performance! Anyway, Talon came and was really the surprise hit of the festival.”
When you consider that you want to make a musical about the life of Jesus, how do you make decisions about the themes you will and won't sing about?
“There are so many stories and that's why it was difficult. The first draft was 2½ hours long! As I was writing it with the text open, I became attracted to writing music about Jesus casting out devils or demons. It's so dramatic! I'm always attracted to the most dramatic elements. So I wound up writing quite a few pieces involving Jesus in this kind of activity, so when I was trying to think of a title and I thought of Jesus Christ - the exorcist, I thought it was a little bit challenging, different and maybe memorable for people. I wasn't thinking of the film Jesus Christ Superstar from the seventies or anything like that.”
After you have devised the themes, how do you think about what kind of musical passages belong to them?
“It's a natural process. I simply write what I hear what seems to move in the drama or mood of the scene.”
You collaborated again with Paul Bielatowicz, who played the guitar on previous albums which he did well. How did you select the other musicians on the album?
“Yeah, Paul is amazing. I had a little help from my wife! She was the one that suggested Eric Gillette on the drums. I don't know why she thought of that, but she did. The other guys are all friends who love to help, so I am very blessed that great people like Bill Hubauer and Randy George wanted to help.”
“They're really great! I'm amazed at how people are taking to it. It's really exciting!”
The beautiful artwork of the album is incredibly effective and yet simple. How do you come up with such an idea for the cover, or do others make it for you?
“That was the work of the artist, Joel Barrios. Yeah, great stuff, indeed! I had just little to do with it. I sketched out a rough design of the cover idea, but he really put it all together.”
Last year you performed the musical at Morsefest. How is it for you to make such a dream come true? I can imagine that it was an incredible emotional happening!
“Yes, it was. It was stunning how God orchestrated the whole thing when we had no clue. We only had three days to rehearse it! Wow! But, everyone did their homework and it was beautiful and we had so much fun!”
Is there a chance that you will perform the musical live and if so, what does it take to get this done?
“We don't have any live performances currently planned. We are hoping to be able to do some short theatrical runs in theatres or perhaps one off performances if there is enough demand. I think we would all love to do it live, there will just have to be enough interest to make it happen. I hope that it does. My vision is that we would do it kind of like we did at Morsefest 2019 and do limited staging, a kind of combination of a concert and a musical play. It was really great when we did that and it went down very well. I'd love to share it with the rest of the world.”
So far, DVDs have been released from all Morsefests. Will there also be a DVD of Morsefest 2018 when you played the musical? I think many people will love that myself included.
“Yes, there will be! Expect that to be released in 2020.”
In recent years you wrote many concept albums that didn't fit on one CD because of the length of the story. I wonder what inspires you to write such an incredible amount of music and to bring out lyrics that always contain a message in which we as listeners can put our teeth into. What is behind this?
After the release of the album The Similitude Of A Dream (2016), I didn't expect that The Great Adventure would be again a double album. You created the expectation that the next album from The Neal Morse Band is again the continuation of the path, because the book The Pilgrim's Progress is not yet ended. Do you also have the idea that the time is right to create this sequel or do you have other ideas in store?
“I really don't know. I'm not sure what's next at this point. I've been writing a lot of music but I'm not sure right now where it is all headed. We shall see...”
What can we expect from you or your projects at short notice?
“I just did some video shoots with Flying Colors last week actually. We have an album that will be coming out fairly soon. So that's exciting! All the announcements will be happening in the coming weeks. Transatlantic is on hold for the moment but we shall see. There will also be some new videos for JCE coming out!”
Is there anything that you want to tell the readers of Background Magazine?
“One of the things that I'm really excited about is my new music streaming app, waterfall. It's a really cool high-end streaming audio app and you can listen to practically everything I've ever done right at your fingertips wherever you are. That is, if that's your idea of having a good time! Check it out at www.waterfallstreaming.com.
Well, thank you Neal for making time for this interview for our readers.
“Thank you so much! God bless you.”
Review Neal Morse albums:
So Many Roads (2010)
Testimony 2 Live In Los Angeles (2011)
Testimony 2 (2011)
Live Momentum (2013)
Songs From November (2014)
Jesus Christ The Exorcist (2019)
Review Neal Morse Band albums:
The Great Adventure(2019)
The Grand Experiment (2015)
Alive Again (2016)
Live Momentum (2013)
Neal Morse: 2-Jun-11, Hedon, Zwolle (NL)
Neal Morse Band: 2-Apr-17, 013, Tilburg (NL)
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