Neal Morse is the chief songwriter/vocalist/frontman for modern-day progressive rock band Spock's Beard. The band has been around since 1992 (that's TEN YEARS!!! Almost a full half-century!!!!!), and recently released their sixth studio album - a double-CD concept album called Snow - on Metal Blade Records. Since the band is billed as "combining the elements of the masters such as Yes, King Crimson and the Beatles," I was somewhat confused as to what the heck they were doing on Metal Blade, of Cattle Decapitation fame. Turns out Metal Blade just liked `em a lot! And it's not like they could all of a sudden change their name to Progressive Blade just for one band, and then have to change it back and forth all the time so nobody gets confused and buys a Manowar album thinking it's going to sound like Gentle Giant. That would be asinine, not to mention illegal!
Actually it probably wouldn't be illegal. Metal Blade told me I could interview the fellow, so I eagerly accepted their invitation. We spoke via the telephone from 7 to 7:30 PM Eastern time on Tuesday, September 17, 2002. My words are in bold, his are in plain text.
For more about this author visit www.MarkPrindle.com.
How ya doin', Mark?
Good! It's nice to speak to you!
Thanks! Where are you right now?
I'm in NYC. How about you?
I'm in California.
Cool! The reason I wanted to speak to you is because I had actually never heard of you guys until Metal Blade sent me a sampler of songs from Snow and I really liked it.
I'm very curious though - how did you wind up working with Metal Blade? And how have their fans reacted to you? Your stuff seems so much more melodic and less. you know, "thrashy" than everything else on their label.
Yeah! We're not a metal band at all. We're more of a prog band, progressive, that's how we're usually categorized. But we do a lot of different styles and have a lot of different things going on. How did it start with Metal Blade.? Hmm. I don't really remember exactly. Somebody I knew talked to them about distributing our stuff; that's how it started, around the time of "The Kindness of Strangers." I was thrilled! I'd been looking for distribution for a while because we had good distribution in Europe, but in the U.S. we were really just in the smaller independent shops. But then Metal Blade liked our "Day For Night" album so much, they decided to take it on and put it out themselves.
I've been reading up on your band on a bunch of Internet sites, and I've seen a few reviews talking about how your new material is more poppy and radio-friendly than your older work, which I guess was more progressive. I mean, "Snow" definitely reminds me of old Yes and Genesis in places, but it does seem more song-oriented than prog- oriented.
Yeah, I think it's a little more radio-friendly and song-oriented, but we've always had parts like that in our songs. More melodic parts. They're getting more defined, I guess, but that's not really the point. The point is to follow the music where it wants to go and follow what it feels like it wants to be.
Are you encountering any of the problems that, say, Yes or Genesis encountered with their fans when they "went pop"? Or have you actually picked up more fans as a result of the more mainstream-ish direction?
We're growing all the time. I don't know if it's because of being poppier or not, but our audience is definitely increasing all the time. In the states, "Snow" sold 33% more in the first 2 weeks than our last one. And the only reason I know that is because Metal Blade just sent me an email telling me. I'm not trying to come across as a salesman or anything - `We're up 33%!' It doesn't seem like we're losing people very much. Obviously, not everybody is gonna like everything you do, but the overwhelming majority seem to be into it. We're increasing all the time.
The CD I got from Metal Blade is just a one-disc sampler, so it's hard for me to follow the story behind Snow. Would you -
Can you hold on a second? I'm on my parents' phone and we got a beep.
Sure! No problem.
(Pause as I'm put on hold for a brief moment)
Sorry about that!
Do they have to use the phone?
No no, it's fine!
Okay. I was just asking, since I only have like a sampler of the new double-CD, it's kinda hard for me to follow the story, which is the most important part. Would you mind explaining really quickly what happens to the Snow kid during the course of the album?
First of all, I don't think the story's the most important part. It's a vehicle for the music.
Yeah. I don't think the story is that impactful - it's not really that important. See, what happened was I had like 60 minutes of music demo songs. I started writing with the guys and it kept going and going, and it seemed like it wanted to be a story. So the early music brought forth the story, and then the story brought forth the rest of the music. What happens is that this kid grows up, he's an odd kid, an albino kid. And he has special gifts like psychic spiritual gifts. So he leaves home, goes to New York City, and he can touch people and see inside them - see events that happened in their lives and through his powers, these people get healed emotionally and spiritually in a vague way. So he gets this big following. Then on the second disc, he falls. He falls in love with this girl, and his ego comes after him and finally he falls and becomes a street person himself. So his friends eventually come and find him, and lift him back up to God. It was a lot of work!
But it's over now! It's done and it's out there!
Yeah, it's done and it's monstrous. It's alive!
So that part about lifting him back up to God - is that a Christian idea or just a spiritual idea? I read online, and I don't know whether it's true, I mean I don't believe everything I read on the Internet, but I read that you had a kind of religious rebirth in the last few years?
Yeah. I've become a Christian in the last few years so a lot of the songs, quite a few of them were songs that I wrote as prayers, or that I wrote to capture my experience, and the feelings I had kneeling in the church and feeling the presence of God. "Snow" was really a vehicle to take those songs, as well as other songs with darker things. For me, "Snow" is an album about salvation. In order to do that, you have to have the darker stuff to give more power to the lighter stuff. That was what inspired a lot of the music.
Did you in your life have to go through a lot of dark stuff before you found the light? Or were you heading that way anyway?
Yeah, I've been through a lot of dark stuff in my life. And that's come through in all the Spock's Beard stuff from the beginning. The whole spiritual thing, we've been grappling with for years. It's just been getting more and more extreme. I think the things on "Snow" - the sweeter parts are sweeter, the heavier parts are heavier, the nasty parts are nastier. Need I say more? The melodic stuff is more melodic. It's stuff I've been feeling for a long time but since I've become a Christian, it's become a larger part of what I do.
I also read that that you began developing the idea behind the story on September 11th.
As a New Yorker, I'm very interested in how other people from other parts of the country reacted to that day. How did you feel when you first heard? And how did it lead to the "Snow" story?
Total shock. Total shock. I was on my way to LAX. I could've flown home on the evening of September 10th! I was out here writing the music, but Nick, our drummer Nick got so sick we had to cancel the session. So i changed my flight. My wife was like, "You could come home tonight but there's a layover in Dallas." So I just stayed. Figured I'd take the first flight the next morning, Sept. 11 - ha ha. It turned out to be good for the "Snow" album though. I was on the way to the airport when I heard the reports on the radio. But I just figured it was all the way across the country - it wouldn't affect my flight. Then I was 10 minutes from LAX when they announced that they were canceling all flights. So I turned around and went to my parents' and watched the news. And it was so. it still is. The footage - it never fails to drop your jaw. It's just so startling. And the mammoth heartbreak of it was so horrible. So i was here wondering what to do. I felt like I should leave, so I called up the rental car companies and they were all having moratoriums for the drop-off charges in the other cities. So I left at about 11:00 that morning and - the thing about driving in the desert for a long time - it's a good place to work out ideas. You have a lot of time to clear your head. And it was just such an interesting time with such a bizarre bad feeling in the air. Listening to the radio and hearing Congress singing "God Bless America." It was a really stirring time. There was a real end-of-the-world vibe out there too. I remember in New Mexico, there was a rush on the gas stations. Everybody ran out to get gas because there were rumors that all the gas stations would be closed the next day. Everybody I met across the country was in shock. It was so bizarre. But that was when I first got the idea for "Snow."
This is kind of a silly question, but I'm just curious. Is it difficult being in a band with your brother? Do you ever encounter any sibling rivalry or anything like that?
Sure, we've had some of that, some rivalry. I mean, it's usually fine but we don't always get along. It's hard, you know, we're brothers. We've had our share, but we always seem to come back and put our best foot forward. We've hit the wall a few times, but we've also had some amazing times together.
Does anybody in the band ever say like, "Hey, why do you get to write everything? I want more of my ideas in here!"? Or do they generally like the direction you're going in?
I think they're usually pretty happy with it. Everything works out in the end. They may have minor problems every once in a while, but there have been no big fights about it. I don't know. Maybe you should ask them! (laughs)
Hey -- how in Sam Hill did you wind up singing in an opera at age 9?
(to father) Hey Dad! He wants to know how I wound up singing in an opera at age 9. (to me) We were involved in a chorale with a ballet and symphony orchestra. (to father) Is that how? (pause) (to me) Okay, my father's choir was involved with the San Fernando Symphony - I don't even remember any of this! So they were putting on this opera and Dad auditioned me, I guess. (to mother) Is that how it happened, Ma? (to me) My Dad's a choir director. He's a music teacher.
Oh! He is? Does he like what you do?
I don't know - do you wanna talk to my Dad? (laughs)
He likes some of it, he likes counterpoint vocal stuff - that's his thing. (to father) Is that right? Do you like our stuff? (to me) He likes when we're playing along and then suddenly we're singing by ourselves.
Ah! Okay. Hey - this is something I've wondered about Ian Anderson as well. You write most of - well, you know, a large portion of the band's material, yet you still feel compelled to record solo albums. Why is that? Do you feel that some of your ideas wouldn't really fit Spock's Beard? Or is it just an urge to create music with other people for a change?
Well, I write a lot of stuff that's just normal songs - piano guy kinda stuff - not like Spock's Beard at all! But they're good songs! Just normal songs. I like good song albums. I like to sit down and listen to Mark Cohn or early Elton John.. There are some good Christian albums I listen to. Like Chris Rice, I like him a lot. I mean, I love the progressive stuff that I do with Spock's Beard, but I like other things as well.
And you did a Christmas album!
Well, every year since 1984, I've written Christmas songs for my friends. So finally, it was actually my wife's idea - she said, "Why don't you record all of those and make an album?"
Is that album still available?
Yeah! All of my stuff is still available. You can buy it at www.radiantrecords.com.
Excellent. Say, as I mentioned earlier, I personally hadn't heard of the band until I got the CD from Metal Blade. How did you develop such a strong fan base with - I mean, do you get major radio play? Or was it through word of mouth? Or opening for people? Or -
Mostly word of mouth. A lot of people ask me that! `Hey, how'd you do that?' Well, it turned out that there was already a marketplace for it! It's not really well known, but there's a little progressive rock community and the guys all know each other. I mean, not all the guys but a lot of the people know each other. And the Internet helps. When we made our first CD, we gave it to a progressive label and he sold like 6000 units! Just like straight out of the gate! It surprised us. We came along, I remember we played our first gig and got this big standing ovation. And we were like, "We've found our people!" The funny thing is - I started writing this stuff as a way of like thumbing my nose at the record business. I had tried to get a record deal all throughout the 80s with singer- songwriter stuff, and finally in the 90s decided to just say `screw it' and do some out- there freeform progressive stuff. It's so ironic that that was the first commercial success I ever had.
Are there a lot of new prog bands? I mean, I know all the ones from the `70s, but I don't know if I know any..
Yeah, there are! There aren't a lot of great ones, but there are some. The Flower Kings are really great. And there's my project with Mike Portnoy from Dream Theater, called Transatlantic.
And there's Dream Theater!
Yeah, and there's Dream Theater! And let's see.. Who else is there? IQ has done a lot of good things.
Do you still buy the new releases by the old classic prog bands? Like I still buy every CD Yes puts out.
Yeah, I still buy new stuff. I got the new Yes album, and I think it's pretty good. Oh! Platypus is another great prog band. And you can get Kevin Gilbert's rock opera "The Shaming of the True" on www.radiantrecords.com
I actually read some stuff about him when I was researching your stuff online. That is so terrible what happened to him. So sad.
Yeah, it is really sad. He was a brilliant artist.
That's what all the sites were saying. That it's so awful that he had all this talent, but now nobody's gonna remember him for anything but that Sheryl Crow album.
So this prog audience you were talking about. Is it a split between young people and older people? Or is it college students or just normal people or what?
It's mostly older people actually! There are some younger people, but more 35-50 year old guys. It's spreading out more now though. We have a lot of pretty parts the girls like. (laughs)
I see that I'm just about out of time.
Yeah, another guy is scheduled for a call in a few minutes.
Okay, so just one last question. What's next? For Spock's Beard, for you..
Well, we're doing some acoustic promo things, a lot of interviews, and we have a DVD two-pack coming out in November that we're really excited about. Then after that, we'll see.
Great! Well, thanks for taking the time to talk to me.
Have a good evening!
(hang up, can't get disconnected, keep trying to hang up, get Metal Blade's `hold' music, which is. well. DEATH METAL. Wait to see if anyone comes on the line. Nope. Hang up. Still can't get disconnected. Hang up, wait 10 seconds, still death metal on the line. Consider unplugging the phone and plugging it back in. Hang it up for 30 seconds, pick it up. Hear dial tone. Sigh longingly, missing the death metal.)
For more from this author visit www.MarkPrindle.com.