Is It Really Happening? Andy Burns talks to Transatlantic’s Neal Morse – Part 1: The Return

PROLOGUE:

I had a hard time figuring out how to start this piece. Pretty much because I never thought I’d be seeing one of my favourite bands of all time in concert, let alone sitting across from one of the musicians who has had the greatest impact on me over the last 10 years. But that’s what happened on Wednesday April 21st, 2010 when I saw the progressive rock supergroup Transatlantic perform their first ever Canadian show at Montreal’s Metropolis Theatre.

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Back in 2000 four shining stars of the prog rock movement joined together under the name Transatlantic – bassist Pete Trewavas from Marillion, drummer Mike Portnoy of Dream Theatre, Spock’s Beard founder, keyboardist, guitarist, and vocalist Neal Morse, and The Flower Kings vocalist/guitarist Roine Stolt. While none of them were household names, in prog rock and, in Portnoy’s case, metal circles, these guys were a dream team of musicians. Recorded quickly and compactly, Transatlantic’s debut album, SMPTe, was everything that’s great about the genre. Gorgeous harmonies, intricate playing, and, with the opening 30 minute track “All Of The Above”, a classic piece of prog akin to Yes’ “Close To The Edge” or Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready”. The band would play a few shows in North America that year and then head back into the studio for 2001’s Bridge Across Forever, which featured two 30 minute tracks and a piece modelled on side 2 of the Beatles Abbey Road, “Suite: Charlotte Pike”.

A few European gigs followed (where progressive rock is massively more popular compared to North America), but the band seemingly came to an end in 2002 with Neal Morse’s decision to focus on his Christian faith and a solo career.

I never had the chance to see Transatlantic live, but over the years I’ve caught a fair amount of Dream Theater concerts (for the record, Mike Portnoy is probably my second favourite drummer after Neil Peart of Rush, and there are days when those two duke it out in my brain). Meanwhile, I watched as Neal Morse continued to wave the progressive banner on his solo albums (all of which Portnoy contributed to). Neal’s first post-Transatlantic/Spock’s Beard album was 2003’s Testimony, a massive double album about his journey to God and becoming a born again Christian. It really is an amazing piece of art, and one that can be appreciated solely on a musical level if you’re not interested in the meaning and message. But believe me; being open-minded to Neal’s spiritual journey gave me an appreciation for the power of faith and the meaning one can find from it. If Pink Floyd’s The Wall is the classic defining downer of a concept album, Testimony is the exact opposite – a shining beacon of light.

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When I heard last spring that Neal, Mike, Roine, and Pete were reuniting for a new Transatlantic album I immediately told The Queen, “if they play a gig, I’m going, no matter where.” And I was serious, even if it meant some sort of random trip to the U.K. for three days. That’s how much this band meant to me. Luckily, when the tour in support of the new album The Whirlwind (1 multipart song clocking in at 77 minutes – prog rules!!), the band announced a date in Montreal, the art rock capital of North America. I immediately scored my ticket and started counting down the days.

What was already an exciting trip quickly got even better when I found out I was getting the chance to talk to Neal Morse. From the DVD’s I’ve watched over the years, I knew he was going to be a nice guy, but even still, when we were finally sitting across from one another backstage at the Metropolis Theatre, I was so pleased to see how genuinely friendly he was, which I think comes through in our talk. He was honest and insightful, engaging and engaged. I’ve interviewed a lot of folks over the years, including heroes like Brian Wilson and Chris Squire of Yes, but I think the conversation I had with Neal Morse is my favourite. It’s certainly stuck with me in the days since. There was a lot to talk about with him, which is why I’m splitting up our interview into a few parts (it also keeps with the prog theme, I think). I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

PART 1: THE RETURN

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Andy Burns: As a fan I was very surprised to hear that a new Transatlantic album was coming. I’m wondering how it all came together?

Neal Morse: Well, I don’t know how long ago it was, maybe two years ago, I began to feel that maybe it was the time to do another Transatlantic album. Without going into too much detail, I had some conversations with some different people, sometimes God can speak to you through conversations you have with people, and I felt as though that was what was going on. I wasn’t sure. There were some things that happened and people that said, “You know, maybe you ought to consider doing another Transatlantic album” which was not something that I had considered. Sometimes, I don’t know, sometimes that’s the way God deals with me. So I started to think about it. I wrote some music that I thought kind of fit Transatlantic too. I wrote something called “The Whirlwind”, my original demo of it. The album The Whirlwind is really, really different from what I originally wrote.

Andy Burns: How so? Was it always such a long piece?

Neal Morse: No, my original demo was 44 minutes long or something like that. We only used about 20 minutes of it and everything else was newly constructed or Roine’s (Stolt, guitarist) or Pete’s (Trewavas, bassist). But anyway, I just began to pray about it and I waited. You know, sometimes it’s good to wait and pray and consider. And then I wound up feeling that it was the right time. So I emailed Mike (Portnoy, drummer). It was funny the way that I did it. At the time we had just done Lifeline (Morse’s 2008 solo album which featured Portnoy). It was just coming out, and I had some business questions for him about this and that and “where are you going to be on this date, I want to send you some copies of the album?” and “question number 3 – what do you think about doing a new Transatlantic album?” And he sent me back an email right away going “wow, you save the million dollar question for last”. And he said, “Yeah if everything lines up and we can work it out, I’d love to”. So I started talking to labels and to the other guys. The scheduling was very difficult and it was looking like we weren’t going to be able to do it for a while but we did it.

Andy Burns: Did you miss Transatlantic? It’s been almost a decade since the last album and I know you worked with Mike on your solo albums, but did you miss that band dynamic, of these four guys particularly, at any point time?

Neal Morse: How do I put this? Not really, but not because I don’t enjoy playing with the guys. It’s more like, whatever I’m doing and whatever I feel like is the thing for me to be doing at that time is what I’m focused on. So I’ve just been focused on doing these other albums and I wasn’t even thinking about that. When we got together and played I was like “oh yeah, I remember how cool this is”.

Andy Burns: You can see how much you enjoy playing together in the making of DVD…

Neal Morse: Yeah, how much fun it is. It’s also challenging. It’s totally different from making your own album when you’re fully in charge. You know, with Transatlantic no one is fully in charge and there are challenges. Things don’t always go the way you think they should go. That’s the nature of a band like this.

Andy Burns: Is it hard to be democratic after being a solo artist for the better part of a decade?

Neal Morse: It wasn’t really, really hard for me, but there were moments when I was like “I don’t know about that. Isn’t that a little abrupt? Is that really a good change to make right there?” and everyone was saying “oh yeah, it’s great.“ I wasn’t always thinking “yeah, everything is great” and that’s a little bit hard. Although a lot of times I was (thinking that). I’ll say this. The magic of the collaboration between the four of us far outweighs any kind of difficulties we might have.

Part 2 of my talk with Neal Morse will be up Wednesday.

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