Monday saw the first part of my interview with Neal Morse, who joined forces with his Transatlantic bandmates Mike Portnoy (Dream Theatre, drums), Pete Trewavas (Marillion, bass), and Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings, guitar) for the first time in nearly a decade to record the band’s third album The Whirlwind. I had the chance to sit down with Neal prior to the band’s show Montreal’s Metropolis Theatre. If you haven’t had the chance, click here to read part one before you delve into part two below.
Andy Burns: There’s a couple different versions of The Whirlwind – the single disc, the double disc with four new songs and four covers, and then the triple with the making of the album DVD. Why the decision to focus on the title track as the album, as opposed to making it an official double album?
Neal Morse: The train just starts rolling and stuff just starts happening and we just start going for it. We kind of mapped out the whole Whirlwind album on the first night. It all just kind of happened. As far as the bonus tracks go, what was going on was that I wanted it to be a double. I thought if I had a 44 minute demo already, I know Roine has tons of stuff, Pete’s got stuff, and Transatlantic always makes everything longer…I actually told the labels that it was going to be a double album. So I was kind of pushing for a double but the other guys didn’t want to do it. I wanted to try and include “Such A Time” and make it longer but they weren’t into that. Somehow that was the decision that was made; we’ll fill up one disc to capacity and we’ll use these other things as bonus tracks.
Andy Burns: How did you choose the cover songs on the second disc?
Neal Morse: Oh you know, the usual way. You throw out ideas and people will latch on. I’ve been wanting to do (Genesis’ “Return of the Giant Hogweed”) forever.
Andy Burns: I was listening to that the other night and it just sounds great. It’s very suited to your voice.
Neal Morse: Well thank you. I didn’t think I was going to be able to sing it, actually, because we did it in the original key. We’d have to lower it if I tried to sing it live. I really yell that thing out (laughs).
Andy Burns: It’d be nice to hear (Peter) Gabriel sing it once live.
Neal Morse: Yeah, he’s the man.
Andy Burns: Obviously I know that your faith is a fundamental aspect of you and of your music and I was wondering, is it easier now, with the nearly ten years that you’ve been a solo artist, to come back to Transatlantic and align you spirituality with the music that you’re making in the context of the band? Because I find that there’s a lot of spirituality throughout the entire album…
Neal Morse: Yeah.
Andy Burns: But sometimes I find it, I don’t know if subtle is a negative word because I don’t mean it to be, but I think there’s an element of subtlety to it, and I wonder if it’s easier for you now then it would have been ten years ago?
Neal Morse: Well, I go through different spaces. You know, when I first did Testimony, for example…like Snow (Neal’s final album with Spock’s Beard, released in 2002) was very frustrating for me because what I really wanted to say, I couldn’t really say. It’s one thing when you feel like you can’t say it and you want to, and then with Testimony I just wanted to say “Jesus, I’m talking about Jesus, this is what he’s done for me.” And once I got that out of my system I could recognize that the audience that I’m speaking to is going to receive it better if it is maybe veiled a little bit. It’s kind of like, if somebody comes into a restaurant and they take this piece of meat and they hit you in the face with it or cram it down your throat, you’re just going to choke. But if they dress it nice and they give you some other things to go with it, you know what I mean? You try and make it something that people will taste and see and eat. And something I’m really grateful for is that Transatlantic is very open for me saying what I feel to say and I didn’t hold back. There wasn’t a time where I felt like I was holding back with what I wanted to say. I felt like…and it shouldn’t be what I want to say, it should be what God wants to say…I felt like God was able to say what he wanted to say. I’m really grateful for that, that everybody is open enough for that, and that the audience is open enough for it.
Andy Burns: As a fan it feels that way. Certainly from watching all of the DVD’s from over the last few years, it seems as though you’re blessed with an audience that will follow you whichever way you’re going right now.
Neal Morse: Isn’t that amazing? Who could write this story? Only God could write it (laughs). I couldn’t write it. You know, I can’t believe some of the things that have been happening. That you could stand in front of a secular audience and sing some of the things that I sing and watch people wind up on their feet cheering. I never would have dreamed that could actually happen. I’d think they’d boo you off the stage. Not with The Whirlwind, you know. But I’ve been in concerts where all I’ve had left to play as an encore is “King Jesus” and we’d go out and go for it. And they’d be up on their feet cheering. What an opportunity it is. I’ve been given just a very unique opportunity to talk to people about the Lord in a unique way to people that wouldn’t necessarily ever hear it. So I think it’s a real blessing.
Andy Burns: How has the tour been going?
Neal Morse: It’s been going great. I’ve had a good night every night which is really unusual for me, honestly. No vocal struggles yet. Every night has been powerful and good so far.
Andy Burns: We’ll see a live album, I would hope?
Neal Morse: I would imagine. There’s going to be some filming and taping. We’re going to be able to get to Europe now. Hopefully the volcanoes hold off…
Andy Burns: Yeah, that’s been crazy.
Neal Morse: It is crazy. Mike said he was watching the tv and he’s like “man, it looks like The Whirlwind album cover”. They’re showing Europe and the cloud and this swirl. And they’re talking about the transatlantic and the picture of this whirlwind and he’s like “wild, we’re on the news.”
Andy Burns: What’s the greatest aspect of working with these guys again?
Neal Morse: The creative spontaneity and the excellence. These guys are all real artists and they’re creating fresh every night. Roine doesn’t play the same way twice. He hardly ever does a solo the same. And it’s really cool to see and think “what’s he going to play?” Mike doesn’t play anything the same (laughs). He doesn’t really rehearse. He just listens. He plays it fresh every night. You know what I mean? He never does the same fills. I love it. The excellence and the freshness and the creativity. It’s an honour to be playing with them. That’s all I can say really.
I turned off the tape recorder after 17 minutes, though my conversation with Neal didn’t stop there. But for the purposes of this piece it did. The moments that followed are just for me. What I will say is that Neal Morse is one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met, and our conversation has stuck with me for days now. And I figure it will for a very long time. It was a very moving and profound experience for me and I thank Neal for his time and kindness and Bill Evans for helping make it all happen.
As for the gig, well, it was pretty awesome. 3 hours, 6 songs. It was prog rock nirvana. I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of shows over the last 20 years, but I have a feeling that Transatlantic live in Montreal has made it into the upper echelon of my favourite gigs. Less than 24 hours after arriving in the city I was back on a train to Toronto, my whirlwind of an adventure coming to a close. There are moments, though, where I still can’t believe it really happened.
But it did.