Most know guitarist Steve Morse as the lead guitarist for Deep Purple since 1994, replacing the legendary Ritchie Blackmore. However most recently, Morse has joined forces with ex-Dream Theater drum prodigy Mike Portnoy, vocalist Casey McPherson, multi-instrumentalist Neal Morse and bass player Dave LaRue to record an eclectic new CD with a band they have dubbed Flying Colors. Morse, who has been respected for his technically progressive fret work since his days with the Dixie Dregs, found some time on a warm Florida morning to talk with GLIDE about venturing into another project, feeling like an outsider as a teen in Georgia, the advantages of recording with new technology and his passion for flying.You have a new CD out with Flying Colors but how did you record this album in just nine days and make it with the kind of variety that it has on it?
Well, everybody in the band had done their own solo albums or have been sort of like group leaders, so everybody knew what to do. In fact, the real problem was figuring out who is going to decide which idea goes on the record. We had no problem coming up with ideas. But I was all in favor of having Peter Collins act as the producer/referee. In other words, to blow the whistle and say, “No, no, no, go back to this one. You had it there. This is nice but no, go back to that.” And we needed that cause we were working so fast with taking somebody’s starting point and changing it and changing it and changing it, and at the end of the day recording it as basically THE track.
What we did after those nine days was re-do a lot of the parts in terms of having more control over the sound and the vocalist would change the lyrics after thinking about it and try to do more thoughtful stuff. Because on the spur of the moment, in just a couple of hours while you’re trying to learn the arrangements, to come up with the vocals is pretty amazing. But basically they were looking for kind of like vowel sounds that worked well. And sometimes the lyrics didn’t make much sense on the working versions. I wanted to have more control over the guitar sounds and kind of go home and work on them there where I had my own equipment because I was borrowing whatever was in Neal Morse’s studio in Tennessee at the time.Why did you want to do this so fast? Did everyone have other obligations?
Yes. I am still full-time with Deep Purple and Mike Portnoy, I think he just finished the tour with Avenged Sevenfold and doing, I think, three different other band projects. One of them was a short term one where they do Beatles covers and stuff. Everybody was so busy and just to find any overlap of schedules where we could do it. The idea was to try to get an entire album done and everybody could overdub and do their vocals or whatever on their own time. But we had to be together for the writing. I felt strongly about that.
You’ve been in the music business a very long time and you’ve seen how the recording process has changed over the years. Do you like how Pro Tools is such a major factor in recording or would you like to go back to the old school type of recording?
I think the quality of the digital stuff is excellent now and I also, more or less, use the analog style of recording, especially with a group. In other words, I think it works best to be able to play through it even though you could imagine, oh we can overdub this or overdub that to make that part even better. But that is the way we approached it. Let’s work them out in the room to where it sounds like the tune is finished with us playing it. Then let’s record it all together and we can use the multi-tracking, it could be the same if everybody took home a tape and had a few channels to put their overdubs on. It really wasn’t that much different. The only exception is, for editing, it is nice to be able to say, “Ok, I like the little bit of a solo I did in the rough track. I’m going to try flying that in” and it’s so easy to do using digital computer tools.Which song on the Flying Colors CD did you feel that tingle up the spine on the most?
Wow, a lot of them, especially when I heard the finished vocals. I think “Better Than Walking Away” always got me because Casey’s voice is really soulful in sort of a mourning sound. And at the time Casey was like, “What should we write about? I’ve got to come up with some vocals right now.” I said, “Do it about a guy who’s life is falling apart but he doesn’t walk away from it, you know. He faces it, the most difficult stuff.” And Casey just instantly came up with some great lyrics. It really moved me, just the sound of his voice and everything.Do you still get excited when you go in and record?
Yes, well, there’s never been an album where I wouldn’t go back and change something. But it’s like playing a football game with the team. You do your absolute best and sometimes the outcome is a winner. And it feels like that to me, this album, everything just sort of came together and it sounds great.Is there still anything left that you can learn on the guitar? Is there anything you don’t know after all these years?
Of course (laughs). I’m reminded of everything I don’t know about playing guitar every time I pick up the guitar. So I absolutely have no illusion about me knowing it all. Music is sort of like painting. Someone who has been painting their whole life would be crazy to think that they can paint any style and know everything about art. They have lots of experience with what they’ve done but that’s only a small slice and I’m exactly the same way. I’ve done lots of things but it’s maybe a tiny miniscule of a fraction of all the possibilities. So I wish I had a lifetime long enough to explore it all.Where did you grew up and when did you discover music?
At the time I started playing the guitar, we lived up in Michigan, near Detroit, and I was a normal kid. I was learning to do wheelies on my bicycle at the same time. When it was winter we’d play hockey outside and a little baseball and football and just normal kid stuff. It was back in the day when you could let your kids go hang out with other kids. We walked to school every day, every school I ever went to there, and we would be gone all day, come back at dark for dinner. Parents didn’t have to worry about their kids being abducted back then. Maybe there was the same number of bad guys back then but the news didn’t scare the living daylights out of parents (laughs).
So anyway, I saw The Beatles live on TV and I thought the guitar looked like a lot more fun. I think I was playing clarinet in the school band and I wasn’t very inspired by it. As a kid the guitar appealed to me. I learned some chords, I had a band and I learned a few little solos, like Chuck Berry solos, and we played some Rolling Stones songs and some Yardbirds and Kinks, stuff like that, stuff that was easy guitar-wise. I didn’t really take it seriously till I was in my teens. This is age say eleven that I started. As I was just reaching my teens, we moved from Michigan to Georgia and basically I lived most of my life in the south. But at the time I was an outsider with a foreign accent being a northerner, and it was in the 60’s and I was just one of those kids that was comfortable with long hair. My hair was over my ears and it was not cool to do that where I had moved to (laughs). I had a real culture shock there. It was hard to make friends being the new guy and all that stuff so it was weird. Music was the one thing that I sort of just put all my energy into. I started getting much better on the guitar and being more of a soloist and being interested in every part of the guitar.
When I was sixteen, I decided I was going to go to music school and the University of Miami had a classical guitar program as well as a studio music and Jazz major. I applied for it and got in and at age seventeen I was in college playing with a caliber of players I had never seen before. That sort of really changed my life and upped my game so much higher. I actually finished my degree. During the time I was in school, I’d had time to experiment with an instrumental group and when we left school, myself and Rod Morgenstein went and moved back up to Georgia, where it was kind of easy to live with very little money and we took our band, the Dixie Dregs, and just started playing wherever we could. From then on, it was the middle 1970’s. It was hard work and there was not much reward for it but we never gave up. We just kept on and kept on and we ended up putting out six albums and being able to tour all around the United States.Were you ever uncomfortable or nervous on a stage? Or did it just come natural to you?
That’s totally a function of how well-prepared you are. For instance, if you’re trying something you’ve never done before and this is the first time you’re doing it on stage, yes, it’s very possible to get worried and nervous. However, if you know the music and you’ve done it before, you just excited by the fact that you’re doing it live. You don’t get nervous about it. For instance, I wrote a difficult classical guitar piece that I played at my recital when I was in school. That was kind of nerve wracking because not only was I playing for a very astute audience that could hear all the tiny little imperfections that a human being would do but they were also judging the content of the writing and it was not something that I did on a regular basis. That’s probably the most nerve wracking thing I’ve ever done in my life.
But if you’re in a band, you know the material and you’re playing some of the songs for the first time, you just kind of pay attention more and maybe you’re not as relaxed as you’re trying to remember, thinking ahead of the arrangement and things like that. We do it because it’s fun, the music part is fun, and most of the other parts of our day revolve around work, like setting up equipment, sound-checking, taking care of details. For most of us it’s setting up our own equipment and tearing it down.Do you remember the first concert you went to and what that experience was like?
Yes I do. It was a club that we got to play at during a matinee and they were exactly like what every town should have – daytime shows for young kids to go to where there’s no alcohol and later on we were able to go to that same club and see The Who. I got to sit maybe four feet in front of Pete Townshend on this little stage. I thought they were really good. I loved the energy and the stuff they did and at the time I was a kid but I didn’t know. I knew enough that I could see what he was playing on guitar but I didn’t understand why the record had more harmonies and stuff than what I was hearing live. And I didn’t understand about the overdubbing at that time. So I was a little bit surprised to hear that live sounded different than the record because my first experience had been The Beatles playing live and they sounded exactly the same as the first record.You have played on so many albums and records doing different types of music. Do you have one that you’re more comfortable with, a particular genre that maybe excites you more than playing the others?
Well for me to answer that would sort of be a nebulous answer by saying something like Flying Colors, where there is no particular name for it. In other words, where each song can kind of live it’s own life. Like if you’re in a death metal band, you can imagine there’s a certain vibe that has to happen all the time. Same way with a country band or the same way with a polka band playing at weddings (laughs). So I like bands that feel free enough to have variety within the album and within their live set. And that seems more essential to me. In general, I think audiences are more tolerant of variety than music business people are.I hear that you’re a pilot. When did you get into that?
When I was in the last year of college in 1974 or 1975, and I’ve been flying ever since.What is so exciting about flying versus the excitement of playing a guitar? Because you can get an adrenalin kick from both.
Oh yeah (laughs). First of all, flying is like music; it can be lots of different things. For instance, people spend all day hiking to get to the top of a mountain and enjoy the view. Where with an airplane, you can get that view in a minute and make it last for as long as you have gas. And it doesn’t take much. In fact, I have one airplane here that uses about fifty cents worth of gasoline to get to launch. Then you shut off the motor, and if you fly in the afternoon you can do this. You shut off the motor and feather the prop and just ride around on the rising air like the buzzards and hawks and eagles do. Sometimes you see them in the same thermal rising column of air and you’re just doing circles and the birds are like looking at you as they’re flying around (laughs).
Stuff like that is really cool and I also love aerobatics, just the thrill of going straight up and straight down and upside down, flipping and spinning, things like that. Then we have regular travel, which is a different thing. You have to constantly consider the weather and be a good chess player. Think of all the possible moves the weather could make and how to get around it. Like how you were talking about the weather down there in New Orleans. The warmer it is, the more violent it is. That’s another part of it, trying to out maneuver, out-guess the weather so you can have a safe flight. It’s a lot of unique challenges, everything from the intellectual to the visceral thrill of spinning straight down toward the ground and recovering at the exact moment you want. And then the beauty, just the view of a sunset from a quiet glider as you’re coming in to land.Who was the first real rock star that you ever met?
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. They were playing in Macon, Georgia, and I saw the debut of “Stairway To Heaven” on that tour. I had seen them play before on their first tour but I didn’t get to meet them. My girlfriend wanted to see if we could sneak backstage and basically just see them. They were one of her favorite bands in the world and we went underneath the stage and came out on the other side and there were these two English guys with their long English coats on waiting for the van to pick them up. They were standing together so I asked Jimmy Page what kind of strings he used (laughs). And he said (mimicking a British accent) “Ernie Ball Slinky.”
Because of Purple I’ve gotten to meet lots of people. Later, I got to talk to Robert Plant in our dressing room when he came to one of our shows and I really enjoyed that part of being in a band that seems to know everybody. So like I said, I get to meet people not because of who I am but because of who the band is and I’ve enjoyed it, getting to hang out with George Harrison before he died and be at an airport and talk with Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck, the guys in AC/DC hanging out in the dressing room. It’s really cool and
I’m still sort of like a music fan.Do you realize that people think that way about you as well?
Music and life in general is humbling so anytime I can do anything for anybody that asks, “Hey, can you sign this?” or if there is any way I can pass on how I felt. I felt like the people I’ve met have always been patient and gracious with me so I’ve always wanted to do the same. Somewhere along the lines you encounter some people that won’t give you the time of day and I’ve never forgotten how that felt. How needless that sort of attitude is. I really try and never give any impression but “Hey, I’m really glad you’re here” because I am glad. If somebody comes to see my show, they’re helping feed me and my family and that’s the way I think of it. When I see food on the table, I remember it came from people thinking enough of the music to take money out of their pocket, and that money didn’t get there easily. And for them to take it out of their pocket and give it to us that’s a big deal. Everybody should be grateful of the people that are supporting them.Can you believe you have been in Deep Purple for almost 20 years now?
No. Time has gone by very quickly and some clichés are clichés because they’re true. And one of those clichés is that time seems to accelerate the older you get. And right now I feel like every time I get ready to relax and say, “Ok, now what do I do?” another year has gone by. Every time I’m able to catch my breath, it’s a year later. So yeah, the time went by very quick.What do you have planned for the rest of the year?
In a couple of weeks, Deep Purple has a writing session and we’re producing an album with Bob Ezrin, who’s done KISS, Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Alice Cooper, and he also worked on the last Kansas album, when I was with Kansas. So he’s one of my favorite producers and that’s going to be our studio album. It’s probably going to be more of an extravaganza. Everybody realizes we’re not going to do this forever, so to me it feels like this is a really important album to do well. So we’ve got that coming up and mixed in with that, and that is most of the summer with the album, and then I have to leave when they’re doing vocals on that to do the G3 tour. Then I have to come back, repack my suitcase and we go out with Flying Colors and the plan is to do a couple weeks in the US and then a couple weeks in Europe. That brings us to the end of September. Oops, I’m late for the G3 tour and got to get on a plane to go down to South America. Then before they go to Mexico, I have to leave the tour to come back and go straight to Russia with Deep Purple. Then I may have to come back from Russia all the way to the US and repack my suitcase and go back for another five weeks in Europe. Then it’s Christmas and then another year has gone (laughs).But it’s still fun for you, right?
Oh yeah, the playing is the payoff and there’s another cliché that is very true – a Jazz musician was reported to have said, “I’ll play for free but they have to pay me to travel.” (laughs)Next week, MY ROOTS tries to keep up with Night Ranger’s ball of energy frontman Jack Blades as he is driving in San Francisco and talking about his new solo album, how he almost became a doctor and how he chased down The Monkees’ Davy Jones to get an autograph.