“I just had to say, ‘I don’t want to
work on this unless you’re comfortable
with having it torn to shreds,’” says
five-time Grammy-nominated virtuoso
Steve Morse about the writing sessions for
the self-titled debut of Flying Colors—his
new supergroup with fellow Dixie Dregs
bassist Dave LaRue, ex-Dream Theater
drummer Mike Portnoy, former Spock’s
Beard keyboardist/vocalist Neal Morse,
and Alpha Rev vocalist Casey McPherson.
“Otherwise, it’s just like somebody’s
Morse can speak authoritatively about
walking that fine line between solo work
and a true group effort. With 48 album
releases over the course of almost as many
years, he’s enjoyed both an illustrious solo
career and stints as a team member in various
high-profile bands. For the Steve Morse
Band and the Dregs, he meticulously wrote
out parts for all the instruments, leading
critics to describe it as “electric chamber
music.” Conversely, when he plays with
iconic classic-rock bands Kansas and Deep
Purple, compromise is the order of the
day. “If you’re in a group of five and you
get your way 20 percent of the time, that’s
pretty good,” says Morse.
Though the Flying Colors project was
a bit like a blind date for some members,
LaRue had worked with Portnoy before,
and of course Morse and LaRue have
enjoyed a 20-plus-year working relationship
that began when LaRue ended up
on a record date with the late T Lavitz,
keyboardist for the Dregs until his death
in 2010. That meeting led to getting work
with Dregs drummer Rod Morgenstein.
At the time, the Dregs weren’t together,
but they eventually got back together for a
one-off demo that ended up kick-starting
a reunion. When founding bassist Andy
West wasn’t interested, LaRue got the first
audition and quickly nabbed the gig.
“He totally knew the stuff—everything
we asked him to audition,” Morse
says. “That was one of the first times I
saw someone walk in and play difficult
things after transcribing them all on their
own—and with an amazing accuracy
ratio, I might add.”
Considering the virtuosity of its members,
you might expect Flying Colors to
be a self-indulgent spectacle intended
to knock Dream Theater off its perch
at the top of the prog-rock heap. And it
might have gone in that direction had
the band not also recruited pop vocalist
McPherson, whose previous band’s 2010
album, New Morning, debuted on two
Billboard magazine Top 5 charts, to temper
The band’s self-titled album was released
on March 27, 2012, but the fact that
the record even happened is somewhat
miraculous given the enormous scheduling
difficulties inherent in getting five
mega-successful musicians together. It took
almost a year of attempts and a zillion
emails for them to squeeze in nine days in
January 2011 to write and record. (To give
you an idea, Morse was on tour with Deep
Purple when we spoke to him—and he had
just wrapped up a tour with his own band
nine days prior.)
In addition to giving us insights on
their prodigious technique and the gear
they used to make Flying Colors soar,
Morse and LaRue tell us how Portnoy
impacted their symbiotic relationship
and reveal how they managed to keep
everyone’s strong opinions at bay for the
greater good of the album.
You guys have a firmly established
working chemistry. What was it like
adding Mike Portnoy to the mix?
LaRue: I’ve played with Mike a lot, so
we already had a certain chemistry, then
Mike and Steve fell in together. I guess
I was kind of the bridge there. It wasn’t
Morse: I was surprised to find that Mike
had so many ideas during the writing process.
It gave me a little insight into how
he sort of spurred on the guys in Dream
Theater, too—not that they needed it,
because they have so much talent. Mike
was surprisingly eclectic. He had a very
wide range of things that he was interested
in doing. Everyone imagines him doing
the double-bass thing at maximum volume
up on a riser with Dream Theater, but
he sang, too—he sang great. He sang the
third harmony. He was really encouraging
with things like lyric content, and he was a
[veritable] encyclopedia on arrangements.
Given the strong personalities involved,
did the writing sessions require a lot of
LaRue: It was interesting [laughs]. As
with any kind of group that’s put together
like that, we have different strengths that
we wanted to be able to exploit, and
everybody was cool about it. Some people
had to give a little here and there, but it
was a real good working arrangement.
Everybody wanted the product to be as
good as possible, and that was the driving
force behind the whole thing. So there
Morse: It did take some doing, though.
I think the first thing is knowing what
to expect. I even suggested to these guys
that they just bring in an idea, a starting
point. That way everyone’s personality will
come out by joining in. Having written
with groups like Deep Purple, that’s the
best way to do it, rather than bringing in
a complete song.
Considering the lineup, the record is
fairly restrained in terms of pyrotechnics.
Steve, your solos in songs like
“Fool in My Heart” or “Shoulda Coulda
Woulda,” are more focused on bending
and melodic playing than flash.
Morse: Yeah, technique is most effective
for me if I don’t use it all the time.
LaRue: That’s one of the things I like best
about the record. There are a lot of great
compositions and the vocals are really
nice, but Steve’s stuff kind of sets it apart.
It’s pretty unique sounding.
Steve, your bluesy playing on those
songs and on “Kayla” sounds like it’s
coming from a different place than your
average blues fan. Your phrasing and
bending choices are less obvious. Where
does that come from?
Morse: Three big ones I can think of are
Jeff Beck—he’s the guy who can bend one
note to four different places. Then Lynyrd
Skynyrd—they also use bends a lot as part
of their vocabulary. And Ravi Shankar.
When I was a teenager I saw him play
live, and I thought it was cool that you
could bend so many little microtones.
Steve, your solos in “Kayla” and
“Infinite Fire” sound like you’re using
a lot of bebop-ish, strategically placed,
chromatic approach tones. But, given
your strong country and bluegrass influences,
I get the feeling these lines aren’t
coming so much from a jazz thing.
Morse: Well actually that is it. It’s the
same exact leading notes, as you said. I
tend to use any chromatic notes as grace
notes or leading tones to very tonal,
diatonic notes. That works over jazz and
it works exactly the same for bluegrass
and, I think, over melodic rock. Different
producers have different ideas about that.
Some would say, “Jazz Police!” and make
a noise on the talkback microphone like a
siren and stop you and say, “Let’s not do
any of that.” Some producers think rock
needs to be very restrictive.
So you’ve actually had people ask you to
tone it down?
Morse: Oh yeah. A lot.
“All Falls Down” is the most over-the-top
cut on the album, in terms of virtuosity.
Morse: I’ve always written very difficult
parts for guitar—I’ve enjoyed challenging
myself that way. I think you have to
work hard on technique in order to have
Dave, you play a wicked-ass solo with
a gnarly tone on that one. Are you tapping
LaRue: Yeah, it’s two-handed tapping. I
used a Chellee Odelya distortion pedal on
that one. It’s made for guitar and allows
you to substitute chips [IC modules] in
the unit itself to get different sounds.
It also has two 3-way mode switches to
change the tones up.
Your tapping is really clean. Some players
put hair elastics on the headstock to
keep the open strings from ringing. Is
that how you achieved that clarity?
LaRue: Sometimes I do use that trick—
and I think I did for that one, actually.
Steve, “All Falls Down” demonstrates
your unwavering allegiance to alternate
picking. Even when you play triads
super fast on nonadjacent strings, you
alternate-pick every note, as opposed to
using, say, hybrid picking. What are the
advantages of that?
Morse: Accuracy and the ability to improvise.
In other words, I can play pretty
much any arpeggio and I don’t have to
plan out where the pick’s going to go
or which strings I’m going to cross. The
down side is, ultimately, I’m playing with
less speed than someone who’s using a
hybrid or sweeping approach—there’s no
question about it. There’s a price you pay
in terms of sheer speed, somewhere around
20 or 30 percent. But, more importantly
to me, I can hear something or imagine
something and play it as long as it’s within
my technical capability, speed-wise. With
string skipping, depending on the way
I hold the pick, I’m just about the same
speed going across the strings as going
linearly. But that’s down a good notch or
two or more from somebody like John
Petrucci, who can play much, much faster.
It’s a different approach.