“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 solo album.”
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 flames.
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 radically different.
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 wasn’t conflict.
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 it available.
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.