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Flying Colors: Shredding Stereotypes

Supergroup Flying Colors breaks boundaries with its self-titled debut.

“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?
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 compromise?
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.
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?
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.
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?
Oh yeah. A lot.

“All Falls Down” is the most over-the-top cut on the album, in terms of virtuosity.
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 there?
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?
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?
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.

Flying Colors enjoying a moment of levity: (left to right) Dave LaRue, keyboardist Neal Morse, Steve Morse, vocalist Casey McPherson, and drummer Mike Portnoy. Photo by Joey Pippin

A few months ago, John told us he’s started combining legato techniques with alternate picking to get to what he calls the “hyper-speed” level. Have you ever considered something like that?
I’ve tried it just when I’m noodling around through an amp, and unless I put in a lot of gain—and I mean a lot of gain, like, with a booster or a distortion pedal—before the amplifier, I can’t even come close to making it sound the same. I’m picking hard and the results sound too obvious. It would be more successful for me if I used a thinner pick and really dedicated some time to it. The reason I like the alternate picking is to have the flexibility where I can pick up an acoustic and, after a brief period of adjusting, be able to play basically the same stuff that I could on an electric. Whereas, if I were incorporating a mixture of, say, hammering and alternate picking, it would be super obvious on acoustic.

Do you keep your picking hand at a specific angle, and if so, what are the advantages of doing it that way?
I do spend a lot of time working on my right hand. I’m left-handed, too, and that may be part of it. As my body gets more miles on it, I’m preparing to deal with tendonitis, arthritis, and stuff that inevitably happens when you’ve been playing for 46 years. I have three different right-hand techniques involving the pick. One of them is that I rest the heel of my right hand on the bridge and make an opening between my fingers and that heel, and I pick in that opening. I play that way for control, especially at high volumes, like when I’m trying to get sustain and feedback from the amp. That’s the super-controlled way—everything is muted except the string I’m playing.

For faster stuff, I hold my pick between two fingers and my thumb, and use the twisted motion in the wrist that I normally do—but it’s not as tied down. That’s the position I tend to end up with when I’m playing fast. I have to be very careful to keep [extraneous] notes from running away by muting with my left-hand thumb a lot. The third technique I’m working on is a traditional grip like John Petrucci, John McLaughlin, or Al Di Meola might use, with the thumb inside of the finger. That’s very relaxing, but I don’t have the control to jump strings with that technique. I basically do that when I’m jump to that technique in the middle of a phrase if I just have an eighth-note, or I can change to that technique to rest my wrist if it’s kind of cramping up from doing the other one too much.

How about you, Dave—pick or fingers?
I’ll use a heavy pick, but only rarely. I’m much better with my fingers. I can play almost any kind of grooving, straight-ahead kind of thing with a pick, but anything that’s really, really intricate, forget it. I prefer to play with my fingers, although sometimes it’s just idiomatically better to play with a pick. For most of the fingerstyle stuff I do, I usually play a Music Man Bongo.

What other basses do you use?
All I play is Music Man basses. I think on this record I played the Bongo 4, the Bongo 5, and the Sterling. I love the slap sound of the Sterling, and used it on “Forever in a Daze.” I also used a Bongo fretless on one of the ballads.

Steve, you’re also a big Music Man advocate. Which of your signature models—the original or the newer SM-Y2D—are you using nowadays?
The Y2D is the one I use most for Deep Purple. For some reason, it sounds more like a rock ’n’ roll guitar—a little bit more Les Paul-like. My original fourpickup signature model is my most versatile guitar and has more of a live sound. It may be because it’s got a bigger [pickguard] cavity and the pickups are hanging from the pickguard. That’s the one I could play country stuff, a jazz thing, rock, or Dixie Dregs stuff on. That’s my main axe when I do solo things, Steve Morse Band things.

Steve, when you play lower on the neck you use the bridge pickup, but when you play higher up, you switch to the neck pickup. Why?
It’s part of finding the sweet spot. Basically, I just use the pickup with the most harmonics for low notes, and as I cross over somewhere around the 10th fret or so, then I switch to the neck humbucker or sometimes both. As I get a little bit higher, then I go to the neck position only. I don’t like shrill sounds, so doing that fattens up the sound and relieves some of that ear piercing that can happen. When you distort the signal by turning up the input gain, it’s basically chopping the wave, and those chopped edges make a very sharp harmonic. Those are perceived as high end by our ears. It’s nicer sounding to me to take away that edge.

Do you change between pickups in the middle of a solo instinctively?
Yeah. A lot of times the producer will say, “It sounds like you did an overdub there.” Well, I just changed the pickups.

Steve Morse's Gear

Music Man Steve Morse Signature model, Music Man SM-Y2D Signature model, Buscarino nylonstring, Larrivée steel-string, Babicz steel-string

ENGL Steve Morse Signature E656 heads driving ENGL 4x12 cabinets

TC Electronic Flashback Delay and Looper, Ernie ball volume pedal

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
Ernie Ball electric strings (.010, .013, .016, .026, .032, and .043), dropped-D guitars have a .046 or .048 for the lowest string, Ernie Ball medium-heavy picks, TC Electronic PolyTune, DiMarzio ClipLock, and Ernie Ball straps

Dave Larue's Gear

Music Man Bongo 4- and 5-string, Bongo fretless, and Sterling 4-string

Ampeg SVT4-Pro head, Ampeg SVT cabinets, Ampeg SVX software (studio)

TC Electronic G-System, Ernie Ball volume pedal, Chellee Odelya distortion

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
Ernie Ball Extra Slinkys (.040, .060, .070, and .095) on 4-strings, with an added .125 on 5-strings, Music Man heavy picks, Music Man straps

What amps are you guys using?
I use Ampeg SVT4-PRO heads and SVT cabinets. In the studio, I use [the IK Multimedia AmpliTube 3 Custom Shop plug-in] Ampeg SVX. When I sort of virtually hook up my rig, it sounds just like my real rig. Any amp track on the record is the Ampeg SVX software, although we did mix in some amp on some things.

Morse: I’m using my signature ENGL E656 amp, which has three channels. Channel 1 is beautiful and clean—yet so smooth sounding. I even plug my electric classical guitar into it. There’s also a boost that will get it distorted on the clean sound if you want to get that ’60s sound. The clean and distorted channels are set up so that if you put all the dials at about 1 o’clock and plug any guitar in, I guarantee it will sound great. Channel 3 is the thing I like best. It’s just a do-it-all, great distortion sound that’ll clean up as you turn down the guitar. It will still have clarity. And when you play with distortion, it has a certain transparency in the high end that, to me, is less irritating. It cuts through and the clarity is there without having to be loud.

Channel 3 has four mid controls, too. What’s that all about?
The third channel is all about bringing lines out without making them louder. In Deep Purple, for example, it’s a real struggle to get the guitar to come out. Especially when we’re playing European shows, because they don’t want us to turn the guitar up loud—they think it’s offensive to the European audience. I don’t quite follow that, but my solution is to try to change the sound of the guitar when I solo so that it will come through. It may not be the ideal sound for rhythm, but by changing the midrange you definitely make it sound more audible. You can set up channel 3 with this midrange, and then hit a button and have a different range.

Dave, your rig is pretty simple these days.
I took all the crap out of my rack and got it down to the TC Electronic G-System. I love that thing. Now I just have that, with two cables running back to the SVT4-PRO. I use an Ernie Ball volume pedal in front of it, and in the inserts I patch in the Odelya. It’s a really nice sounding unit that I use live and in the studio.

I have the overdrive set up to get that lead sound that you heard on the record, which is more of an out-front, soloing distortion. The one thing that I would like to do is be able to switch to a less-distorted but still kind of a grungy sound for playing a dirty bass track behind everything— not an out front kind of thing. Just to get a little grunge in sometimes. Right now, it’s either all or nothing.

Before we end, let’s settle one thing once and for all: Although the playing is more restrained on the Flying Colors album, people generally regard you as chops guys. Where do you stand on the eternal feel-versus-speed debate?
I sort of have to distinguish myself from the guys that have soooo many chops, and John Petrucci is the perfect example. In terms of being a virtuoso, John has taken it as far as anybody I’ve ever seen on electric guitar. I guess I just think of myself more as a writer than a guitar guy. Guitar is my instrument, so when I solo I’m basically writing a little bit on the spot. For me, the content is everything. If I’m ever in a situation where I time it wrong, where I run overtime in a solo and end up putting in a few bars of just stuff that doesn’t mean anything, it deeply disappoints me. Sometimes things like that do happen if you guess wrong.

LaRue: It’s all about music. The reason I love Steve’s music is because there’s such a depth of melody—he always plays melodies. Although the facility thing kind of separates us [from the pack] a little bit, it sets us apart because we can do so many different things. Steve has this intervallic kind of depth that a lot of guys who just play scales can’t get into their lines. They play too fast and too much of it, and it just sounds like they’re practicing. Steve’s lines have always had more depth.

There are guys with chops who have feel and there are guys with chops who have no feel. I’m not going to name names, but we all know these guys who can play riffage for days that really has no musical value. There are also guys who just use that as an excuse—they have no chops and they have no feel. It’s kind of an insecurity thing.

YouTube It
For a taste of the fretboard phenoms that make Flying Colors soar, check out the following clips of Steve Morse and Dave LaRue.

Watch Morse and LaRue tear it up on “Tumeni Notes,” one of Morse’s signature scorchers.

Before Flying Colors, Morse and LaRue blew audiences away with their jazz fusion-meetsbluegrass band, the Dixie Dregs. This full-length concert video of the Dixie Dregs from Toad’s Place offers a stunning display of the duo’s super-human virtuosity.

In this live version of “Cruise Control,” Morse and LaRue go absolutely bonkers trading licks shortly after the drum solo (beginning at approximately 2:31).