There are few guitarists who have had a prolific track record that is as extensive as Steve Morse‘s. His approach to the six strings first found it’s way onto the mainstream while channeling jazz fusion with the Dixie Dregs in the 1970s, who would become responsible for popularizing the instrumental rock genre for decades of musicians who followed their lead.
That career choice is something that Morse has questioned over the years and even led to a short term tenure as a commercial pilot. His dedication to performing and composing has also led to him touring in support of Rush as the Steve Morse Band, becoming a guitarist for Kansas in the late 1980s and later serving as the full-term replacement for Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple.
Music Enthusiast was fortunate to sit down alongside Steve Morse to relive his earliest years as a musician and his recent activity with the members of Deep Purple and the progressive rock supergroup Flying Colors.
Music Enthusiast: You were first launched into the realm of guitar rock as the leader of the Dixie Dregs during the 1970s. This was during a time where hard rock groups with dynamic frontmen were “the cutting edge” of their time. What convinced you to allow the music to speak for itself?
Steve Morse: I think part of it is just how difficult it is at that stage to get a vocalist involved in experimental music. For us it was experimental. We did electronic music where we would cut a recording take with homemade synthesizer noises on it and try to make electronic music that was… we didn’t know exactly what we wanted, but we knew we wanted something expressive that just wasn’t normal. It’s hard to do that with a vocalist. We never found anyone who wanted to or could do it. After our band broke up that did have vocals – it had really good vocals – the songs were more structured vocally. All of the classical music that I heard and all of the new cool electronic fusion music was instrumental. That was the easiest way to express yourself as a writer.
Those eight albums encompassed a bold assortment of jazz fusion, southern rock, classical and instrumental rock, as well as some rather impressive guitar stylings. Do you feel that the creative freedom which the Dixie Dregs have is because the songs didn’t have to be tailored for a lead vocalist?
Yeah, I think it’s more than freedom. I think it’s a little bit more responsibility when you don’t have a vocalist, because when you have a vocalist most bands construct songs where verses one, two and three are exactly the same; the only thing that changes is the lyrics. With instrumental music, you just can’t get away with that repetition. You have to keep changing something. If you start out with a theme you have to get away from it, then come back and get away from it. Each time you get away from it, you should explore something a little bit different. So yeah, I guess you could say it’s freedom but it’s also more responsibility to not have a vocalist.
Considering that the last Dixie Dregs album was released back in 1994, have you ever given any thought to possibly making another record with the band?
Yeah, we have. We lost our keyboard player T Lavitz, he died several years ago. Right around that time Mark Parrish also had died, who’s the keyboard player on the second two albums. I think Frank Solomon, our original manager, has been talking about maybe getting together with Steve Davidowski, our first keyboard player. So we’ll see about that.
Recording is like a hobby for musicians because for 99.9% of them, it’s just not something they’re going to make any monetary income from. It’s like doing a street art almost, only it’s street art that takes months. (laughs) There are people in the band that have bills, and that’s everybody. We’ll always want to do touring and that takes the time. After a tour, you need some time off. It’s hard to schedule a bunch of albums in a year.
I find myself doing little guest spots on recordings. I can do that pretty easily and comfortably. Like I said, album projects take a big chunk of time unless you’re doing it where one person picks the songs, one person writes the songs, and you just walk in and the band has already recorded and you do your vocal overdub. Then people can crank out albums pretty easily, but when you’re starting out going, “What do we got? Nothin’?” (laughs) You’ve gotta write a dozen or a dozen and half tunes and flush them out and start the recording process.
Aside from your work with the Dixie Dregs, you went on to venture off under the ‘Steve Morse Band’ moniker back in 1983. That album showed you working alongside a complete cast of special guests including Peter Frampton, Albert Lee and Eric Johnson. What was the motive behind that decision, to go from working in a band situation to suddenly bringing in this outside talent to contribute?
I think part of it is just discovering how cool it is when you’re making a record that’s… it’s a nice icebreaker for people you’re acquainted with to say, “Hey, I’m recording an album right now. Can you come and help me on this tune?” Something like that is magical. It’s supposed to be, “Can you come over? Let’s write a bunch of songs. Let me record you for a week.” That’s hard to fit in, but it’s possible to get a guest to come in for a day or an afternoon and get something done. That was fun, I enjoyed that process. One of the best things about my job is getting to work with people that are inspiring and that have made musical discoveries that I never thought of or can’t do as well. I love that part of it.
Soon following the release of that album, you were soon out playing to major amphitheaters and arenas. The Steve Morse Band were the main supporting act for Rush during their ‘Power Windows’ tour. Were any nerves leading up to the start of that tour?
Because we had some guest vocalists on that album, I did hire a great singer and rhythm guitar player to go with us on that tour and we did a couple of those tunes from the new album. But other than that, no. I think Rush knew and they just wanted somebody to open who was different: different from them and different from just a club band that was doing covers. They wanted someone that was doing their own thing and wasn’t trying to copy Rush. That was fine with me. They’re wonderful guys and they love the music to be genuine. They are just hard working, genuine, creative people. It’s really a great band and that explains why they’ve been as big as they are for so many years.
Exactly. Your accomplishments later led to your introduction to the Kansas lineup prior to the making of the 1986 ‘Power’ album. How were you brought into that scenario?
It was accidental, sort of. I was at a concert – in fact, we were watching Robert Plant and Phil Ehart was sitting next to me. When the promoter gave tickets to other performers that he has promoted, it would be one block of seats. We were in that same block of seats, so I was talking to Phil and he says, “We’re thinking about getting the band back together with Steve Walsh,” who’s the original vocalist. “Great! Fantastic! Let me know if you want to get together and do any writing.” I had been a guest on a Steve Walsh album and he had helped us out on a Dregs tune; he never got credit for that because of his record deal. (laughs) They wouldn’t allow it. It was common back then for bands and we all lived in Atlanta at the time. It was common for people to cross-pollinate like that. “Come over! Let’s see what’s going on!” They said they weren’t sure if Kerry [Livgren] is going to be involved. “Kerry doesn’t like to go on the road and he doesn’t like to leave his place.” I think he was in Kansas at the time: literally, in the Kansas area. So we got together and it went very well, you know? We came up with some good stuff and pretty soon we had most of the album done. They said, “Do you want to keep doing it and try this thing with us?” “Yeah! Let’s do it!” (laughs) I think musically it went really well. It just so happened that it was all around the whole MTV explosion that I had a really hard time relating to. The direction that the record company and management tried to push the band to get on that train, and I had just a different image. I wanted it to stay the sort of underground band that I imagined. You know, Kansas having a lot of orchestral instrumental tunes and not aimed so much towards hit tunes. On that second album we had a great producer – that was the ‘In the Spirit of Things’ album. We had some really good times touring around with that band and recording, and there just came a time in my life where I was ready to explore. That’s when I applied for a career as a commercial pilot and my schedule worked me out of being in Kansas. Anyway, months later after that I said, “Every business is hard. Every business has things you don’t like. I think music is the best fit for me.” So I went back. I went back to doing my own thing, pretty much.
Right after that tenure with Kansas and your career as a commercial pilot, you would return to the Dixie Dregs for the band’s ‘Full Circle’ record just before becoming the full-time replacement for Ritchie Blackmore in Deep Purple. What was going through your mind during that transition?
Oh, it was a tremendous change in my life. I wasn’t sure of anything. Right before we were doing ‘Full Circle’ I had a little son and I was so happy with him, and here I was back in music where I had to leave a lot. It was crazy, but I think things work out as long as your heart’s in the right place. I enjoyed the range with the Dregs, I enjoyed the solo stuff, but I just had no idea what was going to happen with Purple. We agreed to only play four shows, and at the end of the first day before the first show when we were rehearsing at the venue – I had never even met most of them before then, and at the end of the day we were slapping each other on the back because it went so well. We had a big chemistry. That schedule became a whirlwind, you know? I imagined them doing a tour here and there, but instead we ended up going full-time for the next 21 years.
You’re right. Deep Purple has been subject to a strong revival over the past few decades. Take for example 1996’s ‘Purpendicular.’ That was the very first album that Deep Purple had released without Ritchie Blackmore. I’ve read statements from the rest of the band that said you were the energy that Deep Purple needed in order to continue and that those sessions were rather effortless. Did you feel the same way?
Yes, exactly. That’s the reason why I joined the band. At first I was hesitant. “OK, let’s do four shows.” I just thought, “I don’t want to do this thing if these guys are milking it. If they are just living off the name, I don’t want to be part of it.” I was really pleased the first time we jammed, the first day. Jon [Lord] had these amazing ears. He could hear whatever I was going and spit it right back out at me. Ian Gillan even came up and was like encouraging me as a vocalist. “Just go your thing, man. Go!” That’s so unusual, in my experience. Usually vocalists wouldn’t put up with guitar solos; they’d wait for it to be over. Ian Gillian just wanted to see the band destroy themselves and be a part of it. It was so cool. Like I said, we just locked into a really great chemistry. The recording part was easy.
One of the longest running songs on the ‘Purpendicular’ album is “Sometimes I Feel Like Screaming,” and that song has been considered by fans to be one of the best Deep Purple tracks of the past couple decades. It has that great elaborate, ascending guitar work which was seldom found in the years prior. Was that specifically encouraged by Ian, to try and have you step forward and change the dynamic of the band?
That’s right. It was them, too. I was just noodling around with it instrumentally and it was just a soft thing I was playing when I was waiting for them to bring lunch or something. I think Roger and Jon Lord were encouraging me and saying, “What was that? Let’s hear that again. That might make a neat little intro or something.” A few hours later we had recorded a rough version of it on the two-inch tape. It was because they encouraged me to play it again. Yes, I had the idea of it but I didn’t think it would make a good Deep Purple tune. I was just messing around and it was them saying, “Hey, that’s unusual and I like it. Let’s explore it.”
You talked about feeling like an outsider during the MTV era when you were with Kansas. Did it feel appropriate in a way to later target that change in the format with Deep Purple later on?
I don’t know what you mean by that, but… (laughs) I remember one of the first interviews I did was for MTV, and Ian Gillian got some questions that he thought were silly and he did not pander to the interviewer at all. (laughs) It almost earned us a cover shot on Career Suicide Magazine. I wouldn’t say at any point has gone out of it’s way to be on MTV since I have known them. In fact, I kind of witnessed the end of that.
I was particularly talking about the song “MTV.” That kind of way of sending a message out.
Ah! I think Ian Gillian’s lyrics have multiple ways that you can look at them. He loves to write in double-entendres and include hidden meanings of things. He grew up doing these cryptic crosswords, like many people in Great Britain, where the clues are one set of English words but you have to take the double meanings of some of the words in order to get the real clue that they’re trying to give you. That’s the way that Ian writes, so you would have to look pretty deep to read into what he’s saying with his lyrics. (laughs) On the surface, he tries to make them make sense to a certain extent. Nobody in the band begrudges any business for trying to make money, you know. Whether that’s radio or MTV or whatever. It’s just not always the best venue or the best way to promote the most cutting edge, original stuff.
I think that Deep Purple has experienced that more than most bands. I had written an article a while back discussing what I described as “Fifteen of Deep Purple’s One Hit Wonders,” and that was in response to the statement from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that billed Deep Purple as a one hit wonder. That was my way of saying, “Really? Pick which one you think was their only hit.”
That’s awesome! (laughs) That’s great. Good for you!
There have been plenty of other voices who have expressed negative emotions to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and similarly prominent institutions for blatantly ignoring bands such as Deep Purple yet have been quick to first acknowledge rap artists and pop music superstars. I’m interested in hear your take on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame saying that Deep Purple are one hit wonders.
I don’t know anything about the organization, but my guess is they’re human beings, they’re influenced by the people around them, and the more someone is influenced locally by the people around them the more they’re going to think that way. Like if their friends and their business associates were on their back saying, “You’ve got to do this. You’ve got to do that,” then they probably will. Purple’s not a US institution, so much. Yes, it’s a rock band and yes, it was a formative influence for a lot of rock bands. I just don’t know if being a rock band would allow you to have a place at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame anymore. They’re doing more of a pop thing and a “fame” thing. Anyway, people who buy the music know. They can trace the roots of those bands and see who’s been influential, and people like Lars from Metallica have really gone out of their way to raise that awareness to their great credit.
Turning back to your work with the band, you’ve since appeared on five Deep Purple studio albums and seven live efforts thus far, including 2013’s ‘Now What?!’. It’s safe to say that most fans have accepted your introduction into the band. Have you noticed this reaction onstage?
The first year we had some fireworks with people throwing stuff and yelling things. I think once they realized if you want to see Deep Purple you’re not going to see Ritchie playing guitar – you know, he quit the band and Richie drew his credit by laying off an easy target. He didn’t try and trash me publicly or anything like that. I think over the years people have figured it out that this is a new band, you know? Deal with it. (laughs)
Absolutely. I personally thought that ‘Now What?!’ is the most cohesive album you’ve done with Deep Purple. There are plenty of highlights on that record, from the tributes to Jon Lord to the anthemic tracks like “Out of Hand.” What do you recall about those recording sessions?
I think Bob Ezrin was the big force there. He was the producer who did the ‘In the Spirit of Things’ album with Kansas. He also did ‘The Wall’ and the KISS albums. He’s a great producer, really quick mind and really smart guy. He kept track of things really well and pushed the band, so I think he was a big key to making that album sound as good as it does. The band has always been the same. I mean, we have Don Airey who has stood in for Jon. You know that story.
I do. Similar to the rest of your music career, you haven’t worked solely with Deep Purple. Your recent activity includes the progressive rock supergroup Flying Colors. What is the story behind that collaboration?
Bill Evans the executive producer called me and had been working Gary Hoey on some publicity and had also been working with Neal Morse. He had said, “How about you guys getting together to write?” I said, “That sounds great.” It turned out that Gary couldn’t do it because he had a stroke. Neal Morse and I got together were closer living in the South. We got together and had a very productive writing session and started planning a recording project. Neal brought in Mike Portney, whom I knew from Dream Theater. I brought Dave LaRue, of course from my band, and we all decided on Casey at Mike’s suggestion. Casey was a great singer/songwriter, so we all got together and it was fun. It was like magic. Again, good chemistry in the writing.
The latest Flying Colors album, 2014’s ‘Second Nature,’ features several epic tracks including “Mask Machine,” “Cosmic Symphony” and “Open Up Your Eyes.” Would you say that the band’s songwriting chemistry has progressed since the self-titled debut?
Yes! Part of it is what people call progress is all about the way you prune it, you know? The same kind of ideas have always been there, maybe now it’s just the band is more open to certain things? I don’t know. Or maybe we’re restricting ourselves in a certain way. I don’t know, I can’t be objective about that. I feel the same in each writing session that we’ve done over the last 21 years, so I don’t know what progress is but one thing you do learn with age is what things not to do. Maybe that’s all.
Flying Colors decided to not hire a producer for ‘Second Nature.’ Do you believe that speaks for the working relationship that’s shared between the five of you?
Um… on ‘Second Nature,’ that was sort of a decision done by the rest of the band. I personally wanted a producer. Peter Collins had helped me and I think the rest of the band made some decision on the first one. Everybody has done so many albums that they thought it could be done faster without a producer. We got a lot done, for sure. I just like having a producer to solve some of the problems when people on each side are going, “I want it this way.” “No, I want it that way.” To me that actually can speed things up to have a producer. Anyway, I was outvoted. I don’t think the writing would have been significantly different… you know, we could have made some decisions quickly and moved on, rather than debating it so much.
It seems as though you have a flight ahead of you, seeing as the announcement that Deep Purple will be performing live on the Today show tomorrow morning (July 23) just came down! What are you looking forward to about that concert?
Getting some sleep. (laughs) We have to be there so early. I’m not going to get any sleep because I don’t go to sleep ’til about 4 AM and I have to wake up at 4 to get to that. I think it’s a chance to get the name out there, let people know that Deep Purple is alive and we’re going to be playing in a town near you. I think that’s the whole purpose. Musically we’re going to be very restricted. We’re doing one song and they want an edited version. We’re doing the best we can for playing outside with rented equipment and no soundcheck. You know all that stuff. It’s a tough deal, but the good news is they’re giving us a chance to let people know we are here.
If I can ask, is that one song going to be “Smoke on the Water”?
Yeah, and that’s by their request. It’s sort of a “take it or leave it” deal. I suggested we take it and tell our story to the people who buy the tickets.
I was able to see Deep Purple in Orlando last year. That was your first real tour of the United States in some time, and I know that Ian had expressed some hesitation to touring the US because he felt the fans didn’t want to hear any new material and only the hits. In my observations, the veteran fans seemed to really enjoy the new material and especially your take on the old songs. During “Perfect Strangers” you transitioned into an extended breakdown with elaborated guitar work and artificial harmonics. Did you enjoy going into that bed of classic material and putting your own spin on it?
Yeah, I think you can’t help it. You just can’t help doing that. Part of it is Joe Satriani had done that just a few months before me. I was able to hear his work and that the band was fine with it, so I felt a little bit more comfortable after hearing Joe’s version. I think he definitely influenced what I did, so I definitely count him as an influence.
I’ve always given credit to tribute guitarists especially. I’m a guitarist myself and I have to admire those musicians. I went and saw Brit Floyd, an exceptional Pink Floyd tribute in Orlando a few weeks back and their new guitarist was playing songs from ‘Meddle’ and ‘Animals’ note for note. I personally couldn’t stand there for three hours and not include some alternative phrasing or influences, and I think one of the reasons why the fans have been so open to your addition to the band is because you aren’t onstage playing Richie’s solos exactly like the record. You add your own phrasing and elements into the mix, and I think that’s really played to the benefit of the band.
I appreciate that. It’s art. I mean, classical music concerts were pretty much based on what the composer wrote, so the concept isn’t a problem. It’s just in rock, people are used to personal expression and the more genuine it is and the more personal it is, the better it comes across. So I think it’s OK to let some of your personality through, as well as showing respect for the material that Ritchie wrote.
How are the sessions for the new album coming along? The last we heard was that Deep Purple had done some recording in Steve Harris’ personal studio.
Oh, it totally depends on the treatment but we just create stuff. (laughs) I am happy. I am ready to go into the studio, but I guess Roger and Ian are still working on melody, lyric ideas for vocals. I like the instrumental stuff we’ve got, you know just the structure of the songs.
Ian Paice previously said that the tentative title for the album would be ‘Glorious Chaos.’ Has that been set in stone, because it sounds right in line with a Purple album.
Yeah, it does. We’ve got probably half a dozen titles that everyone likes. We’ll see. (laughs)