Formed in the early 1990s by brothers Neal and Alan Morse, Californian quintet Spock’s Beard has arguably been the premier American progressive rock band since its inception. Just about every one of their studio efforts, including ‘V,’ ‘Snow,’ ‘X,’ and ‘Octane,’ is considered amongst the best of the best in the genre. Recently, the group experienced their second major line-up change, as well as released their eleventh LP, the poetically titled ‘Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep’. Currently, Spock’s Beard is finishing up a tour in Europe, and Alan Morse took a few minutes in-between shows to speak with me about the band, the music, and the journey.
Hey, Alan. How’s the tour going? Any highlights or humorous mishaps?
The tour went great! My only problem was I lost my glasses on the ferry from France to England, so I had to wear sunglasses the whole time. But they found my glasses and are sending them to me, so that’s cool! The last few shows in Germany were definitely highlights—great crowds, great sound, [and] everything just came together.
How did Beardfish and Sound of Contact come to join the tour and what’s it been like having them along for the ride? Do you guys ever share a song or do a big finale together on stage?
Well, they’re on the same label as us, Inside Out, and it seemed like a good fit so we decided it would work well for everyone if we all went out together. They’re great guys, though I must say sixteen guys on one bus is a lot!
We didn’t really do a song together—didn’t really think of it until it was too late. That would have been fun. Maybe next time!
Your brother contributed a bit to the new record. What lead to his return and what was it like writing with him again for SB (emotionally, creatively, etc)?
It was great to have him contributing; he’s an awesome writer, very prolific. I just went out to his house for a few days and we knocked out a few things. The lyrics were minimal (had to write those later) and a lot of the arrangements were just sketched out, but we got the basic ideas and structure in a few days.
Similarly, Spock’s Beard contributed to “Time Changer” on ‘.’ How did that come about and did it feel bittersweet?
Neal just emailed us and asked if we would do it. Of course we said, “Sure!” He emailed us the parts, we recorded the tracks and emailed them back, and there you have it. Amazing what you can do by remote these days!
Where did the title of the new record come from?
It is from “The Story of Civilization” by Will and Ariel Durant. I was reading it and that phrase just struck me as particularly poetic and evocative, so I wrote it down in a little list of titles and ideas I keep. When it came time to name the record, I sent that around with some other ideas [and] that one seemed the most popular, so we went with it.
How did Ted Leonard become your new singer? What is it about him that made him the right choice? Did you guys do a lot of auditions for vocalists?
We didn’t really audition anyone. When we realized we needed to get a new singer Dave mentioned him. They work together in a cover band. We all knew him from when Enchant opened for us on a couple of tours; [we] knew he was awesome and a cool guy. So we asked him and he was into it and here we are!
Did you guys have any warning or intuition that Nick would leave? Did you ever consider ending Spock’s Beard afterward, or did you guys know that (as the saying goes) the show must go on?
No, Nick’s leaving came as a complete shock! Didn’t really see that coming, though I can’t blame him for taking the Cirque gig. He’d have been crazy not to!
Didn’t really consider packing it in [either]—it’s too much fun! Though I was a bit worried about whether we’d be able to pull it together after yet another lineup change. But Ted and Jimmy fit right in; it’s great working with them.
Considering the line-up changes, was there a lot of pressure going into the making of ‘in terms of satisfying expectations and proving something to yourselves? How would you compare it to the making of ‘in that respect?
Well, I wasn’t so much worried about proving anything to ourselves. [It] more about proving to the fans that we could still do it. It seemed there was more pressure on ‘Feel Euphoria,’ as Neal had been doing all the writing up to that point. Since then the writing has been much more distributed, so it didn’t seem like there would be as much trouble moving forward.
How do you think the record compares to its predecessors?
This is one of my favorite SB records, and I’m not just saying that because I want people to buy it! This one has a lot of sections that give me chills [and] make me cry to listen to. It’s got everything, I couldn’t be prouder of it.
From what I’ve seen, you rarely, if ever, play guitar with a pick, which is very cool, if also uncommon. Why? Isn’t it more difficult to play with your fingers (especially in terms of soloing)?
Playing fingerstyle does have its limitations, but I’m kind of stuck with it now! Couldn’t really change if I wanted to. I can play a little bit with a pick, but it feels really awkward. Playing fingerstyle has its advantages, too. Switching strings is easier, and going into tapping is a bit easier. It’s just my way, how I’ve always done it.
If you weren’t primarily a guitarist, which instrument would you prioritize?
Well, I love the cello and French horn. And baritone sax. And playing the drums is a blast! But I’d probably play keyboards [since] that’s the most practical these days.
Can you discuss any current or future projects outside of SB?
I don’t really have any plans to do anything outside of SB, though I’m always open to doing stuff for other people. Email me some tracks!
What’s your favorite SB record? How about a least favorite (if there is one)?
Tough call. I’m pretty partial to ‘The Light,’ since it was the first one. And this one. There’s a lot of good stuff…
From what I’ve seen, Snow seems to be the most polarizing album in the SB discography. I think it’s an absolute masterpiece; how do you feel about it in retrospect? Will you guys ever attempt another concrete concept album?
Sorry to disappoint you, but ‘Snow’ is probably my personal least favorite. It has some great stuff on it, but it has a lot of unhappy memories associated with it. I didn’t really enjoy making it much, frankly. Hard to be objective…
That’s exactly what Neal told me about it, too. So which artists influenced you? Who do you listen to these days?
Lots of people – Zappa, the Beatles, Queen, BeBop Deluxe, Bowie, Mick Ronson, Charlie Parker. I like a lot of weird stuff, [like] Captain Beefheart, the Shaggs. Word Jazz, [and] Harry Partch. These days, I like Rival Sons out of LA. Beardfish, who we just toured with, are really awesome, I want to get all their stuff. I also like stuff like Rage Against the Machine, Green Day, [and] System of a Down. Pretty fun!
If you could work with any musicians—alive or dead—who would they be?
Well, Jimi [Hendrix] of course. The Beatles, Charlie Parker, Mick Ronson. Jeez, these guys are mostly dead! Oh well, they were still awesome, what can you do? I also have to say I feel so privileged to work with the guys in Spock’s Beard! They’re all world class, just amazingly talented. How cool is that?
Very cool. Thanks for taking the time to talk, Alan. Good luck and congrats on making another great record.