15th May 2016
Aside from constantly being voted in numerous polls as one of the world’s top guitarists, Steve Morse is also one of the nicest men you could ever meet. Humble to the core, he approaches interviews and fans with the same gratitude he always has, that of he not really knowing why people want to meet him or shake his hand. The man genuinely doesn’t believe he’s anything anybody else isn’t and his upbringing shows when he politely offers my photographer a seat before sitting down himself (my photographer was a lady).
Steve smiles all the way through the interview, constantly wants to explain more about things with insights and you get the feeling that he’d be a wonderful companion to drive a thousand miles with across a desert with. Indeed, if I hadn’t called time on the interview, we’d probably still be there now.
The new Deep Purple album
Q: Without giving too much away, can you give us a quick overview of the new album?
SM: Well its Bob Ezrin producing which takes much of the worry away for me because Bob is a stabilising influence and certainly a great addition to the band. He helps with the song arrangements and especially the song choices. For instance, my job is to just continually bring in ideas and I don’t expect that the majority of them would get used and then the bands job is to filter out what fits the band and Bob helps a lot with that. Once we’ve decided what fits, then everybody does the best with whatever their assignment is. Sometimes Bob will say ‘I need something a little different on this section. Gimme some 12-String or choices on a solo, some different approaches’ and we’ve just finished that phase of it so far as I know, I’m just about finished with the album and it’s going great!
Q: More of Now What?!
SM: Yeah. In the terms of personnel, procedure and excitement, it’s the same but I would say Bob is more excited about this one and I think it’s a really good time for the band because everybody’s taking it super-seriously but at the same time everybody’s having fun. The Rock Hall of Fame thing sort of put a marker – a point in time where they got recognized. You know, we’ve seen people die, Jon died and there were people in my band, road crew and of course Tommy Bolin and I think everyone is really aware that we owe a lot to the audience and I guess for some reason. People are paying more attention right now. The audiences are more attentive and supportive than ever.
Q: Actually it’s quite nice to have the opportunity to talk to you when you’re not promoting something so I can ask about other stuff. Does a song title ever influence the solo you write for it or are your solos purely driven by the music?
SM: That’s a good question. Yeah, actually, if I knew it was some kind of heart-felt lost love lyric – which Ian doesn’t write (laughs) – I would try and emote more and think that way because when you are painting a picture with music, just like a lyricist, it’s important to capture the impression or the feeling. Of course you know I’m partial to instrumental music and spent a large part of my life doing it so I take it to heart. It may not sound that way when people listen to it and you don’t have to spend a huge part of your life working on the solo, you just have to give an honest impression of how you feel about the music right then and there and try and take out anything that feels funny, make it all sound good. If you’re talking about purely emotionally, I think a solo should be as important as any other part of the song. There is an old quote which I think is attributed to Wes Montgomery which is that the solo should be as beautiful as the melody and he’s one of those guys who could do it, playing those beautiful octave melodies. Playing over standards, you’re more invited to be lyrical when you’re playing over standard chord changes as opposed to Rock where it’s a different story. Often you are playing over a beat or a feel and not much dynamic movement of the chords. I probably veered off topic there – I specialize in that (laughs)
Q: How often do you discover a new chord or inversion?
SM: Just recently I was messing with a different right hand technique where you pick one note with an artificial harmonic and then another note with natural and then another artificial. I’m always looking for different shapes and scales that work with that but I was just messing around with chord tones and I found some interesting things there.
Q: This is with natural tuning?
SM: Yeah. One of the cycles I am doing is going back to practicing with an amplifier sometimes and part of that is because I am deliberately changing my right hand technique to get more efficient and playing through an amplifier really helps me figure out what I need to do and not do.
In the past…
Q: I recently spoke to Colin Hart who sends his very best to you…
SM: Alright! A lovely man he really is. We enjoyed hanging out together.
Q:…and he recalled of your audition and I quote “He flew to Mexico from Australia I think and I picked him up. He was exhausted but we went straight to rehearsals and he played fantastically well. I couldn’t believe that he stepped in and played the show right through with hardly a mistake – it was frightening.” That’s his recollection; what’s yours?
SM: (laughs) I don’t remember too many details but I do remember going in and we didn’t have a rehearsal so much as a jam. The equipment was set up at a gig in the dressing room, I met some of the guys for the first time, shook hands and I started playing. I was just messing around and I heard Jon send back right what I just played and wow…that guy’s got great ears, like a Jazz player so then I played something, he came back with a variation of it and we went back and forth like that so in just the space of a few moments, a lot was communicated. Then when everybody joined in which didn’t take more than a few more seconds I learned that the band had a great feel, the pocket is very heavy but very relaxed and Jon’s ears were incredible so I was already sold. Then Ian Gillan comes up and goes like this (gestures with a clenched fist in front of his face). Not a menacing gesture but a ‘Yeah! Come on! Give us some more!’ Now let me just put this into the proper framing; he’s the vocalist and he wants the guitar player to play! (laughs) Once more for emphasis: the singer was excited that the guitar player was playing (laughs). I thought it was awesome and I was so happy. I thought well, whatever comes of this, this is a great band. Before that, I was concerned because they didn’t tour much in the US where I had been working on my own stuff and I never saw them play. My impression is that with a lot of people who have achieved things, there can be periods in their career where they are coasting and that their live show can be nothing more than a retrospective, a cabaret. So that’s what worried me but here I was jamming with them and thinking this is awesome – great. I had no idea if I was the right guy for the job but I knew I could do it and enjoy it so in just a few minutes all that happened.
Q: 22 years later, I think you’re the right man for the job.
SM: There are a certain percentage of people and I don’t know the exact number but they just hate the fact that Ritchie quit and that I’m not Ritchie. There’s no getting around that.
Q: Yeah but I speak to young kids these days Steve and to them, Purple is Steve Morse. Those kids were not even born when Ritchie left.
SM: Demographically, yes. The young people who go to the shows see me as part of the band. The people who have only seen the classic albums line-up and the angry pictures of the dark haired Ritchie and he was a great performer and showman and everything, they are sold on that and nothing else will do. They guys who identify with the whole Metal attitude and fashions of course gravitate towards Ritchie because as I said, the look and the performance are more aggressive. One of the biggest insults that was ever hurled my way by them was that I smile on stage. (laughs) I realize for a Rapper that could end your career (laughs) but for me I literally don’t care. Yeah, there is a set of young people that come to the front of the stage at festivals and shows and this is the only band they’ve ever seen.
Q: You contributed to Abbey Road - The Beatles tribute album playing on Here Comes The Sun.
SM: I’m lucky enough to get called to do these tribute projects, Mood For A Day, The Clap, ELP, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Rush…it pretty much goes on.
Q: Have you ever met a Beatle?
SM: Yes. It was our first album in L.A. – The Dixie Dregs – and we had already recorded a lot of the music on our demo so it was all planned out with what we were going to do. Stewart Levine was our producer and he knew lots of people and Quincy Jones’ daughter was his girlfriend so she was there a lot and bringing in lots of people and Ringo came while we were doing our Bluegrass tune called Moe Down which is not our normal type of song. I was talking to him and he’s a really lovely guy to hang out and he said ‘What kind of music do you call this?’ and I said it was kind of Middle-of-the Road, not really Rock, not Jazz because too me, coming from the south, it was Middle-of-the Road but to somebody who’s not me it was incredibly stylized. He just started laughing muttering something about ‘Not quite Middle-of-the Road’ (laughs) and then, because of Roger, when we were doing rehearsals with Deep Purple in London, we were driving somewhere, going to pick something up and he said ‘Do you fancy going to meet George and Liv?’ ‘Ok, fine, said me thinking ‘whoever that is.’ So he pulls up to this estate with this big brick house and I said ‘Wow they’ve got a pretty fancy place here!’ and he said ‘That’s the Guard House.’ (laughs)
‘So tell me more about this George and Liv.’
‘Oh you never heard of George Harrison?’
‘I’ve heard of George Harrison!!!’
He just thought I would know and that I was being real aloof about it but no I wasn’t. Anyway we hung out, had tea with them and talked about music and that was a wonderful experience and I saw him looking at his son the way I look at my son, you know, so glad, so proud of you, I want everything for you but I want you to not be entitled. I want you to scrape your way up like I did. It was cool.
Q: The impossible to answer question: Given a choice between jamming with Jimi Hendrix, Les Paul and Django Reinhardt, who would you choose?
SM: Owe! If my chops were up…
Q: (looks at Steve in amazement) You’re kidding right?
SM: No. If I were current at picking on acoustic like McLaughlin would be Django because I think I could play something over the changes. I’m kind of trained to do that as a quasi-slightly Jazz player and then, I would just as happily pick up a solid body and would love to play over Les Paul type of standards which are not so different from Django’s. Then I know, if I could have been stoned and have been a great player while I was stoned (laughs), I would have loved to have played with Hendrix and just try to feel what it’s like to be on that level where what you are trying to express is so on a different plane to reality. He was coming from a whole other direction.
Q: Well what you’ve just said about Hendrix, your solo in The Storm on the Flying Colors Blu-Ray, I feel the same.
SM: Oh right…cool. Thank you!
Q: It tears me up every time and for me you went into that different level that Hendrix did.
SM: Thank you. I struggle with a lot of things, trying to get between the little inner conversation I’m having of ‘Should I do this?’ or ‘Is that gonna work?’ and the ‘Shut up and feel it!’ thing. There is always that back and forth. Sometimes I get it; this thing’s coming, I’m going to make that change, do the diminished thing, etc and then just try to shift back to…relax.
Q: I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s a lot of people out there that would love to jam with you as well; you are that next level.
SM: Well I don’t know. Everybody as a musician has something that they hope inspires people and that’s wonderful when it happens, so, thank you.
Q: You’re a pilot. A lot of pilots have reported something strange in the sky: have you ever seen anything you can’t explain?
Q: Care to elaborate or would you rather keep it to yourself?
SM: Well I believe there is an explanation for everything. When I was on the USO tour (1986) - I was with Kansas at the time – and we went to all these bases all around the world. We were in Iceland in winter and I got somebody to drive me out to the edge of base, outside the base where there was no light pollution and we had the Northern Lights in colour. I mean reds, blues, purples and I just stood out there and it looked like these waves and curtains and hands and spirits coming up to me. I’ve seen the green Northern Lights many times including from flying but that was the most amazing thing. I talked to some of the pilots and being a pilot myself we have this instant rapport and they said they were doing some flight training at the time and saw them and say they were way better than usual. It was a perfect set of circumstances. One time I was flying at night and I always flew with the band on night flights but they were always asleep so it was like flying by yourself. I’ve always been a night driver because I just can’t sleep, can’t relax can’t do anything right but I enjoy flying at night. One time, I was between layers – clouds above me and clouds below me – and the moon started to peep up but it looked nothing like the moon. It was the optical illusion of the way the atmosphere and the clouds were and it looked like…I don’t know…some nuclear explosion in the distance or something, so unusual but I knew it was about time to be seeing it because we had flown the night before but if I didn’t know better, I would think it was something else. Then one time I was flying my aerobatic plane one day and I saw something go flashing by. Now when you’re going 200mph, an object that isn’t even moving appears to go by in a flash but it was a helium balloon that someone had let go and I thought ‘I’m gonna go and get this!’ (laughs) and it was harder than I thought! It was going up and I had to turn around…Where is it? Where is it? (laughs) I finally chased it down. It was a lucky day for me because I didn’t put it there, I didn’t break any laws and all I was doing was investigating it real close. (laughs)
Q: Mr Morse, Deep Purple’s guitarist chasing balloons around the skies in his aerobatic aeroplane for fun is I think an ideal image to leave everyone with. Thank you very much for your time.
SM: My pleasure and thank you.