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Tim Morse Interview

(Tim recently did an interview with Torodd Fuglesteg of the Prog Archives website.  He has graciously allowed us to post it on this site.  For more information go to http://www.progarchives.com/)

US keyboardist TIM MORSE is a member of Yes tribute band PARALLELS, as well as being the author of two prog-related books, "Yesstories" and "Classic Rock Stories". In 2005 he released his first album, "Transformation", recorded with the help of multi-instrumentalist Mark Dean (who also produced the album) and singer Richie Zeller. This record, which bridges classic and modern prog and includes a 16-minute track called "Apocalyptic Visions", is actually a concept based on the events that can transform a person's life.

I got in touch with Tim Morse for his story.




When and where did you take up music? Why progressive rock?

I was nine years old when I started playing music. I have an older cousin who took up the guitar and began writing songs in a Cat Stevens/James Taylor style. This was a big influence on me at the time and I asked my mother for a guitar for Christmas and indeed that is what I received as a present. I immersed myself in practicing that instrument and also began to start composing as well. I didn't start playing the piano until I was in high school, I began by simply transferring what I knew on guitar to the keyboard. I found that I really connected with the piano as an instrument and it completely eclipsed the guitar at that time.

Progressive rock came somewhere in the middle of those experiences. As a child I enjoyed the current hits being played on AM radio and also my parents record collection which included classical titles and a smattering of jazz. The first band that I fell in love with was The Beatles (I suppose you could consider them the 'first progressive rock band' in a way) and then other important bands of the classic rock era such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and so on, became favorites. However, the first progressive band to grab my attention was Jethro Tull. The attraction of progressive music was really all encompassing, it appeared to have everything. There was a complexity to the music that was intoxicating and it seemed that there was something new to hear in it every time I listened. Similarly, there was a poetic, lyrical depth to the words that I hadn't experienced in popular music before - I loved the fact that there were no boundaries in progressive music. If you wanted to do a 45 minute song like Thick as a Brick then get on with it!

Let's first start with your two books Yesstories and Classic Rock Stories. Why did you go to such a laborious task as writing these two books? Please tell us more about them and from where they can be purchased.

I was waiting for many years for someone to update the information in Dan Hedge's "Yes: The Authorized Biography" and release a new book on my favorite band. However, after all of this waiting I finally decided to take on the project myself. Yes, it was a lot of work, but it was a labor of love. It was a very exciting project that had its own rewards before the book was even published. When Yesstories was published by the St. Martin's Press it was very successful and my editor wanted to do a follow-up. He and I talked about various possibilities and the idea of Classic Rock Stories was born. This book was even more successful than Yesstories and I was surprised to hear that Howard Stern had recently featured it on his show. I think one reason the books have been popular is that people love to hear about the creative process about the music that is a part of their lives. Yesstories is unfortunately out of print (although I understand the publisher will be creating a download only version of it), but Classic Rock Stories is still available through any book store. Since these books have been published I've written many magazine articles and I've been considering writing another book in the near future. This would be a biography of an important musician/composer, but I don't want to give too many details on the project at this time.

Over to your only album so far. Please tell us more about the Transformation album from 2005.

Transformation was a huge project, a big part of my life for the three years it took to write, arrange and record it. I met my producer Mark Dean through Mike Varney of Magna Carta Records. He had heard me play and put the two of us in touch with each other thinking that we'd be a good fit together. The album is the story of a person going through a series of events that eventually transform his life. You could say it is a semi-autobiographical work, although certain songs like "Shatter" are more about people that I've known, than my own personal experience.  Musically there are a lot of diverse elements coming together to hopefully create a cohesive whole. I love being able to do an acoustic finger picking almost folk song like "Adrift" and put it next to the fifteen minute expansive, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink song like "Apocalyptic Visions". I'm still very proud of this music and was pleased to see how well it was received in the progressive rock community.

You are currently finishing a new album. Please tell us more about this album.

The new album is entitled Faithscience and will be released in early 2012.  This has also been an enormous project to complete, but in some ways very different than Transformation. The first important difference is that I've produced this album. I was very pleased with the working relationship that I had with Mark on the first album, but he was unavailable to produce this project because he was finishing his own album "No Man is an Island". Producing oneself can be a difficult job as the producer in you stresses the timetable and deadlines and the artist in you wants as long as it takes to complete it correctly. Obviously the artist in me won, because it has taken years to finish the album!

Faithscience started out as a concept album based on the life of Charles Lindbergh. I'd read a book on him and was fascinated by the arc of his life. It seemed that I could say things I wanted to say using that as the template. However, as I worked on the project it strayed from that initial vision (but I'm sure you can see the thread of it if you wish). I'm proud of the music on Faithscience and it has been a pleasure to create it. I've assembled a collection of some of my favorite musicians to play on it, including the great Jerry Jennings on guitar. There is a special guest appearance by David Ragsdale from Kansas on violin on one of the tracks.

For those of us unknown with your music; how would you describe you music and which bands would you compare yourself with?

That's a difficult question, although I'm sure at times you can hear all of my influences filtering through into my music. I'd say on Transformation that some of it sounds a bit like U.K. and perhaps Genesis. I wouldn't consider Eddie Jobson to necessarily be a major influence, but perhaps we're drawn to similar sounding chord progressions and keyboard tones? I would say that Transformation is very keyboard driven music as all of the songs, except for "Adrift" were composed on keyboards. However, on Faithscience that balance is addressed and I've included three or four songs that are guitar centric as well.

Besides of book writing and making albums, what else are you up to in your life?

I have a variety of interests and passions and I won't get into all of them now. However, having said that I'll quickly add that one of them is teaching. I work as a teacher and it is something I love to do and there are great intrinsic rewards in teaching. In my musical life I should add that I'm in the process of putting together a band to perform my music and to record a new album next year.

To wrap up this interview, is there anything you want to add to this interview?

Thank you for your time and interest in my music and books. I look forward to hearing what you think of Faithscience when it is released next year. All the best to you and your readers!


Q: "Can you tell us how this project began?"

Tim Morse: "I guess the origin of this album really starts with meeting Mark Dean, the producer and co-collaborator on this project."

Q: "Okay, I'll bite - how did you meet Mark Dean?"

TM: "Funnily enough in a way it was through the Yesstories book. I was just finishing up work on it when I was approached about co-promoting a concert with their former keyboardist Patrick Moraz in the bay area. The show was a very intimate performance on a grand piano with about fifty people in attendance. Anyway on one of Patrick's breaks I sat at the piano and played some original material and improvised. Afterwards I went to look for Patrick and he was talking to Mike Varney who is the head of Shrapnel Records and was also connected with Magna Carta Records. I was introduced to Mike and it turned out he liked what I'd played. We started discussing various things and at one point he said there was someone I should consider working together with on a project – that person turned out to be Mark."

Q: "What was your first meeting like?"

TM: "We spoke on the phone and met in his studio. I brought some demos of various things and we had a good talk. He played me some of the projects he'd worked on recently and it all seemed very promising. However, there were a few obstacles in the way."

Q: "Like what?"

TM: "I demoed all the songs at home before we started recording, so as instrumental backing tracks the music was fairly complete. The harmonies, rhythmic feel and overall structure was in place as a blueprint for us to work on. Mark's main contribution to the writing at this stage was the vocal melodies, he wrote around 80% of the vocal melodies – the ones I wrote in general were the melodies I sang. When it came time to start recording I went into the studio and played a scratch piano track to a click so that Mark could start building the rhythm parts. I have to say, that basically I didn't have any input on the drum parts. I knew Mark had the feel of what to do and I trusted him to get on with it. I think there was maybe two times where he consulted me about the feel of a certain section of a song and that was it. And I believe the drum parts he came up with are exactly right for my music."

Q: "And the other instruments?"

TM: "As far as the bass parts go, sometimes Mark would play the part I'd created on the demo and other times like on the verse of To Set Sail he'd invent his own bass lines. Once the rhythm tracks were in place we got down to the business of creating the keyboard and guitar parts and this was time consuming and I mean that in the best way. We gave ourselves lots freedom to create layers, consulting each other on the notes, sounds and feel of the music. This was one of my favorite parts of the process, because we were great sounding boards for each other – really sparking off the other person's ideas for the song. Sometimes in the course of arranging the pieces, things could change dramatically. At the end of Apocalyptic Visions I had the verse riff reprised and Mark told me that I was really 'milking it' – that I'd gone to that well a few too many times. I realized he was right, and rewrote it so there was a key change, a breakdown and a nice piano arpeggio section with the vocal that got the idea across in a much more effective way. It became one of my favorite parts of the song. Another example would be the chant in Shatter. I was driving home from the studio one night and it just hit me, 'Shatter should have a Gregorian Chant in it.' I spelled out the idea to Mark and he liked it and we intended to be a pure, straight chant. But the vocal melody Mark came up with took us out of that realm and we decided to go the other way and make it otherworldly, electronic and eerie. Anyway there were lots of decisions made on the fly, very spontaneously as we went along."

Q: "Can you give us an example?"

TM: "Sure, the Bruce Hornsby-sque piano fills in the last chorus of Shatter were like that. We were laying down piano parts and whenever there was down time, I'd just start improvising and Mark said, 'You know, that needs to be on the album.' Since we were recording Shatter that night we looked for a pocket where that kind of playing could be heard and there you go, that was it."

Q: "What keyboards did you use on the album?"

TM: "Well, if you look on the sleeve you'll see that around a dozen different instruments were used on this recording. However, my main keyboard – the workhorse, if you will - was the Korg Triton. Many of the sounds on Transformation were generated from the Triton, especially the great organ sounds, but also the atmospheric pads and lead sounds as well. In addition Oberheim, Roland synthesizers and my old Sequential Circuits Prophet 600 were used to get those authentic analog sounds."

Q: "Was the recording the vocals as labor intensive?"

TM: "After the keyboards and guitar work was finished we laid down the vocals. I have to say the Rich was a real trooper, because Mark and I were like Steely Dan when it came to recording the vocals. There was many times where we'd record just one line of a song 20 times. Mark would listen for timing and pitch and I'd be listening for consistency and performance and both of us had to be pleased with the take. I'm sure it could get very annoying, but Rich hung in there and was extremely easy to work with. After vocals were finished we got very carried away with all of the detail work the 'angry villagers' in Temptation and the sound effect ear candy in Apocalyptic Visions. As Mark has said it was difficult to know when it was done."

Q: "What about the mixing and mastering process?"

TM: "That too was very involved. I was there for a lot of the mixing and it was very intense, listening to these songs hundreds of times making small refinements to the sound. I have to hand it to Mark, because he took on a huge job in mixing and mastering this gargantuan piece of music. He was especially mercurial about the mastering which I didn't have anything to do with, other than coming in to listen to his work and approve it."

Q: "I'd like to ask about the genesis of specific songs. What comes to mind when you think about the origins of Present Moment?"

TM: "Present Moment started its life out as a jazz-fusion instrumental called Spectrum. I wrote it when I was in college and had performed it with the band I was in at the time. It was one of the first pieces I presented to Mark and I remember the 15/8 section got him excited right away. Anyway the basis of the song was written then; I later added the intro and refined the middle section a bit before we recorded it. It's funny, but I don't necessarily think about meters when I'm writing and so when we were rehearsing Present Moment with the band for the album release party it was interesting to hear the drummer break down the meters: Okay it's in seven, then four, fifteen, five, eleven…"

Q: "And To Set Sail?"

TM: "To Set Sail was initially two separate pieces, the song itself and the middle section. The middle section was something I had written before and the working title for it was The Chase Scene, because it sounded like one of those things you hear in a movie during a dramatic chase."

Q: "We'll just go down the list – what about Prelude?"

TM: "The basis of Prelude was also written in college, in fact the first theme and some of the variations are from a Piano Sonata I wrote for my music theory class. I decided I wanted the main theme played on nylon string guitar and we were fortunate to have Kurt Shiftlet come in and play that section. This piece was on my demo and Mark really liked it, so I tried to incorporate it into one of the songs. That wasn't really happening and I later realized that it could be a stand alone piece and segue into something else."

Q: "How about Goodbye?"

TM: "The basis of Goodbye was actually written by my friend Chris Holzer. He and I were playing in a band together and we started sharing some original material. However, when he first showed it to me the verse just consisted of the G9 to the Asus chord in seven. I thought we could spice it up a bit and so I suggested the change in harmonies and the turnaround in 8. I feel this piece was arranged beautifully by Mark and the solo at the end is one of my favorite guitar solos of all time."

Q: "Shatter?"

TM: "Shatter is one of those songs that has been through a million changes. I wrote the intro on my friend's piano and I changed the verse, chorus and bridge sections many times. In some ways I feel this song is the most experimental, especially with the 'atonal' part leading into the chant. The chaotic, free form portion of the song was recorded as were a few other things like the intro of To Set Sail for an artist Mark was working with who was recording her poetry and needed an interesting bed of music for her work. She and Mark didn't end up completing the project, so some of that music found a home on my album."

Q: "And Temptation?"

TM: "Temptation is the most recently written of all the pieces. The opening minute or so was composed by my friend Chris and then Mark and I arranged and re-arranged it. I demoed the song, but I was unhappy with the chorus idea and so I thought I'd dig through my stack of music and see if I could find anything appropriate. I found this idea with all these meter changes and played through it once and said, 'That's it!'"

Q: "The orchestral section leading into the keyboard guitar duet is very interesting…"

TM: "Mark pushed for the orchestral bits, not that I needed the pushing, so I arranged the passage and we decided to use real flute and violin. Scott Joss isn't a classical player, but I think what he did, especially in his solo gives it a Dregs – Kansas flavor. I do really like the exchange between the guitar and keyboard, on each pass they get a little more harmonically adventurous until we're playing whole tone scales at the end."

Q: "One of my favorites, Adrift."

TM: "A lot of people gravitate towards that song. The song was always going to be called Adrift, even when it was an instrumental. It just came out of improvising shapes and finger picking on my guitar. Basically all of my writing initially comes out of improvisation, I'll play something I really like and then file it away to use later. I have to say I'm proud of the picking pattern in the chorus. So Adrift existed for a time as one of those songs that would get aired whenever I played my acoustic guitar."

Q: "Apocalyptic Visions?"

TM: "The intro for Apocalyptic Visions was originally titled 'Wind on the Plains' and it was an instrumental impression of the Native Americans, I'd read a book on them at the time and this music was inspired by that. I had an idea for the verse section of the song and I played it for Mark and he wasn't really into it. His comment was 'Too Hall and Oates' which is pretty funny. Anyway, I still liked the piece and just simply changed it from a major key to minor and it worked very well. Mark made important contributions in arranging the second half of this piece as I've already said; in fact basically the whole ending section was conceived by him. I told him that I didn't want the song to wimp out at the end and he made sure that didn't happen!"

Q: "I really enjoyed your vocal performance on this song."

TM: "Thanks, I'm pleased with the way it turned out."

Q: "How did you decide which songs you'd sing and which songs Rich would sing?"

TM: "When we started recording the album we didn't have a singer. I thought I might sing some of the album, I knew that I was going to sing Adrift and maybe some backing vocals, but neither Mark or I was sure of how much I'd sing. Anyway, Mark had written some pretty tough vocal lines and we needed someone who could sing material like Present Moment. But then I had come up with some vocal melodies for Apocalyptic Visions and I was singing them to Mark and he said, 'You should sing this song.'

So the material started to get divided between Rich and me. I was initially a little concerned about having two singers on the project, but then I thought there is a lot of precedent, especially in progressive rock with bands like Pink Floyd, Genesis when Peter and Phil were in the band and even Yes during the Trevor Rabin years."

Q: "And finally, Ascension?"

TM: "Ascension was created completely in the studio. We had finished keyboard overdubs on a song one night and I turned to Mark and said, 'I want to record a very floating, ethereal piece, basically just sitting on one chord.' So we just started recording it right then, layer after layer – I think there's about twenty keyboard overdubs or so all just improvised. Later we came back and added my father's voice and had the female singer sing all these notes that we could arrange as a choir."

Q: "Let's talk a bit about how you wrote the lyrics for this album."

TM: "I wanted the lyrics to the songs to have a different feel to them so I wrote them in several ways. The first thing I did was pillage my poetry for anything useful and Shatter and Apocalyptic Visions came out of those raids. I had to re-work and edit the content into the final draft, but the initial inspiration came from the poetry. Adrift and Temptation were more difficult. Adrift had a very particular message to impart and it was being done in a very naked musical setting, so every word counted. I probably spent more time writing the lyrics of Adrift than the words for all the other songs combined. Temptation too was a bit of a tough one, I had some ideas and some lines written down, but it wasn't happening. So I went up to the mountains for a couple of days, sitting in the forest without the distractions of the modern world and hammered away at it until it was finished. Writing the words for Goodbye was a completely different experience…"

Q: "How so?"

TM: "It was about a very specific relationship in my life that lasted for nearly a year and I didn't know how I was going to consolidate it into a five minute song. I also felt like I didn't want to fight for it, that I wanted this one to just flow out. So one night I was in bad mood - feeling kind of depressed and the song came knocking. I didn't really feel like writing it down, but I got out the note pad and it did just flow out of me in about ten minutes, I basically just had to edit it down. So in a way I'm proudest of that one, because I feel it captures the essence of that relationship in a musical snapshot."

Q: "Is Transformation a concept album?"

TM: "You could say it is a concept album, or perhaps that it has an overall theme. The lyrics in the songs illustrate the series of events a person can go through in their lifetime and ultimately be transformed as a result of the experience. However, unlike a typical concept album I think the individual songs can be pulled out and enjoyed in their own right."

Q: "So what's next for you?"

TM: "I'd love to perform this music live, but we'll have to see how that works out. It was a blast playing some of the material for the album release party, so maybe we'll get a chance to do some dates. I have also started the demo process for the next album – the material is written – I just don't know how long it will take to record and release it! My hope is to start recording the beginning of next year, but we'll see…

Q: "Thanks for your time."

TM: "It's been a pleasure."

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