Steve Morse Interview
Rock, Roots, & Blues – Live
May 1, 2018
[RRB]: Hey Steve. Thanks again for taking some time to talk with me. So, now that’s it’s been all of three days since the last show of the tour, what are your overall impressions?
[SM]: It was really intense; very, very packed with action, and obviously rewarding for all of us. We accomplished what we wanted to accomplish, which was having that fellowship with the guys we had lost touch with, and sort of having that high school reunion I never had. I never got to go to one of those and it was cool seeing old acquaintances all around the country and as well for the guys: the crew and the band and management. It was a great nostalgia tour in that sense but it was also a great challenge. It was probably the biggest musical challenge I’ve had in my recent past.
[SM]: Yeah. It was stuff that I wrote when I was a younger guy, when technically playing it wasn’t even a question. Now I have a few more impediments to deal with so I was ever more aware of how to work around things and just had to practice more on my technique then ever [chuckling].
[RRB]: From the fan’s perspective, I don’t think you missed a beat in the music having to change your style.
[SM]: The beginning of the tour was rougher. Near the end I think it felt more comfortable as far as the amount of stress of playing.
[RRB]: How was your wrist towards the end? You were in pain playing?
[SM]: Oh yeah! It was talking to me the whole time. It was very aware of what was going on – and it tried to make me very aware.
[RRB]: It’s funny how your body talks to you like that.
[SM]: Yes. Everybody has pain at my age. Some people have pain at a much younger age. So everybody has something to deal with, so it’s no big deal from that perspective. I just mean as far as upping the ante. Remembering these parts, playing them in a room with earbuds on and practicing versus playing them live and trying to nail the parts. That was just a big step up for me, with incorporating a new technique of picking.
[RRB]: So what was your impression of the band and how they came together? For instance, watching Allan – he’s a little spitfire!
[SM]: Yeah, [laughing]. He plays with so much emotion. He really gets into it. I told him at our last gig, which seems like just a few hours ago, that I was really proud of how much he invested the music into his personality and soul.
[RRB]: Well, it had been so long since he played that music.
[SM]: Yes. Then Owski (Steve Davidowski) showed us all a new level of practicing. He carried his keyboard from the bus into the venue, found a room and just practiced the whole day. Then he carried it down to sound check when Andy and I and Janine [Steve’s wife] got there and then carried it back to the room, in whatever venue, and started practicing again. It was incredible.
[RRB]: When I was at the new York City show I was backstage talking to him between sets and after a couple of minutes he said, “It’s been great chatting with you, but I have to go.” So I asked him where he was going and he replied, “I have to go practice.” This was during intermission!
[SM]: Yeah, Owski played so well. His solos were just incredible and some of them, like on the songs from the What If album, it sounded totally different than the record, because it was a different guy soloing, than the guy that did the Free Fall album, but he used to play a lot of those songs before we recorded them and he left, then we got Mark Parrish, of course they sounded different. Anyway, Owski’s solos were so great and so free, like I said, he really stood out as the guy that gave it all he had. I think everybody was just putting out at their limit, but Owski showed incredible resilience to be able to put in as many hours as he did. And at his age?!
[RRB]: Well, how old is he?
[SM]: Seventy-five I think.
[RRB]: Seventy-five? Wow! He doesn’t look seventy-five.
[SM]: Exactly! When was the last time you saw a guy seventy-five years old carrying heavy keyboards around four or five times a day and putting in eight hours practicing?
[RRB]: I have no idea. Even some the legendary, older blues players don’t even practice anymore.
[SM]: A lot of people are looking at gigs as sort of a comfortable work situation. Owski took it on and said, “I’m going to do the absolute maximum I can in this short period of time.” Actually every one of us took it that way. It was such an intense immersion.
[RRB]: Well, is there any other way to play that music? You’re either all in or not.
[SM]: Yeah, you’re right. The music is so demanding, constantly. It ends up being such a different life-style than someone playing in a rock band for twenty years and they’re doing another gig. A lot of them don’t even carry their instruments. They just meet up with their instruments at the gig.
[RRB]: So, contrast that with what you are about to go do with [Deep] Purple? Is it easier to play with Purple? Maybe because the set lists are familiar to you, or that the music isn’t quite as intricate as the Dregs music?
[SM]: Well the parts can be easier, technically, but when you solo, and even if you’re doing something that seems to be a simple blues solo, it has to have a lot of power and inflection and confidence that I can’t convey without having strength in both my left hand and my picking.
[RRB]: And you have to be mentally immersed in the music as well, no matter what the music is, right?
[SM]: Yes, but by being confident with my playing, I can relax and approach it in the right frame of mind. Like I said, it sort of feels like with Purple, I’m doing something that is more feel oriented but I still have to have chops to do it well, so I still have to practice, it’s just that the parts are not as intense in terms of, “Oh my God, here comes this part” which would happen so often with the Dregs tunes.
[RRB]: It happens every thirty seconds in the Dregs music.
[SM]: It can [laughing], It can.
[RRB]: I only caught two shows, the DC and NYC shows, but the energy in the audiences were phenomenal.
[SM]: That was a big thing, It was reunion too for the people in the audience. The ones who came were most likely the ones who met our music during a very formative time in their lives. When you go to see a concert of that [music], it brings everything back to all those changes. It pushes a lot of emotional buttons for somebody to have all that happen, and the good thing is that they associate that rush and euphoria of all those things happening at once, they attribute some of that to the music [chuckling], so it works out good.
[RRB]: It happened to me Steve. At the DC show, when you guys launched into “Cruise Control”, the hairs stood up on my neck. I wore out that album playing it over and over when I was oh, seventeen. It was just amazing to see and hear live.
[SM]: I think you’re a great example. That was a great age to discover music and then come back, decades later, and listen to that again; it brings up a whole different set of memories. Music has been used for advertising because it does bring up different sorts of memories and different associations then what we read or see. It’s very powerful when you associate parts of your life with music.
[RRB]: Especially now at my age. You’re right. Everything faded away for two hours…It was like “Holy shit. I’m actually seeing this live!” It really was remarkable.
[SM]: That’s a great story that’s like what I’ve heard from other people. It’s not often that music I write can be described as entertaining.
[RRB]: I don’t know about that…
[SM]: I normally write instrumental stuff, so it’s great that the rarity of doing it, mixed with the huge amount of time since we had been together with this group, they were powerful ingredients for a great listening concert.
[RRB]: Can you tell me about the reconnection with Rod [Morgenstein] over the music?
[SM]: Rod is and was always one of the guiding forces, and of course Andy – in a huge way. Musically Rod is always the guy that has such a good perspective and the reason he sounds so great, is because he plays the drums sort of like the way a good conductor conducts an orchestra, he knows every part. He can play every part at will and also add different emphasis, and all on the drums. Rather than thinking in terms of beats, he orchestrates beautiful percussion sections all on his set. [slight pause]…he’s not a normal drummer.
[RRB]: He’s not a “normal” person.
[SM]: That’s true. He’s always been a step above the average guy in terms of what he focuses on, and in the humanity he has always shown every person he comes across.
[RRB]: And his attitude is so positive and so upbeat, it must be a pleasure to be around that.
[SM]: It is, and he is so positive. And we would sound like we were two people from a cult if I were to go that positive, so when I see him I’ll say something like, “Thanks a lot Sticks for making us look so bad by playing so great.”
[RRB]: [laughing] You call him Sticks?
[SM]: Yeah. That’s his band nickname.
[RRB]: That’s cool. What’s your band nickname?
[SM]: I don’t know, they don’t say it in front of me [laughing]. It depends. I’m sure some of the past members had names for me that are unprintable [laughing]
[RRB]: That ‘Drill Sergeant’ Morse?
[SM]: Yeah. Attila the Hun. I’ve heard that one before.
[RRB]: Well, you wrote the song.
[SM]: Yeah that’s true. I guess I’ve been hard on the guys, when we were in the studio and in rehearsals, even between shows, between sets during shows. It’s just because I think we can do better than whatever we just did.
[RRB]: Well, through my conversations with them all, I think they have been able to use that to push themselves to a new level.
[SM]: I think the time that has passed has given us all more healthy perspectives, and I’m much more likely to see the positive aspects of everyone’s performance.
[RRB]: You mentioned that last time we spoke, that this tour you were able to pull back and appreciate it all more, rather than be that drill sergeant.
[SM]: Yeah, instead of constantly experimenting with fine-tuning. This was my bucket-list tour. Especially the closer it got to the end, the more I became wistful and reminiscing, and dare I say emotional in my head about it.
[RRB]: So was the last show really emotional for you?
[SM]: Yes, but I stayed so busy there was no time to get too far off track [laughing].
[RRB]: Well, that’s your usual MO isn’t it?
[SM]: Yeah – people think I have no feelings or emotions, because I just keep on keeping on when things are difficult. The fact is I can put my head down and concentrate on a task for a really, really long time. Getting through the last set was one of those [things] too. I was enjoying it though and I was just appreciating the little bits of humanity that everyone was adding, but with their personalities, and just thinking, we did it. Somehow we survived this. It was an intense schedule. Andy and I were driving for pretty much the whole tour except the last four days. We put a lot of miles on some rental cars.
[RRB]: So, is this it? I can’t envision another reunion tour. Maybe, “never say never”?
[SM]: Well, it’s not good in anything, except maybe marriage, to say, “This is it. This is the one thing that won’t change.” but there is a lot going on. Other bucket list items I’ve got to get done.
[RRB]: Like what?
[SM]: Well, we have a busy year with [Deep] Purple. My goal is to finish “The Long Goodbye” tour.
[RRB]: Is this truly it for them?
[SM]: I don’t know if those guys are ever going to quit play music. It may be that it’s not a band thing. They are all pretty successful with the splinter group and offshoots and the little pairings that will naturally pop up with people as a result of them being [Deep] Purple. I am totally projecting my thoughts; I don’t know anything for a fact.
[RRB]: I understand.
[SM]: I also intend to finish the project we started with Flying Colors. That’s been on hold for a long time. I’ve got some more writing to do with my son, but apparently he doesn’t really need any help. I just heard the last thing he did. I’m pretty convinced that he doesn’t. He has never asked for help from Dad.
[RRB]: What type of music does he play/write?
[SM]: His music is more like metal core stuff that he does. He and I have talked about working some more together just as a father/son thing. Musically he does his own thing. I have some friends who have called me and asked me to write something with them and I’m looking forward to that.
[RRB]: Do you write music that other artists record?
[SM]: No, not really. I think it would be neat to just write more with other people. I like the idea of coming up with something that you couldn’t come up with yourself, and also something that the other person couldn’t come up with by themselves. It’s that curiosity of coming up with something that you just don’t know what it’s going to be. That’s always going to interest me.
[RRB]: Can you share any of the people you might be collaborating with?
[SM]: Well, you never know. Things like that are subject to change because you get an idea of doing it and both sides want to, but then schedules get in the way.
[RRB]: Any plans to get the Steve Morse Band back together?
[SM]: I’d love to. That would be another great bucket-list item. I don’t know if the time and the whole technical challenges of that will line up. That’s super critical, again, technique-wise and tone-wise. I’m going to be fine-tuning and making some changes in my technique. I’ve seen how I can get power, but I will need to fine-tune the tone coming from my right hand. I want to get better control. I’m always doing little things to change the tone, change the pick-ups, change the sound, even change the angle of my pick and things like that. I’m going to experiment more with using fingers more for some things.
[RRB]: Well, last time we spoke I said I’d love to see you with five finger picks…
[SM]: Oh yeah, that’s right. Each experiment I do could require months. No matter what happens, I’m never going to stop. I may stop making money [laughing]. We had a great ending to the tour, Jimmy Herring came up and played. We did two songs with him. He’s the first and only guitarist to ever sit in with us and play a Dregs tune.
[RRB]: Which Dregs song did he do with you?
[SM]: "Funky Chicken", and then we jammed on "Crossroads". Andy, Janine, and I flew in with Jeff Lyons, the guy who we originally rented a plane from back in the late seventies. We landed at the same airport in Atlanta that we started off at when we flew in that small plane of his before. It was awesome. Everything turned out so well. I was even able to drive from the hotel without any traffic, and that never happens.
[RRB]: So how did playing "Crossroads" come about?
[SM]: We just needed a simple tune that the band didn’t need to rehearse.
[RRB]: And that Jimmy could just walk on and play.
[SM]: That anybody could walk on and play, and other people did [play with the band]; John Scofield and Warren Haynes.
[RRB]: Yeah – that was amazing.
[RRB]: Had you ever played with Warren before?
[SM]: Yes. He was amazing and Scofield was amazing. We had two other amazing guitarists; Andy Timmons and Jennifer Batten – they were incredible, and there are more we should have had. We weren’t concentrating who we could add to the show, we were just trying to make it to the gig in time to make sound check! That’s what every day was [laughing].
[RRB]: That has to be so stressful.
[SM]: It was! We were checking the different GPS systems to find the best way to get there. We were just constantly stressing about just barely making it.
[RRB]: Thankfully it was a short tour. I’m guessing you don’t have those issues with Deep Purple?
[SM]: No, we travel really well. Traveling with the Dregs will get you back to your roots. We used to play like twelve gigs in twelve days, but then we had time off. We had a couple of weeks off. This tour was like, four days on, impossible travel day, then five on, intense travel day; then seven in a row. It seemed like no break at all. Someone, we haven’t talked about is Andy. Andy and I basically started the band from the “we are the Dregs from Dixie Grit”, right?
[SM]: We started putting music together with just he and I. That’s how we came up with stuff like “The Odyssey” very early on. Andy’s attitude with everything was a big part of the Dregs. He is the one who would take a chance with me and encourage both of us to take that chance. I think he always looked at different ways of doing things and different ways of looking at things, it really was a huge part of the band.
[RRB]: He helped push you?
[SM]: Oh yeah. Yes – all the time. He was always so supportive of the music.
[RRB]: Meaning he would try anything?
[SM]: Yes, yes. You know, when you have a trio, yes, you have the same kind of situation, but in a five-piece band, it’s just rare to have the band try your ideas. In a lot of bands an idea can get struck down before it even has a breath.
[RRB]: And it’s killed a lot of band too.
[SM]: Yes [laughing]. We’ve all seen that. This reminds me of a joke… “What’s the last thing the ______ (fill in the blank) says before he leaves the band? “Hey guys, I think it’s about time we try some of my tunes.”
[RRB]: Very funny [laughing]! Oh yeah – that broke up quite a lot of bands.
[SM]: It’s a musician joke, but in a joke, they always have some small inkling of the truth.
[RRB]: Well Steve, congratulations. It seems like just a few weeks ago we were first talking about this [the tour happening] but it was really eight or nine months ago, and you did it! Congratulations!
[SM]: I’m proud of everybody. Everybody put their heart and soul into it that’s for sure. Now, we never had a perfect show. We had some great moments and I think we had a perfect interaction with the audience.
[RRB]: It didn’t surprise me at all when you said “we never had a perfect show”. You have that perfectionist thing going on.
[SM]: Yeah, that’s true.
[RRB]: But you are able to put it into perspective.
[SM]: Exactly. Like I’ve said I’ve gotten mellow about that although I still have the same fire underneath my butt to try and have a perfect show.
[RRB]: You mentioned to me about possibly some new Dregs music. Has that happened? Is it in the works or in your head?
[SM]: I had some ideas, but I really like the idea of doing tunes that we hadn’t played live, instead of doing another obscure tune because really, the Dregs music was written in about six or eight different styles, but if I wrote something that was in one particular style, and we did it, then people would think that was the new direction [of the band] and maybe they’d think it sucks. You need to do a whole album to get a broad spectrum of music, and that would take a long time. Our albums did take a long time because I did sort of labor over every bit. But the idea of doing A "Day 444" and "Go For Baroque" live I thought was cooler because that was stuff that seemed just too hard to attempt, after we played it in practice, after we played it in practice and it was a little rough, so we weren’t going to try that, and the audience isn’t going to sit still for it anyway, and we did it! So I like that better!
[RRB]: I agree! Were there others songs you had never played live but wanted to try and didn’t, you passed?
[SM]: Well we were going to do “Rock and Roll Park” and we instead ended up doing “Night of the Living Dregs” the last few shows. We had problems getting the saxophone loud enough, and some of the parts just sounded too rough, the parts where I really needed to be muted my guitar parts, for some of the fast low things that were in Rock and Roll Park. One of the lines I played with Andy. My part kind of just sounded ugly. I would have never written it if that’s the way it sounded when I was putting it together.
[RRB]: Because it doesn’t sound like that on the album.
[SM]: Yes. Exactly. It just needed a little bit of a different tone than I was getting, that plus we couldn’t get the saxophone loud enough with that microphone we were using without it feeding back, so we ended up not doing Rock and Roll Park. Plus there were some spectacular mistakes when we tried it. I mean absolutely spectacular. Sorry band [chuckling].
[RRB]: So was there a moment or two where you though, “Oh shit. We just screwed that part up.”?
[SM]: Oh, we had plenty of train wrecks, enough to make you want to go in a corner and just turn off the lights [laughing] and sit there and tremble [laughing harder].
[RRB]: I doubt the audience picked up too many of those.
[SM]: I don’t know. I hate mistakes, and sometimes we, like a school of fish, we all take a wrong turn.
[RRB]: So, Is there anything you’d like to say directly to the fans that came out to see the shows?
[SM]: Yes, and I’d tried to say it to each person that I did talk to is, thank you so much for your support because that’s what this is all about. We could sit in a rehearsal room and play by ourselves and enjoy the music to that extent and enjoy the challenge of playing it, but having that energy with the audience and to have so many loyal, patient, and generous fans, in every way, including with their realistic expectations, it’s what made the tour. Every time we screwed something up and it got me freaked out – there was the audience making everything better. Even after driving for 500 miles overnight and into the afternoon right before the gig, and you’re beat and you just can’t find any more energy, when you put yourself in front of that kind of audience, suddenly all the energy you need is there. It really is magical and the experience we have with the people that come to our shows is very, very close. I almost shook everyone hand in the audiences. It really was something very cool. Like I said, it was the high school reunion I never had. It was awesome. When I say thank you, that’s what I mean. I really want to thank the crew who all volunteered for this and totally took care of us onstage, and Frank, Jake, Rod, and Andy for putting it all together!
[RRB]: Steve, thanks a lot for your time and your generosity with me personally; on the phone, backstage at the shows, you name it, everyone in the band, including Jeff Burkhart your tour manager, were awesome. Thank you for the tour and the music, good luck on the Deep Purple tour, and we’ll talk again soon.
[SM]: Ok Steve, your welcome. Take care.