Transatlantic came together back in 1999, as a side project featuring multi-instrumentalist /vocalist, Neal Morse (formerly of Spock’s Beard), Pete Trewavas on bass (of Marillion fame), Roine Stolt on guitar and vocals (of The Flower Kings, Kaipa), and Mike Portnoy on drums (formerly of Dream Theater, and currently with The Winery Dogs). As the featured bands of these musicians suggest, they come from a progressive rock background. It’s no wonder Transatlantic quickly became a temple for celebrating this particular style of music. The band just released their fourth studio album, Kaleidoscope, and is currently logging a world tour to promote the album.
Neal Morse told IE via phone about the inner makings of this dynamic group that has lasted 14 years longer than expected, and how he counts his blessings as an artist with almost complete freedom to make the music the band and the fans love.
Illinois Entertainer: It seems like every album that Transatlantic makes shows another side of the band. Where do you think Kaleidoscope is taking the fans?
Neal Morse: Well, I think in a way it’s a move forward, but it’s also harkening back to the first two albums we did. In a sense of the way it is structured. But I don’t know. I try not to compare albums too much. I think it’s taking us to a really good place. A lot of people had said it’s one of the best albums we did. I just feel great about it. I’m happy with how it came out, and how it is being received.
IE: You get together every few years as Transatlantic, how would you explain the writing process?
NM: It was really kind of similar to how we have usually done them. We send around demos. I started working on my demos at the end of March of last year, and the beginning of April. I was working on demos, and I sent them out to the guys. We never really talk about what we’re gonna do until we get together. It seems to be an unwritten rule. So, when we actually get together we start hashing out the parts we think are the best, and lean out the best sections, and Mike (Portnoy) is really good at that. He really shines in that area. Sometimes we’ll be working on someone’s demo, and we get to the point where everyone will feel like it’s not the best direction, then we talk about how to connect it with a bit from someone else’s demo, so it all fits together. We have a lot of writers available in this band, and sometimes we just write a completely new piece to make it work. It’s a pretty cool process. We experiment with a lot of music that we have available. It’s a real mixed bag.
IE: How do you coordinate it? With two members living in Europe and two in the United States, it has to be challenging.
NM: We send demos around now through the Internet. In the past we used to send cassettes, and CDs, and what not. Now we just send MP3s around to each other, and then we have to fly in to be together. I’m grateful that I have a recording studio in my house, so all the guys come to my place. Everyone gets together here in Nashville.
IE: As Transatlantic, the band doesn’t follow a regular album/tour routine. There are years in between records and tours. Does having that time apart give better perspective when you reflect on the next move?
NM: I don’t know. I think however the inspiration is flowing, it can work. For us it’s been good. I felt that each time we got together it was just the right time. That’s how I feel about it. I don’t think that deeply into it. I’m usually just trying to get out the music that I’m hearing in my mind. I’m just trying to create the thing that’s in me to be part of to create at that time. It changes a lot, and I’m not really a big picture guy. I kind of just follow the music where it wants to go. Mike (Portnoy) is more of a conceptual gy. He thinks that way, so it’s good. We all make a great team because we’re all so different. We provide the things that the other guy is missing.
IE: You see, there are a lot bands that complain about that never-ending cycle of having record after record, and touring, and then doing it all over again without any breaks in between. You have that time in between where you can re-construct your mind and feel fresh, and maybe that’s why these records do feel very fresh when they come out.
NM: Well, I hope so, I hope you’re right. This makes a lot of sense to me.
IE: Every member of Transatlantic has a successful career on their own, and are accomplished in their respective fields musically. With so much talent at your disposal, are the band members competing for the spotlight?
NM: I don’t feel like we’re really competing with each other, really. I think we’re all coming from the same place of wanting to make the best record we can make in that moment. I don’t feel that way anyway. I don’t feel like there is any real competition between us. I’m grateful for that. It seems like everyone is pulling for the same thing. Sometimes we do disagree on stuff, and it can be a little bit difficult, but for the most part it’s a pretty agreeable bunch of guys.
IE: When the project first came out back in 1999, it seemed like it would be a one album deal, yet you’re on your fourth studio record, and it clearly looks like there will be more to come. So this must be a very unique musical environment, since everyone wants to keep going, right?
NM: I guess Transatlantic has become its own thing. Some groups when they first start out, they’re like super-groups like Emerson, Lake & Palmer for example. They were the super-group when they began, but now nobody really remembers that, they just became the ELP that everyone knows and likes. We did start out as a side project, and we still do other things, but this band became its own separate entity with its own separate following. It’s really great, in a way it’s like Crosby, Stills, and Nash; we’re like that.
IE: You’ve just mentioned a word: super-group. Transatlantic is often described as a modern day super-group. Do you view yourself that way?
NM: Well, no, not really. That’s just a term that people use for a group of guys that have made names for themselves in other bands, and then got together to form a new band. You know what I mean? It’s just one of those labels. To us, it’s really all about creating music with a great bunch of musicians.
IE: You’re not shying away from covering classic progressive rock songs. What does it mean to you to record a song that probably meant a lot in your formative years?
NM: We approach them differently. Sometimes we just jam the song in the room. First of all, usually at dinner we’ll start talking about it, and it’s always at the end of the session. Nobody likes to talk about it before the main bulk of material is done. It’s a way for us to blow off steam after having been embroiled in writing a prog epic for a day. We kick it around, sometimes we change the songs a bit, and throw a few of our own things in there, and sometimes we jus play them the way they were written. It really depends; it’s just us having fun. Sometimes this group of guys playing a song automatically changes it around.
IE: With Kaleidoscope adding new material to choose from, the set list will be even tougher to pick. How do you work it?
NM: Well, I lean on Mike a lot for that. He’s like the set list master. He’s great with that stuff. There are times where I question his set list, but it always turns out good, so what do I know? I usually have to eat my words. A lot of times I’ll think it’s too long, or too this, or too that, and it’s usually good. He thinks it through.
IE: Do you have a preference of playing the big expanded suites, or just the shorter songs?
NM: I like them both. I love doing a good powerful short song, and I love doing a good powerful epic. It’s all about the music in the moment.
IE: You’re very open about your religious spirituality. How much of it is reflected in Transatlantic’s music?
NM: I think quite a bit. They’ve always given me a lot of freedom. In fact they’ve never said anything about any of my lyrics. As far as asking me to change anything. So, it’s really a blessing. I’m really blessed, and it seems like they all really enjoy where I’m coming from spiritually, and it doesn’t seem to be a problem at all. It’s really great.
IE: In the grand scheme of things of progressive rock, where do you see Transatlantic’s place?
NM: Wow, I don’t know. Well, I guess we would be at the forefront of the resurgence, I suppose.
IE: Well, you’ve certainly paid your dues playing prog-rock when it wasn’t the flavor of the month. And now, there really is a resurgence, and this music is finding a new audience on a daily basis.
NM: Yeah, it’s really cool. There are a lot of young people who are discovering prog, and it’s great. It’s going really good. Our new album is being really well received, and selling a lot, and the tour is doing great too. We’re just really blessed. I’m amazed that I could be able to do music that I just love, music that I’m totally playing from my heart, and able to make a living doing that. And to be able to do it with all these great musicians is really amazing. It’s just a dream come true, really.
– Mark Kadzielawa
Transatlantic appears February 4th
at The Arcada Theater, St. Charles