'Amazing the way he brought it alive'
The latest album from progressive rock supergroup the Neal Morse Band is based on The Pilgrim's Progress. Even the band's legendary bassist was sceptical, Mark Craig discovers...
The Neal Morse Band at Birmingham's O2 Institute in April
Pilgrims on the road
In a dark recess of the rock world lies the genre of prog rock. Despite the rise (and fall) of punk, prog remains hugely popular and resilient.
Neal Morse is one of the greatest prog rock composers in the world today, and he’s been both able (because of his status) and willing (because of his open Christian faith) to make issues and stories of belief his primary focus.
In the end, having someone like him performing his critically-acclaimed new album – essentially John Bunyan’s great story (The Similitude of a Dream is part of the subtitle to The Pilgrim’s Progress) – around the world to tens of thousands of rock fans, most of whom won’t ever go near a church, is an amazing testimony.
In Birmingham last month (April), The Baptist Times watched a thousand or so such people with their arms in the air at the end of gig as Morse told them of God’s love for them. Simply incredible.
BT met up with the band’s legendary bassist Randy George in his dressing room just a couple of hours before he took the stage with the Neal Morse Band.
Alongside his work with Morse, Randy founded the Christian progressive rock band Ajalon, and has worked extensively with Phil Keaggy.
He has also collaborated on stage or in the studio with musicians of the highest calibre, among them Rick Wakeman (Yes), David Ragsdale (Kansas), Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater), Steve Hackett (Genesis) and Steve Morse (Deep Purple, Dixie Dregs).
He has a gentle and wise air, and was very happy to discuss bass, belief and what black and white Formica teaches us…
Interview with Randy George
How did you feel about the new album taking a story (The Pilgrim’s Progress) that’s more than 300 years old and presenting it for a new audience?
At first when Neal had mentioned he wanted to do something with The Pilgrim’s Progress I was a bit sceptical. Most things that have ever been tried like that have failed miserably. So, I said well, if we do this you can’t mention The Pilgrims’ Progress - you need to let it rest on its own merits.
But it was quite amazing to me how much life he brought to it; the way he brought it alive in a way that people today can understand and grasp, and I think that’s a great thing. It was no easy task to do, but in hindsight I’m glad we did it.
And how long did that take? If you start with nothing and end up with a triple vinyl album, how long does that take?
It’s a process that happens over a period of several months but it’s not like a ‘sun up to sun down’ kind of thing. I think it ended up being 110 individual instrument tracks to mix and 105 minutes long. That’s a big project, by anyone’s standards.
In your work, does having a faith play any kind of impact or is it just neutral?
I think it’s always a bit hard to sell music when it’s overtly Christian, because people who don’t have faith dismiss it, saying ‘it just must be something to do with church’, although faith and church have nothing to do with each other as far as I’m concerned.
Spiritual subjects are just what we chose and I think the music resonates with a lot of people who in their lives have come to a place of faith, and realise that somebody who shares my faith is playing the kind of music I love and they’re just thrilled.
I started a band called Ajalon in Seattle and Rick Wakeman signed us. At the time he was trying to do some Christian progressive rock and we were doing Christian progressive rock and it was all very new.
Neal followed a few years later and I think people realise there’s a world where you can express anything you want. We have freedom of speech; we have the internet. The internet is a double-edged sword but never before have artists had more opportunity to be in control of their destiny.
So whether you’re playing in a faith or a secular context, do you feel the smile of God on your endeavours, both ways?
Absolutely. I don’t really see things in black and white, we don’t live on a chequer board - we live on a cheap piece of 70s Formica that’s marbled. You can’t tell the black from the white a lot of times.
If you have any faith at all then you have to believe that God is in control, and you have to take the black with the white, they just co-exist in the world God as said they would. As long as God’s spirit is in the world then it will always be the predominant spirit, regardless of what people want to think and believe, until a time according to the Bible when God withdraws his spirit from the world. Hopefully the people of faith will not have to be around for that.
Last question. What’s next for Randy George?
I’m not sure there’s a solid answer to that. The Neal Morse Band tour ends on 2 September when we do our last Similitude show for this year. Then we will be getting together working on a new album.
I would like to maybe do another solo as I can work in between Neal Morse Band stuff, so I’ll just wait on the Lord to give me a clue on what the right thing to do is, because I want it to be inspired and have real substance to it. I don’t want to make music for the sake of it; I want to know exactly why I’m doing it and what I’m trying to say.
So that may take a little time!
Photos | Dan McDowall
Mark Craig is Communications Director at BMS World Mission
(With thanks to Bill Evans Management for enabling the interview with Randy George)