Among progressive rock fans Flying Colors has gotta be the ultimate supergroup. It features ex-Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, Spock’s Beard keyboard wiz Neal Morse, vocalist Casey McPherson (Alpha Rev) and Dixie Dregs legends Steve Morse (guitar) and Dave LaRue (bass). The band’s first album was released in 2012 to much critical acclaim, The follow-up, Second Nature, has just hit the streets and it finds the band pushing their sound further into each direction, from the Muse-like modern prog of single “Mask Machine” to the 12-minute epic “Cosmic Symphony.”
“Because we’re all so spread out, we had to write separately and share ideas online,” Morse says. “We had a system where we could send files to each other and use Skype to play ideas to each other. We couldn’t actually play along with each other because there’s a time delay, but it was enough to get an idea of what everyone was doing.” (“Scheduling is a total bitch,” McPherson chips in, “but we figure it out, and we all just have to be patient. That’s one thing that makes this project special… by the time we are together, we realize how important our time is, and we really use it to the fullest.”)
So how does this one differ from the last? Well for starters the band is more comfortable within their combined voices. “The recording process was pretty quick,” Morse confirms. “These are all players who are used to getting it done quickly and who can get it right the first time.”
Morse is a longtime Ernie Ball Music Man endorser with a very distinctive signature guitar. There are a very variations but basically it comes down to a poplar body (“I like the lightness of it – when you’re playing for hours all night you don’t want to be carrying a big heavy chunk of wood around your neck”) and custom DiMarzio pickups in a unique ’two humbuckers, two single coils’ configuration. The most recent edition is the Dark Lord model, which Morse likes to use for his ‘other gig’ – Deep Purple. It has covered humbuckers, a black flame maple top and a rare-for-music-man reverse headstock. You might have seen Joe Bonamassa using one on his recent Australian tour.
“It all started when I tried out their strings,” Morse says of his association with Ernie Ball Music Man. “I liked the sound of them and they were really well-made. They were just really nice and it was just no sweat, not worrying about anything. They asked me if I’d like to try the strings and I did, partly out of boredom! At the time I was using different strings and they said ‘Just try these and tell me what you think.’ And they were better, more alive. And then they came out with reinforced plain strings and I knew that they were better. They demonstrated to me how these were stronger, how they could past strength and tension tests, and how the packaging resulted in better volume control and less corrosion on the wire.”
“Then I heard that they were thinking about buying Music Man and making basses again,” Morse continues. “So they asked me about making me a guitar. I had some bad experiences with some other companies where we attempted to make a signature guitar, but one of the key things was they’d always want a certain amount of control, and to me that doesn’t make it a signature instrument, it makes it somebody else’s instrument. So I was skeptical. But Sterling said ‘I tell ya what, we’ll have one rule: when you’re done, we’re done.’ And I thought ‘Well, that sounds pretty good…’ So they made as many prototypes as I wanted, and there it was.”
As far as amplification goes, Morse has his own signature ENGL model which sometimes he augments with various other amps as the situation dictates. “It’s essentially the same as I use in Deep Purple,” he says, “Although it will be rented or borrowed depending on where we’re playing,” he says. “Generally we’re playing thousands of miles from the last night. But there are different configurations. There’s one dry amp and then I carry around TC Electronic TonePrint pedals with me. I’m using the small versions, the miniature ones, which have exactly the same sound but just less dials on them. I have my own perimeters for the delay and the modulation for the delay and I input them by using an iPhone through the pickup of the guitar to load it in. It’s awesome for me to have the rig shrink and to still sound incredible. I’m really happy with that. And with the Voodoo power supply there’s no noise or anything. It’s really nice to have things get better! And I love my ENGL. I go straight into the dry, and the delays are on wet-only with a dry-kill switch. Those go to the Ernie Ball volume pedals, one short delay and one long delay, and those go to the back of the other amps. On the road those amps can be whatever is available. That’s just the wet signal only so it’ll just be maybe 30% of the volume when it’s used at all.”
Morse has some parting words for the fans of Australia: “We always enjoy playing there, and I can say the level of musicianship is very high there. I remember my first time going there, with Sterling Ball in fact, and Albert Lee, just doing a clinic tour of Australia decades ago. Every band we heard blew us away. They were just so good! The standards were held very high so I’m hoping to get there and meet some of the people I’m a fan of.”
Second Nature is out now.