Innerviews, music without borders

Steve Morse
Unsung Hero
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1992 Anil Prasad.

Steve Morse

Guitarist Steve Morse once said "Music is a universal language. Music doesn't stop and say 'Wait a minute. I have to define what I am.' Music doesn't care what it is. It's either good or not." That idea has propelled him through his almost 20 years as a professional musician. Proof can be found on his many albums which possess few sonic boundaries. Classical, country, hard rock and Celtic influences are just a few of the styles one encounters on any given release, including his latest projects: a solo album titled Coast To Coast and Bring 'Em Back Alive, a live reunion disc with his legendary fusion outfit The Dixie Dregs. In this interview, Morse discusses both releases and reveals some past reflections and future directions.

Everyone thought the Dregs were gone forever, but here we are in 1992 with a new album.

We did break up, but not with the idea that we'd never talk to each other again. The way we had it structured was that we could never stop working, and when we did stop working, we had to break up. It seemed like everybody in the system was on salary with us. There were bookkeepers, accountants, managers, booking agents, road crew and road managers and this whole hierarchy of people and of course the musicians kind of feeding off the gigs the band did and so we were never able to stop playing. I think we just needed some time away from playing continuously. We also had a little problem with the record company, and I think that was a catalyst for saying "Forget it!"

The record label asked you to put vocals on Industry Standard [1982], the band's  last studio album, right?

It was one of those offers we couldn't turn down. What it was is our manager said he'd let us out of our management contract if we would try the vocals. If it didn't improve our sales, we could get out. That's as hard as you can twist a musician's arm to let them out of a contract! [laughs] That's a big carrot to hold up, so we of course went for it. But we didn't just say "Let's put some crappy vocalists on." We got serious and picked people we liked and felt good about the songs. Anything I don't really like about the last three Dregs albums—there's nowhere I could really point the finger. It was still as close to my vision of the band as possible. Dregs Of The Earth and Unsung Heroes were the closest I ever got with the band to what I heard in my head. And for my solo work, High Tension Wires was one of the experiments I always wanted to do, and I felt happy with the results and the stuff with the band has been great. The Coast To Coast album I think really captures what we're about and same with the stuff on Southern Steel.

The band shortened its name late in its career to The Dregs. Now you're back as The Dixie Dregs.

You see, Capricorn did the first three albums, and they went bankrupt and we changed the name a little bit. It was just a way of making it more vague. A lot of people were saying "Dixie Dregs, is that a square-dancing or Dixieland band?" We were just trying to let people make up their minds without trying to give them an image. Now that Capricorn is back, we signed with them again and they want to tie that in again to their early history. There's nothing more than that. It doesn't matter, we don't care what we call ourselves!

So, the resurrection of Capricorn provided an impetus for the band to regroup.

Yeah, Phil Waldon, the guy that runs Capricorn, said "We're gonna get this record company going, we're gonna get this record company going" and it took him a long time to get it going and he made good on his promise and we said "Hey, let's do something!"

Were the Dregs waiting for a record company to come along and accept the band on its own terms before recording again?

Yeah, especially one that would say "Let's start this with a live album," which obviously has the advantage or disadvantage of having a lot of pressure during the time you record, which was two nights very early in the tour in Atlanta. It also had  the advantage of taking less time to get a finished product—the only way we could have done an album at that time. We were fortunate that Capricorn was into it. It was a request that a lot of people gave us. The audience was always saying "Well, we have these terrible bootlegs and live radio shows, but how about a good sounding live album?" This is actually a double album but due to the miracle of CDs, it's all on one disc. [laughs]

A few bootleg Dregs CDs have found their way into circulation recently. How does that make you feel?

Depressed—always. There's always been Dregs bootlegs. Some of them are just so bad—sometimes it's just nothing more than someone sitting with a mike into a DAT or cassette recorder.  I just got a guy to stop selling videos of my band. We started by asking him how much he could get us. We wanted to buy all we could get and that gave us a good idea of what he was copying with and our manager stepped in and went from there. The guy didn't go to jail or anything, he just quit doing it... [long pause] ...for the moment. It's weird, people like that are just junior leeches, learning their trade on their own, bootlegging anything. It's hard to understand because somebody has the business discipline to get something together and organize distribution, printing and advertising. They could make a good living legitimately.

How did you choose material for the live Dregs disc?

We recorded more than we put on the album. We took the cassettes, listened to them on that leg of the tour and everyone wrote down what they wanted and made a list. "Holidays" wasn't on the list because I voted against it because I think I screwed up the intro on it, but Phil Waldon really wanted to have it on there. Normally, that doesn't change things much [laughs], but we try to accommodate Capricorn, so I went back and listened to it and it wasn't that bad.

Was there much tweaking done to the album after the fact?

Not any at all—as far as me and the drums and bass. There were a couple of problems in other areas that had to be solved, but being a guitarist I have to live with every single note, feedback and scrape of the pick. You can try fixing other stuff, but the guitar was all over the drums and the drums were all over everything and there was no way to change that.

What's the attitude of the band 16 years later? Is it still fun?

It's definitely a fun gig—that's what it's all about. We play slightly bigger places than I play with my own band, but nothing like where anyone one can say we're doing it for the money.

You're the group's sole composer. But since the initial break-up, T. Lavitz and Rod Morgenstein have stretched out as writers too. How will that affect the band?

Well, I guess the only answer is stay tuned! [laughs] But normally, I think I can spew ideas quicker than they can and that's usually how the tunes usually come to be. I just wrote a lot more material than everyone else by a huge margin but it's important to remember how the band started. Each person in the band was introduced to this concept—"I got this band, I'm writin' this stuff, do you wanna play in it and be a partner?"

How will future Dregs albums differ from Steve Morse Band albums given that you're the sole composer for both?

That's a good question. Hmm... well, I don't know! [laughs] All I can say is look at the situation and the players—the judges are different. Don't forget, nothing gets on the album without the judges approving it and the judges are the band, period. That's the way everything's always been. It's one thing to be the one that comes up with a lot of the ideas, but it's another for everyone to like it and if nobody likes it, it doesn't matter—it goes in the trash. I've trashed a lot of my material because the band had no reaction when we finished working it out. So, the band's personality being different will change the direction in a big way.

How do you look back at the first Dregs album The Great Spectacular?

It's not a good album! We re-recorded everything anyway, except for one tune that was really bad. So, it's just a terrible demo really. But used copies are going for $250 to $300. So, for historical purposes I've been trying to get the guys to agree to print up a few to subsidize our reunion. That's still a possibility. But it would have to be clearly advertised that this is not a state-of-the-art product, this is a historical thing and it would have to priced accordingly, less than a normal price. But if we can get all those things agreed on, then I think we'd do it, but so far not everyone agrees.

Let's talk about Coast To Coast. It's considerably more diverse than Southern Steel.

Yeah, Coast To Coast is more melodic. It starts with a real hard rock kinda sound though. We wanted to get more of the personality of the band in there. Each day we worked on a different tune and I had instantaneous feedback, instead of having all of the ideas all planned out—well, some of them were of course, like "Flat Baroque" and "Long Lost." Those were all written out beforehand, but a lot of them weren't. I had the ideas and knew they would work in a tune, but I said "Let's play with it a little bit and see what happens" and I would read the feedback from Dave LaRue [bass] and Van Romaine [drums] and change the music right then and there to fit more of what they were going towards. In fact, one of the tunes, "Over Easy," was a couple of days old before I heard Van playing this drumbeat and said "I gotta do something with that and try to get what everyone does naturally." So, I was trying to write for the band more than anything I've done.

I understand the title Coast To Coast was inspired by your recent move from California to Florida.

I did my guitar parts after I moved. So, we started in my garage in California while my studio was getting built here in Florida. I finished the album in my new garage. It was just crazy. The guitar parts were done in a little U-haul trailer just outside the garage—that was funny.

Are you are happy with the way the disc turned out?

Oh yeah! [laughs] Especially because of the weird circumstances it was done under. I actually enjoy impossible circumstances sometimes—setting up in the garage with no air conditioning, sitting on top of packing boxes and wires just everywhere and standing on concrete and walking outside to a travel storage trailer and putting the amplifier in and covering it up with baffles and then trying to get out of the trailer without knocking anything over. It was a challenge, like everything else I've done. You know, like "Oh you can't have an instrumental band, you'll never make it!" Well, okay, we can do it! "A band that plays in clubs can't fly to gigs!" Okay, so we did it! And "You can't finish your album now, you have to finish your studio first!" Well excuse me, you know? To me, the tape recorder doesn't care what it sees—it doesn't care what room it's in.

Speaking of challenges, you became a father after Southern Steel was released.

Yeah, that's the ultimate challenge! [laughs] It's been good. Timmy was my little baby boy when I wrote everything for Coast To Coast and it's been really good. It's changed my view about touring for sure and I have a difficult time reconciling that I always want to tour with the fact that I miss my little boy the minute I leave. So, I just have to figure a way to tour where I can take a smaller chunk of time and more frequent breaks which means huge amounts of expense money to fly everyone back home just to play three days—it's very difficult to do if you're not headlining big gigs. But I'm gonna figure out a way to do it.

Have you considered releasing an all-acoustic project?

I've always suggested that to every record label I've ever been on and they've always said "Well maybe later, but for now..." That would be a challenging project for sure. I'm really looking forward to the rest of my life as far as doing things like that and all the possibilities that haven't been explored. I'm glad that I have this job playing music, because the only time it gets boring is when you have too many days on the road or in the studio, but if you can ever have a normal or reasonable schedule, it's always interesting.

What did you ever do with the pieces you composed for your solo acoustic opening slot on the McLaughlin, De Lucia, Di Meola tour all those years ago?

I've forgotten some of them and one of them I recorded called "Picture This" is on a compilation disc released through Guitar For The Practicing Musician. The editor of the magazine heard me do that piece and he wanted it on there.

In 1987, you briefly quit the music industry and became a professional pilot. Contrast that life to your experience as a professional musician.

Being a pilot was neat because you have regularity about your work and you have a chance of doing your job in a very finite and finished way. When you're done, you're done. It's not like you have to agonize over everything—you've done your job and you can put it out of your mind until the next day. With music, the days don't seem to have any separation. One of the biggest differences is time—you spend the day flying and you get off work and you're done. But on tour you spend the day flying and get off the plane and then go to soundcheck, do an interview, a clinic, and hurry up and check in the hotel and take a shower, and go to the gig and take care of business after the gig and work out your time for the next day, get something to eat, and go back and sleep for a few hours and get woken up and go do it again! But, on a more esoteric level, the flying job was challenging and there was comfort in being part of a team that was interesting, but when I fly the band myself, it's a one man show, so I'm responsible for everything!

As an airline pilot, someone hands you the weather, and you have another pilot you have to work with, so, if you miss something, he'll catch it, and there's this system that's developed through decades of experience that makes sure you won't miss something because of the way the checklists are done. The company procedures and the equipment is very well maintained and it's just amazing being part of it. I think the United States has an amazing aerospace system. I think it's the most amazing case of big brother helping the tax payer—the way they move people through the air. It's probably one of the few things we do better than anyone else in the world and it's very impressive and I loved being part of that big team. On the other hand, being a musician and being creative-minded and having total control over yourself is attractive too—not having to ask anyone's permission to do anything. But I do fly in my music job too, so it's a nice compromise.

Rumor has it Sea World in Ohio has been using Dregs music for some of their whale and dolphin shows. How did that happen?

[laughs] Really?  Dregs music gets used for all kinds of stuff and they usually never pay for it so I never know about it. Everybody in the radio business knows our stuff, because we have a big library of instrumental stuff and it's like "Hey, use this stuff for background, but please, never use it for prime time!" That's the way it's always been. I know for a fact that it gets used on millions of commercial bits and for whatever quirk of rationale, no one ever pays for those uses—it's another cruel twist of fate. It teaches you not to rely on money for your reward in the music business—that can't be the reason you do it and that's a good lesson for everyone.

Is it true that you once played on a Liza Minelli album?

Yeah, that was a fluke. I was doing a session and the guys we were recording with were also doing her album and there was a part that someone couldn't show up for and they said "Before you go, why don't you do this?" and I said "Well my amp is already on the truck—it's on its way back to Georgia!" and they said "Well here, plug into this!" They thought it was kind of a country part and that I was an authentic redneck able to play it! [laughs] The song was "When It Comes Down To It." I never got to meet Liza Minelli or anything. It was just one of those studio moments of mysterious overdubs. It was around 1976. I never heard it myself, because I never saw the album.

I originally suggested an early morning time for this interview, but your manager said you usually sleep until noon.

Yeah. I do all my work at night, when everyone's asleep and there's no phone calls and no distractions. It's when you spend some time not talking to anyone at all and your mind is more creative.  I always wake up a little bit before noon and spend some time with my little boy and then put him to sleep around 12:30 for his nap. That way, he gets the impression that I'm home all day, instead of just in the afternoon. [laughs]

Steve Morse