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Kings of Chemistry: Flying Colors On Taking Flight With 'Third Degree'

Tuesday, 10 December 2019 Written by Simon Ramsay

Our most fruitful and enduring relationships are impervious to time, space and distance. Boasting an almost mystic and magical quality, they possess an inherent, indestructible and long-lasting camaraderie that allow such powerful bonds to be rekindled without missing a beat. Five years since melodic prog rock supergroup Flying Colors released their sophomore outing ‘Second Nature’, this year’s ‘Third Degree’ found the quintet effortlessly slipping back into their chemistry-laden groove as if they’d never been away.

Such a protracted gap between albums frustrated the band’s loyal fans, but it’s easy to understand why these gifted virtuosos can’t reunite on a more regular basis. Guitarist Steve Morse is committed to rock behemoths Deep Purple. Drummer Mike Portnoy, on the other hand, has so many plates spinning it’s amazing he finds time to sleep. Likewise Neal Morse, who plays keyboards and occasionally takes lead vocals in this ensemble, is usually busy creating one masterpiece after the next without breaking a sweat.

Elsewhere, frontman Casey McPherson’s primary role is leading alt-rockers Alpha Rev and Dave LaRue has an admirable position as the go-to instrumental bassist for many of today’s finest guitarists. Yet the five piece’s love for this project and playing with each other meant it was only a question of when, not if, they would reconvene.

With two albums and tours together under their belts, as well as time spent playing with each other in a variety of other configurations over the course of their careers, ‘Third Degree’ is the product of a gang who know each other inside out and possess a special chemistry that can instantly be rekindled at the drop of a (hi) hat. Moving from a place of soul-searching darkness to optimistic light, its nine epic and infectious songs encompass genre flourishes aplenty, melodies galore and the kind of songwriting and instrumental chops that will leave listeners feeling awestruck.

Unsurprisingly, tour dates in support of the album have been limited, but the band were determined to cram in a handful of gigs to showcase their new material. Ahead of their solitary show in London, we had a chat with LaRue about making ‘Third Degree’, the bonds that exist within the band and, most importantly, whether or not we’ll have to wait another half decade for album number four.  

The new record took a couple of years, on and off, to complete. What were the pros and cons of making an album that way? 

It’s very difficult for the five of us to get together and during the first writing session we had a few technical difficulties. So we lost some time and only got about 70% of the album written. Then it was a year and a half, two years, until we could find a window to get together and finish it. After which, we went in and started cutting it pretty quickly.

But yeah, there was a long gap. I don’t know that it affected the final outcome. Our writing process is very organic.  Everyone brings in ideas, we start from there and let the music go where it wants to go naturally. There’s no preconceived notions about what we should do or any of that. When I started cutting the record it all seemed the same so I didn’t distinguish between the two sessions that much.  

How do those ideas develop once you’re all together?

We kind of have a band rule and it’s that nobody brings in songs, we just bring in little ideas we like. Casey might bring in this cool chorus, Steve will always have cool instrumental parts, and we’ll start building around that. But that’s our jumping off point and these guys are amazing. The ideas just fly fast and furious. We dig in and say ‘That part is great, let’s use that as an introduction,’ or ‘This could be a bridge,’ and then from there chaos breaks out and we’re throwing ideas around and discarding them as fast as you can imagine. It’s an amazing process to watch.

You’ve talked about how important it is for bands and musicians to grow and that the five of you have really pushed the envelope on the new record. Can you elaborate on that?

There’s just a maturity to the band now. It became stark to me when I had to go back and prepare for the tour. I started listening to the old songs from each record, because we do several from all the albums, and just listening to those compared to ‘Third Degree’, compositionally, instrumentally, sonically and lyrically, the evidence of growth was obvious. It pleased me because I think the thing for any musician or group to aspire to is to constantly grow.

If you stop you’re just repeating yourself and you should just hang it up. We need to continue to grow. That’s the joy of being a musician, it’s a lifelong quest, it never ends and you’re always trying to get better and create new things. To see the band improve and not just put out another Flying Colors record, like ‘Hold on, we’ve done this before and it’s kind of like a mixture of the first two’...well, it’s not. It has its own identity and shows growth and maturity. The longer we work together, we should be establishing more of our own identity.   

Most musicians say bands can never be 100% democratic and there always has to be a leader. Flying Colors has five bandleaders in their own right, but is there one particular person who takes charge and makes the big decisions?

No, it is truly a democracy. We’ve got five composers, five instrumentalists and five producers all in the same room, but we’ve struck a good balance and adhere to majority rule. There’s been some conflicts, not heavily negative, but some clashes where people say ‘No, no, no, we should put this section there.’  And others will say, ‘No, no, I like the other one we were doing in B flat in that situation and that’s a better bridge, let’s not use that part.’ If we cannot reconcile we vote and three wins. Everybody then says OK, that’s where we’re going.’ So, resolved. 

Within the songs everyone has moments where they shine, and one of your highlights is the solo on Guardian. How do parts like that develop?

We were hammering through that tune, had a couple of sections going, and were trying to figure out where we were going to go. We knew it was gonna be a proggy, longer tune and it was actually Neal who said ‘Let’s open this section up and have a huge bass solo for Dave.’  Of course I said ‘OK!’ That’s how it started. Neal’s idea was ‘Let’s build this bed underneath, make it spacey and have Dave play over the top and build back to the climax of the tune.’ I owe that to Neal and during it realised ‘My god, this is a long section.’ 

Yourself, Steve, Mike and Neal came from a very different musical world than Casey. Did he find it challenging to adapt when you first got together? It sounds like he’s become more confident with each release?

I couldn’t agree more. We kind of wedged him in initially and it brought a great element to the band. But yes, I feel that he’s become more confident, he knows where we’re going and now he’s used to ‘our world’, so to speak. He’s a really creative guy who writes some amazing stuff and now gears that towards us. He fits in beautifully.  

You’d actually played with Mike before Flying Colors. At what point did you realise you two clicked as a rhythm section and can you tell me what it’s like to play with him? 

It’s awesome. I first played with him, I believe, on the G3 tour, and we hooked up right away. Mike is great at singing and playing. Usually when that’s the case I have to buckle down and push really hard to make sure the bottom doesn’t fall out with the drummer singing, like ‘Hey, don’t slow down.’ Mike is really good at that and keeps the drums strong, so it’s not a lot of work for me.  If there’s a bass thing, like on Forever In A Daze there’s this big open part, he plays really supportively behind me so it’s easy for me to do whatever I want. It’s great, he’s fun to play with and great to hang with too.

Your relationship with Steve is three decades old. What can you tell me about why you’ve had such a long and rewarding time together?

Playing with Steve is something that changed the direction of my career. I’ve learnt so much working with that man and it was kind of an ongoing education when I joined his band. For me that was the perfect gig. I started with the Dixie Dregs, but then we moved to the Steve Morse Band and started making records together. The kind of things he would write and want me to do to fill it out, so we could be a trio, was really challenging and pushed me to the limit. He would say, ‘You should do something like this’ and I’m like ‘That’s not possible.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, it is.’ I’d say, ‘OK, let me work on it at home and I’ll get back to you.’  

So it was great and one of the things I love about working with Steve, and this is true of Flying Colors and any project I do, is the diversity. With the Steve Morse Band we’ll play a rocking tune one moment and the next we’re doing a bluegrass thing, then we’re playing a baroque thing, then some long, beautiful ballad. We kind of do the same in Flying Colors. The set is very diverse so I never have a chance to get bored. I love playing that way. That’s one of the most important things to me. I’m not a guy you’d hire for a metal band. I’m not talking about that genre in particular, just anything where it’s an hour and a half of the same thing gets on my nerves.        

You’ve previously said that, as an instrumental bassist, it was a new situation for you to be in a band with vocals. After three albums and the tours with Flying Colors, how has your playing evolved to fit in with that set up?

A lot. On some songs I have to take on a different role, so I’m trying to enhance the music the best way I know how. Not step on the vocals or music and actually improve it. Sometimes that involves a certain amount of simplicity but it’s also about making it groove in a certain way. I had to focus on that more, whereas the bands I’ve been played with for years and years are often very ‘busy.’ It’s a whole different thing.  

But we do some beautiful ballads and I’ve really taken to trying to do the best I can to make Casey or Neal sound great. Not get in the way when it’s not called for because, for me, that’s just immature and makes the music sound stupid. On ‘Third Degree’ I was really conscious of that and enjoyed doing things like You Are Not Alone and some of the mellower tunes. So it’s a different process but the music is so good that’s all that matters.  If the music is good you don’t need to play a lot. If things are floundering I start overplaying just to make something happen. You don’t need to do that in this band.    

Is it frustrating that Flying Colors have such a special chemistry but don’t have the ability to make more music and tour together as regularly as you’d all like?

Absolutely. It’s very frustrating but hopefully soon we’ll be able to loosen that up and get together more often. Everybody would like to make it, maybe not a full time band, but a larger part time band where we could actually do some more extensive touring. So it’s always in the works but there’s nothing concrete at this point.  

So, I imagine you’ll want to make the next album more quickly?

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that will happen.

Flying Colors Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Sat December 14 2019 - LONDON O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire

Click here to compare & buy Flying Colors Tickets at Stereoboard.com.





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