In part three of my interview with The Gift’s Mike Morton. We conclude our discussion by talking about Mike’s musical influences and the state of progressive music today. Furtjermore, we find out about The Gift playing live and Mike’s major involvement with the Resonance Festival in London later this year.
Progradar – What were your first musical influences? Who was the first artist that really connected with you?
Mike – My first musical influence was, in fact, Roxy Music. The Roxy Music of the early 1970’s, when they were still spiky and strange. I was watching Top of the Pops when I was eleven or twelve and I decided I wanted to be that guy. Not because I liked his singing style but it was unique, I’d never seen anything like it. The first LP I bought was a Roxy Music album. I was massively into Queen. I bought Sheer Heart Attack and the Queen II album. That is totally progressive stuff.
I liked the heavy stuff like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin but they weren’t feeding my mind. My elder cousin, a guy called Nick Chadwin, played me Yes, ELP and Genesis in one sitting when I was an impressionable teenager. Yes were a bit challenging for me then and I thought ELP were very clever but left me slightly cold.
Genesis blew me away! (Mike said this with considerable emphasis that is hard to show in print!). I heard the Selling England by the Pound album. I sat down with the gatefold sleeve of Foxtrot in front of me and thought I’d never heard anything like this in my life. The first gig I ever went to was Genesis and I saw them in 1976. I came out of that gig thinking “I want to be a musician”. Genesis with Peter Gabriel released some of the best rock music ever written. The influence doesn’t come out much in our music. Maybe more in Awake and Dreaming than it does in Land of Shadows because we don’t try to sound like Genesis.
Progradar – In my late teens my first album purchases were bands like Ultravox and Simple Minds. Through spending time with a friend who was heavily into hard rock, I graduated to Dave Lee Roth and Van Halen. It wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I was introduced to progressive rock and that was Yes and Rush initially. After that I went into the progressive metal side of things and Dream Theater were the biggest band for me.
Mike – I think it’s about timing. I saw Genesis when I was fourteen years old. Had the first album I listened to been played in another genre it could have been somebody else. Progressive music is a very rich stream of music and it will endure. A lot of things like punk and even grunge have not endured. Even though prog hasn’t been fashionable since the mid 1970s and a lot of people sneer at it even now, it is a rich, complex and deep type of music. If that is what you want in your music then you will like prog.
Progradar – Even though progressive music may have had its commercial heyday in the 1970s, I have noticed a resurgence of brilliant progressive music recently.
Mike – I agree with you. There is some amazing prog stuff out at the moment. It is just as good as what is called the golden 70s. In fact, it might be better in some ways. I have noticed cycles. There was the 70s that everyone goes on about. There was the neo-prog of the 80s with Marillion, Pallas, Twelth Night and IQ. There was another renaissance in the 90s with Spocks Beard, the Flower Kings and Dream Theater.
Every decade it comes back and it comes back in different forms. Since 2000 onwards it has gone ballistic. It has become fragmented and there are a lot of bands out there doing really interesting things. I don’t think they are drowning in influences any more like some of the early bands.
Progradar- Do you think that progressive music is more about the stories, rather than just getting something out there that is catchy and tuneful. Do you envisage the story first and then write the music after or do you have a tune ringing in your head that you think is great and just needs lyrics?
Mike– It is a bit of both actually. Sometimes I have an idea and I want to write a song about it, like releasing loved ones and the mystery of death for instance. That would be the idea or story first and that is how ‘Walk into The Water’ was created. Other times, and it is just as common, you will be noodling about on the guitar or synth and the then the tune will come first.
If I’m just playing around on the instrument, I cannot force it. I can’t say I am going to write a melody. I’m trying different chords and mucking about improvising and indulging myself. Somewhere, almost as if from nowhere, you get an idea.
It is like a 50/50 split. Half of it is where I have got a story in my head and I will write the music for it. The other half tends to be where I just get a musical notion in my head from a melody and then I think of the lyrics.
Progradar- I have no musical ability whatsoever, I just love listening to the music. To me music seems really complicated and amazing. To you it must come easy, well not easy, natural.
Mike – It is natural but that doesn’t mean it is always easy. For example, the things I find hardest to write are the instrumental workouts. If you take ‘The Comforting Cold’ on the new album, the second part, ‘The Curtain Falls’, took ages to write. Especially that 70’s synth solo you referenced in your review. Riptide took us months to write. When you write progressive things with the different time signatures and the intricate solos, it stretches you technically. Some of it sounds rubbish. It might be clever but it’s not musical.
I had an idea with David to have a different time signature in each bar. The ones the progressive fans like are the odd time signatures, like 7/8. When you are doing the challenging stuff that the listener may find not as accessible as the song part, it is not natural. I had this idea that the music should change time signature on every bar. I said “Isn’t that clever” and David said ”Yes, but it’s rubbish”.
It is unnatural when you force it, when you try to do the really clever stuff. I think writing songs does come naturally after a while. I get an excited feeling in my stomach, like butterflies, when I’m writing a melody. That is my barometer as to whether I think it will be a good song. You never really know if a tune that pleases you as a writer will please other people.
Progradar – I would say that, as a listener, I get those same butterflies when I’m listening to a certain piece of music. To me, the best albums are the ones that don’t hit you straight away. The ones that have got depth, you listen to them a lot of times and keep picking up different bits and pieces. Perhaps, as listeners, we don’t get those butterflies at the same point in a song that you do as a writer?
Mike – I think most people know when they’ve written a good song. Those that say they don’t know if it’s good or not are, perhaps, being modest liars. If I’m excited by what I’ve written then I know it will be a good track. If I’m not, if I think it is a bit bland, then I’ll probably never try that song again.
It’s like falling for someone. You fall for the song you’ve just written. I think the writer knows it straight away, they know what excites them. They don’t have to listen to it four or five times, like you may do with an album, to get to like it. I get eureka moments when I am writing.
Progradar – I review all sorts of music. I have a blues album to review next and, one of the last albums I reviewed was a ‘balls out’ heavy metal album. I loved it straight away and it made me smile but, it has no depth to it. I loved ‘Land of Shadows’ when I heard for the first time too.
Let me use an analogy, the heavy metal album has the depth of a puddle but ‘Land of Shadows’ has the depth of The Marianas Trench in the Pacific! There are so many layers to it. I liked it when I first heard it but, every time I go back to it I find something else that I didn’t quite catch on my first listen. It adds layers and layers to it. I appreciate the depth of the music.
To me the modern chart orientated music is just dross. I don’t get the point. I don’t have the time to listen to music like that. I spent forty minutes this morning listening to a great album by the Turkish band ‘Nemrud’. That’ forty’ minutes was time well spent rather than forty minutes of my life I will never get back, that is music to me. At the end of it I felt I had gained something from the music.
Mike – I understand what you’re saying. For me music has always been for the head and the heart first and the body second. I can’t get into electronic dance music or pop music as there is no substance to it. I want a feast for my head. If someone gives me something challenging to listen to then I’m happy to do that. Within reason, the more difficult or challenging it is, the more I enjoy it.
Progradar – I understand what you mean when you say “within reason”. Some of these guitarists seem to think that, the more notes you can fit in a minute then the better the record will be. I am exhausted after five minutes of listening to it. They may be brilliant guitarists but it doesn’t connect with me on any level whatsoever.
Mike – What happens there is, you get people who become so technically proficient with their instrument that they think it entitles them to write music. There is a lot of difference between being a composer and a gifted guitarist.
Progradar – Are you looking forward to touring with the album and, are you going to be playing any of ‘Awake and Dreaming’?
Mike – Oh yes, definitely looking forward to touring and, I have some news for you. At every single gig we will be performing the whole of Awake and Dreaming. We will perform it with visuals behind us to tell the story and we will do the big hitters from Land of Shadows.
You will hear The Willows and, at the bigger gigs, we will play The Comforting Cold. We won’t do all of them live. I Sing of Change will be our intro tape as we come on but we won’t play As. I am not sure yet about the others but, we will definitely do these four, The Willows, The Comforting Cold, Walk into the Water and Too Many Hands.
We are still working out the set. We might start with Awake and Dreaming. You do wonder how you would follow the end of that as it is such a crescendo of an ending.
Progradar – Are you going to be playing many gigs this year?
Mike – Yes, we will be playing at The Musician in Leicester, we just have to finalise that. We hope to be playing at The Classic Rock Society in Maltby. We are going to Scotland and Newcastle. I have been so busy with Resonance that we have been a little bit lax in organising gigs. There are two big gigs already organised. One at The Half Moon in London and one at Resonance but there will another six to eight this year as well. We are just waiting for confirmation from people.
We were going to play at Summer’s End. It is another prog festival in the West Country. The problem with that is that The Gift are playing Resonance and the organisers have a policy of not putting any bands on that are playing at other festivals.
Progradar – How did you get involved with Resonance? Have you been organising from the start?
Mike – It was a joint idea between me and Dave Lloyd. We played DanFest3 in Leicester and really enjoyed it. I said to Dave, as we were driving back in our hired van, that we should do our own.
My Mother was only three months gone at this point. He said we should do a charity fundraiser and I agreed with him. We had both lost people to the disease so we decided to do one for cancer research. We asked the rest of the band and the drummer, who is a vegan, said he didn’t want to support one that still used animal testing for research. We picked Macmillan for two reasons. First, my Mother passed away in a Macmillan hospice and, secondly they do not use animal testing as part of their research.
At the end of November last year we decided to go ahead with it. It started out as a two day festival, Saturday and Sunday in a place called The Bedford, near where I live. In January the venue encouraged us to think bigger and extend it. They wanted to do a rock festival in the area. It is now a prog, rock and eclectic festival.
There is a team of four or five of us organising the festival. I have spent the last four months talking to some of my musical heroes and it has been blowing my mind. We have worked very hard at getting this together.
Progradar – Are you hoping that this is something that you will be able to organise on an annual basis? We see festivals being cancelled all over Europe, is this is something you really want to build on and go from strength to strength, year on year?
Mike – We have to be cautious with this. I wouldn’t want that to happen to this festival. I am confident that it will do really well but we will have to see how it progresses. The venue has said that, if it goes well, they would want to do it next year. Providing it is well attended, and I think it will be, we will do it next year.
I am thinking of starting to organise some more commercial ventures. I want all the money to go to Macmillan but, I have a taste for it now. I would like to be a promoter as well as playing at a festival.
Progradar – How difficult is it to get so many artists together for one event?
Mike – It is incredibly difficult. You want people who will draw a big enough audience to make it pay for the charity but they want big fees. It becomes a balancing act of getting mostly up and coming bands, including ourselves, to play for expenses. However, you know you need to get some big draws in, people who will act as a magnet for the paying customers.
People will like the up and coming bands when they hear them. Those people don’t want to take that risk with their hard earned money unless they know they are going to get a bang for their buck. The challenging thing is getting the big artists to play for virtually nothing. Musicians are not organised and sometimes neither are their agents. You have to get a good balance between the big acts and the small acts.
You have to put on a varied bill to attract more people It is also a question of managing the politics between the bands and finding a financial deal that will not break the bank. I have been spending days on this. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I was in a nine till five job and not self-employed.
Progradar – Despite the stresses of organising Resonance, are you looking forward to it?
Mike – This is going to be the biggest event of the year for me. It is just as significant as the release of Land of Shadows. This feels like one of the biggest years of my adult life. The album is already out, we are finally playing live and Resonance is happening!
Well that is the finale of my discussion with the likeable and intelligent Mike Morton, front man of British progressive group The Gift. I thank him for a fascinating insight into the life of a musician, warts and all. I shall look forward to the next installment in the life of Mike Morton and The Gift.