Welcome to part two of my interview with the enigmatic Mike Morton, front man with British progressive rock band The Gift. In this instalment we hear how Mike overcame the fallout from Awake and Dreaming and set about reforming The Gift and the agonies and ecstasies that went into the writing and recording of Land of Shadows. We also discuss the unique sound of The Gift and what goes into producing it.
Progradar – Obviously, there was a lot of time between the writing and recording of the two albums. Did you ever think you were going to write and release another record?
Mike – I didn’t know. I’ve never really thought about that.
Progradar – Were there times when you thought that that was it, music would be something you would just enjoy now and again?
Mike – I don’t think I ever had the thought that was me and music finished. I just thought I was too messed up and broke. I tried to get a band together and it didn’t happen. Maybe I would just write music and record it. Perhaps I would just play the occasional gig in a pub somewhere.
At the time, I just thought that it wasn’t for me right now. I’ll give you a timeline. 2007 was spent trying to persuade Leroy to take the album on tour. In the end I just thought let’s do our best and try and promote it. We got a website done and we sold records but, by the beginning of 2008 I was getting fed up. The whole of 2008 and 2009 I was as miserable as sin but, towards the end of 2009 I started writing again. I don’t want this to sound like a Cinderella story.
Progradar – Perhaps, a story of redemption then?
Mike – A story of redemption or a story of recovery. As soon as I started writing I started to enjoy life again. You said in your review about Land of Shadows that some of those songs were quite dark. ‘Too Many Hands’ is about depression and recovering from it. I wrote ‘Walk into The Water’ after the death of my father in law, who I was very close to. It wasn’t a sudden transformation. That sounds too dramatic and self-indulgent, I didn’t disappear into a phone box like Clark Kent and come out as Superman!
Progradar – I agree, when I was recovering from depression, it wasn’t instant. It was like being stuck at the bottom of a well and seeing a glimmer of daylight. Every day that glimmer got bigger until you climb over the top and you are 99% there. Not complete but happy with yourself.
Mike- It’s about being happy with yourself and happy with life isn’t it?
Progradar – How did you actually meet David Lloyd? (Mike’s co-collaborator on ‘Land of Shadows)
Mike- That is a really simple story and easy to explain. David Lloyd used to come and see the band I was in with Leroy, not The Gift but The Raincatchers. They had gone to school together and Leroy suggested that I approach him.
We didn’t talk about music for about two years, from when he said no at the beginning of 2007 until the end of 2009. I phoned him up and asked him to go for a beer. Remember, we hadn’t fallen out and we were still friends but I kept pushing him about progressing with The Gift. He just said to me that David Lloyd was a better guitar player than he was. This wasn’t a disingenuous statement, he genuinely rated David as being better than himself. They are both great guitarists but different and he genuinely meant it.
I met David who said he loved The Gift. He said he had told me that we should have played live so I said, “Why don’t you come and join me then!” I have been very lucky in that both Leroy and David have their own studios. I have lots of musical instruments but no studio, yet! We started work in David’s studio in March 2010. We started recording several songs and it just clicked immediately then Land of Shadows took another three years!! (laughs).
Initially on ‘Land of Shadows’, the songs have dark connotations but, overall, left me with a feeling of hope and dynamism. Does this mirror the period in your life after finishing ‘Awake and Dreaming’ and leading up to the writing and recording of the new album?
Mike – I think it probably does. Not all the songs are directly autobiographical. In fact, none of them are. I’m not singing about me. I am singing about people who are in a situation that might be dark.
Progradar – I really like ‘The Comforting Cold’. The thought of man who is at death’s door but can be brought back, yet, he doesn’t want to be. He likes the comforting place he is in. He does not want to be brought back. I think it’s brilliant.
Mike – Thank you. Do you know what that came from? I was talking to Leroy about Lazarus. I think it’s a great myth, perhaps it’s true? It is always touted as Jesus’ most incredible miracle but, who asked Lazarus? Maybe he was quite happy where he was.
Progradar – That’s a good point. Maybe he had had his innings and was happy to be disappearing off?
Mike – I’m interested in near-death experiences. I have always been interested in films like ‘Flatliners’. What comes after that? It is the biggest mystery there is. The atheist would say that is it, lights out, no more consciousness. The religious person would say that you go to a wondrous place. The agnostic or spiritualist would say, I don’t know.
I don’t think we are just gone but nobody really knows. There are hundreds of thousands of stories about people who nearly died. They are not all the clichéd ones either, like moving towards a light. There are some really staggering ones. People who are nursing cancer patients say that, someone who is close to death will point behind them and say “Who’s that?” There is nobody else in the room. It makes me wonder whether, as we’re approaching death, there is another dimension to move into. I thought it was a really good story to tell. That was an example of the story first and the music second. In fact, I wrote all the words before I wrote the music.
Progradar -‘The Comforting Cold’ is one of those songs that is, and I’m not a lover of this phrase, an ‘epic’. It is a prog epic, I think it is down to length of the track. It is four or five smaller parts of one major track. That designates an epic in my opinion. David Elliott (Bad Elephant Music) re-mastered ‘Awake and Dreaming’ as one, epic, 40 minute track. The whole album is just one epic track split into smaller sub-texts.
Mike – I don’t mind the term ‘epic’ in fact I love it! Awake and Dreaming was conceived as that. I had an ambition to do something like Genesis’ Supper’s Ready which is the mother of all epics. It was conceived as ‘I am going to do my Supper’s Ready now’ and I don’t mind telling people that. Because it is lots of songs, I don’t think it feels overbearing. There is a contrast as opposed to something with a fifteen minute guitar solo which is not going anywhere. This is what the lesser epics tend to have.
Progradar – Some of the less talented bands seems to think repeating a theme over and over again, for 18 or 19 minutes, is what constitutes and epic.
Mike – I think an epic needs to have momentum. There are certain bands out there at the moment that do long tracks that just circle around. They don’t seem to take anyone on a journey in terms of the storytelling in the lyrics and they don’t seem to have sense of progress or destination musically. I’m not saying we are always going to pull that off. What we tried to do both with Awake and Dreaming and The Comforting Cold was take people on a musical journey that has a peak to it. You are climbing a mountain and you get a pay off at the end.
Progradar – We have spoken about your depression and dark periods that followed the release of ‘Awake and Dreaming’. Was writing the ‘Land of Shadows’ album cathartic and, after you’d written it and heard what you’d produced, did you feel you could put things behind you and start with a clean slate?
Mike – Maybe it wasn’t cathartic as we were writing it because it still felt quite difficult whilst we were just getting the stuff down. When we recorded what we had written it was very cathartic, it always is.
Progradar – To my ears, your sound is very natural and not shrouded in layers of production, especially on the vocals. Do you think this helps or hinders you with getting recognition in the more mainstream music press?
Mike – I think it does hinder us a little bit. David has amazing microphones in his studio but he’s not a fan of over-production and putting too much reverb and effects on anything. Not just the voice but, the guitars don’t have a lot of decay or echo on them. We don’t sprinkle sonic fairy dust over things. Our philosophy is ‘play it well and present it as simply as possible’.
It is an aesthetic ideal and an unwritten rule that we follow, don’t over produce it. It is definitely part of our approach and I think it probably does hinder mainstream acceptance. I don’t think that is from the people who would buy it but the mainstream label. They would have to auto-tune the voice or put echo on it and change the EQ on the guitar. We get a lot of feedback from people who love the live sounding guitar solos.
Progradar – To me if your music was over-produced it wouldn’t be The Gift’s sound.
Mike – Make no mistake, we do take a long time over mixing and producing the music. David Lloyd is not just a gifted guitarist he is also an amazing sound man. We spend a lot of time and effort in making it sound quite clean. We went through three different engineers last year. We finished recording and mixing Land of Shadows in November 2012. The whole of 2013 was spent finding someone who could mix it properly. The reason we rejected some of those mixes was that they made it sound too shiny or too much like prog-metal.
Progradar – I think it works, you know how you want the music to sound. It is unique and, if you released another song tomorrow that I had not heard, I would know it was The Gift by the sound. I would recognise that clean edge and I like that on a record. Heavy metal tends to be better if it does have that over-produced and overblown sound. With a lot of progressive music, if you over-produce it you will lose the dynamism and cleanness of the sound.
Mike – I had a lot of conversations with David about the vocals. We do a lot of takes but, very often, we will use the first or second one. David will tell me to just sing as me and not do anything else, don’t push it. I write the songs and I sing them and he is the architect of the sound. He is very clear in his mind about the need to make the sound clean, pure and honest.
Progradar – You mentioned earlier about Leroy saying that David was a better guitar player. I agree with you, they are both brilliant. What I have noticed about the guitar playing and solos on your albums is that, they are not rigidly structured like a typical heavy metal track. You may not reference them immediately but when you do, it is like a eureka moment! The guitar solos are not stand-alone, in fact they are part of the whole. It is only when I have heard the songs a few times that I can extract the guitar solos and appreciate them.
Mike – Leroy would be very pleased to hear you say that. He doesn’t want to show off and use a solo, he wants to make the guitar become another voice and add another melody.
Progradar – I think it’s used almost as another vocal.
Mike – Also, you will notice that we have a technique that we’ve used more than once. The guitar solo plays the notes of the sung melody. The guitar is singing it without the words. You will hear it in The Willows and Stillwater, The Comforting Cold Part Three. The guitar is actually imitating the vocal line.
The songs do have a bit of thought to them in the lyrics. Once they have been written, the intellect turns off and the heart turns on. We are not trying to be intellectual when we play the music.
Progradar – It is music that you become involved with and it becomes part of you. It makes you porous and you take the music in. Some other music just washes over you as if you were wearing a raincoat.
Mike – If that is the effect it has had then we have done our job. What you try and do as a songwriter is purvey how you feel to other people through the medium. When we first recorded Walk into the Water it was only five months after my father-in-law had passed away. I was very close to him and couldn’t listen to it without getting wet eyes. I was moved by my memory of him. The music is the conduit through which these emotions come and I am porous to it as well.
Progradar – Is it difficult juggling The Gift with your day to day job?
Mike – It is a little bit because The Gift has to rehearse quite a lot, just to make sure we can play the music. It is complicated in places. It is not just my day job I am also married with three kids. Juggling The Gift Rehearsals with my day job and being a Dad can be tough. I do manage to do it. The band are disciplined enough that we just rehearse on Sundays and it becomes like a routine.
Here ends Part two of my interview with the enigmatic and brilliant Mike Morton. Next, in the final instalment, we find out all about Mike’s musical heroes and influences. Mike and I also discuss The Gift playing live and Resonance Festival. Please join me for the finale and another brilliant read.
For those of you missed it, here is the first part.