Mike Morton (The Gift) Interview

Mike Morton is the front man with British progressive group, The Gift. Their new album, Land of Shadows will be released through Bad Elephant Music on May 5th. Originally formed in 2003 by Mike and Leroy James, the band released their debut album, Awake and Dreaming in 2006 to universal acclaim. Mike agreed to an interview with myself which turned into an in depth conversation about the history of the band, in part one of that interview, you can read all about the story of that debut album and why it was never played on the road. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed the chat I had with the irrepressible Mike Morton.

Progradar – Mike, can we start by going back to 2006 and before, ‘Awake and Dreaming’, what’s the story behind the album, what influenced you to write it and where did the ideas come from?

Mike – That’s a really cracking question, it’s a question I’ve not been asked by many people and there’s a very specific answer to it. From about 1998 to around about 2003, I was writing more commercial songs and was doing that with Leroy James. I’d played with him in a band considered more folk than progressive, called The Raincatchers. We were a gigging band and not particularly ambitious, we weren’t trying to get a deal, just enjoying ourselves.

Leroy has his own studio and I had a whole bunch of songs, ballads. I never tried to write commercially but I had songs that weren’t progressive at all, although I’d always loved that. I had a lot of affirmation from people that they were good songs, so he and I would record them. About the end of 2002, I was playing this tune on the piano. He knew I loved Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Dream Theater, all those bands and knew that I was a closet prog guy. Why closet? Well, for a long time it was considered musical pornography.

Progradar – Yes it was, it was something you would put in a brown paper bag really!

Mike – Exactly, I think Mr Wakeman himself said it at one stage. I should explain I’ve never taken piano to a high level, I did about grade 3 as a boy but then I just carried on playing it myself and I was playing by ear. I was playing all these classical type trills and ostinati and we were having a break from writing and recording this commercial song and Leroy said, “You should do a progressive thing you know Mike, you’re a great progressive rock guy”.

That was around December 2002. That was the first thing, he encouraged me to give it a go. The second thing that happened was the Iraq war. I was infuriated by it, I could see it coming. After 9/11 I could see weasely little articles in the newspapers saying that this could be linked to Iraq and I thought “Bollocks, this isn’t linked to Iraq, someone wants a war”. You may not know this about Awake and Dreaming, I was furious about it and I marched against the war. I voted for Blair twice and I thought, “You snake, you’re lying, this war should not happen”.

So, over the Christmas of 2002 two thoughts are sort of clanking round my head. Do I just bite the bullet and do a progressive thing? I was scared because you have to stretch your musical ability and writing ability and I’d never done it before. All the progressive bands were my heroes but I had this sense, was I up to the task? But, he (Leroy) encouraged me, “Mike you can do it, there’s quite a lot of progressive elements in your music anyway”. The second thought rattling round my head was, ‘What if pacifism wasn’t considered passé anymore? What if soldiers decided, we’re not going to fight?’

The idea behind it was that war was inevitable and I was thinking that those who make the plans that send the soldiers to war, they never get hurt. They do it for political reasons or imperialistic reasons or to support the military/industrial machine. Is this sounding like a conspiracy theory now? Imagine if everyone had a dream that said, “Don’t fight”. I remembered a film title I’d seen when I was about 8 years old, way back in the early 70’s. It was a very bad comedy and a rubbish film that had a great title, ‘Suppose They Gave a War and No-one Came’. Honestly, I am not making that up for an interview.

Progradar – Yes, I have heard of that.

Mike – So I thought, “I’ve got a story” and I wrote the story before I wrote the music. Basically, the story is, everyman (you and I) feeling a little bit worried about this brewing trouble, getting lied to by the politicians of all this terrorist hype, don’t trust your neighbour. Everyman says, “No, we shouldn’t go to war” and gets disgruntled.

Meanwhile the soldiers get called up and the absolutely key thing in the whole of Awake and Dreaming that the whole story is built on. The idea that one night, every single soldier preparing to fight in what I was thinking was the Iraq war (which subsequently became generalised as any war). They are visited by a spirit, kind of Marillionesque. I always liked ‘Forgotten Sons’ on the first Marillion album whereby there’s like a “Halt, who goes there?….Deattttthhhhh”. They personify something abstract.

I thought, “Imagine this spirit which symbolised every young boy that’s ever died in war unjustly, came as this character that visits all these soldiers in a dream” and says “Don’t do it”. What if they just said, “Right, sod you, we’re leaving”. What if the grunts, the foot soldiers, those of low rank who often go into war because they don’t see any other option, what if they just said, “We’re not going to play your bloody games!” The war machine would come to a halt. The soldiers were visited by a dream of the spirit of every man that’s ever died over the millennia and turned into pacifism.

I took it into Leroy and I said, “Look, I’m going to do a prog thing with you”. He said, “I’m right behind it” we had quite a lot of scraps of music, for example, the song ‘Doubt’ was already another song with a different tune and some of those songs stand up as simple ballads anyway. They were already written but with different lyrics.

I thought out the story, I took some existing songs and changed them to fit into the story. We wrote an awful lot of ‘progouts’ together. The second track ‘Dark Clouds Gathering’, which is in 7/8, was written together and ‘Escalation’ (the really frenetic track) took six months to write. We also ended up junking lots of songs.

To cut a very long story short it took us two years, from January 2003  to the end of 2004 to write and record it. One day he said to me “Mike, if this was the 70’s, you’d be very wealthy now, it just a shame the fashion’s gone against it”. He loved it and we played it to people. We were really surprised that, even people who don’t like progressive music as such said, “We really like this”. So, emboldened I got in touch with a guy called Nick Shilton, I’ll maybe leave that for another question?

Progradar – No, you can run that through because I hadn’t really thought about how you’d promoted the album so, if you just want to carry on, not a problem Mike!

Mike – At the end of 2004 I played it to people, starting with my Mum and Dad and when I played it to both of them they were in tears at the dead soldier’s song. I thought, okay that could be family partisanship and bias but there’s obviously something here. I had no kind of ego about it but, we got a sense we had done something quite good. I phoned this guy called Nick Shilton because, back then there was no Prog mag, there was only Classic Rock. It had a tiny little column in it called ‘Hemispheres’ (in reference to the Rush album) by this guy Nick Shilton. I just sent him an email and he came straight back and said  ”Send me the album”. We did, it wasn’t even mastered, it was just raw with all the tracks laid down.

I sent him it thinking “He won’t like it” because you just don’t know do you? We all of us run low self esteem at times. Anyway, he came back within twenty four hours and said, “I really like this, get in touch with these three companies, Inside Out Music, another one called Musea and Malcolm Parker’s Cyclops label.”

Now those are the only progressive labels there were then, in fact,there was another one called Prog Rock in California but they said no because they didn’t like the sound of it. The drums were too tinny, well they were fake drums and we subsequently re-did the drums. Musea offered me a deal but it seemed too good and too easy, I thought, “That guy offers everyone deals, what’s he catch?”, if it’s too easy you’ve got to be suspicious. Inside Out said, “We only sign bands that have been on a label before”, which turned out not to be a fob off, it was true.

I phoned Malcolm Parker at Cyclops, he was very, very unexcited when I phoned him up and he hadn’t even heard the music. I said, “Hello, my name is Mike Morton and I’m in this band called The Gift, we’ve just written a 45 minute prog epic, we’re looking for a record deal for it”, he said, “Well, I must tell you right now, I hardly sign any new bands anyway”, I said, “Why don’t you sign any new bands?” and, he replied, “Because they’re mostly crap!”

Progradar – (Laughs), that’s like a ‘knock you down with a feather moment’.

Mike – He wasn’t telling me it was crap, he was just saying, “We do mainly reissues of golden greats from the 70’s, maybe the 80’s. The number of times we sign a new band is very rare because they’re usually not very good”. I did feel a bit knocked down but I thought, “Well, he hasn’t heard it?”, so I sent him a copy. By this time Nick Shilton had given us about an inch in ‘Hemispheres’. He said “This is a cracking album, sounds like Roger Waters at times”. I cut that out of Classic Rock Magazine and paper clipped it to the CD which is in a little flimsy envelope.

I sent it off and I hadn’t heard anything for two weeks, I thought, “If he knows Nick Shilton likes it, and I told him that Nick had told me to ring him, go for it.” Anyway, on a fine April day in early 2005, four months after we’d finished it he phoned up and said, “Yeah, we’ll offer you a deal” So that was that.  Back then Cyclops was one of the few supporters of prog in an industry that really didn’t care about, we sold a fair number and I got two holidays out of it.

Progradar – That’s better than nothing then, isn’t it?

Mike – Exactly, they wanted us to extend the record another ten minutes. I said, “Malcolm, with all respect, it’s complete as it is”. He’s a lovely bloke that’s trying to make artistic decisions and that’s not his job. I said, “What are you saying then?” and he said, “We’ll sign you if you can make it sixty minutes of music because, otherwise prog fans will think it’s too short for a CD”. We decided to a do a ten minute instrumental to fulfil the contract and that grew into the other track ‘Fountains of Ash’ which is also about something quite serious. It’s about a woman who’s abused by her husband, she’s lonely and she meets him. They’re both middle aged and have never found people they wanted. They get married but he’s got some mental issues which surface and he starts abusing her and then he leaves her. The last track ‘Close to Angels’, is saying that, whatever happens to you, you can rise again. I suppose both the long pieces are similar in that people experience something that’s very dark but there’s a hopeful ending. The idea that they’ll be an end to war in a utopian situation is what ‘Awake and Dreaming’ is saying. In ‘Fountains of Ash’ it’s saying that it doesn’t matter what happens to you, you don’t need to be your history.

We never really thought about it that hard, we just wrote these stories. People have asked me what they are about and I’ve said they are about hope. Fountains of Ash took a year to do. Eventually, sometime in the spring to summer of 2006, three and a half years after we’d started Awake and Dreaming, Cyclops eventually released it. That’s the story of Awake and Dreaming!

Progradar – Neatly filed away there, right, the next question, do you regret never taking that album on the road?

Mike – Yes, massively!! Do you want to hear the, brief, story behind that?

Progradar – Definitely, yes! I’ve read it on The Gift’s Facebook profile and it gives a brief précis, if you like, of this but not just for the interview but, for me personally. I always like to delve deeper and find out more about the story.

Mike – I’ll tell you, the album came out and it got unanimously good reviews everywhere. When we say everywhere, I mean there might not have been a prog in the UK but Malcolm was well connected throughout the world. Fanzines, overseas magazines and all the websites like Dutch Progressive Rock Pages and, most importantly of all, Progarchives, loved it. There were one or two guys saying, “It’s alright, three stars” but no-one gave it a really bad review. The majority gave it four or five stars. I was really surprised and delighted by it. We started making a bit of money from it and Malcolm was happy and we were happy. Not huge amounts but enough to go on a couple of nice family holidays.

I said to Leroy, “Right, we’re a two piece”. I sang and did all the backing vocals. There are no choral mellotrons on it. At the end of Awake and Dreaming, that is us multi-tracking our voices about 50 times. I did all the keyboards and the twelve string guitar. I didn’t play the flute then, I hadn’t learned. He played bass, guitar and the drums were fake. The drums were created by a machine called BFD, it stands for either ‘Big Fat Drumkit’ or ‘Big ‘effing Drumkit’, depending on who you ask. I said, “Let’s be a five piece, let’s do this, there’s a hunger out there”. Steven Lamb, who now runs Summers End loved it, he was saying I’ll get you gigs all around the place. People were asking us to play and, do you know what, you want to dig deep?, Leroy was totally reluctant to do it. He believed in the music but he had this thing in his head that prog would lose money.

Progradar – Do you think it was because he didn’t want to lose face?

Mike – It wasn’t that, no. It wasn’t that he was too cool to do it. He didn’t think prog was un-cool. He said to me, “If we’re going to take this live, let’s do it properly. It’s a concept album. Let’s get slides and images. Let’s do a Roger Waters on it and ‘The Wall’ including props and occasional actors”, I said, “Let’s just put our jeans and t-shirts on and play the music, it will speak for itself”.

So we had an intellectual falling out. We didn’t fall out as mates because I still love the guy now. He is helping me with Resonance festival now. I said, “Let’s do it” and he said, “No, let’s not”. I dug deeper and asked him what the real reason was. He said, “I’ve had my fingers burnt with these big projects before and they don’t make money”, so he just wasn’t prepared to get behind it. I was not angry with him but, because I was so devoted to Leroy. I suffered from tunnel vision and thought, if there’s no Leroy, it can’t be done.

I spent the best part of 2007 trying to change his mind as we had no other musicians. Can you believe that? It’s a long, long time, during which time the recession started to hit my day job. I was getting anxious as my children were young. It is the good old story of ‘life became difficult’ and I just lost my heart for it. Awake and Dreaming stayed as an album and was never played live. For more than two years I was miserable. Between you and me, print this if you like, I was suffering from depression.

Progradar – I’ve been through it myself Mike, it’s nothing to be ashamed of at all. Does it ever weigh on your mind, do you ever re-visit it and think “What if?” or is it, “that’s it, I’ve shut that door and we’ve moved onto a different chapter”?

Mike – No, it doesn’t weigh on my mind at all. I’m not just saying that and I’ll tell you why. I’m a great believer that things happen when they’re right to happen. I know that sounds a bit hippy but, I actually think that, back then I needed to sort some stuff out. If we’d got The Gift going, it wouldn’t have worked out. I wouldn’t have found the right band members and I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to do it. I’ve always believed in the music but, I lost confidence in myself. I don’t think I’d have been up to going on stage. I went in the depression, came out the other side and, do you know what made me well again? Writing again, I didn’t write a single piece of music for two years.

We finish the first part of my interview with Mike Morton at that point. Next time, find out how Mike rediscovered his zest for music and how, with the help of David Lloyd, he went about writing The Gift’s great new masterpiece, Land of Shadows. It is live now, here.

Part II

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).

Progradar – 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.

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