“Play what you love”: Deep Purple’s Steve Morse talks sticking to the music path with Nathan Cavaleri
Steve Morse is an American guitarist and composer, whose career has encompassed everything from rock and country to funk, jazz and classical. Often credited for revitalising Deep Purple creatively during their 1994 reincarnation, Morse was also the founding member of The Dixie Dregs, briefly a member of Kansas in the mid-1980s and has enjoyed a successful solo career.
In the second of our ten-part content series, Nathan Cavaleri chats to the rock legend about staying true to your vision, and why recent health developments means the 63-year-old never stops practicing his craft.
In an industry where expression collides with business, how do you keep the passion to play/write music alive?
I think having a full life makes it easier to have a real passion for expressing yourself. If I am in the studio for 10 hours, I feel like a break, but if I’m involved in day-to-day tasks, the music feels like an attractive way to escape to that other world.
Have you ever come close to leaving music? If so, what prompted it and what inspired you to stay?
I actually have, twice. Both were the result of having music business problems that seemed insurmountable. In the process of doing jobs outside of music, I grew a lot, and learned that there are problems in every business.
In the end, I just missed playing music – even in both cases, I intended to keep recording. Being full time is just a better fit for me, I guess.
How do you stay true to your vision, in an industry that is filled with opinion?
It’s been pretty easy, because I realised at the first crossroads I came to, that the choice was made.
Basically, an agent said he could get us good money gigs if we got a singer and did more covers. I knew I was going to be an underground player forever. It’s ironic that I play full-time with Deep Purple after all of that. But, my club band being heard by Roger Glover is what lead me to jam with the band, and we just happened to have great chemistry together.
What does the day of a gig right up until stepping on stage look like?
With Deep Purple, it’s pretty easy. Phone call wakes me up, and there’s no time to do anything except get dressed while guzzling some caffeine, Clean up the room and then downstairs, say hi to the guys, and we’re out the door. Some countries there are albums to sign before getting into the cars, some places it’s eBay resellers only, some places it’s actual fans. Then we’re on the way to the airport.
Go through security at the airport, and we’re on the plane for an easy flight, then back eventually into vans going to the hotel. More signing, most times, in order to get in the hotel front door. Many of them are actual fans, so nobody wants to leave them hanging.
Wait for suitcase downstairs so that I get it more quickly, then back up to the room. Unpack a few things, get ready for shower. Scarf down my peanut butter sandwich while practicing. More caffeine, more easy practicing, shower, head downstairs, go to gig.
Table full of signing requests in the dressing room, then make tomorrow’s sandwich, start warming up. Have a few minutes with the band every time before the show, where nobody but us just joking around having a drink together. Then, shake hands, and go out and give it your best.
Afterwards, usually a meet and greet, then to the room, check emails, wind down to try to get some sleep. I’m nearly an insomniac, so that’s not always easy. I read for a while, then try to sleep.
With a normal band’s bus tour, it’s a lot tougher, because of the fact that I can’t sleep on an overnight bus, and I’m comatose on my feet and getting sick a lot. And without the luxury of a hotel every day, life gets tougher.
When we were all kids doing it, we would wash our hair in a freezing outside faucet, drive all night every night, sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag. Quite a big range of possibilities!
What tips do you have in balancing family with music life?
Be involved! Communicate as constantly as you can. Spend every minute that you can together when you’re home, too. All Dads have to work, so keep reminding everybody that the reason there’s food in the fridge is because the people in the audience took money out of their pockets to buy tickets, and those tickets wouldn’t be worth anything if the band didn’t show up to the play the shows!
What do you do to stay physically and mentally balanced? (on and off the road if you are a touring artist)
I do a light workout for a few minutes every day, to improve circulation, and try to keep my calorie burn rate up. I use the stairs if I can see that they’re not alarmed. Mentally, I work on my home problems while I’m on the road. For instance, the air conditioner or the washer has a problem, I start researching them, finding the service manuals or wiring diagrams, then might order some parts to be sent home so that I can jump on it right away. I also write music for outside projects, mostly for TV sound bites, in conjunction with a great team that gives me the opportunity to contribute.
How do you carry out the roles of a performing artist during times when you’re feeling sub-par? Be it unwell or emotionally unstable.
Well, we usually get a doctor involved if there’s a high fever or food poisoning. I’ve had both multiple times, and have had IV injections to make it to the show, if need be. Nobody misses a show unless they literally can’t play – or sing – at all. We’ve done shows with puke buckets behind the amp lines, and everybody has had to play when they could have used a long rest instead. The show must go on.
Emotionally unstable, that’s another thing. It hits most musicians – being gone, feeling isolated, the stress of people’s expectations, divorces, children being without their Dad, it goes on and on. That’s a very difficult thing, and having somebody to talk to helps, as well as faith. But you will never find me criticising those musicians who have felt overwhelmed and ended it all. I do understand that, but for the grace of a few slightly different coping habits, there would go all of us.
What epiphany(s) has altered your approach to music/life?
Having my son, Kevin. We have dealt with divorce, his stepbrothers being part of his life, then not, as another divorce happens, then growing up with a Dad who’s gone, then totally involved for periods of feast/famine with our whole time together. We’re extremely close, and I thank God for having a full family now, and giving me such an amazing son.
Have you ever experienced anxiety/depression/nervousness around a tour? If so, what are (were) the triggers and how do (did) you manage it?
Yes, a lot of which is around my aforementioned son Kevin. Triggers can be bad news, the feeling of helplessness as the band you’re involved with schedules things that seem WAY too long, days off on the road without being productive musically, physical problems with technique that seem to have no solution – just for starters!
Can you trace your current successes back to any big risks or leaps? If so, what were they?
Having a family and choosing a path. Working hard at your music from a passionate point of view has helped, I think. I knew as a kid that I was never destined to be a flamboyant performer that would be popular, but I knew I could see and hear music, and figured there must be a place for me somewhere.
Help those who are falling and relay an experience you’ve had that landed you flat on your face.
Lots of those. The freshest in my mind is happening right now, over the last few years. Having genetic arthritis profoundly advanced in a few key joints in my right hand had me running around for medical solutions.
After weighing everything, I tried playing with fingers only, even tried to relearn left-handed, but found that it still put my right wrist in a very painful position. Then I tried relearning how to solo with legato (making a transition from note to note with no intervening silence), and now, I’ve been relearning how to play with a different pick position and very little wrist movement in order to buy more time.
It has been the most frustrating experience to not be able to play something you could do any day of the week a few years ago.
So, instead of being afraid of practicing, I now try to do it more, as I see there are ways I can work around this. Fingering and string assignments can help me play with my ’new’ technique, and of course, I spend lots of time doing technique exercises to strengthen the co-ordination with this new method.
For gigs, I put on as much topical pain killer as possible to numb it, then wrap my wrist, then play as much as possible with the new technique, but use my old technique often onstage, as the painkiller going to the nerves helps me do that when needed. So, I’m back to alternate picking, but with two distinctly different techniques – emphasis on the newer for practicing especially.
What is your philosophy on fear? How do you deal with it?
Educate yourself. Head straight for whatever you fear. Within reason, of course. Learn about it, take it in steps, don’t give up, be smart, but persistent. Fear is often a legitimate response, but most often is something that can be overcome to your advantage.
If you were to wave a magic wand, how would you like to spend your time in the future?
With family and some fun gigs and recording, teaching others from my experiences.
Are there any other wisdoms you’d like to share?
Play what you love. If you want to play for fame, ask people who do it for a living if that’s a good enough motivator to make you work on your music (mostly alone) for the rest of your life.
Nathan Cavaleri is on a mission to express life experiences, sharing stories in a bid to spread wisdom and inspire epiphanies. All via a weekly post on his website.