Drumming in the Garage with Neal Morgan

I saw Neal Morgan play a show in Dresden, Germany last fall. He opened for and played with Bill Callahan at an old concert hall in the outskirts of the city. I went to the show last minute and until that night, I was unaware that Morgan often played and toured with Callahan. Morgan’s drum-intense, unique set caught me off guard, as it does with anyone who has ever seen him play before. My boyfriend attended the show with me, and he was even more shocked by the performance; he kept wondering if Morgan was going to play a “normal” song, but, as we learned, Neal Morgan’s music is not normal.

Neal Morgan is an American musician from Portland, Oregon. He refers to his releases as “drum and voice” albums because he plays the drums, recites poetry, and sings. Music critics today frequently compare bands with others, saying one band sounds like another. Neal Morgan only sounds like himself. His combination of busy drum work and precise vocals isn’t the easiest to listen to, but his music is an acquired taste that proves worthy of getting to know.

As mentioned, Morgan is known for his work with Bill Callahan. In addition to joining Callahan during live performances, Morgan arranged and performed the drum work on Callahan’s album Apocalypse. He also arranged and performed the drums on Joanna Newsom‘s Have One On Me. The two musicians have been very supportive of Morgan’s career. They’ve had him open and tour with them for the last several years, including many tours in Europe. Morgan says of Callahan:

It has been such an honor and so fun to work with Bill–he is a very special and rare artist, to state the obvious. Risk-taking, adventurous, and, for my money, at the top of his game. A game that no one else can even try to play, by the way. It’s really something to be able to support him.

At the end of January Morgan released his second solo record, In The Yard: a group of 12 songs he recorded in his garage in Portland. The Drag City album was modestly reviewed and hugely overlooked.

In The Yard presents Morgan’s best musical assets. He’s a spectacular drummer (very flexible, inventive) and his voice is clear, with great diction. His songs range from simple and pure with layered vocals and softer drumming (or no drumming, like on the track “On A Cut Hill”) to fast and ravenous, with louder singing or talking, like the track “I Dreamed.” The drums usually remain in the foreground as the focal supporting structure of Morgan’s songs, but they change with each song, exuding different levels of intensity.

Morgan is a musician and a poet, prompting listeners to ask themselves why everyday lyrics can’t be more poetic. He focuses on each line, thinking about how it sounds and how it should bleed into the next. He thinks about which consonants should be emphasized, and which songs are better left alone without too much percussion.

One standout track on the album is “I Stand On A Roof,” where Morgan starts the song with a long drum introduction and then leads into a poem about “standing on a roof” during a hot day when a nearby forest is being plowed down and some “rich assholes from L.A. are putting in a house.” It’s a short song that doesn’t even pass the two-minute mark, but it’s full of Morgan’s lucid expression and diction. According to the musician, he has never taken any voice lessons (and he’s hardly taken drum lessons), but he wishes he had.

“Kicking the Ball” features Morgan’s ruminative poetry that he sings over looped and layered “oohs.” It’s obvious that Morgan really concentrates on the flow of the words in his songs. “Kicking the ball / Today on level ground / In the heat / After everyone had gone / Rewind the movie and I’m / Climbing over a Boulder / In the back quarter of the land / On my own,” he sings, without any backing drums.

Morgan’s “oohs” are pretty tame in “Kicking the ball” compared to the track “The Evidence,” where his layered vocals take the form of mini backup choirs, lending him a hand and building the song into a broader orchestration. The result is his solo project sounding much bigger, showing that looping devices, when used correctly, can really benefit a solo musician.

“May 21 2009” and “Wandering The Block” are busier tracks that highlight Morgan’s drumming; neither of them are in standard 4:4 rhythm. The percussion bits are loud and multi-directional, full of fuzz and natural distortion. The raw “garage” sound is something Morgan chose for specific reasons, such as the fact that he doesn’t want to own a surplus of recording gear or learn how to be an engineer beyond placing a microphone, hitting record, doing minor edits, and turn volume knobs up and down. He explains:

I want to work quickly to capture everything since it’s all built on first impulses on top of first impulses. In terms of process, the songs are written through the recording process, the capturing of first impulses. It’s more like collage. And I have to be my own engineer to make it happen. I’m writing in the studio, basically, like the Rolling Stones. But instead of a $5 million budget, I’m in my garage with one mic and a drumkit. Finally, aesthetically, I’ve always liked recordings that show the fingerprints of the songwriter in the production. I don’t mean that I like lo-fi recordings necessarily, but if I am able to get a sense of the artist’s hand through a lo-fi approach, great. I also very much like sounds that I get with cassette and boomboxes and the other cheap and easy equipment I have. I’m sure there is a ‘blown out drums’ midi app or plug-in, or whatever they’re called, in the digital recording world, but I don’t want to buy that stuff or learn how to do it. Doesn’t interest me at all.

On In The Yard, the musician’s intentions to “show the fingerprints” of his work are evident as he adds layers and loops on to each base of a song; listeners can hear how he creates and recreates, being a part of the process in turn. If Morgan had toned things down, evened things out, worked in a high-end studio, maybe he would have actually sounded like some “other bands.” In a big way, his creation process is what helps him stand on his own.



–Jen Brown

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