June 25, 2024

If the name Mike Morton is unfamiliar to you, he’s frontman and lyricist with The Gift, once described by Anthony Phillips, someone who knows more than a little about prog, as being ‘one of the finest acts on the current prog scene.’

The Gift released their debut album, Awake and Dreaming, in 2006, which was in some ways almost a homage to the glory days of early 1970’s prog, with nods towards early Genesis and Camel in the mix, but with a modern feel attached to it. The album was essentially two lengthy tracks but broken up into shorter pieces, and the quality was such you could listen to any track at random and it stood up on its own. After a gap of 8 years, they followed this with Land of Shadows in 2014 and, two years later, releasing Why The Sea is Salt, both of which continued in the same proggy vein, producing music which is both exhilarating and challenging. The bands fourth album however, 2019’s Antenna, saw them moving away from epic symphonic rock and towards a more song oriented approach, something more rocky and contemporary.

After several changes in their line-up, 2024 sees the band on the threshold of releasing their fifth album, Seven Seasons, looking likely to be released in the autumn, with the track Think of England having already released as a single. ‘We wanted the new album to be out by the summer,’ Mike said, ‘but it’s just taking longer – but we’ll be working hard on it and it’ll be out sometime in the autumn. It’s funny, but when we first arrived at the studio, (Squarehead studios, just outside Newington, Kent) the place looked like a scrapyard and we thought, are we at the right place? But once inside the door, it turned out to be a really good studio and we enjoy working there.’

What was Mike’s view of the forthcoming album, I wondered?  ‘So far very satisfied,’ he stated. ‘We’ve done four songs out of what will be a total of nine, so there’s still a lot of work to do, but of the stuff we’ve already recorded, I think it’s probably the best recorded album we’ve done. It’s difficult to be objective but the songs seem to be, I don’t know, probably more immediate, though still complex in some areas, but so far I’m really pleased with it, particularly so as we’re doing it old school production, analogue first then adding bits and pieces on top. It might be our strongest yet.’

Given constraints of finance and distance, the mention of old school made me wonder whether all the members of The Gift are in the same recording space at the same time? ‘Five of us were,’ Mike replied. ‘The drummer, bassist, guitarist and me were all in one room, whereas the keyboard player does his stuff afterwards by choice, because he likes to use vintage instruments, so he records in another place and then he sends us the files.’

Bands like The Tangent and Big Big Train, with members living on different continents, record remotely by necessity, don’t they?  ‘Yeah, they do,’ he agreed, ‘and bands like Big Big Train do file sharing all the time, though they did something very different quite recently.  My view about this is you can get a very pristine sound this way but, for me, and this isn’t a criticism because I love many of these artists, it loses a little bit of its bite and its edge. So our idea was to sound like a polished version of how we are live.  The single, Think of England, was done this way, all in the same room and overdubs put on afterwards. Big Big Train recorded their latest album (The Likes of Us) all together but this was a break in behaviour for them.”

Mike went to speculate about why more bands seem to be doing this… ‘It’s something to consider, isn’t it? A lot of bands are going back to doing that… maybe it’s because they realise there’s something slightly sterile about file sharing. I mean, you need to be well rehearsed as well. The bands I grew up with and love, from back in the golden age of prog, like Genesis for example, built up their repertoire because they were playing gigs practically every night of the year so, when they went into the studio, they’d honed their sound. Supper’s Ready had already been played live before they recorded it. I think this makes for better songs.

‘Here’s a little idea of mine,’ he went on, ‘the availability of music tech, which means anyone can run Logic or Pro-Tools from their bedrooms on their Mac, democratises music making because anyone can do it, and it’s great but, at the same time, it can become like a solo project. Speaking for myself, if I start with the synthesiser sound and build something digitally, I think the song can suffer because you get seduced by sounds, and I hear this on certain albums where I don’t quite hear the song. It’s a beautiful atmosphere and the playing’s great, but I’m not hearing the song. I’m not saying I’m right here, but when people get in the room together, and start to play… either someone’s brought in a song, as I often do, or a jam turns into a pattern or a really good riff – something happens which doesn’t happen when you’re alone in your room.’

The title of the next album is Seven Seasons. Given the subject matter, dare I use the dreaded phrase ‘Concept album’? ‘You can absolutely call it a concept album,’ Mike agreed, ‘because it’s unashamedly one. It is, yeah, and it was inspired by a song on our last album (Antenna) called Back To Eden, which talked about the idea of, when you’re a kid, you’ve a sense of the spiritual place you came from, then through different stages of life you lose it as you grow up and get older, but reconnect with it as you approach dying.’

So it’s not based on Shakespeare’s Seven Ages Of Man? ‘No, it isn’t. What happened was, our previous guitarist Dave Lloyd asked if it was, and I said it absolutely wasn’t. I’d not even read it though I was a drama student – it was just about a life. That stayed in my head and then, when lockdown hit, I wondered about the possibility of a concept album charting the seven ages of life? So this eventually became Seven Seasons, and it’s exactly what it is. The first song’s about birth and infancy. Then a second song called School Days, which is a bit Roger Waters-like as it talks about how school crushes the spirit. There’s a ‘young man in his prime’ song, a song about Love and Marriage, then one about mid-life crisis and divorce, which is fairly autobiographical,’ he laughs, ‘then once called Evensong, about old age, and finally one called Love Is Where We’re From, an end-of-life song. That’s the whole suite, and there’s also an overture so, if you add this, there are about eight pieces around forty minutes, plus also some other pieces outside of this, of which the single, Think of England, is one.’

I suggested this all sounded like The Gift were moving towards becoming a more song oriented band, rather than one which plays lengthy prog epics, like Awake And Dreaming. ‘Well, yes, that’s true,’ he emphasised. ‘Awake And Dreaming was actually written as a series of separate songs, and then I just put them together and we created the segue in the studio, so it became this long epic and, in the same way, Seven Seasons won’t have silence between the seven tracks as there’ll be instrumental workouts linking them, so while they’ll still be able to be played as separate stand-alone songs, it’ll still be experienced as an epic…trying to please everybody really. It’s like The Wall, although it’s obviously much longer… the songs can be taken as stand-alone even though the songs tell a story and it’s all one long piece, not like Close To The Edge, which is a proper symphonically structured composition. But it’s hard to be objective about the new album.’

The line-up of The Gift has been quite fluid over the past few years – why all the changes? ‘Ha ha, oh, why all the changes?’ he mused.  I wondered jokingly if I had enough time available to hear his answer? ‘I’ll give you the shortened version,’ he came back with. ‘The lineup’s been through four iterations since 2016. The first one was myself, Dave Lloyd and Leroy James on twin guitars, Neil Hayward on drums and Gabriel Baldocci on keyboards and Stef Stiggers on bass, and this line-up lasted three years, which was the line-up you saw at Ramblin’ Man ( I first saw The Gift in 2017 when they opened up the prog stage on the Sunday) and we were on fire. Unfortunately Dave got burnt out in the process of making Antenna because we kind of over-promised on deadlines, and we didn’t have enough material, so we were all furiously writing. I don’t know about second album syndrome, we were having fourth album syndrome,’ he laughed. ‘Anyway, Dave was exhausted working round the clock to get it finished and mixed, and after it was finished he said, ‘I love you guys but I can’t do this anymore, I’m getting too old,’ so he left, and Neil the drummer went with him.’ He paused for a moment. ‘Actually, the truth was, we were six very busy blokes all doing other things, and none of us did music full time, which is typical for prog, and trying to get us to rehearse was like herding cat – so, being honest with you here, there was always this feeling we were under-rehearsed and we needed to be slicker live, and even though people enjoyed us, we were always dissatisfied, which was too much for Neil and Dave as he’s a perfectionist, and they wanted to rehearse more.

‘This was Mark One. What then happened was my son Rupert joined on drums and we didn’t replace Dave, and this worked for a while. Then, as we came out of Lockdown, we brought in a guy named Tobias Van der Pier to augment Leroy on guitar. But in 2023, Gabriel Baldocci decided to leave as he was too busy with his work… he’s a  classical pianist, he’s top drawer, an exceptional concert pianist and professor of piano at three different music schools. His income had been decimated as there were no classical concert recitals during lockdown, so he’s taken on two more teaching posts out of necessity. Leroy (James) couldn’t get behind Seven Seasons because, being honest, it was my entire composition and he didn’t want to play just Mike’s music… so a bit of band politics there, and he wanted to do less proggy stuff, so he left, and the line-up now is myself, Stef on bass, Benjamin Croft on Keyboards, Chris Taylor on drums and a new guitarist called Christiano Tortoioli, who’s also a great producer so he’s producing the album. So, there it is, the fourth line-up in five years.’

Had all these lineup changes impeded the band’s progress in any way, I asked? ‘That’s a good question… but I don’t think it’s impeded our progress musically, and I say this because I’d built up a lot of songs for this suite, and the contribution from the others has been so strong – helping with arranging and other things – so they started as my songs but they’ve become Gift songs as the chemistry between the new people, especially Christiano, is so good. I think musically it’s helped us progress but in terms of knowing us and live gigs, it’s definitely set us back a bit because we didn’t have a story to tell, there was no new music. So, the effort involved in creating a new line-up and getting the songs to a level of fitness where they can be recorded is a full time commitment, so this year there’ll be far less live work, so it’s impeded our progress in that sense. But, what’s nice is we’re starting to do a little live work… we played a gig in Camden recently… but we’ve got some catching up to do to get us back to the level we were at.’

Anthony Phillips and Steve Hackett contributed guitars to The Gift’s third album, Why The Sea Is Salt. Any special guests on the new release? ‘At the moment no, but I’m talking to Ant Phillips and Hackett to see if they can repeat the trick. Ant hasn’t played twelve string for some while and is reluctant, but I’m hoping to cajole him, whereas Hackett is extremely busy with touring so I can’t guarantee that. And ex-Gift man Gabriel Baldocci is going to contribute some solos and stuff.’

One reviewer of .. Sea Is Salt described the album as being the rebirth of 1970’s Blue Oyster Cult. What did Mike think of this, is it a fair analogy? ‘I’ve no idea,’”’ cue laughter, ‘and I’ll tell you why. Beyond Don’t Fear The Reaper and an album with a song called Seven Screaming Diz Busters (Tyranny And Mutation), I didn’t explore Blue Oyster Cult at all so, if there’s any similarity, it’s entirely accidental. What they might be referring to, because we’re quite rocky, is that quite often people who are extremely focused on classic progressive stuff, and like it very technical, often call us a hard rock band or a melodic rock band with progressive flourishes, which is arguably quite a good tag. But I just don’t get the similarity with Blue Oyster Cult at all. Our influences are clearly Genesis, who are a huge influence on me, which translates to very obvious shades in our music, and also Lizzy, Purple and other classic rock bands, but what people very often don’t pick up on with The Gift is the folk influences and the classic Celtic influences in our music, tracks like Walk In The Water on our second album (Land Of Shadows) or The Tallest Trees on the Salt album. They come completely from my Scottish upbringing, and take away elements like Steve Hackett’s guitars and strip these songs down to the bone, there’s a lot of folk elements to them, especially the quieter ones. And the other thing is, we don’t say ‘let’s be Progtastic’ or let’s be complicated for the sake of it, we just enjoy a little bit of experimentation with the music… but what we always start from is, what’s the best song you’ve got?’

 Along with Andy Tillison of The Tangent, Mike Morton is a very astute wordsmith and The Gift’s music is often accompanied by socially aware lyrical content, subtly expressed rather than full-on in your face. Think Of England, from Seven Seasons, is a song with lyrics which don’t exactly celebrate the events of the past eight years, so what does Mike think of when he Thinks Of England today? He took a few moments to consider this. ‘I think we’ve made some terrible choices,’ he said, slowly, ‘over the last decade or so. Anyone who knows me knows I was fiercely opposed to Brexit. It’s hurt the country economically and it’s frustrated a lot of people. I believe we’re a bit isolationist. In case anyone thinks I’m disloyal, I do like the UK a lot and I’m not thinking of leaving it…’ – a pause while he considers his response – ‘but I do believe optimism in this country’s taken a knock. The Government we have doesn’t care a jot, and I think we’ve lost a lot of our openness. I love the British psyche, but I think we’ve been ruled by shockingly unprincipled people, which has really damaged the country. We called the song Think Of England, which comes from the old Victorian phrase, close your eyes, lie back and think of England, because in the same way, if someone’s being violated, forced to do something they don’t wanna do, we’re resigned to the fact we’re trusting people we shouldn’t trust. We’re not doing it because we want to, we’re doing it for the sake of the country which is not in the individual’s interest, unless you’re a Hedge Fund manager or super rich. This is being political but I can’t get away from it. There are quite a few people in the prog fraternity who aren’t of the same political views as I am, and I wondered if this was alienating our fanbase because of comments after gigs and online saying we’re too political, too left wing, but I thought, ‘you know what? You’ve gotta be truthful. I’m not gonna gag myself just because some Conservative voter’s offended by what I say about Boris. The country’s in a bad state and I particularly feel for young people as they feel cynical as if what they do doesn’t make any difference, but I do feel hopeful about change coming.’

 Mike once described himself as a ‘disappointed optimist’. Does this still apply? ‘Maybe a little bit less disappointed,’ he laughed, ‘but, well, yes, I am a disappointed optimist when I look at the big picture, but in the personal sphere, I’m the opposite of disappointed as I now have a new relationship. I went through a painful divorce during Lockdown but Susie and I have been together about three years now, and I’m celebrating.’

We concluded what had been a very enjoyable talk with an amusing aside, my firing a curveball at him. Did he accept, if he were to grow a much bigger beard, he’d be the image of the current incarnation of Judas Priest’s Rob Halford?  This amused Mike considerably as his peals of laughter suggested. ‘Is that a question?’ he laughed again. ‘But, it’s funny, I have been compared to him before. Drinking with a friend one night in 2018, he pointed out I was losing my hair, and the way I was combing it, back and over, didn’t look right. I was mildly offended for a few moments, till I realised he was right. But when I went to shave it closer, I got the setting wrong and ended up almost as a skinhead, so I just finished the job off. I was working in Grenoble at the time, and this French guy comes up to me as says, ‘you are zee spitting image of Rob Halford.’ I have toyed with the idea of going full beard but, in the business world, I don’t think I’d get away with it!’ – cue more laughter.  

With a new album on the horizon and the likelihood of more gigs, it’s to be hoped this will help The Gift lose the tag of being the ‘best kept secret in prog rock’…