“I didn’t know if Ross would be into this kind of music… I sent him an email and he was like, ‘Dude! You have no idea!’ It just fell into place”: How Haken’s Ross Jennings wound up making two albums in 18 months with Nick D’Virgilio and Neal Morse

D'Virgilio Morse Jennings
(Image credit: Chad Hoerner)

Despite pursuing multiple projects already, prog luminaries Nick D’Virgilio, Neal Morse and Ross Jennings concluded they were simply not busy enough. As they pressed the button on their cunningly-titled Sophomore, Prog caught up with two-thirds of the group to find out if they likely to make it a hat-trick of albums.

That’s quite the look, Neal!” cackles Nick D’Virgilio to his buddy Neal Morse as the Zoom call kicks in. The former Spock’s Beard and current D’Virgilio, Morse & Jennings compadres explode with laughter on first sight of each other – always a good sign, even when the interviewees already have reputations for being distinctly non-prickly.

The reason for the mirth is Morse’s wide-brimmed blue hat and matching waterproof poncho. He’s tied in a family road trip with his sister’s birthday celebration in the San Francisco Bay area, travelling from his home in Nashville. “It’s morning in Lake Tahoe and I’m sitting by the campfire, dude!” he explains to D’Virgilio.

The Big Big Train drummer, meanwhile, is joining us from Sweetwater Studios in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he works as a session vocalist, drummer and engineer. With the pair happy to see each other and nicely warmed up, we dive straight in to tackle the strangest thing about a group with such apparently organic vocal harmony perfection: the trio – who just launched their quickly-realised second album, Sophomore – have only ever been gathered together in the same place twice.

“Yeah,” says Morse, “this was all file sharing like the first album because of logistics, but also it’s an ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ kinda thing. I think we were all very happy with the way the first album turned out, so why not continue in that way? There was something kinda graceful and easy with the way it’s come together and I’m really pleased with both records.”

The second of the two occasions that they’ve all been together was quite recently, with the intention of getting the promotional gears turning, according to D’Virgilio: “We went to shoot a couple of videos in Neal’s studio in Nashville. Ross had just finished his run of dates in the States with Haken and flew down.”

Ah yes, Ross Jennings. Forming a band with two ex-Spock’s guys, especially a project with a pronounced 70s West Coast feel, one wouldn’t necessarily think of a relatively young English prog metaller as the missing ingredient. But Morse explains how Jennings was foremost in his thoughts.

“I’d just watched the Absolute Universe video [from The Final Flight: Live At L’Olympia concert film by Morse-fronted prog supergroup Transatlantic]. They’d had the idea to have us interviewed by our peers. I watched Ross interviewing Mike Portnoy, so Ross was in my head.

“We’d actually been talking for weeks about who should be the third guy. I didn’t know if Ross would be interested or into this kind of music at all. But I sent him an email and he was like, ‘Dude! You have no idea! I’m a huge fan of acoustic music and country and all that kind of thing.’ So it just fell into place in a beautiful way.”

One of DMJ’s primary inspirations is Crosby, Stills & Nash. Graham Nash’s proud English tones added to that unit’s uniqueness. Did they think they needed an Englishman for DMJ’s vocal blend, or was it just a coincidence? D’Virgilio laughs with surprise at the thought. “I guess a coincidence more than anything else, really!”

Morse looks intrigued. “Y’know, I’d never even thought about that until this moment!”

Even if having the same international composition as CSN wasn’t planned, perhaps the difference in pronunciation, in projection, subtly adds to DMJ’s vocal mix in a similar way, giving it the same compelling quality that it did to one of their key influences.

As well as the outstanding harmonies on Sophomore, there are rockier moments. For example, Morse’s Mama sticks out as stylistically edgier. “Yeah, sort of like the first record, I thought it’d be cool to have a little bit more of a rockier, high-energy ‘toon,’” he says.

Second Hand Sons was the one on the first record that had that rock edge, so that was part of the inspiration. I started off with the guitar riff and I started thinking about my mom and that opened the floodgates!”

I would love to take this on the road someday. I think it’s a really fun little project and I think we could make a really nice evening’s music

Nick D’Virgilio

“Basically it’s a tribute to mothers,” adds D’Virgilio. “If you’re lucky enough to have a great relationship with your mom – as I do and I know Neal did and I think Ross does as well – moms do a lot for us from when we’re little kids all the way into our adult lives. That’s where this song stems from.

“The first verse is looking at our mothers when we’re young kids. They’re still young women and they take care of everything and they do everything for you. Then, when you’re a teenager – that’s the second verse – you try to get away with a lot of things. You think you can fool your mom, but you can’t!

“The bridge is about how you love each other and the last verse is when you’re an older person and your mother’s older and even at that stage, she’s still got your back! She still supports you and will take on the world for you, no matter how old she is. It turned out to be a fun track!”

Equally as successful, musically, is The Weary One. Written by Morse in Hamburg, the old stomping ground of the pre-fame Fab Four, it has an indirect Beatles influence. “I was on the Neal Morse Band tour for [2021 album] Innocence & Danger and I had a day off in Hamburg,” he says.

“Our friend Tommy was working in the Reeperbahn on this Beatles cover band gig and invited us, so some of us went and I just had Beatles songs in my head. I was thinking about Help, and about John crying out for help, so that had something to do with The Weary One. But mainly, I was just sitting in a hotel room feeling really tired!” Both Morse and D’Virgilio, who’ve doubtless had a few exhausted moments while touring, laugh hard.

I love this kind of music and I don’t really have another outlet for it. Nick and Ross are so wonderful – it’s a real gift to have people like that

Neal Morse

Despite their other commitments, DMJ are already at album number two, just a year and a half after the first. Prog wonders if it’s now a long-term project and D’Virgilio is all for it: “I sure hope so! The guys know my feelings about it.

“I would love to take this on the road someday. I think it’s a really fun little project and I think we could make a really nice evening’s music doing this kind of stuff and throwing in a few extra little bits and bobs. So, in my mind, we can pull that off one of these days.

“I see a third record coming, because the records are really easy to make, at least the first two have been. So long as we have the songs and we have time to throw things together back and forth, I hope it can last for as long as it can last!”

Morse agrees. “For me, it’s a lovely outlet. I love this kind of music and I don’t really have another outlet for it. Nick and Ross are so wonderful, it’s a real gift to have people like that to sing with, even though we’re not singing together in the room. When we did sing together in the room, it was like, ‘Oh yeah!’ It was funny how the magic was there, just like on the records!”

Let’s hope these sophomores are laughing all the way to graduation.