Eric Gillette (The Neal Morse Band, Shattered Fortress, solo work) was first seen in the realm of progressive rock after he auditioned and joined The Neal Morse Band. Since then, he has impressed the progressive world, not just for his skills as a guitarist, but also his mastery of the keyboards, his strong vocal contributions, and even his drumming abilities. Eric Gillette has been called “John Petrucci Jr.” by his bandmate Mike Portnoy, for his near-perfect live rendition of Petrucci’s challenging parts. I had the honor of seeing Eric at Cruise to the Edge, and he was one of the most impressive musicians of the event (and his competition was stiff on that cruise ship), and wrote in my review that he was going to become one of prog’s biggest stars. Eric agreed to answer some questions for us about his life, his work with The Neal Morse Band and Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress, and his solo work.
Hi Eric! Thanks for being with us at Proglodytes. First off-Where are you from? How did you start playing guitar?
I am from Dallas, Texas. I started playing guitar at age 12. My Dad played guitar and my aunt played just about every instrument. So I picked up stuff from them along the way.
You are great at both keyboards and guitar, and I’ve seen you play drums pretty well too. How did you learn the instruments that you can play?
I learned everything by ear. I started piano at 4 years old, and I have always been interested in all kinds of instruments. I even played saxophone in school band. I doubt I could remember how to play anything on the sax now though. I learned a lot on the drums by watching Mike play and by watching his instructional DVD’s.
The Neal Morse Band
How familiar were you with Neal’s music previous to the audition?
I was mostly familiar with the Testimony live DVD. I got it for Christmas one year from my parents after I showed some interest in it. I read about it on Mike’s forum on his website and I was very interested in getting it.
What have you learned/how have you grown by playing with the Neal Morse Band?
I could probably go on for days answering this… I would say that I have learned the most about writing, arranging and that it’s all about the songs when writing a record. It’s not all about shredding, or how well you can play sweep arpeggios, or how awesome you can tap. If you don’t have good songs, then none of that really matters. Neal has an incredible gift for writing (as everyone knows). And Mike is amazing at arranging. And Mike doesn’t even really think about the drum parts until it is time to track the songs. He is way more concerned with the songs and the structure. I thought that was really cool. It really forces you to think about the song and the composition, and then figure out how you can best compliment that with your instrument. I have just tried to be a sponge and soak up as much of their experience as I possibly can. I would also say I have grown a ton as a musician since I began playing with these guys. Being around guys like them makes you a better musician.
The Similitude of a Dream was apparently much more democratic than previous Neal Morse releases. Describe the writing process for this album- how much creative control did Neal cede to you guys? How did the writing process differ from The Grand Experiment?
It was a complete collaboration. It was just us 5 in the studio, tossing around ideas, jamming, coming up with melodies, and then piecing it all together to go along with the story. It is way different than just writing by yourself in a room. You get instant feedback, along with the other guys ideas, and sometimes someone will take your initial idea and turn it into something really cool you would have never came up with alone. I would say the only main difference for me with Similitude was that I feel like I fell into my role in the band. And I knew what my strengths were and what I can contribute most to the band.
What contributions were you most proud of?
That is tough since it was such a collaborative thing. So aside from saying “The album as a whole”, I would say the solo in “The Slough”. It was my tip of the hat (again) to the great Allan Holdsworth.
Were you a Dream Theater fan previous to being asked?
Absolutely. I discovered Dream Theater when I was about 17 years old. I went to a G3 concert in Fort Worth, Texas. I saw John Petrucci along with Mike Portnoy and Dave LaRue. So I immediately went home and looked John up and found out about Dream Theater. I was an instant fan.
What is your favorite song to listen to, and what is your favorite song to play?
My favorite song to listen to and also to play is “The Glass Prison”.
How was it working with Haken?
Working with Haken was great. Not only are they incredible musicians, but equally as incredible people. I had just as much [fun] hanging with them as I did playing music with them on stage.
When did you write these songs? Had you done any albums before?
I had written a handful of songs back in 2008 and they were just ideas and demos. I knew I wanted to put out a solo album, so I wrote some new material like “Lost”, “Look Inside”, “Bring You Down” and some others. Then I revisited some of my old demos and ended up using some of those ideas to fill out the album. It was my first solo album and it was a great learning experience, but also a lot of work! I flew to Nashville and tracked drums at Neal’s studio. Then I recorded the rest of the instruments and vocals at my studio, along with mixing and mastering it.
Guitar wise, were you channeling any artists in particular?
There’s probably a few different people I was channeling at different times. One that comes to mind is “Blue Sky”. That was definitely an Eric Johnson inspired instrumental guitar piece.
The Great Unknown
What made you decide to work with Diego, Conner and Thomas?
I had the idea to get Diego and Conner on the record for a while. They are young guys that are killer at what they do and I definitely knew that I didn’t want to play everything on this album. I wanted to focus more on, writing, production, and my guitar and vocals. Thomas was the first guy that came to mind for drums. He is insane and brought an awesome feel to the album! I was beyond happy with what all the guys added to the album.
I noticed your voice is more present on this album. What prompted you to write that way (less instrumentals)?
I wanted to focus this album around vocal songs. It was definitely intentional and the direction I plan on continuing toward.
On both albums, you have epic songs that are nearly 20 minutes. What are your favorite epic prog songs?
One of my favorite epics would be Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence by Dream Theater. That is more of a full concept album rather than an “epic” I guess, but it is definitely one of my favorites.
What is the musical career that you aspire to? (Solo, band, instrumental, etc)
I want to continue to make music. My solo work, The Neal Morse Band, and who knows, maybe a band project down the road? I’m open to anything. It’s amazing to get to do what I do and I don’t take it for granted.
What I would like to do that I haven’t had the chance to do yet, is to tour my solo material. So I am going to make strides in that direction in the future.
What gear are you currently using?
I play Music Man guitars. Mainly a JP12 and a JP7. I am using a Fractal Audio AX8 live and I use the Axe FX 2 XL in the studio. I also use a Matrix GT1000FX if I am wanting to run a cab from my Axe FX. I am lucky to get to play the best gear out there!
Buy The Neal Morse Band’s latest album, The Similitude of a Dream, here. Check out Eric’s incredible work with The Shattered Fortress and the 12 Step Suite on Youtube. And last but definitely not least, go forth and buy Eric’s 2 solo albums- Afterthought and The Great Unknown -if you want to hear the music of one of progressive metal’s brightest stars.