Morris Plays Morris After a Long Year of Lockdown

Apr 28, 2021 at 10:57 am
Morris band: from left Nick Layman, Gregory Morris, and Tony Downs (photo credit: Lonnie Turner)
Morris band: from left Nick Layman, Gregory Morris, and Tony Downs (photo credit: Lonnie Turner)

Local drummer Gregory Morris took his time in lockdown to create a new music project, morris, a rhythm section. For this project he is playing with bassist Tony Downs and recording engineer Nick Layman on guitar. With an upcoming show and new band, he took time to share with LEO what he’s been up to, how he stayed inspired and worked during the last year. 

LEO: Talk to me about your band? When did it form? Gregory Morris: This is a project that grew out of the COVID lockdown. Tony Downs is the bass player in Heat Machine with me. I love playing with Tony and our mental connection is right where it needs to be. We clicked so well that we’ve been working on becoming a rhythm section unit. Nick Layman is a guy that I’ve had my eye on since meeting him back in 2013. The guy is truly a unique talent. He’s a trained jazz drummer and professional studio engineer, as well as an obsessive gearhead. 

This project gave me a reason to play with Nick as well as expand what Tony and I do together. After getting together the first time, things started moving fast. Nick got us some studio time and we recorded an EP on only the third time playing together. From there, it’s continued to move fast.  

What is your background with local music, and what bands did you listen to that inspired you to play music? Although a Louisville lifer, I didn’t get plugged into the music scene until after moving back from college. It was the fall of 1999. Cahoots had just opened up and ‘the Rud’ [Rudyard Kipling] was going strong. I met a bunch of people in that period and started saying yes to just about anyone who’d be willing to let me play. Within a year, I started with Glasspack and just kept saying yes to anyone who’d ask. From there, I joined Johnny Berry (before the Outliers), Seluah (I never got a show, but played for about 6 months), The Ladybirds, Mr. Panic Button, The Heat (later becoming Weapons), Parlour and Heat Machine. That doesn’t count the hundreds of jams, one-off shows with different people and studio projects. I’ve done a ton of playing in town but never got to release an album. Each of the bands either had just released something great or would go to release great music after I left. 

During the COVID lockdown, I did some musical soul searching and realized I needed to get some music out the door. The morris project was a great chance to get something out quickly and not overthink it. I’ve got three other albums in various states of completion with projects that will likely get released by 2022, so this is just the beginning.

Morris Guitarist Nick Layman. Photo by Lonnie Turner. - Lonnie Turner
Lonnie Turner
Morris Guitarist Nick Layman. Photo by Lonnie Turner.

Talk to me about the new release and the process for creating. How did the pandemic affect your creative process? The process of creation was testing the abilities of the hive mind to drive musical creation. The greatest music recorded was either written in the studio or culled from jam sessions and whittled down into tracks. I thought it would be a great exercise to push us to play what our collective unconscious mind told us to play. It’s not jamming. A more accurate description could be spontaneous composition. It told us what to play.

I know you have a live show coming and just had one; what made you want to risk playing live? Are you apprehensive or just ready to drive back into life? A bit of both. I’ve had both shots, so I’m vaxxed and ready. Still, I’d hate to be the cause of someone getting sick. The people at fifteenTWELVE did the best they could, and the space is big enough to allow safe social distancing, plus everyone wore masks inside. I think we’re going to have to baby step our way back and do whatever we can to help keep places open and get back to live music. In retrospect, I’m glad I did it, and it felt safe the entire time for everyone involved.

Who helped get your music out? This could have never happened without the help of Syd Bishop and the people at Deus Marginalia. The label gave me the space and support to release a creative statement that I’m proud of. Also, Shawn Trail did a fabulous job of mastering the tracks. Shawn was one of my roommates back in the late ‘90s. Since that time, Shawn went off and made himself a real pro at the digital capture of sound and engineering. He’s my adopted little brother, and I’ll love him forever. 

Do you play music full time? If not, what is your day job? I’ve always maintained a career outside of music. Currently, I work in population health at Humana. Our work there is helping to quantify the social needs of our Medicare and Medicaid members as well as piloting initiatives that can address those needs. It’s a new direction for healthcare payers, but they have finally understood that the best way to lower the cost of care for an individual is addressing their needs outside of the clinical setting. 

When the world opens up, how do you think the local music scene will recover — crowds and venues? My bet is that the music scene will likely return to its former slow burn of previous years. That said, I hope that more people start coming out and supporting live music. The music is there. What venue that music is played in will likely change, but that was always the case. 

Any other shows planned? My next show is with Heat Machine (two-thirds of morris) on 4/30 at Art Sanctuary. Jeff Jobson has been doing a great job running the Late for Dinner series where bands play without an audience. I did it about a month ago with morris and loved it. 

What did the last year teach you about yourself as an artist/creative? Is it something you hope to hang on to? I learned to focus and live like a monk. My physical, mental and musical training throughout the year has left me in peak condition. I know not everyone handled the lockdown in this way, but it was my only way of coping. I’ve been cycling about 50-75 miles a week, exercising daily at home, reading books, meditating and doing tons of stick practice on the practice pads. My fear is that I’ll lose the momentum when I can travel again. Still, I feel great and am ready for what’s next.