Derek Sherinian To the Moon and Beyond!

By A. Lee Graham

There’s a new kid on the prog-metal block, and his mythological namesake is determined to make its mark.
“This band is next level. We can’t wait for the world to know it,” says Derek Sherinian, speaking from his home studio while planning world domination.

Sharing those ambitions are his bandmates in Sons of Apollo.

With Mike Portnoy on drums, Ron Thal on guitar, Billy Sheehan on bass, Jeff Scott Soto on vocals and Sherinian on keyboards, the quintet is a who’s who of rock virtuosity. Yet for all their prodigious chops, the musicians are determined to soar on wings of melody — of songs — rather than speedy showboating.

“That’s key,” Sherinian says. “Sure, we can play, but we can write songs. And you’ll see that.”

“Signs of the Times” offers proof. Since making its online debut, the advance track from the forthcoming Psychotic Symphony debut has sparked debate among prog-metal fans. Some decry it as warmed-over Symphony X, while others deem it the greatest thing since Portnoy’s days in Dream Theater, the genre’s de facto leader and primary competition to Sons of Apollo, to hear some fans tell it.

While acknowledging the competition— and even encouraging it on Twitter, albeit playfully — Sherinian has nothing but respect for a band both he and Portnoy once served. Portnoy co-founded Dream Theater in the mid-‘80s before leaving in 2010, while Sherinian’s stay was much shorter, lasting from 1994 to 1999.

Since then, the man who also toured with KISS, Billy Idol and Alice Cooper formed Planet X, a chops-heavy instrumental quartet, released several solo albums and formed Black Country Communion with Glenn Hughes, Joe Bonamassa and Jason Bonham.

Sherinian’s bandmates have been equally busy. Sheehan held down the low end for Talas and David Lee Roth, among others, before pumping bass for Mr. Big and Winery Dogs. Soto made his name with Yngwie Malmsteen and belted out vocals for Talisman and the criminally overlooked Soul SirkUS with Neal Schon.

Meanwhile, Thal turned heads with the inventive guitar shredding that highlighted several solo CDs and wowed bigger audiences during time with Guns ’N Roses.

Portnoy continues to plow forward in a seemingly endless number of bands, from Transatlantic, Portnoy Sheehan MacAlpine Sherinian and The Neal Morse Band to Flying Colors to Winery Dogs. And those are just a few of many acts the Dream Theater architect has served over the years. Sons of Apollo seems tailor-made for those craving Portnoy’s prog-metal side.

With Psychotic Symphony set for October release on InsideOut Music-Sony Music and the band preparing to tour the world, Sherinian found time to discuss his latest project.

Lee: Good day, Derek. It’s been a while.

Derek: Hey Lee, how are you?

Lee: Great. Thanks for taking the time to chat.

Derek: Always for you.

Lee: For months, Mike Portnoy’s been hinting at a prog metal supergroup, and now we have Sons of Apollo. How did you get involved?

Derek: Mike and I have a relationship dating back to Dream Theater and we reunited in 2012 for the PSMS [Portnoy Sheehan MacAlpine Sherinian], an instrumental thing. We love playing together, so we thought, ‘Let’s do a prog metal band. Let’s do this for real.’ But he [Portnoy] was busy with four or five things. He’s a busy guy.

Lee: To understate things a bit.

Derek: (laughs) Yeah. Every year of two, we threw it out there and here we are five years later and the timing just worked out. Mike called me and said, ‘Are you ready?’ I said,’Yes.’ From that moment on, I went into full writing mode and I just started digging deep, trying to write the best stuff this band could do, accumulating riffs.

The first thing I did was get us a record deal. Right out of the chute, we got signed without a [band] name, without any songs. Once they heard we were reuniting and going prog-metal, it was insane. In 2017, it was unheard of, but it was very clear with Mike and I together, it’s the secret sauce. Sons of Apollo is the result of that.

The next step was assembling the band. The first person we brought in was Billy Sheehan, then Mike brought in Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal. I’ve known who Ron was from Guns ’N Roses, but I wasn’t really familiar with his playing. When his name came up, I said, ’Is he going to be able to keep up?’ Mike said, ‘He’s going to do great. Just trust me.’ I accepted him based on my trust in Mike. When we got in the studio, I knew within two minutes that this guy was a fucking freak and just on another level musically.

It was like Mike and I found a long, lost brother and we were connected. For two weeks, in that studio, we made an insane fucking record that we’re all so proud of. We just finished mastering it yesterday. I can’t wait for the world to hear this. It’s the perfect balance of heaviness, rock and roll swagger and virtuosity.

To top it off, we have Jeff Scott Soto on vocals. He did an amazing job on this record. I can’t wait for you, for everyone, to hear it.

Lee: How difficult was it to balance the virtuoso element and songwriting? On one hand, you guys have the collective ability to be the most over-the-top band possible, but you wanted to be more than Planet X. How hard was it to balance that with being more accessible?

Derek: Yeah, it came down to the perfect blend. It’s technical. The stuff is sick as anything out there, but strategically precise technique is not being employed for the sake of technique. These are real songs. The verses might sound like Meshuggah, then Return to Forever on steroids or Viagra. There’s not another band doing that we’re doing. We’re the perfect blend.

Lee: Is this Mike’s band, or did you and Mike form the genesis of it?

Derek: Mike is the de facto leader. At the end of the day, Mike is a force to be reckoned with. He knows how to make a band and how to market it. He’s a creative spirit. I love working with him and playing with him.

It’s nice being in a band with someone who’s as ambitious as you are and has the same work ethic. He does not stop. He eats and breathes music. For the first time in a long time, Sons of Apollo will be what you’re going to see him focus on and not spread himself out so much. This is the band that will generate the most heat.

Lee: It seems like everyone in this band is involved in multiple projects, not just Mike. You can identify with what one another are going through. But are you going to be able to promote and tour this properly, even if Sons of Apollo is the focus for everyone?

Derek: We’ve all committed to 2018 for Sons of Apollo. The bottom line is we know how good this record is, the label knows how good it is. We’re going to get total support and push from our label, unlike a lot of bands. It’s going to come down whether we get a little bit of luck in timing if this record resonates and explodes. Everyone’s feeling it. You’re seeing the buzz online just a week after we announced this.

We jammed the other night for a benefit for David [Zablidowsky, the Adrenaline Mob bassist killed in a July 14 traffic accident]. When we were onstage, it was as if the New York Yankees had gone on. It was a whole different level. The excitement just permeated the room.

Lee: Those clips generated a lot of online comments, for sure. But how important is generating record label interest these days given the medium is in a slump now and most musicians handle that themselves through YouTube or whatnot?

Derek: I like to make records. I like a press tour. I like to see my records in the stores. I’m old-school like that. All these GoFundMe, YouTube outlets are good for some people, but Sons of Apollo is a major league act. That’s how we’re going to roll.

Lee: Did you guys trade sound files when recording, or were you face to face?

Derek: No, we were in Ocean Studios Burbank — Ron, Billy and I — for 10  days and we cut all the basic tracks and took session files to all our individual studios. We worked with Jeff on his vocals. It was a long process. It started March 1 and ended yesterday, August 7.

Every other day I was home [on a break from the Generation Axe tour], I was in the studio 12 hours a day, editing, producing, doing keyboard tracks, getting this ready to the point it was ready to master and turn in.

Lee: I realize it was Mike who brought in Ron Thal, but whose idea was it to get Jeff Scott Soto?

Derek: That was Mike’s call. There was a tour where Jeff was opening. When Jeff came in and started collaborating, it was clear. We were looking at a lot of different vocalists and Jeff was the best. I just think he did an amazing job on the record. He was very flexible in the studio. We butted heads a few times, but once he saw the vision of what I was trying to go for, he realized in the end it was for the best and everyone is thrilled by how the vocals sound.

Lee: The minute Sons of Apollo was announced, some fans drew comparisons to Dream Theater. Since you used to be in Dream Theater, how would you compare the two?

Derek: I think it’s a totally different animal. We are a rock band. Dream Theater is not a rock band; they are a prog band. I think they have distortion, but I don’t think there’s any rock pedigree there. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.

Lee: Like comparing, I don’t know, Stratovarius or Symphony X with Led Zeppelin, maybe?

Derek: It’s a different thing. I’ll tell you what, though: a lot of fans would like to see a tour with Sons of Apollo and Dream Theater.

Lee: It would probably need [Dream Theater guitarist] John Petrucci’s approval, and I don’t see that happening.

Derek: You know what? One thing I’ve learned in this business is that the unexpected often happens. You never, never know. We’re not in competition, though. We’re in our own lane and we’re breaking ground with this record. We’re going to let the music do the talking.

Lee: You mentioned Sons of Apollo as your focus for 2018, so how does Black Country Communion figure into that? And how did BCC get back together?

Derek: The bottom line is that people have falling outs. The older you get, you realize life is too short. It’s too short to hold grudges. Joe [Bonamassa, guitarist] and Glenn [Hughes, vocalist-bassist] realized, hell, we’ve got a great band and it’s ridiculous to let a few words said in the press ruin this not only for us, but also for the fans. There you go. Always keep the doors open.

Lee: How would you compare old BCC material with the new stuff? Is it somewhat of a departure?

Derek: There’s no departure. It’s the same formula.

Lee: How do you align your schedules enough to fit everything in?

Derek: It’s all about time management.

Lee: The fans are pumped about Sons of Apollo, but can we expect more Planet X in the future, or does Sons of Apollo fill this void?

Derek: Sons of Apollo definitely fills that void, but there will always be a place in my heart for Planet X. That was my first band right after Dream Theater. It brought harmony and rhythm to the foreground. But right now, I am totally invested in Sons of Apollo and that’s all I can think about now. The rest of 2017 is Sons of Apollo.

Lee: With Allan Holdsworth’s recent passing, I couldn’t help but revisit his playing on [Planet X CD] Quantum. What are your thoughts on Allan and his experiences with him?

Derek: I met him on a few occasions and had the pleasure of having dinner with him. While I was out on tour with everyone from Yngwie to Zakk Wylde, everyone really felt it. All of them had the common denominator of loving him. And Eddie Van Halen, everyone acknowledged that Allan was just amazing.

Lee: Your style reminds me more of an overdriven guitar than a keyboard. You’ve professed your admiration for six-stringers, and your playing just conveys a different attitude than most other keyboardists.

Derek: I don’t think of it as just the way I play. It’s in my DNA. It comes down to the posters on your walls. I had Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Yngwie on my walls growing up. I didn’t have Rick Wakeman or Einstein or Beethoven. I wanted to be a rock star, and at the same time, I wanted to be a virtuoso, as well. That’s always been my dream: rock and roll style but with the virtuosity. That’s why I love Mike Portnoy, that’s why I love Ron Thal, that’s why I love Billy Sheehan. We’re virtuosos, but we rock at the same time.

I can play new wave with Billy Idol, instrumental or hippie rock. No matter what style I play, my signature style bleeds through my playing. It will always be technical, but when it’s all technique, it becomes sterile. Feel and attitude are what people respond to.

Lee: Speaking of the technical side, I’m not sure if you heard, but your recent interview about John Petrucci ‘finding his cyborg in [Dream Theater keyboardist] Jordan Rudess’ stoked much debate in prog forums. It really stirred up the hornets nest. What do you think about this sort of back and forth? It seemed like quite an innocuous comment to me.

Derek: Throughout the years, a lot of people I talk to say [Dream Theater] is cold and technical. But I want to tell you from playing with those guys, to be able to play those passages consistently every night on tour, you have to respect that whether you like their music or not. That’s what I have to say about that. John is a consistent guy. He’s amazing. He plays great every night.

Lee: It probably goes without saying, but with Sons of Apollo your focus for the immediate future, we probably can’t expect any more Derek Sherinian solo releases for quite a while.

Derek: You never know, but I have little time for much else right now.