Sons of Apollo’s Mike Portnoy + Derek Sherinian: We Transcend Dream Theater Comparison, Find Beauty in the ‘Art of Strategic Wankery’ [Interview]
One of the most buzzed about new projects of 2017 is Sons of Apollo, featuring some of the finest players in rock and metal. The band started with former Dream Theater cohorts Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian, with the pair adding the talents of Portnoy’s Winery Dogs bassist Billy Sheehan, former Guns N’ Roses and current Art of Anarchy guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal and veteran rock vocalist Jeff Scott Soto. The five-piece found a quick and easy chemistry that spills out over their impressive debut disc, Psychotic Symphony, in stores today (Oct. 20).
We recently had a chance to speak with both Sherinian and Portnoy in separate interviews about the new album, but their answers are combined for this piece. The keyboardist and drummer discuss the formation of the group, how their Dream Theater past plays in but also differentiates from what we get in Sons of Apollo and we hit on some of the album’s key tracks. The pair also discuss their plans to pull off the music live, including on the upcoming Cruise to the Edge. Check out the chat below.
How exciting was this to connect musically again after all these years and was there any challenge to it or was it musical shorthand?
Derek Sherinian: Musical shorthand. That’s a good way to call it. It was like a day did not pass. Mike and I have always had a real strong musical and personal chemistry and connection. We reunited back in 2012 when we toured with Billy Sheehan and Tony MacAlpine and realized that we really enjoyed playing in a band together, and it’d be nice to do something. So here we are in 2017 with Sons of Apollo, we had already played with Billy so he was our only choice on bass and then Mike brought in Bumblefoot. The first day I met Bumblefoot was the first day that we started making the record and so it was like I met a long lost brother that I hadn’t met in 50 years and we had 10 days to make up for lost time. We just channeled it into the top position and the writing.
I have to say, Chad, that making Psychotic Symphony was the most gratifying as a musician experience that’d I have ever had as a musician to date. I’m very grateful for that, and very excited about the results of the record. Everyone I’m talking to around the world, and I’ve done almost 200 phone interviews and face to face on this press campaign, every journalist, it’s universal, is blown away by this record and calling it a masterpiece. I can’t say that I can argue with them.
Mike Portnoy: Right after I left Dream Theatre in 2010, one of the first people I got together with was Derek and we put together the DSMS touring thing. Which is me, Derek, Billy and Tony MacAlpine. And we just went out and did some live shows just for the fun of it. There was really no other bigger picture in mind, but reconnecting with Derek was awesome. It was like, reconnecting with a long lost brother at a family reunion or something like that. And he and I always had similar personalities in Dream Theater. We were always the ones that were kind of always goofing around and having fun and being sarcastic. That’s how we got that nickname the Del Fuvio Brothers. And when we reunited for DSMS, it felt great. It was awesome to be playing with him again. We knew that someday we wanted to do something further in terms of making new music together. Now here we are five years after that finally with Sons of Apollo.
Bumblefoot and Jeff Scott Soto have come in to fill out this band…
Derek Sherinian: So Jeff was brought in by Mike and I will say I think Jeff is one of the best singers out there today in rock. He really added a great element to our sound and one thing we wanted to make sure was that we had cool rock vocals throughout. Nothing too strained. We wanted to stay away from all that [vocalizes] operatic stuff and the low bass anger kind of vocals. We wanted everything to very listenable and kickass.
Bumblefoot just fell right in with Mike and I. We just clicked, and it was like a three headed monster. Billy came in four or five days into the session and just had it. The next phase of the writing, after we did some music was Mike and I worked with Jeff to get the vocal melody lines and lyrics and vocal delivery. There’s a lot of attention to detail on the vocals. I really wanted to make sure that it was great all the way through.
Mike Portnoy: This is my dream lineup. Once Derek and I started talking about doing something for real, this was the lineup that I had in my head. I knew Bumblefoot was the right guy. I knew he’s a total rockstar. He’s a guitar hero. He can play anything. I mean the guy is a complete mad scientist and I knew that he would have the chops to be able to play anything but he’s also got that rockstar aura that this band needed. We needed some big shoes up there and somebody that could actually back up their playing and I knew Bumblefoot was the man. I don’t think he ever got that kind of recognition in Guns ‘n Roses. I think he kind of, he’s never had a real platform like he does with Sons of Apollo to really shine and show who he is. So I believe in the man.
Then as far as Jeff, Jeff had toured with his solo band opening for the Winery Dogs a few years ago and I would watch him every night on stage and he was such an amazing frontman and performer and he’s got such an amazing melodic voice that I knew he was the right guy for this band. And I think he’s kind of like a forgotten person in the metal world because he’s been doing the AOR thing for the last few years and he sang with Journey for a little while, but I knew that he really needed the right band to showcase what he’s about. And he’s kind of the anchor to this music. I think the music can get crazy at times, but Jeff is the voice that makes it all very, very listenable.
The obviously pull here is to see both of you and think Dream Theater. Just curious, how much did you want to pull from or differentiate from what you did with Dream Theater in the past?
Derek Sherinian: I’ll say this, when Mike and I first looked at this on paper, we assumed that we’d just go back to where we left off from that band, at the sound. But once we started writing and working with Bumblefoot, all of these classic rock and hard rock elements started coming up naturally for the song. I think the beauty of this record and the compositions across the board is that we mastered the art of strategic wankery. We have all the virtuosity and killer sections, middle sections and solos extended and elongated songs. There’s three songs that are 10 minutes, but everything is based on the song and I think that’s one thing Jeff Scott Soto really brings. He’s the anchor and all of the choruses and songs are memorable and you can sing along with them but then when it goes to the middle section it’s the Wild Wild West, anything goes. I think we really, Mike and I as producers, really nailed the perfect blend of virtuosity and feel.
Mike Portnoy: We are who we are. The albums that we made together in Dream Theatre in the ’90s when Derek was in the band, a big part of that sound and style was coming from me and Derek. If you listen to “Lines in the Sand” or “Hell’s Kitchen” or “New Millennium,” that’s a lot of myself and Derek in those songs. So when we put together Sons of Apollo, it wasn’t the conscious thing to bring that into this band, it was just a natural thing, because that’s just who we are. That’s what we’re bringing to the table. That’s our styles and our sounds and our personalities. So inevitably a lot of that ended up in Sons of Apollo.
I think that when we first put the idea of the band together, we thought that it would end up being mainly that kind of sound and style. But I think maybe once we brought Bumblefoot and Jeff Soto and Billy on board, it ended up going to so many different places. And now when I think you listen to the end result, it goes way beyond the prog metal kind of tag or the Dream Theater comparison that we, so what we would inevitably have I think now transcended that. I think you listen to the album as a whole and it’s going to way more places than that.
I’m sure you’ve recorded a number of different ways. What made the everybody in the room, working off each other the right approach for this record?
Derek Sherinian: Well, there was some starting points that before we went into the studio in April, I had written a bunch of ideas. I think maybe three sections and then i’d keep cataloging these riffs and then once Bumblefoot came in he started doing the same and we sent everything to Mike. One of the first things I sent Mike was the “God of the Sun” trilogy. It was like 11 minutes and Mike listened to it and he goes, “You know what? This is perfect as it is, it doesn’t need any more writing and I think it should open up the record.” So I was very flattered and happy to hear that because I think it’s a kick ass song.
But the rest of the songs we’d just start off, have starting points in the studio and then the three of us would just kick around ideas and it would just – the song would take its own shape and it didn’t matter who came up with the ideas. That’s one of the great things about our band, is that everyone is encouraged to contribute to the writing. The bottom line is that we want to have the best sound possible from the best music, best sound so if you have five great musicians, everyone is capable of coming up with a spark of brilliance added in there, cause man, we need it.
Derek, in the simplest of forms you kind of think of bass and drums playing off of each other and having a symbiotic relationship there. As a keyboardist is there any one particular instrument that you key in on, especially within this band, to see where you want to fit and how you’re going to work it out?
Derek Sherinian: No. I play off of everyone. Everyone has a purpose in the sound and the orchestration. So, it all just kind of works out and that’s the great thing about playing with such seasoned players, is that even though we play a lot notes, we don’t step on each other and we don’t play over each other. Everything is very strategic and worked out.
“Coming Home” is so far my favorite track that I’ve heard. If you want to talk about how that came together in the studio and lyrically.
Mike Portnoy: That was definitely tapping into the Van Halen side of this band. I think if there’s any one band that every member of Sons of Apollo has been influenced by, I think Van Halen is the common ground for all five of us. And I mean early Van Halen, the first four albums. Basically everybody in this band is a fan. “Coming Home” was tapping into that vibe. It’s one of those songs, it’s super straight ahead. I was a little concerned with releasing it first only because some of the people that were expecting a prog-metal band aren’t going to get that from a song like “Coming Home.” It’s such a strong song, it just felt like a real grand entrance, like a boxer entering the ring. Derek keeps saying that it’s kind of like, lyrically, fitting for us coming home back to the prog-metal works. So, lyrically it’s a bit of a homecoming spirit in terms of that content.
Derek Sherinian: As far as the lyrics go, I don’t want to speak for Jeff Scott Soto because he wrote most of the lyrics. But I will say, musically it started out with a keyboard riff that I had and the only two parts that I really liked was the keyboard intro and then the breakdown section that I had. But I didn’t know where the hell to go after that keyboard thing, so I brought it in and then Bumblefoot came up with the main riff — the heavy metal “Humpty Dance” riff — and then it worked out perfectly.
It turns out it’s a pretty straight forward rock song, and we have GNR/Van Halen/Who middle section or whatever but it’s such an old friend. It’s not breaking any new ground, but I think that’s one side of it, though. That’s one of the most straightforward songs on the record. It gets more and more progressive, a lot of the prog metal fans see that video and they’re scared and they’re thinking, “Oh, there’s no prog metal going on and it’s going to be straightforward pop rock or whatever.” That’s not the case. There’s insanity in this record. Rest assured. Bumblefoot is going to blow people’s minds. People have no idea how great this guy is. He is just on a whole other level and I predict he’s going to be a very huge guitar star starting in 2018.
I was going to say, little do they know what’s to come.
Derek Sherinian: They have no idea! He’s just on another planet and this band is the perfect vehicle for both Bumblefoot and Jeff Scott Soto to show their true talent.
The sequencing of this works so well. The fact that “God of the Sun” opens, “Opus Maximus” closes. You got your two epic pieces bookending this thing. Can you talk about the journey this album takes you on and what you wanted to do in terms of where this album goes? Was that the plan to have those two bookend the record?
Derek Sherinian: You know what, I gotta give full credit to Mike Portnoy. The sequences on the records, he is very into that detail of it and I think he did a fantastic job. As you said, it flows like a journey. You want to put on a record and listen from the first note until the end and not feel like it was an hour. You want to feel like you want to hear more. That is a great record and a great movie for that matter too. If you can propel the audience from beginning to end without any snooze or any deviating.
Mike Portnoy: Thank you, it’s nice to see the sequence being appreciated because the sequence thing of an album is so important. It’s one of the aspects that I completely obsess over no matter what bands I’m in. But this sequence kind of wrote itself, as soon as we recorded “God of the Sun,” I was like this is the opener. It was blatantly obviously that it was a powerful, great opener I knew closing the album with “Opus Maximus” would be really powerful, kind of the way when Rush closed Hemispheres with “La Villa Strangiato.” It just felt like such a statement, you can’t really follow anything after that instrumental. There’s nothing else that can follow that. Then everything in the middle kind of wrote itself.
I knew “Coming Home” was a great second track. I knew that’d be a great first video to kind of introduce the band. “Labyrinth” which is another 10 minute epic, sits in the middle of the album. After that epic prog journey, we follow it up with something like “Alive,” which is a bit of a breather. So yeah, when sequencing an album you kind of have to look at it like you’re making a movie with different acts, and you have ebb and flow, peaks and valleys. You want it to feel like a journey or a good movie or book where you can actually feel very satisfied at the ride at the end of it.
“Alive,” I’m loving the feel and vibe of that song if you want to talk about where that came from?
Mike Portnoy: That’s actually one of my favorite songs on the album. It’s so not typical of what you would expect from the five of us. It’s actually the one song on the album that has all five of our contributions in it. The music is myself, Derek, Bumblefoot and Billy. We wrote the music, the four of us. And then Jeff came in and did all the vocals and melodies on this one on his own. So it’s really a full collaboration between the five of us and it’s such a strong song. In a perfect world, this will be a hit. It’s as listenable and catchy as anything that the Red Hot Chilli Peppers or Foo Fighters have. I think it could live side by side with any of those types of bands. We’ll see what happens with it, but I think regardless of how it’s commercially accepted, I just think it’s incredibly strong melodic song. Just perfect.
“Signs of the Time,” how rewarding is it to know that that was the first thing you guys worked on is actually the first thing that people got a chance to listen to off this record?
Mike Portnoy: “Signs of the Time,” was actually something that me, Derek and Bumblefoot wrote together. The very first day in the studio, that was the first thing we jammed on and came up with. It felt like a real good song to introduce everybody to when we announced the band. It has a little bit of everything, it’s got these super heavy powerful riffs in the verses and that it has this great hooky melodic chorus and then it has this breakdown with this extended solo – so I felt like it had a little bit of everything. It’s a good representation of all the different elements that make this band up.
Derek Sherinian: I didn’t even think about it that way but I was just very happy to see the overwhelming positive response. People were so happy. There’s a lot of fans that miss that older sound, that vintage sound that Mike and I used to have. So, the whole prospect of us reuniting is very exciting for a lot of people and it’s exciting for the record companies. I’ll tell you, when Mike and I decided that we were going to do this, there was a bidding war. It was insane. In 2017, you just don’t hear about it like that, so we were like whoah we may have something here. We really just wanted to make this record as great as possible, make sure the lineup was as solid and totally strong and road worthy. We’re just very excited about our future and the record coming out on Oct. 20th on Inside Out/SONY Music. There it is, man.
Mike, I know throughout your career you’ve been in various bands. Some you’ve led, some bands you’ve joined in and just contributed. How do you view your role in this band? Are you leading the way or is it more collaborative and you’re somewhere in the middle?
Mike Portnoy: I would say it’s more similar to what my role was in Dream Theater. When it comes to the music we write it together, we collaborate it on it together and once the record is done, I’m kind of in charge or directing beyond that. Whether it’s merch, setlist, fan clubs, websites, all the kind of stuff that I did for Dream Theater. Just overseeing those things on my own. That’s my role here with Sons of Apollo, it was a conscious decision and something that we also made sure everybody in the band was comfortable with before we even began. Only because everything i’ve done since Dream Theater has been more democratic. The Winery Dogs, Metal Allegiance, Adrenaline Mob, Flying Colors, those are all democratic systems and that’s great and I can totally work and function in that way as well, and I’m comfortable with that. But it also gets very frustrating when you wake up to every day to 100 emails on every question and then in my case, multiply that times three or four different bands [laughs]. It starts to get maddening after a while. We kind of established in Sons of Apollo right from the get go that it would be a very collaborative process musically but after that, I was going to take the reins and control everything else beyond that the way I did with Dream Theater.
Have you thought about the live process? I know 2018 is coming up quick.
Derek Sherinian: Yeah, I don’t have to start thinking about it until the end of the year but I think it’ll be a challenge but we’ll figure it out.
Mike Portnoy: I’ve been in this situation with The Winery Dogs and Flying Colors. When you’re a brand new band and you only have one album to work with you inevitably have to pad out the set with other things. That’ll be the case with Sons of Apollo, obviously. We’ll probably play the whole album, I anticipate playing all the songs at one point or another and then we’ll fill out the set with other things. Things from our past, or solos. Billy always has to have a bass solo in the shows, so that’s inevitable. I’m sure Derek would like to do one as well. So yeah, there’s plenty of other things we can utilize in the set.
What’s the song you’re most looking forward to to getting a chance to get out there and play it live? Or songs, if that be the case.
Mike Portnoy: I don’t know. I look forward to all of these songs, they call have different vibes. I think “Lost in Oblivion” will be a great one to play live. It’s very energetic, very upbeat. I tend to like the heavier things, especially live on stage. I need that energy and interaction and feeling the audience. I guess, if anything, I’m looking forward to the heavier tracks like “Lost in Oblivion.”
And while dates are coming, Cruise to the Edge is a definite…
Derek Sherinian: Yeah it’s in early February so we’re really excited about kicking off the tour there. We will go into a full U.S. tour after that and then to Europe but all tour dates will be announced very soon. You can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and our website is sonsofapollo.com for all future tour dates and any other info.
Mike, you’ve done these cruises before. What would you share with the other guys and what do you like about these experiences?
Mike Portnoy: I’ve been fortunate to do so many cruises for the last five years or so. I’ve done maybe 9/10 different ones? Ranging from Cruise to the Edge to Monsters of Rock, Motorboat, Shiprocked. Even had my own cruise back in 2014, the Progressive Nation at Sea experience. It’s an amazing thing. It’s kind of taking the idea of a festival but putting it all in one place, a lot of times you go to these festivals in Europe and it’s a three day event and you’ll have 50 different bands and all these different stages. But basically, you have to go use a Porta Potty to go to the bathroom or eat sh–ty food from whatever the venue is offering. You have to sleep in a tent or whatever, so these cruises give that musical experience of a festival but then you can go back to your cabin or the nice restaurant and dine. You can go use a normal bathroom. It’s a great, great way to have lots of different bands all in the same place at the same time. There’s actually a lot of interaction as well, which you wouldn’t normally get at a musical fest. You walk around these cruises and you can mix and mingle with a lot of the musicians throughout the whole time. It’s a great experience.
Last thing, Psychotic Symphony – great album title but I also really like the artwork for this. Let’s give some credit on the artwork?
Derek Sherinian: Again, credit goes to Mike Portnoy. He was in charge of the cover art. He had a vision of doing a strong press, clean press and then his symbolism – the eagle and the lion and then you can see all the headstocks of Billy and Bumblefoot. I think it’s a strong image. When he turned it into me, I was blown away and I thought he did an amazing job.
Our thanks to both Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian from Sons of Apollo for their time. The band’s brand new album, ‘Psychotic Symphony,’ is available today (Oct. 20) and you can purchase it via the platform of your choosing here. 2018 dates are in the works, and you can stay tuned to the band’s website and Facebook for updates as they become available and you can look into the 2018 Cruise to the Edge appearance the band has lined up here.
Sons of Apollo, “Coming Home”
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Sons of Apollo, “Signs of the Time”
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Sons of Apollo, “Lost in Oblivion”
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Loudwire Podcast #8 – Mike Portnoy
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