Sons of Apollo – Interview with Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian
Our french chapter of Dream Theater World managed to book some time with the two main men of the new Prog Metal Super Group – Sons of Apollo, Derek Sherinian and Mike Portnoy while they were visiting europe on a press tour promoting the album. Here is the interview in transcribed form – see the video at the bottom of the interview along with some funny outtakes.
Did you use previous ideas or demos, or did you start the album from scratch in the studio?
Mike: A little of both…
Derek: A little of both. We started with sketches. We had some ideas, and Ron sent his own sketches and riffs; just starting points… And we kept sending it to Mike who, while on tour, would listen to everything and would start cataloguing them, and cherry-picking the stuff he liked the best. And it started with those ideas in the studio.
just flowed, like a French wine…
Derek: Like a Bordeaux, like a fine Bordeaux.
Mike: It was easy. Derek and I already had the chemistry. Me and Ron already had the chemistry, from hanging and playing together. Maybe not from writing so much… but it locked very quickly amd easily . We took a lot of existing riffs and ideas. We jammed on them, we expanded on them. There was one exception: God of the Sun, which was something that Derek had in completion. He brought that in and it was like … “It’s fine”. There was no reason to fuck with it and to try to change anything. It was great, so let’s fucking just do it. But everything else was just bouncing ideas off of each other.
Did you use any leftover ideas from when you and Derek were in Dream Theater?
Mike: We didn’t, but it’s funny because after we were done with the album, I was in the van with the Haken guys for the Shattered Fortress gig in Loreley. They had never heard the Metropolis pt 2 demos. I played them the Metropolis pt 2 demos and, personally, they were blown away by how much of Scenes from a Memory was written while Derek was still in the band: if you listen to that Metropolis pt 2 demo, Overture, Strange Deja-Vu, moments of Dance of Eternity and One Last Time were all there. But the point I’m trying to make: we were also amazed by how much wasn’t used in Scenes from a Memory. The whole point of why I’m bringing this up, is I realized then: “God, we should have pulled some of those riffs and used them just for the hardcore fans that would have possibly noticed that”. Maybe we can listen to them again one of these days and pull a riff or two out.
How did you create the artwork? Was it deliberate to put yourselves at the top?
Mike: Actually, for the very first back draft, I was working with Thomas Everhart, who does a lot of the Inside Out artwork. I think he’s worked with Derek on his solo albums as well. I knew that I wanted a crest, a symbol for the band’s logo and the first album cover. So Thomas came back with two lions originally. Derek suggested switching one of them to an eagle. It was a great idea because the band has two strong personalities. To be honest, when Thomas came to me with that idea, it wasn’t intentional like: two characters, me and Derek upfront. It just came back that way and once it did, it felt good to modify to kind of represent me and Derek. But Derek was the one who suggested it.
Derek: I thought it would be cool to have two personalities and it’s also a tribute to the Armenian coat of arms: it’s an eagle and a lion but they are facing the opposite.
Why did you decide to create a prog metal band and not a class rock band or a prog rock band?
Derek: Because I wouldn’t have done it
Mike: I mean, I have several classic prog bands: Transatlantic, I think it’s a classic prog rock band, and a lot of what I do with the Neal Morse Band. I have an alternative prog band with Flying Colors. I have a classic rock band with the Winery Dogs, and a metal thing with Metal Allegiance. Those are the things that I wanted to do after Dream Theater to explore all of my musical influences. Sons of Apollo is “me coming home” to the style I had for 25 years in Dream Theater…
Derek: … a style that he invented…
Mike: Thank you very much. But the reality is that I didn’t want to do a “prog metal band” right after Dream Theater because I did it for 25 years. I was looking for different things. After Derek and I did PSMS, he was trying to convince me to do a full time band, but I wasn’t ready. Time wasn’t right and I wanted to get away from the style. After I did the Shattered Fortress shows earlier this year, I think it really set the tone to come back to this. After the shows, not only for me but I think for the fans, it closed that chapter and it was the perfect time to open this chapter. And that being said, I don’t think it is strictly a prog metal band. I think that when we started the album, we thought that maybe this would be like the natural progression for both of us, to follow up what we did in Dream Theater 20 years later. But it ended up going to so many places. Ron’s guitar brought up some more modern sounding places and Jeff’s vocals brought a more AOR sound. So it transcended the progressive metal tag…
Derek: We’re redefining the genre!
Mike: People are expecting this to be exactly like what Dream Theater does, but I think it’s gone many different places.
How does it work in the studio when you use odd time signatures? Do you do it naturally or does someone shout: “let’s do something in 7/8”
Derek: It doesn’t come up. First of all, I don’t count. Ron is really good at it. I just do it by feel and I depend on guys like Mike to tell me what it is.
Mike: I can count it and I know all those odd time signatures and all those crazy parts in The Dance of Eternity. That all stem from the drums. So that shit was all coming from me, I live it, i breathe it. I can count it, and i know what it is… However; if it doesn’t feel good, we won’t do it. And I’ve never said “Whoa, hey, we have to play something like 7, 9, 5, 3, 7, 5” because it looks cool on paper. If we’re playing it, if it sounds good and if it naturally falls out that way then we’ll do it. There are moments on this album like the instrumental, which closes the album, called Opus Maximus. It’s a 10 minutes instrumental and it’s got all of these crazy odd time signatures but it was never counted out first, it was played first. We worked out the patterns and do it. And luckily myself, Derek and Bumblefoot and even Billy are very capable of tackling that stuff. But it was never counted first, it’s played first and counted after.
Can you do a full description of the album?
Derek: God of the Sun is a trilogy: 11 minutes and 11 seconds to be precise and is the opener. It covers a lot of musical ground…
Interviewer: …and you said it is your favourite by the way…
Derek: I love all of the songs, but God of the Sun is a little special because it’s the song that I solely composed the music for.
Mike: It’s a great opener as it reminds me of Lines in the Sand in the way it opens with the keyboard intro and some Sitar flavor. It just goes in this journey through a lot of different places. It reminds me a bit of Metropolis as well, it’s like Metropolis meets Lines in the Sand.
Mike: The second song is Coming Home, which will debut on Friday… [interview was done a few weeks back]
Derek: …and unofficially, the “Mike Portnoy theme song”…
Mike: Derek has been quoted saying elsewhere…
Derek: He’s coming home to reclaim the throne of the genre that he created. We wanted the song to lyrically really fit that spirit.
Mike: Third song of the album is Signs of the Time which was the first thing that we put out just for people to get a taste of the band. It’s got a little bit of everything: it’s got the heavy riffs, the hooky chorus, and the shredding solo. That felt like a good first taste to see a little bit of everything which the band has.
Mike: Fourth track is Labyrinth which is one of the epics on the album. It’s almost ten minutes long and to me, it’s the most prog epic on the album. It goes through many different places. It’s very Dream-Theater-esque to be honest, as you are the Dream Theater fan club. It reminds me of the way we used to write in DT. It goes from many different places…
Derek: But it’s much sexy than DT: if you listen to the verses, it has this Zeppelin smothering sexuality.
Mike: I don’t mean it sounds like Dream Theater, I’m talking in terms of a prog epic. On certain days it’s my favourite song in the album. Every day, my favourite changes.
Mike: Then comes Alive which is, to me, the hit single in a perfect world. It’s more a power ballad with a hooky chorus and an amazing guitar solo like Jeff Beck meets David Gilmour…really tasty. I wish there was a video for that too. That video is going to come out probably on the start of next year, once we hit the road.
Mike: Then is Lost in Oblivion. There was a riff that was brought in by Bumblefoot: when he presented it, the riff was called Rushuggah, half Rush, half Meshuggah. It’s a really super aggressive song with guitar/bass unison parts, fast double bass. It’s got this crazy unison and the drums break down in a crazy odd time signature. That’s a real full guns blazing upbeat song. I wish I had a video for that as well. The video for Lost in Oblivion is going to come out on October 20th, the day the album comes out.
Derek: Figaro’s Whore is really the intro to Divine Addiction. They go together and it’s basically very Deep Purple and Jon Lord…
Mike: …it’s Derek’s eruption.
Mike: and that goes to Divine Addiction which is another one that Derek brought in, most of the song…
Derek: …it’s like Deep Purple meets Rainbow. It’s very Egyptian with real strings. We’ve got real strings on a bunch of the songs.
Mike: And then the final song of the album is Opus Maximus, which is, like I said before, a ten minutes instrumental. It’s “everything in the kitchen sink”…
Derek: …we just went in and went section by section, it was awesome and we were like “ok, let’s go”.
Derek: It’s a four way showdown: Portnoy, Sherinian, Bumblefoot, Sheehan showdown. To me it’s just raising the bar of the progressive metal instrumental. It’s like La Villa Strangiato for the new millennium.
How do you plan to run the band? A full-time band or just a side-project?
Mike: To be honest, this band is going to be run the way that I ran Dream Theater. After I left Dream Theater, every band I worked in from Flying Colors to Metal Allegiance to The Winery Dogs, were all collaborative. Every decision was made together which is great and I enjoyed that process for a while until emails started coming in. Every day I’d wake up to 200 emails discussing one fucking decision. It starts to make you crazy so when Derek came to me last year and we started to discuss whether we should do this, I said “look, the only way this is gonna work is it’s gonna be the way it was in Dream Theater”. I need to be able to pull the shots, have a clear vision and run the band and be the director of the band and make the decisions and write the setlist and oversee the merchandising and the artwork, not to go to all of the four of the guys for approval for every decision. In Dream Theater, at least the last 15 years, it was never like that… well the last ten years. I said to Derek it’s the only way I can do it to start a new band.
He was totally supportive of it and we talked to Billy, Bumblefoot and Jeff and they are totally behind it. But like Dream Theater also, the music is collaborative: we write the music together. We did all the album together, Derek and I produced the album together the same way that John and I produced the albums together. We wrote the music the same way that me, John and Jordan used to write the music together. We did that collaborative. But once the record is done, it’s time for me to do my thing whether it be the setlist, the merchandise. Derek is supportive of that so to answer your question, I will be the one who’ll do that in the band.
Have you thought about the setlist yet? Will it include covers and special things?
Mike: Yes, it’s pretty clear and obvious of what it’s gonna be. When you’re a new band with one album, you have to do the setlist with others. So inevitably we’ll revisit some of the old Dream Theater material that we wrote together on this first tour. We’ll do some covers but once we go to the second album it will be strictly Sons of Apollo. But this time around, we’ll need things like that to fill out the setlist so you’ll get those moments revisited.
Interview, transcription, video: The Keyboard Wizard
Video editing: Stephane Aguilera
Special thanks to Valérie from jmtconsulting, Derek Sherinian and Mike Portnoy