The word “supergroup” is overused in the music business, but it’s awfully hard not to spit it out immediately when describing Sons of Apollo. Mike Portnoy on drums, Derek Sherinian on keyboards, Billy Sheehan on bass, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal on guitar, Jeff Scott Soto on vocals—what other word comes to mind? Released in October 2017, the group’s debut album, “Psychotic Symphony,” balances the musicians’ proggy, technical proficiencies with a sharp edge of hard rock, often crossing into full-blown metallic territory. Touring has only just begun, but the band already is well on its way toward building a worldwide fan base. Live Metal’s Greg Maki recently caught up with Soto—who also works a solo artist, fronts the band W.E.T. and tours every year as a vocalist for Trans-Siberian Orchestra (he’s also done time with Yngwie Malmsteen and Journey, among others)—to discuss the creation of “Psychotic Symphony,” band dynamics, touring and more.
LIVE METAL: Let’s go back to when you joined this band. How did it happen? Who called you and what was their sales pitch?
JEFF SCOTT SOTO: It was around October/November—around my birthday, I guess—of 2016. I got an email from Mike Portnoy basically saying, “Happy birthday. I’m gonna call you in a couple days and let you know what your birthday present is.” And my birthday gift was basically an invitation to join the already in progress group PSMS—with Tony MacAlpine, and Derek and Mike, and Billy. I immediately accepted because I’d been wanting to do an album with Mike for the longest time, as well as with Billy, and to deal with both of them at the same time is an absolute thrill. I didn’t care what it was going to be. I could be farting on the album for all I care. I was excited to be able to make a record with these guys.
A couple months later, they just realized they needed more of a hard rock guitar pedigree as far as the songwriting was concerned. So they switched Bumblefoot from Tony MacAlpine, and Sons of Apollo was born out of that.
Did they have a definite vision for this when they first got to you?
Yes and no. The kind of album that they wanted to make was exactly the album we made. They didn’t have songs just yet. Those started with Derek. He writes and plays the keys like a guitar player, so a lot of his ideas were spawned with guitar in mind. We didn’t really demo songs. We didn’t say, “Send me this, and I’ll sing over that.” We weren’t treating things like the normal process I’m used to in that situation. They just gathered as many ideas as possible and booked the studio—I believe it was in March of 2017—and they went in for 10 days, and they knocked the entire album out. Literally, writing and creating and carving the entire record there and then on the spot.
I was finishing a tour with my band Soto, so I wasn’t able to join them in the creating process, when they were writing it. My part came when the music was already done. I took a week with Mike and Derek, and we were able to chisel and carve out the vocals and the melodies. I got a little bit of a head start on my own, but for the most part, we did all of it together.
How much leeway did they give you to put your own stamp on these songs?
It was very open. The main thing about this is you’re gonna get these particular players and people involved in this. You’ve got to be able to let them shine and be who they are; otherwise, what’s the point? It was very important that everybody showed who and what they were on this record. To me, that was one of the greatest things about being a part of this. It wasn’t like a dictatorship—”You’ve gotta sing this and do it like this.” It was creating our sound, but on the other hand, we were able to put our own personalities in there.
Were there any times through the writing and recording when someone was like, “Oh no, that sounds like too much like Dream Theater,” or “That sounds too much like” something else one of the band members might have been involved in? Was there a conscious decision to steer away from that?
Not at all. We never think about that. We never worry or care about that, because everything is borrowed and stolen and taken from here or there and everywhere. Nothing’s really original. So for the most part, if we’re paying homage to an artist—if we’re taking something that Queen already did or something that Rush already did—et cetera, et cetera—that’s our interpretation of it. It’s not gonna sound exactly like it; it’s gonna sound like a newer version of that. And somewhere down the line, somebody’s gonna take that from us. We’re just recycling music, basically, is what we’re doing. They say a songwriter steals from the best. (laughs)
All five of you are established, successful musicians, and you all have your own fans. When you have all those strong personalities, or whatever you want to call it, in the band, how do you manage dynamics within the band? Mike has said he’s the one sort of steering the ship, but how does it all work out?
You basically nailed it on the head. Mike is basically—we’re following his lead, so to speak. It’s easier for one person to kind of be the visionary. If you have five visionaries, it’s too many cooks in the kitchen, and that becomes a problem with what we’re all doing here in the first place. It can be chaos; it can be confusing. It’s always better to find one person to kind of steer the ship, and then the rest of us follow. It’s worked great so far. Mike knows what he’s doing. I have no problem letting him take control of the wheel.
You just released a Spanish version of the song “Alive.” How was that to do? Had you released anything in Spanish before this?
I had only done it once before. My old band Talisman, we tried to open up the markets. We actually did one of our songs in Spanish. We put a pseudonym behind it, a whole different image like it was a solo artist when we released it down there, because we kind of wanted to make it a subtle nod to what we were back then. So the only time I had ever done it before was in ‘94.
I’m Spanish by heritage, but I don’t speak or, especially, sing it naturally, so it was a process. It was something to sit down with somebody else, kind of staring at me and producing me to make sure I’m singing grammatically the right way. It certainly wasn’t easy. (laughs) I wouldn’t make a habit out of it.
OK, I was wondering if that was something you wanted to do more of in the future, but it sounds like maybe not.
No, then it opens up the can of worms of “Hey, when are you gonna do a French version? When are you gonna do the German version?” No, no, no, no, no. Take it easy, guys. (laughs)
You’ve been doing some touring. How has that gone? What is it like going out on a tour with a new band for the first time?
Yeah, you always have your learning curves, especially with these guys. When you get somebody who’s used to playing with the master of ceremonies, David Lee Roth, you have big shoes to fill and what the expectations are. Even Eric Martin is such a great performer live, so on Billy’s front, I have a lot to prove. Mike, of course, he’s done world stages between Dee Snider and Dream Theater, Avenged Sevenfold—you name it.
You basically have to make sure your personality is there, but it’s not too overbearing or looking like you’re trying to step on any toes. Finding the balance and finding the on-stage chemistry and finding things that work within the core of what we’re doing, it’s like, “That’s a little too much. That’s not enough.” You find that balance as you’re going. It only took, literally, three or four shows before we all found exactly where we’re supposed to be on stage, what things we’re gonna do. We found that chemistry so easily.
How did you go about putting together the set list? Obviously, you have the songs from “Psychotic Symphony,” and then there’s some covers worked in. How did you choose which songs to cover?
We knew that basing a tour off one album, we were gonna end up playing the entire record. It was a no-brainer there. Regarding what we were gonna add to the set, that was all Mike. He wanted a nod to his past with Derek. I had never even heard of those Dream Theater songs; I had to learn them from scratch, as most of us did. That’s where that idea came from. And then everything else, Mike just picked bits and pieces, things that he felt were our strong suits—like the little Queen nod that I do is something he’d seen me do before. He said, “Man, that’d be great if you could do that with us, because it’ll take the show to a different place.” As opposed to bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, just knocking people out with the music, we have a little breathing space in there. So Mike orchestrated the whole set list and how we were gonna go about it. We all have input and suggestions and such, but it starts with him and then was kind of created within the core of the group.
I saw there are plans for a live DVD.
Yeah. We’re shooting that in September in Bulgaria. So that’s gonna be fun. We’re doing it at this old, outdoor amphitheater. It goes back to biblical times. It’s really cool. It’s very historical for the country, and a few other acts that are under the same management wing have done live DVDs there, so it’s our turn.
Are there gonna be any special surprises or anything for that show?
It’s no secret. We’ve billed it as shooting a live DVD. We’re doing two sets. One set’s gonna be the Sons of Apollo set, and then (after) a short intermission, we’re coming back out, (and) we’re doing a whole covers set. But the covers are gonna be selected by our audience. Basically, we’re gonna put out a poll of songs for them to choose from of what they want us to play, and that’s what’s gonna be the second set. So we’ll kind of Sons of Apollo-ize the songs that they choose.
That’s really cool. How important is that kind of fan involvement for you?
Oh, it’s very important. We are still fans. Most of us are in our 50s—I think Ron’s the youngest one in the band—and even one of us in our 60s. We are still fans of the music and the bands that we love, that we’re all influenced by. So we have to think as fans. We can’t just think as egos and rock stars. We have to think (about) what the fans want, because we’re still fans. If we’re in that audience and we want to be as entertained as they’re gonna be, we have to make sure we think like they do.
So for the rest of this year, I guess a lot of touring is the plan, right?
Yeah. It’s a lot of touring. (laughs)
After the tour, will there be a break, or will you go straight into another album? I know you’ve all been very adamant that this is a full-time band, not just a project.
Absolutely. We’re looking at going until the end of October, then I start up two months with Trans-Siberian Orchestra again. I believe the idea is to get into the studio and start working on the next album in, say, January or February. We want to strike while the iron’s hot. If we’re going to continue this, we have to show that we’re really doing it for real, and the only way to do that is to just continue the process.
I think that’s about all the questions I have. I know you’re very busy, and you always have a lot of things going on. Is there anything else you want to plug or talk about?
No. I’ve got plenty else I’ve got going on in my life, but when I’m talking about a particular cycle of a band, which is, right now, Sons of Apollo, I like to not convolute the floodgates there. So it’s good to just keep on that tip and keep plugging away with this band, and make sure that everybody knows we are here and we’re doing this for real.