DATE OF INTERVIEW: 8th July 2018
SONS OF APOLLO
Sons of Apollo, a moniker that declares your artistic communion as the offspring of the ancient Roman and Greek deity of music and poetry, is something of a bold statement. But, when said band is comprised of some of the most exciting, dynamic and innovative virtuosos currently exercising their chops with the rock/metal scene, any sense of titular pomposity is forgiven. Particularly when the combined talents of those involved forged such a musically masterful and compositionally creative debut album, in the form of last year’s ‘Psychotic Symphony’. This latest ‘supergroup’ has seen ex-Dream Theater members, drummer Mike Portnoy and keyboardist Derek Sherinian (aka. The Del Fuvio Brothers), reunite once again (following a 2010 instrumental outing), alongside other luminaries - legendary bassist Billy Sheehan (Talas; Mr. Big; David Lee Roth; Steve Vai; The Winery Dogs); guitarist extraordinaire and onetime Guns N’ Roses axeman, Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal; and the formidable vocal talents of Jeff Scott Soto (Talisman; SOTO; Yngwie Mamlsteen; Journey; et al).
Over in the UK for a short run of headline shows to conclude Sons of Apollo’s inaugural European headline tour, the final date saw them arrive in Nottingham on the hottest day of the year, thus far. With uncomfortably humid weather seeing the temperature soar to 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit), Metal Discovery sat down in a refreshingly cool, air conditioned dressing room in the Rescue Rooms, mid-afternoon, for a chat with Apollo’s bass playing son…
METAL DISCOVERY: It’s going to be a hot and sweaty show tonight, but I guess you’re used to playing in South America and wherever else, where it’s even hotter…
BILLY: I just played Bangkok, Thailand, with Mr. Big, and we were in Australia before there… which was the beginning of winter…
(Billy Sheehan on Sons of Apollo's 'Psychotic Symphony')
"I’ve never been in a situation where I pander to what people will like, but I do like to please people... I don’t want to pander to them and try to purposefully stimulate them into liking it, but I wanna do something that’s gonna reach them. And this record, I believe, is that."
Billy Sheehan in his dressing room at the Resuce Rooms, Nottingham, 8th July 2018
Photograph copyright © 2018 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Interview & Photography by Mark Holmes
MD: Of course, our summer is their winter.
BILLY: So, I went through all four seasons… literally, all the way around the world! I went from Nashville to Australia to China… Southeast Asia and then our first show with Sons of Apollo was in France. We finish Europe and I fly back, so I will have circumnavigated the globe… and seen all seasons…
MD: I was interviewing Derek until, as I found out, a couple of hours ago, it’d be you… which I’m very happy about, but some of my questions might be keyboard-centric. I’ll adapt ‘em as I go along!
BILLY: That’s cool. I’m a fan of a lot of great keyboardists. One of my very first bands I had as a kid, we had a blind [Hammond] B-3 player called Ray, and I started a band with him. He was into Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff and all the classic blues, black B-3 players. So, it was a great initiation for me, right away. And, also, one of the first records that I really spent a lot of time with was a box set of three albums, complete in seven boxes, which was twenty one albums of Martin Galling playing Bach on harpsichord. One guy and one harpsichord for twenty one records. Forty two sides.
MD: Wow. This was good?
BILLY: Amazing. It was ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’, and just to hear… they’re referred to as the ‘inventions’… I’m not sure if that’s what Bach himself called them, but they are inventions; they’re musical inventions. It was a huge influence on my ear and understanding how to take a line and change it and evolve it and move it and harmonize it… it was just brilliant playing. I learned a lot of Bach pieces on bass, from the very, very early days of ‘Brandenburg Concertos’, ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier’… things of that nature.
MD: What about stuff like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Jan Hammer… was that jazz fusion stuff an influence at all?
BILLY: Well, by the time Mahavishnu was out, I was listening more to drummers! [Laughs] I actually saw Billy Cobham play with a band called Dreams before Mahavishnu.
BILLY: And that was with the Brecker Brothers on horns. They were a great band and then Mahavishnu came after that… because my first band I had after the B-3 player was a horn band, and we played all Chicago… Blood, Sweat & Tears… stuff of that nature. So, I was lucky, early on, to be exposed to non-bass instruments. Mostly keyboards, and mostly horns and drums. Not so much guitar, although I was a guitar fan, like everybody.
MD: I guess that forces you to approach your own instrument in different ways.
BILLY: Exactly. A lot of great jazz bass players listen to a lot of sax players, because sax is kind of the foremost jazz instrument… in many ways… that’s arguable, of course. But I was more of a keyboard guy from the early days. That’s where a lot of…
[Billy plays a few bars on his bass]
BILLY: Similar to how a keyboard player would get an octave position with his hand and play a line like that. That was definitely from that. And a lot of other techniques that I have were based on keyboard stuff.
MD: I guess I don’t have to feel guilty having some keyboard questions, then. You’re the man to answer them!
MD: When you named the band Sons of Apollo, did you deliberately set the bar high by declaring yourselves sons of the ancient god of music and poetry?
BILLY: I think that was a little bit tongue-in-cheek. It was Mike and Derek who came up with the name, so I’m not sure of exactly what they went through to justify that!
BILLY: But, within the band, we seriously wanna play music that’s challenging and difficult and enlightening… but we don’t want to be so serious about it. You know, we want to enjoy it because a lot of serious musicians are… appropriately very serious, and I think that’s wonderful, but we wanted to…
MD: Be entertaining, as well as virtuosic?
MD: Do you think it was inevitable that when Mike left Dream Theater eight years ago, The Del Fuvio Brothers would eventually gravitate back towards each other to start making new music again? You did something with them in 2010, an instrumental thing?
MD: They seem to have a connection that draws them together.
BILLY: I wasn’t sure whether it would come to be or not, in any greater amount. I play with Mike in The Winery Dogs, and we took a little break on The Winery Dogs. So, as long as he was doing something else, he called me and had me join Derek and Ron and Jeff in that respect, so that was cool. But, yeah, I can’t really answer too much about their own relations..
MD: I gather Mike and Derek started working on material for the band a year or so before the lineup was complete, but then developed the songs in the studio with everyone, as a joint collaboration. Did that kind of songwriting democracy work well with so many different opinions?
BILLY: Oh, yeah. Piece of cake. Yeah, we just… all of us have been in so many situations, it’s actually pretty easy to sit down in a room. When we do soundcheck, sometimes, Derek will say, “Okay, Billy, give me a line,” and I’m like, “Try this.” He’ll learn it and, you know, just for fun. It’s that simple. The songwriting and music writing are two different things but they do, sometimes, overlap. I think people put a lot more mystery on it than needs to be.
As a collector of a lot of music and as a fan of a lot of music, I’ve collected demos and rehearsal tapes and you can hear people working parts out, and it’s the same everywhere. Every band in the world does it exactly the same… or nearly the same. For example, one of my favourite pieces of music, for many, many reasons, is the final conclusion of ‘The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’; a song called ‘It’. The lyrics are so brilliant and it’s the punchline to the whole record; it’s the answer to what the whole record was even talking about. So, I just thought, this is so brilliant; they must’ve written these lyrics and then figured out a way to write music. So, I got the rehearsals… they were just vamping out… [Billy vocalises the melody]… and Peter Gabriel was just, “Blah, blah, blah, blah.” He was just yelling out stuff with “blah, blah” lyrics and then, later on, you fit syllables and words in and, eventually, it becomes…[singing]… “scrambled eggs”… you know, when Paul McCartney did ‘Yesterday’, he originally sung “scrambled eggs”.
So, you think there must be some mysterious, incredible, technical… no, you just get in there and start throwing things together and if it starts to work, cool, and if not, you take a left turn and go somewhere else. It’s pretty easy, actually.
MD: You hear a lot of younger bands talking about when they exercise a songwriting democracy and they say it’s hell and a struggle, with so many different, conflicting opinions. But I guess you guys have been doing it for so long that you have that natural chemistry.
BILLY: Yeah and, also, the chemistry comes from… if you listen to enough… again, let me refer back to my music collection - when you listen to demos and alternate takes, you realise that nobody knows what’s really gonna be good. How many times… and it’s happened many times… a record company will put out a song that the band hate… bang… it’s a hit. Unbelievable. And now they hate it because they’ve got a hit record for a song they don’t like!
So, you never really know. And when you’re recording and people get so intently focussed on, “The microphone… it’s gotta be one inch off the front of the speaker, but…” You know, the first guys that ever miked up an amp, they had no idea… “We’ll put a mic in front of it”… “Where?”… “I don’t know, where’s the sound coming out?”…”I guess there”… “Okay, let’s go.” And there’s so many of these techniques that we have and recording… which will also apply to songwriting… were just, you know… “What have we got?”… “I don’t know, we’ve got two tracks”… “Okay, let’s set the drums up close so they’re louder.” You know, there was no manual to go by, they just flew by the seat of their pants. Most of what we have in audio… audio is, of course, electronics and a science, but art is not. So, there’s no real way to make it into a science…
MD: Exactly, any form of artistic expression is about the emotions, so it’s about expressing your emotions through music, painting or whatever. Any sense of science would take away from that.
BILLY: Yeah, exactly.
MD: There are so many different influences on ‘Psychotic Symphony’ and I think you can hear stuff from all members’ musical pasts in the songs. I guess it could almost be considered a fusion record in that sense. Did the diversity that transpired on the album surprise you?
BILLY: No, I think I knew, pretty much, what we were gonna get. You never know how much you’re gonna like it… in fact, I did like the record a lot. A lot of times, I’ve done a whole record and you then go, “I don’t know… [sighs]”… and then it turns out to be a hugely successful record. Or a record I get done and, “This is unbelievable!”… and no, nobody even listens! So, it’s hard to be… but I generally know, as a fan, what you think people will like. I’ve never been in a situation where I pander to what people will like, but I do like to please people. I like people to enjoy it. I don’t want to pander to them and try to purposefully stimulate them into liking it, but I wanna do something that’s gonna reach them. And this record, I believe, is that.
MD: To entertain them.
BILLY: To entertain, challenge, motivate… and all kinds of other positive things… hopefully.
MD: This is a keyboard question, originally meant for Derek, but have you heard of Claudio Simonetti?
MD: He played keyboards in Goblin, and he told me once that he thought there were no superstars of keyboards, anymore, unlike the 70s where you had Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Jon Lord… and people like that. I ran that by Rick Wakeman, when I interviewed him a few years ago, and he put it down to modern keyboard technology. He said that, back in the day, you had limited options, so you had to really find your sound and could get a unique sound, but now he says you’ve got whatever sound you want, at the touch of a button.
BILLY: That’s a good point.
MD: Is that something you agree with, then?
BILLY: I do, yeah.
MD: You still get bass superstars, and superstars of the guitar… that seems to be perennial and will always be there but, for keyboards, it seems like a thing of the 70s.
BILLY: Yeah… occasionally, I’ll see a great keyboard player who will really move me. There was a band in the Philippines… I was doing a bass clinic there and they took me out to see this blues band full of all Filipinos and a female singer. The keyboard player was a young kid with an electronic little keyboard that was set on piano… and he tore the roof off the place. And I just thought, “Man, we need more guys like that.”
In this band, Derek uses the B-3, for real… I have a B-3 band also, which I’ve had in recent years, called Niacin - myself, Dennis Chambers and a B-3 player, and, again, when I grew up, I started with a guy who played B-3. I remember a time when a B-3 was more important than having a guitar player. A lot of local bands in Buffalo in the late-60s, more importantly had a B-3 than guitar. The guitar player was kind of in the background, a little bit. You know, it wasn’t really guitar-centric, as much. Especially with blues and R&B, the guitar hadn’t really found its spot there, yet. Of course, guitar blues… Muddy Waters, Albert King… but, in a lot of recorded music at the time, everything had a B-3. Even Led Zeppelin… a lot of B-3 in Led Zeppelin.
So, I think we really need keyboard players to really concentrate on playing. It happens to guitar players and bass players, too. They get lost in the gear. You get lost in the pedalboard. You get lost in the technology, and you forget the real reason you’re there. And it’s great that you can have a gated reverb on channel two of your mixer coming off your pedalboard, and it’s MIDI controlled, but wait… wait… is there a song here somewhere?
I’m currently using a Helix as my main sound source, which is infinitely complex, but it’s also incredibly simple. I set it up, plug in, I touch two buttons during the evening, and that’s it. Digital technology… I was an early adopter of all things digital, from the very, very beginning. I may have had one of the first Eventide Harmonizers in a rack, back in the late 70s. I may have been the first bass player to have racks of gear. Back then, we had Bud racks… Anvil didn’t even make… I don’t think Anvil even existed yet.
MD: When did rack mountable effects first come to be, then?
BILLY: Well, there was always Pro Audio rack mount because of radio stations - compression; EQ… and various things like that. Input modules and stuff like that and Pro Audio in studios, but they weren’t found on stage. And I used all Pro Audio stuff in the early days… eventually… when I could afford it, and got all Pro Audio compressors and EQs and channel strips… custom made, and all that stuff.
MD: But never letting it dictate the artistry…
BILLY: No, it was all about hearing the notes I was playing. That was the whole point of it all - in order to hear it and, in a lot of ways, forget about it. Like I say about when you’re practicing, you learn scales, you learn notes, you learn modes, and all kinds of things and ways to do it… but, when you get on stage, you don’t think about any of that. Similarly, I think, when it comes to all modern players on any instrument, you should be on stage without thinking about anything, other than performing. I just saw a great article in a jazz newsletter and the whole gist of the article was the whole purpose of everything you’re learning about… scales and tone and everything… the whole purpose is the song on the stage. The whole purpose of everything.
MD: Absolutely, yeah. Never a truer word spoken. You’re all obviously virtuosos in the band, but do you ever struggle with balancing out your technical abilities with the actual songwriting? I think it’s easy to fall into the “for the sake of” trap when you have such technical abilities. I don’t think there’s any of that on ‘Psychotic Symphony’, I have to say… I think you’ve struck a good balance between the virtuosity and music that’s entertaining.
BILLY: I’m playing really simple on the record and live. First of all, I’m using a bass that’s tuned down; a low B instead of E…. so I’m hitting like a… there’s this one… [Billy demos a particular line on his bass]… but I play… [he demos a stripped down take on the line]… I play the first two notes of it for the first two bars, and then I finally go into it. So, really underplay a lot of stuff, because it’s so deep. You only need to hit one note and the whole building moves! So, from a bass player’s point of view, I’m not looking at some platform to demonstrate anything, as a player. I’m just trying to play what’s appropriate for the music and I think we all do.
MD: Riding the emotions of the song.