Interview and Live Photos by Robert Cavuoto
Prog-rock masters, Sons of Apollo, are returning with their second studio album, MMXX, scheduled for release on January 17, 2020 via InsideOutMusic/Sony. The band consists of Mike Portnoy [drums], Derek Sherinian [keyboard], Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal [guitar], Billy Sheehan [bass], and Jeff Scott Soto [vocals]. Together they have an undeniable chemistry when it comes to writing, recording, and performing live.
The band continues to write outstanding music for our generation with memorable riffs, thought-provoking lyrics, and strong melodies. Songs like “King of Delusion,” “Fall to Ascend,” and the 16-minute epic “New World Today” all showcase the band’s unbridled passion for prog-rock and love of their instruments. MMXX with its eight tracks will exceed any fan’s expectations of what a follow-up to Psychotic Symphony should sound like. The sky is the limit for Sons of Apollo and this is only the beginning.
I had the pleasure of speaking with legendary drummer Mike Portnoy about the creation of the new CD, which song he feels he outdid himself on, and his humble perspective on influencing the next generation of drummers.
Robert Cavuoto: Did you put any pressure on yourself that MMXX would have to be equal or better than what you did on the debut CD?
Mike Portnoy: Not really. We always try to make the best record we can. I feel we do that with all of the bands I’m in and have been in. We are not thinking in terms of meeting anyone’s expectations except our own.
Robert Cavuoto: I recall seeing social media posts where you, Bumblefoot, and Derek were in your home studio writing for this CD. Did someone bring ideas in, or did you just start jamming collectively to develop the songs?
Mike Portnoy: The music process started with the three of us together at my home last January. Derek and Bumblefoot brought in a lot of ideas. We compiled it all then I took inventory of everything we came up with to pick what we liked. From there, we expanded on those ideas. That is how the process begins. Once the three of us arrange and mold it into complete musical statements, we record it, and send it off to Jeff to develop the lyrics and vocal melodies.
Robert Cavuoto: When does Billy get involved?
Mike Portnoy: He tracks his parts once we are all done. We wrote the first album with Derek, Bumblefoot, and myself in the same room. We had good chemistry and didn’t want to fuck with it.
Robert Cavuoto: I felt some of the songs had a Deep Purple vibe, particularly with the keyboards.
Mike Portnoy: Never intentional, but that influence is always there. Derek loves to use the Hammond organ, which is a big part of Purple’s sound. I think it will inevitably come out.
Robert Cavuoto: My favorite track is “King of Delusion.” what can you tell me about its creation?
Mike Portnoy: It started with a classical piano piece that Derek had. We developed the rest of the music off it and wrote it into this nine-minute mini-epic. It reminds of a classic Ozzy Osbourne Diary of a Madman era song. In the middle, we do a piano and drum duet. It’s one of my favorite songs too.
Robert Cavuoto: Is there anything on this CD where you feel you outdid yourself?
Mike Portnoy: The last track on the CD is a 16-minute epic song, “New World Today.” It has a little bit of everything, including the kitchen sink thrown in for good measure. It’s an epic journey that starts with this amazing spacey guitar intro, then goes through many peaks and valleys it’s like watching a good film with all its ups & downs; twists & turns. To me, that’s always a sign of an exciting song with long arrangements and multiple parts.
Robert Cavuoto: Sons of Apollo have written some pretty expansive and technically challenging songs. Is it ever difficult to remember all the parts when playing live?
Mike Portnoy: No, this is easy stuff, and we are all professionals who have been doing this for a long time. We can handle it [laughing]. When you write the music, it is a part of you. You spend a lot of time writing and recording the songs, so when it comes to performing them live on stage, it is second nature. For me personally, I don’t even have to think about. It’s a part of who you are and what you do.
Robert Cavuoto: I assume that you will be playing more original songs live and less cover tunes?
Mike Portnoy: Now that we have two albums under our belt, we can do an all Sons of Apollo set. It was impossible to do that when we only had one album.
Robert Cavuoto: You have so many musical projects going on, would you say this is your primary band nowadays or is the idea not to have a primary band?
Mike Portnoy: They are all important to me; it wouldn’t be fair to call one band more important or more primary than the other. It wouldn’t be fair to all the other members of those bands. Everyone wants their project to be the focus. I’m currently in six bands! It’s impossible to give all my time to one without hurting the others. There are a lot of other musicians and people counting on me. I have to do my best to balance and juggle it all. Luckily I’m very good at doing it, and I can responsibly handle all the bands. I have to keep an eye on my schedule constantly. Whether finishing one record or starting another I’m trying to balance them all. It a conscious decision to not be in only one band anymore. This is my bed, and I have to lie in it.
Robert Cavuoto: Lightening not only struck once for you with Dream Theater but multiple times across all of these bands. What do you attribute that to?
Mike Portnoy: I’m proud of each band and the albums that I put out with them. I put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into each one. In each case I’m stretching out in a different musical style. Each band is filled with musicians that I’m proud to work with. I have a lot of gratitude for where I’m at in my career with all of these incredible outlets as well as other things like play with Twisted Sister or on the Shattered Fortress Tour.
Robert Cavuoto: On a musical familiarity level, how important is it to play with Billy in the two bands?
Mike Portnoy: He and I both have very different roles in each band as they are different animals. Winery Dogs is a power trio with lots of jamming and improvising. Billy can stretch out and play bass like a lead instrument. Sons of Apollo is more technical and precise. Billy’s role in Sons of Apollo is more of a precision player. With Sons of Apollo, we have three instruments that are all leaders, Derek plays keyboards like a guitar, Billy plays his bass like a guitar and Bumblefoot plays guitar! [Laughing] It’s a very different kind of format than the Winery Dogs. To me, it’s two very different bands.
Robert Cavuoto: I know that you are no longer a fan of playing drum solos, but being such an influential drummer and role model to a new generation of drummers, don’t you feel the need to inspire them?
Mike Portnoy: Not really. Been there done that. There are a million clips on YouTube. I never feel the need. I feel more comfortable playing to the music, to the songs, or the other players. Honestly, there are so many young drummers that have raised the bar that I can’t compete with. I think it’s best to leave the drum solos to the people that can play with a higher level of technical showmanship than I’m capable of at this point in my life. I’m 52 years old, and I don’t have the speed of a 21-year-old. I look at what my son can do on the drums and I can’t do half of those things. So there is no reason to show off. I’m in the groove at this point and would rather spend those five minutes on another song in the setlist.
Robert Cavuoto: When you were doing solos with Dream Theater, did you ever shorten or lengthen a solo due to the fan’s reaction?
Mike Portnoy: Oh yeah. I had a couple of tours where my solos were completely based on audience participation. On the Train of Thought Tour, I would look out to the audience to see who was playing air drums, so when it came time to do my solo, I would go into the audience with a floor tom and a pair of sticks to jam with them. I would take whoever played the best duet with me on stage to my kit to sit side-by-side to complete the solo. It got to a point where my solo each night was completely based off audience participation. It would also be completely different night-to-night.
Robert Cavuoto: Are you a fan of watching other people’s drum solos?
Mike Portnoy: It depends who it is. There are a lot of drummers who blow my mind and others where I’m bored. It’s not really a general answer; it’s specific to the person. My interests in watching a drummer are the ones who play with character and personality more than technique. The very technical drummers tend to lose me after a while. I would rather watch a drummer like Keith Moon or Lars Ulrich, who aren’t the most technical but are very entertaining. I put a high priority on that.
Robert Cavuoto: Are there any up and coming drummers that impress you?
Mike Portnoy: Between Instagram and YouTube, there are so many up and coming drummers that I watch. They blow my mind. I can’t keep up with the kids today, they are insane. The drummer for Fever 333, Aric Improta, comes to mind. I love watching Zoltan Chaney of the Vince Neil band; he is an incredible showman. They are so inspiring. Drumming is about evolution. There are drummers that can outplay me with one arm. Everybody learns from the generation before them. You wouldn’t have had some of these drummers if I wasn’t doing the progressive thing when I came up in the 90s. You wouldn’t have had me if it wasn’t for Neal Peart and Terry Bozzio. You wouldn’t have Neal Peart and Terry Bozzio if it weren’t for Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell doing it first. You wouldn’t have Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell if it weren’t for Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. It’s all about evolution, passing the drum stick on to the next generation, and watching the bar rise.
Robert Cavuoto: You’re also an innovator. I imagine drummers may be able to imitate you, but it’s a completely different story to create.
Mike Portnoy: Nobody creates in a vacuum; they are learning from someone else. When I came on the scene in the late 80s early 90s, my style was a melting pot of all my heroes like Keith Moon, John Bonham, Neal Peart, Lars Ulrich Terry Bozzio, Dave Lombardo and Steward Copeland all thrown together in a melting pot. That’s how I became me. I think that is the way every drummer is. I don’t think any musician is free of inspiration. You have to have inspiration in order to have your own style.
Robert Cavuoto: I saw your recent Twitter post of you and John Petrucci. Are there any plans to ever work with him again as you are both a tremendous team?
Mike Portnoy: We would both love it. Like you said, we are a great team of 25 years as we were co-captains of Dream Theater and Liquid Tension Experiment. I would also go out with him on the G3 Tours. I look back at the relationship we had, and it was very special from a drummer/guitarist relationship. You can see that with Lars & James of Metallica, Dimebag & Vinnie of Pantera, and Eddie & Alex Van Halen. I think John and I had that type of partnership. We are both at our best and strongest when we work together, and I miss that relationship. He and I have a great personal relationship now and get together with our families. It would be a shame not to make music in some capacity in the future. I hope we can.
Robert Cavuoto: Do you think it would sound like Dream Theater or would you take a different musical approach?
Mike Portnoy: If you listen to the first 10 Dream Theater albums, that’s what it would sound like. I think the Dream Theater and Liquid Tension was a nice combination of our styles as well as the other members of those bands. I think John and I both have very distinctive styles. We have written 100s of songs, so I think it would be pretty obvious what it would sound like.