More than just another rock supergroup, Sons of Apollo is a true meeting of the creative minds and a musical endeavour that was predicated on the fact that it’s not simply another project, another one-off, another short lived studio endeavour. Sons of Apollo was created to be a real band, and to be a priority in the lives and careers of the five phenomenally talented musicians who have come together for this highly-anticipated conglomeration.
Comprised of drum master Mike Portnoy (Winery Dogs, Dream Theater, Metal Allegiance, Neal Morse Band etc. etc.), keyboard whiz Derek Sherinian (Dream Theater, Black Country Communion) guitarist Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal (Guns ‘N Roses, Art of Anarchy), legendary bassist Billy Sheehan (Winery Dogs, David Lee Roth, Talas, Mr. Big) and former Journey and Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force vocalist Jeff Scott Soto, Sons of Apollo will be unleashing their debut album, Psychotic Symphony on Oct. 20 from InsideOutsideMusic/Sony in both digital and physical copy forms.
The band formed out of a pre-existing collaboration between Portnoy, Sherinian and Sheehan. It was a prog-rock instrumental group called PSMS that also featured guitarist Tony McAlpine. After releasing a couple of albums earlier in the decade, they decided to incorporate vocals into the mix. Soto was sought out, and Portnoy scouted him while the Winery Dogs (the band he was in with Sheehan and Ritchie Kotzen) was on tour a few years ago.
Soto was asked to join the group, and was beginning to work on material when McAlpine left the project. Rather than keep going, they decided to start anew, bringing in Bumblefoot to add his distinctive guitar touches and to create Sons of Apollo as a completely new entity. As busy as each individual band member was over the past year or so, they still managed to cobble together time to write and record Psychotic Symphony – a collection of nine musical masterpieces that sees each musician at their compositional and performing best, creating a sound that has tinges of each one’s musical pedigree, without sounding too much like any of them.
Soto has been in the music business for over 30 years but outside of Sheehan, really didn’t know his new Sons of Apollo bandmates all that well.
“My previous band, Soto, toured with the Winery Dogs in south America so I got a really cool feel for who Mike was and what he’s about in a really short time. We have met a handful of times over the years and I think he is one of the greatest drummers of all time. It was on my bucket list to be in a band or do a project or an album with him, as well as Billy Sheehan. I’ve known Billy for nearly 33 years. I cut my teeth when I was on tour with Yngwie and Billy’s band Talas was opening up for us back in 1985, so I have known Billy the longest,” he said.
“Derek was an acquaintance. I knew him mainly because he was Yngwie’s keyboard player at one point and we kind of had that experience in common, but we only had a few exchanges of words here and there through the decades. We never really hung out; we never played together or did anything together. The closest we actually came was on [former Night Ranger, current Whitesnake and Trans-Siberian Orchestra guitarist] Joel Hoekstra’s solo album a couple of years ago when I sang on some of the songs and Derek did all the keyboards, but we didn’t actually do it together in the studio.
“Bumblefoot? I had no idea who this guy was much less how great he was until they said he was in the band. Then I started doing some research and I was like, ‘oh my God!’ I saw him once in passing at a Guns ‘N Roses show, but I had never really been a big GnR fan so I didn’t really pay attention to his playing. But man, this guy completely surprised me both playing wise and personality wise; I love the guy to death. In the short time we spent together making the Psychotic Supper record, these guys are like my best buddies now. I can’t believe the camaraderie and the chemistry that we have had and how it’s come across in the music in such a short period of time.”
Portnoy and Sherinian are the driving force behind Sons of Apollo and are also the creative spark of the band. But Soto emphasized the fact that it is indeed a band, not simply another hired-gun ‘supergroup’ project where it’s short lived and there often isn’t a lot of touring involved.
“We absolutely put our egos at the door. We kept all that in check because there is a definite vision here. Let’s not mince words here, this started with an idea from Derek and Mike: it’s their band, this is their vision, their idea of putting a band together. We are the players. We are the cast that they wanted to surround themselves with to make this album and build this band. I knew that we all had to work on it together. We molded all my melodies and lyrics to make sure everything fit for the vision for what they had for this. And, yeah, there’s a few things I wouldn’t have done on my own the way they are on this record. But I did them because it’s for the greater good – for making the songs sound like Sons of Apollo and not like another Jeff Scott Soto or another Dream Theater-type band. The music had to sound like it was made for this band,” Soto explained.
“And I played the stuff for a buddy of mine recently and he said it didn’t sound like a contrived, supergroup type thing. He said it sounds like a band that has been together and worked together for years. There’s a chemistry that sounds like knew what we were doing and established this unique sound to make this record. And that to me is important because that’s exactly what we went for.”
Soto said he was a little unsure if he was actually the right guy for the job, based on the past pedigree of the trio who were heading up the project that would become Sons of Apollo, Sheehan, Portnoy and Sherinian – all top players known for their superior musicianship and prog-rock, prog-metal repertoire.
“I have never been in a prog band. I don’t know how to write lyrics about Isaac Asimov novels. I thought I would have to go back and open up my Rush lyrics and brush up on By Tor and the Snow Dog – I had never written that kind of stuff. So I thought at first I might have bitten off more than I can chew and that I might be out of my element. But I told myself to wait until I started to hear the material and then I will judge and figure out if I am actually the guy they are expecting me to be in this situation,” he said.
“One of the things that I absolutely didn’t want to do, especially when Bumblefoot was aboard much later, after they already asked me to be involved on the original version of the group with Tony McAlpine, the first thing I thought was I hope they don’t expect me to sing in that sort of Dream Theater, higher range that I don’t really do any more. That’s not really my wheelhouse these days. And if that was the case they’re going to have to find another guy because that’s not where my voice lives any more. But, thankfully that was the opposite of that they wanted. It actually worked to my advantage on every level, especially once the songwriting process began.”
And that process usually started with ideas coming from the fertile musical mind of Sherinian, who would lay down some tracks, sometimes fully completed ideas, and send them to Soto to begin hammering out some melodies and preliminary lyrical ideas.
“I was on tour and he just started sending me these keyboard ideas. It was just him banging out stuff on the keys, maybe a minute or two minute song ideas. And they sounded crazy cool because it was just him doing this distorted organ that sounded like a guitar. But there was no drum loop, just a skeletal idea. And it’s kind of like when you’re an actor doing a lightsaber fight scene being directed by George Lucas, you kind of have to imagine all the stuff that’s going to be added later by the special effects people,” he said, adding that Portnoy would also be involved in the next stage, along with Bumblefoot as they started adding muscle and tissue to the musical skeleton and then sent those more complete ideas back to Soto.
“Again, I was on tour, and they were sending me a song a day. And you can only imagine what they were doing; it’s insane the stuff they were writing and doing it so quickly and so creatively. That last stage was doing the vocals. There were a few things they sent to me where I was able to craft more detailed melodies and vocal parts, maybe two songs that were pretty much as you hear them on the album. But the rest of it was done with all of us together. We really truly molded and created the melodies and the dynamics as a unit because, again, I didn’t want it to sound like something I would use on one of my records and they didn’t want it to sound like something they pre-wrote for me that wasn’t really authentic to my voice. It had to be done together.
“It was a really cool process. I am not used to doing it so collaboratively and I haven’t done it that way in decades. I haven’t actually worked as a band like that for a long time, so it was scary at first because what if they’re writing stuff I can’t understand? On the other hand, they brought out the best in me because they would give me something I wouldn’t have thought of and then I in turn actually sang it way better than they originally gave it to me. It was a cool process and it totally worked.”
Soto keeps emphasizing the fact that Sons of Apollo is a true to life band, not just another super project created by some mastermind who throws together a concoction of rock stars hoping for something good. Soto said he and his bandmates are putting Sons of Apollo at the top of each one of their agendas for the foreseeable future.
“When I finally got to sit down and have a real serious conversation with Mike and Derek, we talked about this being a real band. This is a commitment. All of us are putting everything aside next year. If it means you have to put the highest paid gig aside to just do something that’s about pure passion, we’re going to ask you to put it all aside in 2018. That was the ask, and that was the agreement, because we’re all committed to this. We’re not just doing this as a project and hoping it sticks. Even if it doesn’t stick at first, we’re doing this for the long haul,” he said.
“I wish I could give you the information about how busy we’re going to be next year. 2018 is absolutely 100 per cent dedicated to Sons of Apollo. Derek is doing a couple of one-off things for the reformed Black Country Communion, but they were booked before our tour planning. And Mike of all people, he is the one who is the most busy. He put everything on hold for this. And that means a lot to everybody and is a real message to fans and the industry that it’s not about him just dabbling. He is putting everything into this. We have the same commitment from the label – everybody that’s involved in this, I swear, is so dedicated. I haven’t been a part of something like this for a long time and it just feels great.”
Soto also has a solo album coming out on Frontiers Music on Nov. 10 called Retribution. It marks his 13th solo album (including live releases) and is part of a truly outstanding catalogue of work. He was the vocalist on the first two album’s by Yngwie Malmsteen’s rising force – Rising Force (1984) and Marching Out the following year. He then formed a band called Talisman which had an impressive run of albums and tours throughout the 1990s, and was the touring vocalist for Journey on its 2006 and 2007 world tours. He has also recorded with the likes of Axel Rudi Pell, W.E.T., The Trans-Siberian Orchestra and dozens of other albums and singles.
“With my solo stuff, you can always count on me giving that 1980s, classic rock vibe. Especially on this album, there is a very Talisman-like vibe to it. It’s something that a lot of people missed from my voice on my later releases. The last band that I had for the previous three years, Soto, was completely away from what I was normally doing and what people expected from me. So when I do the solo records, especially with Frontiers, who I have been working with for 15 years, it always falls into that melodic rock/melodic hard rock format. And that’s exactly what you’re going to get with Retribution,” he said.
“Sons of Apollo is a whole different animal. It is something that was created from the ground up. It contains not an ounce or drop of recycled material. Every single note, from the first keyboard note to the last drum fill is brand new and created only for this band. Whereas my solo stuff could be older songs that never got finished. It could be something that my guitar player Howie Simon has been sitting on for a while.”
He also recently completed work on an as-yet untitled new album from W.E.T which comprises members of the bands Work of Art, Eclipse and Talisman – meaning he basically had to write lyrics and melodies for three different albums from three different bands in essentially one calendar year.
“You’re talking more than 30 songs. So I have to find 30 topics, completely different from each other, fitting within the format and genre of the song and the band, but also lyrics that mean something and say something. It wasn’t an easy task, I tell you that,” he said.
As for Sons of Apollo’s unconfirmed touring schedule for 2018, Soto was optimistic that the band would be arranging some dates in Canada.
“We’re probably going to hit you up there twice. The schedule is ridiculous: we’re going to be all over the world, and I can’t wait. I am a kid in a candy store. I am part of the greatest band in the universe right now,” he said.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.