Sons Of Apollo’s Mike Portnoy Chats With Let’s Rock

If you’re a fan of Rock and Roll, and chances are you are since you’re checking this out, you know the name Mike Portnoy.  He got his start as the drummer in prog masters Dream Theater in 1989 and has since performed with dozens of bands, including Adrenaline Mob, The Winery Dogs, Twisted Sister, Avenged Sevenfold and many, many others.  His current project, Sons of Apollo, which features guitarist Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal, bassist (and fellow Winery Dog) Billy Sheehan, Keyboardist Derek Sherinian and singer Jeff Scott Soto, will drop their debut album, Psychotic Symphony on October 20.  Mike was kind enough to give Let’s Rock some time to discuss the new album.  Enjoy! (For audio, click here)

Let’s Rock: How are things?

Mike Portnoy: Things are good.

LR: Congratulations on this new album, by the way.

MP: Thank you.

LR: It is an absolutely incredible album.

MP: Well, thank you.

LR: Yeah, I love it.  I just wanted to know how it started.  I’m guessing you’re sitting around with Derek Sherinian and you say, ‘hey, let’s start a band’?

MP: Yeah, not exactly.  Basically, Derek and myself, along with Billy Sheehan and Tony MacAlpine, we did a tour back in 2012.  It was all instrumental and it was just playing music from all our pasts.  And every night that we played, it just felt like such an awesome band and such a great chemistry of players.  Derek kept saying it would be great, you know, let’s expand this into a real band and do some original material and go write an album.

And at that time, back in 2012, it was just not good timing for me.  I was about to launch The Winery Dogs and I already had Adrenaline Mob and Flying Colors and all these other things, so I didn’t have time at that point.  But through the years, Derek kept checking in periodically to see if I was ready and some time late last year, Winery Dogs was winding down and I was about to take a little time off, and Twisted Sister was finishing their run with me on drums, so it seemed like I might have some time available and we decided at that point, you know, let’s do this.

And at that point we brought in Bumblefoot and Jeff Scott Soto, and here we are.

LR: That’s awesome.  Why did you decide on Jeff Scott Soto and Ron Thal.  What did you know about them before?

MP:  Well, this was the dream line-up I had in my head.  Knowing that if Derek and I were going to do something, I knew this was the powerhouse line-up.  I had worked with Bumblefoot several times through the years, different things.  Most notably, he was part of Metal Allegiance for an East coast tour we did.  So, I knew how amazing he was and that he could play anything and that he was just a really easygoing guy.  So I knew he was the man on guitar.

And then Jeff, I mean I’ve known about Jeff since the early Yngwie Malmsteen albums back in the mid 80s, but he and I really got to know each other the last couple of years when his solo band was opening for The Winery Dogs.  And I watched him every night and just knew that he was such a great front man and such a melodic voice.  I knew he’d be perfect for this.

So it was my dream line-up and I sent out the e-mails and everybody was on board.

LR: How do you guys find time for all this?  I mean, I just saw Billy Sheehan (in Ottawa, with The Fell) about three weeks ago and then he was off to Asia (with Mr. Big). Derek Sherinian has a new album with Black Country Communion, Bumblefoot’s got Art of Anarchy.  How did you guys all find the time to put this thing together?

MP: Well, you’ve got five guys in this band that are ll hard workers.  We all have other things going in our lives and careers and each one of us are the sort of musicians that love to work and love to play.  That was another factor in my picking this line-up.  I knew that these were all guys that were committed to whatever they do and will work their asses off to make it work.  Yeah, it’s just the type of personality all five of us are.

LR: Did anything surprise you when you actually got together and started writing together?

MP: Well, I’d like to say that I was surprised by how easy it came together, but to be honest, I kind of expected that.  That wasn’t really a surprise.  I knew it would work.  I knew it would be easy once once we started playing just because I know the guys involved.  So, I can’t really say there were many surprises.  Everything Kind of went according to plan.

LR: Cool.  That’s good, because in most supergroups you hear about all these ego clashes and big problems.

MP: No, everybody was kind of chosen for the band because I knew their personalities.  And Jeff and Bumblefoot in particular are the two most easygoing guys and (chuckles) that’s very rare for a guitar player and a singer.  You know, those are usually the two difficult positions.  But in this case, you couldn’t ask for two sweeter guys.  That’s a huge part of, uh, importance in picking band chemistry.  A lot of times it’s well beyond the music.  It’s more about the personalities and in this case, it’s a great group of guys.

LR: How did the songs come together?  Did you have ideas in your head of what kind of sound you wanted to get and pass it along or did you just get in a room and start jamming?

MP: It started with me, Derek and Bumblefoot.  Just the three of us, just to get the ball rolling.  And Bumblefoot had a shit load of riffs and ideas and Derek had a shitload of riffs and ideas and basically we got together and just started mapping them out together, and piecing them together and jamming on them and expanding on them.  Then after a little while, Billy joined up with us as well.  So that’s how the music was written.

Once all the music was done, we sent it of to Jeff and Jeff would write lyrics.  Then he would get together with me and Derek and the three of us collaborated on melodies and changing some of the lyrics here and there.  So, pretty much two separate processes between the music and the vocals.

LR: Nice.  So what happens now that it’s out, or will be out soon?

MP: Yeah next week (October 20).  Yeah, this is a real band.  This isn’t just a one off, make a record project.  This is a band that is gonna be on the road all of 2018, going all around the world.  The tour will begin in February.  We’re gonna be debuting on Yes’s Cruise to the Edge and from there we’ll just travel all around the world and hit as many places as we can.

LR: So, this isn’t a one off deal?  It’s gonna keep going for a while?

MP: Yeah, that’s the idea.  Whenever you form a band , you want to go as far as you can with it, and this is a band.  This isn’t just some sort of recording project, this is a real band. We just happen to be thirty years into our careers, but it’s no different than forming your first band.  You wanna go for it and go as far as you can.

LR: So what does this mean for everybody else’s bands?  You just find time for everything?

MP: Uh, well, we’re all prioritizing this.  Personally, I’ve been juggling three to four bands a year for the last seven years, since I left Dream Theater.  And actually, even when I was in Dream Theater, I still juggled a million things, while still having a main home.  So that’s the thing.  This will be our main home and everybody is free to do other things and will do other things.  Jeff has Trans Siberian Orchestra and I still have The Neal Morse Band and Flying Colors and Metal Allegiance.  All those things will still happen, but they’ll happen around Sons of Apollo’s schedule.

LR: Ah, that’s awesome.  Getting off the Sons of Apollo…Will there be more Winery Dogs.

MP:  I hope so.  We’re just kind of on break at the moment. So, yeah, I hope so.

LR: Yeah, I was just blown away by the sound on this album.  It’s almost like you have perfect chemistry right off the bat, which is something I’ve heard is really hard to come by.  And I know you’ve worked with Billy Sheehan a lot before, so you’ve developed that chemistry.  But everybody seems to be right on click. And the sound is huge.  Now, you produced this with Derek Sherinian…

MP: Well, I give the credit, for the sonic aspects, to the engineers and the mixers we work with.  They were both hand chosen.   They’re both guys that I’ve worked with extensively. The engineer, Jerry Guidroz, has done my last 20 albums…literally.  I love working with him and have a great chemistry with him.  I knew he would bring his abilities and talents to the album.

And then the mixer was Jay Ruston, who’s mixed at least 5 other albums for me through the last few years. And to me, he’s my go to guy in terms of having great, huge sounding mixes.  He mixed all the Winery Dogs stuff and he mixed the first Adrenaline Mob album that I did.

So, yeah, I give the credit to those guys.  I mean, Derek and I, as the producers, kind of oversee all of the details that go into the recording, but it’s up to those guys to get it on tape and make it come alive.

LR: OK, I want to get into some older stuff.  Just when you first started, some quick questions for you.  Who was the first drummer that made you say ‘holy crap! I wanna do this for a living’?

MP: It was Keith Moon (The Who), and it was more for the visual side.  I had been listening to The Who, as well as the Beatles and the Stones and all that stuff from when I was born in ’67, all through the early 70s.  We didn’t have any visual means back then.  Not many, unless the band made a movie or you went and saw them in concert.

When The Who put out their movie, The Kids Are Alright, in 1979, that was my first time seeing Keith play and seeing a drummer that played the drums like a lead instrument.  Like a front man.  You couldn’t take your eye off of him.  Pretty much, when I saw Keith playing, was when I knew exactly what I wanted to do and the type of drummer I wanted to be.

LR: OK, what was the first concert you ever saw?

MP: I saw George Harrison in ’74, I saw Paul McCartney and Wings in ’76 and I saw KISS in ’77.  So those were the first three I saw and all three had a huge impact on me.

LR:  That’s a pretty good starting 3. Do you remember the first show you ever played?

MP: Sure, I’ve got  a great memory for everything I’ve ever done.  It was with my band Intruder and we played at a local church.  We played like a free concert.  At that time, it was around 1982, and we were doing all covers of stuff that was popular around ’82.  A lot of Van Halen and Ozzy and Sabbath, early Motley Crue and stuff like that.  So, yeah, that would be the first one.

LR: What country have you never played in that you really want to visit?

MP: The Moon. That’s pretty much all that’s left for me. I’ve been everywhere else.

LR: Is there a favorite area…?

MP: Home.  There’s no place like home, as Dorothy once said.

LR: For some of the people who may not know, you’re pretty well known for playing in prog bands.  Can you define prog?

MP: Well, the definition has certainly changed through the years.  When the genre came out in the early 70s, the word kind of applied to bands like Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Bands that were coming out and combining jazz and classical and rock into one giant melting pot.  Usually those bands had very long songs, very intricate parts.  That’s what it used to mean, but now, in 2017, it’s a very broad term because it could range from anything from Opeth and Meshuggah all the way to Porcupine Tree and Spock’s Beard.  There’s so many different kinds of prog or progressive music these days that the genre has blown wide open into so many subcategories which I think is a great thing.

LR: You’ve played with some of the best guitar players going, ever since you started. Who have you not played with that you would like to jam with?

MP: I will say, I’ll expand on the question with a statement.  I agree with you.  I’ve been truly blessed to have played with a who’s who of guitar players.  You know, everybody from Paul Gilbert to Richie Kotzen to Steve Morse to Zakk Wylde to Tony MacAlpine to Alex Skolnick to John Petrucci.  I mean the list is really incredible and I’ve been blessed.

Who haven’t I played with that I would like to? The answer I always give is the same.  It’s  Mikael Åkerfeldt from Opeth. He’s someone I really admire, more as a songwriter than a guitar player specifically.  But he’s someone I really admire musically and also get along really well with personally and would love to do something together at some point.

LR: So you know him but you’ve never jammed?

MP: Yeah, we’ve jammed.  We’ve been friends for 15 years at this point, but I mean make some music together.

Now, if you’re talking about just jamming, umm, I mean God, I’ve even jammed with everybody from Dweezil to Steve Vai to Joe Satriani to Ace Frehley, so you know…if you’re just talking about jamming.  Who haven’t I jammed with that I’d like to?  Maybe Jimmy Page or Brian May.

LR: It’s interesting that you just mentioned that.  How tight is the rock scene, because I always see posts on Facebook and Twitter with guys just getting together and jamming. I think there’s an open jam, night in LA somewhere where Nuno and all the guys get together and just jam.  How tight i the community?

MP: Well, it depends on your personality.  I love jamming.  I love going out and playing with other people and hanging socially.  Not everybody’s like that.  You know, when I was Dream Theater, those guys kind of really kept to themselves and never went out and never really really socialized much.  You know, John did the G3 Tour, so that was kind of one time where they kind of stepped out of the world and jammed with…Anyway, I’m getting off track here.  The point is, it’s all about your personality.  So, yeah, there’s a world out there where people love to jam and get together and get out of their comfort zone and get out of their normal bands.  If you’re the type of personality that enjoys that and likes to do that, it’s an awesome thing to do. To me, it’s what’s made me who I am.  The fact that I’ve played in twenty something bands at this point and I’ve jammed with probably hundreds of musicians at this point, it makes me who I am.  Not only my musical identity, but it’s my personality as well.

LR: Have you ever been intimidated when you got on stage with somebody cuz you were…

MP: Oh fuck yeah.  Every time. (laughs) Yeah.  There’ve been so many guys that I’ve played with that it was pretty incredible and pretty intimidating to be up there with.

Myself and Derek Sherinian put together a benefit concert for Tony MacAlpine whe he was sick.  And the end jam, the guys that were up on stage with me and Derek and Billy Sheehan was incredible.  Me, Derek and Billy were the rhythm section and then up there we had Steve Vai, Paul Gilbert, Tom Morello, John 5, Nuno Bettencourt, Richie Kotzen.  Zakk Wylde was there that night.  It was awesome.

LR: You just named the starting five for the guitar Hall of Fame. That’s amazing

MP: (laughs) Well, I’ve played with them all.

LR:  That’s incredible.  One last question. It’s kind of a serious question and I hate bringing it up, but with all the stuff that’s happened in Vega and the Ariana Grande concert in England.  Do you worry, or are you nervous about going out on the road?

MP:  Well yeah.  I mean, geez, you could date it back to 2004 when Dimebag was killed.  You know, that was a wake up call that these things can happen. And the scary thing is, you can’t prevent it.  You know, you could get security at a club or have all the policeman in the world at a gig or metal detectors upon entering.  It doesn’t matter.  I mean, look what happened in Las Vegas.  The guy wasn’t even in the venue.  He was shooting into it from an outside source.  Really, there’s only so much you can do to protect yourself.  It’s really more a gun control issue more than anything else, more than a security issue.  I think security, ever since 9-11, has gotten more and more tight and tight, no matter where you go.  It’s sometimes scary when you travel as much as I do, and a lot of other musicians do.  Youre always on the road and always on airplanes and always on stage in public places.  But, you know, we can’t let them win.  This is what we do.

You could say the same thing about walking across the street.  Look at all the people that were killed when the crazy driver drove through…in Charlottesville or whatever. So what are you gonna do? Not ever get in a car or walk across the street.  You just have to be as careful as you can.  It’s just crazy times we live in.  You know, it’s scary and it’s sad, but it’s reality and we have to deal with it on its own terms.

LR: Well said, well said.  Well listen, I want to thank you for this.  This has been great and I wish you all the success in the world with the new album, Psychotic Symphony.

MP: Thank you
LR: It is fantastic.  Good luck with the tour and hopefully you’ll come up to Canada at some point.

MP: I hope so.  I look forward to it, man.


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