The word ‘supergroup’ gets thrown about too easily at times, but there’s clearly no other way to describe Sons of Apollo. Mike Portnoy (drums), Derek Sherinian (keyboards), Billy Sheehan (bass), Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal (guitars) and singer Jeff Scott Soto played in so many great bands, sometimes together, that you can forget ‘6 degrees of Kevin Bacon’, and play ‘Six Degrees of Sons of Apollo’ with pretty much anyone in the music business. When a band’s resume includes Guns n’ Roses, Journey, Mr Big, Dream Theater, Alice Cooper, Billy Idol and David Lee Roth, the pedigree is beyond reproach.
Through the magic of the Internet, I caught up with Soto before their gig in Porto Alegre, Brazil, to discuss the band, the record, and their plans for the future. The band is finishing up in South America (“The crowds are—it’s just insanity. It’s almost like we’re in the 80s again”, he says), and the next leg of the tour will begin Thursday April 19th in Montreal at the Corona Theatre.
Right off the bat, I inadvertently call Sons of Apollo a ‘project’, and Soto is quick to correct me. “It’s absolutely a band”, he says. “We run into this 100% knowing that we’re going to commit to it, and this is why the entire year 2018 is touring with Sons of Apollo, for all of us.” At the moment, only bassist Billy Sheehan is pulling double duty as Mr Big is wrapping up its commitments after the loss of drummer Pat Torpey in February. “When this cycle is done we’re planning on going straight back into the studio and getting ready for album number two.”
Before Sons of Apollo, there was the band PSMS, with Portnoy, Sherinian and Sheehan, and guitarist Tony MacAlpine. “On my birthday”, recalls Soto, “I got an email from Mike saying, ‘Happy birthday, I’m going to call you in a few days to tell you what your birthday present is.’ I thought, he has to call me to tell me what my gift is. I was like man, he must be getting me a car or a truck or something like that”, he says laughing. “He finally calls me and he tells me about the band, and he said, “The next record we’re doing we want to add lead vocals to it because the other ones have been instrumental. So we wanted to know if you’re interested in doing this.”
There was no audition for Soto, no trial period in the studio. Joining the band was literally a gift for him, and he wasn’t about to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth. “I had a little bit of a bucket list”, he explains, “and I wanted to do an album with Billy Sheehan, and I wanted to do one with Mike Portnoy someday. I was overwhelmed. I said yes before I even heard one note.” But with a new direction for the music emerging, the band felt that the neo-classical style of MacAlpine wasn’t in line with what they wanted, so they turned to a new guitar player. “They felt Bumblefoot would be harder edged and current, as far as where we needed to go with the material as a guitar player. So, when they brought him in the whole dynamic of the band changed and that’s where it went from PSMS to Sons of Apollo.”
The songwriting in the beginning was really driven by Derek Sherinian. “Derek doesn’t play traditional conventional keyboards”, explains Soto. “He thinks like a guitar player. His favorite artist of all time is Eddie Van Halen, and when he writes songs or ideas, he writes the way the guitar player would play this stuff as opposed to just a lot of keyboard pads and strings and stuff like that.” Trading ideas with Bumblefoot, the pair honed in all the material together. “There were no demos, we weren’t sending songs back and forth”, recalls the singer. “It was just Derek and Bumblefoot sending some ideas just to kind of get an idea of what key we are in for instance, what tempos we’re in. But there was never any real song writing process until they went into the studio and knocked this thing out.”
Taking so many talented and successful musicians, and molding them into a tight unit required someone stepping forward and acting as the leader, and it should come as no surprise that it was Mike Portnoy who assumed the role. “He wanted to have that ‘I am the captain, follow me into the Promised Land’ role”, the singer explains, “and we were okay with that because, again, we all come from so many different backgrounds, so many different bands, that it’s one less headache we have to worry about if we have one person that’s pretty much leading the charge. Of course we all throw in our input and everybody got to say their ideas as well.”
When came time to take the band on the road, Sons of Apollo had a brand new record called ‘Psychotic Symphony’ to play, but still needed to pad the setlist into a headliner gig. “When Mike puts a setlist together, he puts it together as a fan. We imagine ourselves in the audience watching this show and if we feel like we’re going to be entertained beyond belief, then the audience that we’re playing for is going to have the same result. So it starts from there and it’s no secret now, it’s all over YouTube and the setlist are flying around, but we throw in two Dream Theater songs, from the era when Derek was in the band.”
Soto admits he wasn’t familiar with those songs beforehand, so adding them to the set required a bit of work. “I had to learn these two songs which are not easy songs, right?” he says. “It wasn’t until I actually started singing them at rehearsals that I started learning them. And we kind of do them the way they would have sounded if Sons of Apollo had recorded them. We’re paying respects to the original versions of course, but I don’t sound like James LaBrie when I’m singing. Therefore, it just sounds more like we Apollo-ised them, so to speak.”
If you’ve followed internet reviews of the band’s earlier concerts, Soto says the shows should be similar. “There’s always a few differences within the show every night”, he concedes. “It’s not like a factory line thing where we just take one mould and we follow all the plan exactly the same. As far as the song selection goes, I don’t think we’re going to mix things up but the show itself it will always have its own stamp. It’s always going to have its own identity compared to all the other shows we’ve done.”
As our time is winding down, I asked Jeff Scott Soto if he had more plans for his band SOTO. “We absolutely plan to continue”, he says. “I didn’t want to undermine SOTO with anything I’m doing with Sons of Apollo. I want it to find its own place, at the right time, but I was so excited to put that band together that I don’t want to see it buried just because I’m so busy with Sons of Apollo. I think we’re going to be resuming early next year somewhere between writing and recording the next Sons of Apollo album. We’re going to sneak in and find some time for SOTO.”
Sons of Apollo will play the Corona Theatre in Montreal on April 19th 2018, with Felix Martin opening. Tickets are on sale from Evenko by clicking here.