Interview with Sons of Apollo legendary drummer Mike Portnoy
Article by Jason Setnyk | Photo by Hristo Shindov
Toronto, Ontario – Legendary drummer Mike Portnoy will be in Toronto for a gig on April 20th at The Opera House with his band Sons of Apollo. Mike Portnoy drummed 25 years for Dream Theater, he also drummed for Avenged Sevenfold, Stone Sour, Twisted Sister, and for numerous other bands such as the Winery Dogs.
Sons of Apollo is an American metal super group that formed in 2017 and is composed of drummer Mike Portnoy, bassist Billy Sheehan (ex-The Winery Dogs, ex-David Lee Roth, ex-Mr. Big), keyboardist Derek Sherinian (ex-Dream Theater, ex-Alice Cooper), guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal (ex-Guns N’ Roses), and vocalist Jeff Scott Soto (ex-Journey).
Sons of Apollo recently released an EP album which features different versions of their hit song “Alive”, including a newly recorded Spanish version of the track. The Spanish version will surely be a hit when the band starts their world tour next week playing stops in Mexico and in South America.
“We’re heading down to Mexico and to South America next week, and that’s the main reason we put this out now. We talked about doing a Spanish version just because Jeff’s second language is Spanish, he comes from a Puerto Rican heritage. We talked about a Spanish version of “Alive” just because we felt the song really lent itself to that kind of romantic flavour. It seemed like the right track and the right time, so Jeff learned it and did it, and we recorded it. It was nice little treat to do for our Mexican and South American fans before we went down there next week”, Mike Portnoy responded.
Of all the songs on the full length album ‘Psychotic Symphony’, the song “Alive” is their most commercial.
“Absolutely, I think it’s the one song on the album that could be categorized as a kind of power ballad. It’s one of the shorter songs on the album. It doesn’t have all these progressive technical odd time signatures. The whole purpose of that song when we wrote it was to tap into something that was very melodic. It was the first song we wrote as a complete band with all five members involved. That’s another reason we felt it was a good representation of the band for a single”, Mike Portnoy mentioned.
Watch the music video for “Alive” on Youtube.
The opening track on Psychotic Symphony is called “God of the Sun”. It’s a reference to their band name, because Apollo is both the God of Music and the God of Sun.
“The band name came first before we were creating the lyrics and the titles of the songs. Jeff brought in the lyrics for that song, while Derek and I tweaked it with him, and worked on the lyrics with him. We just stumbled upon that phrase “God of the Sun”, and felt it was not only a great song title for a 10 minute opening epic, but it also tied in with the band name as well. It’s just one of those things where it worked out, it all tied in together”, Mike Portnoy stated.
When drummer Mike Portnoy first heard the song “God of the Sun”, he knew that was going to be the opening track on the Sons of Apollo album.
“That’s the only song on the album that Derek brought pretty much finished. It’s really the only song on that album that we didn’t collaborate on together. Derek and I have a long history of writing progressive songs. I probably have 30-40 songs in my personal catalogue that are songs in excess of 10 minutes. It’s kind of a natural way of writing for me, and I think for Derek as well. When he presented that song to me, I immediately knew it was the album opener. It felt like such a strong opener, it was just an obvious decision”, Mike Portnoy added.
The album also has an instrumental track called “Opus Maximus” which showcases the top work of each instrumental musician. The song, which is a masterpiece, comes together with amazing harmony.
“It’s easy for Derek and I, because we’re well versed in instrumental music. Most of Derek’s solo albums were instrumental. I had an instrumental band with Liquid Tension Experiment, and I’ve done what feels like a million other instrumentals with all my other bands. We knew we wanted an instrumental on this album, and once we started writing it, it was a matter of taking all these ideas and throwing them in the melting pot. One of the things about writing an instrumental is that you have no rules, you don’t follow a traditional song form or arrangement. We took everything and the kitchen sink, all the ideas Bubblefoot, Derek, and myself were jamming on and riffing on, we utilized it all on this one instrumental”, Mike Portnoy replied.
Each member of the band has known the other in some capacity for a long time, but 2017 was the first time these five musicians played together as Sons of Apollo. The chemistry was instant, and their music is jaw dropping good.
“I had a lot of confidence in this lineup, I knew it would be a great lineup. We all worked together in different capacities. I played with Derek in Dream Theater, and I played with Billy in The Winery Dogs, so we all kind of worked together individually. Once we strapped on the instruments and started played together it flowed as if we had been doing it for twenty years”, Mike Portnoy disclosed.
The credits on Psychotic Symphony say that the album was produced by “The Del Fuvio Brothers”. That’s a nickname Kevin Shirley gave Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian when they were both in Dream Theater. Kevin Shirley, also nicknamed The Cavemen, has produced and/or mixed albums for many artists including Iron Maiden, Rush, Led Zeppelin, Journey, Dream Theater and countless others.
“We were together in Dream Theater in the mid-90s. Derek and I were always the two members in the band that were kind of the goof balls, silly, and always having a good time, joking around, and being sarcastic. Kevin Shirley was producing the ‘Falling into Infinity’ album, and he gave Derek and I that nickname. Any time the two of us were mocking people, or making fun of people, or being sarcastic, or stirring up shit, those were our Del Fuvio personas. Kevin gave us that nickname 20 years ago, and we’re reunited 20 years later”, Mike Portnoy reflected.
When Mike Portony and Derek Sherinian joined forces again to record the Sons of Apollo album ‘Psychotic Symphony’, there was an assumption that it would be in the same vein as their previous work together in Dream Theater; however, that was not the case.
“When Derek and I first talked about putting together a new band, we just assumed it would be in the vein of what we use to do together in Dream Theater. That was the blueprint we were thinking it would go in, but as soon as we started writing it went in many different places. I think Bumblefoot brought in so many different musical elements to the sound of the band that it ended up bringing us to many different places. Bumblefoot didn’t have a history of playing in progressive bands, so his influence gave the band a much harder edge, and he made the rifts a lot heavier. Once we started working on the vocals with Jeff, he brought in a really melodic smooth AOR (album-oriented rock) element as well. I don’t think we sound anything like Dream Theater and I don’t even know if I would classify Sons of Apollo as a prog band. I think we’re more of a hard rock metal band with a lot of musicality and maybe prog elements sprinkled on top”, Mike Portnoy reasoned.
The time period between 2010 and 2017 was an interesting one for Mike Portnoy, after being the drummer of Dream Theater for 25 years. After that he played and recorded with Avenged Sevenfold, he was in Winery Dogs, Adrenaline Mob, Flying Circus, and he even drummed for Stone Sour and Twisted Sister. The years after Dream Theater were a liberating experience for the legendary drummer.
“The last seven years have been a very freeing experience for me. I have been able to spread my wings and play so many different kinds of music with different musicians – all of whom I really admire and respect. I never wanted to be just Mike Portnoy from Dream Theater, I want to be Mike Portnoy period. I want to have a name for myself as a drummer who has done lots of different things, and not just be in one band for my entire career. It was important for me to branch out and do all these different things with all these different bands. I think those are the pieces of the puzzle that make me who I am”, Mike Portnoy reflected.
In 2010, Mike Portnoy played for a new generation of music fans while in Avenged Sevenfold. He replaced James “The Rev” Sullivan after his sudden death in 2009. He would tour with the band throughout 2010. He also drummed on the Avenged Sevenfold album ‘Nightmare’ that debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200. The album would go on to sell 1 million copies.
“Certainly they have a very different audience than what I had with Dream Theater back in 2010 when I had played with Avenged Sevenfold, I was already in Dream Theater for 25 years. I was with Dream Theater longer than most of the people in the Avenged Sevenfold audience had even been alive. I definitely come from a generation before Avenged Sevenfold. When I started Dream Theater, those guys were still kids. Coming out with Avenged Sevenfold meant getting my name out to a different generation of listeners that were not only younger but maybe coming from a punk rock background or a more metal background. It was an interesting experience, and a great merging. Playing with those guys, it was a strong unit. When I was on stage with those guys it was a really good experience. It felt like something very special, and the people who caught those shows got to see something special”, Mike Portnoy recalled.
Mike Portnoy has won numerous drumming awards including Revolver Magazine’s “Best Drummer Award” for his work with Avenged Sevenfold. He has also one several awards from Modern Drummer magazine.
“All those awards, those are nice, those are flattering, and I’m grateful for that kind of stuff. It shows I have a great fan base that supported me, and cherished me. Those things are very satisfying. However, to me my greatest accomplishment is that I’ve had this career that has allowed me to do all these different things, so to me that has been an amazing accomplishment”, Mike Portnoy said.
“Also, having a happy family life, a marriage that’s coming up on 30 years, having two children that are really good kids – and talented in their own right. I’m proud of them, and it a very satisfying feeling. One of my greatest achievements of all time is my children, and watching them grow up. The personal things, the real life stuff, those are my proudest achievements”, Mike Portnoy added.
For Mike Portnoy the expression like father, like son holds true.
“My son Max is a very accomplished drummer, and he’s already won many awards himself. He was voted best up and coming drummer in 2015 in Rhythm magazine. He’s doing very well for himself. My daughter just graduated Film Academy. She’s interested in musical theater. She just got cast in her first show a couple of days ago. Both are doing very well in their own right which is one of the proudest things I have ever seen as a father”, Mike Portnoy disclosed.
Mike Portnoy’s father was also into music. He was a radio disc jockey. Because of that, Mike Portnoy had access to lots of great records growing up. When he started playing drums at the age of 11, he was already heavily immersed in music.
“I didn’t get my first drum kit until my 11th birthday, and at that point I had already been a music fan for 11 years. I was already listening to The Beatles, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Kiss, and stuff like that. By the time I got my first drum set, I think it was pretty obvious I was going to be a musician in some capacity, just because I was such a huge music fan from day one. Once I got my first drum set, I immediately taught myself how to play along with all my favourite records”, Mike Portnoy reminisced.
Now, Mike Portnoy is looking forward to his upcoming world tour with Sons of Apollo, and he’s happy to be returning to Canada for a few dates.
“I always love playing Toronto and Montreal, so I’m excited to come up there with an amazing band. The date of the Toronto show is my birthday, so we’ll be celebrating my birthday that show. I wish we were doing more Canadian dates, but I’m glad we’re coming to Canada for these two shows. I’m hoping we’ll be able to make it up some other time and get to hit more cities. In the mean time we look forward to these two shows”, Mike Portnoy noted.
Will there be a sophomore album in the works after their world tour?
“We’ll start thinking about the second album after we get this tour under our belts. The first priority is focusing on being on the road for all of 2018. We have some periods blocked off to be talking about a second album next year. But for me, right now, the focus is hitting the road and focusing on the tour first and foremost. I think it’s an amazing band with incredible potential. When I look at the faces in the audience, I know it’s a powerful force on stage, and it has the potential to do a lot in the future”, Mike Portnoy concluded.
The Sons of Apollo concert is on Friday, April 20th, 2018. Doors are at 7pm. Tickets are on sale here.