With Planet X not very active in recent years, it’s been difficult to catch Derek Sherinian live playing prog – sure, there’s his classic rock band Black Country Communion with Glenn Hughes, Joe Bonamassa and Jason Bonham, and you can also see him live with the Billy Idol band, but none of those feature Derek in an environment close to the synth-laden heavy prog fusion of his solo albums and Planet X. So when the opportunity came up to see him live with the all-star band also featuring Mike Portnoy, Billy Sheehan and Tony MacAlpine, I decided that this gig was worth the 650 km trip from Nürnberg in Germany, to Opole in Poland. To make the most of the situation, I quickly e-mailed Derek if he was available for an interview in Poland – he agreed right away and so I got to question him about his various musical projects shortly before the second gig of the tour in Wroclaw. For those interested, I have included the setlist for the Opole and Wroclaw gigs at the end of this interview!
I would like to start talking about last night’s gig, cause I thought it was really cool. And especially for a first night of a tour!
Yeah, I thought it went really well!
How long did you rehearse?
We only had two days of band rehearsal with Mike. Billy and Tony and I got together a few times at my studio and just went over parts, but the first day of rehearsal was pretty loose. We did like ten-hour days and at some point we just had to say “Alright, it is what it is – we just have to be the best we can!” There were some mistakes, but overall I thought it was great and it had good energy. And any mistakes that we made can be fixed tonight, so I think it’s gonna be a smooth tour playing-wise.
Yeah, I think it was really good. If I hadn’t known it was the first gig, I wouldn’t have thought…
No, it’s great. Everyone sounds great and it’s an honor to play with these guys, they’re really great players.
So who put together the setlist? Did you all…?
Yeah, I thought he did!
Yeah, that’s his thing. Mike is into setlists. All the things that he did in Dream Theater, I just let Mike run with it, cause he knows what he’s doing.
So it was his choice to play Apocalypse 1470 B.C.?
No, it was my choice. Acually, the story went…
Did you make a deal?
We made a deal!
You would play Acid Rain and he would play…
I knew it! (laughs)
Because when we first got together, he asked me if we could do Acid Rain and I go “You know what, I’m not really into learning Jordan’s keyboard parts”, and he goes “You know, I understand because I’m never gonna play Mike Mangini’s drum parts, so I get it.” So we didn’t play it. And then, like about six months ago, Mike goes “Hey, you know – can you throw me a bone? Can we play Acid Rain? The fans would really love it!” and I say “OK, I’ll play Acid Rain if you play Apocalypse, because I think that the fans would really love to hear that as well!” And so he agreed and there it was. And as it turned out, it’s great. I’m glad that we’re playing both songs because the set is stronger and those are both killer songs.
Those are really pretty outstanding tracks, I think. And you did great on the Jordan stuff!
I didn’t think I’d ever see that, actually – you playing Rudess material!
Yeah, I didn’t think so either, but hey, you know what – he’s had to play my stuff long enough, so I guess it’s only fair!
That’s true! No, it was really cool! And a huge surprise! I mean, even A Change of Seasons first, that was a big surprise, and then Acid Rain – I was like “What the fuck?! How did that happen?” I think that was really cool and many people will be very positively surprised by the setlist. And I think Apocalypse worked really, really well, so…
Yeah, Mike’s a trooper, man! He came in and learned it and it’s great. It’s different than Virgil but it’s his approach to it and it’s still exciting and great in a different way.
I interviewed him like three months ago and I asked him about Apocalypse because you had mentioned you were going to play it. And I asked him “Have you been practicing yet?” – not something he gets asked very often! People just assume he can play anything, but I knew it was gonna be hard and he was like “Uh…”
But he figured it out and you heard it last night – he sounds great!
Yeah, he sounds great! But you don’t get to hear Mike announce a track with “This song scares the shit out of me!” very often, so… (laughs)
Yeah, it’s great!
So… I talked to Tony earlier this year and asked him as well as Mike before, but they were both not quite sure, so I’m gonna ask you now: Do you think you will ever record any original material with this band?
I think so! I mean, we all like each other so far and the show is great and there is no reason why we shouldn’t make a record. And as long as we wanna keep doing it, it makes sense. So I’d say sometime next year I could see a record coming out.
Very cool! OK, let’s briefly talk about Black Country Communion because you have a new album coming out these days!
Black Country Communion, I’m not gonna sugarcoat anything, it’s in a state of turmoil and odds are that the band will never play together again. But there’s always that chance, so without getting into details, I’m just kinda sitting back and waiting for the smoke to clear. And that’s as honest as I can be.
How did you experience the creative process for the third album? Was it like the first two or did you change anything about the approach?
No, it was pretty much the same. It’s mostly Glenn, but then all of us have our little bits in there. It all goes very fast – we recorded the album in one week!
You don’t have any gigs planned right now, so it might be over now?
No. It’s all on ice. Or on fire, however you wanna look at it (laughs).
OK. Let’s talk about your solo career, because I’m quite a big fan of all those albums. First of all, who is Rob Mules? (note: a mysterious bassist credited for work on the Molecular Heinosity album)
Rob Mules? (laughs) That’s Brian Tichy.
I knew it! (laughs) Good, good! Thanks for clearing that up!
Now, do you understand, Rob Mules? Mob Rules!
Yeah! I figured that’d be someone you’d worked with before and he had played bass on one track before, so I figured – probably him!
Yeah, that’s Brian Tichy. I don’t mean to out him, but… (laughs)
You always get asked who you would like to work with and the answer is usually some guitarist, like Eddie Van Halen or Jeff Beck – and then people often point out that you seem to work well and write well with drummers. So I’m gonna turn this one around: Which drummer would you like to work with?
You know, honestly… I’d love to play with Vinnie Colaiuta again – I’ve jammed with him once on a session, he was great. And Dennis Chambers is monstrous – I’d love to work with him. Or Bill Bruford, but I don’t think he plays that kind of stuff anymore. He’s more into…
I don’t think he plays anything anymore, except for fun.
Yeah, I think he’s kinda retired. But that’s pretty much it. My favorite drummer of all time is Simon (Phillips) and I love playing with him. If he was the last drummer I ever played with, I’d be content.
Not that long ago you were talking about possible tour plans for some of your solo stuff with Simon in the band.
Yeah, it was very hard to get together and at some point you just have to look at it and go “You know what, it’s just not gonna happen. It doesn’t make sense.” I found in instrumental music it’s hard to go out unless you’re Joe Satriani or Vai or Al Di Meola where you have that established of a career and following that you can go out solo. Someone at my level, or anyone of us in the band here – if we went out on our own, it would be not a good financial thing. But all of us together, we’re able to go out and do great and play music off of all of our records. So that’s why I’m happy that PSMS is up and running – because it’s a great creative outlet. Not only to make new music, but we can play stuff off all of our solo records.
I saw Tony about half a year ago and it was a great show, but not that many people, really. So I see what you’re saying.
We’ll see how many people come to these shows, but I think it’ll be a lot better with all of us together than if we were all alone.
Probably! Anyway, it’s been quite a while ago, but you mentioned something about possibly doing a piano album one day?
Yeah, it’s not on my… I don’t know, maybe in the future, but not now.
It just worked out that way. I mean, I was kinda metalled out a little bit and I worked with Simon again. When Simon and I write it always goes more to Jeff Beck world and when I write with Tichy it always goes to like Meshuggah, Ozzy, Van Halen world. You know, it’s cool – I have a wide range! Like, tonight you’ll hear, we play Apocalypse, which is the most progressive thing I’ve ever written, and then we play Been Here Before, which is like a Beatles song or something. So I have a wide range of what I’m into, it just depends on what I’m in the mood for at the time.
Speaking of Been Here Before, that one pretty much revisits Anna Lee…
Very much so! I thought the music was beautiful and I was never satisfied with the way it turned out on that record. I thought it was too beautiful of a song and I wanted to keep it pure and make it instrumental.
You’ve been revisiting a few of your previous riffs or ideas on Oceana…
Yeah, there’s Box which was rewritten into Five Elements – I like the way it is now better. It has better melodies and the groove that Simon is playing…
I agree! And Mercury Seven has the groove from Space Martini…
Which is all derived from Space Boogie, Simon Phillips off of There And Back. Both those songs are heavily inspired by that one.
I was just wondering whose idea it was to revisit these things – yours or Simon’s?
No, I did, absolutely.
OK. You mentioned something about wanting to start a prog metal band with vocals, I think with Rusty Cooley…
I don’t want… No, that never… We talked about it for like a week or something, and it just didn’t happen. I have no interest in doing prog metal beyond instrumental stuff with these guys.
OK, let’s talk Planet X! Can you tell me what happened in 2009? Because there was quite a bit of talk about areunion and a tour was announced and then pretty much all fell apart.
I don’t remember, was Tony back with us at the time?
Yeah, Tony was back and then you were going to tour Europe, but then the tour was cancelled…
I don’t remember what happened, it was a few years ago, but it probably had to do with the fact that it didn’t make financial sense. You know, it’s one thing if you’re 21, 22 years old, going out and travelling in Europe in a van and all sleeping in one hotel room. But I mean, at this point it needs to make sense.
Will we see Planet X live again?
Maybe! Probably. I mean, it’s not in the books at all right now. Virgil is off playing with Holdsworth and Tony and I are doing this thing and other things. But you never know – if the demand calls for it, I’m sure… You know, we all still love each other and we’re all good friends and enjoy playing with each other, so we’ll see…
You’ve never played a gig in Germany and I keep waiting for you to announce something…
Yeah, I don’t know, we did a lot in Holland, but never in Germany. I don’t know why not. I mean, never say never, you know? It’s probably more likely you’ll see PSMS in Germany than Planet X.
Yeah, I figured as much. But it’s not just Planet X, it’s also Virgil – I’ve never seen Virgil play any of his music with a band.
Virgil is amazing and you have to see him sometime!
I’ve seen him at a clinic, even in my hometown, but it was just solos. I mean, he’s one of the most mesmerizing guys to watch playing all by himself, but still – it’s not the same.
Virgil is fantastic!
He’s really something! Could you imagine getting together for a single Planet X gig somewhere where you live and just recording a DVD at some point?
Yeah, I could see doing that. That makes sense.
Cause really, this kind of music has to be seen!
Yeah, I think so, too. I’d like to do that.
There have been a lot of, well, not really lineup changes, but you never settled on a complete lineup for Planet X, you’ve never found a permanent bassist.
Well, Tony and Virgil and I have always been the core and we take care of the sound. So from the beginning we always had different bass players. The last guy we’ve played with, Doug Shreeve – he was great! As far as I’m concerned, he’s always invited to come play with us!
That’d be cool – he was really impressive!
He was great! Jimmy Johnson, he’s the one who played on our last record, and he’s fantastic – I love him as a bass player! He played on my solo stuff, he’s a monster. And when he sends… he wasn’t in the studio with us, he overdubbed his tracks and sent them in. I remember Simon, when we flew in his bass tracks, he’s like “I don’t even have to do anything! Any EQ, nothing! It just sits right in the track and it’s beautiful!” – that’s a great thing, when you have that tone.
Virgil just really hears it a certain way and so we let Jimmy play on a song and it sounded so good, it’s like “You know what? We’ll just let Jimmy play!” – and that’s just how it worked out. Nothing against Rufus, but Jimmy is just extraordinary.
Yeah, he is – no doubt about it! Speaking of Quantum, Allan Holdsworth was going to record more guitar tracks for that album, did you ever hear any of them?
No, but evidently he recorded like seven or eight tracks and we were waiting, “OK, great!” – you know, it’s really hard getting him. And evidently, he’s said in interviews that he went to the pub and he came back and listened and he thought it all was horrible. And so he erased the tracks!
He’s a bit of a self-critical guy! (laughs)
It’s unbelievable! Because those tracks, I’m sure, were fucking amazing! And it’s like “ugh!”
“How could you?!” (laughs)
It’s sad! But… No… It would’ve been… I would love to hear those tracks. And that’s why Quantum kinda took a while to release, cause we were like waiting on Holdsworth. And finally at some point we go “You know what? We can’t wait anymore!” But, you know, at least we got the two tracks out of him!
And I mean, Brett Garsed did a great job as well!
Brett is great, absolutely!
Alright… Your original influences are pretty well documented at this point. I’d like to know which modern day artists inspire you?
None. There’s no one out that’s doing anything that’s…
I was thinking you’d at least say Meshuggah, because…
Oh, Meshuggah – yeah! Yes. But they are old – they’ve been around a long time! When you said “modern” I thought like today.
Yeah, you’ve got a point there, that’s true. It’s just – it’s a recent influence
And I think they’re great! I mean, they don’t really… I mean, there’s some Meshuggah influence on Molecular Heinosity, but I think I’m moving away from the heavier progressive stuff. It’s just, I’m just kinda like shifting a bit mellower than that.
So you’re really happy with the Oceana sound at this point?
I like it, yeah. It’s more groovy and… But it’s fun – like last night, we played Apocalypse on stage and that’s fun, too. And I enjoyed that, but I don’t know that I’d write something like that again!
I understand! OK, that’s pretty much it, just leaving the last question – which never really is a question: Name one somewhat recent album that everyone should hear!
Oh shit… I don’t know. I don’t know! I don’t really listen to any… There isn’t anything out there that’s really that exciting!
That’s OK, that’s an answer as well! (laughs)
Portnoy Sheehan MacAlpine Sherinian setlist for October 17, 2012 at Filharmonia Opolska, Opole, Poland and October 18, 2012 at Klub Eter, Wroclaw, Poland
A Change of Seasons I – The Crimson Sunrise (Dream Theater)
Acid Rain (Liquid Tension Experiment)
The Stranger (Tony MacAlpine)
Stratus (Billy Cobham)
Hell’s Bells (Bruford)
Apocalypse 1470 B.C. (Derek Sherinian)
Been Here Before (Derek Sherinian)
Birds of Prey (Billy’s Boogie – Tony MacAlpine / Billy Sheehan)
The Farandole (Talas)
Nightmare Cinema (Derek Sherinian)
Hell’s Kitchen (Dream Theater)
Lines in the Sand (abridged – Dream Theater)
Shy Boy (Talas / David Lee Roth – vocals by Billy & Mike)
About the author: Michael Schetter plays bass in the instrumental prog fusion project Relocator whose debut CD featured former Dream Theater keyboardist Derek Sherinian as a special guest. Michael is also the organizer of the Generation Prog Festival and concert series and the founder of Generation Prog Records.