Derek Sherinian has recently released his brand new solo album Molecular Heinosity on InsideOut Music. Sea of Tranquility's Jon Neudorf had a chance to talk with Derek where he shares information on growing up, his early years as a musician and personal insight about his excellent new release and some of the musicians that helped him out.
SoT: Hello Derek, my name is Jon Neudorf from Sea of Tranquility, thanks so much for speaking with me tonight.
DS: You're welcome.
SoT: Would you mind telling me a little about your early years growing up and when did you get involved with music. Why did you choose keyboards?
DS: I grew up in Santa Cruz, California. There was a piano at my parent's house so I started playing when I was young. I started studying at age 5 and began with classical. Around 12 years of age, I started getting into Elton John and Roxy Music. I started my first band with some of my friends and won a talent show in junior high. That kind of started everything. I played in various bands throughout high school. I got my first big break with Alice Cooper in 1989 when I was 23 and I've been pro ever since then.
SoT: So what can you tell me about playing with Alice Cooper? What was that experience like?
DS: It was very exciting because it was the first big break that I had in my career. It was very validating because it is a big struggle to get over that first hump. So going out with Alice was my first arena tour and travelling on a tour bus. It was the first time making a living playing and was a huge step for me career-wise. It was so much fun because everything was very new and it was just a very exciting time.
SoT: Alice Cooper called you the Caligula of keyboards. What did he mean by that?
DS: You know what I don't know. He said it years ago but its followed me throughout my entire career. I guess it makes a good sound byte in the press. I don't know what he meant though.
SoT: So who were your earlier influences? You mentioned Elton John. People like that?
DS: Elton John was a big influence. Keyboard-wise I was exposed to Emerson, Rick Wakeman and then Jan Hammer was a really big influence because he was a keyboard player that had a lot of personality. He had an aggressive guitar style edge and that was the early prototype of my style and influence. I think Jan Hammer kind of opened the door for me in a lot of ways.
SoT: Did you play any other instruments besides the keyboards when you were younger?
DS: No, the keyboards were the main one. I tinkered a little bit on guitar but I never really got that good at it.
SoT: Okay. So in the 90s you played with Kiss and you joined Dream Theater in the mid-90s. What was that experience like? Was that a valuable experience for a musician?
DS: It was great. Playing with Dream Theater, it really forced me to step up my game as a musician. It really opened my eyes a lot to the fact that there is a huge fan base around the world of people that are into musicians that just play at their full capacity. That was a really good experience to be able to see that that existed.
SoT: Right. The first Dream Theater album I got into was Falling into Infinity a few years ago. You played on that one, correct?
DS: Yes, that's right.
SoT: You have worked with many musicians through your solo albums and Planet X. How do you decide who you want to work with?
DS: You mean for my solo records?
DS: Basically the music dictates who is going to play on them. Certain songs call for certain players. Anything that's really heavy and ballsy I'll always call Zakk because he plays heavier than anyone. For neo-classical and shredding, Yngwie is the king of that. I always start with my eighteen and then just fill the slots for the songs.
SoT: Has playing with such a diverse group of artists helped you grow as a musician?
DS: Absolutely. I take a little bit from everyone I've worked with. Everyone has something that makes them great and I try to learn from each person and then throw it into my own style.
SoT: You have played extensively with Zakk Wylde. What can you tell me about your relationship with him?
DS: Zakk and I have known each other twenty years. We first met when I was playing Wembley arena with Alice Cooper. He had already been in Ozzy's band a couple of years. He and Ozzy came to the show and we started talking. We met each other in L.A. over the years and when I did my second solo album Inertia I called him and asked him to come play on the record. He came over and we just had a great time. He's played on my last five solo records.
SoT: So you guys just hit it off really good.
DS: Yes. We just have a great time. We are really good friends and we connect musically. Its a good escape for him to do something different than what he does in his band or in Ozzy. I think his fans appreciate listening to him on a little bit different musical backdrop. So Zakk is always invited to play on my records and I am appreciative that he makes time in his busy schedule to come help me out.
SoT: Right. Could I share with you a Zakk Wylde story?
SoT: When Zakk was touring with Ozzy Osbourne a couple of years ago, Zakk was in a music store in Saskatoon where I'm from and bought a boy an electric guitar and did it with very little fanfare. He made quite an impression on our city. I thought that was pretty neat.
DS: Yeah, that's great. I've played Saskatoon before with Alice Cooper in 1990.
SoT: Yeah. Wish I would have been there.
DS: That would have been almost twenty years ago.
SoT: Yes. Now lets talk about the new album Molecular Heinosity. It has just been released in North America. How did you come up with the album's title?
DS: Heinosity is a word that I invented. It is a combination of the words "heinous" and "monstrosity". I'm the first artist to have used the word "heinosity" in a song title and record title and I am very proud of that.
SoT: Right on. The artwork is quite eye-catching.
DS: Thank you.
SoT: You're welcome. Is there a connection between the artwork and the overall sound of the album.
DS: Not really. I have a guy Mattias Noren from Sweden who has done my last four covers. I give him a title and concept of imagery and then he goes and does his thing. Then we tweak it until it looks good.
SoT: Okay. I've been listening to the new CD and I have to tell you I really like it.
DS: Thank you.
SoT: You're welcome. I found it maybe a little bit heavier than Blood of the Snake. I am not sure if that's right.
DS: Yes it is. There is a little bit less style experimenting and I really wanted to keep this record focused and dark and heavy as possible.
SoT: So maybe a little less of a fusion element on the new one?
DS: Yes. A little less jazz fusion and a little bit more progressive metal.
SoT: So that was a conscious decision to go that route?
SoT: Cool. And on the new album Brian Tichy shares drumming duties with Virgil Donati. How do their styles compare, and do you think having different musicians creates a more diverse sound?
DS: Yes definitely. Virgil is the most progressive and he is a master at playing in odd time signatures and polyrhythms, where Brian is a heavier drummer, more rock influenced. So both of them have distinct qualities to their playing that I really enjoy that really help the music out a lot.
SoT: Right. I believe you said that you write better material with drummers. Why is that?
DS: You know what, I don't know. I just have always had a connection. I also write really well with Simon Phillips, he's a great drummer. I just have a connection for some reason maybe because these drummers have harmonic sensibilities, if that makes sense. Not a guy that just plays a beat but a drummer that can play other instruments and have ideas. It just works for me.
SoT: Tina Guo plays cello on a couple of tracks, she is fabulous by the way, and adds a different dimension to your sound.
DS: That's right. I've always throughout the years loved strings and I've always used real violin players but I didn't know a cellist and I've always played the cello parts on my synthesizer. I have always wanted to use a real cello because I think it is such a beautiful instrument. Virgil recommended Tina to me and I had her come down to the studio and she just sounded amazing so I will always use her on my stuff if she is available. She did a really good job.
SoT: Yes, Excellent job. So do you think you would like to use more orchestral components in your future recordings as well then?
DS: Of course. I mean real strings are amazing.
SoT: Yeah, it creates a real warm sound.
SoT: On the new album, like many of your previous works, you allow other musicians to share the spotlight as there are many virtuoso performances. Is that something easy for you to do?
DS: Yes it is because my records aren't about the showcasing of my keyboard abilities. I look at the big picture and its more important for me to be a pioneer of the sound and in order to achieve that I try to maximize the performances on all instruments and surround myself with the best because that forces me to play at a certain level. The overall result of the music is going to be the best if I use the good ingredients.
SoT: Right. And speaking of virtuoso performances Taka Minamino turns in great performances on "The Lone Spaniard" and "Molecular Heinosity". What can you tell me about his style?
DS: Taka is someone I found. He kept sending me mp3s of his playing and after the fifth email I finally listened to him and he just blew me away on how amazing he sounded. It was like he sounded like a young Yngwie. He had a great vibrato so I brought him into the studio and he just delivered the goods. I mean he really did a great job and I think if he can figure out a way to develop his own style and step away from the Yngwie thing a little bit and find his own voice I think he's going to be someone we're going to hear a lot of in the future.
SoT: Right, I agree. One of the nicest melodies can be found in the song "Frozen by Fire", while still retaining that overall complexity that your music is so known for. From a musician's stand-point how hard is that to achieve? You know, combining melody and complexity.
DS: Melody is important because that's what people sing along with and especially when there are no vocals it is important to have some kind of melodic hook for the listener to sink their teeth into. I always just try to write good melodies.
SoT: I agree. There are a lot of good melodies on the new album for sure.
DS: Thank you.
SoT: You're welcome. Zakk Wylde contributes vocals on the song "So Far Gone", which is an excellent song by the way, I really like Zakk's performance here. He seems to put a lot of emotion into it. Tell me about Zakk's performance and do you see yourself using more vocalists in the future and if so who might they be?
DS: You know what I would love to do a band with a great vocalist. The problem is that I'm very picky on what vocal sound I like and its hard to find a guy that is going to be someone that I want to listen to all the time not only on record but also on tour. With Zakk, he's great. He has an Ozzy quality to his voice or an Axle Rose. He just sings with a lot of emotion. His personality comes out from the tracks whether he's playing guitar or singing so he did a fantastic job, but to answer your question, yes, I would like to do something with vocals in the future.
SoT: Thank you. Any plans for a North American tour?
DS: No, not for my solo stuff but there's talk about a Planet X reunion with Tony MacAlpine and doing a new record at the end of the summer and a tour in the fall. We will see what happens with that.
SoT: Okay. Who would you like to work with that you have not had the chance to yet?
DS: Jeff Beck. He has been a huge influence of mine when I was younger and it would be awesome to make a record or tour with him one day.
SoT: Do you listen to his 70s stuff at all?
DS: Yes, that's the stuff I'm into. I haven't really stayed in touch with his more recent stuff. The early records for sure.
SoT: Yeah, they're classic for sure. On the latest CD you give special thanks to your daughter, Summer. What can you tell me about your family?
DS: Well, I'm married and have my daughter Summer, which is totally awesome. She's thirty months now and its just been a great joy being a dad and watching her grow up, but its challenging to try to keep your career going and be a dad at the same time. So I'm working on that.
SoT: Yes, its hard to juggle things. Besides music, what else occupies your time? Any hobbies at all?
DS: That's pretty much it. Between being a dad and playing music that keeps me pretty busy.
SoT: Right. I read that you're interested in Armenian history. Has that always been a passion of yours?
DS: More recently than in the past because where I'm living in L.A. there are a lot of Armenians so its the first time I have been surrounded by them. Its interesting, I played in Armenia last year with Planet X and that was a really good experience.
SoT: Good to hear. Do you listen to music in your spare time?
DS: Not very much. In my car I only listen to hip hop which is pretty funny (laughs). I don't listen to a lot of music, I like to keep my head clear.
SoT: So what is your take on the digital downloading revolution? I'm just curious about that.
DS: I think it sucks because its stealing money out of the artist's pockets. In one sense its good because it is exposing people's music to places where there are no record stores, but at the same time everyone gets your record for free and no one wants to pay for it. So then what happens is smaller artists like myself end up being put out of business and we are not able to make records any more. It would be nice if everyone bought the record instead of just stealing it.
SoT: Yeah, I totally agree with you. I've never downloaded a song in my life and I probably won't start now. Its too bad that's the way its going. If you were not able to make a career in music what could you see yourself doing?
DS: God, I have no idea because this is all I know how to do, but I would figure something out. When you have a family you do whatever you have to do to make it work.
SoT: Yes. I hear you. Being a veteran of the music industry what advice can you give aspiring musicians?
DS: Its a difficult life to choose but if you are going to do it just play the stuff you love the most. Just stick to it and know that there is going to be a lot of hills and valleys. Anyone can be happy if their riding high on the hog but its how you conduct yourself when stuff is down and keeping your spirits up. That's what really defines who you are.
SoT: Thanks. In the future, when people look back over your career what is it you would like to be known for?
DS: I would like to be known as one of the forefathers of metal fusion and someone that played with integrity and that didn't try to chase whatever the commercial fad was but someone that stayed true to their musical influences and left a legacy of great progressive metal instrumental music between my solo records and Planet X. Hopefully I'll have found my niche somewhere in that genre.
SoT: Thanks Derek. Its really been a pleasure talking with you tonight and thanks for sharing.
DS: To you as well. I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.
SoT: No problem. I really enjoyed your new album and keep up the good work.
DS: Thank you for your support. I'll speak to you later.
(Click here to read our reviews of Molecular Heinosity)