Keyboardist Derek Sherinian is a man out of time.
For if this were the 1970's, in the heyday of such titans of the keyboards such as Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman and Jon Jord, he would be among that elite circle of players whom were superstars - back in a time when such talent was not only appreciated, but celebrated in popular music.
Raised in Santa Cruz, California, the young Sherinian began playing piano at the age of five, then came under the spell of the music of Elton John, particularly his 1973 sprawling double album 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road'. The album, along with the early influences of The Beatles and Bob Dylan - both mainstays of his parents' music collection- launched him on a music journey which continues to this day.
While still a junior in high school his musical talent was such that Sherinian was offered a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. After spending three semesters at the school, the keyboardist felt the time was right to test the waters of being a professional musician. Introduced to the ex drummer of Jimi Hendrix's Band Of Gypsys, Buddy Miles, who was in the process of putting together a touring band, he soon was invited to audition, ultimately impressing enough to earn a spot which saw him touring the so called "chitlin circuit" of the Southern United States.
After leaving Miles, he soon landed a gig with rock legend Alice Cooper through the efforts of good friend guitarist Al Pitrelli, now musical director of the hugely successful Trans -Siberian Orchestra, who at the time was holding down the same position for Cooper's band. It was during the time with Alice which saw him perform over 250 shows in support of his 'Trash' album, that he was bestowed with the nickname by the legendary shock rocker, "The Caligula Of The Keyboards". After completing another tour, in 1991 he became offstage keyboardist for hard rockers Kiss, at the suggestion of Eric Singer, who had been bandmates with Sherinian in the Cooper band, whom had also recently been hired as the band's drummer.
However, it was with him joining prog metal superstars Dream Theater that his profile began to rise. More technically challenging musically than anything he had previously been a part of apart from his studies at Berklee, nonetheless he rose to the challenge and in October 1994 he was named as the band's keyboardist just prior to the tour in support of the album 'Awake'. After spending four years with the band, during which time he recorded three albums and completed two world tours, the relationship ran its course, with Sherinian leaving in January 1999 due to the usual suspect i.e. "musical differences".
While being disappointed at the time, leaving the band allowed him the creative freedom to pursue a solo career which continues to the present day. First joining forces with Australian drummer Virgil Donati for his first offering in 1999, 'Planet X', it soon led to them forming the progressive rock-fusion group of the same name, releasing three albums, 2000's 'Universe', 2002's 'MoonBabies' and 2007's 'Quantum'. A live effort, 'Live From Oz', recorded in Melbourne, Australia was released in 2002. All feature technically advanced playing completely at odds of what is currently popular in the mainstream.
Aside from the albums recorded with Planet X, Sherinian has carved out a niche for himself in the progressive metal scene, assembling several fusion influenced solo projects which have seen him attract such guitar luminaries as Al DiMeola, Steve Lukather, Yngwie Malmsteen, Slash, John Petrucci. John Sykes and Zakk Wylde to record with him.
Favoring a guitar heavy rock based approach to fusion ala one of his musical heroes Jeff Beck, it allows an energy to come through the recordings, setting him apart from most jazz fusion in the process, making the music appeal to fans of technical heavy metal as well. In addition, In addition, touring with several well-known artists, including Billy Idol and the aforementioned Yngwie Malmsteen has reaffirmed his ability to adapt to ever changing musical genres with ease.
Earlier this year Sherinian was approached by Über producer Kevin Shirley, to join vocalist Glenn Hughes, drummer Jason Bonham, and blues guitar titan Joe Bonamassa in Anglo -Rock "Supergroup" Black Country Communion, recording the self titled debut album with the band, showcasing his talents in yet another setting - that of 70's influenced blues based hard rock, revealing another facet of his versatility once again.
Recently we had the wonderful opportunity to talk with Derek about the new Black Country Communion album, his inspiration and influences and much, much more. In part III of our exclusive Black Country Communion series, please join us as we have an exclusive conversation with the "Caligula Of The Keyboards", Mr. Derek Sherinian. (Editor's note : Since the time this interview was conducted, it has been announced that Black Country Communion will be playing two dates in the UK a show at Wolverhampton Civic Hall on December 29th, and a gig in Shepherd's Bush, London the following night December 30th.)
Interview and text by Nightwatcher © 2010 Nightwatcher's House Of Rock
Nightwatcher's House Of Rock : I'd like to talk just a bit about the new album 'Black Country Communion', featuring yourself, Glenn Hughes, Joe Bonamassa and Jason Bonham, which has just come out via J&R Adventures. Now that it's out, what are your feelings regarding the record? Out of all the songs on the album, what are your favorites?
Derek Sherinian : I think the whole record is good. My favorites on the album are "Down Again" and "The Revolution In Me".
NHOR : The album in its first week of release reached #13 on the UK Top 40 Charts, #1 on the UK Rock Album Charts, and in the US #53 on Billboard Album Charts and #6 on the Indie Album Charts. Is the band satisfied with the way the album has charted?
DS : I cant speak for my bandmates, but I am very satisfied. It shows that this band really needs to tour and bring this music to the people live.
NHOR : There are some who would have liked your keyboards to be louder in the mix, ala Jon Lord in Deep Purple. While you are definitely audible, was there a deliberate decision to not have the keyboards more prominent?
DS : I think the keys should have been mixed louder. Now that BCC is a "band" and not a studio experiment, I will be more aggressive in the writing department, and will push for more and louder keyboards ala Jon Lord and John Paul Jones.
NHOR : What do you feel that your role in the band is?
DS : I just want to compliment the sound and fill the holes with killer classic keyboard textures, and occasionally come out front with some driving riffs,and solos.
NHOR : You, Glenn, Jason and Joe just played the first extended live performance of the band in September at John Henry's Rehearsal Studio in Islington, England which was broadcast on Planet Rock. What was that like for you?
DS : It felt very natural playing live with these guys. It will be even better once we get more shows under our belts.
NHOR : Glenn has already stated that he is already writing for a second Black Country Communion album. Have you heard any of the material yet?
DS : No, but we will all be writing over the next couple of months.
NHOR : Glenn, Joe and Jason have all expressed a very keen interest in taking the band out on the road sometime next year. Are you up for a tour with the band, and if so, has there been any discussion on when it will take place?
DS : I am for up for a tour with BCC, it will most likely take place in Europe the summer of 2011.
NHOR : There has been talk of some a show or two in the UK around Christmas time. Has there been anything definite planned concerning that at this time?
DS : I believe there is something in the works.
NHOR : I'm going to leave Joe out of this for obvious reasons, but throughout your career previously, you've played with a veritable "who's who" of rock and fusion guitar, from Slash, Zakk Wylde, Yngwie Malmsteen, Allan Holdsworth, Al Di Meola, Tony MacAlpine, John Sykes, Steve Stevens and Steve Lukather, John Petrucci...Out of all the players I've just mentioned, which one do you feel has meshed the best with your style?
DS : I don't know. It's hard to say, because each of them do things in their own way. That's why I've gone to all of them, because there's not one guy that I think meshes completely the best. I wish you could make a composite of all of them. That would be the ultimate guitar player. But each of the guys that you mentioned have something special going on in their playing that makes them great.
NHOR : Having been a part of his band, both on tour and on record, and had him also guest on your albums, do you think that Yngwie Malmsteen gets a bad rap as a guitarist these days?
DS : I think that he's an easy target. But I'll tell you now, after playing with him live and in the studio, that he's the real deal. He's insane. It's amazing how good the guy is. He's not the most versatile guy, I mean you're not going to hear him playing over jazz changes, but the style that he's created, and what he's known for...there's no one who does it better. He's really influenced a multitude of guitar players and bands in that neo classical sound.
There were bands doing it before him, such as Deep Purple and Uli Roth in the Scorpions was doing it a little bit before Yngwie, but he just took it to another level. The same way that Eddie Van Halen took it further after Jimmy Page. So Yngwie really needs to get his credit as an innovator as being one of the great metal players of our time.
NHOR : You've mentioned before that Jeff Beck is one guitarist whom you haven't worked with before whom you'd love to. With your background being a rock player who got into fusion, you're coming from a place in a lot of ways similar to Jeff. What is it about his music that has made him such an influence on your own music?
DS : It's because Jeff Beck has a love for jazz music, but he makes his records from being a rock player crossing over into the jazz realm by collaborating with guys that are more harmonically diverse than he is. I think that approach to fusion really resonated with me. I love jazz music, but I'm not a jazz cat. I can't sit down and do a jazz gig, playing jazz standards. That music was always a bit light and wimpy for me. But there are aspects of it that I really love. I like to approach my fusion in the same way that Jeff Beck does, as opposed to a lot of the jazz cats who get a distortion box, put it on their guitar, and think just because it's a distorted guitar sound that it's rocking.
NHOR : There's a big difference in approach in terms of energy and power...
DS : There is a big difference. It all comes down to who did you have on your wall when you were a kid? I always thought Eddie Van Halen was cooler than Lee Ritenour. (Laughs) I had a lot more Van Halen posters on my wall than Pat Metheny.
NHOR : You have to have it inside you, it can't be faked...
DS : It's in my blood. When I was a kid...I was 12 years old when Van Halen's first album came out, and I heard "Eruption". It was all over at that point. The obsessing over those records...Ozzy...Randy Rhoads...Yngwie, that stuff's in my blood.
NHOR : Would you say that was the main impetus for you becoming a musician?
DS : I would say Van Halen, just the whole concept of Van Halen. Even though there were no keyboards. I just thought it was amazing. Then I got into jazz fusion stuff...Allan Holdsworth, Jeff Beck. I got into Jan Hammer, and I always wanted to fuse the power of that first Van Halen record with the technical ability of DiMeola and Jeff Beck.
NHOR : In your solo work you've certainly achieved that goal....
DS : Thank you. I'm still working on it, but I stay true to my influences that I had when I was a kid. It's very authentic. I don't try to be something I'm not.
NHOR : Are you from a musical family?
DS : No, but my parents always had records playing. There was always music in the house. But I was the only musician.
NHOR : Do you remember what the first record or album that you bought was?
DS : It had to be Elton John's 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road'. That had to be one of the first. My parents always had music playing though. They would be playing The Beatles and Dylan, things like that.
NHOR : You've played various different styles of music throughout your career. Do you feel that it's important for a young musician to embrace different styles of music?
DS : Yeah, every person has a style that's going to resonate with them, and inspire them. You need to have an open mind, and listen to things to figure out what you're going to like and don't like. There may be a style that you like certain aspects of. That's the great thing about music.
I had the pleasure in my career to play one gig, and spend a couple of days with Eddie Van Halen. One of the things that he said to me which I think is really important is there's only 12 notes. Do what you want with them. (Laughs) With that in mind, what he's saying is anything's possible. This isn't rocket science. You can do whatever you want. Just be creative and make sure you like what you're playing.
NHOR : Elton John was an early influence on you growing up. During your time with Dream Theater the band would play "Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" live, a version of which appears on the album 'A Change Of Seasons'. You've also stated that Jan Hammer, Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman were big influences on you. For the most part, not only are those players very technical, they also have a theatrical slant to their presentation. Do you feel that theatrics are something that's missing from a vast majority of progressive and fusion live performances these days?
DS : I don't know. I guess anytime that you can make something visually more exciting on stage, that's a good thing. But as long as the music always comes first. The primary thing is just making sure the music is good, and everyone's playing great.
NHOR : You've mentioned Angus Young as being your first guitar hero. What was it about AC/DC and Angus's playing which attracted you?
DS : I think I just loved it. There was a certain simplicity to it. The songs were killer, and it was just a great sound.
NHOR : Do you remember what the first song you heard by AC/DC was?
DS : I think "Sin City" from the 'Powerage' album. Then the live 'If You Want Blood' album came out, then 'Back In Black' in 1980. My biggest things at that time were AC/DC, Ted Nugent, and then I was into Michael Schenker, and the UFO albums. That was in 1976...1977. But in 1978 when that first Van Halen came out, that was it. That was just the coolest thing ever. That killed everybody.
NHOR : You received a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and after finishing there, your first professional gig was with the band of the late drummer Buddy Miles, formerly of Jimi Hendrix's Band Of Gypsys. What was that experience like working with him?
DS : It was great because he was the first big name artist that I got to work with. It was the first time I went on tour on a bus. We played the chitlin circuit throughout the southern part of the U.S. I was like the only white guy in the band. I was like Ralph Macchio in the movie 'Crossroads'. (Laughs) Just trying to get a bit of soul in my playing. But playing with Buddy was really awesome because he was so talented, and had such an amazing groove in his playing. His voice was amazing. I'm still whiter than Uncle Ben's rice, but a little bit of soul rubbed off on me during those years.
NHOR : What was Buddy like as a person?
DS : He was great. He was a little "jivey", but he was a great story teller, and overall he was a good person.
NHOR : After playing with Buddy you went on to play with Alice Cooper for a number of years. What was it like playing with Alice, and what was the main thing that you learned during your time with him?
DS : That was my first pro gig. That was the first time I put on the Yankee pinstripes, so to speak. I learned a lot about the music business, about being on a professional tour, about schedules and such. Just being exposed to something on that level was pretty amazing.
NHOR : You spent five years with Dream Theater, then you were fired for "creative differences". Listening to your solo albums it would still seem that you've been moving along that same path artistically - that of being a heavy, yet progressive style of music. What happened there?
DS : The relationship pretty much ran its course. You have to take into account that when their first keyboardist left, it came down to three of us that auditioned. It was Jordan Rudess, myself, and Jens Johansson. Both of them are great keyboard players. Their first choice was Jordan, but he was unable to commit to the tour, so they settled on me. I ended up doing six months as a sideman, then they hired me into the band full time. I did four years with them. Three records, a DVD and a bunch of touring.
But the relationship ran its course. We were different people. As I evolved into a band member, and wasn't a sideman anymore, I had my own vision of how I wanted to do things. The band had been established for years before I entered the picture. It was frustrating, because I wanted to have some control in what was going on. I didn't have any, so creatively we started butting heads. There was a lot of tension in the band. Even without me in the equation there was a lot of tension between the original members, between Portnoy and Petrucci, and it was very dysfunctional at the time.
After the second tour, they did the Liquid Tension Experiment album with Jordan, they felt a connection, and Jordan said he wanted to play in the band. So they made the change. At the time, no one likes to be fired, but it really was the best thing that happened for me, because I was pretty miserable being in the band. It opened me up to a situation to have my solo career, and also start Planet X. Sine then I've played with the best players in the world, not only recording with them, but producing them on my records. I don't think I would have been able to do that if I were still in Dream Theater.
NHOR : So it really opened new doors for you artistically speaking....
DS : It did. Life is too short, and you've got to be happy doing what you're doing. Unless you're getting paid huge Metallica money, it's not worth doing something that you're not happy with. But I'm still on great terms with everyone in that band. I'm proud to have been part of that band, and I really learned a lot.
NHOR : What is your take on the current progressive scene? Are there any bands or artists that you've heard who are pushing the envelope in your opinion?
DS : You know, I'm sure that there are, but I'm really out of the loop. I don't listen to a lot of new music, maybe to my discredit. But I'm sure there are some great bands out there. Meshuggah is the only one that's really popped out to me though.
NHOR : What has been your most 'Spinal Tap' moment?
DS : There was an incident when I was with Yngwie Malmsteen, right after 9/11. We played a gig down in Brazil, and this was like a week after 9/11. Yngwie, during his guitar solo, as he always does, broke into "The Star Spangled Banner". The crowd started yelling, "Fuck U.S.A!. They started yelling "Osama!". I was really fucking pissed off, so I flipped the crowd off, and they started throwing shit at me onstage. It turned out to be a real incident. Then I printed something on my website, and someone in Brazil took my website, and it ended up on the front page of the newspapers all over Brazil, where I made derogatory comments about Brazilians. Which was pretty fucked, because we had five shows left in Brazil. (Laughs)
It was a real unfortunate situation, and I apologized. It was a real shitty thing that I said. Because I love Brazil. I love playing down there, and the people are awesome. It was just a real sensitive time.
NHOR : You have a fairly large Internet presence, with tons of interviews and articles online for people to find out more about you and your music. You seem to use the technology to your advantage. How much of an effect do you feel however that illegal downloading has had on an artist such as yourself?
DS : It's killing me. It's to the point where the downloading is so bad, who knows if I'll be able to make solo records in the future. Because everyone's getting the music for free before it even gets out in the stores. An artist at my level needs to show that there's record sales for the record companies to justify giving me an advance. For my albums to have the quality, and the guest stars that I have on them it costs money. So in order for me to continue the quality, which I insist upon, I need a budget. And if there's no budget then there's no record. It's brutal. I'm really frustrated with the state of the record industry.
NHOR : Where do you feel that your solo albums fit into the music scene of today?
DS : I don't know man. I just do what I do and try to fit where I can. I just do my thing. I have my little niche, as small as it is, but it's mine.
NHOR : What advice, if any would you wish you had been given when you were beginning in your career that you would give to someone starting out in the business today?
DS : Just stay focused. If you're going to join a band, unless you're the main songwriter, and you own the name, you're never going to have equal control. Don't be disillusioned just because it's a band, and you're not a sideman, that it's an equal thing.
For more information on Black Country Communion go to this location : http://www.bccommunion.com/
For more information on Derek Sherinian go to his official website at this location.
Derek Sherinian keyboard solo with Planet X, Sofia, Bulgaria 2007 :