by Jedd Beaudoin
I’d barely been out of bed for an hour when I rang Derek Sherinian’s hotel room in Detroit. I’d been up late the night before, celebrating a family member’s birthday (no hangover, thank you) and suspected (and, I’m sorry to
say, secretly hoped) that Sherinian would be almost as hazy as me: he was, after all on tour with Billy Idol and, I thought, surely years of late-night travel and exhaustive gigs had conditioned him to remain in a kind of intellectual nebula until sometime after midday. I couldn’t have been more wrong: Sherinian picked up the phone in what seemed like mid-ring and started talking in his infectious, no-nonsense way immediately. In conversation, the veteran keyboardist is serious, at once completely unfazed by all he’s done and seen and then, alternately, clearly proud. His reverence for his Planet X bandmates (Tony MacAlpine and Virgil Donati) is refreshing: there are moments where Sherinian’s pitch climbs to gleeful heights at the mere mention of their names, or that of producer Simon Phillips. At time’s it’s almost like Sherinian feels like he’s won some
contest where the prize is the chance to travel the world, playing sold-out shows and creating albums that often register as instant classics. That said, Sherinian is remarkably serious about what he does: his answers are direct; his anecdotes are never circuitous and his love of Planet X (Sherinian says that he’s desperate to get the band out on the road in the
late fall/early winter and establish them as a touring entity) is never obscured by his other, many achievements.
Having heard Moonbabies, it’s little wonder: the ten compositions (most of them courtesy of Donati) are fresh, revealing glimpses into the mind of three modern masters who are now carrying a torch lit long ago by the likes of Jeff Beck, Jan Hammer, Billy Cobham and Mahavishnu Orchestra. Like those artists, the X-men are consistently conscious of weighing melody over vulgar displays of chops: while “Moonbabies,” “70 VIR,” “Digital Vertigo,” and “Micronesia” certainly thrive on each member’s accomplished flair, they are rife with phrases that are both memorable and singable. MacAlpine has rarely
sounded as focused and confident as he does here, while Donati and Sherinian continue to form new, supreme musical nomenclatures. People will remember Moonbabies in 10 years time (and beyond), when it will be still spoken of in loud, exclamatory tones.
JB: I’ve been listening to Moonbabies over the last week and really listening to Tony’s playing.
DS: [laughing, with enthusiasm] It’s fucking great, man! He fucking sounds so good!
JB: One of the things I’ve always liked about him is that, for all the fast licks he can do, that kind of stuff, he maintains a very melodic approach. You’ve worked with him quite a bit now, how have you seen him grow or how has he made you grow?
DS: Tony is, as you know, a phenomenal keyboard player as well as guitar player, which is pretty amazing, [reaching that] level of musicianship on both instruments. Tony, when he first started playing with Planet X, was playing a six string, as he had his whole career. Our music required lower notes and Tony learned how to play 7-string guitar and adapted his whole style to it and totally mastered the instrument. It’s just amazing [laughs] how he’s incorporated it into his style. His understanding of both jazz and classical is just great.
JB: Does it help having somebody else in the band who plays keyboards? Is it easier, sometimes, to communicate certain ideas between yourself and Tony?
DS: [He writes] on keyboards and I have had to learn some of his keyboard things and it’s definitely cool because he approaches the keyboard in a much different way than I do. And Virgil also writes on keyboards, so it’s definitely interesting playing some of his voicings, it definitely expands my playing. As I said, I really try to approach music as a student and in Planet X, it’s great being the worst player in the band because being around [that level of musicianship] constantly forces me to grow as a musician.
JB: Virgil wrote quite a bit of this album.
DS: Virgil trains on his instrument ten hours a day, every day, like a cyborg and part of his regiment, in addition to expanding his polyrhythmic capabilities, is that he writes. And he’s very prolific. And he’s on a musical plane that I’ve never seen before. And I tell you, one of the most enjoyable things about being in Dream Theater was in the live show when we’d go into the instrumental passages because it was the first time I ever got to experience that kind of musical climate where four musicians are just playing insanely technical passages in sync and when I heard Virgil and jammed with him the first time, I saw the possibilities expanding even more because Virgil is just so rhythmically advanced.
JB: “Noble Savage” starts with this nice, clean passage at the beginning, it’s very laid back and then something else takes over.
DS: That was one of the songs that we all wrote in rehearsal and it started off with a heavy riff but one time, when we were first jamming it, there was like this bebop guitar thing [that Tony was doing]. I’m kind of the one who listens back to all the rehearsal mini discs and deciphers all of it too see if there are any gold nuggets in it and I heard this and it had such an incredible vibe, going from that clean section, then going to the heavy. And I remember playing it back for Tony and Virgil and going, “Guys, listen to this, this is fucking cool! We’ve got to tap into this!” And then we invited Billy Sheehan to come down and play bass on it.
JB: “Ataraxia,” there’s some really stunning phrasing going on in that one.
DS: That one was written by Virgil; I like that song, it’s definitely vibe-y.
JB: How about “Interlude In Milan”?
DS: That’s another Virgil composition. That’s one of my favorite ones on the record, actually, there’s a very eerie feeling to that song. That one sits very well with me.
JB: “Ground Zero.”
DS: Virgil wrote that [around] 9/11. I think he was watching the news while writing that.
JB: You’re out with Billy Idol right now, which is a little bit different, I imagine, than being out with Dream Theater or Planet X or Yngwie. Obviously, he has a core following that really digs what he does.
DS: It’s very cool. It reminds me of the beginning of my professional career, when I started playing with Alice Cooper, doing hit songs that people can sing along to. Playing with Billy Idol is like playing with Elvis in a sense, where he’s a total star, a pop star, and the fans just love him. We’re just playing hit song after hit song and it’s a different vibe, it’s totally different than the progressive thing but it’s very cool at the same time. And as far as all the touring that I’ve done in my career, this group of people has been the most pleasurable to tour with.
JB: You actually give lessons while you’re on the road.
DS: I’ve always taught when I’ve been on tour. I always thought it would be so cool, when I was a kid, if I was able to study with the guys that influenced me, so I do make myself available.
JB: What are one or two things that you always try to convey in a lesson?
DS: I always ask a series of questions to see where it is that they want to go with their music and what their objectives are and after talking to them for five minutes or whatever, I can pretty much summarize [some] good pearls of wisdom. And I feel that I really have a talent as a teacher to be able to listen and help people, because I’m very goal-oriented and always have been, my whole career. I’ve always been a good student and I’ve had some great teachers and I’ve really learned a lot from my teachers and if there’s a way to pass that on to other musicians, that’s great.
JB: What is it that you do to keep your approach to the instrument sharp? Do you still take lessons?
DS: I still take lessons. There’s a guy in Los Angeles named Mitchell Forman, who’s an absolutely incredible keyboard player, more of a jazz guy. His playing is just awesome to me and I just try to study with him as often as possible, at least a couple of times a year. And there are some other guys in town that I think play really good; a guy named Jeff Babko is a great keyboard player, I’d like to take a lesson with him sometime. The more I try to approach my music as a student, I find, the more I learn and the better my playing gets. [But] I try to learn not only from keyboard players but from working with Simon Phillips as much as I have, I just watch him like a hawk and try to absorb as much as possible. If I go work with Yngwie, he teaches me a lot about classical music and arrangements and concepts. All of these great players that I work with have something to offer and I just try to absorb as much as possible and try to put it into my own style.
JB: Are there areas you think the three of you would like to explore in the future?
DS: I don’t know. I just want to let the music go where it’s going to go. Virgil did a lot of writing on this album, but who’s to say? The next album might be very Tony-dominant or Derek-dominant. Who knows? Wherever the creative flow is at the time, that’s it. There’s no formula, really, except that it’s got to be sick.