"It’s all about making the best music possible." Derek Sherinian discusses The Phoenix

Derek Sherinian shot against a black background with keyboard
(Image credit: Greg Vorobiov)

Derek Sherinian is a born salesman. Possessing a persuasive quick-fire patter, there’s a sense that if the mood took him, he’d offer an eloquent argument to convince you that The Beatles were abysmal or that David Bowie was merely a poor man’s Gary Numan. Predictably then, the keyboard player is effusive about the qualities of his latest solo album, The Phoenix, describing it as “the best work that I have ever recorded and I think that it’s going to be the instrumental record of the year.” It’s the type of PR guff that every artist utters when promoting a new release, but mercifully, there’s enough to suggest in the material gathered on this album that his bold assessment is right.

Sherinian’s pedigree is beyond reproach. A current member of Sons Of Apollo – he’s also enjoyed creative stints in Dream Theater and Black Country Communion, and performed with Alice Cooper, Kiss and Billy Idol – his engaging and versatile style permeates the new album. As with previous solo recordings, The Phoenix has been co-written with renowned drummer Simon Phillips. The partnership would seem to be an unlikely one – Sherinian’s ebullience mixing with the more reserved Phillips – but it’s a relationship that has blossomed over five previous albums.

“If you were to look at us as people, I think we have very different personalities,” admits Sherinian with a laugh. “Simon is very British and proper, whereas I’m very American. We have very different styles but when we get together, there’s a commonality between us. You really can’t put it into words but you can hear it in the music, and that’s the most important thing. Simon’s very deeply involved in the project. Even though my name is on the front of it, I really consider this to be our record and deservedly so, as it wouldn’t sound the same without him. I’m big on energies and chemistries with players, whether that’s with a drummer or guitar player. It’s all about exploring that energy and making the best music possible.”

There’s an argument that progressive metal has effectively started to burn out, with fast playing becoming somewhat cliché at the expense of the soul of the music. Wisely, Sherinian has avoided the temptation to simply show off his technical chops, preferring to concentrate on the signature style that’s permeated his work over several decades. The result is an album that has a natural balance, something that many artists fail to understand or achieve, with Sherinian avoiding superfluous excess and knowing when to stop.

“If only I could do that with my mouth, as it gets me in a lot of trouble,” he says with a self-effacing chuckle. “But I think you either have that or you don’t. It’s intrinsic. It’s like, how do you know what notes to play? What sound or style are you going to put in that song? It really is like a chef knowing how to blend things and not abuse a certain ingredient. If all you do is play fast on every song that you’re on, fast scales and stuff, that’s abuse of a great ingredient. You have to know when to dial that back. I play from the heart. If you play from your mind, you’re going to sound that way. That’s a problem in most progressive metal, because most people play with their mind and don’t have the rock or R&B influence to mix in. They just come across sounding robotic. It sounds generic and there is no signature style. 

“That’s the thing that is very hard as a musician, you can be a great technician, but you don’t have a signature style,” he continues. “It’s something that you can’t learn at a music school, or download on an app. You want people to immediately be able to identify your sound. For me, that’s the most important thing that a musician can have. More so than being able to play scales fast or anything. I want to focus on memorability over shredability. Look at Jeff Beck: that guy isn’t shredding and burning hard. When he plays, it’s serious business and that is how I want to be on keyboards. I want to have that same kind of identifiability as the great, A-list guitar players.”

On the subject of guitarists, Sherinian has recruited a wealth of talent to appear on the album, including Steve Vai, Joe Bonamassa, Zakk Wylde and Megadeth’s Kiko Loureiro. But rather than just stapling their performances on to the recordings, the keyboard player reveals that he had each guitarist in mind, even before he had invited them to appear. 

“When I put together the player lists for my records, I’m like a movie director or a casting agent,” he explains. “It becomes obvious who should be playing on what track, because often we’re writing with that person in mind. I knew when we were writing Clouds Of Ganymede that it was either going to be Joe Satriani or Steve Vai. The Phoenix was for Zakk Wylde. Kiko and I wrote Pesadelo together. It’s a mixture of keeping the core sound but bringing in guests to add new flavours. I’m not just putting out solo records here, I’m building a legacy. If you look back at all the people who’ve played on my last eight records, there’s Al Di Meola, Allan Holdsworth, John Sykes and Slash. Pretty much all the top players in the world have played on these records. Of course, there are a few still on my list that I need to get, but I’m slowly checking them all off. Jeff Beck has always been on the top of my list and I’d also love to work with Brian May and David Gilmour.”

Sherinian has often declared that he wanted to be the Eddie Van Halen of keyboards, and although the Van Halen legend doesn’t appear on this album, he recalls performing with the late guitarist at a house party some years ago.

“It was on my bucket list to play with him and in 2006, through a mutual friend, I was invited to a backyard party at his house. My friend’s band was hired to be the party band. He knew I love Van Halen, so he got me in on the gig. Eddie ended up liking the band because we rehearsed at his house the day before the gig, so he decided that he was going to play with us for six songs. It was fucking amazing to be able to play with him. He hung out with me, took me up to his 5150 Studios, was telling stories and it was all amazing. All I can say is that if only Valerie Bertinelli [Halen’s ex-wife] could see what was going on at that house…”

One prominent thought when listening to The Phoenix is that Sherinian’s sound and skills could easily be transferred to writing and performing soundtracks. Seemingly, it’s something that appeals to the keyboard player.

“Oh, I’d love to do it,” he says with genuine enthusiasm. “Both Jan Hammer and Keith Emerson have done soundtracks. I think with them, the situation was that the director was a fan of those guys and reached out [to them]. I don’t think that either of those guys was sending out emails, or on the phone trying to schmooze their way into the movie companies. I think that if ever I was to do a soundtrack, it’d have to be that way as well. So hey, if you’re a movie director and you dig my sound, I’d love the opportunity and I’d do a killer job for you. I’m here in LA, so let’s go…” 

This article originally appeared in Prog 116.