SONS OF APOLLO, comprised of former Dream Theater members Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal (ex-Guns N’ Roses), Billy Sheehan (The Winery Dogs, Mr. Big) and Jeff Scott Soto (ex-Journey, ex-Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force). The band’s highly anticipated debut album, PSYCHOTIC SYMPHONY, was recently released on October 20, 2017 on InsideOutMusic/Sony Music, and was produced by the dynamic production duo of Portnoy and Sherinian, also affectionately known as “The Del Fuvio Brothers,” which is the nickname given to them over 20 years ago during their time together in Dream Theater. I was given the recent opportunity to chat with Bumblefoot about the band’s history and upcoming plans.
ANTIHERO: Okay, with your relentless personal work ethic, you’ve yet another band project out, Sons of Apollo. An intriguing name and even more so when I read which musicians composed the band. How did that come about? Can you briefly explain the origins of this to me?
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: Ah, Sons of Apollo. Well, I’ve known the guys in the band for a pretty long time. I used to jam a lot with Mike Portnoy and we toured together in the US with Metal Allegiance, and I laid a guest solo on the Metal Allegiance album and we’ve jammed over the years a lot of times; me, Mike and Billy. One time me, Mike, Billy, and Derek jammed on a Progressive Nation at Sea music cruise. We also have the background where I’ve laid guest solos for the Madame Mayhem album that he produced, and I’ve jammed with him, with Mike Portnoy and with Ray Luzier and all kinds of incarnations, so we were not strangers to each other. So, earlier this year Mike sent me an email and said “hey, you know how we’ve always been talking about putting a band together”, I was like “yeah”, he told me about the thing that he and Derek had, this vision of for Sons of Apollo, and the plan was to go into the studio just for the first 10 days of March, write and record the album. That was it, I was like “yeah, let’s do it”, so me and Derek started sending… like we had this little email thread, me, Mike and Derek, and I would send little guitar ideas, like rifts and things, and Derek would send me keyboard ideas of different things. So, this way when we got together we had a few starting points to start recording with and start building songs off. And that’s what we did, we got together that first time in the studio, set up all our gear and then just looked at each other and said “okay, how do we start?” And we just picked one rift to start with and just jammed on it and then used our instincts to say where can it go next, how could we expand on this idea, and by the end of the day we would have a whole song mapped out. And we did that every day, we would just by the end of the day have another song and we gave ourselves just 10 days and whatever we can get done during that time; if we had 20 days it would probably be a 15-song album. And the next morning we would go in and Derek would add more keyboard parts to whatever we did the day before and I would try and figure out what I did on guitar and double it up, so we have double rhythm tracks, one on the hard left, one on the hard right of speakers, and that was it. Yeah, and then Billy, he got off tour, he was on the road, and halfway through the recording he came back and joined us, and then he was writing and recording with us as well. But really the album was done the way albums were supposed to be done and always should be done which is the band is together and working together, writing together, recording together, recording live at the same time, actually tracking as they play. So, you get the truth out of them, you get the honesty, you get real playing, you don’t get stuff that’s just floating in a safe comfort zone and nudged and tuned and you get real stuff. And there’s a spirit there that comes with that, that you could only get when someone is doing something real with everybody in the room where everyone is feeding off each other and pushing each other and that’s how we did it.
ANTIHERO: Do you find it’s easier working with musical legends or does that make the whole creative process more difficult? I’m not referring to musical egos, but rather talented professionals who are all very driven and also focused?
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: Oh no, it easy.Because the thing about playing with guys that know who they are musically, they have all the experience in every possible way, they’ve done it all, from big to small stuff and everything in between.With that comes, I wouldn’t know if you could say a self-confidence but a good sense of self, where a lot of times if somebody doesn’t have a certain confidence they will keep second guessing themselves and they won’t trust their instincts and it will make things a lot more difficult and they’ll probably be a lot more stressed out.Where when you’re playing with people that trust themselves and trust each other musically, with that everything flows and that’s what I’ve found when I’ve worked with even Art of Anarchy, you know, working with Scott Weiland, working with Scott Stapp, working with John Moyer, with Fragile Mortals where I was working with Rod Dukes from Exodus and working with Daryl from Run DMC, everybody they just jump in and do their thing because they know who they are and it makes it very easy.
ANTIHERO: Any particular tracks? Obviously, it’s a new album, you’re going to love all the tracks, any particular ones that stand out that you particularly enjoy creating and having input to?
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: I mean all of them, you know, we built all those things together. But I think in the end, I think “Lost in Oblivion”, I think “Signs of the Time” might be my favourite. You know, I love them all but something about that one hits me.
ANTIHERO: Do you prefer playing the longer tracks like “God of the Sun”, “Labyrinth”, “Opus”, those sort of tracks, or do you prefer the snappier shorter tracks?
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: I don’t pick one over the other, you know, they’re all… It’s more like I like playing one and the other.Let’s do them all, let’s do the long songs, the short songs, everything.
ANTIHERO: What about “Divine Addiction” because listening to it myself today it’s got a real Deep Purple sort of a vibe to that one. That’s a very clear reference point to my ears personally anyway.
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: Oh yeah, very Deep Purple, extremely Deep Purple, yes.And that’s the thing about the record, you definitely hear a lot of inspirations, you hear deep purple, sometimes you hear Van Halen like in the pre-choruses of coming home, with the harmony vocals and then the lead vocalist sings the response lines and then the harmony vocals and things like that, you hear the old progressive band UK in some of the stuff.You hear everything, you hear all our influences, it’s almost like we were a bunch of fans of what we’re fans and we got together and made music that was inspired by the things that we love.
ANTIHERO: How would you describe the album yourself? Does the term Prog Rock rest easy with you or is it something different in your eyes?
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: I think it’s Prog, it’s not continuous every moment Prog, I think it’s more… You know, there’s a lot of classic stuff, there’s like a classic rock, there’s classic Prog there’s classic old school-ish, maybe not old school but definitely some metal in there. So how do you describe it? It’s like you can’t call it Prog metal because that would make me think something a little more continuously mathematical and fast. I would almost say just kind of… I would just call it Prog Rock. To me it fits mostly calling it that.
ANTIHERO: Next step then. Obviously once the album is created, most bands go out and play their songs live but you guys are always busy. Are live dates going to happen for Sons of Apollo?
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: We’re booking up 2018. We’ll definitely be seen doing Europe in the summer for sure. We’re in the process of booking up 2018 with a lot of touring and we will get out there and do our thing. We all agreed that we would commit ourselves to this and anything else that we do we would work it around Sons of Apollo. So that is the plan, is we finish up 2017 the touring we need to do and then in 2018 starting with Cruise To The Edge, the music cruise with Yes, Thank You Scientist, starting with that. We’ll be out there playing this stuff live.
ANTIHERO: Okay, that’s good. Maybe some UK dates in there as well?
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: Oh, there better be, I’m sure there will, yeah, I’m positive there will be, there has to be.
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: You know, even with Guns, I mean it was personal and it was a band, it wasn’t a dictatorship, when you think like that. But, of course, the bigger the mountain the harder it is to move and the more moving parts it has. Doing my own thing there is definitely an inner peace that comes with being able to organize my own schedule where now I’d say I want to go out and do a tour with my band, if I want to lay a guest guitar solo on somebody’s record, if I want to go out and teach at a college which, actually, in a few days I’m going to give a class at St New York University and then head out to China to do some jamming with people and then do something with the US embassy in Indonesia, a cross cultural program with them, and do a music camp. You know, I could do every single thing that I want to do and organize it now and don’t have to worry about the issue of waiting for information to come in before I can make plans and then it becomes too late. That’s the only real challenge that I had that made it where I felt like I had to choose was… all I needed was information so that I could navigate my life and keep doing everything. And now I’m doing that and I’m working with wonderful people, Art of Anarchy and Sons of Apollo and everything else, everybody I’m working with we have great communication and we all work together and are very considerate and understanding of each other because everyone I work with they’re all in the same position where they have a lot of things that they’re doing and we all work together to make sure that we can do everything we want to do.
ANTIHERO: Did you stay in touch with any of those Guns guys, maybe DJ? Any of those guys still in your phone contact list
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: Oh, I saw DJ in April, he actually came to an Art of Anarchy show.He came to say hi, it was real nice to him.You know, it’s so different seeing people outside of it, like once we’re not in a band together, when it becomes from bandmates to friends or bandmates to whatever it is.Yeah, the dynamic changes and I have noticed it over the years with different people that once the battles of the workplace aren’t there anymore, everyone can really enjoy each other as friends even more, I’ve seen that happen.So, I talked to some of the people, I think I talked more to ex members, but that’s okay.I’m watching a far and I’m so happy to see them doing great stuff and doing some of the band stuff they’ve done, so good for them.Everybody’s happy, you know it all works out.
ANTIHERO: Just a couple more. You’ve toured extensively over the years and your bands have allowed you to visit many countries experiencing different cultures. Which for you is the most enriching and rewarding? You mentioned Japan earlier. Would it be Japan?
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: Oh yeah, so there’s so many. Japan is one of them for sure but every single place and being 100% honest I could truly say that there has not been a single place that I’ve gone that I haven’t found something really great about. Everywhere has something good about it. And just last month I went and I did an acoustic tour of Japan, then I went to Thailand and played a show for a children’s charity, and then I went to Malaysia and did an acoustic concert with a bunch of the local musicians; fantastic guitar players all joined me from Malaysia. Then I went to Bangladesh and I did a workshop at the biggest radio station Dhaka, it was their first time hosting a music workshop. So, we did that and an interview and jammed a little on the radio and then did a big concert the next day where all local musicians came up and played different sets of songs with me. From there I went to Ireland, I went to North Ireland, did a workshop and then did a concert. Went down to Athlone, the Athlone Institute of Technology, and gave a little chat and workshop kind of thing there and then that night I was staying at the Sheraton so I did an acoustic show at the Sheraton and then flew out to Romania and did a tour with the band around Romania. I flew out my drummer Kyle Hughes from Newcastle, phenomenal drummer, and we toured around and did a bunch of shows and then I did a workshop in a beautiful city, and then we drove out to Moldova and I met with the US embassy out there and we did a real nice concert that they organized. The US ambassador came down and it was a 500-seat place and they moved 600 tickets, so pretty good.
At this point this is just getting towards the end of the month; this is all just in September. So from there I went to Krakow, Poland and did an acoustic show there and then went to Copenhagen and spent two days giving classes and workshops at the Copenhagen guitar show and then flew down to the South of France, went to guitar academy in Nimes and gave a class there and then took a train up to Paris and gave a class at a school there and then took a train out to Torres and did a class over there and then went out to town all the way into North West of France where everything is more of like a Celtic Gaelic kind of vibe out there. There is a fantastic guitar player named Pat O’May. He’s a singer songwriter guitarist, sort of a Gary Moore kind of guy.
ANTIHERO: Oh yeah. I am not familiar with him at all. Will have to go and look him up.
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: And he’s been putting out music for a good 23 years. About 20 years ago, 19 years ago, I helped him make an album called Praise America and beautiful album that had incorporated all the traditional instrumentation and really just a big album. And we did a concert together and celebrated all his many years of music and did a bunch of songs from that album together and we had the band behind us of snares and bagpipes and bombards. It was fantastic. And then flew home and then started doing these one-man sort of storyteller shows around the US; Vegas, LA, Santiago, Detroit, Battle Creek, all round. So that is an example of what I’m doing now, and doing that, Sons of Apollo and everything else.So now I’m able to do so much stuff and such diversity in what I’m doing which I really love, is the diversity, it never gets boring and it’s never the same thing on the same day and never the same show on stage.
ANTIHERO: That must be nice for you as an artist as well.You can expand creatively and in different areas of music.
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: Yeah, and I feel more alive than I ever have, it’s wonderful.
ANTIHERO: Are you a person that embraces technology as a tool and as a source of personal development and growth or is it a necessary evil?
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: Well, in one sense I’m a purist where I could say that nothing can and will ever sound as good as just a kick ass tube amp with just a regular guitar plugged right into it and cranking it up through a 412 valve, you know, just that. But at the same time, it’s amazing what we can do with technology now and I embrace it for sure. I love technology, I’m so interested in where it’s going and how it’s evolving and just seeing what’s the latest and I think that technology drives style, musical style. It could add so much to your own music, it can help you evolve as a musician when you start bringing technology, and as long as we don’t abuse it. For me if you take a drummer and he has his own sound and his own pocket and his own groove and then you nudge all his snares and kicks to the grid and you replace the sound of his drums and the way he hits with those same crappy fake sounds that everybody uses, there would be no John Bonham, there would be no Keith Moon, there would be no Buddy Rich, there would be no great drummers. There would be no Neil Peart, there would be nothing. There would be no legendary drummers because they would have had their souls and their identities and their personalities all chopped away because of the abuse of technology. Technology is supposed to be our assistant and too often we make it our boss. We have to keep in mind that just because we can do a million things with technology, it doesn’t mean we have to, we should only do what we need and what will enhance the humanity in music, not take it away.
ANTIHERO: Just a couple then to finish. For your fans of your work they turn to music to get them through difficult times. I just wondered with you as a musician, where do you get inner peace? What gets you through the difficult times?
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: Sleep, eight hours of sleep, that fixes everything. It fixes a sore throat, it fixes a tired mind, it fixes an achy body; that’s honestly probably the most valuable thing. That’s what recharges the batteries, that’s what clears the plaque off the brain and that’s what makes you at your best when you’re awake. And you’ll have 16 productive great hours awake as opposed to 20 shit hours where you can’t think and you’re miserable. So, sleep is the most vital thing to truly give you peace and the ability to endure the crazy scheduling and everything else and being pulled in 20 directions and all of that.
ANTIHERO: I was going to say; do you still have time in your schedule for things like sleep?
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: You have to force it, you have to make it, and that’s the thing that people need to realize, like promotors and everybody, is that if they want you to perform at your best and be your best and be able to tour year-round, they need to schedule in time. There’s two ways of thinking, there’s the failure mentality that’s short sighted and says, alright, I’m going to squeeze everything out of this until it’s dead and then that’s the end of that, or thinking long term and something that’s good for everybody. And it’s the difference of, okay, do you want this person to get sick halfway through the tour and have to cancel the rest or do you want them to be able to do a good tour where they’re at their best and give great shows and have the energy to do tons of press and this and that and everything else and be happy and everyone around them be happy as well. You have to schedule that in, that’s the reality of it, that’s what I’ve learned. So, what do I do for peace? I get eight hours of sleep. If you mean what do I listen to musically, which is what you meant, usually Beatles, some Motown stuff, that’s pretty much the go to; Beatles and Motown.
ANTIHERO: Is there a particular track that no matter how many times you hear it, it still moves you mentally and takes you to a whole different place every single time you hear it?
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: That would be pretty much any Beatles song. Literally any of them. But I would say from 66 on is my favourite. As much as I love the early more doo wop kind of rock and roll stuff, it was when they got into the psychedelic days and when George Martin started bringing in more of the classic instrumentation and they really started to expand creatively and make new sounds in the studio; that’s the stuff I loved. So, Rubber Sole, oh yeah, Yesterday and Today, yeah, Revolver, Serjeant Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, even the Yellow Submarine Soundtrack Incredible songs. Hey Bulldog, All You Need Is Love, there’s such good stuff on there.
ANTIHERO: Okay, that’s great. Just wrapping it up. Good luck with the album and hopefully you’ll get to the UK in that touring schedule for next year.
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal: Great, thank you so much and I hope to see you, definitely.