By Doug Rausch www.usaprogmusic.com
From Alice Cooper to Kiss to Dream Theater to Yngwie Malmsteen to Planet X to…well, DEREK SHERINIAN, maestro Sherinian’s resume is as diverse and broad in scope as is his own musical palette from which he draws to compose, perform and record. He’s worn all the hats, played with the “who’s who,” and pushed the boundaries of music to improbable new heights. But why be nostalgic when you’re in top form and have yet to leave your full legacy? There’s still work to be done! Derek was kind enough to take some time with Doug Rausch to reflect on the nature of creating forward-thinking music, and just how we’re supposed to get it out there.
USAProgMusic: So few keyboardists in rock have actually studied music. What exactly is the extent of the formal training that you’ve had as a pianist, as a keyboardist? I know you’ve spent some time at Berklee…
Derek Sherinian: I studied classical music at a young age, took lessons until I was 12, studied jazz and fusion, and had a lot of different teachers. I always tried to play with musicians who were more advanced than me to keep my chops up.
USAProgMusic: Would you say your background is more classical or more jazz oriented, or more a nice balance of everything?
Derek: I’m not a master in either, but I keep a good balance.
USAProgMusic: Are there any other pianists/keyboardists in the world of rock who share the high level of playing and proficiency that you have?
Derek: There are a lot of great guys out there. One that really stands out to me is Jens Johansson. His playing is excellent. I listen to his stuff and I like everything he does.
USAProgMusic: A lot of musicians, especially in the progressive world say, “If people like our music that’s great, but we’re doing our own thing and if they don’t like it then that’s fine, too.” But some do acknowledge a cognizance of, “Will this have commercial appeal?” or put more bluntly, sales. Even for adventurous progressive bands out there, the concept of selling doesn’t completely go away. Do you see yourself more closely associated with one of these two mentalities, or a balance of each, trying to get your artistry as much exposure as possible?
Derek: Everyone wants to sell a record; if it doesn’t sell you can’t go on and do what you do. Anyone who says they don’t care about record sales is lying.
USAProgMusic: With the new Planet X album Quantum (which is just awesome by the way), there’s a perfect example; what exactly is the business attempt? Is there an opportunity to be commercially successful with an album that is so wonderfully artistic and envelope pushing?
Derek: The problem is when you’re being totally artistic you have a select fan base, and there are not enough people into that style of music to keep it alive. Planet X does not sell a lot of records…you may not see another Planet X record. We haven’t seen the up side.
USAProgMusic: But isn’t the entire goal of a label like Inside Out to take a chance on artistry and achieve a way to financially support the experimentations?
Derek: Planet X was signed because of fame with Dream Theater. In hindsight, I should have put together a band with a vocalist, but at the time, you know, I didn’t want to hear a vocalist.
USAProgMusic: Ah, I see. So in a way you benefited from a gamble and got to make some really great records in the process! Would you venture to say your solo career was also a springboard from the Dream Theater spotlight?
USAProgMusic: So that’s not a bad thing…
Derek: Well there just aren’t enough people listening to this kind of music. I don’t think that we’ve ever heard the envelope pushed the way you have on this record [Quantum]. That may sound like a loaded statement but music still has not reached its limits. The boundaries can still be pushed.
USAProgMusic: Agreed…and that was my exact next question! Are there any specific musical elements that you’ve gravitated to that you are most preoccupied with focusing on and trying to evolve music? Quantum is such a wonderful example of this; do you focus on any one element more than the others?
Derek: No, it’s everything put together, I try not to make too much of a big deal about analyzing one specific thing. It depends on the song.
USAProgMusic: So that begs the question: in the immediate future, to the extent that you know, where are we heading with your musical vision at this point? Another solo album, another band effort?
Derek: I’m working on a new solo record right now [also on Inside Out]; that’s my complete focus. We’re shooting for a spring release.
USAProgMusic: So then the record label is wonderfully supportive of whatever you decide to do? “Carte Blanche?”
Derek: They’re wonderfully supportive of solo records, where I have complete creative control.
USAProgMusic: Ok then…I know you’re saying you don’t like to analyze too much, but you’ve got Planet X records, you’ve got solo records; what’s the significant contrast with the solo records?
Derek: Planet X is a collaboration. A lot of that record was written by Virgil [Donati].
USAProgMusic: Speaking of collaborations, you got Slash involved with something recently. How did that come to be?
Derek: “In the Summertime” (Mungo Jerry) was a hit in 1970. Billy idol was singing it and we thought it would be cool to cover and get Slash to jam; we ended up shooting a video.
USAProgMusic: Are there any other bands these days – musicians, artists – who push the envelope in ways you like to see it pushed and who are having a certain level of commercial success – that you really enjoy?
Derek: There’s a band Meshuggah; they’ve been around for a while, they totally push the envelope - it’s brutal, really heavy.
USAProgMusic: Do you get a lot of time to actually listen to music given you are a professional musician yourself, or are you so busy doing your own thing that you just don’t have much time anymore?
Derek: I should listen more than I do. My sole focus right now is my solo record.
USAProgMusic: Looking back on your history thus far, do you have a period that you can point back to and feel is your favorite? You were with several big commercial bands in several different phases of your life…Derek: I don’t want to look back at any particular time in the past. My sole focus at the moment is the writing and recording of my new solo album. With that I have complete creative freedom. I’m still looking to push the envelope.