Selecting the right musicians – including the perfect bass player – for each song
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
September 21, 2020
Derek Sherinian is an acclaimed keyboardist, hailing from Southern California.
Yes, we know this site is For Bass Players Only. It’s okay. Read on…
After attending Berklee College of Music in Boston, Sherinian embarked on a brilliant career, having recorded and toured with the likes of Billy Idol, Alice Cooper, and Yngwie Malmsteen. He has also been a member of Dream Theater, Planet X, Black Country Communion, and Sons of Apollo. As a leader, Sherinian’s albums have featured everyone from Steve Lukather, Slash, and Al DiMeola, to Allan Holdsworth and Jerry Goodman.
For his 8th album, The Phoenix, Derek teamed up with longtime collaborator and mentor Simon Phillips, who figures prominently on the recording in various capacities, including, of course, drumming. The Phoenix also features Joe Bonamassa, Zakk Wylde, Steve Vai, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, and Kiko Loureiro on guitar, and Armen Ra on theremin.
As for his selection of bassists on the record, Derek teamed up with heavyweights Fretless Tony Franklin, who’s also been on every one of Derek’s other solo releases; Sons of Apollo bandmate Billy Sheehan; Jimmy Johnson (James Taylor, Flim & the BBs) and Ernest Tibbs (Lee Ritenour, Mike Stern).
The Phoenix was released September 18 by Sony Music.
FBPO: Hey, Derek!
DS: What’s up!
FBPO: I’ve really been enjoying the record. Listening to it a lot.
DS: Oh, thank you so much.
FBPO: And I got to tell you, it’s not too often we interview non-bassists on ForBassPlayersOnly.com.
DS: Wow I’m very honored. Thank you very much. I’ve been getting a lot of similar interviews from the other instrument trade magazines, Modern Drummer doing a cover story on my record, on Simon Phillips, and a whole sidebar interview with me because of all the drummers I played with and same with the guitar magazines, so thank you for talking with me.
FBPO: Oh, it’s my pleasure. When I saw names like Billy Sheehan, Jimmy Johnson, and Fretless Tony Franklin I perked right up!
DS: Oh, thank you. I’m glad I got your ears.
FBPO: Congratulations on the new release, The Phoenix. It’s been a while since you put out a solo record.
DS: Yeah. It’s been weird out there with all the downloading and I’ve been busy with other things, with Sons of Apollo, Black Country Communion, but I felt it was time to do a solo record, so I ran and signed a new deal and called up Simon Phillips. We got to work and started writing about a year ago, and here we are now with The Phoenix. We’re very excited with the outcome. We have amazing musicians on here, on every instrument, and the writing is top notch. I think this record is going to do really well.
FBPO: As usual you’ve got quite a varied cast of characters, but I want to start, obviously, with the bass players. Tony Franklin’s been on every one of your albums. Obviously, you really like working with him.
DS: Yeah. He’s the only musician to appear on all eight solo records, so that’s pretty cool!
FBPO: Talk to me about him, specifically about his contribution to this album. Is he playing just fretless?
DS: Tony’s great. When I hear his bass, it feels like home to me because he’s just on so many recordings with me. It’s so warm and he knows exactly what to play. When it comes to those slow, fretless sections, I hear his bass when I’m writing those sections. When I write fusion things, I hear Jimmy Johnson and that’s the same thing with all of these different players that, as I’m writing, no matter what the style is, I always will have the players in mind. Tony just has that unique sound that you hear it and you can point out and go, “Wow, that’s Tony Franklin!” It’s great. Great guys like Pino Palladino, same thing. There’s just certain guys that have a sound that I love. I think it’s great.
FBPO: Billy Sheehan is certainly no stranger to you either. I’m sure it was fun including him in the project.
DS: Always. Billy is fantastic. He brings such an energy. He has a way of playing where it’s busy, but he knows how to play around and not gum up the tracks. He brings just a great energy when he plays, so on our opening track, “The Phoenix,” he was immediately the first player I thought of.
FBPO: You mentioned Jimmy Johnson. It’s a funny thing. Whenever James Taylor introduces him, he talks about how Jimmy’s always joking and making everybody laugh, yet all the times that I’ve met him or hung out with him, he’s always struck me as being somewhat reserved. Have you seen that other side of him?
DS: I haven’t. I’ve never hung with Jimmy outside of him playing on my records. We never went out and socialized and hung out. I would love to sometime. I haven’t seen that gregarious side, but I’ll just say he’s such a professional and such a nice man and just such a pleasure to work with. No matter what I throw at him, whether it’s Planet X or my solo records, he’s always game and he never bitches about, “Oh man, you’re making me learn all this crazy shit.” He just goes in fearless. One thing Simon and I talk about on the EPK for this record is that his bass tone is so amazing that he can just turn in a bass track and you don’t even have to EQ it or do anything. It just sits right in and it’s perfect.
FBPO: He’s definitely got bass in his blood. He grew up with a whole family of bass. His father and his brother are both bass players.
DS: Oh, well that makes sense! [Laughs]
FBPO: I don’t know much about his father but his brother, Gordon, I saw with Maynard Ferguson in Toronto in like 19, I’m dating myself here, like 1978. And he’s done a lot of other stuff too. Their father was an upright player and just instilled bass into his boys.
DS: No shit. Well that explains a lot. I think that must be so cool to grow up in a household like that.
FBPO: Tell me about collaborating with Simon Phillips. He seemed to be so into this project.
DS: Oh, I love Simon so much. I mean, he has just done so much for me in so many ways, but being able to be exposed to him and work with him in such a close proximity on these records in a writing and production capacity… There’s just so much I’ve learned from this guy about making records and the level of quality just becomes your bar and you can’t accept anything less than excellence and greatness. That just becomes your normal from working with Simon. I’m very appreciative for the boost and the elevation of being able to work with him and what it’s done for me and my sound.
FBPO: He totally owned it. One hundred percent.
FBPO: The opening to the record reminded me of Billy Cobham’s Spectrum, with Tommy Bolin and Jan Hammer.
DS: Ha! Good ears! Exactly. That was exactly the energy I wanted to go for with Simon. I wanted to capture that “Quadrant 4” vibe. I was a huge Jan fan and Simon was a very big Billy Cobham fan, so Simon was very happy to oblige.
FBPO: I must have listened to that Spectrum album, a million, billion, gazillion times.
DS: Oh man, what a record!
FBPO: Yeah. And Lee Sklar! I’ve gotten to know quite a bit over the years. He’s given clinics at some of the Warwick Bass Camps in Germany. Actually, Billy was there too, Billy Sheehan, but Leland was telling the whole story about the recording of Spectrum and the play-by-play, the blow-by-blow in the studio. Speaking of blow-by-blow, Phil Chen was there too!
DS: Oh wow. Great. Nice.
FBPO: By the way, I’ve also interviewed Steve Vai and Bumblefoot for my other site, ForGuitarPlayersOnly.com. Anything you’d care to share about those guys? Or Zakk Wylde?
DS: Oh, absolutely!
FBPO: It’s not like a bunch of guys just went into the studio and made a record. You must have very painstakingly selected exactly who you wanted for each recording. Tell me about how you chose everyone.
DS: It really wasn’t that painstakingly… Basically it all starts with me and Simon and we’ll write some songs together. As we’re writing, the melodies come out. I can start picturing who’s going to be playing on it. But if I come into something with Simon with a preconceived notion, like I knew I was going to write a song with Kiko from Megadeth, so I brought that in. And then I also knew that I was going to write something for Steve Vai. If I know who the player is going to be, I kind of let that dictate where the music goes. But sometimes the music’s written first and then it becomes clear to me who should be playing on it. It really works itself out.
FBPO: What lies ahead? I hope you’re not going to make us wait another nine years until you put out your next solo record!
DS: No. I mean, I’ve started writing my next one. I did a session last week for guitar legend Michael Schenker, who has been a huge hero of mine for a long time. He called me to play on his record and he was so happy with what I played. His manager mailed me back and said, “How much do we owe you?” I said, “I don’t want any money to play with Michael Schenker. If he wants to play on my next solo album and return the favor, that would be awesome.” So he graciously accepted that deal and I’ve written a killer song already. I’m going to cut with Simon and I hope to have a new Michael Schenker song in the can that’ll probably sit there for a year until my next record comes out. But I’m already thinking about record number nine.
FBPO: What can you share with us about it? How’s it going to compare to this one, or any of your previous releases?
DS: Oh, I don’t know. Let’s promote this one first, but just know that I’m already thinking ahead.
FBPO: Okay! I know you’ve been busy with Sons of Apollo and lots of other stuff, but is there a reason there was such a long gap between the last one and this one?
DS: Just frankly, the business has turned to shit as far as the downloading, and it got to a point where no matter how great my records were and who I had guesting on them, people were downloading them for free. It’s like walking with a full bucket of water and then when you get to the other side of the room, the bucket has a hole in it and there’s nothing left in it. That’s what making records has turned into. So it just got disheartening to a point where the advances dwindled so low that it just didn’t make sense. So I took an 8-year time out.
FBPO: What else do you have going on outside of your solo career and the stuff you did with Michael Schenker? Anything else that you’d care to share?
DS: When I’m not writing for Sons of Apollo and doing other stuff, I do a lot of session work. I just did a couple of records for Whitesnake and I did Michael Schenker. I’d just played on Brad Gillis’s new solo record, Joel Hoekstra, but besides all these name guitar players in bands, I do a lot of sessions for people all over the world every day. People send me their songs and they just want my style and my playing on their tracks. I get stuff in from all over the world every day. Like yesterday, I did a session for someone from Finland, Scotland, and then from Waco, Texas, all in one day. With technology, people can send these MP3s in and I send the files and, boom. It’s really awesome. So anyone that wants me to play on their tracks, just approach me online and we’ll make it happen!
FBPO: And then after lunch, what did you do?
DS: [Laughs] That was it. I have a really nice swimming pool in my backyard, so all I do every day is I track and swim and get a little sun and then track some more. It’s a good deal.
FBPO: The music industry has changed. Some might say for the better, and some might say it’s more difficult or more competitive, but the old days of sessions like they used to be, back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, those have gone by the wayside.
DS: The bottom line is anyone that wants Derek Sherinian to play on their track can have me. It’s their choice. If they want to hire me over, Sven Smorgasbord in Sweden, that’s their choice. You know what, it all comes down to supply and demand and if people want you to play, they’re going to come to you and that’s it.
See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview, here.
The Phoenix is available here.