INTERVIEW: Derek Sherinian

I Heart Guitar is, of course, a guitar site, but part of being a well-rounded guitarist is listening to what the rest of the band is doing. And the keyboard playing of Derek Sherinian is at times so guitaristic that sometimes during intense harmony workouts during his time in Dream Theater it was hard to tell where John Petrucci ended and Sherinian began. He’s also surrounded himself with great players over the years including Tony MacAlpine, Yngwie Malmsteen, Allan Holdsworth, Al DiMeola and Steve Lukather, and his new album, Molecular Heinosity (InsideOut) is full of powerful compositions, heavy grooves, and some amazing musicianship. I caught up with Sherinian to discuss the new CD and the guitarists he’s worked with.

I Heart Guitar: What is your writing process like?

Derek Sherinian: It goes differently each time. A lot of it is influenced by who I decide to collaborate with. Most of the time I’m collaborating with either Simon Phillips, your fellow Australian Virgil Donati, or Bryan Tichy on drums. For some reason I gravitate towards drummers who are musically inclined, and I seem to work better in that environment. So the sound of the overall album is always gonna go in the direction of who I collaborate with at the time.

IHG: How much of the album features Virgil Donati?

Sherinian: Virgil and I co-wrote the trilogy that opens up the record. Virgil is just amazing as a writer. We first met during my first solo record, Planet X, in 1999, and we enjoyed the collaboration so much that we formed the band Planet X, and later recruited Tony MacAlpine. But Planet X hasn’t made a record in a couple of years and I really wanted to work with Virgil on my solo record, so it was cool to work with him again.

IHG: Do you have your own studio?

Sherinian: I own my home studio, it’s called Beechwood Manor, and it’s in my house. I make all my records there. I have a separate room where I have all my studio gear, and all my keyboards. It’s nice to have the studio in your house, because if you want to take a break you can go up and watch TV or just chill out, and just work as you’re inspired. It’s good. There’s no clock ticking.

IHG: When you’re composing, especially for this album, do you come up with things out of jamming, or do you write it down on paper first? What do you do?

Sherinian: I never write it on paper. Some songs come from jamming, a lot of songs start with a riff or one person will come up with something and you just keep expanding and developing it, and then before you know it you have a full song. You just keep putting ideas down and eventually you have an album’s worth of material. And you keep refining it, and you do overdubs, and usually after a year it’s done.

IHG: So Brian Tichy is playing both drums and guitar on the album?

Sherinian: He’s playing drums on five songs, and he’s playing some rhythm guitars.

IHG: So who else is involved in the album?

Sherinian: There are two new guitar names that I’ve never used in the past: Rusty Cooley – he’s known in the guitar community, but he hasn’t played in any famous bands or anything. He and I worked on a song called Frozen By Fire that’s on my record, and I think Rusty sounds amazing. I can see myself doing a lot more work with him in the future. And also a Japanese guitar player named Taka Minamino, who is featured on two songs. I think he’s a great talent. He has beautiful vibrato, and bending a la Yngwie, and I think he’ll have something special once he develops his own style more.

IHG: Are you planning to tour on this album?

Sherinian: No, it’s very difficult, and very expensive to do an instrumental tour, but every once in a while an opportunity will come up where I’m able to play some shows. But as of right now my solo career has been pretty much limited to just the studio.

IHG: Yeah, it sucks with the economy the way it is now: it seems nobody can afford to tour at the moment.

Sherinian: I know, and it’s unfortunate. I love playing in Australia. When Planet X played down there we made a live album, and it’d be great to go down there and play again.

IHG: So I thought we could talk a little about how guitarists influence your playing. Like I hear some things and I think, ‘Oh I recognise that!’

Sherinian: Who do you hear? Lemmie hear it from your perspective, what do you hear?

IHG: I kinda hear a bit of Van Halen in some of the stuff.

Sherinian: Great!

IHG: Especially in some of your rhythms.

Sherinian: Cool!

IHG: And I think I hear a bit of Al DiMeola.

Sherinian: Okay! Yeah! Cool! Anyone else?

IHG: Well that’s all I’ve picked out so far.

Sherinian: Oh okay. Cool!

IHG: So have you actively studied guitar players?

Sherinian: I’ve never transcribed people’s solos, but there are certain guitar players who have always moved me since I was young, and the first one who really made the biggest impact was Eddie Van Halen. He had such an identifiable style, and it was so heavy, and everything was so cool, that he was my first real musical hero. I had the pleasure of playing a gig with him at a private party at his house in 2006. That was the highest point of my career, playing with my hero. The coolest thing he said to me was that there’s only 12 notes, do what you want with them. I thought that was a really cool thing. Also Yngwie was a big hero of mine when I was a kid, and I’ve played on two of his records and he’s played on two of mine – and I was in his band over the last eight years, on and off, so a part of him has come through in my style. I was also into guys like Al DiMeola, Allan Holdsworth, Jeff Beck. These are my main guys.

IHG: How would you say guitar influences your keyboard sound?

Sherinian: Definitely in the soloing, I always have a little bit of overdrive, and the phrasing is very guitaristic. I hear that all the time. I like more aggressive keyboard sounds. One thing I always try to avoid is, I think a lot of keyboard players use sounds that remind me of video games or are very cheesy. I always try to make sure there’s no cheese factor, and everything has balls, and it supplements the sound and brings heaviness. It’s always gotta be coming from a place of heaviness and no cheesiness.

IHG: Yeah, one thing I’ve always loved about your playing is that it has a lot of personality, it’s not stuffy.

Sherinian: Yeah, it’s very hard to do for a keyboard, and that was one of the things that was important to me in listening to Van Halen. You knew as soon as you heard it who it was. You know Al DiMeola, you know Yngwie. You know Allan Holdsworth. And on a keyboard you have to work a little harder to distinguish yourself from the pack. And I think I’m one of the few guys that, if you’re familiar with my style, if you hear it you know it’s me. Individuality should always come before technique, and if you’re able to have both, then that’s really cool. I would rather be like Jeff Beck, who can’t play a million notes but has such beautiful sound and style. Style will always come first.

IHG: So let’s talk about some of the guitarists you’ve worked with. Zakk Wylde is on this album, and he adds some cool Ozzy-meets-Alice In Chains vocals to the last track. Tell us about working with Zakk.

Sherinian: Zakk is amazing. He’s been a friend of mine for the last 20 years, and he’s played on my last five solo records. We always have a great time working together, and we both share the influences of Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Yngwie, DiMeola. I think it’s a cool departure for Zakk when he plays on my records, because he can be himself but he’s playing over a completely different musical backdrop than he would playing with his own band or Ozzy. Zakk is always welcome to play on my stuff, and I’m very appreciative of the relationship. He’s a great guy, he really is.

IHG: Al DiMeola.

Sherinian: That was one of the high points of my career. I was in Miami working with Yngwie on my Black Utopia record in 2002 and I wrote this epic song called Sons of Anu where Yngwie laid down his tracks, but I ran out of time with Yngwie but there was still this acoustic part that needed to be laid down. Then someone told me Al DiMeola lived in Miami, so I got his number, called him, and got Al in the studio. It turned out amazing, and it’s the first time ever with Yngwie and Al DiMeola on the same song.

IHG: Yngwie.

Sherinian: He’s great. He’s really a maestro, a total natural. He’s the real deal of a guitar hero. The guy is just incredible. When he was in the studio doing the tracks for Sons of Anu, watching him do his thing and how fluid and effortless it is, it’s pretty amazing to watch live.

IHG: And finally, Steve Lukather.

Sherinian: Lukather is amazing. I met him through Simon Phillips. Simon called him up to come and play on the Inertia album that Simon and I co-wrote and co-produced in 2001. Lukather is just such a pro. He can hear a song and listen phrase-by-phrase, and he just takes care of business. He’s in and out of there in two or three hours, and he’ll lay three songs and make it sound like he’s been playing the song for twenty years. He’s a funny guy and I’m honoured to be on record with him.

Look for Molecular Heinosity on soon, and thanks to Riot! for arranging this interview.