“I’m ready to go!” is one of the first things Jeff Scott Soto tells me, with an unmistakable excitement in his voice for the upcoming Sons of Apollo tour. The singer just finished a tour with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and he’s using his two days off at home to record vocals for an upcoming JSS solo album he’s been working on, before joining his Sons of Apollo bandmates Derek Sherinian, Billy Sheehan, Bumblefoot and Mike Portnoy for rehearsals. He admits to being a bit tired vocally, but credits good habits with allowing him to quickly get his vocal cords back to top shape.
“I was fortunate to be smart enough to not fall victim to the elements that come with being a ‘rock star'”, he says. “When you are young and dumb, you realize that part of that lifestyle is drinking and partying, staying up all night. A lot of people just start losing their power and do not really know how to ration it out so they can sing for the next few decades. I live the life of a saint on the road and I took care of myself, to do my part in keeping the responsibility and the respect to myself for something I want to do for the time to come in the future.”
I first interviewed Soto around the time of the first Sons of Apollo record, and he was adamant that the band was not a temporary project but a full time band. That a second album follows up so quickly after the first cycle is not an accident. “It was mapped out in advance,” he explains. “We wanted to get in there almost immediately and get straight to work, because we did not want that fire to go out. This was not just something we are going to throw out there and if it sticks, we continue. We had every intention of following up with this.”
When it came time to write and record the second album ‘MMXX‘, the band could build on the chemistry that emerged during the tour. This allowed the band more freedom in setting up a recording process that suited everyone. “The first album, we would go into the studio and then we would knock out the vocals one at a time while carving the melodies,” Soto recalls. “I am not used to working like that anymore; those days are over as far as I am concerned, going into the studio at a set time and feeling that stress and that pressure to get a performance.”
Instead, Soto recorded all his vocals in his home studio, at his own pace. “With technology today, you have the flexibility of going in to sing when you are ready, when you feel it,” he says. “So you might feel tired, you might not feel inspired, but when you book a studio and you have to pay for that thing, you have to come up with the results. There are no ifs, and no buts about it; you have to finish what you are there to do.” Freed from that pressure, the singer feels he was able to create an even better performance. “I wanted that flexibility of being able to do things at my leisure,” he says, “and it still worked for us to be able to go back in and still try things. I did not have people breathing over my shoulder saying, oh, did you hear that pitchy note or oh, he cracked it. I did feel better by isolating myself and getting my stuff done and then like bringing the other guys in to have a listen and we can discuss and chisel it from there. Even [Mike] Portnoy thinks the way I do. A drummer usually has to have everybody there because they are tracking or doing things with him, but he was the same when he is tracking drums like everybody else.”
In the end, it was all about making efficient use of the recording budget they had. “Back in the day, when we had a five hundred thousand dollar budgets,” he recalls, “we lived in the studio for a month or two. Now that the budgets have cut down considerably, because you are not selling actual physical records anymore, I do not want to have to take a smaller budget that is wasted on a studio where if I am not feeling it, that was a waste of a day and money. It has actually worked out better for us and, you know, being able to get things done this way.”
Going in for a second album, the band were not going to mess with the formula. “We did not want to alienate the fans that did follow us,” the singer says, “but we also did not want to alienate ourselves. We wanted to build a Sons of Apollo sound because the first album was just nothing but comparisons. Every review was ‘this sounds like is a piece of that’ and ‘you can hear the elements of that’. The second album needed to be an extension of it.” For Soto, it was also important that these two albums sound as one coherent work. “I personally wanted the first album to be like Van Halen 1 and 2. You could put those first two records together as a double album and it would sound like one album. I think we went in with that mind-set on our second album.”
The importance of building the Sons of Apollo fan base was not lost on the band who, Soto admits, sort of expected their respective followings to provide them with an instant audience. When your members have been part of bands like Dream Theater, Journey, Guns N, Roses, Yngwie Malmsteen, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Mr Big, David Lee Roth and so many more, one can understand the expectation. “You think, with these things alone, without even hearing the music, we are going to be packing every show,” the singer says. “You naturally think everybody that you have ever played in front of is just going to follow you eventually because they love you so much. It is not automatic, and it did not work that way and it does not work that way.”
An artist’s job is often to wrangle art from negative experiences, and that’s exactly what the band did with this humbling experience. “I reflected my feelings and my thoughts behind that on the first single that came out on the album, ‘Goodbye Divinity’, because we felt that this band was a divine experience and we were assuming that it was just going to drop right in front of us. We had to say goodbye to divinity and that is basically the theme for the song. It just shows that regardless of everything we expected, we are not going to give up, we are going to go back out there. Here is album number two: the next step is to show people we are serious.”
The first Sons of Apollo tour had a fun setlist that included the entire first album, with a pair of Dream theater songs and fun covers. Their live DVD featured even more covers. Now with two albums to draw from, can we expect an all Sons setlist? “We have enough material to make a great show even without doing the entire first album,” he says. “We have that flexibility now and I think it is important to keep the focus that we are trying to build a brand. We are not trying to show off how cool we can play other people’s music.” But the singer also admits that the setlists are decided by drummer Mike Portnoy, who he describes as the captain of the ship. “He knows what he is doing and he was spot on. He realized that we had to do something that reflected where this whole thing started, which was obviously Mike’s involvement with Derek Sherinian in Dream Theater and that is why we did those two songs, and [The Van Halen and Queen covers] matched exactly the origins and the influence of where this band comes from. Now that we have two one-hour albums, there is really no need to go with any covers.”
Considering how mapped out the trajectory of the band’s first two cycles seemed to have been, I wondered if there was already a plan for their eventual 3rd release. ‘Oh, no, that is way too soon,” retorts Soto with a laugh. “This one is still way too new for us to start considering a new record. We are more excited about the tour now and making sure the show blows away last time’s show. I am sure as we’re out there, maybe halfway through this one, that’s when those talks will start.”
Sons of Apollo will play in Montreal at Theatre Corona on February 3rd 2020. Guitar virtuoso Tony Macalpine and Ethan Weissman’s Mass Extinction Event will open the evening. Tickets are on sale here.