In Conversation with Veteran Keyboardist Derek Sherinian

All images courtesy of Chipster PR

Recently, we spoke with versatile pianist, Derek Sherinian, who shared some of his thoughts regarding his latest album, Vortex.

“It all starts with me jammin’ on the piano and just letting my hands go, and then I’ll stumble on something that I think is cool or worthy of a riff,” Sherinian revealed. “Once I find those little nuggets, then I just develop them, refine them, and they turn into a song.”

To our ears, Sherinian seemingly has deep conversations with his own unconscious, and that mindset takes on greater proportions when he works with other great minds.

“A lot of times, although I’ve written songs all by myself, I also love the creative process of collaborating with people, like Simon [Phillips],” Sherinian explained. “He and I have such a great, strong chemistry, where we bounce our ideas off of each other, and in the end, I strongly feel that two heads are better than one, and between the two of us, we’ll come up with a better song.”

Sherinian went on to recount how much of a pleasure it can be to play with such great musicians, emphasizing guitarists Joe Bonamassa’s and Michael Schenker‘s immense, yet nuanced contributions to Vortex:

“Michael Schenker asked me to play on his Immortal album back in 2020, and that was a big thrill for me because I’m a huge Schenker fan. So, after I played the tracks, Michael agreed to play on Vortex, so I wrote a song to honor him, called “Die Kobra, which is badass, and has Simon Phillips on drums.”

Sherinian went on to explain the gravity of having these amazingly talented and legendary musicians playing together and the reasoning behind some of the pairings:

“You know, the first time that I ever heard Simon [Phillips] was on Michael Schenker’s first album, so it was really cool to have both of them on Vortex. And Zakk [Wylde] has been on six or seven of my albums in the past, so I thought it’d be cool to have Michael and Zakk on the same track.”

All images courtesy of Chipster PR

Interested in learning more about Bonamassa and Steve Lukather’s contributions, we asked Sherinian, who replied: “Joe Bonamassa and Steve Lukather are both dear friends, and they both have played on my previous albums. They both came up to the studio to record their parts on “Key Lime Blues,” and that was a treat. Watching those two masters go beat off of each other in the studio, you know, it was special.”

As an album, Vortex is rich in collaboration with Sherinian enumerating other musicians such as Nuno Bettencourt, Mike Stern, and Jeff Berlin, who are, as Sherinian says, “Always awesome on everything they play on.”

When asked if he assists in writing his collaborator’s parts, or allows them to work independently, Sherinian enlightened us: “It’s a little combination of both. Simon and I write a song with specific lines that need to be played, but then there are sections – especially in the solo sections – where I want them to go free and do their thing. And so, I always try to leave a little bit of room for interpretation, you know?”

Of course, Sherinian always leaves room for interpretation, and space for his guests to show their personalities, with the pianist sharing with us: “My favorite players are the ones that have a signature style where you can tell that it’s them before even someone even tells you who it is. Like, when you hear Eddie Van Halen, you know it’s him. When you hear Al Di Meola, you know it’s Al Di Meola. I mean, those are always my favorite players. That’s always what I wanted to be as a keyboard player. To have that signature sound that as soon as you heard it come in, you’d know that was me. I wanna surround myself with players like that and I have. On my solo albums, if you look at it, on this new record Vortex, every guitar player on there has a signature style.”

What about the gear used during the recording process of the Vortex album?

“Basically, over the last ten years, or twelve years, I’ve been using primarily a Hammond organ, piano, mellotron, Fender Rhodes, and Moog synthesizers,” Sherinian detailed. “And I mix in, sometimes, a Korg and a couple of other keyboards to spice things up.”

Surely, this is a great musical arsenal to start, however, Sherinian has a lot more under his sleeve which allows him to provide the listener with a delicate, yet assertive, sound we have come to love as listeners.

“Basically, to elaborate on what I’ve already mentioned, I basically use all old/vintage keyboards,” Sherinian continued.

“My Hammond C3 organ is from 1959. My Moog synth is from 1982, and my nine-foot concert grand piano is a Yamaha from 1977. These vintage instruments, they just have soul. When an instrument is like 50 years old, they bring so much more history to the table. Like this organ, who knows what concerts this thing has been played in, and how many records from the 60s that it’s been a part of. You don’t know for sure, but you feel it. What you get from a Hammond organ, you’re not gonna get out of a digital synthesizer.”

But does that mean that Sherinian has completely forsaken digital options?

“No, no,” the keyboardist emphasized. “Of course, I do use digital on some things, but overall, if you have to look at the mix, I would say I’m going 70/30 analog. I’m always looking for that natural sound, as opposed to something that has been sampled or processed. But then there is the problem of getting all this gear on the road. [Laughs]. Now, that 70/30, maybe that’s more on tour. In the studio, I’d say it’s more like 90/10 because I can’t bring all this analog stuff on tour. It’s just too much.”

All images courtesy of Chipster PR

At a glance, a listener might assume Vortex is simply a continuation of The Phoenix. When asked if his latest effort was indeed a continuation of that same narrative, or of that style, Sherinian quipped: “There’s no change of mindset. We had such great energy and momentum going through The Phoenix, and once we got back together to start reading for Vortex, it was just the same energy, pretty much. So there’s no different strategy. We just did our thing, as we normally did. It felt like those records could have been back-to-back, and that’s how it feels, for sure.

In my time spent with Vortex, we found ourselves contemplating the meaning behind it all. When asked to elaborate on the album’s theme, Sherinian had the following to say: “I’ll be honest with you. For these instrumental records, because there are no lyrics, it’s very hard to put themes to these songs. And then it’s very hard to name the album, and so most of the time it comes down to the deadline when the record company goes, ‘We need the title so we can print the album.’ You know, they need 8 months before the release phase, so they can start manufacturing vinyl, and make all the inserts for the CDs and the vinyl. So, Simon and I are like, ‘What are we gonna name this stuff?’ And we were just wrenching our brains at the last minute, coming up with titles. So, that’s really what it is. It’s nothing more than that.”

Having established a foothold, one might wonder if Derek Sherinian wants to explore a different genre other than fusion or progressive stylings in the future.

“Well, I never really think about genres,” Sherinian said. “I know people like to do labels, and I do too, but when it comes to my own playing, it’s really hard to label it, because it goes in so many different directions. I would say I’m rooted in rock. My music is primarily rock-based, but there are heavy jazz influences too. So, it’s a kind of a cocktail of hard rock, progressive rock, and Jazz fusion. But my point is this: I don’t think about labels. I just go meander between all of these genres at will. And how I feel at any moment, that will dictate how I mix and match at any moment.”

With a myriad of diverse interests and influences, this of course begs the question: Is rock music what truly moves Derek Sherinian?

“I think I’m driven,” Sherinian said. “Like, if I have a goal or something that I want to achieve, I will finish it and make sure that I’ll get there, you know? I do whatever it takes, and that’s how it’s been for my career ever since the beginning. It is not about labels or rock music, it is about music on the whole, and getting to the next level to achieve something higher.

“That said, it’s been very tough. The keyboards are, in general, the least favored instrument in rock n’ roll, so it’s always very hard coming up in bands. People always, like, exclude you, write you off, or whatever. So, you have to work extra hard to get noticed. And I had to really grind it out.”

As fate would have it, for Sherinian, everything has come full circle, and the veteran keys player has certainly done his part to ensure that the keyboard, as an instrument, are significant in rock music.

“I’m very happy with how everything is, and I’m very happy with this new album,” Sherinian remarked. “I’m looking forward to hearing the fans’ reactions to it. But, so far, the journalists all over the world have been giving great reviews to Vortex, so that makes me happy.”

All images courtesy of Chipster PR

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