UCR Interview: Jeff Scott Soto of Sons of Apollo

Interview By: Kevin Rolfe

Sons of Apollo are a supergroup consisting of members of Dream Theater, Guns N Roses, Mr. Big, and Journey. Sons of Apollo will be in Salt Lake City on January 28, 2020 at The Commonwealth Room. I had the opportunity to speak with lead singer Jeff Scott Soto recently leading up to their tour promoting their latest release MMXX. Jeff has been associated with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Queen Extravaganza, and most notably Journey. I’ve been impressed with Jeff’s versatility and ability to continue to work in an industry that is ready to kick you to the street on your first setback. I really enjoyed visiting with him. Here’s our conversation.

Utah Concert Review: I’ve been fascinated with your entire career.  But before we dig into all that, I want to talk about what you’re currently doing with Sons of Apollo.  I listened to your new album MMXX (Pronounced 2020) and I really enjoyed it. I’m excited for the band to come to Utah.  Tell me about the album and the making of it, and so on.

Jeff Scott Soto: Once we finished the tour, we immediately started discussing the parameters of making this album.  We all agreed that we shouldn’t let too much time pass because we lit the fire here and we need to take it to afterburner mode.  Especially the main thing we wanted to dispell all the crap that came at the beginning saying “Ah this is just a project, just an experiment.  They won’t be doing this for long.” We wanted to show people that we have the absolute intent of making this a real group and we’re going to be around for a while.  The writing process was pretty much the same as the first album. Ron (“Bumblefoot” Thal), Derek (Sherinian) and Mike (Portnoy) got together and just carved out ideas and hashed things out to the point where they knew where they were headed.  Then Mike came to L.A. and laid down his drum tracks with Derek in the studio. And from there everyone laid building their own tracks until they finally came to me and I could actually start listening and falling into the music so I could know what I would be writing about and getting my end done.  The only difference is, this time I did everything in my home studio. When you book studio time, you’re basically on the clock. You’ve got to deliver. You’ve got to have to be up at a certain time of the day, you have to brush your teeth at a certain time, you have to meet at the studio, you’ve got to be creative, and you have to be in full voice.  Sometimes there’s a lot of pressure behind that. If you’re not ready to sing on a particular day, you have to because the studio is booked and you have to pay for it. The great thing about technology today, I wanted to alleviate that pressure and truly get to dig my teeth into the new songs without the pressure of having to deliver today. I could deliver tomorrow, I could deliver at 4 in the morning, I could deliver whenever I want.  And that’s exactly what we did. I was able to carve out and hash out the first ideas I sent it to everybody. Then everybody lives with it and then they send it back with “Hey, I like this” Or “Maybe try doing it this way.” We just proofread everything individually. I can do multiple songs within multiple days. But with this one, we did one song until we had it down. As soon as we know we’re good with this one, that’s when we moved on to the next.  

UCR:  So are you the principle lyricist?

JSS:  Exactly.  We’ve all be doing this for so long.  The reason why this band is together is because of the mutual respect for one another.  It would be silly to say “Well Jeff has been writing music and putting out albums for the last 35 years, let’s get someone else to write the music.”  Of course, we’re going to trust each other in what we do and how we do it. Especially while we’re starting to create a sound together. The guys gave me the trust to do what I do and I gave it everything I have.  I personally think it’s a strong record because there is more of my personality in the vocals and in the writing. With the first album, which I love, I sound a little bit sterile. I wasn’t able to put the kind of personality that I did on this album.  

UCR: I enjoyed listening to your live album.  I love live albums. It felt very raw and I enjoyed the mix of originals and the covers.  Is that something we can expect on the tour? Or was that something special you only did for the live album?

JSS: We were doing a show for a symphony orchestra.  We put together a two-hour show with just one album.  Of course, we play the whole album, but on top of that, we needed something to extend the show.  So, of course, we have to load things up with other things. But for that particular show, we had to do a much lengthier set.  Those songs were only done for that particular show. It was the first time we had ever played those songs outside of the rehearsal the day before.  It was crazy to have to do all those songs after one rehearsal. But it also shows how great this band is.  

You tapped into the whole live album thing.  Is it live or is it touched up? It drives me crazy because you’re damned if you do, damnded if you don’t.  They’ll criticize you if it’s touched up and sounds too perfect and they’ll say “There’s no way this is live”.  Or you release it as is and they’ll say “Jeff sounds tired. Jeff can’t sing those high notes like he used to.” You can’t win.  We chose to keep it raw and live the way it is. This show was at the end of a seven-month tour. So yeah, I’m a little toasty, a little crispy on the edges, but you know what, it’s all real, it’s all there. And if you’re going to criticize guess what, just listen to everything else I’m putting out there.  I still have the high notes. Some days when you’re doing it live, you gotta go with the flow. I could have redone all that stuff and made it perfect, but it’s not perfect. It shouldn’t be.  

UCR: I saw you just a couple of months ago with Trans Siberian Orchestra.  To be honest I had no idea you were performing with them until you walked out on stage.  I have to admit I was pretty excited to see you in person. But what is that experience like?  You’re used to being the frontman and TSO is sort of a faceless band where you really only sing a couple of solos. Is there some part of you that wishes you were doing more?  Or is it just enjoyable for what it is?  

JSS: I absolutely don’t get that frustration.  I understand my role with Trans- Siberian Orchestra.  I realize I’m just one of the cogs that keeps that machine going.  That was explained to me early on. There were no stars, there were no names, there were no singers that were focused on.  When you think of the records they released, especially their biggest one, Christmas Eve and other Stories there were no singers on that album that have been in the current lineup for the past 8 or 9 years.  So you’re basically covering someone else’s material. And that was by design. By not branding particular people, you can keep this thing going.  That way you can keep the focus on the show and the story. I got into that whole thing because I’ve been dear friends with Al Petrelli (Musical Director of TSO) for many years.  I ran into Al at a mutual friend’s wedding. TSO was going into their second tour ever. I remember when he explained it I thought it would never work. But who would have thought that his boss Paul O’Neal would want to meet me and wanted to work on a non-holiday album?  I’ve been a part of the family ever since. We’re all there to bring forth his story. I don’t care about getting accolades or getting the perks of a being a rock star on a big arena tour. I care about making the best show it can be for Paul and his family.  

UCR: That’s a great attitude to have.  And besides, It’s still gotta be pretty awesome to play all those huge arenas.  

JSS: It’s a dream.  This is something we all dream of.  I never really got to play in my own backyard.  I’ve had most of my attention from overseas. I ain’t complaining.  For two months every year, I get to sing in the biggest arenas in the country with a great show.  So it’s a win-win.  

UCR: You either have the best agent in town or an amazing reputation. I’d imagine it’s more of the latter than anything.  With everything you’ve done with singing on other artist’s albums, with Journey, with Queen Extravaganza and now with Sons of Apollo, people know you, they know your voice, and they want to work with you.  Has it just been building relationships? Obviously you have an excellent voice, but there are a lot of people out there with a good voice that would love to have your career? What has kept you going for thirty years?

JSS: It has been one billion percent my doing.  I never had an agent or manager that did f*@K all for me.  I’m not mocking them or saying people I work with are hacks, but the ones I worked with never really found my niche more than myself.  It’s just been a lot of hard work and a lot of perseverance. I don’t even want to say networking because it sounds like I just want to be a rock star.  I always put pride and quality in everything I do whether I’m singing backing vocals on an album or I’m singing lead for someone on a demo. I give one billion percent of my commitment or drive into it.  That way if they share it or pass it on to somebody else to utilize it, I want to make sure it represents me in the highest way. From that, my name was able to get out there and I was able to sing background on so many records with so many peers and friends in the industry.  There it would snowball from there meeting somebody else. I sang backup on Stryper’s last album with Hollywood records and that’s where I met Tom Moorman. He was so impressed with what I did he hired me for the next five albums he produced. That lead to me getting the Rockstar soundtrack.  Everything I did happened organically. It had nothing to do with an agent peddling me. It was all word of mouth and all the relationships and friendships I built over the years.  

UCR: It’s so often in Rock that reputations are not good.  I think that’s something you can definitely hang your hat on, that you’re known for having a work ethic and a good reputation.  

JSS: I would not have complained if my career went the route of a Freddie Mercury or a Steven Tyler.  I would have loved to be a household name doing just what I do, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t trade the last 35 years for anything because I’ve had the chance to challenge myself and I’ve grown as an artist.  TSO would never have been my cup of tea or in my wheelhouse back in those days but adding that element of what they do with rock and theater aspect, I’ve added another dimension to my voice and to my career that I normally wouldn’t have had if I had just been with one band.  

UCR:  I’m sure you’ve been asked about your time with Journey a million times, so I don’t want to ask too much about it.  I’m sure it was exciting to front that band, but the way things played out it seemed like they always wanted a Steve Perry sound alike, which you aren’t.  You have a versatile voice which makes me wonder aside from the obvious monetary perks that come with being in that band, looking back do you feel like you would have been stifled in a way by having to sing someone else’s songs forever?  
JSS: I have no problem talking about Journey.  Yes, exactly! I say that every time someone asks me about Journey.  I say exactly what you’re saying. First of all, don’t believe the man behind the curtain when it comes to why I was let go.  There were certainly some other deep-rooted reasons or issues. It had nothing to do with not being able to cover the signature sound because they had no problem with the way I was singing and carrying this band because otherwise, they would not have made me a permanent member of the band in December of 2006.  Clearly there were some personality rub in there that I was never privy to, I was never given that information. They came up with their reasons for why I needed to go and they just acted on it. From that, you would normally be able to retain a friendship and walk away the same way you walked into it. Unfortunately, we haven’t spoken in years.  We haven’t spoken since they let me go and there’s no connection with those guys. Because of how or why the reasons are they let me go. From that, I have to agree with you. I think I would have left the band for three or four years because at some point I would have realized all I’m doing is covering someone else’s legacy. With Journey, I would have always been the guy who replaced the guy who replaced Steve Perry.  At some point, I would have thought, I have too much pride and dignity as an artist. I have so much more to say than just singing someone else’s legacy for the rest of my life. Yeah, the paycheck was great and would have gotten better. But it’s not about that. I have way more musical integrity that I would have wanted to do my own thing. There probably would have been a rub there too, where if I wanted to release a Heavy Metal album it would have been like, “Well the Journey fans are going to be confused.”  It’s better for me to be able to do what I feel like I’m best doing. It was the best decision they could have made in letting me go. I would have liked to have done it a couple more years, but honestly, I probably would have walked away from it after a few years because it would have just been a cover version for me.

Sons of Apollo originally sold out The State Room so it was moved to the larger The Commonwealth Room. Click here for tickets. They’re going fast!

Isabel Leonard w/ the Utah Symphony January 9, 2020, The Noorda

By: Kevin Rolfe

Isabel Leonard is a two time Grammy Award winning mezzo-soprano who has appeared all over the world from the Metropolitan Opera in New York to the Vienna State Opera in Austria.  And there she was Thursday evening, with our own Utah Symphony, on the stage of The Noorda Center for the Performing Arts in Orem, Utah. I don’t think we realize what an honor it is to have Isabel here in our state.  Not only did Ms. Leonard perform last night in Orem, but she will be performing at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City tonight (January 10) and tomorrow evening.

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