MUSIC INTERVIEW: Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal – Sons Of Apollo
Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal is one of the most proficient guitarists out there. By now, he’s done everything from playing with bands such as Guns N’ Roses, Art of Anarchy and currently Sons of Apollo, fronting progressive rock band Asia, launching his own line of hot sauces and teaching for State University of New York at Purchase.
We caught up with him to talk about some of his recent realisations, including the new Sons of Apollo album, MMXX, which is out now (check out our review HERE).
Hello! How are you doing, Ron?
Hi there! I’m doing great, thanks!
Thank you for taking some time out of your schedule for this interview!
My pleasure, let’s do it!
So, first question. Sons of Apollo have released your new album, MMXX (pronounced 20-20). How was the recording process behind that album, did it differ in any way from the recording of the last album [2017’s Psychotic Symphony]?
It was similar to the first album – this is our second album. For both albums it started off where I would be at home in my studio, I would come up with song ideas and I would make an MP3 file of an idea that would loop around a few times with a drum machine, and I would send it to Mike [Portnoy, drummer] and Derek [Sherinian, keyboardist]. Derek would make up keyboard ideas and different parts that he would play, and then send them to Mike and I, then the three of us would come up with things that we could start off with when we would be getting together, so that we’re not starting from complete scratch, we’d have a few song ideas that we could build on. We’d then be getting in the studio together, we’d start with any of the existing ideas, grab it and build on it, so that by the end of the day we would have a song done. Now, for the first record, we were doing all of this in the studio where we were recording everything together and playing together, so what you hear on the album is all of us playing together in the studio.
With the second album, we did a similar thing, but we did it as a “demo” at Mike’s house, where he had some recording gear. From there once we had it all mapped out, because this year it was tougher for all of us to be together at the same time and at the same place and get to the studio, Mike tracked his drum parts with Derek, then they sent everything to me and at my studio I laid down all of the guitars over his drums, then Derek did his parts, then Billy [Sheehan, bassist] did his, then Jeff [Scott Soto, lead singer] did his, so we had to do it that way. It’s good that we have the luxury, the technology in order to do that in this day and age, because twenty years ago it couldn’t happen. We would’ve had to wait however long until we could all be together, but at the same time there is something better about being together. When you see each other, when you’re connecting, locking in, all in the same room playing together, there’s a magic, a spirit, something that happens, so it’s more “organic”, and you can hear it and feel it, as long as someone doesn’t go and start quantising and editing and changing things – that takes away that “organic” feel. You want it to be imperfect. You don’t want it to bad, or to be sloppy, or maybe you do, that has its own vibe too, but you want it to be real.
Yeah, you don’t want it sounding too “polished” and processed, where it starts sounding like everything is just programmed on a PC with VSTs and e-drums.
Exactly! For me, when I’m producing an album, it’s very important, especially with the drums, to keep them real. The drummer is an important personality in the band and it’s a major identity of the band – look at The Who, Led Zeppelin, all of these bands, Queen! The drum-fill in You’re My Best Friend, it has a certain unique sound to it.
On this new album the longest song [at 17 minutes in length] is called New World Today. Is it safe to say that this is the new Opus Maximus [longest song from Psychotic Symphony, instrumental], is this one an instrumental as well or does it also feature vocals?
This one does have vocals, yes. It has sections where it almost feels like one song that goes into another song and into another song, so it does have sections with vocals in it, but most of it is instrumental. It goes like a verse-chorus-verse-chorus, like a bigger chorus, and then a whole other type of song that it goes into, with a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo-chorus, and then a whole stretch of instrumental and then back to the first big chorus… It’s going to take a lot of practice, that one!
So, in terms of the over-all feel and sound of the new album, is it “more of the same”, or did you all bring anything new to this one, so any new sounds or soundscapes?
More of the same. Me, personally, I would’ve loved to make it a little more Meshuggah, so a little heavier and crazier and over the top and more intense, but we sound like who we are. Mike sounds like Mike, Derek sounds like Derek, Billy sounds like Billy, Jeff sounds like Jeff, I sound like me, and when you put that together, it’s hard to escape what we sound like together. So, it’s definitely similar to the last record. There’s a lot of interesting, difficult guitar parts on there, so I’ve got some practicing to do! It’s a similar thing… It’s the same style, it’s not like we changed styles, or anything like that, it still sounds like the band. People who liked the first album will probably like the second album. Is it going to gain new fans? I don’t know, I think if you liked the first one, you’ll also like the second one. If you know my past [solo] albums, you know I like to take chances and do a lot of changes and every album can have a different personality, in a way. If you look at the Uncool album, compared to Abnormal, which is very punky, compared to Little Brother [Is Watching], which is more like Queen, Bowie-ish, each one grabs a different side. Not completely different, but just a different mood. But this one [MMXX, Sons of Apollo], I would say if someone else it going to listen to it, they would say that “it sounds like a continuation of the first record”.
Earlier this year in April, you released your first solo song since the release of Little Brother is Watching in 2015, Cintaku. What was the inspiration behind it, and why that name in particular, is there any meaning to it?
It’s pronounced “chin-tah-ku”, actually. It’s an Indonesian word, I’ve learned a lot of the Indonesian language over the years, “sayangku” – my dear, “cintaku” – my love, so if you want to say “Good morning, my love”, it’s “Salamat Pagi, cintaku”. So, it’s a term of endearment. I was driving in my car when the song popped into my head, this melody, and I started singing it to myself. I was thinking of writing words to it, but then I thought it sounded too much like a Disney song – “I could write a song and then pitch it to Disney who knows?” Then I thought that I should make more instrumental guitar music, so I did. The beat to it, the melody, a lot of things about it just reminded me of Indonesia, it’s one of my favorite places. I love the food, the friends I have there, the nice, warm weather – wherever there’s coconuts, I’m happy. It all came together, the feeling of the melody and everything reminded me of the euphoria you have when you feel so happy, so elated, so in love, but at the same time when you most miss the feeling, when you think about it. It’s more like thinking about it, there’s a sadness and a longing for it, so that’s the song.
This year as well, it was announced that you would be joining [British progressive rock band] Asia as their new lead singer and guitarist, how did that come along?
That goes back a couple of years. In 2016, there was this band that the tour manager and Carl Palmer [Asia, drummer]’s personal manager wanted to put together. He told me his idea, it was called “Platinum Rock All-Stars”, the band came together and it was Carmine Appice on drums, Rudy Sarzo on bass, Geoff Downes [Yes/Asia] on keyboards, Phil Naro on vocals, and Gene Cornish from The Rascals and I both played guitar, so it was an interesting mix. We did a couple of shows together in Toronto and Chicago where we played all our music, all our songs. From there, Geoff and the tour manager reached out to me, Asia was going to be doing a tour in 2017 and they asked if I would join on guitar. This was before John Wetton [lead singer/bassist] passed away, and at the time I was busy with Art of Anarchy, we were in our [The Madness] album cycle and we had to tour and promote that record, we were just starting Sons of Apollo, recording the album and all of that.
And also touring with your solo band on top of everything.
Tons of that! In fact, that’s when we saw each other in Romania! So, being very busy with a lot of other things, I told them it really wasn’t the right time, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to join another band that I wasn’t a founding member of – there’s a lot of baggage that comes with that. There’s a lot of people that won’t accept you because you’re not the original member, and I don’t want to go through that again. It’s important for me to be a creative partner in something as well.
When I first wanted to start making music and be in a band when I was five years old and KISS and The Beatles were my inspirations, I didn’t want to join KISS or The Beatles, I wanted to make a band that would make people feel as good as I felt when I listened to KISS, The Beatles, Queen, Led Zeppelin, anything. That was always the vision for myself, where my heart was – to be in a band that I was a creative part of, not just a hired gun, and someone that I was a founding member of, so a band that I was truly a partner in. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to join someone else’s band again. So, I said no, but we always kept in touch, it was cool. Then, shortly after in 2017, John Wetton passed away, and they ended up doing the tour with Billy Sherwood on bass and singing lead vocals. They opened for Journey, so it was a good tour for them, but also a sad one, with the founding member, the voice and songwriter of the band, being gone. In 2019 they asked again if I could join on guitar, and I was free this summer, so I said “Yeah!”. There was a singer that was supposed to sing lead but couldn’t do it, so the guys asked me if I would sing lead, and I said “Sure, let’s do it, it’ll be something different, why not?”
Speaking of summer, this was the second year in a row in which you organised your own “Bumblefoot Music Camp” in Ireland. How did you come up with that idea, was it more of a “Let’s do what everybody else is doing” thing? Because John Petrucci [guitarist, Dream Theater], Joe Satriani [solo guitarist] has one too, and even Mike [Portnoy, Sons of Apollo] with his drums.
Yeah, everybody’s doing camps now. Carl Palmer [drummer, Asia] had one too, we did it together, and I brought in Derek [Sherinian, Sons of Apollo] to do a keyboard class too. I love teaching, I’ve always loved teaching – I’ve done [guitar & songwriting] clinics, I’ve done Rock ‘n Roll Fantasy Camps, I’ve been guest teacher at different camps – plenty of Satriani’s and Paul Gilbert [guitarist, Mr. Big + solo]’s. The thing is, when I’m doing those camps, I’m teaching for an hour, an hour and a half, maybe once or twice day, every day, but that’s not enough. I have more stuff that I want to get into and want to do. So finally, I decided to do my own camp, where I can “torture” people for four or five days and really get into everything. It’s something that I’ve been talking about doing for years and years, but when we’d be planning it, something came up touring every year, and I would have to say “not doing it this year.”
I have a good friend, Eoghan Johnston, who lives out in Ireland. He’s a fellow Vigier player and I’ve done clinics out where he lives and he’s helped organise them and we’d do charity concerts together. We talked about doing a camp, because his family had this big bed-and-breakfast, they could host up to 50 people there. They would usually have classes from international schools that would come over, it was also an Irish study centre where they would learn about Ireland, and it seemed like the perfect place to do it. Finally, in 2018, I said “Okay, let’s do it!”, and we only had three and a half weeks to put it together, and we did! It went over so well! We covered everything you could imagine, plus sightseeing, home-cooked meals, definitely wanted to do it again.
This time, instead of Northern Ireland, Eoghan found this great hotel right in the centre of Ireland, in the town of Athlone. We did it there and it was all in the hotel. They had a venue in the hotel, so we did the camp student concert there, I did an acoustic show there, we did all the classes there too. This time, we had screens behind me and cameras on my hands, so everyone could see what I was doing with my hands when I was doing technical stuff. We went to a recording studio at the Athlone Institute of Technology, where we did a class on recording tips and techniques, we did a vocal class as well, and at that institute they do culinary studies as well, the student chefs made us this fantastic lunch. Instead of having catered-in meals, we made deals with all of the local restaurants, so we got to eat at nice restaurants for lunch and dinner, plus breakfast at the hotel. Everything went really well. I love doing these music camps, it’s a chance to take everything that I’ve learned and people have taught me, and share it with everybody.
Your last solo album, Little Brother is Watching, came out in 2015, and you signed it with EMP. Now that you’re on that label, might there be a new solo album on the way, sometime? Maybe after the Sons of Apollo 2020 World Tour?
Maybe, maybe. Since doing Little Brother is Watching, besides all of the touring and everything, I’ve done two Art of Anarchy albums, two Sons of Apollo albums, so I’ve put out four records since then, that I wrote for and have recorded and been a part of. I just haven’t done my own albums. At least I got to do the one song, Cintaku, back in April. I have a few song ideas waiting, I just need to get to them and record them. Will I do a full album again? I don’t know. If I stop touring? Yes – then I can make a million albums, but if I keep on touring, it’s so much tougher to have the momentum and have my head in the right place to focus on writing. I found that, for me, I can be in the studio, writing, or I can be on tour, playing – I can never do both. It’s hard for me to write while I’m on tour. If I could, it’d be great, I’d be able to do so much more, but I feel like I would get too worn out. I need time to sleep. Usually when I’m doing my own tours, I’m in charge of the business stuff as well, and when there’s some time off, there’s emails waiting for me, coordinating itineraries, things I have to take care of. There’s not a lot of down time where I can just plug in my gear and work on some songs. Doesn’t happen – I need sleep! Tours are too tiring.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat to us!
Thank you, it was great, see you soon!
Interview by: Florin Petrut
Sons Of Apollo‘s new album MMXX is out now, available to purchase HERE.
See Sons Of Apollo live at one of the following dates:
Fri 28th – KARLSRUHE, DE – Crystal Ballroom
Sat 29th – KARLSRUHE, DE – Crystal Ballroom
Mon 2nd – DRAMMEN, NO – Union Scene
Tue 3rd – GOTHENBURG, SE – Traedgarn
Thu 5th – KYIV, UA – N.A.U Theatre
Sat 7th – MOSCOW, RU – RED
Sun 8th – ST PETERSBURG, RU – Russia Aurora
Tue 10th – PRATTELN, CH – Z7
Wed 11th – MILAN, IT – Live Club
Fri 13th – BILBAO, ES – Santana 27
Sat 14th – BARCELONA, ES – Razzmatazz 2
Sun 15th – MADRID, ES – La Riviera
Tue 17th – MARSEILLE, FR – Cepac Silo
Wed 18th – PARIS, FR – Machine du Moulin Rouge
Thu 19th – LONDON, UK – Islington Assembly Hall
Sat 21st – EINDHOVEN, NL – Prognosis Festival
Sun 22nd – BRNO, CZ – Sono
Tue 24th – KOSICE, SK – Colosseum
Wed 25th – BUDAPEST, HU – Barba Negra