Mike Portnoy: The Two Most Creatively Fulfillling Years
Mike Portnoy is a busy guy, now perhaps even more so than during his time with Dream Theater. We got to meet the living drumming legend in Munich, just a couple of hours before a gig with his new band Adrenaline Mob in early July, 2012.
Since I’ve been accused of usually starting my interviews with very suggestive questions, I’m not gonna start with a question at all – just repeat after me: Adrenaline Mob is not a project, it’s a real band!
Yeah, absolutely! Was that a question or a statement? Was that your statement or …?
Well, now it’s yours. [laughs]
Yeah, it is. I think everybody in the band is very committed to it. I think it also has a potential to stay busy, you know. To me, a side project is something that only happens at the convenience of another band, whereas I think Adrenaline Mob everybody is very willing to put in the time and energy that it takes to tour as much as we need to tour, as much as we can tour. You know, I think we all really love the band and we wanna make it happen. You know, Russ [Russell Allen] still obviously has Symphony X and I still have million things going on, but Adrenaline Mob is definitely more than a project, it’s definitely a band.
Would you say it’s your main band at the moment?
One of your five main bands. [laughs]
Yeah, I’ll say it’s my busiest band at the moment. But I’m committed to everything I do, you know. As far as I’m concerned, there is no reason why I can’t juggle multiple things and that’s what I’m doing.
So what are the plans for the future? You have an album out, an EP out, now the first world tour and then?
Well, we’ve been here in Europe for a month and it’s been really awesomeI don’t know if you’ve read the interviews or read the tweets or the Facebook posts, but we are all really excited by the reception here in Europe, it’s been great. It’s been very exciting and energized and very much feels like a fresh new start for everybody. To answer your question, one of the future plans, we’ll wrap up this tour in the next three shows and then I’ve got a few things in my schedule that will keep me busy through the next few months, but we hope to continue touring with Adrenaline Mob through 2013. I mean, we are definitely a live band and you’ll see it tonight. That’s what this band is about, so we wanna just keep playing live as much as we can and get as much mileage out of this album as we can. You know, I think the album has a lot of great material on it and we should be able to continue touring off of it, so we’ll see what happens.
How many bass players did you audition before you settled on John Moyer?
John was the first invite and after we auditioned him we knew we didn’t need to look any further. He was perfect. I had a list of people that we were thinking about, but John fit all three criteria perfectly. You know, musically he fits right in; stylistically with what he has done with Disturbed; personally he is an absolute sweetheart, the nicest guy in the world and his availability which was the big factor for what we were looking for. It was perfect, because Disturbed was on hiatus, so we knew that there would not be any scheduling conflicts. So he came down to my house for couple of days and we jammed and we knew we found our man, so we didn’t even look any further.
How important was his celebrity status?
Well actually after Paul and Rich didn’t work out because of the scheduling, we were actually considering looking for complete unknown. We figured, okay if we get somebody with a name then we’re gonna have to compete with the schedule for another band. So we figured there was no way we can get a nameguy without having to have scheduling conflicts, so we were pretty much decided on will we gonna look for a noname person. So the name *wasn’t* important. In fact, we were going in opposite direction, will we gonna like try to find some complete unknown kid from a local club and just give him a big break and then all of a sudden, somebody suggested to me John because of Disturbed’s hiatus and I was like “Hmm, that actually could be the best of both worlds.” A name person, somebody that has the experience, but at the same time there will be no conflicts, so it actually ended being perfect.
How did you get in touch with him, did any of you guys know him before?
Yeah, I knew him, because when I was with Avenged Sevenfold, we toured with Disturbed.
Oh right, yeah, sure.
So yeah, John and I were already friends and when his name was suggested to me, I just texted him, I said “Hey, what are you doing for the next year?” and he immediately wanted to do it without even hearing Adrenaline Mob’s music, just cause he wanted to do something with me. So you know, it was that quick and easy.
Why did you decide to drop the second guitar from the band lineup?
Well, I was the one that was pushing for the second guitar player when we started the band and when we were getting ready to tour in 2011. We got offer the Godsmack tour and we knew we need to complete the line-up to go after those days and I suggested the two-guitar line-up, just cause the nature of this music is heavy and I’ve just come off Avenged Sevenfold, which was the two-guitar band, so I thought it could be good for this line-up. And Rich came on board and we had great time with Rich, but then once Rich and Paul went back to Fozzy, Mike Orlando and Russ both said to me “hey, we’d rather this be just a one-guitar band, what do you think?” When we auditioned Moyer, we were like “Let’s see how it sounds and we’ll decide from there”. And once we auditioned John, the sound was full, it sounded great with just one guitar, so we decided to keep it that way. It’s, you know, it’s a classic sound. You know, Black Sabbath or Van Halen, Pantera – that’s all guitar, bass, drums and vocals. So we decided to stick with it and we figured it’s one less person to argue with, one less schedule to work around, so we decided to keep it.
You were always writing lyrics in Dream Theater, while in Adrenaline Mob, I think it’s all Russell’s …
Russell and Mike Orlando.
Is it going to change or …?
I have no desire to write lyrics with Adrenaline Mob. I think Mike Orlando and Russ are very happy doing it and I’m happy with my role. I don’t feel the need. To be honest with you, after I wrote The Best of Times for my dad and after I completed the 12 Steps suite with Dream Theater, I very much felt like I had said everything I wanted to say lyrically. I felt like those could have been my swan songs and I remember even saying to John Petrucci after those songs, “I’m done, I don’t wanna write lyrics anymore. I feel like I’ve said everything I wanted to say.” It’s not one of my favorite creative outlets. It’s of all the things I do, it’s not my most passionate one. So, you know, I guess I’m kind of in a lyrical retirement for the moment, but that being said I’m about to do an album with Ritchie Kotzen and Billy Sheehan next month and there is one song that I felt some inspiration for, so… You know, I think I’ll write lyrics if I really feel the inspiration to do so. But I don’t really want to be like I have to do it.
Since you just mentioned that you finished the 12 Steps suite: You never played it live…
Yeah. Disappointing, a shame. Cause that was always my intention.
Why didn’t you do it? I mean, you toured quite a lot for the last album.
Well, when we finished Black Clouds… The whole Black Clouds tour was Progressive Nation, which was only 90 minutes set and I wasn’t gonna eat up 60 minutes of it with that, and then we went to the Maiden tour, which was only like a 60 minutes set. So there were very few opportunities on that last tour with Dream Theater to do it and it was always my intention.
You didn’t even play all that much from the album, only four songs…
Well, we did Count of Tuscany, we did Nightmare to Remember, we did Wither, we did A Rite to Passage, so actually we did four out of six songs, but I didn’t want to do Best of Times, because it was very, very difficult for me, and I didn’t want to do The Shattered Fortress, cause I was saving it for the day to do the whole thing, so… Believe me me, there’s a method to my madness with choosing songs and that was the reason, those two were both – one was kinda sacred and one was being saved.
Yeah, I perfectly understand, just you didn’t play almost half an hour from the new album, which was quite unusual.
Oh, we played four songs. Four out of six, and those were very… Two of which were 15 or 20 minutes each.
It’s just, I had gotten used to you playing everything at some point, so…
Well, I wasn’t planning on leaving. [laughs] I thought there will be further tours to work with. [laughs] You know, actually it was always my intention all along for the next tour. Actually, to be honest, before I left the band, me and John Petrucci were already discussing that the next record was gonna be a concept album. And I already had the setlist written for the next tour. It was gonna be “An Evening With” and the first set would be the full concept album, the second set would have been the 12 Steps suite. I already had the setlist planned, but obviously, you know, best laid plans… You never know what’s gonna happen. But that was always my intention if things didn’t end up happening the way they happened, so… Obviously everything changed.
Just to get a little bit technical, you did play the first two songs of the suite, back to back, on the Train of Thought tour, I think. How would the transitions have worked to the next parts?
Absolutely, the all of these songs were written in order to be able to transition from one to another. They were all written to interconnect. That was always the intention.
Would you have played that ambient intro for Root of All Evil or would you have gone straight into the riff?
Well, we didn’t get that far into the figuring out how… You know, we knew that they would connect in terms of keys and segues and songs and stuff like that…
You obviously wrote it that way.
Since we’re already discussing Dream Theater… I don’t really want to talk about the split per se, just: Are you happy now?
I could not be happier. I am, you know, I’m getting to do everything I’ve ever wanted to do, anything my imagination can think up. I’m getting to play with some of my favorite musicians in the world, ranging from Russell Allen to Billy Sheehan to Paul Gilbert to Steve Morse. You know, these are all people I admire and respect, and I’m getting to work with them all and make music with them all and getting to do such a wide range… You know, from the metal of Adrenaline Mob to the pop kind of stuff with Flying Colors to… You know, I’ve got this thing with Richie and Billy which is more like a classic rock power trio thing. So I am incredibly fulfilled and to be honest, if I had stayed with Dream Theater, in the last two years, I would have made one album and just done one tour with one band, playing that same album over and over and over, but what I’ve done in less than two years, I’ve made six albums and I’ve played live on stage with, I think, ten or twelve bands now. Not only the bands that I am a part of, but I also got to fill-in gigs with Stone Sour, Hail and Fates Warning and I did the Metal Masters gigs with the Slayer, Anthrax, Pantera and Megadeth guys… I mean, it’s the last two years have been maybe the two most creatively fulfilling years of my entire career.
Okay, let’s go through your various bands, projects and all that. I think I have like a question each. About Avenged Sevenfold, you were supposed to play a gig in Munich two years ago.
Yeah, I remember. I remember sitting in the dress room and being very disappointed that it was called off.
So what happened there? Because the communication was pretty sparse to say the least…
Well, I apologize for that, but you know when I was with them they called the shots and they controlled how things were communicated to the fans… You know what happened was Matt threw his voice out, he was very sick, he couldn’t sing. Personally, I would have handled it differently, I would of let the fans know why, you know me… I’m very open with the fans, but those guys like to have a little distance, in fact I think it was a little sour subject when I was with them. Because I was always so open with the fans on the Twitter and Facebook and they weren’t. You know, I think it maybe it bothered them, but obviously I wasn’t going to change my relationship with the fans because I was with them.
But, that being said, I would never speak on their behalf. So how they handled their shows and their tours and their communications with the fans was, that was up to them. I had nothing to do with that.
You’ll be back here with Flying Colors not that long from now. I imagine you won’t be playing too much Neal Morse material because you do that in all those other bands with him, right? So what are you going to play? Steve Morse stuff? Dregs stuff?
We’re still discussing the setlist. I suggested, you know, we will do obviously the whole album and then maybe select songs from each of our individual pasts. But we’re still sorting that out, so we’ll see.
Speaking of Neal Morse, will you be with Neal on the European Momentum tour, whenever that happens?
I hope so. I really do, ’cause I’m gonna do the American shows. And I know he wants to do European tour and I would love too, because I haven’t played his music with him in Europe since the first Testimony tour in 2003. And I love his albums and the albums we’ve made together through the years and I haven’t had any chance to play anything, you know, from One all the way til Momentum for the European fans. So my fingers are crossed that the schedules will work out and hopefully I can join him.
Would that be this year or next year?
He’s talking about November and December, but I know the booking agent is considering maybe after the New Year, so that’s maybe between him and the booking agent to sort out. But, whenever it is, I hope I’m with him.
Okay, I’d love to see it. I keep hearing good things about the new album.
Speaking of all those Neal Morse projects [laughs], when you left Dream Theater I figured that one thing that would really come to life would be Transatlantic, which to my surprise never happened. Why?
Just hasn’t happened yet. Just because Flying Colors was already scheduled. You know, when I left Dream Theater, I basically went right to work with Neal on three different things. I finished with Avenged Sevenfold December 15th or something like that, then literally a couple of days later I flew to Nashville to do the Testimony 2 album. And then with Flying Colors in January and we did Yellow Matter Custard in February, so literally the first three things I did was with Neal, with other things that were already planned and booked, so there was no time to fit Transatlantic in – yet. But we’re still trying, we’re still trying to get Transatlantic back on the calendar and do a follow-up.
I get the feeling that Roine really wants to do it.
We all do. All four of us do.
Neal too, right?
Cause, I think, it was usually him who wasn’t quite available for one reason or another.
No, all four of us really would like to do it, so we are hoping sometime in 2013 we can bang it out and get another one.
Now to my favorite of your new projects, the Sheehan/MacAlpine/Sherinian thing. What is it like to be working with Derek Sherinian again?
It’s a blast. I love Derek, he’s a fun guy. I still stand by the fact that I’m not sure if he was ever right for Dream Theater. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t love the guy as a player and person. I really do, I love being with him and I love playing with him and I’m glad to be able to work with him again. And you know, it’s a cool project because obviously it’s very much… I think of everything I’m doing it’s the most like Dream Theater or it’s more even like Liquid Tension experiment, probably. But you know, it’s just me being able to play that kind of music with some amazing musicians. Not only Derek, but obviously Billy Sheehan’s a dear friend and I’ve got two different things going with Billy at the moment and I love working with him, he’s one of my favorite bass players of all time. And Tony MacAlpine is an amazing guitar player, so I’m honored to be playing with him as well. It’s a great, great line-up and we have a DVD that’s gonna come out soon from when we played together back in January and then we have this run of shows coming up in the fall.
Are you going to create some original music with that band?
There’s no plans for it, but obviously we are gonna spend months together playing every day, so I’m sure it will inevitably be discussed, and who knows I think it could be very, very cool. So, you know, we’ll see, I’m sure we’ll talk about.
Derek mentioned that you’re going to play Apocalypse 1470 B.C.
He said that?
Yeah, he said that on the Planet X forum. Have you been practicing yet?
No. I’ll figure it out when we get there. I have three other tours before then to worry about.
You know the track?
Did you consider that a challenge? I mean, that’s really a signature Donati track and he’s pretty good.
Yeah, Virgil is awesome. You know, I’m not a technical drummer like that, so I’ll do my own version. I’m a rocker. You know, I can play prog, too. [laughs] So I’m not worried, but I’m not gonna play like Virgil, because he and I have completely different styles. So I’ll do my version. Hey, I have a great video of Virgil playing every single Dream Theater song. He started in a Dream Theater cover band in Australia and he did his versions of my songs, so now I’ll do my version of his song.
I gotta say, from that Dream Theater “we are looking for a drummer” videos, seeing Virgil play those songs sounded sooo alien to me. A really weird thing. Interesting, but…
Yeah, he and I are very different players. I obviously respect his technique, but to me… I don’t care about technique, I’d rather be a performer, I’d rather rock, I’d rather feel energy and personality.
You’re like on opposite ends of the spectrum in so many ways…
Yeah, but you know what, that’s what makes different drummers different drummers. That’s what makes styles.
We know a lot about your original influences as a drummer, which modern-day drummers inspire you?
I love Chris Adler from Lamb of God… I love Nick D’Virgilio, just for his groove and his pocket and his tasty chops, Gavin Harrison also for the same style, you know in terms of groove and chops and taste. I love… there is a drummer named Zoltan Chaney who plays with Vince Neil, who’s gotta be one of the most amazing showmen I’ve ever seen. He is one of my favorite drummers out there now, just in terms of showmanship; he is just an absolute alien, a monster. I don’t know, those are the few that come to mind, but I can see any band and any drummer and be inspired. I like so many different types of drummers, some of them can have amazing techniques, some of them have no technique, but they just have a great feel and that means just as much to me.
The final question of all my interviews – which never is a question: Name one somewhat recent album that everyone should hear!
And I can’t name my own? [laughs] Obviously, I’ll say Adrenaline Mob, Flying Colors and Neal Morse – Momentum. Those would be the three. Well… Kill Devil Hill! I think it’s a great recommendation, because… I think that album has great, great songs, great riffs. It’s kind of like Alice in Chains meets Sabbath, you know… Pantera… Anyway, I love that album, one of my favorites.
About the author: Michael Schetter plays bass in the instrumental prog fusion project Relocator, whose debut CD featured former Dream Theater keyboardist Derek Sherinian as a special guest. Michael is also the organizer of the Generation Prog Festival and concert series and the founder of Generation Prog Records