Mike Portnoy – Interview April 2017
Mike Portnoy is on tour with The Neal Morse Band currently, and will do several shows this summer with Shattered Fortress, a one-time only band consisting of himself, members of Haken and Eric Gillette, doing the full 12 step suite and select other Dream Theater songs. We had the chance to catch up with him in Malmö, Sweden, where The Neal Morse Band played recently.
The show was magnificent! The energy from the band on stage was immense, with costume changes and a very strong album being played in full. The audience were captured from the first song. Front-man Neal Morse had excellent contact with the audience throughout, and oozed joy and energy through the entire evening. Some fun costume changes and lighting effects added a lot to the show as well. The band is incredibly tight, and extremely talented. I highly recommend you go see The Neal Morse Band play.
Anyways, on to the Intervew:
Kim Sakariassen: So, thank you for allowing me to interview you this time
Mike Portnoy: Sure, I’m an open book.
KS: You’re 50 years in three weeks
MP: Yeah, yeah…
KS: Is that strange to think about?
MP: I guess so, yeah… I mean it’s just strange… Time goes fast, time is fleeting. You know, not only is it strange to be turning 50 but it’s just strange that it’s 2017. I remember when I was young and seeing the movie, like “2001 a Space Odyssey” and thinking “oh my god, that’s like you know just so futuristic, oh my god, will we even be alive”, and here we are it’s already 16 years past that, you know…
So time is a strange thing but yeah my… you know, my kids are now growing up and you know, it’s just time… time gets faster as we get older
KS: And you’re celebrating your 50 years by doing a special tour as well with “Shattered Fortress”?
MP: Well it was never supposed to be a tour, to be honest. I mean it was only ever going to be just a set at my 50th birthday bash on “Cruise to the Edge” and you know, as you know now that… now that it’s already happened, you know, that show was supposed to be something that celebrates my whole career so we had Transatlantic and Flying Colors and did some Liquid Tension music. And of course I had to play Dream Theater music. So it seemed like it was the perfect time and place to finally do the 12 steps suite.
And honestly it was never my intention to do anything more than just that, and then once the word got out then suddenly “Night of the Prog” in Loreley [Germany] invited me and then “Be Prog, My Friend” in Barcelona invited me and I was like “all right, well, you know, maybe not everybody can go to the cruise… it’s very expensive”. So you know, being that I’m already up and running and rehearsed why not, you know… But only now, this is it. So I figured it’s, you know, my 50th birthday year and I’ll do this in some select markets and it will be special for the fans and good for me to get it out of my system and…
But that’s it. Just one time only.
KS: How did you choose the people to go with you on that tour?
MP: Well, um, I guess it dates back a few years… Haken was doing a US tour and my son’s band “next to none” was was opening for them. And at the final show of the tour they asked if I would come up and play the mirror with them… Haken, I’m talking about… And so I went up and played the mirror with them and they just killed. It was perfect. So in the back of my mind, I thought if I ever was going to do the 12 steps suite, this is the band… You know, they’re all incredible musicians individually and even as a band I think Haken is the new… this new generations, like, prog metal super-band. I think they’re just… they are kind of like what – you know – what I used to do with Dream Theater reminds me of, but a modern-day version..
KS: Yeah they’re one of my favorite bands as well…
MP: Yeah so I knew in the back of my head I wanted to have them as my backing bands if I was to ever do the 12 steps suite and then… But then I had the idea of also adding Eric Gillette because Eric plays with me in the Neal Morse Band and of all the guitar players I’ve played with through the years he reminds me the most of John Petrucci. He just has got such a similar style. So I knew I wanted him to be a part of it as well, so you know, here we are now – with three guitar players. You know, because Haken has two guitar players… I wasn’t going to do one without the other, and then Eric as well. So it’s now a big kind of Dream Theater Orchestra.
KS: So, you’re doing 12 step suite on this tour, are you doing other Dream Theater songs or other songs from your catalog as well?
MP: Uhm… Other Dream Theater songs that are my lyrics, you know… I stay only with that. But there’s a lot, you know, there’s a lot of songs I wrote the lyrics to. And whenever I wrote the lyrics, I wrote the vocal melodies, and I also did a lot of singing usually within those songs. So yeah, inevitably, you know, it’s all about the 12 steps suite… But inevitably, some of these shows we’re going to have, you know, a little extra time… maybe a 90 minutes show or whatever… So there will be some extra songs as well…
KS: How’s the Neal Morse Band tour going now? This tour that you’re on now?
MP: It’s been great, you know, we’re doing “The Similitude of a Dream” from start to finish and, as I’ve talked about so many interviews, to me it’s a very special album… For me… It is to me one of my favorite albums of my entire career, and one of my favorite albums of Neal’s entire catalog as well. So yeah it’s a very special album for us and it just… it seems to be really being received really well, you know, it’s like – this music is so dramatic but also so emotional. Like, every night I can see grown men crying in the audience, you know, and it’s amazing that people are being moved as much as they are by this music and this story and the emotions of it.
KS: So when Neal Morse did transition from just “Neal Morse” to “Neal Morse Band”, how did that change for you creatively? How did you do drums in Neal Morse vs Neal Morse Band?
MP: Well, the drumming isn’t changed. But it’s the creative process that’s very, very different. For me the drumming is just a very very small bit of what I do but the creative process changed immensely. With all the previous neal morse albums, you know, that I did from 2002 through 2014 or so – those were Neals albums. His music, you know… Randy and I would occasionally have a suggestion here or there but for the most part, you know, Randy and I were just the drums and the bass and it was all Neals music but…
Neal put together this band. He did YouTube auditions back in 2014 or so, and that’s where he found Bill Hubauer and Eric Gillette as well as Adson [Sodré] who was in the band at that time. Yeah. But we went off on the momentum tour with this band, and it was just such an amazing band. Like Bill plays every instrument from violin to clarinet to mandolin to flute, you know… He’s just an amazing all-round musician. And then Eric is this crazy talent, like I mentioned already, you know, really reminds me of John in a lot of respects in terms of his guitar playing. But he’s also an incredible keyboard player, an incredible drummer, incredible singer; he auditioned for Neal’s band on every instrument actually…
So anyway we have this… this great, great band and, you know, halfway through the momentum tour Neal said: “you know, this is such a great band, it would be great to actually utilize everybody’s creativity and write together and have everybody singing, and you know”… So that’s when we decided to add the word “band” to “Neal Morse Band” – just that one little word makes a huge difference because now, you know, we write the music together, there’s multiple singers, you know… Bill and Eric are doing a lot of lead vocals. I’m doing a lot of singing. So the dynamic is very, very different from the older “Neal Morse” albums.
KS: It’s more fun this way?
MP: Uh, that’s… You know, it’s definitely more creative… Creatively satisfying… But fun? I don’t know… I have a different take on what makes a band fun. To me, sometimes being in a band with four or five or six different chefs in the kitchen… It’s great, it’s a great creative process, but it’s also incredibly frustrating. Like, you know, in Dream Theater… In all those years in Dream Theater I very much had a lot of creative control. And John and I, you know, produced the albums together and then, you know, we wrote the music together… But then from that point I had a lot of creative control and there’s something to be said for… The process is a lot easier that way, you know… After I left Dream Theater every band I’ve done – Flying Colors, The Winery Dogs, Adrenaline Mob, Metal Allegiance, The Neal Morse Band now – every one of these bands are kind of… you know… you know… democratic bands where everybody has creative input, and… That’s great because you get a little bit of everybody in it but it’s also very frustrating, you know… Like every single aspect, there’s like 100 emails, you know, and I’m in like 4-5 different bands at a time so every question for every band branches off to million emails so that’s not fun yes not too much fun it’s a lot easier when you can make a decision and just move forward…
KS: Especially when you want to be in control and you have that desire to kinda…
MP: Well, to be honest, after all those years of Dream Theater I was very happy to be, you know, a team player and, you know, for The Winery Dogs and Flying Colors, you know, actually I’m very comfortable being a team player. I think I have this reputation of being a control freak, but no… I actually like working together. It just sometimes can be very frustrating and sometimes makes things take 10 times longer than they need to. But yeah, in terms of is it more fun for the Neal Morse Band to write together and make decisions together: It’s definitely a special band and, you know, a great, great chemistry.
KS: So do you follow newer progressive music? What’s your take on branching off like Djent or stuff… like more Jazzy influences?
MP: I love it! I mean, I… you know, uh, when I did those progressive nation towards back in 2008-2009, the whole idea was to try to give some exposure to these bands like, you know, Between the Buried and Me on the 2008 tour or Big Elf on the 2009 tour. You know, those are… Right there two completely different types of progressive music, you know, Big Elf is more more retro in the vein of Beatles, Pink Floyd and King Crimson whereas Between the Buried and Me, you know, more in the djent kind of way. I love a lot of these, you know, 8 string guitar bands like Periphery and Animals as Leaders and I… You know, even my son’s band Next to None is… Their new material is very, very much in that vein. It’s all detuned and a million time signatures and screamo vocals. To me it’s all part of the evolution of progressive music, you know, the word prog can mean anything from Porcupine Tree to, you know, Periphery and I… I like it. I think it’s important for, you know, for the for the genre to do new things and not just be, you know, bands that sound like Genesis and Yes, you know… I think it’s important to have these kind of heavy elements.
KS: Do you get inspired by that and want to create some…
MP: Oh, absolutely! To be honest I… I can’t… It’s already well beyond my abilities, you know, even the stuff that my son Max is doing. He’s outplaying me, you know, the drumming on his upcoming album is insane, you know… Doing all these blast beats and… I can’t do things like that. I see all these YouTube drummers and players doing these… these things that are way beyond my capabilities.
KS: So Max is the better drummer in the family, is that what you’re saying?
MP: Well, technically? Possibly, yeah. You know…
KS: that’s good, he has to have gotten it from somewhere
MP: Well, Drumming is all an evolution, you know, they’re, you know… Max wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing if it wasn’t for him growing up listening to me and Chris Adler and Joey Jordison. I wouldn’t do what i do if it wasn’t, you know, growing up listening to Neil Peart; Neil Peart wouldn’t be doing what he did if it wasn’t, you know, growing up listening to Keith Moon and Michael Giles… It’s all… It’s all that… The evolution of drumming. And you know, you could say drummers today are technically better and faster and more capable, but you know they would not be doing what they were doing if somehow Ringo Starr didn’t do it first 50 years ago, you know, so it’s all about an evolution.
KS: And people always look like they’re in the current and they’re looking at the past and looking at Ringo and “Oh, he’s not a good drummer” and that’s just false. Cause then they’re not looking at it from the period that he was in…
MP: Yeah, every, you know… Every band, Every drummer has its place in history and it’s all an evolution. You know, I grew up with the Beatles of Pink Floyd and Kiss and none of those drummers are necessarily technical, but they were a big part of shaping who I am.
KS: So what’s your take… this is actually the 25th year since images and words were released, that means for you this has been 25 years where you can actually call music your full time career. You couldn’t do that with When Dream And Day Unite, how has music changed – the music business… For you?
MP: Well there’s the business, and then there is the music itself. Those are two different questions. But it’s like we were just saying about the evolution… Like when Images and Words came out 25 years ago, there weren’t any other the bands combining progressive music and heavy metal and, you know, Dream Theater gets a lot of credit for kind of inventing that style. I don’t think we invented it, I think we just kind of combined a lot of different things, so… I get a lot of credit for the style of drumming I do and surely I was just, you know, a conglomeration of all the drummer’s I grew up listening to.
You know, the music scene was very, very different back then when we made that album in 91 and then it came out of 92. You know, the whole grunge movement was taking over and it was just a very different scene but even, you know, if you compare the music business then to the way it is now… It’s… It’s worlds apart. You know, back then you had to get a record deal if you wanted to make a record or get any success or go on tour. You had to get a record deal. And, you know, that’s why we spent years waiting to make that album because, you know, we had to have a record deal before we could move forward. Nowadays, you know, bands are just recording on their laptops in their basements. You can put it out on Youtube or Facebook or you know… whatever social media, and you could be heard all the way from Australia to Japan to Omaha, Nebraska, you know, Right out of your basement. You don’t need a record deal and… and sales are completely different, you know, like back then bands were selling millions of records. Now, you know, the number… you know, the expression that I’ve heard is, you know, back then you had thousands of bands selling millions of records, now you have millions bands selling thousands of records, so yeah… You know, there’s… there’s pros and cons to the way the whole music business has evolved.
KS: Do you find it more difficult to then get exposure for your stuff, because there is so much out there?
MP: Well, not really, not to me personally. I mean, thank God. I’m very lucky to already have a fan base, so I have my social media which has a lot of people, you know, that I could reach no matter what I do. And I’m very blessed for that. There’s very few drummers that have, like, a million and a half people on their facebook page so I’m very blessed to have such a big outlet. If I was starting from scratch in 2017, it would be very, very scary and I even see it with Max, once again to bring him up, but um… you know, he has the benefit of having my my audience too to be introduced to. But, you know, I see a lot of other younger bands and, you know, yes they have the outlets of the social media and they could, you know, make records and get it out there but it’s also harder because the business is such a difficult business these days to break into.
KS: And I suppose it’s really difficult to make money if you’re not a huge name…
MP: Yeah absolutely, that’s why you see bands more and more just tour and tour and tour, because that’s the only way to make money. You know, you’re not going to make it on album sales and even publishing. And, you know, prog bands don’t get radio play and, you know, things like that so, you know, you have to go on the road.
KS: So, doesn’t that make it hard to create new music knowing that the only way you can get it really out there is to tour it?
MP: I mean honestly I don’t think about that stuff. I don’t even care about that stuff to be honest. You know, to me, at this stage in my career, I just make music because I love music. And you know, I want to do everything from Metal Allegiance to Flying Colors, you know, have all these different styles and and I just do it for me and for the fans. I don’t think about sales and numbers, but once again i’m unfortunate to be in a position where I already have a fan base, you know… If I had… like, like I just said… I had to start from scratch in 2017, it would be very, very scary
KS: So with what you’re doing now what do you see what you’re gonna do in the future? Do you know..
MP: I… I mean, I… I always have a short term vision because I have to plan. you know, my… my life the next six to nine to twelve months of my life. I have to kind of think ahead and, you know, like at any given moment I have three or four different projects going at the same time. The last year was kind of The Winery Dogs and Twisted Sister, now this year it’s the Neal Morse Band and then I have The Shattered Fortress shows, but I’ve already started work on a Metal Allegiance album, I’ve already started working a Flying Colors album and I’ve already begun work on a new band… A new project I have. So that’s all laying the groundwork for what will be coming to fruition in 2018, so I think about a year in advance, but I don’t think long term for the future… I just kind of go one project at the time…
KS: So that has changed since you became a freelancer, as such…
MP: Well with Dream Theater, it was… Honestly, one of the main reasons I was getting a little complacent or bored was… It was just this cycle that just kept going, you know, you could set your watch to “okay, two years from now, I’m going to be playing the same venue, to the same audience”. And, you know, every two years you write record tour, write record tour, write record tour… And after a while it started to get a little frustrating for me, and a little predictable for me. I needed to shake it up and have a change and, my God, what I’ve done in the last six years is, like, you know, I’ve done like 20 albums with like 12 different bands and, you know, they’re all so stylistically different from each other. So to me that’s more exciting and fulfilling, just to have different opportunities different flavors and different people, you know, with all of these different things.
KS: So let’s bring it to something else; what are you currently binge watching?
MP: Well, I’m currently binging on re-re-watching Twin Peaks, because I’m preparing for, you know, the reboot in May. To me, that was always my favorite show of all time. When it came out in the 90s, I was obsessed by it. I even got a tattoo of the… a matching tattoo that the log lady got on the back of her leg, so anyway… Um, I’m so excited about the reboot, so I’ve been rewatching the first two seasons to prepare for that. The other two shows that I’m really looking forward to this year are season three of breaking bad… Uh! Better Call Saul and season three of Fargo. To me those two are the other best shows on TV these days… And you got your Negan shirt on… I’ve been loving the Walking Dead this season and although… actually I’ve been a little disappointed by the season. The season premiere was one of the most intense episodes in TV history as far as I’m concerned. I watched that episode like 10 times now, the rest of the seasons has been a little disappointing for me but I’m really looking forward to the finale this weekend.
KS: Cool. So I got a signal to wrap it up. So I just want to thank you for your time. It’s really fun to catch up.
MP: Yeah, my pleasure!