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Mike Portnoy: Still Busy After All These Years

Thursday, 11 August 2016 Written by Simon Ramsay

The second album from the Winery Dogs might aptly be titled 'Hot Streak', but it's a term that's equally applicable to the astonishing career of their drummer, Mike Portnoy. Since his acrimonious departure from Dream Theater in 2010, the virtuoso sticksman has been involved in a calculator-busting number of projects and collaborations, indulging in many different musical styles without missing a beat.

This weekend, he’ll hit the stage at Bloodstock with glam legends Twisted Sister and the supergroup Metal Allegiance, just two of the irons he currently has in the fire. In the second part of an interview we conducted with Portnoy earlier in 2016, we also discuss Neal Morse, Flying Colors and the musical experiences he’s enjoyed since leaving the band he founded and led for a quarter of a century.  

The split from Dream Theater was understandably awful. Did you throw yourself into so many projects not just to satisfy your creative urges, but as part of the grieving process?

No, I think that was just my natural creative energy. When I was in Dream Theater I pretty much ran the show and did everything from the fan clubs to websites, setlists, lyrics, melodies and the production and direction.  I was wearing 25 different hats in one band. So once I became free I think it was natural I’d continue that incredible drive and apply it to different situations. It wasn't any master plan, it was just the way my body is wired. I've always been that way.

Do you have any regrets about the way things played out with Dream Theater?

Obviously I would have liked things to have happened a bit differently, but if I'd stayed I would have felt trapped. I would have felt I wasn't able to try things I wanted to try and do things I wanted to do. So, as sad as it was to leave my baby after 25 years, it had to happen in order for me to have all of these other experiences.

And those experiences seem to have lived up to expectations.

The list I can give you is ridiculous. Everything from Avenged Sevenfold to Stone Sour, Metal Allegiance to the Winery Dogs, Flying Colors and on and on.  Even the last few months alone, I did an amazing all star prog tribute to Chris Squire and then this amazing benefit concert for Tony MacAlpine, playing with everybody from Steve Vai to Zakk Wylde. I did this great Lemmy tribute with Metal Allegiance, playing with Corey Taylor and Dave Lombardo.  

Every one of these things, I wouldn't have been able to do otherwise. I'm free to live out these incredible musical adventures and it's been a dream ride. Not to say that my 25 years with Dream Theater weren't as well, but that was one band in one situation with one group of people in one style of music. And I always felt I had more to offer. I never wanted to be defined by just one band. I think Mike Portnoy has a lot more to offer than just what Dream Theater does.      

You made my favourite album of 2015 in the shape of The Neal Morse Band's 'The Grand Experiment'. You've worked with Neal so much over the years, is he your musical soul mate?

He definitely is my musical soul mate, at least in the prog world.  He and I have now done, I think, 16 studio albums together and we're currently in three bands together. So my relationship with him is as deep as it gets and I think a lot of it is mutual admiration and respect. He is one of my favourite songwriters of all time.

I was a huge fan of what he was doing with Spock's Beard in the mid ‘90s, but once we began working together in Transatlantic, and then on his solo material and with Flying Colors, he and I have created this bond that is musical but also personal. He's one of my dearest friends and has helped me through some heavy times and I've helped him through some of his heavy times. We've been there for each other. We love working together.  

What makes him such a special songwriter?

For me, as a fan, I love that he combines three different styles so masterfully and effortlessly. There's the prog side. He writes these 30 minute epics that are as great as anything that Yes or Genesis wrote in their heydays. Then there's the pop side that I love - he and I are both the biggest Beatles fans on earth - and there's also this side of him that writes gut-wrenching, emotional songs that give you goosebumps and bring you to tears.

From the first time I heard Spock's Beard's debut album 'The Light' that's what jumped out at me, that he was combining all those elements; epic and melodic and emotional. There’s a lot of prog bands out there that may have one of those elements but they're lacking the other two, and you may have this great musicianship but it sounds so mechanical. The music that Neal writes is so real and it's just an honour to have the friendship and musical partnership I do with him.    

Another home run was Flying Colors.  What creative itch does that band satisfy and when might we be hearing new material?

Well the creative itch Flying Colors scratches is the more alternative side of music.  I'm a big fan of old Radiohead, Coldplay, Muse and U2. A little bit more of the English kind of pop side. So Flying Colors taps into that, and Casey McPherson is such an unbelievable talent and comes from that world, so he gets to bring that alternative edge to what Neal and I do, and also what Steve [Morse] and Dave [LaRue] do.

I love working with those guys. There's a real chemistry and camaraderie in Flying Colors that is so special, and it's just sad we don't get to do it more often because scheduling is really tough, especially with Steve in Deep Purple.  They don't always give him a lot of notice on what his schedule availability is going to be, so it makes it very hard. But all five of us dearly love that band and can't wait to do another album one of these days as soon as we're able to.      

Do you have a bucket list of things you'd still like to achieve, whether it be collaborations with a certain band or musician, or even to play a completely different style of music than anything we've heard from you?

The last remaining style I was waiting to tackle was my love for thrash metal, and I recently got the ability to scratch that itch with Metal Allegiance. I hadn't had a true metal project in my post Dream Theater career, and finally Metal Allegiance came along and now, here I am, with the ultimate line-up. It's me and the guys from Megadeth, Testament, Pantera, Lamb of God, Slayer, Exodus, Machine Head, Anthrax and Mastodon.

I mean, listen to that list. So I really am very fulfilled by having that in my life as well. But in answer to your question, I think I've pretty much tackled every musical direction I've wanted to. I pretty much have the outlets for all these things now. I'm enjoying playing the big festivals with Twisted Sister, it gives me the chance to do the big giant rock shows and get a taste of that every once in a while. So, what's last? I don't know. Jazz?     

There could be one thing. You've said people are always surprised when you sing, even though you've been doing it for a while now. So what price a Mike Portnoy solo record?

I do have, in my phone, my list of people I would want to do something like that with. And I do have some ideas for something like that should I ever have the time.  But the thing is, I haven't. Since the day I left Dream Theater, my schedule has been filled. I literally haven't stopped in five years, but should the time come where things slow down and I find myself with a few months and time to kill, then yeah, doing a proper solo album is something I have thought about. But as long as the train is going and there's all these other things keeping me busy, I'm gonna stay on the train and ride it as far as I can.

To be as busy as you are, I guess you must have a very understanding family?

Well, I do. I mean, thank God for my wife and kids being as supportive as they are. I wrote the song You Saved Me from the first Winery Dogs album as a thank you to my wife and my children, but specifically my wife, for being there and always being so supportive and encouraging. It's a hard thing to balance and not a lot of marriages and families succeed in this business. I think the big reason that it's worked for me is because I've always included my family in everything I've done.

Literally, from the time I got married and the time my children were born, they were always encouraged and welcome to join me any time they wanted on tour or in the studio. I never drew that line in the sand and separated them. It's possible for both to live together in harmony and a lot of musicians aren't willing to try it.

There's been a lot of sad losses in the world of rock music this year with Lemmy and David Bowie. Not to get all morbid, but when you head up to the great gig in the sky is there one band, album or song you'd like to be remembered for?

That's a good question. Something from my personal catalogue?

Yes. What would you want future generations to hear to introduce themselves to your work?

I think two of the most significant songs I've ever written were with [Dream Theater], and they were ones I wrote for my parents. I wrote A Change of Seasons for my mom when she was tragically killed in a plane crash, about carpe diem, seize the day and appreciating life while you have it. That's probably the most valuable lesson I've ever learned and some of the more poignant lyrics I've ever written.

The other one would be the song I wrote for my father when he was on his deathbed and I was able to share it with him before he passed away, and that was The Best of Times. It’s a song I wrote just remembering and cherishing life rather than wallowing in the sadness of somebody's death. I wanted to celebrate all of the years of great things we did while he was alive. So I think The Best of Times sums up that sentimentality and I guess would be something I'd want to be celebrated with as well.

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