By JASON JURGENS Photos By PAUL LA RAIA
Mike Portnoy is not of this planet. If you dissected his body, you might find a brain in each limb, small gnocchi-sized minds pulsating in his appendages like something out of Alien. The guardian of progressive metal, film junkie, and co-founder of Dream Theater says nothing to refute the conspiracy.
“I’m completely unaware of what my limbs are doing. I just do it. I just sit down and they just kind of naturally go where they go,” says Portnoy, whose journey with Dream Theater began 20 years ago after hooking up with guitarist John Petrucci and bassist John Myung at Berklee College Of Music. “Sometimes when I watch a drum video of mine, I actually look at what my left foot is doing and it’s completely on it’s own. It’s like its own entity. I’m never at all conscious of what it’s doing, flying back and forth between the hi-hat pedal and the bass drum pedal.”
“My feet have minds of their own. Even my bass drum patterns – I just instinctively play what I play. If I think about it too much, I’m sure it would mess me up. I’m sure Virgil Donati and Thomas Lang have complete control and knowledge of every single thing their limbs are doing, but I’m not like that,” he continues. “I just sit down and my body just flies with the song. I think about a drum part more in terms of a sound or groove as opposed to what my four limbs are individually doing.”
Obsession. Not all of us are blessed with the sort of organized schizophrenic-style Portnoy possesses. But being so detached from his body while playing is odd for a guy who is notorious for being a control freak. Portnoy is eccentric, borderline obsessive compulsive – not in a Jack Nicholson As Good As It Gets or Nicolas Cage Matchstick Men sort of way – rather in a creative genius manner. He’s not washing his hands 1,000 times a day or locking his door repeatedly, but, if you’ve seen his web site, you’ll notice everything is organized scrupulously. Every last detail is taken into consideration. Perhaps that’s what makes him the perfect producer for Dream Theater, a task he’s manned for the past four albums.
“It’s a matter of controlling everything and collecting everything, overseeing every aspect of everything I do. Laying in bed and not being able to turn the switch off … ever,” admits Portnoy, taking a break from keyboard tracking for the new Dream Theater album. “I don’t have it in the sense where I’m counting the cracks in the street or not touching a doorknob. I have it in the obsessive creative sense.
“I think it has enhanced everything I do because I’m very organized, thorough, and passionate,” he adds. “I’m a workaholic because of it, and it makes my wife and my bandmembers crazy as well. But at the same time, it has completely benefited my career.”
Creative vehicle. The foundation of Portnoy’s career is Dream Theater, a progressive metal extravaganza, relying on expert musicianship and metal/rock exploration. In over 20 years, Dream Theater has become one of the most successful progressive metal bands, despite being relative unknowns in mainstream music circles. The pop world may be oblivious to DT, but those in the rock and metal genre – including legends like Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Yngwie Malmsteen – salute the brains behind the machine. Touring with bands like Iron Maiden, Megadeth, and Deep Purple has upped their metal cred too.
Portnoy, Petrucci, and Myung have come a long way since their early days in Boston. “I always thought we could make it. I knew from the get-go, when we formed at Berklee in 1985. There was a special chemistry between us that could sustain a long career, but because of the nature of what we do, it’s not exactly the flavor of the month style of music,” says Portnoy. “It’s been a struggle to endure and persevere as long as we have. Once we got past the first few years of obstacles, it became obvious that we could pretty much endure anything and stand the tests of time.”
Often compared to bands like Rush and Yes, Dream Theater has translated the progressive rock sound of the mid-1970s into a unique contemporary metal sound that blends elements of different genres, including pop. Still, DT has never been mainstream. And they didn’t create their fan base by crafting pop tunes for mainstream radio. By showcasing musical versatility and technical proficiency, they let the music do the talking. >>
Dream Theater earned the adoration of fans the hard way. Though their fans may not be as maniacal as Kiss cronies, Portnoy has seen his share of Dream Theater tattoos. “The complexity and the musicianship is probably the biggest part of our appeal. The heavy side and the pop side are just additional flavors that we add to the formula. The core base of our audience are musicians or people that appreciate musicianship,” reveals Portnoy. “People appreciate what we do because it is so out of the ordinary from what is popular. We provide an alternative to what is generally commercial.
“Our fans have made our career. We haven’t made it on being popular or trendy. We’ve made our career on touring and the devotion of our fan base. I don’t take it for granted,” he adds. “I’ve seen Dream Theater tattoos. I’ve autographed tits and prosthetic legs. I’ve seen it all at this point. Our fans are crazy.”
The show must go on. Many of us can’t walk and chew gum. So watching a drummer twirl sticks mid-beat like a juggler is downright inspiring. For Portnoy, stick tricks are sheer necessity. Without them he may fall asleep behind the wheel. He’s a performer at heart. A big part of Dream Theater’s allure is their ability to entertain night in and night out.
“To me stick twirling is just sheer boredom. If I have to only play my drum parts, I would be completely bored on stage. To me playing the drum parts on stage is the least of what I do. I love being an entertainer and I think that comes from being such a Keith Moon fan,” says Portnoy, who also cites John Bonham and Neil Peart as influences. “I love performing. Playing the drums on stage is what I have to do; everything else is just filling in the blanks. I think that is why I sing as much as I do. I play drums and spit and chew gum. I even throw a stick to the bass tech and have him throw it back. It’s all part of the show.”
Double bass basics. There was a time when (gasp!) he had to learn to play double bass. He gained an appreciation for bands like Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, and The Who at an early age because his father was a radio DJ. He taught himself to play drums and was later awarded a scholarship to Berklee. It wasn’t until he heard the aggressive and thunderous roar of double bass that his drumming life changed.
“My first exposure to double bass – there’s two tracks in particular that come to mind – one was the song ‘Overkill’ by Motörhead and the other ‘Fast As A Shark,’ by the band Accept. I heard both of those tracks around 1982 and that was the was the first time that I ever heard relentless, nonstop double bass going from start to finish in a song. I was immediately intrigued. I went and bought a cheap second bass drum to add to my kit,” says Portnoy. “But before I could get to the level of those two tracks I had to start with the basic patterns, and the first guy that really taught me the basics was Tommy Lee on the first two Mötley Crüe albums. I would learn how to play songs like ‘Red Hot’ and that got me around the basics. Then a few years later the whole thrash metal scene exploded, and it was drummers like Lars Ulrich, Dave Lombardo, and Charlie Benante that really showed me how double bass could be utilized in a metal genre.”
Throughout his career Portnoy has been compared to Neil Peart. To ever be uttered in the same sentence as the Rush icon meant that Portnoy had to practice day in and day out. Much to the chagrin of family and friends, Portnoy was willing to practice wherever he was.
“I played along to records with headphones. That was how I developed the technique. In terms of stamina, I would practice a lot with a metronome and start slow and get it going faster,” says Portnoy. “A big part of practicing for me was what I did off the kit as well. Even sitting at the dinner table or at the desk in a classroom my feet were always going. I was a teacher’s and a mother’s worst nightmare. Now a wife’s worst nightmare.My legs were always going and practicing the coordination between the two.”
For some the double bass concept conjures up the ridiculous excess of ’80s hair metal. A spandex clad figure with more hairspray and lipstick than a cosmetologist getting lost behind four bass drums. Not an uncommon sight during the ’80s. Of course, there is nothing wrong with four bass drums. I mean, Alex Van Halen pulled it off. Yet some single bass enthusiasts have sworn never to try the double bass method. Certainly there has to come a point when there is too much bass drum, right?
“When I started playing double bass in the ’80s there was no stigma attached, and if there was I didn’t care. I was a young, easily influenced kid. I was always impressed by the big kids – people like Neil Peart and Simon Phillips. Those big kids excited me. It was never a single bass versus double bass thing. I’m not even a double bass player, I’m a triple bass player,” laughs Portnoy. “There was never a stigma I was scared of. I’ve never concerned myself with what people think.
“It’s pretty obvious when not to use it in terms of grooving and playing full double patterns,” he continues, referring to double bass faux pas. “Usually I’m very selective of when I’ll do double bass patterns. And it tends to be on heavier moments. But I’m constantly using my left bass drum pedal for fills and embellishments. Even if it’s a simple straight-ahead beat, I’ll kind of use it to snap on or in. I rarely go into a full-on double bass pattern unless it’s for a heavy aggressive section.”
Art of soloing. Many people – drummers included – are ready to declare the death of soloing. Portnoy couldn’t disagree more. “The solo hasn’t gone anywhere. From the early jazz days and people like Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich who started it to rock music and people like John Bonham, Ginger Baker, and Ian Paice. They did it. Through the ’70s and ’80s, people like Neil Peart making it so popular. People like Tommy Lee taking it to a whole new level of entertainment,” says Portnoy, enthusiastically. “These days you see people like Joey Jordison of Slipknot and Shannon Larkin of Godsmack making it entertaining. They’re doing it in the rock and metal field. Then you have the technicians, people like Mike Mangini, Thomas Lang, and Virgil Donati that are taking solos to all new levels in terms of technique.
“It’s always been there for the people that want to see it and hear it,” he continues. “For every eight people that use it as an excuse to go to the bathroom and get a beer, there’s still two that are in the audience with their drawers hanging from the floor.” Speaking of drum soloing – Portnoy’s recent encounter with Neil Peart was a dream come true. Having long been compared to the drumming icon, Portnoy had never got the chance to meet him, and he was beginning to take it personally. >>
“Peart’s really the only drum hero of mine that I hadn’t met. He’s a very private guy so he’s very hard to reach. I started to wonder if it was something personal because I always felt that it was inevitable that we would cross paths, because I have spent my entire career being compared to him and Dream Theater being compared to Rush. To finally meet him was really cool. It was an honor and something I always looked forward to happening.”
Gear talk. To say that Portnoy plays a big kit is quite an understatement. An octopus might have trouble hitting everything. While there are no prosthetic limb attachments in Portnoy’s future, he admits that piloting the kit is part of the fun.
“I love having as many options as possible. I’m always an equal opportunity employer. I’ll try to hit everything at least once throughout a show or an album,” chimes Portnoy. “I have two kits in one. One is a double bass kit, and the other is a single bass kit. I’m not really playing triple bass. I’m playing two different kits, and I jump back and forth.”
Having a drum kit the size of most boutique drum stores requires stamina. And you’d probably need GPS to navigate through Portnoy’s toms. Yet Portnoy has never been the type of drummer to lace up the track sneakers or practice, at least not in the traditional sense. These days Portnoy practices his chops on stage.
“I wish I was in better shape and exercised more or ate better. I’m just a lazy bastard. I’m a workaholic when it comes to my mind, but when it comes to my body I’m a complete procrastinator. I don’t have a routine. I just stretch a little and warm up a bit before I go on stage,” he says. “When I play with Dream Theater it’s usually a very long show, and I can’t go on stage cold. I try to get massaged and adjusted by a chiropractor regularly. That has helped me have fewer problems with my muscles and cramping up. “I don’t practice anymore. I don’t have time. I spend my life on tour or in the studio, playing drums for a living and away from my family,” he continues. “At this point, when I spend most of the year away from my family playing drums, I think it would be selfish of me to come home and go in to the basement and play drums all day. I do all of my practicing when I’m on tour and on stage. When I’m sitting behind the kit, I try to make the most of learning and applying as I can.”
There are no tricks when it comes to Portnoy’s setup or power. He may be unaware of what his limbs are doing, but he’s certainly in tune with his setup and form. Remember, he likes to be in control, and every square inch of his kit is set the way he wants it. Spring tension and drum tuning are just other ways for him to maintain control. “It’s always heel up for me. Maybe because when I started I used to sit very high, so it was almost impossible for me to physically play heel down. I find I get the most power and control with my heel up. I keep my spring tension kind of in the middle. It’s not too loose or too tight. I need some spring back, so I’m not doing all the work. I don’t like too much of a spring because then I feel like I’m losing control.
“I like my heads on the loose side and incredibly muffled,” he continues, referring to bass drum tuning. “I always put big pillows in the bass drum to make them dead, therefore I can get a lot of punch out of them.”
New horizons. His desire to control has opened doors to new careers. More recently, Portnoy has helmed a different chair, the director’s chair. His web site cites Scorsese as a film idol, and he hopes to forge a career in directing movies (he directed Dream Theater’s 2004 DVD Live At Budokan). Perhaps that’s why he speaks so highly of Rob Zombie, a metal head turned film buff.
“I directed the last few Dream Theater DVDs. I absolutely love that aspect of filmmaking. When I see films, I always watch them from the director’s point of view. I find similarities between directing and producing a record, in terms of overseeing. I think Rob Zombie does a great job. He’s awesome. I’m envious. I wish I could have gotten as deep into it as he has. He has really infiltrated the film world.”
Our guess is that Portnoy will bring the same passion, albeit borderline madness, and work ethic for drums to the film world. If that’s the case, watch out Spielberg.