The drumming virtuoso has left behind the baggage of running America's preeminent prog-rock institution for the simple pleasures of driving from the back seat. Anticlimactic as it may seem, it's all part of an obsessive artist's master plan.
It's a typical weekday for Mike Portnoy, at the moment resting up in a hotel room in North Hollywood. Not the resting part. We're talking about the luggage-toting, takeoutñeating, working-musician's lifestyle, which the 44-year-old drummer has honed to brutal efficiency.
The occasion is Masters Of Metal, an evening at L.A.'s Key Club in which Portnoy will bash along to classic head-banger cover songs while sharing the stage with other giants of metal and engage in a drum battle or two with Anthraxís Charlie Benante and Slayer's Dave Lombardo. It's the drummer's second Masters Of Metal appearance. With rehearsal in a few hours he will also take time to strike several hundred poses for the DRUM! cover photo shoot.
Really, though, the whole week in Los Angeles is a footnote in a globe-circling jaunt of special appearances, substitutions, and other drum-related activity that's earning Portnoy enough frequent-flyer miles to accompany Richard Branson to the moon and back. He'll play with no less than four bands in the ten-day span including a few one-off dates in Latin America for the Rock In Rio tour with underground prog-metal legends Fates Warning. "My head is ready to explode," he says. "You can't imagine the amount of music I'm holding in my head and trying to learn and remember. It's f__king insane."
There's a real temptation to think the exñDream Theater drummer is down on his luck now that heís no longer attached to the prog-rock superstars, but Portnoy seems more like a kid out of school for the summer: "Right now I'm kind of like a newly single guy that's just enjoying the bachelor life," he says. "After 25 years of being married to one band I want to get out there and spread my wings."
To celebrate his newfound bachelorhood, Portnoy has launched not just one but two full-on bands — Flying Colors, a quasi-prog/pop-rock super group, and the more hard rockñoriented Adrenaline Mob — each band dropping its debut record (Flying Colors and Omert‡, respectively) within six weeks of each other. "They weren't supposed to come out at the same time," he laughs. "It just kind of worked out that way."
To up the ante, the multibandñhelming, nothing-in-moderation drummer refuses to backburner either band or any of the myriad side projects he's got going. "They're all priorities," he says. ìWhen I do something I'm fully immersed in it and fully focused on it. But the scheduling has been the biggest challenge at this point."
Although the P-word label has a way of making Portnoy cringe, Flying Colorsí progressive bona fides are well established. Consisting of Steve Morse (Deep Purple, Kansas, Dixie Dregs), Neal Morse (Spock's Beard), Dave LaRue (Dixie Dregs), and Casey McPherson (Alpha Rev), the band is a showcase of technical virtuosity even if the 11-track self-titled debut is not what most people think of as prog. "Flying Colors, contrary to what you'd think from the members involved, is really not about technique or chops," Portnoy says. "We've all flexed those muscles in our other bands. Steve Morse and Dave LaRue have The Dregs and The Steve Morse Band. Me and Neal have our prog outlets like Transatlantic, and I had Dream Theater. So when we came together to do Flying Colors it was not about that. It was more about songs and songwriting and making song-oriented music."
Technique is a relative term in the context of Mike Portnoy, though. Even when he is dialing it back, he can't help but throw in some licks, whether the drum parts are loose and syncopated or tight and linear. Flying Colorsí drumming is musical, occasionally drummistic, and in the case of "Fool In My Heat," with its the shufflesque beat, even a little greasy. But above all itís supportive. A standout is "Forever In A Daze," the way Portnoy slices the hi-hat six different ways from Tuesday. "'Forever In A Daze' is just calling for more of that kind of Chili PepperñChad Smith groove," he says. "So I was able to get funky and Dave LaRue is one of the most badass funk bass players there is."
Portnoy carries his weight in both the composition and singing departments, too, having had a hand in crafting several of the song melodies and providing backing vocals in about half the songs and then lead vocals on "The Storm." That's nothing new. Portnoy has been multitasking like that for the last 15 years. "If you've ever seen a Dream Theater show or a DVD I spend half the time with a mike in front of my face," he says. "For me it's easy. It's harder for my drum tech to know when to swing the mike in and out. (See sidebar).
"Both of these bands are not what you'd expect," he continues. "I think when people heard about the lineup of Flying Colors they were expecting Transatlantic meets The Dixie Dregs, and it's not that. It's more in the vein of Cold Play meets The Beatles meets Foo Fighters."
Did somebody mention a certain Liverpudlian quartet? For a minute now Portnoy has been paying tribute to the Fab Four with Beatles cover band Yellow Matter Custard, right down to playing a 4-piece setup that echoes Ringo Starr's signature oyster wrap kit. "You won't meet a bigger Beatles fanatic than me," he says. "Half my leg is tattooed with Sergeant Pepper and Yellow Submarine images. They just mean more to me than any band did in the history of music and my love and respect and admiration for them goes incredibly deep, and that applies to Ringo as well."
That last comment was fairly generous for a technical, "monster" kitñplaying, Peart-influenced drummer. We had to ask, if only to play devil's advocate: Isn't it possible that that the second of the two surviving Beatles was merely an adequate drummer who happened to get extremely lucky?
"The Beatles were lucky," he corrects. "I mean, it's not always about technique, and I think that's kind of where I'm at this point of my career, and my love for Ringo is a good metaphor for that. My favorite drummers of all time arenít necessarily quote-unquote great drummers." To me the sign of a great drummer is somebody that is making powerful music and doing things that are innovative. They don't necessarily have to be complex or difficult or technical guys. Ringo Starr and Nick Mason and Larry Mullen Jr., those guys have as deep a place in my heart as Terry Bozzio or Neil Peart do. I can appreciate different drummers for different reasons."
In both Flying Colors and Adrenaline Mob, Portnoy for the first time in his career can concentrate almost exclusively on the music — a luxury he has never had before. "Nothing went through the Dream Theater system without going through me first," he says. "But I don't think anything I am doing now is like that at all. I am definitely enjoying different roles and lesser weight in everything that's going on. These guys are all used to having full control in their respective careers and bands. So when we come together in Flying Colors it's all about collaboration and compromise and working together. It's a very, very different kind of chemistry than what I had at Dream Theater, and I could say the same about Adrenaline Mob as well. They are both very different animals."