Mike Portnoy: The Virtuoso Is Free At Last
Besides, his endorsement deals remain fully intact. With few exceptions, it's more effective for gear makers to hitch their brand to a popular band than a middling one, no matter how stellar its drummer. Portnoy is that rare exception. "When I left Dream Theater, every one of those endorsement companies was fully supportive of Mike Portnoy. They weren't in the Dream Theater business, they were in the Mike Portnoy business, and were behind whatever I chose to do."
More than material things, it's family ties that Portnoy attributes to his longevity as a musician. Rock and roll is a jealous mistress, and musicians' long spells from home have a way of driving families apart. "I don't think it's been a challenge as much as it's been a godsend," he says. "Especially after I left Dream Theater, there were a couple of months of just a lot of negativity online that was very hard to me to endure, and you realize that the most important thing you have in your life and the only thing that is really consistent and forever is family." And to prove it, his signature Sabian MaxStax and Tama Melody Master signature snare drum are named after son Max and daughter Melody.
With all the excitement in Portnoy's world, it seemed crass for us to ask whether he would consider reuniting with the band he founded. But our wanton curiosity won out. Half expecting a bitch-slap from the drummer's gold-finger knuckle, the response was cool and measured: "Well, in the hypothetical scenario you are laying out, I would never step in as a drummer for hire or go on board in any sort of lesser capacity than I ever had in the band." (He did, however, decline to offer an opinion on his successor, Mike Mangini). "And I never wanted to walk away from the band," he continues. "That was never my intention or my goal. I just needed a break and hoped that they would share that same feeling and respect that feeling and that we would take a break together. I never, ever wanted the lineup to change or for me to leave the band — that's just the way that the cards played out. So if the opportunity ever arose to come back I would absolutely welcome it but I am not waiting for it and I am not counting on it. I have a million other things going on in my life that keep me very happy and very busy."
Six Degrees Of Mike Portnoy
Rock In Rio, the drummer's upcoming date with Fates Warning, is no random event. In fact, all the band-hopping is beginning to feel like that parlor game named after Kevin Bacon if the actor were a prog-metal hero. Fates Warning guitarist Jim Matheos worked with Portnoy in 2003 in OSI, and subsequently, both men worked in Fates frontman John Arch's solo project. Portnoy has also done four projects with Paul Gilbert (Racer X, Mr. Big, Yellow Matter Custard, Hammer Of The Gods) and three separate projects with ace-of-bass Billy Sheehan, also or Mr. Big. He and the latter musician's short-lived Who tribute was one of the collaborations Portnoy recalls most fondly. "We were playing those parts as insanely as Moon and Entwistle did," he says.
But Sheehan's low-end pyrotechnics are not the main attraction for Portnoy. The pair's most recent project is a power trio including guitarist Richie Kotzen (Poison, Mr. Big). "Its all classic rock in the vein of Cream and Hendrix and Grand Funk [Railroad] with Soundgarden and Black Crows sprinkled on top," he says. "So Billy and I are kind of just laying it back and playing for the song in those cases."
The funny thing about a guy with Portnoy's credentials is that he could easily never work with anybody again if that's what he wanted. Why not pack it in and just do clinics and drum camps like the elite players currently mining that turf? "That's so far from what I'm interested in," he says. "I respect those kinds of drummers. They blow my mind and their technique is incredible. I could never do what they do. But I'm getting a chance to work with some of the most incredible musicians that I've admired my whole life."
Listing all these absurdly accomplished players leads to talk of music theory and other pointy-headed stuff taught at places like North Texas State, Julliard, and of course, Portnoy's alma mater, Berklee College Of Music, where Dream Theater was hatched with classmates John Petrucci and John Myung in 1985. Like so many of that school's once and future stars, the men weren't long for the classroom, but Portnoy does not regret a single a minute spent there. "I wanted to learn about music theory and harmony and all that stuff," he says. "And it ended up helping me immensely in working with other musicians and collaborating in songwriting. It became a huge asset to what I do. However, it's not mandatory — there's millions of great musicians out there that can't read or write or don't know scales or theory. It's really about personal goals and interest."
We couldn't let MP escape without squeezing some career advice out of him. Yet the drummer was hesitant to play the role of battle-hardened vet or dole out cautionary tales. "Regardless of the fact that I have a name and a career and a history and a reputation, Adrenaline Mob is a new band. Flying Colors is a new band. So I've had to kind of relearn how to market and sell yourself."
With 620,000 Facebook fans and 140,000 Twitter followers, he's got a good start. Still, he doesn't envy anybody starting out in today's music climate. He then paraphrases something he recently read about how in the old days there were a thousand bands selling millions of albums, and today it's millions of bands selling thousands of albums.
"But I would say this," he says after a beat. "I would say that it's important for young artists and musicians and bands to not give anything away. We're finally at a point in the industry where the artists are getting the music back, and record companies are folding and going away, and you no longer have to be at the mercy of the powers that be. For better or worse, it's a time where artists are in control of their music and how they sell it and how they put it out there. So take advantage of that and don't give anything away to anybody else. Keep your music."