Mike Portnoy: Positively Obsessed
I’m pretty sure Mike Portnoy wants to kick my ass right now. By the time I finally stumble into Avatar Studios 20 minutes late for the listening party, having just spent the last half hour mired in hellish mid-town Manhattan traffic at the mercy of a cabbie who managed to get lost – lost! – going the short distance from the hotel to the studio, I’ve allowed what I’ve read of Portnoy’s notorious control issues to swell to hideous proportions in my mind.
I’m envisioning a gruesome public flaying at the hands of a terrible, blue-bearded ogre, spittle flying as he chews me out in front of a roomful of snickering gawkers for daring to delay the carefully orchestrated unveiling of Dream Theater’s latest epic, Black Clouds & Silver Linings, on which the band has been toiling away in furious creative seclusion for the past six months. Now, with a small group of media types waiting anxiously inside Avatar’s inner sanctum to hear the album for the first time blasted through a bomb sound system plugged right into the soundboard, I imagine the anticipation has everyone frothing at the mouth.
I launch up three flights of stairs and bust into Studio D to find a dozen or so heads snap in my direction, one of which belongs to Portnoy. He is sitting on the mixing board in the wood-paneled control room, facing the group, which is arranged in two rows of chairs along the opposite wall, waiting patiently for the show to start. I offer profuse apologies and slink toward the only empty seat, realizing almost instantly my fears were way overblown. Not only is Portnoy cucumber cool, he even offers his sympathies for my harrowing cab story. Someone hands me a “program” of the afternoon’s feature presentation, complete with lyrics, while Portnoy offers a quick introduction and then ducks out, bidding us good listening.
It’s not until later, though, when I sit down with him in the vocal booth off of the control room for a lengthy one-on-one that I get a glimpse of the true nature of the manic prog mastermind’s oft-misunderstood relationship to his art. “I’ve always had this control freak, obsessive-compulsive approach to my role in Dream Theater, from day one,” he explains, in that definitive, self-assured manner of a lifelong New Yorker. “And I think every band has to have one or two people like that or else they’ll implode. Either people bicker and fight over every nuance trying to gain control, or, on the other hand, there’s nobody taking control and you have a manager or booking agent or record companies dictating everything.”
Translation: If you want Dream Theater to keep being Dream Theater, that is, churning out 20-minute non-radio-friendly epics on their own terms, you’ve got Portnoy’s OCD to thank for it (and, to an almost equal extent, guitarist John Petrucci’s). Only in this case, obsession doesn’t mean petulance – 25 years would be far too long to suffer under an overbearing bully. “A lot of times you’ll see the fans in the message boards saying, ’I wish Mike wouldn’t do this and Mike wouldn’t do that. Why does he have to do this and control everything?’” Portnoy says. “It’s like, well, you know what? If it’s not bothering [bassist] John Myung, or [singer] James LaBrie, why the hell is it bothering you? This is the way we work. This is the way it functions. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”
Besides, the real litmus test has always been how Portnoy’s attitude serves the music. And the combination of perfectionism and gritty directness that comes through in interviews also marks his playing, and has helped build Dream Theater into the beloved prog powerhouse that it is. On Black Clouds & Silver Linings, that combination is once again on full display.
Setting The Tone
“We move into the studio with nothing written, nothing predetermined,” Portnoy explains of the band’s typical writing process. “And basically set up and write and rehearse, and then when a song is ready, begin recording it. And that’s how this record was done. We moved in and we just let the ideas flow. And with us, once the ideas start flowing, they build and build and build and next thing you know, you have this 15-minute song.”
This time they came in with more than a little metal in mind, the first taste of which comes in the form of a blistering drum fill capped by a chest-rattling double bass run that kicks opener “A Nightmare To Remember” instantly into high gear. “It was very inspired by today’s metal drummers,” Portnoy says of his playing on this track. “Whether it be your Chris Adler or Joey Jordison – a lot of really fast double bass stuff. And I even threw in a couple of blastbeats, which I’ve never done before.”
Blastbeats, eh? Why now? “The last couple of years it has become so predominant in heavy music,” he says. “And I spend most of my time listening to heavy music. So it’s just part of the natural evolution. And through the years we’ve toured with Opeth and Between The Buried And Me and Dillinger Escape Plan, and all these drummers are just, like, the masters of that. So I’m constantly surrounded by that kind of drumming. It was inevitable I’d have to dip my toes into it just for 16 bars – and then get the hell out.”
It should come as no surprise to see a guy who describes himself as the “ultimate music fan” adding elements of the new school players onto his bedrock influences – those being chiefly Starr, Bonham, Peart, and Moon, the subjects of four tribute albums he did between ’03 and ’06 with guitarist Paul Gilbert. And let’s not forget Frank Zappa, even though he’s the only one of Portnoy’s big musical heroes who hasn’t gotten a tribute yet. “Probably because he scares the s**t out of me,” Portnoy says. “I think I’ll just continue to admire him from afar.”
But these days, Portnoy is just as apt to pull his influences from contemporary hard rockers like Mastodon, Muse, and The Mars Volta, and it shows. The hard metal edge cutting across this album pairs beautifully with the pervasive theme of suffering and redemption in lyrics written by Portnoy and Petrucci. And because that melding of music and lyrics seems so deliberate, the sweep of these operatic narrative compositions so ambitious, it’s hard to believe the two elements were born so far apart.
“All of our songs start as instrumentals and then a little further down the process we decide who’s going to write which songs,” Portnoy explains. “And what we write about is our own personal choice.” And for the two songs on this album for which he wrote the lyrics, “The Shattered Fortress” and “The Best Of Times,” Portnoy chose to once again tackle some familiar and intensely personal subject matter.
Baring It All
Where most artists would be content to bury their personal demons in abstract symbolism, or simply keep them bottled up, that’s never been Portnoy’s style. “The first set of lyrics I ever wrote for Dream Theater was a song called ’A Change Of Seasons’ that we wrote back in ’89,” he says. “And a big portion of those lyrics was about losing my mom in a plane crash. So right from the very get-go, my very first set of lyrics for this band, I was already opening myself wide open to our fans.
“I’ve been writing about my recovery from alcoholism. I’ve been writing about relationships with different family members, for better or for worse. And, you know, if anything, it’s therapeutic and better for me to get it off my chest.” It’s also therapeutic for fans. “I can tell you countless times that people have come up to me and [said that] my lyrics about recovery have helped them clean up and get sober, or straighten up their life. Or, you know, there have been other songs of ours in the past that have dealt with deaths that people have said have helped them immensely. So I don’t mind sharing it.”
He tells the story of how “The Best Of Times,” a tribute to his recently deceased father, came to be: “Shortly after we wrote it and I finished tracking my drums, I went on a trip to go visit my dad. He’d been struggling with cancer for a couple months at that point. It caught my ear, and I was like, ’Oh my God. I have to write about my dad with this one.’ It’s just a sad, sad song, but at the same time also so uplifting and optimistic as well, which is why I end up making the lyric more about the good times rather than the bad.”
But the best thing about that song, he says, was that he was able to put a demo together and play it for his dad before he passed away. “We held hands and cried the whole time,” Portnoy says. “It was really, really heavy, but an amazing gift to have been given. To have played him the song and for him to know that he heard it and how much it meant to him.”
But there’s just as much impact and inspiration on “The Shattered Fortress,” which DT fans will recognize as the culmination of an elaborate, extended opus that’s been a long time in the making. “’The Shattered Fortress’ is one piece of a giant puzzle that’s been brewing over the last five Dream Theater albums,” Portnoy explains. “Back in 2002 I wrote my first set of lyrics based on the 12 steps, and that was a song called ’The Glass Prison,’ which was steps one, two, and three. And at that point I had this idea of writing about the 12 steps over the course the next several Dream Theater albums, and writing these songs that connect. ’The Shadow Fortress’ is steps ten, eleven, and twelve. And musically and lyrically, it’s completely interacting and bringing back a lot of the themes and lyrics and topics that were covered in the previous songs. So it’s really tying the whole big piece together. And one day down the road, we’ll actually perform the whole thing live, as a whole 60-minute concept piece.”
The Steel Trap
So a reasonable question at this point would be: How does a guy like Portnoy, who is notoriously averse to practicing and never listens to his own albums after they’re finished, make it through a 60-minute concept piece, or, for that matter, a 20-minute song, without getting lost? The answer: “I have an elephant’s memory,” he says simply. “The guys in my band, they joke about it, because when we did our 20th anniversary tour a couple of years ago, one of the things we were doing on that tour was playing the first song we ever wrote together from back in ’85, a song called ’Another One.’ And basically when it came time for tour rehearsals I never even listened to it. I just sat down with a kit and it was still stored in there from 20 years earlier.”
Okay, so he cheats a little: As detail-oriented as Portnoy is, he also harbors an intense aversion to boredom, which keeps him constantly on the lookout for new ways of keeping the old material fresh. “I’m not at all the Neil Peart type that plays every fill the same,” he says. “In fact I’ll probably never play the same fill twice. I’m not a disciplined person to sit there and just play the same thing every night. I’d go freaking insane.”
This can sometimes irk fans of a less adventurous persuasion. “They’ll be the first ones to go online and point out that, you know, in the 32nd bar the 3rd beat was missing the splash cymbal. Yeah, our fans totally notice it. But uh, I don’t give a s**t,” he laughs. “You know what? I don’t even notice it, though. It’s funny, the only time I’ll really hear our albums is, like, when we do an autograph session and it’s playing and the music’s going in the background. And that’s when I’d be like, ’Oh wow! I forgot about that fill’ or ’I forgot about that groove, that beat.’”
But even if he played everything to the letter, just being part of a band like Dream Theater, he says, keeps his boredom in check. “A band that writes four-, five-minute radio songs, I can’t picture them being excited album after album after album because it’s so formulaic,” he says. “But when you’re writing music like we write, where it’s constantly going through shifts and changes and you can go from stuff that’s as heavy as Opeth to stuff that’s as moody as Pink Floyd, I mean, how can you possibly get bored? So after all of the time, I can’t say we’ve ever been bored. We’re still excited by it.”
Not A Gear Guy
One of Portnoy’s more fan-friendly methods for keeping boredom at bay is in his ever-changing drum setups. “Every tour cycle I try to mix it up,” he says. “Just to keep it interesting, new, and exciting.” Often these mammoth superstructures, like the infamous Siamese Monster (literally big enough for two drummers to share) have set new precedents for what’s possible when it comes to slapping together drum hardware. But that might just be because he’s not the one doing the heavy lifting.
“I couldn’t even set up a 3-piece kit if I had to,” Portnoy says. “I don’t think I’ve ever set up my own drums, even when I was in my first band in junior high school. There were still other guys that would be the roadies. I’ve never had to do that. Thank God. I am not a gear guy at all. I know there are a lot of other drummers that are really into their gear and tuning and trying different heads, but that’s not me. I just want to play.”
For this album, all he knew was that he wanted something different and studio-ready, preferably made of wood, to replace the acrylic Mirage kit he used on the last tour. And here’s where it’s nice to be Portnoy: “I wasn’t sure which line I wanted to go with, so Tama sent me a bubinga kit and a birch/bubinga kit. I set them up in different configurations. The bubinga was more of a traditional single bass Bonham-type kit. And I jumped back and forth between the two. So if we were to walk down the track listing, half of them were on one and half were on the other.”
When they would start writing a song, he would simply apply the appropriate kit to fit the vibe. “And in some cases I utilized both in the same song,” he says. “Like ’The Best Of Times,’ the first half of it is very kind of Rush-like. So I wanted to have a bigger kit so I could do the big fills and stuff like that and play some more intricate beats. But then the second half is almost like Beatlesque or, you know, something a little bit more simplistic. So I ended up doing the second half on the small kit.”
Meanwhile, Sabian had sent him a breathtaking assortment of bronze, including a few new prototypes. When I ask him about a particular bridge section in the second half of “A Nightmare To Remember” where he hits choked quarter-notes on some unidentified piece of metal, he thinks for a second and then IDs it as a Sabian Chopper Effects cymbal, which at the time was still just an unnamed prototype. “I threw them on the kit and I thought they were cool,” he says. “I mean, I’ve always been into all the little knickknacks and the little toys. My signature cymbals for Sabian are all along those lines. I have three different splashes and three different stacks. So I am really into the smaller toy kind of cymbals and stuff like that.”
All About The Fans
But even if he doesn’t necessarily consider himself one, Portnoy knows it’s primarily the drum geeks who have been keeping his ship afloat. “The exposure I got within the drum community outside of Dream Theater was because I was doing so many clinics and drum videos and drum books,” he says. “I really have a deep appreciation for that relationship.” Still, it’s been seven years since he did his last drum clinic. “It was just getting stale,” he admits. “And I wouldn’t be honest and true to myself if I was going out there and pretending to be enjoying something that I really wasn’t. I found that I was a little happier playing music with people in projects and doing these tribute bands or doing sessions with other artists and making music in a collaborative sense rather than doing drum solos and drum clinics just completely by myself.”
But that doesn’t mean he can’t satisfy his followers’ drum lust in other ways. Behold In Constant Motion, his recent three-disc, seven-plus hour mega DVD package – part instruction, part performance, part therapy session, all Portnoy. “That was awesome. That was a true labor of love,” he says. “I guess I made up for some lost time in the drum community with that release. But really, even the focus of that release was more band and music oriented. It was more about playing songs and talking about the context of the drums within those songs, and within those bands and projects. And I talked about at least a dozen different projects and different things throughout that package.”
All of it, though – the DVD set, the tribute bands, the new Dream Theater album – will be eagerly devoured by fans, and probably misunderstood by everyone else. But that’s okay – that’s how it always works. A player like Portnoy, and a band like Dream Theater, were never meant for mass consumption.
“When you come to a Dream Theater show, it’s not people that are just coming because it’s the thing to do that night,” he says. “It’s not the cool thing to do. We’re totally not the cool band to go see. They’re coming to see us because they’re fans, and they want to hear the set lists, and hear the songs, and that’s just luckily the type of fans we attract. And thank God, because we would never be able to exist with casual listeners; we’re just not that type of band.”
Knowing that, and taking the steps necessary to protect the purity of that vision, even if it means occasionally being misunderstood by fans and, ahem, the odd journalist, has probably been Portnoy’s greatest contribution to the band after all these years. “You know we kind of bypassed the industry by doing things our own way,” he says. “We didn’t ever give in and just start churning out singles or play the major label game. We kind of just went to the side and did our own thing and built it our own way. And that’s why we’re still here.”
A PROG-PERFECT PARTNERSHIP
By Dave Constantin
No doubt Mike Portnoy was lucky to have found such a kindred spirit in John Petrucci, Dream Theater’s meticulous guitar savant, Portnoy’s co-producer, and owner of a similarly elephantine musical memory. Over the years, the two have nurtured a singular bond onstage and off that has served as the bedrock on which the DT empire rests.
“The two of our playing together creates the lock,” Petrucci explains. “When you hear the intricate sections and the very rhythmical, syncopated things – things that are very tight and worked out – that’s all guitar and drums. When we record, the drums goes first, the guitar goes second. Everything is completed locked. If the guitar isn’t locked with the kick and the snare, then everything falls apart. And the bass and the keyboard, then they go on and follow me.
So if were are playing a song to a click and Mike’s moving away from the click – if he’s slowing down on purpose or whatever – I take that click out and I match exactly up to him.”
Of course, it’s not just in their playing where the two have managed to lock in to the same frequency. About ten years ago, when they were about to embark on their first concept album, they decided to add a new dimension to their musical chemistry by taking on full production duties as well, closing the circle and ensuring total freedom in every facet of the DT creative process from that point on.
“It works out okay because of what our interests are,” says Petrucci of that arrangement. “Mike, he has interests that are outside of mine that are very different. Like when we record and we get in to the orchestration and the sounds, a lot of that stuff he kind of can’t be bothered with. He thinks I’m too anal about it or whatever. To me, I love that. I live for that stuff. Getting into all the details on what’s going on. I’ll record a song over, like, five times to get the guitar tone right.
“He’ll be more anal about, like, the order of the songs and how they cross-fade into one another and where the ID hits when you play the thing. And he’ll put together all the liner notes and he won’t miss a beat with, you know, if anything is out of order with the words or the lyrics or thank you’s or somebody’s named misspelled or the bands that are on the tour and the set lists.” Petrucci thinks about it for a second and laughs. “I mean, you don’t get anymore anal than him.”