Mike Portnoy Redefined
By Billy Ramirez • Photos By Daniel Månsson Originally published in DRUM! Magazine’s September 2005 Issue
We expected Dream Theater to pull plenty of tricks from its bottomless sleeves on the band’s eighth album, Octavarium. But a few are so atypical of these picky progressive perfectionists that our heads spun. Such as … crammed between passages of Dream Theater’s peculiar brand of metallic complexity emerge hints of Coldplay, U2, and Muse – bands that typically outpace these east coast prog rockers on the Billboard charts by hundreds of points.
Something seemed to happen between now and the release of the band’s last CD, Train Of Thought, which mined DT’s more aggressive side. Does Octavarium signal a midlife crisis, as key band members enter their 20th year together? Portnoy begs to differ. “I think this album is a little bit more of a traditional Dream Theater album because of its diversity. If anything, Train Of Thought was a trip to left field. We’d never really made an album like that. This was more traditional turf for us, which is to have a variety of different things – short songs, long songs, heavy songs, some lighter ones, complex ones, some simple ones. That diversity is something that’s always been a part of our sound and style.
“Every album has its own different personality. The time we spend in the studio, how we cut the tracks, all have been different. It’s a long tedious process and at times it’s very fun and creative. Other times it can be boring and tedious, especially for me. The other guys come and go as needed but as producer, I’m there for every single moment that the record is being made. It’s a good, fun creative outlet for me, but it’s a time consuming one. My drum tracks are just a small portion of my commitment.”
So Let’s Talk About Drumming.We expect emergency wards to overflow with palpitating Portnoy disciples when word gets out that the king of double drum-set overkill ditched his second bass drum and pedal for five of the eight songs on the new disc. Before the metal gods squirm in their graves, we should note that Portnoy wailed those songs on a special John Bonham tribute kit. “I brought in a kit that was built for me when I did a Led Zeppelin tribute,” he explains. “I had so much fun using it on the tribute that I decided to bring it to the studio for this album, in case I felt like jumping behind it for a track or two. I found myself sitting behind it for more than half the album. A lot of that dictated my playing.
“A lot of the traditional [Portnoy] fills weren’t really appropriate or even possible on a kit like that. It was different for me because it was the first time I’ve used a single pedal on any album or any recording. It had a big effect on the way I played on those tracks. I played according to my environment. That kit inspired the drum parts, so my parts were usually built around whatever feeling that smaller kit was giving me. I did have to add a China for one track and a splash for another. They weren’t normally part of the [small] setup.”
Hey, is this really Mike Portnoy, or did I misdial and get my old high school drum teacher on the line? “Really, just playing for the song is the most important thing,” says Portnoy – who can rip any given combination of notes within any given timeframe. “Most people would probably think that I am all about chops and showing off, and accuse me of not playing to the song. But I think if you listen to this album or any of our others, it’s really far from the case. Some songs on the album like ‘Panic Attack’ or the title track have some all-out, over-the-top playing. Then again, if you listen to something like ‘I Walk Beside You’ or ‘The Answer Lies Within,’ that could be Larry Mullen, Jr. playing drums. I’m playing no fills and playing to the purpose of the song. That’s always been my focus. More so than ever, on this album, it was really what not to play as opposed to what to play.”
Even Truer Confessions.Dream Theater lyrics have traditionally revealed deeply intimate experiences, and as one of the band’s principle lyricists, Portnoy has examined his ongoing recovery from alcoholism in songs like “The Glass Prison” on Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence, “This Dying Soul” on Train Of Thought, and now, “Root Of All Evil” on Octavarium. “I’ve been writing about the 12 steps of recovery as they’ve been a big part of my personal life over the past five years,” he affirms. “It’s been therapeutic to write about the steps and deal with them from album to album.”
Portnoy indeed has a dark side to his personality, which hasn’t strictly been a byproduct of substance abuse. Take his bizarre clinic in Berlin in October of 2000, for example, when he appeared in front of the audience wearing underwear on his head, and proceeded to roll on the floor and throw sticks around the room. A symptom of pure road fatigue rather than inebriation, but it was disturbing nonetheless, and appears to have soured his taste for doing clinic tours.
“It’s been a while,” he admits. “About two years. I’ve been on an indefinite hiatus from clinics. I’ve done hundreds throughout the world for many, many, many years and I just decided to take a break from them. A lot of that has to do with what I’m saying – I’m less concerned with technique, and drum soloing, and dissecting that aspect. I would rather concentrate on making music and being creative.
“I’ve kind of put my focus on doing sessions for different people like Neal Morse and John Arch, or when I filled in with Fates Warning and Overkill – doing the sideman stuff. I would rather be making music and working with other musicians than doing drum solos and talking about techniques. Those are fun outlets, to jump on board and be a sideman on a temporary, part-time basis. If anything, those situations are a release. I just play drums and don’t worry about anything else. I don’t think I could ever do that in Dream Theater or as my full time gig.
“That’s where my head is at the moment, and it might change – I might get back to doing clinics in the future. I feel like I’ve done that to death. I would rather leave the technique to be dissected and discussed by the people that are better at it than me – the Virgils, Manginis, and the Thomas Langs. Those are the guys that scare the crap out of me. Let them talk about that stuff, because that’s their thing.”
But it was once Portnoy’s domain. He draws a distinction: “Of all those guys, none of them are really in bands, per se. They will moonlight in different bands part time or on the side. I think the difference between the impact I’ve had on the drum community and they have is that I’m part of a band. I think that means a lot to kids.
“When I was younger, I loved Neil Peart, not only because he was a great influential drummer, but his career was based on being in a band that I loved. I think that’s one of the things that gave me a lot of acclaim and separation from the people that do the drum festivals and drum clinics. I am able to do that as well, but first and foremost, it’s most important for me to be [known as] a member of a band. Dream Theater’s an important part of my identity and my story.”
He Wouldn’t Have It Any Other Way. –- but as the band’s spokesman, Portnoy has faced his share of criticism on subjects as wide-ranging as set lists (over which he can exert control) and tour routing (which he can’t). Portnoy parries on Octavarium with “Never Enough,” a track where he vents about unappreciative fans.
“For better or for worse, I try to be accessible and I try to have that contact with the fans – but sometimes it’s easy to be taken advantage of,” he complains. “It’s a little discouraging when people start expecting things from me. I have to keep myself at a little bit more of a distance than I used to, to keep myself from being taken advantage of.
“That’s a lot of what my lyrics on ‘Never Enough’ are about. I live, breathe, and eat Dream Theater. I do everything I do for the fans. I don’t stay up ’til 5:00 a.m. trying to write set lists because I enjoy torturing my bandmates. I do it for the fans – and when they just complain and ***** and moan instead of being appreciative, it can be very disheartening. That’s unfortunate, but true.”
Feeling Down(loaded), Mike? Octavarium was leaked on the Internet weeks before its release, prompting Portnoy to quickly shut down his own forum as well as the band’s to keep people from discussing the yet-to-be-released album.
“I understand fans’ enthusiasm because I’m a fan myself,” he confides. “If there’s a new album coming out that I’m looking forward to, I want to hear it as soon as possible. I think it’s one thing to download it, enjoy it, and keep it to yourself. To be honest, I don’t blame our fans for wanting to download it ahead of time and enjoy it, because I can relate to that. I just wish everybody would not spread it all over the ’net and post links.
“To me, it’s not about sales, it’s not downloading; it’s about people being able to experience the music and the album the way that we intended. That goes from the sonic presentation of it, to the sound quality of it, all the way to the artwork, the booklet, and the lyrics. We wanted people to experience it on the release date, like when a new movie comes out. We don’t want people spoiling the party before everybody really gets a chance to hear it. That’s my biggest concern. I’m not really concerned about downloading. Once it’s out, fans will buy our albums and I have no issue with that. To me it’s all about the artistic presentation and the excitement, and not being ruined for other people.”
There’s a reason why Portnoy doesn’t seem at all agitated. In fact, the Internet has been good for Dream Theater, a band that doesn’t exactly write radio-friendly tunes. “We can’t rely on Rolling Stone or MTV to let people know about our albums and tours,” he complains. “Really, our growth and development has been based on [the fact] that our fans go online and get the tour dates and album info and whatever else they can communicate with other fans. The Internet has been a big, big part of our growth and progress over the past ten years.”
And So Has The Road. In this year’s installment of Dream Theater’s summer ritual, the band is touring the States on Dave Mustaine’s Gigantour, with Megadeth and a handful of other acts. “We’ve done a lot of festivals in Europe, but it’s going to be the first time that we’ve been involved like that in America,” Portnoy says. “It’s going to be a lot of fun, but it’s also going to be very different for us.
“Last summer we toured with Yes and this summer we’re touring with Megadeth, so we really have to wear two completely different hats and play for two very different types of audiences. With the Yes set list, I had to write something that appealed to their audience and stayed away from the heavy stuff. Now, it will be the polar opposite, where we stay away from the light and proggy stuff and just go all out and shred and try to fit in with this festival. I think that says a lot about Dream Theater. We can be a chameleon and fit into either one of those situations.
“I think it also says a lot about our audience and their taste – the fact that our audience will be just as happy seeing us play with Yes as they will be seeing us play with Megadeth. That’s the way my tastes are. As a music fan, I listen to everything from Yes to Megadeth. I assume a lot of our audience is probably the same and they fit in as much as we do into either of those scenarios. That’s what we’ve always been about and that’s probably why a lot of our fans have stuck by us.”
The Monster Awakes. Obsessive? You bet! Portnoy was compelled to integrate his new, scaled-down studio rig into his stage setup – the already famously indulgent Siamese Monster. “I’m building a new Siamese Monster that will utilize the Bonham configuration,” he explains. “The left side will be what it’s been for the past several years, but the right side will be this Bonham configuration.
“Tama made that original Bonham kit just for that one-off [Zeppelin tribute] gig, but they don’t normally make acrylic shells, so they obviously don’t want me playing a kit that they don’t actually offer. It will be a white-based Starclassic – like the opposite of the previous kit. We’re calling this The Albino Monster. It will have silver Dream Theater logos all throughout. They’re redoing my signature snares, the Melody Masters, in white.”
Other drummers get a four-piece kit, a few cymbals, and happily bash away. But why must Portnoy alter his kit as often as Madonna changes her corset? “The key to being inspired when I sit behind the kit is to constantly change it up,” he explains. “That’s why I’ve always played different setups for different gigs. The Siamese Monster is really only for Dream Theater. I will say that the Siamese Monster – it’s a drum village. That kit has gone through a whole new level of extremes.”
Having three bass drums and four hi-hats in one setup might be extreme for anybody else, but Portnoy writes his own rules. “It’s not supposed to be perceived as a single kit. It’s really two kits, and it’s meant for two people to play, or for one person to jump back and forth between setups. Anybody is welcome to jump up at any time. I’ve done a couple of drum duets on the Monster. Scott Rockenfield played it, Alan White’s played it with me, Mike Mangini has played it with me. Whenever there’s another drummer friend that’s at the show or on the tour, I try to persuade them to come up and play on the kit. There’s room for two. [laughs]
Everything Changes. Back in 1983, Portnoy earned a living by delivering Chinese food. After 22 years, eight Dream Theater albums, and a truckload of awards, he hasn’t forgotten what it felt like to be a delivery boy. “It’s hard for me to be objective,” he says. “It’s unbelievable to look at my history and see that I achieved all those things. I know that we have a lot of great fans and I have so much gratitude for that, but it’s still hard for me to separate me from … me. My goal is to make music – hopefully people will enjoy it. I guess somehow it’s reaching and touching drummers around the world, which is flattering for me.
“One the cool things now, with DT being around 20 years, we’re actually starting to see some of the younger generation of drummers that we influenced coming into their own and being in successful bands. That’s really cool, seeing younger drummers like Jason Bittner or Jeremy Colson, who listened to Dream Theater and are getting their own recognition. It’s cool to see that the musicians that were listening to us in the early ’90s are now becoming the generation of today’s influential musicians.”
Portnoy has temporarily abandoned clinic tours, and has no plans to make another instructional DVD (“I don’t have time or the interest,” he states). But he takes mentoring very seriously – especially when it comes to his son, Max. Right before conducting this interview with DRUM!, he spent the day at Max’s kindergarten class talking about drumming and working in the biz. That’s right – it was “career day.”
“I brought a couple pictures of drum sets and a couple of magazines I’ve been on the covers of,” he says. “It was more fun for them to jam. Latin Percussion sent me a whole bunch of shakers to hand out to the kids. I just brought in a snare drum and cymbals and some shakers and let them all come up and play. I explained to them how I got into the business and how I got into music and drumming.”
Besides probably being the coolest kids at their school, Max and daughter Melody have joined their dad on tour for the past several years. “They love the drums and love the lifestyle. They get to go on tour with me in the summertime and they’re very accustomed to it at this point in their life. They think it’s very normal for kids to spend their summers on tour.”
After two decades of making music – with a wife, kids, and a dog in tow – the metal family man claims to only be getting started. “Long-term plans are to keep doing what we’re doing. Dream Theater keeps a very busy schedule and a very steady pace. Even on the down time, I fill up my time with other musical adventures. I can’t picture slowing down. I can’t picture stopping. It’s not a forced motivation. I want to keep playing and moving at all times.
“Some people are just born leaders and some are not. For me, it’s a built-in personality trait. You can’t make yourself become a person like that. You either are or your aren’t. It’s built into my system.”