Mike Portnoy Is Free At Last

mike portnoy

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."

A Second Act

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."

{pagebreak}

Inner Metal Child

All appearances to the contrary, Portnoy's hard-rock makeover is not a sudden thing but a gradual metamorphosis. The last album he cowrote for Dream Theater, 2009's Black Clouds And Silver Linings, was the band's most aggressive.

Mike Portnoy

Portnoy’s Adrenaline Mob Setup

Drums Tama Starclassic Mirage (Crystal Ice)
1. 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2. 14" x 5.5" Tama Mike Portnoy Signature Melody Master Snare Drum
3. 8" x 8" Tom
4. 10" x 9" Tom
5. 12" x 10" Tom
6. 14" x 14" Floor Tom
7. 16" x 16" Floor Tom (Rich, thereís an identically sized Floor on far left)
8. 20" x 14" Gong Drum
9. 6" x 17", 6" x 18.5", 6" x 21", and 6" x 23.5" Tama Octobans

Percussion LP
10. 10.25" Tito Puente Stainless Steel Timbalito

Cymbals Sabian
A. 14" AAX Stage Hi-Hat
B. 16" HHX X-Treme Crash
C. 18" HHX Chinese
D. 7" Mike Portnoy Signature Max Splash
E. 18" HHX Studio Crash
F. 9" Mike Portnoy Signature Max Splash
G. Mike Portnoy Signature HH Medium Max Stax (10" kang/10" splash combo) with 7" Radia Bell
H. 10" Chopper
I. 18" AA Medium Thin Crash
J. 22" HH Rock Ride
K. 19" Fierce Crash
L. Mike Portnoy Signature HH Low Max Stax (12" kang/14" splash combo)
M. 20" AA Chinese
N. 17" HH Medium Thin Crash
O. 13" HHX Groove Hats (open) (Rich, this is the "upper" pair)
P. 12" HHX Groove Hats (closed) (Öand this is the "lower" pair)

Mike Portnoy also uses Tama hardware (two Speed Cobra single pedals and Speed Cobra hi-hat stand, 1st Chair Round Rider throne, and custom rack), Remo heads (Clear Emperor tom batters, Clear Ambassador tom resos, Clear Powerstroke 3 bass batters, Clear CS snare batter, and Clear Ambassador Snare Side), and Pro-Mark Mike Portnoy 420 signature sticks and Pro-Mark Stick Rapp.

The major catalyst came in 2010 when he was tapped to fill in for Jimmy "The Rev" Sullivan after the Avenged Sevenfold drummer died of an overdose. After cutting the drum tracks for Nightmare and the subsequent Uproar Tour in 2010 with Disturbed, Hellyeah!, and Stone Sour (in which he stepped in for Ray Mayorga for a few dates), Portnoy was never quite the same. "After that experience with Avenged I realized how much fun I was having, not having to sit there with a calculator to play drums," he says. "Not that there's anything wrong with that. I did that for all those years with Dream Theater and I loved that too, but, man, my brain just needed a break, and I really enjoyed that vibe with Avenged. So when I was approached with the music for Adrenaline Mob it was the right music at the right time, like, 'I want to do this, man.'"

That Adrenaline Mob frontman Russell Allen's main band, Symphony X, has Euro-metal credentials is no small irony. "It's not my favorite genre," says Portnoy. "To be honest I was dreading that [AM] was going to sound like typical neoclassical power-metal stuff, like some combination of Symphony X and Dream Theater. But when he played me what he and [Mike] Orlando [guitarist] were working on, it was just such a breath of fresh air and such a relief because it was not that. And that's why I immediately got on board."

The gnarliest gut-punch on Ad Mob debut Omert‡ is "Feeling Me," featuring the lyrical refrain, "Are you motherf__kers feelin' me?" which Allen delivers in a tremolo-laden bellow so low and dirty it's like an invitation to brawl with the Hell's Angels. "That's just a great straight-ahead riffing song that could be AC/DC or Pantera," Portnoy says. "Yeah, man, thatís just all about the riff and laying down that stomping groove. To me, all the songs on the Adrenaline Mob album have that bounce in the drum department."

Bounce was a word Portnoy used repeatedly for the next few minutes, but it took a second to figure out he isn't talking about rebound on the heads. "I'm not talking about technique, I'm talking about drum feel," he says. "That was something that I definitely started to cop with Avenged Sevenfold, and when I did that album and tour I learned about sometimes just laying down four on the floor and having that kick drum kind of going and not always taking a left turn with the drumming. Just laying it down and staying there. And that was something I carried into Adrenaline Mob."

But a quarter century in a progressive-rock colossus leaves its mark. Despite the deep pocket, Portnoy still blows plenty of chops on Omert‡. "Hit The Wall," for example, boasts a style that is both aggressive and lick-y. "I also enjoy the simplicity of something like 'All On The Line,'" he adds, "which is just a beautiful ballad that can move you to tears."

Portnoy's biggest concern during the A7X gig was not whether he was good enough to fill The Rev's shoes, but the lifestyle clash. With 12 years of sobriety under his belt, to be constantly exposed to the hard-partying ways of the band during the tour was a concern. ("The Glass Prison," from Dream Theater's Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence, was the first to address the drummer's battle with alcohol, a theme that would continue on subsequent albums). Dream Theater had a strictly alcohol-free tour rider backstage but in the Avenged Sevenfold camp, Portnoy could not enforce such a policy. To his surprise, witnessing all the carousing and partying backstage night after night did not turn out to be the temptation he feared it would. "It had the opposite effect," he says. "I was like, 'I sure don't miss being hung over all the time.'"

Perchance To Dream

Leaving the band that he had been so closely associated with for so long was a huge risk money-wise. Touring is a lucrative game when you have a rabid fan base, even for a band with modest sales (the band wryly named its 2008 best-of collection Greatest Hit ... And 21 Other Pretty Cool Songs). "If you compare Dream Theater to Metallica and Guns N Roses, yeah, we don't make that kind of money."

But with homes in two states, it's clear he created a comfortable living thanks to a devoted fan base that not only attended shows but would buy merchandise too. "I've seen absolutely ridiculous accusations online where people think I left Dream Theater to make money with Avenged Sevenfold or to make more money doing more commercial music," he says. "That could not be further from the truth. I was very secure with the world I had in Dream Theater and I could have just rode that out and been secure probably the rest of my career. But I walked away from that because music and relationships and inspiration are way more important to me than money."

{pagebreak} mike portnoy

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."