Mike Portnoy

Mike Portnoy

by David Ciauro

It takes a big pair to be one of a kind. Since leaving the most celebrated prog-metal gig in the world with Dream Theater, the drummer has thrown himself into an impressive number of diverse musical situations, always confident in the fact that whatever the music calls for, he’ll bring it in spades—but never lose himself in the process. 

Since leaving Dream Theater in 2010—the band he founded, reached his audience with, and wore so many hats in for twenty-five years—Mike Portnoy has been involved with a slew of projects, either as a hired gun or a collaborating musician. These projects are notably different, from each other, and from the music Portnoy earned his stripes playing.

Portnoy’s newest project, the Winery Dogs, is a power trio featuring bassist Billy Sheehan (Steve Vai, David Lee Roth, Niacin) and singer/guitarist Richie Kotzen (Mr. Big, TM Stevens, Greg Howe). The band released its self-titled debut this past May and hit the road in July, waving the flag for a somewhat lost style of music: straight-up rock ’n’ roll that puts the song first and the player second. It might not be a direction that casual fans would expect the prog-metal icon to be taking, but longtime observers will recognize it as a logical step along Portnoy’s professional trajectory. And really, there’s no reason for anyone to panic—the Dogs are providing plenty of opportunities for the drummer to squeeze out his notorious rhythmic sparks.

MD: There’s a maturity to the songwriting in the Winery Dogs that listeners might not expect from a group of virtuosos playing together for the first time.

MP: We were totally trying to cop the classic-rock power-trio vibe from the ’60s and ’70s—that Hendrix, Cream, Grand Funk sound—but with the modern spirit of a Soundgarden or Alice in Chains.

Obviously we’ve all done the muso technical thing in other bands, but the whole idea behind the Winery Dogs was to have it be about the songs. We’re fans of good songwriting, good vocals, and everyone in the band singing—that was the focus. We wanted to write strong songs in a power-trio setting with some shredding sprinkled on top.

Mike Portnoy

First and foremost I’m a music fan, and a good song with a good hook or a good harmony can, to me, be just as moving and powerful as a shredding guitar solo. I don’t know if I would ever want to exclusively be in a pop band playing only straight-ahead songs, but [at this point in my career] I’m leaning toward projects that are more song-oriented with some occasional shredding, rather than being technical at their core. The Flying Colors record, for example, is very straightforward, almost alternative sounding. That being said, when you’re in bands with the likes of Billy Sheehan and Steve Morse, the songs are going to have some technical twists thrown in.

MD: With so many projects going on at once, was this record written and recorded via file sharing?

MP: Nope. I’ve never done that. It’s very important to me on any project I’m a part of to get in a room to write and record together. You can Pro Tools an album, but not a vibe. And that’s important not only in terms of performance but from the writing side. I like collaborating with other musicians. The Winery Dogs was all collaborative writing, and to me that’s the beauty of working with these people. It’s not just having my name next to theirs in the liner notes. It’s getting the chance to play, write, and be creative with these people. You can’t do that via email.

MD: In the Flying Colors documentary, you said that the personality of the player should come out even in the most basic grooves. It seems that obsessing over technique runs the risk of having precision take the place of personality.

MP: I couldn’t agree more. I’d much rather hear something that has personality. Within technical music, you reach a point where there’s not much room for character. Obviously, my past and present projects are not all straight-ahead music—I just think it’s important that when a drummer is just laying down a simple groove, you hear the person. In my case, I want to sound like Mike Portnoy, whether it’s Flying Colors, the Winery Dogs, or anything else. When it comes to drumming, it’s so important to develop your own voice or personality that comes through when you’re playing.

MD: That definitely comes across on the Winery Dogs album. Even though the drum sound isn’t what one would generally characterize as your signature sound, drummers familiar with you will recognize certain choices you made in the parts and fills.

MP: Well, that’s the thing about playing in a bunch of different bands instead of one—I get to approach each musical situation differently, and that also factors into the type of kit I’ll use on each project. I design my kit and tune it around the kind of headspace I want to be in for the project. With the Winery Dogs, I used the traditional Bonham-type kit with a kick, snare, one rack, two floors, and a couple of crashes, a ride, and a China. That forced me into a different headspace to achieve that classic-rock vibe. I’ve used smaller kits before, like when I did the Beatles and Zeppelin tribute bands. But this was the first time I was able to record an entire album with an original project on a small kit. It inspired me to try different things, especially because there’s so much space to deal with, since there’s only three of us. Of the dozen or more projects I’ve been a part of though the years, I believe this is the only trio. That alone made me think about when to fill the space and when to let it breathe.

MD: Over the years you’ve consistently said that technique is not your primary musical motivation. Going back to your first MD interview, back in 1993, you mentioned that when Dream Theater fans praised your playing, you were quick to put on a video of Dave Weckl or Vinnie Colaiuta to keep your ego in check. You also said that although your technique factored into why you were getting positive attention, you felt that showmanship and the performance were equally important.

MP: I said that all the way back then? God bless me! [laughs] But it’s the truth. I often feel intimidated by the amount of acclaim my playing has received. I feel like some people look at it like it’s a competitive thing—you know, “I can outplay him. Why does he keep winning these awards?” There are probably drummers in the audience every night who can play circles around me, but it’s so much more than what you’re playing. Music is about touching people, moving them, communicating something—making an impression or having an impact on someone’s life. And that doesn’t always mean being technically the best. When I got the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame award, I was embarrassed by it in a way, because I’m not claiming to be a great drummer.

I think, if anything, it’s a sign of having influenced people. Take Ringo, for example. He’s not the greatest drummer, but my God has he inspired generations of drummers. It wasn’t about his technique; it was about making a mark and moving people. And in my case, maybe it was my work ethic that inspired a kid. Maybe the fact that I go beyond the drums and that I’m a lyricist, producer, or director inspires someone to branch out beyond the drums. Maybe it was how I approached odd time signatures or some other aspect I’m not even aware of. Whatever the case, I’m just happy to be a drummer, and I get to do this for a living.

But I’ve always viewed myself as a music fan first and a drummer second. The drums just happened to be my instrument, but ultimately I became who I am because I’m a music fan. I love making music in the studio, and I want to be able to write songs, produce records, oversee the merchandise and the websites, and do everything that comes with this job. Drums just happened to be one element. It might be crazy to say that in Modern Drummer, but I do believe that’s important.

All of my favorite drummers have done more than play drums. Lars Ulrich is a hero of mine. Some people come down on him because they think he doesn’t have great technique or whatever, but he’s made a mark and he’s made a difference, and that’s why I love him. I could probably say the same thing about a dozen of my favorite drummers.

When Dream Theater broke in the early ’90s, it was the height of the grunge era, so we were kind of the anti-grunge, and the Internet was not what it is today. Now there’s YouTube, which has created a saturation of technique. There are thousands of videos of drummers with technique I can’t fathom, but the novelty has kind of worn thin—at least I know it has for me. I’d rather hear a drummer laying down a fat groove and just playing in the pocket of the song—that speaks to me more now.

MD: You’ve been very open in the past about having OCD. How much of your drive, sense of responsibility, and drumming skills do you think are a positive result of that? For example, going back to when you first started playing, were you obsessive-compulsive about music or drumming?

MP: Yeah. For the first ten years all I focused on was drumming, and I probably became interested in progressive music because of how the music lined up.

MD: So the mathematical side of music appealed to your obsessive-compulsive nature. Were you always good at math?

MP: Yeah, math came easy and probably helped my ability to play in odd times. My mind could always process numbers easily.

Mike PortnoyMD: What about your memory? Neal Morse makes reference to your elephant memory on the Flying Colors DVD. Considering all the projects you’re simultaneously involved with now, how does your memory factor into how you’re able to manage that workload?

MP: I think it’s another “gift” of my OCD—though actually I don’t know if it’s a gift or a curse. [laughs]

MD: Does this gift extend to other things you’re interested in besides music? You’re a movie buff—can you recite every line of your favorite movies?

MP: Yeah, absolutely! An even crazier gift is that if you give me a date right now, I can tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing. At home, I have everything so meticulously organized alphabetically and chronologically that if somebody goes to my CD collection, which has over 10,000 CDs, and just points to one from across the room, I can tell you which one it is. So OCD applies to everything, though I guess in the end it’s a blessing that I’m thankful to have.

MD: It seems that the combination of OCD and having a memory unlike most other people’s would make you an obvious choice for taking on more of a leadership role in a band setting. You had many roles in Dream Theater. From the outside, that could be seen as being a control freak. On the inside, some band members—in any group—don’t want to take on responsibilities beyond playing their instrument and are glad when someone volunteers to do so.

MP: With Dream Theater, I very much ran the show because my OCD allowed me to handle the additional roles. Luckily those guys always trusted my direction. OCD can be a detriment, though. I know it sometimes makes my wife crazy, and I’m sure it must have driven the guys in Dream Theater crazy at times too, but they rolled with it.

It was never about being a control freak because I was an egomaniac. It was just my obsessive-compulsive nature. When I first met [future Dream Theater bandmates] John Petrucci and John Myung when we were eighteen years old, I think they immediately recognized that part of my personality, and they were very comfortable with that dynamic. John Petrucci and I balanced each other out through the years with our strengths and weaknesses. He never cared much for all the little details and organizational stuff, and I never cared about the business or financial aspects, which he was very good at. When you’re in a band, you have to understand each other’s roles and you have to delegate, and I don’t think those guys ever resented the role I played. And to your point, you can’t create that type of personality. People like me and Lars—it’s just our personality, and we happen to apply it to our careers, our bands, and our music.

I now find that I have to shift and mold with different personalities, and my role changes depending on the particular project. I haven’t been in a leadership role to the capacity I was in Dream Theater in anything else I’ve done since.

MD: Your first side project, Liquid Tension Experiment, came about at a time when Dream Theater was under a lot of pressure from the label to make Falling Into Infinity a very commercially accessible album. Was LTE a response on some level to the loss of creative control over something you all held so sacred?

MP: Liquid Tension Experiment was the very first side project not only for me but for anyone in the Dream Theater camp, and it was definitely the result of being so frustrated by the industry in the late ’90s. That album was made in the midst of a difficult point in our career, because we were being eaten alive by the industry. It almost broke up the band at that point, and LTE was such a breath of fresh air. It gave us an open palette and reminded us why we love playing music—and that was twelve years into Dream Theater’s career. That feeling of freedom was so refreshing on a creative level that I never looked back.

I did two LTE albums, and then I formed Transatlantic and started doing all of Neal Morse’s albums, the OSI albums—it was basically an explosion of creativity. It showed me that there could be more than just working with one band signed to a label that’s telling you what you can and can’t do.

Mike PortnoyMD: When you left Dream Theater, the public backlash was fairly harsh and quick, and one would imagine that it’s not an easy topic for you to discuss. But the band was obviously a huge part of your life and career, and there’s a lot that happened during those years for you personally and professionally that help paint the picture of where you’re at now.

MP: I feel bad that I can’t talk openly about Dream Theater anymore without being torn to shreds. I wish I could without there being a backlash, but it’s become the reality that I’ve now accepted, because I feel it’s a no-win situation.

MD: That’s unfortunate, because it seems that over time you naturally grew out of your place in Dream Theater, or perhaps you simply grew apart from where the rest of the band was going musically. And from a fan’s perspective, when you love a band and it changes—or you change as a listener and the band stays relatively the same—it’s sometimes hard to swallow. There’s really no place for fault or blame, though.

MP: Yes! Thank you! That’s a big reason why I left Dream Theater—I changed. I mean this totally diplomatically, but when I heard the new material, it simply wasn’t my cup of tea. It’s great, but I couldn’t relate to it anymore. Like you said, people change, whether it be as a listener or as an artist.

MD: In retrospect, your decision to leave Dream Theater seems like a natural progression. You were never as concerned with the technical side of drumming as people may have perceived, and your personality allowed you to handle wearing multiple hats instead of devoting countless hours to adding chops to your arsenal. Whereas they continued to progress into deeper realms of complexity.

MP: It was never a conscious decision to play drums less and concentrate more on the other things, but as my career grew and my life developed, I had other interests. All the other areas I took interest in came after we got a record deal. When all of these other roles and responsibilities that needed tending to opened up within the band, I was the one that tended to them. So it may have taken me away from the drums a bit more—and that was just on the career side.

On the personal side, my life was also changing. I got married and had two children, so when I wasn’t on the road or in the studio, I wanted to be home with my wife and kids and spend time with them. Or even watch TV. God forbid a drummer just watch TV instead of practicing! [laughs] As life goes on, responsibilities and priorities change. It wasn’t a conscious decision to shift my focus from drums to these other things more than it was just how my life was unfolding.

MD: And what gigs are you not getting right now because you chose to spend time pursuing things outside of drumming?

MP: That’s true! I have everything I can dream of right now. I’m playing in bands with guys like Billy Sheehan, Paul Gilbert, Steve Morse—these are guys that have always been my favorites, and now I’m in bands with them.

MD: Your son, Max, plays drums now and has a band. Considering the current state of the music industry, which would you offer as career advice: Stick with one band that you can cultivate, or be a part of as many projects as possible and see which one takes off?

MP: I suppose the grass is always greener on the other side. It would be hypocritical of me to say it’s great to be in a million bands at one time just because that’s what I happen to be doing at the moment. Fact is, I spent twenty-five years with one band, and that’s what ultimately gave me the ability and the outlet to do the numerous things I’m doing now. So I see the importance of both.

I had a talk with Brian Tichy about this recently. He has spent so many years playing for other artists, like Whitesnake, Ozzy, and Billy Idol. Now he has a band of his own, and he stopped playing with other bands in order to pursue his band. I am on the complete opposite side of that—I spent years with one band, and I now feel like a free bird. I want to sow my musical oats and play with as many people as I can and try as many different musical things as possible.

In a perfect world you could do both. But there’s no rule book. There are no laws in rock ’n’ roll; it’s different for everybody. All I know is that I wouldn’t change a thing in terms of my career. It’s been a dream career, and I like the fact that I was with one band for twenty-five years. Look at bands like Rush, Iron Maiden, or Metallica—Neil Peart, Nicko McBrain, and Lars Ulrich have basically just played in those bands, and there’s definitely something to be said for that.

MD: What do you think are the key things that helped you achieve your level of success, and what motivates you now?

MP: At the end of the day, perseverance and passion got me to where I am. The perseverance to succeed and to be able to make a name for myself and make a living with what I do took many years. Dream Theater was not an overnight success. It took years before things began to develop. And after twenty-five years and achieving dreams, like playing Madison Square Garden or being on the cover of Modern Drummer, I started to ask myself, What’s going to inspire my next wave of dreams? At that point it became a question of what I want to do rather that what I need to do. That was a big part of my struggle when deciding to leave Dream Theater. I got to a point where I was like, Should I stick this out or do what my heart is telling me to do?

At that time, I was playing with Avenged Sevenfold. That was so inspiring and so much fun, and I think it gave me the balls to make a big change in my life. Since then I’ve played with about twelve different bands or projects and made about ten albums, which were all things I wanted to do. I didn’t have to do them. In terms of my career, what I probably was supposed to do was stay with Dream Theater, but I realized I had lost my passion. Now I have that passion back. If I want to go and do an instrumental project with Tony MacAlpine, Billy Sheehan, and Derek Sherinian, I can. If I want to be a hired gun with Stone Sour or Bigelf, great; I go and do it. And it’s such a blessing to have gotten to this point in my life—to be happy! What a concept—to play music for the sake of being happy.

MD: The common analogy of how being in a band is like being married really seams fitting. As time passes, people either grow together or apart.

MP: It’s a perfect analogy—one I’ve made too—and I’m sorry that some Dream Theater fans get really mad at me for making that analogy. A band is like having multiple spouses, and the band itself is your baby. Being in a band is hard work, and there’s a reason not too many bands make it to that twenty-year mark or beyond. And until you’re actually in that position, you can’t truly know what it’s like.

MD: Right now, if there was a word-association game where people had to say the first thing that came to mind when they heard the name Mike Portnoy, the answer may very well be Dream Theater. But in another twenty-five years, perhaps it will be another band or, maybe even more simply, the word drummer. Do you have a preference?

MP: I would have no problem with Dream Theater being my legacy and being what I’m remembered for, because for twenty-five years I put my heart and soul into that baby. But I think there’s so much more for me to do, and I hope that the rest of my catalog will be remembered as well, because it’s all important to the big picture.

Mike’s Winery Dogs Setup

Portnoy setupDrums: Tama Starclassic Bubinga
A. 5.5×14 Mike Portnoy Bubinga Signature snare
B. 11×14 tom (in the studio; 10×13 live)
C. 16×16 floor tom
D. 16×18 floor tom
E. 18×24 bass drum

Cymbals: Sabian
1. 14” AAX V-Hats
2. 11” AAX Max splash
3. 19” AAX V-Crash
4. 22” Custom Shop Artisan Raw Bell Dry ride
5. 20” HHX-Plosion crash
6. 21” HHX Legacy ride

Hardware: Tama, including Speed Cobra bass drum pedals and hi-hat stand; Roadpro tom, snare, and cymbal stands; and 1st Chair Round Rider throne