Mike Portnoy - Living Life On A Hot Streak

By Roy Rahl

Mike Portnoy is the quintessential hardworking, blue collar superstar. The man never stops and I want his frequent flyer miles! While most musicians would be content with playing in one successful band Mike Portnoy currently plays in six! How he manages to keep them all straight in his head escapes me.

What doesn’t escape me is how, despite the sheer volume of work being produced, he manages to keep the quality level higher than the quantity level. Being prolific is one thing, creating a product worth listening to is entirely different. Portnoy does both and makes it look easy.

His current project is The Winery Dogs, along with fellow band members Billy Sheehan and Richie Kotzen. They’re filling venues all across the country and will soon embark upon an extensive world tour promoting the recent release of the album Hot Streak. I feel fortunate to have spoken with him right after a sound check during a rare pause before his next show. It was a fun interview!

Roy: You’re in Houston on the western portion of a pretty extensive tour. How is everybody holding up and how are the crowd responses?

Mike: Well, those are two different questions! [laughs] I’ll start with the crowd response. It’s been great so far. We’ve only been out for two weeks or so, and so far so good. We’re probably going to be out for at least the next year or so. I think we have stuff scheduled and penciled in at least until the end of next summer. So, it’s going to be a long road ahead of us and we’re only just now getting started. But the crowd responses have been awesome.

How are we holding up? We’re holding up well. But like I said, it’s only two weeks out of what’s probably going to be a year’s worth of touring, so it’s very early in the game.

Roy: Not only have you got the U.S. but you’ve got Europe coming up as well, right?

Mike: We’ve got Europe, Japan, South America. It’s a big planet and it takes a while to get to all the different areas. The Winery Dogs, thank God, have a good international following. It takes time to get to every place. So we go to Europe, go to South America, go to Asia, so on and so forth. We like touring and we like playing and luckily we’ve got a good fan base everywhere right now.

Roy: It sounds like things are coming together well. I’m asking because I’m going to see you in Las Vegas when you come here in a week or two. I’m just wondering what I can expect to see.

Mike: Well that particular gig is a pretty small club so you’ll be catching one of the real intimate ones. What can you expect with us? It’s all about the playing so we don’t even need a big venue, you know. We just need a stage with our instruments. That’s what this band is about.

Roy: I’m looking forward to it. I have to tell you, three of my favorite albums out in the past year are Hot Streak, Second Nature, and The Grand Experiment.

Mike: Ha! [laughs] Wow, thank you. If you had added Metal Allegiance I could have had the grand slam, but I’ll settle for the hat trick!

Roy: [laughs] That’s what I’m saying, there seems to be one common feature within all of them. I asked this same question of Neal Morse, do you ever wake up in the morning and ask yourself “which band am I in today”?

Mike: Well, I’m currently in six. Neal’s only got three. He’s a lightweight!

Look, I’m just a music lover and I love playing. I’m a workaholic, so it’s what I do. I have no problem juggling all of them, and to me it’s a pleasure. But, yeah, it’s a lot of work and a lot of diversity. What you just named, between Winery Dogs, Neal Morse Band, and Flying Colors, those are very, very different types of bands, each one of them. They all give me very different outlets. And in my case, you throw Metal Allegiance in there, and Twisted Sister in there as well, and I’m getting to cover so much musical ground. To me, that’s what it’s about.

Roy: How does the songwriting process differ between all those bands? Do you change your approach when you’re in a Neal Morse progressive style and then maybe a more aggressive Winery Dogs type of style? How do you adjust in your songwriting process?

Mike: Well, in each case I kind of have to wear different hats depending on the situations. Some of these bands I’m more of a leader and some of them I’m more of a collaborator. In some cases, like Twisted Sister, I’m just a hired gun. So I have to play a different role in each one of these bands, not only musically but personally in terms of the chemistry with the different people involved.

In answer to your question, is the writing different? It doesn’t differ that much. I mean, the process in The Winery Dogs is the same process as Flying Colors and with the new Neal Morse Band now that we’re writing as a band. So in all three of these cases that you cited, and I guess it’s the same with Metal Allegiance as well, it’s a matter of just getting in a room and bouncing ideas off of each other and collaborating. Every one of these bands kind of do it the same way. But depending on the people you’re in the room with the outcome is going to be tremendously different.

Roy: Well, like on Hot Streak, given everybody’s schedule, did you guys just meet in a room and say “okay we’re gonna do this” or did you have pre-written songs that you were kicking around?

Mike: No, no, no. We started from scratch with this album. We had a completely empty palette. We penciled in the window when we wanted to reconvene, which in this case was January, 2015. We penciled that in to begin the next Winery Dogs cycle. We got together in January with a completely empty palette. No song ideas, no demos, no riffs. Nothing. It was completely spontaneous. And the three of us, within five days, we had sketched out fifteen songs musically. The three of us are just very, very prolific. All three of us have been doing this a long time individually so we know how to work quickly and professionally, get our heads together and be productive.

Roy: Did you find that as it was your second album you were able to do things a little bit differently than the first time you got together, or was it more like “we know what we want and we’re just going to hammer it out”?

Mike: The process wasn’t much different than the first time. The only difference was the first time Richie had a couple song ideas to fall back on, ‘cause the first time around we didn't know how it was going to go. So we had a little bit of a safety net with a couple of songs that he presented as a starting point. This time around there was nothing like that. We started from complete scratch. So that was different, but otherwise the process was the same. The way that we worked together and collaborated on the arrangements, and the songs, and the structures, and the chords, that process was the same.

I guess the other big difference was that this time around we were a real band. When we made the first record it was just the three of us as an experiment, you know. There was no audience yet. There was no record company yet. We didn’t know what style we would go down. It was all an experiment the first time around. This time around we’re coming off over a hundred shows together all around the world for a couple of years together. So this time we were a real band coming in.

Roy: I was struck by something you said about the band. You said, “The mission of the band is to write catchy songs and not have the musicianship overpower that.” Can you elaborate a little bit on what you meant?

Mike: Well, I mean, the three of us have all been in bands in the past where there was a lot of shredding, or a lot of technicality, or a lot of instrumental wiggling. Really that was never the goal of The Winery Dogs. When the three of us came together we kind of established from the get-go that we wanted to write hooky, memorable, hummable songs. We wanted the vocals to be the primary focal point of the band. Not only Richie’s vocals, but we wanted to have a lot of three part harmonies with all three of us singing. That was always the goal and the focus of this band. It was to have the songs and the vocals come first. The good thing about The Winery Dogs is you’ve got a little bit of both. With others you may have bands that have great musicians but they really can’t write a memorable song. They’re just kind of like robots playing their instruments. And then there’s other bands where you have great memorable songs but they’re not really very good musicians. So I think luckily with The Winery Dogs we’re able to capture a balance between the two.

Roy: I think that often when you have a really talented lineup you might fall into the trap of performing for musicians versus performing for people who just like music.

Mike: Well, that’s the thing. I think people had this preconception when they heard the three of us were forming a band. They thought it was going to be this instrumental shred-fest. But really that’s not something that interests any of the three of us. I think all three of us are kind of beyond that at this stage.

Roy: You don’t really have to prove anything anymore. You can do what’s best. Tell me about how you came up with “Oblivion”. That song is a great opener for the album. As I wrote in my review, you didn’t want people to ease into this album by any means. You just grabbed them immediately.

Mike: Well, actually “Oblivion” is a strange example because we wrote that song last year while we were still on tour with the first album. We were actually in tour rehearsals and decided to write something new to add into the set list. So we wrote that one afternoon at my house, pretty much banged it out in like thirty minutes.

Roy: Really!

Mike: We played it pretty much at all the shows in 2014 before we had ever recorded it. When we wrote that we had been playing “Shy Boy” in the set list on the last tour, and that song always brought the house down. So we knew we wanted to have something in that vein. Something that was real upbeat and a bit of a barnburner. So that was kind of our way of writing a song like that. We pretty much knew that it had to open this album and open the show as well.

Roy: It’s a real attention getter.

Mike: Yeah, totally.

Roy: A strange kind of nerdy, techie question. When I hear your playing, in my head I picture you playing two kick drums. But I saw on the Flying Colors DVD that you’re playing a single kick.

Mike: Well, in my post-Dream Theater career I’ve been doing lots of different things and each one of them has a different drum kit. So not only in all these cases am I getting to do different styles and work with different musicians but I’m also working with different setups in each band. For me that’s been a lot of fun getting to mix it up and try different things.

Roy: Is there a dexterity issue when you start going into those insane eighth and sixteenth note power runs when playing on a single kick versus a double?

Mike: Nah. I think a good drummer can play on any size kit. The entire first Winery Dogs cycle I was playing just a small five piece John Bonham setup, only because I am so tired of the giant hundred piece setup that I’ve become known for with Dream Theater. It kind of started to bore me and I needed to change it up just to keep evolving and trying different things. So the entire first Winery Dogs album and tour was done on this tiny little five piece kit. Now this time around on this album and tour I’ve kind of continued to evolve. Now I’m playing a double bass kit. It’s still a very old school setup and it’s all single headed toms just to kind of mix it up and have a bit more of a retro feel.

Like I said before, a good drummer can play anything on any setup. To me, anything I do is all about the kick and the snare and always providing a solid backbeat. Everything else is kind of just icing on the cake.

Roy: Well, it’s a hell of a lot of icing!

Mike: Ha! [laughs]

Roy: Who came up with “Think It Over”? That has a very old school, Fender Rhodesy, wah-wah guitar type of groove to it.

Mike: We write everything together, so every track on the album was written by all three of us sitting in the room jamming. Richie just went over to his Wurlitzer and started banging on those chords. Me and Billy joined in and that’s how it came about. We wanted to give it like a gospel swing and feel to it. Me and Billy do a lot of backups on that one.

Roy: It’s got a nice seventies feel to it.

Mike: We try different things on all different songs. I think “Think It Over” has got a bit of a gospel thing, and “Hot Streak’s” a bit funky, “Spiral’s” got almost like a disco vibe, “Fire’s” got  more like an adult contemporary vibe. So we’re not afraid to explore different areas and styles.

Roy: Aside from Hot Streak you’ve also got a new live album and DVD coming out from Flying Colors. Can we talk about that a little bit?

Mike: Sure.

Roy: One of the things I really liked about Second Flight is you were doing just one night in each city. I appreciated that you shot that entire DVD in one concert. It wasn’t a spliced combination of different venues where you’re taking the best parts of each. It was interesting that you chose Switzerland to film. As you mention on the DVD they’re not exactly the most outgoing, demonstrative people.

Mike: No. The thing with the Flying Colors tour, we had a very restricted window of opportunity to play just because Steve could only get X amount of time away from Deep Purple. They would only give him a very small window to work with. So it’s like, okay, you got two weeks. You can do ten shows. Let’s just get to every market that we can within those ten shows. So we did LA, Chicago, Philly, London, Paris. One of them was at this venue in Switzerland called the Z7. So yeah, you wouldn’t think of Switzerland to be the first market you’d think of to film a DVD or to even play, for that matter. But this one particular venue called the Z7 is pretty legendary in terms of being supportive, especially of the prog community. And I’ve played there I think eight different times with eight different bands in the past three years. I’ve played there so many times that they actually have my own mug with my face on it in catering and they keep it there for me.

The point is that it’s this legendary venue and most rock and progressive metal bands go through there and it just felt like it a good place to document Flying Colors. The first DVD was done in Holland so we didn’t want to repeat that. And the Z7 has a really good stage and a really good sound system and lighting systems. So it just felt like, alright, let’s film it here.

Roy: That was just immediately after you released the album, Second Nature, wasn’t it?

Mike: Well that tour was only ten shows and it was literally two weeks following the record’s release. So it was brand new and fresh. Those were the only shows we did so we knew we needed to capture one of them to share with the rest of the world that wasn’t able to get a show. It’s a very, very special band. Because of the scheduling it’s not the sort of band where you’re guaranteed to see us live. It’s not something that should be taken for granted. So if Flying Colors is coming around you want to catch it because you never know when it’s going to happen again or if it’ll happen again. But luckily this DVD will serve as a nice souvenir that captured that tour.

Roy: I know you’re really busy so I’ll let you go. But one final question: I know you’ve got this long tour coming up, but which group is next after this?

Mike: Well right now my priority is The Winery Dogs for the next year. But of course, in true Mike Portnoy fashion, I do have things going on with all these other bands as well. The Flying Colors DVD next month as you spoke about. In January I’m going to be going down to Australia and possibly South America as well with Metal Allegiance. And then all through next summer I’m also going to be doing double duty helping out Twisted Sister and completing their farewell tour with them. So, even though The Winery Dogs is pretty much my priority for the next year I’m gonna be sprinkling in wherever I can with Metal Allegiance and Twisted Sister as well.  And at some point doing a Neal Morse Band album. So yeah, never a dull moment for me.

Roy: There’s another Morse Band album in the works?

Mike: Well, we’re just talking about when we can schedule it right now, working around my schedule with Winery Dogs, Metal Allegiance and Twisted Sister. Somewhere in there I’ll find the time to schedule the next writing and recording for The Neal Morse Band.

Roy: You can piece together three days to write an album?

Mike: [laughs] That’s all we need. Me and Neal can do it very, very easily.

Roy: Well, like I said I really appreciate the time. I’m looking forward to seeing you when you get here. You take care.

Mike: Alright man. Thanks. See ya.