By Roy Rahl
Mike Portnoy is a fun man to interview. He’s never short on topics to discuss and always has a dozen plates spinning at any given moment. Most musicians would be satisfied being in one successful band. I think Portnoy is currently in six or seven! Some would call that job security; I would call it exhaustion!
I was fortunate to be able to talk with Mike about The Neal Morse Band’s latest release, The Similitude of a Dream. This is a two CD concept album that will undoubtedly grace just about every prog fan’s library! It is an amazing work that in this writer’s opinion is by far the best progressive album of 2016. Portnoy is justifiably proud the album, and proud as well with the other projects he currently has going. Along with The Neal Morse Band there’s a bit of Dream Theater, Flying Colors, Transatlantic, and the Winery Dogs, Twisted Sister and even more in this interview. I hope you enjoy it!
Roy: It’s good to speak with you again. You’re always busy. I know we have the Neal Morse Band album to talk about, but what are you doing right now?
Mike: I just got back last night from Twisted Sister’s last American show, and then we got one more next month in Mexico and that we’ll wrap that up. The Winery Dog’s cycle just wrapped up as well, and we’re getting ready to kick off The Neal Morse Band cycle.
Roy: Busy as usual. I want your frequent flyer miles!
Mike: Ha! Yeah, I’m platinum on pretty much every airline.
Roy: Hold onto to them for a couple more years, you’ll be able to buy the airline.
Mike: [Laughs] Yeah!
Roy: So you have the new album out and I had the pleasure of getting to hear it. Man! You guys are always great, but this takes it to another level.
Mike: Thank you, man.
Roy: How did Neal approach you about this concept?
Mike: The concept, lyrically, was something that he was working on individually. But the collective process with all five of us, the music, the arrangements, and the performances, we worked on that first, and got the music together first. But Neal always had the lyrical concept tucked away in the back of his mind. But I don’t think he put pen to paper in terms of the final lyrics until we had arranged two CD’s worth of music.
The difference for this album, as well as The Grand Experiment which we put out last year … the big difference is that this is now a band. It’s The Neal Morse Band. Those four letters make a tremendous difference in what the chemistry now is, you know. In the past it was always Neal’s music with Randy [George] and I just coming on board to play. But now this is a band with all five of us working together and contributing musically and creatively on every level. So I think it’s taking what Neal and I have already been doing for so many years, but it’s now taking it to a new level because of Eric [Gillette], Bill [Hubauer] and Randy’s input as well.
Roy: I remember speaking with Neal and also with you. We kind of joked around a little bit because, I think for The Grand Experiment if I remember right, everybody kind of came into it with no music written. You just wrote everything right then and there. It seems like it’s a different approach this time.
Mike: Yeah, I think this time around there were a lot of demos and different ideas that were brought in and then we worked on it together as a band. We did a lot of the arranging and everything as a band. But there’s no shortage of ideas with this group of people. There’s just a constant influx of creativity. I mean it was a battle to narrow this down to just two CD’s. We probably could’ve easily done a three of four CD set if we had the time! [laughs] There’s just that level of creativity.
Roy: I know the lyrics are based off a book written in the 1600’s, The Pilgrim’s Progress, which somehow slipped past my reading queue [laughs]. Did you check it out before this took place or did you just take Neal’s word for it?
Mike: Me personally, no. I don’t know if the other guys dug into it. But frankly, to be blatantly honest about it, I have no idea of the story [laughs]. I never read the book. And frankly, not only this time around but any album I’ve done with Neal, you know, that’s his department. The lyrics are something that he’s obviously very passionate about. In the past he’s written a lot of spiritual lyrics and things like that. And I respect him for that, but that’s his thing. I myself am more concerned about the musical content and the arrangements and the production and the performances. But when it comes to the lyrics I kind of step back and Neal does his thing. So, to be honest I really had no involvement whatsoever the lyrical content and what was based on the book.
Roy: You mentioned this earlier, there’s over one hundred minutes of material on this album. Did you guys just go into musical overload on this? I mean, that’s a lot of content!
Mike: Yeah. I mean, at first I was actually very hesitant for it to be a double album. Most specifically, because Dream Theater had just done a double concept album. I was very hesitant to do one several months later or a year later because of the inevitable comparisons. So I was doing everything I personally could to steer it into a single CD. Once we got around the fifty minute mark at that point we needed to make a decision. Okay, is it the end of this one or are we rounding the approach of the end of the album? Are we going to make it a single or are we going to make it a double? To be honest, the battle between Neal and I, one of the few times we’ve ever disagreed, he felt strongly it should be a double. There was so much left to say and that we should let it run its course. And I was struggling with that. But ultimately we let the music do the talking and we just kept writing and it became pretty obvious that there was enough there that it needed to be a double album in order for it to truly run its proper course.
Roy: Well, I for one am kind of glad you didn’t get your way on that one!
Mike: Ha! [laughs]
Roy: I just did a review of the album and I noted that you made a statement that this is the album of your career. To me that’s quite a profound declaration. What in particular led you to make such a statement like that? That’s pretty strong.
Mike: Yeah. I don’t normally do that either. I’ve seen a lot of people online say, “Oh, Mike always says that”. But no, I really don’t, actually. It’s very, very rare that I’ve come out and said that anything is what I consider one of my greatest works. And I really do with this album. I think I just have a soft spot for a concept album. I think most of my favorite albums of my catalog are the concept albums that I’ve done. Whether it be Dream Theater’s Scene From A Memory or Transatlantic’s The Whirlwind. And some of my favorite albums as a listener are concept albums. You know, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, The Who’s Tommy. So, I’ve always had a soft spot for concept albums, and being that this is also a double concept album it just takes it to a whole new level of intensity.
You know, it’s more than just an album if you listen to this thing from start to finish. It feels like you’ve just watched a film or read a great book. It’s just got such an incredible feeling of emotional fulfillment when you finally get to the end of it. It’s such an emotional and musical journey. So all those reasons are the reasons why I’ve proclaimed it to be one of my favorites. I think it’s just mine and Neal’s greatest work together.
Roy: Well it’s going to go down as a fantastic concept album. The progressive style does kind of lead to these concept albums, where you have such a wide variety of music going on even just in one piece. From acoustic quiet to in your face high intensity music. You guys do that very well.
Mike: Thank you. Neal and I have now done eighteen studio albums together and I’m proud of each and every one of them, but I think this one is the desert island one. If there was only one I could recommend for somebody to hear to get an idea of what mine and Neal’s work is, I think this encapsulates all of it.
Roy: There certainly are a lot of comparisons with Similitude - and I thank you guys very much for making me go pull a dictionary to find that word …
Mike: [Laughs] We had to pull it up on YouTube to see how to pronounce it. I wasn’t sure if it was SI-mil-it-ude or si-MIL-it-ude. So we actually had to go to YouTube to hear the correct pronunciation of it.
Roy: I’ve been using si-MIL-it-ude. I don’t know if that’s the right way or not.
Mike: That’s what they said on YouTube.
Roy: Well there are comparisons with it and The Wall. They’re landmark albums. One thing about The Wall, for a band it kind of did in Pink Floyd in terms of Gilmour and Waters together. Now a lot of that was a long brewing animosity. But at one point, I’m just thinking they wondered, “What do we do after that?” What do you do after The Wall? Do you guys find yourself thinking the same thing? Man, what do we do after this? How do you top it?
Mike: Well, I’ve kind of felt that before. The albums I named earlier from my past, like Scenes From A Memory and The Whirlwind. In both cases I think we did okay. Dream Theater followed up with Six Degrees and Transatlantic followed up with Kaleidoscope, and in both cases I think we were able to move on. I think really all you need to do is just try to do something different.
I think we went to the ultimate of excess in terms of conceptual stuff here. But honestly, this is Neal’s third double concept album. He did Snow with Spock’s Beard and his first solo album, Testimony, was also a double concept album. So he’s no stranger to that format. In each case you kind of just brush yourself off, you look at your previous album with a lot of pride, but the goal is to constantly keep challenging yourself and inspiring each other, and he and I seem to do that each and every time.
Roy: You mentioned Transatlantic and Dream Theater. As I was listening there were places where I was thinking this sounds just like Transatlantic to me. Was there a desire to return to those roots or is it just part of the nature of the material?
Mike: I think it is just the nature of Neal and I working together. He and I are a big part of the Transatlantic chemistry. But another thing, I feel The Neal Morse Band probably has more in connection to Dream Theater, actually, and I think a lot of that is Eric Gillette’s amazing guitarwork. I think The Neal Morse Band can go pound for pound with any band out there with each individual instrumentalist. Eric Gillette in particular is such an incredible guitar player. He’s also an amazing singer as well. Bill Hubauer is also a great singer. So, you know, I think there’s a lot going for each member of this band, not only in terms of the writing and chemistry, but also in terms of the individual instrumental performance abilities.
Roy: Well I called The Grand Experiment the best progressive album of 2015 and I think this one is on track for 2016.
Mike: Thank you!
Roy: Have you guys finalized any tour plans?
Mike: Oh yeah! The dates are already out there. We’ve already announced at least three or four months worth of touring. January through April is pretty much full. We have a full US leg. We have a full European leg. So all the dates are out there. You can go to my website or Neal’s website. It’s going to be a pretty extensive tour for this band. It’s probably the most extensive one that this band has done.
Roy: I spoke with you last time about your drum setup. I know you went a little more slimmed down for The Winery Dogs. Are you going to go full on Dream Theater this time? Are you slimming things down a little bit? What are we looking like as far as what you’re bringing?
Mike: I have different setups for different bands. The Winery Dogs was more of a slimmed down old school setup. My Metal Allegiance and my Twisted Sister kits were pretty huge heavy metal kits. The kits that I use with my stuff with Neal is a little bit in the middle. Pretty much for all three bands that Neal and I are in together, which is The Neal Morse Band, Transatlantic, and Flying Colors it’s the same setup for all three of those bands. It’s a single bass with a double paddle, three racks, and a shit-ton of cymbals. It’s a pretty basic prog setup.
Roy: Shit-ton is a musical term, right?
Mike: Yeah, I learned that at Berklee.
Roy: [laughs] You’re singing a lot more on this album, am I right about that? I hear a lot more of you than on The Grand Experiment, up front, I guess I would say.
Mike: I’m singing a fair amount, but not any more than in the past. Honestly, I think I sing a lot more in Flying Colors, Transatlantic and The Winery Dogs. But I think one of the great things about The Neal Morse band as it is now is that it’s not just Neal singing. Eric and Bill have very prominent lead parts. I have a couple of lead parts myself. All four of us are singing, kind of like we do in Transatlantic as well. I think that’s one of the great qualities of this band is the multiple vocalists.
Roy: Absolutely. It just adds more flavor layers to the whole thing.
Roy: I have sort of an offbeat question. As a hack guitarist I have always been fascinated with drummers who sing because it seems like of all the instruments drums would be the most be the most difficult to pull off in a concert situation. Do you have difficulty keeping a smooth, unshaken tone while your whole body is bouncing around?
Mike: Honestly, no. I’m obviously not a trained vocalist. I just do it for the love of being involved in singing and stuff like that. A lot of the bands I’m a part of I write a lot of the vocal melodies and things like that. Especially in Dream Theater, I did a lot of that. So ultimately I ended up singing a lot because it was my melodies and my words in a lot of cases with Dream Theater. That’s when it began, and since then I think … I like bands with multiple singers, even if the singers aren’t great. I think just having the different tones and personalities are a great thing. I think what made Pink Floyd so great was Roger and Rick and Dave all singing. If you listen to Kiss or Queen or the Beatles, any band where multiple members sing I just think that’s a great asset to the band.
But as far as the physical part of me singing and playing at the same time, it’s pretty easy. I’ve never really had to think about it. I think the harder thing is for a sound man. Usually it’s very difficult to record or have a vocal mic when you’re surrounded by such loud acoustic drums. You don’t really have that with a guitar player or a keyboard player. But when micing a singing drummer that’s one of the big difficulties, trying to separate the drums from the vocals because of how loud it is acoustically.
Roy: Right. It’s going to bleed over no matter what you do.
Roy: Well, in the tradition of being a greedy, insatiable fan never satisfied with what I’ve already been given, let me ask what is next for you? Are you doing anything with Flying Colors any time soon?
Mike: Yeah! We convene in December to begin writing album number three. So depending on how the writing process goes that will kind of dictate when the next record will be out. But if everything goes well at the first writing process in December, as I anticipate it probably will, it’s safe to say we’ll get to work on another album next year and maybe have it out by the end of next year. So that’s in the pipeline. There’s another Metal Allegiance album we’re going to begin work on as well. Like I said earlier we’re finishing up a live Winery Dogs package and another Twisted Sister show before wrapping that up. So there’s a lot going on. Plus, next year I’m also going to be doing some one-off shows with my Shattered Fortress event which is basically me and some guys performing the Dream Theater Twelve-Step Suite exclusively at some prog festivals. So that’s also in the pipeline for next year as well.
Roy: Flying Colors is kind of the difficult one, right? Isn't that the band where the scheduling is kind of crazy with everybody being in different bands?
Mike: Most of these guys that I work with are in multiple bands, so the scheduling is always hard. But with Flying Colors it’s particularly hard because Deep Purple don’t always give Steve a lot of advance notice on his availability. So he’s kind of like on a tight leash having to be available for them so it makes it a little bit more difficult for us to schedule. But we put something on the calendar close to Christmas knowing he would definitely be home and off during that period so that’s when we’re going to kind of dig in and get to work on album number three.
Roy: I would love to see an extended tour on that. I know you guys only did a few cities when the last album was released.
Mike: Yeah, we only did ten shows on the last album. So I would love to tour more extensively with Flying Colors. It’s really a very, very special, special band with a great chemistry. I know all of us would love to do more work with it. It’s just a matter of the scheduling.
Roy: Well I really appreciate you taking the time for me. I absolutely love this album.
Mike: Thank you.
Roy: I’m always looking forward to whatever is next. You take care.
Mike: Thanks, man.
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