Fly, Mike, Fly High

He’s free as a bird, and he’s happy. Mike Portnoy has been playing in one band after the other for four years now, and it seems to be doing him a world of good. “I always knew that there was way, way more bubbling underneath the surface that needed to get out and be explored and still does!”, he confesses in the following interview, adding: “I don’t want to live in the shadow of only one band”. Things couldn’t be clearer: Mike Portnoy is over his 2010 break-up with Dream Theater and is now concentrating on the new bands with whom he’s started a stable relationship. As proof of that, Flying Colors is releasing a second album that shows a broadening of their musical horizon, and the Winery Dogs trio has also embarked on a new album cycle. But going stable doesn’t mean having no ambitions or ideas on the side – and extreme metal seems to be one such ambition.

We talked about the drummer Mike Portnoy, who’s having fun whatever he’s playing, about the “default” leader Mike Portnoy, who can also be happy as a simple musician in a band, and about the communicator Mike Portnoy, who’s now weary of the controversy that being open and honest can create. But before all that, let’s talk about the new Flying Colors album, which is worth every second spent listening to it.

« I jump from tour to tour and album to album and band to band, and to me that is my learning process. That’s my developing process. »

Radio Metal: The music on this second Flying Colors album sounds more “proggy” and less straight forward than the first album. Is this because you guys knew each other better this time and felt more at your ease expanding on the music?

Mike Portnoy (drums): I think so. I think we were able to let everything breathe and develop a little bit more. The first time around we kind of didn’t know what to expect and I think we were being very self conscious to keep it so simple and so concise, plus we had Peter Collins there producing as well. So I think that with the first album we kind of laid down the blue print of what the Flying Colors sound and style needed to be. And I think that this time around we had already established that and we were able to kind of explore a little bit more.

The album is called Second Nature, is this because the music on this album was conceived very naturally, as if it was a second nature for the band?

I think that sums it up and I think that’s a great way of interpreting that expression, second nature. It does mean that something comes naturally and that’s what happens with [the music in] this band. The writing, the music and the songs really comes incredibly naturally for the five of us. So, yeah, I suggested the title Second Nature. It was obviously a fitting sense but it was also fitting because it’s the band’s second record. The funny thing is that everything in the band, musically, comes very easy but then all the rest of the decision making process is a battle. I was almost joking halfway through saying that maybe we should change the album title to Second Guessing! [Laughs] Because the music was easy but then we had to decide for the album artwork and this and that, and all the other decisions that come with it and all of them were tough battles.

What would be a second nature for you personally?

Drumming, to be honest. Drumming is something, to me, that come very naturally and easily. Whenever I’m making a record with any band, I’m not really focused on the drumming; I’m more concentrating on the songwriting, the melodies, the riffs, the progressions, the arrangements, the production… I’m not even thinking about the drums. The drums come as very second nature to me.

The album apparently took almost a year to be conceived with different writing sessions done in different places at different times and even via Skype. How did you manage to get a unity and consistency with what seemed to be an erratic way of working?

The consistency was due to the fact that it was always the five of us in a room collaborating, whether it’d be at Neal’s studio or my studio or even all five of us on the screen via Skype. The fact that everything was collaborated by all five of us kept it consistent and kept it focused. Whether it’d been over the course of many different sessions and many different locations, the chemistry was always still the same. So that was the most important thing, that it was always the five of us, and that kept it focused.

The song “Peaceful Hardor” has a strong gospel vibe, so could this be like you new “The Spirit Carries On”?

“Peaceful Harbor” came about from a thing that Casey was singing at sound check on the 2012 tour and, in fact, if you watch the Live In Europe DVD, you can see him singing that opening melody before his solo spot. We decided to write a song around it. Steve had some really cool guitar chords and this real gospel kind of celtic, folk hymn sort of thing. So we put those ideas together and then Neal arranged the gospel singers at the end. It all came together to create this real Pink Floyd kind of vibe song. This is another side of Flying Colors, you know. I think that everything about Flying Colors is that diversity from style to style, from song to song.

And what is your own relationship with gospel music?

I have none! [Laughs] My exposure to gospel music is whatever Pink Floyd utilizes. [Laughs] That’s the extent of it for me. But obviously it’s huge for Neal. Neal is a Christian and spends most of his time in church, so obviously it’s a huge inspiration for him. And I’m not sure about the other guys.

« I want to be able to be a personality with its own voice, with a broad – a very, very broad – spectrum of colors, styles, albums and bands. That’s who Mike Portnoy is. »

The last song of the album is an epic song composed of three parts. What’s the story behind this concept?

We were coming to the end of the writing process and we had a lot of ideas still sitting on the table that we hadn’t tapped into and utilized. So I suggested: “Why don’t we do a little suite where we could actually take a bunch of these ideas and put them together?” And that’s exactly what happened. It started off with this opening piece that Casey had which was very, very creepy and eerie and had this kind of Radiohead vibe. So we utilized that and expanded upon it, and morphed it into a middle section which Dave had. Dave had this really cool bass line and progression. And then we built it into this final piece that Casey had called “Pound For Pound”. We just tied them all together to make one cohesive kind of three parts suite that utilizes all these different ideas together.

The band chose to self produce the album this time. What motivated this choice?

I think that everybody realized after the first album that we were more than capable of doing it ourselves. There were already enough chefs in the kitchen as it was. The idea of having a producer for the first album was something that I personally didn’t agree with; I didn’t think we needed it but a few people did think we needed it the first time around. I guess they wanted to have that safety net, an objective referee to kind of be in the studio to oversee, you know, an objective ear. But I think that, ultimately, we proved the first time around that we were more than capable of doing it. So this time around we decided to just keep the five of us in the studio and I think it was fine.

Bill Evans is considered to be the man responsible for the concept of Flying Colors, but what concretely is his role and input in the band?

Well, his role started at the conception of the band. He was the one that assembled Neal and Steve together, and then Steve brought in Dave and Neal brought in me and then I brought in Casey. But Bill was the guy that had these ideas and the concept about what this band could be and put us all together. And from there he let us make the music but once we’ve made the record then we hand it over to him and he’s very involved in the marketing, working with the label, the creative decisions with the album promotion… So yeah, he’s still very involved in that sense.

I had Paul Gilbert on the phone two days ago and he told me that he thought about you to play some drumming on his new solo album because he knew that you would have fun with simple stuff. He said that some other drummers would have complained about the fact that a song like “Why Don’t We Do It On The Road” is too simple. Is this what kind of sets you apart from other very skilled and technical drummers, it’s that you actually enjoy and don’t get bored by just playing simple beats?

I think that I proved that over the years. Me and Paul have had a bunch of tribute bands together; we did a Beatles tribute, a Who tribute, a Zeppelin tribute… In all those cases, it was some very song oriented bands with some simple playing, and I have a love for that! I love playing stuff for the songs. My musical tastes aren’t only progressive technical things. I have a fondness and a love for all kinds of music that range from the simplicity of the Beach Boys all the way up to the brutality of Pantera. I’m a music fan of so many styles. I made my reputation in 25 years playing very technical music with Dream Theater but that was only ever one side of what I’m about. And I think that I needed to get out of the shadow of Dream Theater to prove that there’s a lot more to Mike Portnoy than just that. And, you know, everything that I’ve been doing in the last couple of years, from the Flying Colors to the Winery Dogs to playing with Big Elf to playing with Stone Sour… Those are all part of the big picture that makes me who I am and I love playing simple, I love playing heavy, I love playing complex, I love playing light and melodic, I love it all! I’m a music lover! And I don’t want to be defined by just one thing.

But is it precisely what sets you apart from other very technical drummers that seem to be getting pleasure from playing only complex drum parts?

Well, I think it’s what sets me apart from the very beginning! I think that, even though I was playing very technical music with Dream Theater, if you saw us live, my stage presence was always that of Lars Ulrich meets Keith Moon. You never would see a prog drummer like Neil Peart or Bill Bruford acting that way on stage! [Chuckles] So I think I broke the mold from the very beginning. I was always the sort of drummer and musician that embraced and incorporated all of that stuff. I’m the biggest Slayer fan and I’m the biggest Beatles fan, and that’s the same person wearing the same shoes.

« I miss being the leader because it’s much easier functioning that way! »

Would you say that some very technical drummers out there tend to forget how to make a groove actually sound good, with a good feeling and with emotion?

I think so. Yeah, there’s a lot of drummers out there that I watch that are more concerned with technique than they are with having personality or… You know, that doesn’t interests me. I would much rather watch somebody like Keith Moon than somebody who’s sitting there playing the most perfectly executed technical drumming part. To me that’s boring. I’d rather watch somebody like Keith Moon who doesn’t have a great technique but was at least entertaining, fun to watch and put a smile on my face, you know. [Chuckles] That’s what it’s about: it’s all about the smile! I don’t want to sit there and watch a master musician on stage, I wanna sit there and watch a performer that’s gonna put a smile on my face and inspire me to want to make music and listen to music. That’s way more valuable to me.

I remember an interview that we did with Devin Townsend where he said that he loved “the idea of working with people who have the potential of doing anything but choose not to do it”, that he liked “that restrain”. He was actually speaking of Morgan Ågren… What do you think about that statement?

That idea is very true. I mean, here we are talking about me and my music, so I guess that’s a statement I can relate to. I think it applies to me. Like, I’m capable of going up there and playing in 21/16 time, but I don’t if it’s not what the music calls for. I’m more than happy to just play a simple back beat and lay down a simple drum loop, like what I do on the “Cosmic Symphony” on the Flying Colors album. But I’m capable of playing a hundred pieces drum kit if it’s what’s appropriate, but I think that a real mature musician will know what’s appropriate and apply himself accordingly.

You’ve been quoted saying that you don’t practice your drums anymore. However, do you have some sort of a routine, like a warm-up exercise to do every day in order to maintain your skills at a certain level?

Nah… To me, my form of practice is playing live on stage or in the studio with all the different bands I play with. At this point in my career I jump from tour to tour and album to album and band to band, and to me that is my learning process. That’s my developing process. Each one of these bands and tours and albums, I’m playing on different kits, on different styles, with different people, and that to me, this is how I’m developing as a drummer. Sitting in my basement and practicing a tempo of two hundred and forty beats per second, that doesn’t interests me; that’s just developing a machine. I’d rather spend my time collaborating with other musicians that inspire me and making music that moves me. And to me, that’s a way more fulfilling form of development in making me a better drummer.

With all the bands you’ve been playing with in the recent years, it sounds like you’re trying to express all the aspect of your musical personality that Dream Theater actually concentrated before in one place. So aren’t you actually missing playing and creating music in that kind of band? Have you thought about founding a new prog metal band where you’d be able to pursue what you had in Dream Theater?

I think I pursue everything I was doing in Dream Theater with everything else I’m doing. But I’m able to do it with lots of different people. With Dream Theater it was just the same four people over and over and over and over, and I could only develop so far playing the same songs over and over with the same people. To me, it’s about exploring with different people and different mind, and collaborating with personalities and different voices. And I can expand further with all these different styles. I didn’t want to be defined by Dream Theater; I want to be defined by all of these things that I do in my career. I don’t want to live in the shadow of only one band. I want to be able to be a personality with its own voice, with a broad – a very, very broad – spectrum of colors, styles, albums and bands. That’s who Mike Portnoy is. What I did in Dream Theater for 25 years shows you one side of Mike Portnoy, but I always knew that there was way, way more bubbling underneath the surface that needed to get out and be explored and still does! And, to me, that has been musically satisfying. What I’ve done over the last four years, I never would have been able to do if I stayed in one band. I’ve now made over a dozen albums, with a dozen of different bands and toured with a dozen of different bands, played with everybody from Stone Sour to Fates Warning to Avenged Sevenfold to Big Elf to Winery Dogs to Transatlantic to Flying Colors… You ask me if I miss the style of what I did in Dream Theater, you know, I put together PSMS (Portnoy, Sheehan, MacAlpine and Sherinian) with whom I got to do a little bit of that style. But, you know, I don’t miss doing that one style. If I did, I would have stayed there. I needed to get out and explore lots of things.

« I found that, that kind of frank and candid conversations sometimes causes repercussions, with things being taken out of context or being misunderstood. […] So the idea of doing an biography kind of scares me in that sense [laughs]. »

All those bands, like Transatlantic, Flying Colors, The Winery Dogs or even Adrenaline Mob, didn’t really feature any “leaders”. Was that on purpose from your part? Has it been important for you to shy away from this status of being a leader?

Well, I think I was the leader in Dream Theater because I was always the most outspoken, I always had the strongest vision and I always had that extroverted personality. So I think that I was the leader by default! Because I always had the strongest personality in that band. But now, since then, I’ve worked with bands with other very strong personalities. You know, working with The Winery Dogs, with Billy Sheehan and Richie Kotzen, those guys have strong opinions and they have a lot of history as well, so you need to respect that and work with it. The same goes for Flying Colors, you know, working with Steve Morse and Neal Morse, you gotta learn to collaborate. With anything that I’ve done post Dream Theater I haven’t been the leader because they’ve been more collaborative situations with the personalities involved. To be honest I miss being the leader because it’s much easier functioning that way! In Dream Theater I made a million decisions and I just did them on my own. I didn’t have to send a million emails for every idea. You know, with Transatlantic, Flying Colors and The Winery Dogs, for every idea there’s a hundred emails that go back and forth [laughs] to come up with a definitive agreeable decision. It’s frustrating! It’s absolutely frustrating working that way. And I do miss the simplicity of running the show myself. But with running the show yourself also comes a tremendous amount of pressure, and there a tremendous amount of weight involved with that. So, you know, I think that during these four years, in every one of these bands I kind of had to play different roles. Every time you start working with other people, you have to kind of feel out the situation. Sometimes maybe somebody doesn’t want to be involved in one area so then you pick up the slack and you run with it and make the decisions. And then there’s other times when you have somebody who feels very passionate about a certain area and you’ve got to let them have they say, learn to compromise and be a team player. I think I’ve been very good at being a team player. I think a lot of people see me as this control freak because that was the role I had in Dream Theater but that was by default. But I can be a very good team player as well. If you look at any band I’m doing now, I’m very much a team player. I’m also very comfortable being a hired gun, you know! With Avenged Sevenfold, with Big Elf, with Neal Morse’s solo band, I just come and play drums, and I’m more than happy to play that role if that’s what’s required.

And by the way, as a leader you were the one that put in place and was in charge of the releases through Ytsejam Records. Aren’t you a bit disappointed that it’s not really maintained anymore?

Yeah! It’s unfortunate but I was always the man with the archives, I’m the one that has the entire archives from 1985 to 2010. So, unfortunately, when I left the band, with that went the archives. I’m not allowed to release anything from it. So there you go, it’s out of my control. It’s sad, it’s a waste but it’s the way things went.

You said a few months ago that you wanted to work on an autobiography. Do you have any news about that?

No. I get asked about it so often and I keep getting offers to do it but I’m… I don’t know. I keep shying away… I’m a very open and honest person. I like to answer every question I’m asked honestly and openly, but unfortunately, in this day and age of the internet, I found that, that kind of frank and candid conversations sometimes causes repercussions, with things being taken out of context or being misunderstood. So it’s easy for me to be a little gun-shy now and not be able to speak as honestly and openly as I wish I could. So the idea of doing an biography kind of scares me in that sense [laughs].

Is this why you seem to always be very up with what’s on Blabbermouth about you, because you’re sometimes maybe afraid of what is generally written about you or about what you say?

I care! I’m one of those musicians that really do care and I really pay attention to what’s been said online. And I’ve been like that from day one. Even before the internet, I was always the one that answered the fans’ mails, stayed in touch with the fans and paid attention to that sort of things. So inevitably with the invention of social media, Facebook, Twitter and things like that, I stay very involved and very open with my fan base. It has its good point and it has its bad points. It’s good because it puts me in direct touch and I really cherish that open relationship, and I know a lot of fans appreciate it as well. But it also kind of puts me in the spotlight and makes me the source of a lot of controversy as well as a result, because of that open relationship.

But are you actually afraid of that? Of how people might interpret your words?

I won’t say I’m afraid, I just say that I care. So when I see negative things being posted or things that are just plain wrong, you know, false information, inevitably I try to correct it or at least speak my side of the story. It’s not that I’m afraid of it, it’s frustrating. But I pay attention to it because I care. There are musicians out there that just don’t give a shit and don’t pay attention to it. I wish I could just turn it off and not care but the reality is that I do! I’ve always cared about what the fans said and I pay attention to that. And I think that’s what has always made me a fan friendly artist. But with that comes both sides of the coin.

« There’s one side of me that would love to do an extreme prog metal thing […] and there’s also the other side of me that’s a huge thrash metal fan. […] I would say that those are the two last remaining styles that I would love to dabble in and do something in. »

Do you have any news about the Winery Dogs?

Yeah, we’re going to reconvene and start working right after the New Year. We’re planning on starting the new album in January and looking forward to pretty much focus on the Winery Dogs for the most part of 2015. That’s gonna be the focus for all three of us.

You actually seem to have a lot of fun with the Winery Dogs. So has working with a power trio something you wanted to do for a long time? What has this band brought to you?

I can’t say that it was on my checklist to play in a power trio, but it was on my checklist to be in a band with Billy Sheehan. And once Billy and I started working together, we discussed the idea of a power trio being a cool outlet for what we wanted to do. So we got Richie and it was really a great chemistry. Now that I’ve done it and worked in a power trio, I see how much fun it is. There’s so much space, sonically, artistically and physically [chuckles], that it’s really a very cool outlet to work in. I enjoy the power trio idea. And the style of music that I do with the Winery Dogs was also a part of me that always wanted to come out. I’ve always been a huge classic rock fan, and the music from the late sixties and early seventies has always been a huge, huge part of my background that was never fully tapped into any of my bands or projects. So it was a cool style to now finally dig into.

We know how eclectic you are and you’ve made so many projects over the years, but none have really been in the extreme metal realms. Is this something you would be interested in doing as a project sometimes in the future?

Absolutely! It’s the last remaining thing I want to do. I’m just as much a huge metal fan as I am anything else. And there are two sides of it: there’s one side of me that would love to do an extreme prog metal thing and work with guys like Mikael Åkerfeldt and Devin Townsend or the guys from Mastodon or Dillinger Escape Plan, something in that vein with those guys. But there’s also the other side of me that’s a huge thrash metal fan. I do these metal masters gigs with my good friends in Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax and Pantera, but I still would love to put together some sort of band or project in that vein with some of those guys, being a big part of my friends and the circles that I hang around with. So, yeah, I would say that those are the two last remaining styles that I would love to dabble in and do something in.

And do you actually have some new projects for the future?

Nothing new, no. Right now I’m focused on the Flying Colors album and tour, and then there a live Transatlantic CD/DVD/Blu-Ray that’s coming out in the fall that I’m putting the final touches on. I gonna do some gigs with Big Elf in November, I’m about to do the new Neal Morse album and then I have the Winery Dogs album coming up at the start of the year. So, pretty much nothing new, kind of just working with all of the existing things. There’s just so much to do as it is that I really don’t have any time for anything new. The only thing that I will say, is that I just produced my son’s band’s album. My son have a band called Next To None and I just spent the last month in the studio producing their album. So I guess that is something new but it’s not really my project.

Interview conducted by phone 3rd, september 2014 by Spaceman.
Retranscription, traduction and introduction: Spaceman.
Questions: Spaceman & Metal’O Phil.

Flying Colors official website: flyingcolorsmusic.com
Mike Portnoy official website: mikeportnoy.com

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