Backstage With Mike Portnoy
The former Dream Theater drummer on starting all over again with his new band, Adrenaline Mob
In September 2010, Mike Portnoy made the shocking decision to leave Dream Theater, a band he had co-founded 25 years earlier. The press was rife with speculation as to the cause of the split. While answers and clarifications have trickled out over the last two years, one thing has become clear – both sides are carrying on with vigour. Dream Theater embarked on a massive world tour in support of their new album and Portnoy took the opportunity to start four new bands, while continuing to serve as drummer-in-chief for all of former Spock’s Beard frontman Neal Morse’s prog-rock projects. As Dream Theater’s tour cycle winds down, Portnoy’s hectic schedule shows no signs of abating. I managed to pin down the hardest working drummer in rock in London before his show with Adrenaline Mob, his new straight-up hard rock band fronted by Symphony X’s Russell Allen.
What has the experience of starting a full time band from scratch for the first time in over 25 years been like?
It’s interesting, because Adrenaline Mob is the first thing I’ve had to start up from scratch [since Dream Theater]. I’ve done a lot of other projects with Transatlantic, Liquid Tension Experiment and OSI, but in all those cases, I could count on the Dream Theater audience, or my audience to be on board. Adrenaline Mob is a completely different genre where we do have to start from scratch, except for maybe a handful of people who are behind it because of my name or Russell [Allen]’s name. It’s exciting and also scary. There are a lot of growing pains, a lot of adjustments, especially for me and John [Moyer]. He had a lot of success and comfort with Disturbed as I did with Dream Theater. Going back to playing clubs and sharing a bus with the crew is something John and I haven’t done is a while. But it’s for the love of this band and this music. We believe in it. The songs are strong, the chemistry is great, and when you see the show, you’ll get it. People who are undecided about the band from the album leave the show getting it and having a great time. The music is not prog, it’s not the most complex, but I feel like I am in one of the strongest bands in the world, of any genre. Russell Allen is monster. Mike Orlando is a total guitar hero. John Moyer is one of the most badass guys up there. I feel like I’m part of an exciting new explosion.
Is it easier now to get a new band like Adrenaline Mob off the ground today than it was with Dream Theater 25 years ago?
Oh, it’s way easier. When Dream Theater was starting out in the mid Eighties, I would have to send out demo tapes to all the music magazines around the world. I was really into the tape-trading thing. At that time, there was only so far you could go on your own. You needed a record deal in order to get your music out there. It’s completely different now in 2012. Everything from Twitter to Facebook to YouTube means that you can get your music out there. Even things like recording- when Dream Theater was starting, we would have to book out a big, expensive studio, and you’d have to have a record company to pay for that. Nowadays, you can record a great sounding album in your garage on a computer.
But doesn’t the ease with which it can be done mean that it can be harder for you to be heard above the noise?
Somebody else said this, so I can’t take credit for this, but I think it’s perfect. In the old days, it was thousands of bands selling millions of records and now it’s millions of bands selling thousands of records. The market is saturated. But as a music fan, I like the availability. I know it’s killed a lot of the income for the artists and the industry, but for me, as a fan, to put myself on the other side of the fence, I like that I can be sitting in a hotel room in Munich at two in the morning, and I could read about some obscure band, and then get on iTunes, click a button and be listening to it. I like the immediacy and convenience.
Did your stint with Avenged Sevenfold have anything to do with your decision to join a straight up hard rock/metal band?
Absolutely, it was my experiences with them that made me realise how much fun I was having and that I needed an outlet in this genre to continue on with after my time with Avenged came to an end. It was so much fun with them and we were touring with Stone Sour and Disturbed and Hellyeah, just surrounded by this kind of music that was riff-oriented, song-oriented and I knew that I wanted to explore it further. And it’s not a crazy mixture that doesn’t make sense for me. I’ve always been a hard rock and metal fan. I was the main guy that brought that stuff to Dream Theater. I grew up listening to Sabbath, Priest, Maiden and Motorhead. It’s just that anything heavy I did in the past still had a prog edge to it. This is just music that you can put on and have a good time. You don’t have to sit there with a calculator to enjoy it.
Speaking of which, is there a significant adjustment that you have to make to your approach when tackling music that is not as technically challenging as prog?
I have to apply what I do slightly differently. I still want it to sound like me, but now I have to concentrate more on the four on the floor, or the bounce of the groove and not necessarily have all the nuances and technicalities that are going to twist and turn. I have to serve the song. So with Avenged or Adrenaline Mob, that’s the focus. When I’m on stage, it feels very natural. For me, it’s just as easy to play technical music with Dream Theater as it is to play more straight ahead metal music with Adrenaline Mob. It’s because it’s all me. I get behind the kit and it just falls out of me.
How involved are you in the decision making outside the music with Adrenaline Mob? Do you have a say in the artwork, for example?
With every band or project I’m in, I have to wear different hats and I have different levels of control and creative input. With Dream Theater, I oversaw everything. Then there are projects like Transatlantic and Flying Colors, where there is a lot of collaboration, which can be frustrating if four or five people are arguing over every single aspect. And then there are things like Neal Morse and Avenged Sevenfold where I just come in and play drums and don’t make any creative decisions. Adrenaline Mob fits somewhere in the middle of all that. Even though the music existed before I came along (it started with Russell Allen and Mike Orlando), when I came on board, I asked them what they wanted my role to be. They welcomed and encouraged my input. I am involved with a lot of the aspects, but we delegate things. Russell feels very strongly about the artwork. In fact it was a big argument that we had, because I wanted the crest that’s on the back of the booklet to be on the cover, and he wanted the one with the Bone Daddy, that actually made the cover. I’d never had an album cover with a cartoon monster on it (well, except for the Avenged album). So I was a bit worried about how the prog fans and the Dream Theater fans would take to it. But Russell felt strongly about it and at the end of the day, I think he made the right decision.
Is Adrenaline Mob your new home base, or do you see yourself as more of a free agent?
I would say Flying Colors is a part time band. It’s more than a project, because projects don’t often tour. Adrenaline Mob feels like a home base. I don’t know if it’ll have the longevity or success of Dream Theater, but it certainly has the potential to be very busy, because it’s a live oriented band. I’m not opposed to being in a full time band like Dream Theater, but honestly, I’m in no rush to get back to that.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you’re good enough on guitar and bass to be able to communicate ideas. Would you be interested in composing and releasing a solo album at any point?
It’s absolutely possible, something I’ve thought about and something I’ve been approached to do by a couple of label people. But the problem has been that I haven’t had the time. I’d like to do it some day. I’d like to do what Slash did. Get a bunch of different artists to collaborate with, because I have so many friends I love working with. So a couple of tracks with Neal Morse, a couple with Jim Matheos, a couple with Paul Gilbert, maybe a couple with Damon Fox from Bigelf. So, yeah, I’d like to do it, but it’s just a question of finding an open window with nothing else booked.
And finally, how did you manage to get a progressive band like Dream Theater up and running in the late Eighties and early Nineties, at the height of prog-phobia?
When we recorded Images and Words in 1991, it was at the height of the grunge explosion. It was Nirvana-ville at the time. You would think that us getting signed to a label and having success with that album was completely impossible, but somehow it clicked. The only thing I can think of is maybe it was a reaction to the fact that nobody else was doing it. We were so drastically out of fashion, but there was an audience that was looking for something like that. For the first 10-15 years of Dream Theater’s career, prog was a dirty word. We always embraced it, we never had a problem with it, but all the critics would blast us for it and it wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that it started to turn around, and it was our perseverance that helped that happen.