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Dreaming On

Mike Portnoy, drummer with progressive metallers Dream Theater, talks about cover songs, official bootlegs and favourite bands

Bobin James May 10, 2010
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Ever since they formed a quarter of a century ago, American progressive metal band Dream Theater have been at the forefront of the prog metal movement, transporting this once-niche genre to an almost-mainstream status. DT was always a musician’s band: founding members John Myung (bass), John Petrucci (guitars) and Mike Portnoy (drums) were all students at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, in Massachusetts, USA, before they dropped out to show the world their technical chops. Equally proficient were the other musicians they took on ”“ past keyboardists Kevin Moore and Derek Sherinian and current guy, Jordan Rudess; and ex-vocalist Charles Dominici and current singer James LaBrie. This proficiency coupled with an uncompromising take on the kind of music they would unleash upon the world, meant that commercial success followed, slowly but surely. (The band’s 2009 release, Black Clouds & Silver Linings, even peaked at Number Six on the Billboard 200 charts.)

Portnoy tells us about recording a new song for the God of War III soundtrack, how he goes about “handpicking” material for the band’s ”˜official bootlegs’ and his favourite new band.

You have recorded ”˜Raw Dog’ for the God of War III soundtrack, the first time DT has written something for an outside project. What about it excited you enough to do this? Are you gaming fans yourself?

None of us are big gamers, but many of our kids are. To be asked to record something exclusively for the soundtrack was an exciting offer that we were up for the challenge to meet. We were able to write, record and mix a really cool instrumental in four days [in the] typical DT whirlwind fashion!

You formed Majesty in 1985. Now, 25 years and 11 studio albums later, how do you look back upon it? How’s the trip been? Had you imagined when you started off all those years ago that you would reach such levels of popularity?

It’s been an incredible adventure and our achievements (both personally and collectively) have exceeded my wildest imagination. It’s a very tough business to begin with, but when you are going against the grain and doing 15 minute songs and playing progressive music like we do, the cards are REALLY stacked against you. Somehow, we’ve persevered through it all and the long, slow-building path has really paid off for us after all these years.

Dream Theater is one band that unabashedly embraces covers. Master of Puppets, The Number of the Beast, The Dark Side of the Moon, Made in Japan, the medley on A Change of Seasons, the special edition CD with Black Clouds and Silver Linings, and of course the live covers during your shows. It’s rather unusual for most big bands. How did it come about?

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I’ve always been an unbelievably huge music fan”¦ Anybody that knows me will tell you I am a walking music encyclopaedia. In all of the cases you mention, it was albums, bands and songs that I picked for DT to pay tribute to the great music that was laid out before us, perhaps to share with our fans some great music that may not have heard of, or simply have fun with if they had. I’ve also had four tribute bands through the years with my good friend Paul Gilbert – tributes to The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Who and Rush – as well as an entire cover of classic rock songs with my good friend Neal Morse and many covers with Transatlantic too.

DT’s also releases “official bootlegs”. Isn’t that an oxymoron? And where does the band stand on the issue of audiences bootlegging your shows?

The difference between fan “bootlegs” and our “official bootlegs” is that I am handpicking the material directly from my personal archives. So of course the quality is going to be as good as it gets, and the shows, demos and material that I choose usually have significance for the collector. It’s not just random, arbitrary picks. I also oversee all of the artwork and write extensive liner notes for most titles.

As far as audiences bootlegging our shows, some of the other guys in DT are not as bootleg-friendly as I am. So to respect that, we don’t “allow” open taping.

How did the concept for the Progressive Nation tours come about? And how does a band get a supporting slot on the PN bill?

Progressive Nation is a concept I’ve had for many years and was finally able to bring to fruition in 2008 and we’ve now done three incarnations of it. I basically wanted to share some great bands with our audience and share our audience with some great bands.

I take great pride in personally handpicking all of the bands that ever tour with us.
I am the biggest music fan you will ever meet and I try to take out bands that I really like and ones that I think our fans will enjoy. DT’s opening acts are not decided by label, agents or management politics. The suggestions and decisions begin and end with me, and I pick them based on musical value, not marquee value.

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The list of bands that I have handpicked through the years reads like a playlist on my iPod of some of my favourite artists of the last 10-15 years: Porcupine Tree, Spock’s Beard, Pain of Salvation, Opeth, King’s X, Fates Warning, Bigelf, Zappa Plays Zappa, Symphony X, Between the Buried and Me, Three, Unexpect, Scale the Summit, Cynic, Frost, Riverside, Into Eternity, Redemption, Watchtower to name some.

What is the most promising young progressive rock/metal band you have seen in recent times, and one that you believe is going to explode soon? A band that the world should be watching out for”¦

Bigelf is my favourite new band to come around in many years and it’s been my personal mission to help them get the exposure they’ve been waiting 15 years to receive. I fell in love with them within the first minute of hearing their sound. They are like all of my favourite classic bands wrapped in one: The Beatles, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Queen, etc. I have taken them under my wings and brought them on tour with DT throughout North America and Europe on Progressive Nation 2009 and again to South America and Mexico in 2010. They are not a technical band like DT, but anybody with good taste in music should be able to appreciate them and fall for them just as I have!

We had heard a lot of rumours of Dream Theater coming to India last year and they continue this year. What is the truth? When do we see you here?

We would absolutely love to. It’s just not as simple as us saying so and getting up and going. To put on a DT show or tour carries with it a big overhead as we have a lot of gear, video, lights, crew, travel, etc. We are not kids that will just play anywhere on rented gear. The level of presentation is very important to us and with that comes overhead to make shows happen. So we are simply waiting for the right offer from the right promoter to make it possible for us!

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