Mike Portnoy Talks New Sons of Apollo Album, Juggling Projects
The drummer extraordinaire on self-indulgence in prog music and ‘MMXX,’ the new album from his supergroup with guitarist Bumblefoot, Derek Sherinian, Billy Sheehan and Jeff Scott Soto
It was sometime in November over the phone from Pennsylvania that Mike Portnoy asks us to do him a favor. “Don’t even ask me about Dream Theater, and let’s just play it safe all together,” the co-founder of the prog rock/metal band says.
After all, it’s been nearly a decade since Portnoy left the band and he’s still being pulled up and had his words misinterpreted in interviews, like when he purportedly said something about Dream Theater’s “annoying vocals” in a November interview that was later found out to be lost in translation. He says, “You know, I’m a straight shooter. I like answering the question honestly if I get asked something. It’s almost to the point where no matter what I say, it’s going to somehow get twisted into some sort of headline.”
In the last decade, Portnoy has found a place behind the kit not just as a sessions player for artists like Neal Morse (with whom he visited India to headline I.I.T. Mood Indigo’s Livewire in 2013), Stone Sour and more, but also the six projects he’s currently part of. He reels them off – The Winery Dogs, Flying Colors, Metal Allegiance, Transatlantic, Neal Morse Band and Sons of Apollo. The most relevant one taking up most of his mindspace right now is Sons of Apollo, who have just released their second album MMXX, via Inside Out Music.
The supergroup comprises Portnoy and keyboardist Derek Sherinian (Planet X, Steve Vai and formerly of Dream Theater), guitar ace Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal (ex-Guns N’ Roses), bassist Billy Sheehan (The Winery Dogs, Mr. Big, David Lee Roth) and vocalist Jeff Scott Soto (ex-Journey, ex-Yngwie Malmsteen‘s Rising Force). While Sons of Apollo is the newest of Portnoy’s projects – started in 2017 – they released their debut album Psychotic Symphony the same year and wrapped up recording MMXX in 2019. It showcases the band at their technical, melodic and riff-heavy height, writing yet another epic, with the 15-minute closing track “New World Today.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone India, Portnoy details the making of MMXX, how he manages his projects and India. Excerpts:
How have the interviews been going? Every time you do one, there seems to be an uproar.
This is the modern age where it’s all about clickbait headlines. When I left Dream Theater nine, 10 years ago, it was like that. No matter what I said, it turned into some sort of controversial headline. So it’s gotten to the point where I’m almost gun shy to even do interviews anymore.
With a supergroup’s second album, what plays into the process? Is everyone more settled? You did take a bit longer with this record.
Anytime you make a second album with a new band, it’s always more comfortable. The first time around is like an experiment and in our case, we didn’t necessarily have all five people having worked with each other in the past beforehand. It is a bit of a learning process on everybody’s personalities and styles the first time around. And then you go on tour for the first time. We spent like a year touring together, so we obviously spent a lot of time with each other and really started to gel as a unit. You get together to make a second record it’s inevitably going to be a lot more comfortable because you’re that much more familiar with each other.
You recorded the first album, Psychotic Symphony in 10 days. Between you and Derek, what was the production process like for MMXX?
The process was pretty similar actually. We didn’t really want to mess with the formula too much. The music was primarily put together with myself, Derek and Bumblefoot. Derek and Bumblefoot had a lot of different riffs and ideas, coming into the writing session, and then the three of us shaped everything into the music. Once all the music was written by the three of us, I went and tracked the drums and then the tracking process began. Jeff started writing lyrics and vocal melodies, Derek and I kind of oversaw the whole operation.
Over the years of writing lengthy progressive rock and metal songs, what has strengthened in your songwriting for long songs? I assume sometimes it’s just about not being too self-indulgent. Or maybe sometimes it is about being self-indulgent?
Every once in a while, there are songs that you write where you’re purposely trying to be self-indulgent. On the first Sons of Apollo album, we wrote an instrumental “Opus Maximus.” And in that case, the goal was to be self-indulgent and to be really over-the-top instrumentally. 90 percent of the times that I’m writing long songs, they never really are intended to be that way.
They sort of just get there on their own. Sometimes, I think a song will write itself and you’ll know if it’s in five minutes, or sometimes it takes 25 minutes. In Dream Theater, we wrote very long songs and all the stuff I do with Neal Morse whether it be the Neal Morse Band or Transatlantic, we always write very, very long songs. I think I have something like over 20 or 30 songs in my discography and my catalog of songs that are over the 25 minute mark. To me, it’s a natural thing, it’s a natural way of expressing. Classical music isn’t all wrapped up in five minutes. Sometimes it goes through different movements, foreshadowing a theme or a melody, and then you reprise it later on with a different deal or different key. And to me, that’s the beauty of making music. When you’re working within the progressive genre, there’s no clock on the wall. There’s no restrictions, you know you’re not writing for radio, you’re writing for art. It’s limitless.
What was the process like for MMXX? Some of these songs seem to start with Bumblefoot’s riffs.
The process began with both Derek and Bumblefoot coming up with licks or riffs or ideas. They would demo a riff for 15 seconds or whatever, and then I kind of made an iTunes playlist of all these different ideas and riffs. And then once the three of us got together, we started arranging them. You could tell which ones spawn from Derek and which ones one from Bumblefoot. You listen to the riff on “Fall to Ascend,” that was obviously a guitar riff. “Asphyxiation” was a keyboard thing. There were a lot of instances where we had one crazy riff and then from there we turned it into a song and the same could be said for any of Derek’s ideas.
When at all – and if at all – does a project get tiring? How has it been managing in terms of mindspace? How do you compartmentalize?
I never get bored with a project. I never try to walk away from it. There seems to be this incredible misconception about me that I just jumped from band to band to band. But that’s not the case. I’m currently in six bands that coexist. It’s not like I started and then leave it move on to something else.
The only band I ever left was dream theatre. Other than that, everything I start, I stay with and it’s a matter of just the juggling and the balancing gets heavier and heavier. It’s a matter of me time management, looking at the schedule and having to strategically schedule all these things. So one can hopscotch into the next. This year alone (2019), I was touring with The Winery Dogs, with the Neal Morse band, I made a Flying Colors album, now I’m touring with Flying Colors. I made a Sons of Apollo album, I’m getting ready for that.
So you have to be very, very smart with your time management, and not many people can kind of juggle six bands the way I do, but it’s kind of the way I’m wired. You just have to keep your eye on the ball. You have to look at where your feet are and concentrate. For me it’s one album at a time, one tour at a time. I can’t start thinking ahead to what I gotta do next week, or else my head would explode. (laughs) So I just pay attention to what I’m doing now.
What else is coming up in 2020?
Sons of Apollo, we do a U.S. tour in January and February. Then we come over to Europe in March and that’s all that’s been scheduled touring wise so far. It’ll probably continue to branch out from there. It’s a tremendous live band. I think, if anything the band’s real strength is being onstage.
As far as me in general, I have a new Transatlantic album that’s being worked on that will come out; A few more Flying Colors dates that we’re still set to play. I have a covers album I did with a bunch of my metal buddies, Bobby Blitz from Overkill, Phil Demmel from Machine Head, so we have a fun metal covers thing.
Since I’m calling from India, I have to ask about your experience here in 2013 with the Neal Morse Band. Have you had any offers to come back here yet?
It was an amazing shown and amazing experiences [with Neal Morse]. No, I haven’t had any offers since then (laughs). I’m patiently waiting for somebody to invite me. I guess six bands aren’t enough. I think I need to form a few more to raise the odds.
Listen to MMXX here. Watch the video for “Goodbye Divinity” below.