Confessions of a Workaholic: An Interview with Mike Portnoy
More than a year after leaving Dream Theater, Mike Portnoy has moved ahead with his music career and not looked back. The prolific drummer talks about his latest supergroup, PSMS, the hardest part about singing and drumming simultaneously, and how he misses Starbucks whenever touring overseas.
Remember the very first house you lived in? The one in which you spent the bulk of your childhood, making plenty of happy memories involving sibling fights and wrestling with the pet dog? Now, try to remember the uneasiness that nagged at your consciousness when you moved out of it and into a new home. You know, the one that involved you picturing a family of strangers moving into your home and tainting it with their filthy presence. Congratulations! You just experienced the emotional turmoil that Mike Portnoy went through when he announced his departure from Dream Theater on September 8 last year.
A self-professed music lover since childhood, the Long Beach native is a self-taught drummer and alumnus of the renowned Berklee College of Music. Not only has he won 26 awards from Modern Drummer magazine to date, but he is also the second youngest person (after Rush’s Neil Peart) to be inducted into the magazine's Hall of Fame at the tender age of 37.
The bulk of these achievements were accomplished during Portnoy’s tenure with the famous progressive rock band he helped found –- Dream Theater. Hence, it came as a huge shock to fans worldwide when he left. It was simply unfathomable to many why someone would exit a project that they have already invested so much time and effort in. Regardless, in his post-Dream Theater life, Portnoy has decided to stick to his work ethics and keep himself busy (as he always has).
PSMS (Portnoy, [Billy] Sheehan, [Tony]MacAlpine, [Derek] Sherinian) is the name of his latest supergroup. While half of its lineup was once in Dream Theater (Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian), Portnoy’s drum setup is hardly Dream Theater-ish in any way. Famous for a wide variety of drum setups during his time with Dream Theater, such as the Siamese Monster or Red Monster, Portnoy has decided against using any of them for PSMS.
“Actually, I’ve been using different kits for every single show,” Portnoy says, on the phone from Tel-Aviv, Israel. “PSMS is not an existing band with a big touring entourage, so in order to make these shows happen at all, we need to be able to travel light and trust that we have the proper gear supply when we arrive.”
“When I was on tour with Dream Theater or Avenged Sevenfold, bands that are more of a long-term entity, then I’m able to travel with my own kit. But in the case of this tour, it’s different every show," he adds.
So will Portnoy be using an entirely new drum setup that nobody has seen before? “I don’t know,” Portnoy says simply, and you can almost picture him shrugging. “I will find out when I get there, but whatever it is, I will beat the crap out of it; it will be great.”
One of the perennial headaches about forming supergroups is that of the weight of a heavy legacy. In the case of PSMS, many people who will be following their progress will inevitably use Dream Theater as a benchmark for comparison. After all, both Portnoy and Sherinian were once part of the seminal prog-rock band.
“I’m flattered when people talk about my 25-year legacy [with Dream Theater] and the history, because it was an important part of my life,” he says. “I spent my life’s work doing what I did in Dream Theater for 25 years, so I’m proud of that. However, if people start comparing it to modern Dream Theater, that is annoying. I’m not interested in that; I’m interested in looking at the things that I have done. I put my heart and soul into everything that I do, so I’m only interested in people who have positive things to say. I don’t like the controversy and negativity.”
Portnoy is well known for keeping busy. One thing that has not changed since his Dream Theater days is how he likes to keep himself occupied with a number of ongoing projects.
“I’m currently in six bands, so yeah, it’s not easy,” he professes. “I have PSMS, Adrenaline Mob, Flying Colors, Transatlantic, this band with Billy Sheehan and Richie Kotzen, and then Neal Morse’s band as well, which I have been touring with. I’m a workaholic. I love it; I love what I do and am excited by the music I make and the people I make it with. I surround myself with incredible musicians who inspire me to always do my best.”
Such dedication to one’s craft is seldom seen in the music industry. Most people who are involved with numerous bands don’t normally put this much time and effort into their projects on a day-to-day basis.
“I’m constantly dealing with stuff for every band,” he says. “There’s constantly stuff that’s being worked on in terms of scheduling etc. For one band, I will be overseeing a DVD, and then for another, I will be overseeing the recording process, and then there will be this other band that I am on tour with… I mean I’m used to it. It’s the way it has always been in my life.”
Every one of the six bands Portnoy is currently involved in is musically different from one another. PSMS plays virtuosic instrumental music with heavy and progressive metal elements; Adrenaline Mob is a hard rock/metal band; Flying Colors is a straight-ahead pop/alternative band with progressive elements; the band that Portnoy shares with Richie Kotzen and Billy Sheehan mostly plays classic rock; Transatlantic plays pure classic/progressive rock; Neal Morse’s band plays progressive rock.
“Every one of these bands is a very different musical outlet for me, as each of them satisfies a different side of my taste,” he comments.
As someone who works with many reputable rock musicians, Portnoy should be spoilt for choice when it comes to picking members for any potential new supergroup he might be intending to form. Naturally, one wonders how Sheehan, MacAlpine and Sherinian fit into the equation for PSMS’ musical vision.
“Well, it’s a perfect lineup. As far as being individual players, each one of them is as good as it gets on their individual instruments,” he says.
“Billy Sheehan has always been my number one favorite bass player of all time. I have been excited to work with Derek Sherinian again because we shared a great relationship when he was with Dream Theater, and I always liked his approach to the keyboard, as he approaches the keyboard like a guitar player would. Tony MacAlpine is somebody I have never worked with, but I have always had tremendous respect for him. I’ve been following his career since it began 25 years ago.”
When quizzed about what he would be doing now had PSMS not happened (apart from working on new music for his other bands), the workaholic laughs out loud.
“Apart from?” he asks in disbelief. “I think the other five bands would keep me pretty busy, so it’s basically a matter of trying to find time to make all of these bands happen.”
“I have a family; I have a wife and two children who get so little time from me as it is. When I’m not busy with all these bands, I try to spend as much time with them as possible," he adds.
On their current tour, PSMS is playing an all-instrumental set consisting of material from each of its members’ solo records and their previous collaborations, as well as classic instrumental covers and extended solo spots. This means that Dream Theater and Liquid Tension Experiment songs are covered, although Portnoy does not want to reveal which ones will be making an appearance.
“Honestly, in this day and age, if anybody really wants to know, you can find out anything on the Internet. We’ve already been on tour for a couple of weeks now, so realistically, the information is already out there. But personally, I don’t like spilling it. I think it’s better when people come to our show and get surprised.”
Being the type of musician who prefers to play by ear, Portnoy will interpret Dream Theater and Liquid Tension Experiment songs a little differently to fit the musical vision of PSMS.
“When I play Dream Theater or Liquid Tension Experiment music with these guys, everything has a little bit of a different feel as they are different players [from members of my previous bands],” he says. “Also, I have never been the type to play my drum parts in precisely the same manner from night to night, even when I was with Dream Theater.”
“I like to be in the moment and react to the moment, the crowd and the musicians who I am playing with and do things differently. When we are playing other songs from the set, such as Planet X or Tony MacAlpine’s solo songs, I don’t like to imitate the other drummers [who contributed drums to those songs].”
“I like to do things my way and give it my own personality and character. Everything about all of these songs have our personal touches. That’s the way I am; That’s the way I have always been. Even in the studio, I don’t plan my drum parts. They change from moment to moment and I just react to how I feel.”
While PSMS only plays instrumental music, one still cannot help but wonder what is the hardest part about Portnoy singing and drumming simultaneously. After all, during his time with Dream Theater, the skillful drummer provided backup vocals and even shared lead vocals with vocalist James LaBrie at times.
Trying to keep all four of one’s limbs hitting on the drums while singing into the microphone simply sounds exhausting and difficult. Few drummers in modern music history share the exclusivity of having such a skill, and the most prominent examples that jump to mind are The Beatles’ Ringo Starr and Nirvana’s Dave Grohl. Even then, one has to bear in mind that the drumming of both Starr and Grohl is not as technically demanding as Portnoy’s own. Their chosen music genres simply do not require mastery over insane drum kits that boast a wide range of percussive pitches, which is something vital for the expressiveness found in progressive rock music.
Portnoy remarks that it is hard “just finding the air” in his lungs whenever he does sing and drum simultaneously. “Because drumming is already so physical, it’s sometimes hard to have breath control while singing and drumming at the same time.”
“But other than that, it’s not that difficult,” the modest multi-tasker says. “I’m very used to doing so many things at once, you know. So I’m kind of just used to it.”
What is even more amazing is how Portnoy actually manages to maintain eye contact with the audience even if he is singing and drumming at the same time. This means that his eyes barely have to oversee the accuracy of his moving limbs, and that simultaneously singing into the microphone is second nature to him as well. “I have eye contact with the audience no matter what I’m doing. Even if I’m not on stage, I’m still watching them. That’s the most important thing for me ever about being onstage -- it’s the interaction with the audience. To me, that’s of utmost priority.”
Seeing how Portnoy has such great drive for his music career, there must be something that fuels the maniacal drum machine beneath his human facade. Fascinatingly, the fuel in question is not that fascinating; most of us encounter it frequently in our daily lives.
“I’m a Starbucks addict,” he confesses.
Portnoy misses the ubiquitous coffee chain’s brew whenever he is touring overseas, and remarks that “it’s not always easy to find” Starbucks chains in other parts of the world.
“We just came from Italy. We were there for the last two days, and they don’t have Starbucks,” he says. “But it’s okay, because cappuccinos were invented in Italy. So [the Italians] make the best coffee anyway.”