An interview with Mike Portnoy
Words by Andy Olson
Pictures by Bruce Hogarth, Paul Secord, and Andy Olson
With the release of The Winery Dogs' eponymous debut album, Mike Portnoy—a drummer best known for his Prog and Metal prowess—is exploring new musical territory. As he told me before a sold-out show at The Crocodile in Seattle, "For me it’s a venture outside of Prog for the first time in a long time... we’re kind of bringing that musician, Prog element to a more commercial, song-oriented format."
Throughout the album, Portnoy, along with bassist Billy Sheehan and guitarist/vocalist Ritchie Kotzen, create the musical equivalent of an epic Quentin Tarantino film (one of Portnoy' favorite directors)—paying tribute to the past, but also producing something new and exciting.
There's a lot to like here. Each of the 13 songs highlights solid songwriting, mind-blowing musicianship, soaring and soulful vocals, frequent guitar and bass shredfests, and Portnoy's signature drumming (played on scaled-down five-piece kit). But most importantly, there's a natural chemistry flowing between these players that allows them to shine individually and as a band.
I sat down to talk about a wide range of topics, including The Winery Dogs, drums, Rush, Neil Peart, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, lyric writing, and his Oscar predictions.
AndyO: Welcome to Seattle, Mike.
Mike Portnoy: Yeah, thank you, man.
AndyO: How’s the tour going so far?
Mike Portnoy: It’s been great. We’ve been out since July. We’ve covered the world in a very condensed period of time. We started in Japan. Then we went to South America. Then we did all of Europe, and now here we are doing the States. Everywhere we go it’s been great. It’s packed houses, sold-out shows, just a real good vibe and positive energy and buzz for the band.
AndyO: From what I've seen on Twitter and elsewhere, it looks like it’s been good. I was just going to say, congrats on the album!
Mike Portnoy: Thank you.
AndyO: It’s a fantastic album. I really like it, so it’s a biased interview (laughs).
Mike Portnoy: But it’s not a Prog album.
AndyO: It’s not.
Mike Portnoy: So for me it’s a venture outside of Prog for the first time in a long time.
AndyO: The first thing I saw from this album was the drum cam video on YouTube for “Elevate.” And needless to say, I was blown away by it. So I sent it out to a bunch of friends who also loved it. Have you seen that same reaction everywhere?
Mike Portnoy: Yeah. Everywhere we go, people are embracing it—I mean I’ve said this a million times in other interviews so I hate to repeat it—but it’s the truth: Normally everything I’ve done in the past appealed to only a certain market. Dream Theater is a certain type of thing for certain types of people. Transatlantic is for a certain audience. Flying Colors is for a certain audience. Adrenaline Mob—certain audience. But Winery Dogs seems to be universally embraced. It’s the sort of music that you don’t have to be a Prog fan or a Metal fan or a musician. It’s the sort of music that’s very easily digestible. People of all walks of life and all style interests, they seem to enjoy it and get it.
AndyO: I’ve heard you talk about how it’s something old but with a new twist, is how I think you said it.
Mike Portnoy: Right. Well, it’s taking the old school spirit with a new school approach.
AndyO: How did The Winery Dogs come together?
Mike Portnoy: The Reader’s Digest version is I was working with John Sykes on a different project, and I brought Billy Sheehan into that project with John. And it kind of fizzled out. John just wouldn’t move forward. It was just kind of in a holding pattern, and Billy and I got impatient and decided we wanted to do something, so we decided to look elsewhere to do something new. And that’s when our mutual friend Eddie Trunk suggested Ritchie (Kotzen), and it was the perfect suggestion—exactly what we were looking for. So me, Billy, and Ritchie got together and started from scratch with a clean slate, and that’s where The Winery Dogs began.
AndyO: So with that kind of sound that we talked about, Classic Rock or whatever you want to call it, was that something you set out for, or did it just kind of happen?
Mike Portnoy: It just happened. My initial thinking with putting this band together didn’t even have a style in mind. I just saw the potential with a great lineup. You know, the idea of doing a new band and a power trio with Billy and with Ritchie, that’s what appealed to me. And I was willing to go wherever the music took us. It wasn’t like we set out to do a Classic Rock thing. We set out to just do something together with the three of us. And wherever we naturally went is where we would go, and this is where we went.
AndyO: As far as the drum sound goes on this, sometimes it even reminds me of that Bonham power.
Mike Portnoy: Well, I wanted to play a small kit because I wanted to have that real organic, old-school approach. I wanted to be in the John Bonham, Ian Paice mold. And when we wrote the songs and when we recorded the songs, we did it in a way that was very live. It wasn’t a million tracks and a million drums and a million overdubs. It was just the three of us with minimal instruments and just playing live—and that’s the way we captured it on the album. So my approach to the drums and the kit that I used was very old school. However, we hired Jay Ruston to mix the album, and Jay brings a very modern edge to it, because Jay has mixed Stone Sour and Anthrax, and a lot of modern bands. So we wanted to have, like I said earlier, the old school spirit with a new school approach. That was kind of the best of both worlds. I played on a small kit, and we recorded everything very live, but we got a modern mixer to make it sound very modern.
AndyO: The drum sound is phenomenal. As a drummer, when I listen to it I can hear everything.
Mike Portnoy: I can’t take credit for that. That’s Jay. I just played them!
AndyO: (Laughs). So are you using the same type of kit on the tour?
Mike Portnoy: Yeah, same exact setup. It’s just a five-piece kit. It’s the smallest kit that I’ve ever played in an original band. I’ve done tributes: I did a Zeppelin tribute and a Beatles tribute, and played small kits on those. But this is the first time I’ve ever played a really small, five-piece kit in an original band.
AndyO: Are the drum sizes themselves bigger?
Mike Portnoy: No, actually I don’t like the big boomy John Bonham sizes. Like when I did my Zeppelin tribute, I had the 26-inch kick and the big toms, and that’s good for that, but I’m more comfortable on smaller sizes. So I’m playing a 22 (inch) kick, and I think the rack (tom) is a 12 or 13. And then 14 and 16 floor toms. Small setup, but smaller sizes as well.
AndyO: “You Saved Me” is a return to lyric writing for you.
Mike Portnoy: Yeah, first time in years.
AndyO: Can you just tell me a little bit about that?
Mike Portnoy: Well, I hadn’t intended on writing any lyrics for this album—in fact I hadn’t intended on writing lyrics ever again, to be honest. After Dream Theater, I had written, I don’t know, 20 or 30 songs for Dream Theater lyrically and melodically, and it’s never been one of my biggest passions. You know, Neil (Peart), he’s passionate about it. For me I always kind of did it out of necessity, because when Kevin Moore left the band I wanted to pick up the slack and help carry the load with John Petrucci. So I would always write a few songs for each album for Dream Theater. But it was never one my passions. Of all the 20 hats I wore in Dream Theater, that was the one that I could have easily given up. After the Black Clouds & Silver Linings album, I finally completed my 12-step Suite that I had been writing for five albums in a row with Dream Theater. So I finally had completed that. And I wrote a song for my Dad who had passed away. So, with the completion of those, I kind of felt like I was done. I mean even if I stayed in Dream Theater, I didn’t think I was going to write lyrics anymore. But having left Dream Theater, I felt like I probably really wouldn’t write lyrics again. But we were writing The Winery Dogs album, and we wrote the music to this one song, which became “You Saved Me.” And musically, I had some melodic ideas, I had some vocal melodies that came to mind. And I had some inspiration. I wanted to write a song to thank my wife for her incredible, unconditional support through these last couple years of transition for me. I decided to pick up the pen again and demo the song with me singing for Ritchie to learn—just the way I always used to with Dream Theater. But, you know, whether or not I will in the future: I want to write lyrics when I want to write them, not because I have to write them. That’s the way it came about with this song, and I suppose it will be that way in the future.
AndyO: Well, it’s an emotional song. I was driving one day listening to it, and I thought about the words and whether you wrote it.
Mike Portnoy: That’s cool. Well, my lyrics always tend to come directly from my life experiences. Neil (Peart), I mean, he’s such a poetic writer. But a lot of times his (lyrics) will be stories. Or even John Petrucci in Dream Theater, he’s always written metaphorically or poetically or creates stories. My lyrics—even all the years in Dream Theater—have always been things out of my life. Writing about my struggles with recovery, or writing a song for my Dad, or writing a song for my Mom. Or writing about situations I was going through with the record company. Everything I’ve always written comes straight from my life. So this was another situation where I wanted to write something for my wife as a thank you.
AndyO: The drum part on “You Saved Me” seems especially composed.
Mike Portnoy: I guess it is, because it’s that type of song. Something like “Desire” or “Elevate,” is more of a jam kind of thing, where I would just kind of go in and just be in the moment, where “You Saved Me,” stylistically, is something that would indeed be composed.
AndyO: Right. You hear it through the two verses, the way you move it forward.
Mike Portnoy: It’s definitely more in that vein of Rush or even U2, or something like that. But when I’m coming up with drum parts, I’ve never been one to really compose parts too deeply—or at least the fills, I should say. I mean, the parts themselves and the patterns are very composed, but everything within it is very free-form, and I like it to be spontaneous from take-to-take. And even from night-to-night on tour. I’m very much the opposite of Neil (Peart) in that respect. Neil completely composes every single fill, and that’s it—it’s set in stone. He will play it every night like that for the next 30 years. I’m very much the opposite.
AndyO: I wondered that, actually. The way I described to someone is your drumming on this album, in particular, it’s serving the song very well.
Mike Portnoy: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that’s what it’s all about.
AndyO: And it almost sounds effortless—I know it’s not.
Mike Portnoy: No, it is! (Laughs)
AndyO: For you maybe!
Mike Portnoy: Well, thank you—but it is effortless for me to be honest with you. When I’m recording and playing live on stage, I’m just playing. I’m not thinking. I’m not overthinking. I’m literally just playing and feeling. And that to me is way more important.
AndyO: What do you think that it means for music now that Rush is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Mike Portnoy: I think it’s amazing. I actually sent Neil and Alex an email a couple days beforehand congratulating them. And what I said to them in that email was, “It’s one small step for Rush, and one giant leap for music in general.” And that’s true. And Neil actually wrote me back a couple days before they went in, and he was being as gracious and as humble as he is. He was saying, “Oh, it’s not about us. It’s about just the recognition for music—and Progressive music in general." He was looking at it as a win for everybody that is in this genre, and not just them. And that’s true. It was a huge step for this type of music to be recognized. And hopefully now, you know, maybe Yes will get in there, or Deep Purple—it’s crazy that some of these bands aren’t in. It’s crazy that it took this long for Rush to get in. But, at the end of the day, to coin Neil's phrase, it was “One Little Victory.”
AndyO: You know, it’s funny because when I first heard they were getting inducted, I went down the path that they maybe shouldn't do it. And then I saw the way they handled it. They taught me something—just showing how to be gracious.
Mike Portnoy: Yeah, well they are three of the most gracious guys you’ll ever meet.
AndyO: Have you heard the Vapor Trails remix yet?
Mike Portnoy: I haven’t heard the remix, no, not yet. Was it released or just streamed?
AndyO: It’s released.
Mike Portnoy: Oh, it’s released! I’m going to have to pick it up then. So, it’s completely remixed, not just remastered?
AndyO: Totally remixed.
Mike Portnoy: Who did it?
AndyO: David Bottrill.
Mike Portnoy: Oh, I know David Bottrill. I worked with him. Oh, wow. I’m curious to hear it!
AndyO: It’s like listening to a different album.
Mike Portnoy: I will absolutely pick it up!
AndyO: So, you have a Peart replica kit that Tama made you. Do you have it at your house?
Mike Portnoy: I have it at my house. And Neil actually signed one of the drums for me.
AndyO: Do you still play on it?
Mike Portnoy: No. I have a drum room at home—it’s more of like a museum than it is a practice room. I have my Neil replica kit in there, my John Bonham replica kit in there, my Keith Moon replica kit, and my Ringo Starr replica kit. My four tribute kits are in there—as well as one of my Dream Theater mammoth kits.
AndyO: Which one?
The Siamese Monster — the black one from the
Thought tour and the Six Degrees tour. So they’re all in
one room. You can see that room. We did a
Sabian Obsessed video
and filmed some stuff in there. But I can’t say I play on those kits. There really just
Scene from the Sabian Obsessed video: Mike Portnoy in his drum room:
AndyO: Does your son get to play on them?
Mike Portnoy: If he wants to! I gave my son a couple of kits. I gave him one of my Dream Theater kits. So he’s got one of my kits of his own set up that he practices on with his band. My house is like a drum museum. I have at least eight or nine kits set up throughout the house.
AndyO: Have you heard of Donn Bennett Drum Studio here in Seattle?
Mike Portnoy: No.
AndyO: It’s reminds me of what you’re talking about. It’s a drum shop, but also a museum of sorts.
Mike Portnoy: They have other people’s kits?
AndyO: Yeah, they have all the kits above the store area. I think they have a Ringo kit.
Mike Portnoy: Wow. So how does he obtain these?
AndyO: I don’t know. Yeah, it’s amazing.
Mike Portnoy: That’s cool.
Mike Portnoy: Wow, that’s cool. So, I don’t have these real drummer’s kits, I have my own replicas! (Laughs.)
AndyO: Still though. That’s cool!
Mike Portnoy: It’s cool that Neil signed one of the toms on that kit. Sadly, the other replica kits are John Bonham’s and Keith Moon’s.
Mike Portnoy: I would love to, but that’s up to Eddie. It’s Eddie’s show. Yeah, I had a blast doing that! I mean, my (Rush) bootleg collection is pretty deep, and, man, we only scratched the surface that night. But it was a lot of fun.
AndyO: Speaking of bootlegs, did you ever hear the Billy Sheehan jam with Rush?
Mike Portnoy: From soundcheck?
Mike Portnoy: Oh, God, yeah! Years ago. I probably have it somewhere. I haven’t heard it in a long time though. Haven’t listened to it in a long time. It was Billy playing with Neil and Alex, right?
AndyO: Yeah. It’s pretty interesting.
Mike Portnoy: Well, the first time I ever worked with Billy was when I did the Working Man album. It was the first time we ever worked together. We played, like, six songs together. The cool thing about that tribute album was me and Billy did our tracks together. It wasn’t one of those mail-in things where nobody meets each other. Me and Bill got together in the studio and did some rearranging of some of the parts. I threw in some cool little twists and turns into my drum tracks—you know, some little tributes to people who would recognize the cool little things.
AndyO: Was it “La Villa (Strangiato)?”
Mike Portnoy: We did “La Villa,” we did “Working Man,” “By-Tor,”; we did “The Analog Kid,” “The Trees,” maybe one other. It’s been so many years, I can’t remember.
AndyO: It’s been a while since I’ve heard it.
Mike Portnoy: It’s been almost twenty years now! Oh, we did “Jacob’s Ladder.”
AndyO: Great song!
Mike Portnoy: Yeah, one of my favorites.
AndyO: Wish they’d play that one again.
Mike Portnoy: You know... with Dream Theater we used to do these one-off covers. And every time we played Toronto, I always put a Rush cover in there. And I’d been collecting them, and I was eventually going to release them because, you know, I used to oversee the official bootleg series for Dream Theater. And I had been compiling all the Dream Theater Rush covers. We had done “Jacob’s Ladder,” “A Passage to Bangkok,” “The Necromancer.” I had pretty much a whole CD’s worth of stuff now. We did “Different Strings.” And sadly now I’ll never get to release it. But I was aiming to get it out there! (Laughs)
AndyO: At the Buddy Rich Memorial 2008 show in New York, I saw you there at the end of the show in the audience. What did you think of the show?
Mike Portnoy: I’m not much of a Jazz guy to be honest with you. It’s always fun seeing Rock guys paying tribute. I remember Chad Smith was there that night, Neil (Peart), and Terry Bozzio. It was great seeing them and paying tribute. If I’m to be blatantly honest with you and not bullshit you, it’s not really my cup of tea, not really my thing.
AndyO: The Jazz thing?
Mike Portnoy: Yeah, I’ve been asked to do that before, and I’ve strayed away from it. I’m scared shitless of embarrassing myself too badly with that! So I keep shying away from them. But I’m good friends with Cathy and Nick (Rich), Buddy’s daughter and grandson, and whatever I could ever do to help them—apart from getting up there and embarrassing myself—I surely will. Because I know how important the legacy is.
AndyO: Last time I saw you in Seattle was at White River Amphitheater. You were touring with Dream Theater and Iron Maiden. I brought my son to the show, and we were both so entertained watching you behind the kit. I’ve never seen a drummer connect with the crowd the way you did. I just wondered where that came from?
Mike Portnoy: I can think of a couple people in particular. Keith Moon was the biggest one for me. Keith Moon’s animation and personality behind the drum kit was one of my defining career-changing moments. People talk about seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan—and that was their moment. Well seeing Keith Moon on screen—I saw The Kids are Alright when I was like 11. That was my Ed Sullivan moment. That was when I said, “Oh my God, that’s what I want to do—I want to be a drummer like that!" The sort of drummer that you just can’t take your eyes off of. The sort of drummer who’s engaging and charismatic, and connecting. So he was the big one for me. But even people like Lars Ulrich, you know, he’s that type of a drummer. You know, when I’m on stage, I need to connect with an audience—that’s why I’m up there. I don’t want to be a goldfish in a fish tank. It’s that two-way street. I want to have that interaction, that feedback, that connection with the people in the audience—and the people I’m on stage with as well. So that’s what it’s all about for me.
AndyO: You connected with us, and a lot of people around us. It was amazing to see. And just that you're playing all these complex patterns and still pointing at people in the audience to stand up.
Mike Portnoy: Right.
AndyO: Throwing sticks—I think you threw sticks?
Mike Portnoy: Oh yeah, constantly throwing sticks.
AndyO: I know you’re a big film buff. Any Oscar predictions?
Mike Portnoy: I just saw Gravity, and it was amazing. It was one of the rare times where a Hollywood film is so incredibly well-made. I’m a big fan of the director [Alfonso Cuarón]. He made Children of Men, which I absolutely love.
AndyO: That’s an incredible film!
Mike Portnoy: Children of Men or Gravity?
AndyO: Children of Men.
Mike Portnoy: It’s the same director, so I’m a big fan of his. And he’s obviously an incredibly talented foreign and independent filmmaker, so it’s great when you can see someone like that infiltrate a Hollywood film and make a big budget film that’s so incredibly well-made. To me, Gravity was the perfect balance between those two.
AndyO: Were you able to see it on the road?
Mike Portnoy: I saw it just a couple of nights ago. Me and Ritchie (Kotzen) and one of our crew guys went and saw it in IMAX 3D. It was amazing.
AndyO: Yeah, I was wondering if you got to see many films on the road?
Mike Portnoy: Yeah, as soon as we’re done, I’m planning on going to see a movie tonight.
AndyO: Very cool.
Mike Portnoy: Whenever I can, especially, I try to see independent and foreign films—that’s my personal taste.
AndyO: Have you ever been here before—to The Crocodile?
Mike Portnoy: No.
AndyO: Do you know about the history?
Mike Portnoy: No, isn’t Sean Kinney one of the co-owners?
AndyO: I'm not sure. I guess Nirvana played here. It think most of the bands coming out of Seattle played here when Grunge was breaking.
Mike Portnoy: I’ve never played here before. I’ve played the Paramount many times. Played The Moore a bunch of times. I can’t remember where else. But, no, this is my first time here.
AndyO: Well, I really appreciate your time.
Mike Portnoy: Cool, man. No problem.
AndyO: Nice to meet you, Mike.
Mike Portnoy: Enjoy the show, thank you, man.