The illustrious Mike Portnoy is at home enjoying some time with his family and his dog when he receives my call to chat about the Shattered Fortress tour, which will be wrapping up in Australia. He informs me that he’s been using some of the time to catch up on TV shows he follows. After some lighthearted chatting the drumming legend discusses how it feels knowing that the stint playing his old Dream Theater material is nearly over,
“It’s been a really emotional experience and before we began it, I really didn’t know how I was gonna feel about it. Coz I’ve spent the last seven years, tryna detach myself from Dream Theater. So, diving into this for my 50th birthday was something that I wasn’t sure how it would feel. But to be honest, as soon as we started playing the shows… it’s been an amazing experience! I look into the audience every night, I see people crying, I see people smiling, I see people just with their hands in the air just ecstatic over it. I never knew if I would be playing this material again. So, this is kinda bringing a lot of closure to me and the fans you know? When I left Dream Theater it was such a shocking thing for a lot of people that we never we able to kind of get some closure to. I think these shows are definitely providing that.”
When questioned if it’s been a huge direction shift to go from detaching himself to now openly reminiscing one last time, Mike says,
“Well, I’m a sentimental person and my time in Dream Theater was 25 years. I mean that’s quarter of a century, half of my life! So, it’s a huge, huge part of me and always will be. So, even though I’ve kinda been tryna avoid it for the last 7 years, once I kinda dove in and started playing these shows and playing this material, you know it was like riding a bicycle. It was like not a day had passed and I felt at home again! Not that I would wanna do it full time, this is my 50th birthday gift back to the fans, and once it’s done, we’re done.”
The discussion turns to the fact that Melbourne will be the very last stop on the tour and how it’s likely the emotions will be even more prominent because it will be the end of this special band.
“Maybe it will be extra emotional because it is the last time. It’s very poignant that some of the last lyrics that are sung at that show, I’m singing ‘finally free’ ‘one last time’ and ‘we’ll meet again my friend, someday soon.’ All three of those lines when they come up in the last song of the show, they feel so perfectly applicable to where I’m at and to thanking everyone for the experience of playing this music again, but look I’m moving on. I’ve got other things in my life and other music to play with other people. When we get to the end of the show it’s very emotional. You can really feel it in the audience. So when we get to the very last show in Melbourne, I’m sure there’ll be that extra level of emotion in the air.”
On the topic of Haken and Eric Gillete comprising the rest of the Shattered Fortress band, Mike shares how having them on board was everything he could have dreamed,
“I could have not have had a more perfect band. First of all, all the guys in Haken, each and every one of them are just nailing it on their respective instruments. The fact that they’re already a band and a tight unit already, makes this band so much tighter. But also the fact that all of them including Eric grew up listening to this music. So, they’re really performing it not only with precision but also with passion, because they love this music just as much as we do. It’s amazing. And then Eric’s the star of the show. He’s just nailing his guitar parts and not only that he’s singing lead on a few songs as well. Everybody in this band is bringing it each and every night.”
We talk about the way that playing older material can often lead the musician to reconsider decisions made during the writing and recording process and Mike goes on to explain,
“I think I’m really happy with the way the studio versions came around. My biggest regret is not part of the Shattered Fortress setlist, but before we play. I play the song The Best Of Times as the last song in the house music before we hit the stage. And it’s my version with me singing. The version I played for my Dad on his deathbed and then at his funeral. So I hear that every night in my inner-ears as we’re getting ready to go on stage. I would say that my only regret was that maybe I should have sung that on the album. Just because it’s such an incredibly personal song. I mean, every word and every lyrics is something right out of my life with my Dad. So, I guess maybe in hindsight maybe I wish that my version was the one on the album.”
The conversation moves back towards the Australian fans and Mike tells the fans down here exactly what he wants them to know going in to these shows,
“Enjoy the experience! Seize the day! Carpe Diem! We only have today. I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever play these songs again. Honestly, I’m going into this, assuming I never will. I right now have no plans or aspirations or desires to be back in Dream Theater. I really don’t. So as far as I can tell this is, as I’ve been writing, hashtag ‘one last time.’ This really is it. So enjoy it. It’s emotional for me to be doing it, but it’s also a definite level of closure for both me and the fans. So, once these shows are done then that’s it I’m moving on, so it’s literally a once in a lifetime experience.”
I take a moment to question Mike on a topic that has been perplexing fans for a while. The apparent appearance of the main riff of the song “Erotomania” (from 1994s Awake) in the early movements of the 23-minute epic “A Change of Seasons” (Which Mike originally wanted included in the set.) Mike finally puts our mind at ease and surprisingly explains,
“I think maybe it’s just a similar riff or an idea, but no the main riff from “Erotomania” actually stems from “Pull Me Under”. The original version of “Pull Me Under” had the whole middle section of “Erotomania” in the middle. Any similarities between “Erotomania” and “A Change of Seasons” are strictly coincidental.”
Moving onto the prospect of next year and Mike’s new band Sons of Apollo, he discusses how accustomed he has become to having to shift gears when constantly playing with different bands.
“Honestly I’m used to it at this point. Every year I’m juggling three to four bands at a time. So to be honest I’ve very used to it. I spent this year juggling The Neal Morse Band and Shattered Fortress. Last year I was juggling The Winery Dogs and Twisted Sister. The year before that it was Metal Allegiance and The Winery Dogs. I just have to be strategic with the scheduling and I just have to drink a lot of coffee.”
We remain on the topic to talk about the logistics of having such an insanely busy schedule and if there’s any special methods Mike uses to keep track of it all,
“As far as the organization, it’s literally right here in my iPhone that I’m talking to you from! Any time I have a date, I put it on the calendar and I keep an eye on the calendar. Any time I get an offer to do a session or a tour I just have to be very responsible. Luckily, I’m a very OCD type of person that I keep very close track of these things. I do it all myself, I don’t have a manager that looks after my life or my schedule. I do it all myself. Maybe that helps actually in that respect, that I’m the one that’s juggling it all myself. I’m just a workaholic you know? I just wanna make it happen while I can.”
Furthermore, with so many bands and projects on his plate at any one time, we chat about how Mike keeps coming up with fresh song ideas and drum parts for all of them,
“Well that’s easy. That’s surrounding myself with amazing musicians. Sons of Apollo I’m working Derek and Bumblefoot and Jeff, we’re writing together so there’s never a shortage of ideas. And same with The Winery Dogs with Billy and Richie. Or The Neal Morse Band. Everybody in that band is incredibly talented and creative. Metal Allegiance I’m writing with David Ellefson and Alex Skolnick. So the answer is I surround myself with other great musicians that I respect and admire. From that there’s never a shortage of ideas!”
Taking the interview to more a technical level before wrapping up, we discuss the odd-time signatures and meter changes that are commonly found within the music of most of the bands Mike plays a part in.
“Most of the really crazy time signature changes that happen comes from the drums. Like if you listen to “The Dance Of Eternity” or “Metropolis”, all those patterns are patterns that I played and that everybody wrote the notes to. I would have a 5,7,5,9,9,9,5,11 you know? [laughs] I’ll play this pattern coz it feels good and I’ll say try this and then everybody will kind of orchestrate to it. Honestly, I’ve never been the type that is handed a crazy part and then I have to write to it. Usually those crazy parts stem from the drums. There are a couple exceptions like on the last Neal Morse Band album there’s an instrumental called “The Battle”. In that case Neal had a demo of him just playing all these crazy things on the piano and then I orchestrated with the drums. And in those cases I just, get as creative as I can. Follow the notes, follow the beats, follow the rhythms.
To wrap up the conversation in tradition, I ask Mike to give the best advice he can possibly give to any aspiring prog metal musicians,
“Well if you’re a prog metal musician. I would say listen to things other than prog metal. Listen to classic rock, listen to metal, listen to thrash, listen to jazz. I mean, I think some of the problem with some of these progressive metal bands is they sound like just Dream Theater wannabes. If you really wanna know how to become a great band, you gotta go backwards and listen to everybody’s influences. It’s all about having a melting pot of styles and bands. That’s what makes an original sound, is when you take all of these influences, whether it be U2 or Jellyfish or Pantera and put it all together and that’s how you make it something new. But I would say even to any musician, the advice I always give is to play with other musicians. Don’t just sit in your basement practicing scales, or drum patterns or rudiments. It’s great to have those chops! But unless you can utilize them in a band and in songwriting, it’s pointless. It’s just masturbation. So play with other musicians, write together. Write some songs and write music together with other people.”