Drumming legend Mike Portnoy joins Prog for a chat

50 not out: Mike Portnoy, still one of the busiest men in prog
50 not out: Mike Portnoy, still one of the busiest men in prog

For most people, taking a cruise provides an opportunity to relax and get away from it all. Mike Portnoy is not most people. Two days after performing with Twisted Sister at New Jersey’s Rock Carnival festival on October 1, he boarded a charter flight to Mexico, where he caught up with the Monsters Of Rock’s Monsterwood cruise (which left LA a few hours before he took the stage in Jersey).

A few days after Monsterwood (where he performed twice with The Winery Dogs), Portnoy took a moment to catch his breath and look ahead to 2017, when he will tour with long‑time collaborator Neal Morse, and also revisit some of the material that helped to make him progressive metal’s most celebrated drummer.

Monsterwood featured the final shows of The Winery Dogs’ world tour in support of Hot Streak. What does the future have in store for the band?

We’re going to play it by ear, but as of now, it looks like we’ll take the upcoming year off. We’ll see where we’re at come the beginning of 2018. I think The Winery Dogs is a really special band. I love playing with Billy [Sheehan] and Richie [Kotzen], and obviously people have taken to it – of all the new things I’ve started in the last six years, The Winery Dogs has surely been the most successful. There are a lot of fans that love the band and want to see more, so I look forward to more in the future – it’s just a matter of working around all of our crazy schedules.

This was your eighth music cruise over the past three years. Do you particularly enjoy performing at sea?

If you had asked me at the beginning of 2014, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you because I hadn’t been on one yet, but now I spend a few times a year on one of these cruise ships. It’s a tremendous amount of fun – an immersive musical experience intertwined with a vacation. I think that’s why it’s so cool – you have all these bands travelling together and performing together, but at the same time, everybody’s sitting by the pool and getting sun and drinking piña coladas, so it’s the best of both worlds.

You’ll be back on the water when Yes’ Cruise To The Edge sets sail early next year.

This will be my second time doing Cruise To The Edge. My first was last year, when I put together a Chris Squire tribute show. On board this upcoming one, we’re going to have my 50th birthday concert, which is going to be really unique and special.

Cymbal of success: Mike Portnoy with his kit

Cymbal of success: Mike Portnoy with his kit

During that show, you’ll perform Dream Theater’s 12-Step Suite live for the first time. Considering how much cruisers typically drink, do you worry about the message getting lost in translation?

[Laughs] People like myself who have chosen sobriety as of a way of life, it doesn’t mean we’re going to drop out of society. We live in a society where there’s drugs and alcohol everywhere. I have no problem with people that want to drink and do drugs – if they can do it in moderation, then God bless them. I wish I could, but I can’t.

As far as I’m concerned, I’ve never been preachy with my sobriety. When I wrote the 12-Step Suite, it was a way for me to dive into 12-step work, not only for myself but for other struggling addicts or alcoholics. It was never meant to be preachy. But to be honest, my 50th birthday concert is not so much about the 12-Step Suite. That’s just going to be a very small portion of that concert, [which] is going to be a celebration of my whole career – 30 years’ worth of music with all of my different bands. Even in that sense, I’m not going to be focusing so much on the lyrical content as I am on the music and the overall presentation. To me, it’s more about the bigger picture.

What made you decide to finally revisit the Dream Theater catalogue in such depth? Over the past few years, you’ve occasionally played Dream Theater material live with PSMS and Metal Allegiance, but not like this.

It was kind of like unfinished business that I never got to perform these songs in their entirety from start to finish, and my 50th birthday concert seemed like the right time and place if I was going to ever revisit it. Obviously, the whole concert is a retrospective concert, so inevitably Dream Theater material was going to be a part of it. I felt like that would be the right Dream Theater material to do because I hadn’t done it yet.

Over the past few weeks, you’ve announced some additional shows where you’ll perform the 12-Step Suite while being billed as Mike Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress.

These subsequent shows coming along is mainly a result of the announcement that I would be performing these songs on Cruise To The Edge. Now I’m getting all of these offers at different prog festivals to do it there as well, so I figured since it’s going to be up and running and rehearsed with the band I’m putting together to perform it with, I might as well. There’s more to come – there’s going to be probably a good dozen performances around the world throughout 2017.

I haven’t looked backwards in the last six years – I’ve done everything from The Winery Dogs to Metal Allegiance to Twisted Sister to Flying Colors to the Neal Morse Band. None of that is looking backwards and regurgitating my Dream Theater material. If I was ever going to revisit Dream Theater material, it just seemed like this was the time and place. It’s a one-shot deal – this isn’t going to be an ongoing band or project. I’m not going to ever do this again.

Why not?

A lot of artists leave their bands and make a career out of playing their previous band’s material as a solo artist. That doesn’t interest me. I left Dream Theater because I wanted to move on and do different things. Doing this with Shattered Fortress is really just one-off events. Once we do this in 2017, that will be the end of that and I’ll move forward with whatever is next in my career.

You’ve previously said that it was a burden of sorts to write subsequent chapters of the 12-Step Suite whenever Dream Theater were recording a new album, and that you were relieved when it was finally completed. Do you think you’ll feel a similar sense of catharsis to finally play the suite live?

When I started the 12-Step Suite, I didn’t anticipate that it would take five albums and eight years to complete, so by the time I was getting to the final chapters, it really felt like a tremendous weight was lifted off my shoulders. Then I finally completed it, and shortly after, I left the band. Now here we are, six years later, and I have yet to perform it from start to finish, which was always my intention. So yeah, this is going to be some nice closure to finally perform it this coming year.

To be honest, it saddens me a bit that I’m not doing it with the Dream Theater guys. That was always my intent. Honestly, I would have preferred to be playing it with them, but they’ve pretty much made it clear that they’re not interested in a reunion at any point soon and, you know, carpe diem. Life is short; I can’t sit around waiting for a reunion that may never happen. It’s my 50th birthday; it felt like the right time to finally do this.

I wish the Dream Theater guys would join me for this celebration but they’ve passed on the invitation, so I need to move on with my life. I really want to do this, so I will, with a great, great band of musicians that will do the music justice and [I’ll] finally get some closure on this whole project.

You’ll also perform on the cruise with Neal Morse, whose new album you’ve given high praise.

I think it’s probably hitting me that strongly because I have a soft spot for concept albums. Most of my favourite albums of all time are concept albums – The Wall, Tommy, Misplaced Childhood, Operation: Mindcrime – and even the concept albums I’ve made in the past have been some of my proudest albums, like Scenes From A Memory and The Whirlwind. To take it a step further, it’s a double album, and I’ve done very few of those in my career, so I think the combination of those two elements make it so incredibly special. When I listen to this album from start to finish, it really gives me the same emotional goosebumps that I get when I listen to The Wall or Tommy. It just feels like a complete cinematic experience. I think for that reason alone, it’s the greatest thing Neal and I have done together.

Flying Colors: taking off in 2017

Flying Colors: taking off in 2017

What’s the best way to convince more secular audiences to check out Neal’s solo material?

I personally have no issues with it, but I understand some people might be hesitant to listen to Neal’s solo work because of the Christian overtones. I can only say that it’s their loss, because there’s so much great music here, and it would be a shame if somebody didn’t give it a fair shake because of some sort of lyrical prejudice. To me, it’s all about the music, and if somebody has a very passionate lyrical vision, I support their freedom of speech.

Honestly, I think my work with Neal is some of the best work of my career, and it’s probably sadly the most overlooked. The albums I made with Dream Theater or Avenged Sevenfold or The Winery Dogs are so much more commercially known, but the Neal Morse catalogue is really only known to the hardcore prog world, which is a shame because there’s so much amazing music that he and I have made together.

It would be a shame if The Similitude Of A Dream didn’t get the same exposure as my Dream Theater albums. I believe that anybody who is a fan of Scenes From A Memory or Images & Words would absolutely be floored by this new album.

Similitude… is the 18th studio album you’ve made with Neal. Why do you think you’ve had such a long and productive relationship with him?

I think, at the end of the day, there’s just a lot of mutual respect for each other. I love the albums we’ve made together just as much as a listener as I do as a participant. He’s one of my favourite songwriters – I hold him in the same regard as I do Lennon or McCartney, or Roger Waters, or Pete Townshend. Not only do I love and admire him that much as a musician and an artist, but he’s also one of my dearest friends on earth, and we both have been there for each other when we really needed each other. When he left Spock’s Beard, I was there for him. When I left Dream Theater, he was there for me. There’s a tremendous history, not only musically but also personally, between the two of us.

We’ve covered a lot here, but you always have a lot going on, so what don’t we know about?

I’m going to start work on a new Flying Colors album and a new Metal Allegiance album towards the end of the year. I always have to be thinking six to nine months ahead and planting the seeds for what needs to grow the following year, so those sessions will help set me up for later in 2017 and beyond.

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Q&A: Mike Portnoy