Interview: Mike Portnoy on Flying Colors

"There’s so many colours in Flying Colors!” So says Mike Portnoy, drummer de resistance, Winery Dog, Transatlantic man, and one fifth of this rock supergroup. Joined by Deep Purple guitarist Steve Morse, fellow Transatlantic guy Neal Morse (also of progressive rockers Spock’s Beard) and Dixie Dregs bassist Dave LaRue, he’s in good company – all drawn together by the vocals of Casey McPherson, frontman with alt-rockers Alpha Rev.

Having completed the second Flying Colors album, Second Nature, Portnoy talked to Classic Rock about the process behind it, the dangers of learning how to hold a drumstick, and the real reason why Ringo was the Beatle to aspire to.

The longest track on Second Nature is just over 12 minutes, with most tracks averaging at about six minutes. For a guy used to half-hour epics (not to mention a 78-minute number, Whirlwind, with Transatlantic), those must go by in a flash.

They do, but that has always been the focus of Flying Colors. The mission statement from day one was that we wanted to be kind of like the 80s prog guys coming together to make more streamlined music. Flying Colors kind of reminds me of prog bands in the 80s – of what Yes were doing in the 80s, or Genesis. Whereas with Transatlantic, that reflects more of the 70s prog approach. And I think the biggest difference is that Transatlantic is a prog band with pop overtones, whereas Flying Colors is a pop band with prog overtones. So yeah, we’re basically trying to streamline everything, and let Casey be the centrepiece. Casey is the glue that brings us all together. Occasionally you do get a 12-minute song like Open Up Your Eyes – we can’t help ourselves… But for the most part Flying Colors is about the more concise approach.

There are some seriously proggy moments, but then you get a very melodic, Beatles-ish quality in the harmonies of (for example) Fury Of My Love. But as you say, Casey’s voice is the uniting factor…

Neal and I have been doing prog all these years, Steve and Dave have been doing instrumental music all these years. Casey comes more from the world of Coldplay, Radiohead and bands like that. And we wanted to morph to his world, rather than vice versa, and I think that’s exactly what happened. We’re kind of accompanying him… It’s funny you mention the Beatles harmonies in Fury Of My Love because actually I remember tracking that song and feeling very much a Beatles vibe, and also a Queen vibe. Flying Colors reminds me of The Beatles or Queen in the sense that, if you listen to something like The White Album or A Night At The Opera from song to song, you’re getting this wide range of styles. From song to song they were genre-leaping, and I think that’s kind of the approach we try to have with Flying Colors.

Flying Colors has always been something you all fit in around other commitments. How much time did you have together to make Second Nature?

I’ve never made an album quite like this. It was impossible for us to find a solid month for us to get together, where our schedules aligned. You hear the stories about how Led Zeppelin made their early albums; they’d go in the studio for a couple of days, then go on the road and play some shows, then go back in the studio for a couple of days…. So we determined that the only way we were ever going to get this record done was the old school way. Hanging out in chunks when we could. For the first chunk we gathered online and did a bunch of Skype writing sessions. So all five of us were on the screen, with our instruments, in different places in the world. We did a couple of writing sessions like that, just putting down the blueprint for the whole thing. Then six months later we gathered at Neal’s studio in Nashville, and banged out four songs – writing, composing, arranging and recording. Then we went our separate ways, and six months later we convened at my studio in Pennsylvania, banged out the remaining five songs, and then over several months everybody put in their final touches, solos and harmonies.

This must impact your touring plans…

We’re in the same predicament with the tour, because basically we have a two-week window where our schedules align, so it’s like, ‘that’s it, that’s the tour’. Two weeks, ten shows in October – three in America and seven in Europe…bing bang boom, that’s all we have. If we can’t make it to you, come to us!

What can we expect from the live shows?

I don’t think Flying Colors, at least at this stage, can be the kind of band that puts out an album and goes on tour for eight months, and plays every single city in the world. I think because of our unique situation, every time we put out an album, if we play shows its going to be very limited and unique. And the key word there is ‘if’; I don’t even know if can take it for granted that we always will be able to play live shows. So when we do, if we’re only able to get out there and hit ten cities, it’s going to be a very unique and special experience that people are gonna not wanna miss. Catch it while you can!

What’s a Flying Colors get-together like, when you can all hang out socially?

The guys in Flying Colors are the nicest group I’ve ever worked with. Every time we get together there’s such a positive vibe – they’re such a kind-hearted group of people. And [laughs] you don’t often get that from bands; take it from a guy who’s been in about 20 of ‘em! Every band I’ve ever made a record with and toured with, there’s always drama or bullshit or behind-the-scenes stuff going on. But not with Flying Colors – they’re just a great group of guys that really enjoy the music and enjoy each other’s company. And I remember at the end of the last tour, it was the only time I’ve ever done a tour where nobody wanted it to end! Usually at the end of a tour everybody cant wait to get home, but with us it was like ‘aw we were only just starting to scratch the surface’. It’s gonna be the same thing this time around I’m sure.

Do you ever wonder about pursuing it full-time?

Yeah, I think all of us really love this band, and I remember after the last tour we were saying to each other, ‘man this really could be an incredible band if we all made it our full-time thing.’ I just think at this stage it’s not that realistic. Steve’s been in Deep Purple for coming up on 20 years now, so that’s an important part of his life that he can’t leave. And I’m exploring many other things in my life, and The Winery Dogs are a very important thing for me. So at this point we view Flying Colors as a part-time band. It’s definitely way more than a ‘project’. And I don’t know, if the opportunity arose in years to come where our schedules aligned more frequently, I have a feeling everybody involved would love to put more time into it.

You’ve played with some of the biggest virtuosos in rock. Can you think of any stand-out performances that really left you speechless?

The first thing that springs to mind is Paul Gilbert when he did a solo on While My Guitar Gently Weeps. He and I have a Beatles tribute band; Yellow Matter Custard. So that’s one of the first things that comes to mind, Paul just going crazy on While My Guitar Gently Weeps, that was truly incredible… I’m blessed to work with some of my favourite musicians. Y’know, Steve Morse is one of my favourite guitar players of all time, and here I am in a band with him. Billy Sheehan is my favourite bass player of all time, and here I am in a band with him too! To me it’s an honour to work with these amazing players and have them in my life. Neal Morse is my favourite songwriter – I hold him up there with Roger Waters and Lennon and McCartney in my all time favourite writers list.

If you had to name five favourite tracks from your post-Dream Theater career, what would you pick? To give a sense of what you’re all about these days…

Well, there’d have to be a Transatlantic track so I’d go for Into The Blue, off the Kaleidoscope album, which is the ultimate prog experience. And a Winery Dogs song, so Elevate. Flying Colors, god which one? Ermm…. Cosmic Symphony, that’s so different from anything else I’ve got in my career. And a track off the Big Elf album I played on… Theatre Of Dreams, that’s my Beatles side. And one of the tracks off the Avenged Sevenfold album – God Hates Us, one of the heavier songs there.

Drumming (at your level) breeds a certain amount of physical fitness, but do you keep in shape in any other ways, during any downtime?

I don’t get any downtime, that’s the thing! I guess when you’re in, like, five different bands you get off one tour and jump straight onto the next, and then the next… I don’t think I’ve had any downtime in about four years at this point! [laughs] But the reason I chose drumming was because it allowed me to sit all the time. Most people talk about drumming and how they saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and that changed their life and they knew what they wanted to be. I saw the Beatles and I was like ‘ok, that guy John is standing, that guy Paul is standing, that guy George is standing… Aha! That guy Ringo is SITTING! That’s what I wanna do! I wanna sit for a living!’

It’s interesting that when you’ve talked about your OCD, you’ve said the one thing you don’t obsess over is your drumming and kit set-up. Yet you still play incredibly complex, technical stuff…

It’s true, I am completely OCD with everything. When I’m making a record or overseeing merchandise or the artwork on a DVD or album I’m very, very anal. Every word is meticulously overseen and I spend an incredible amount of time on details in every regard of music, except for the drumming! When I’m making a record I’m not even thinking about the drumming, I’m thinking about the guitar riffs, production, vocal melodies… I’m not one of those people that took lessons in how to hold a stick, and was told I had to practise double quintuplet paradiddles at 240 beats per second. I was never one of those drummers, I hated that stuff. I always wanted to play drums from my heart. There’s a lot of drummers I see out there who are great technical players, but they play like machines. I’ve never been like that, even though I grew up in Dream Theater and spent a lot of time putting together these cerebral drum parts that involved a million time signatures. But at the end of the day, onstage I played more like Lars Ulrich – standing up, spinning my cymbals and pointing at the audience. And y’know, some of my favourite players of all time were guys who didn’t have very good technique. But they moved me. So I guess my OCD hasn’t translated to drums, and maybe that’s a good thing.

You did go to Berklee College Of Music as well…

I did go to Berklee for a year, and I learned the technique there. I think the best drummers out there are the ones that play from the heart, but do have the knowledge if they need it. That to me is the best of both worlds. And thats kind of where I came from. I learnt how to use that stuff and I have it in the back of my head if I need it.

Do you think OCD and addiction issues (like alcoholism, which you’ve experienced) are linked?

Oh absolutely. I’m a recovering alcoholic and addict, I’ve been sober for 14 and a half years, and my addiction and alcoholism was 1000% connected to my OCD. My OCD when I was a kid applied to collecting records and collecting magazines, and not being able to do anything in moderation. And I think that OCD applied to drinking and drugs as I got older. I couldn’t drink or take drugs in moderation, it was all about excess. So yeah absolutely, the two go hand in hand.

Through Dream Theater (and beyond) you’ve been a key personality in the rise of progressive metal. Do you feel pressure from that status, to keep being progressive/different/epic?

Y’know, the only pressure I feel is as a drummer, because I’ve won all these drum awards. Winning all those has put this big expectation around me, so whenever I perform in front of other drummers I’m very intimated actually. I almost feel like I have to make excuses for myself, I almost feel like saying ‘look I’m really not that good, I’m just a drummer!’ So I do feel a lot of pressure from the drum world. But I think in terms of the side of me that’s a workaholic, and plays in five or six different bands at any given point, and does all these projects… I dont feel pressure to do those things because a) I’m bored and looking to fill my time, or b) because I do it for money. A lot of times people think I’m a workaholic because I’m just trying to make money. But the reality is, these are all labours of love. It has nothing to do with money, or being bored; I just love music.

_Second Nature, by Flying Colors, is out on September 29 via Music Theories/Mascot. The band play Islington Assembly Hall in London on October 13. _

Polly Glass
Deputy Editor, Classic Rock

Polly is deputy editor at Classic Rock magazine, where she writes and commissions regular pieces and longer reads (including new band coverage), and has interviewed rock's biggest and newest names. She also contributes to Louder, Prog and Metal Hammer and talks about songs on the 20 Minute Club podcast. Elsewhere she's had work published in The Musician, delicious. magazine and others, and written biographies for various album campaigns. In a previous life as a women's magazine junior she interviewed Tracey Emin and Lily James – and wangled Rival Sons into the arts pages. In her spare time she writes fiction and cooks.