What's it like being a drummer in a prog band when your dad is Mike Portnoy?

Next To None, L-R: Thomas Cuce, Derrick Schneider, Max Portnoy, Kris Rank
Next To None, L-R: Thomas Cuce, Derrick Schneider, Max Portnoy, Kris Rank

It’s not easy being a teenager: the quest for what kind of person you’re going to be has just begun, along with the looming weight of those first adult responsibilities. Add to this the fact that your dad is a world-famous drum legend…

Many Dream Theater fans will remember Max Portnoy as a toddler, banging on a drum kit next to his dad, Mike, as seen on countless YouTube videos. Today, however, Max is a drummer in his own right with Next To None, and the 18-year-old exudes a maturity beyond his years.

The Pennsylvania-based prog foursome began life much like any other band. “I knew Kris [Rank, bass player] for almost my entire life and he’s always been hanging out with me and jamming on guitar,” says Max Portnoy. “As the years went on, he switched to bass and we met Thomas [Cuce, singer and keyboard player]. Me and Thomas started writing some ideas for the original songs about six years ago and since then we’ve been playing shows around the area and we ended up writing our first album, A Light In The Dark.”

The band started touring in the US with the likes of Metal Allegiance (featuring Portnoy Snr) and more recently ventured across to the UK in the company of Haken.

“It was our first time playing in Europe and for the guys, it was the first time travelling to Europe too, and it was very cool being on tour with Haken. After doing the US tour with them a couple of years ago, it was great travelling through Europe with people we have a lot of fun with but also look up to. A lot of people in Europe knew our songs already and they were able to recognise us, which is really weird because they’d never seen us before!”

The band have already endured a line-up change when guitarist Ryland Holland decided to go to college. “Bumblefoot [former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Ron Thal] introduced us to Derrick Schneider because they’ve been working together for a little bit,” says Portnoy. “He was an amazing shredder, everything we were looking for, and with him, we worked out our new album. It’s gonna be his debut with us and we’re really excited for that.”

Next To None’s brand new album Phases sounds heavier and more confident than their 2015 debut. “Phases is a lot heavier and it has more progressive elements, heaviness, lower-tuned songs and a lot more screams,” Portnoy reveals. “We’re all big fans of all the bands using this kind of thing in their music. My biggest influences are Slipknot, Lamb Of God, Mudvayne, System Of A Down and Korn. Thomas is also a big fan of the metalcore scene. On top of all this, there are prog influences like Tool, Dream Theater, Haken, Pain Of Salvation.

“On Phases, you can find the long, progressive songs like Kek, The Wanderer and Denial, but also straight-up metal like Beg, Mr Mime and Pause. Even though the first ones are more prog-oriented, they still have the metal to them, and the latter ones, despite the shorter length, still have a progressive touch. So this is definitely the sound we’re going for.”

That sound has naturally evolved into a heavier, proper groove, and it’s the result of working as self‑producers. “We recorded drums at [Neal Morse’s] Radiant Studios with [engineer] Jerry Guidroz,” Portnoy explains. “Then we did the rest of the album at Thomas’ home studio and he engineered the whole thing. We recorded but also self-produced the album: for the first album, we had my dad producing it.

“Recording and producing by ourselves was very interesting and we decided to do it this way because we had a really strong vision of how we wanted the album to come out, and we thought it was better to stick with our gut feeling about what we should do and how we should do it. It was also cheaper than going to a studio, and we could take our time to make sure everything sounded perfect.

“It was also easier having someone from the band being the engineer. It was a very interesting experience because the studio time ended up being exactly what we wanted in the end.”

It’s not just behind the mixing desk where Portnoy and the band have developed. The drummer’s own style has evidently developed across the two albums.

“When we started and recorded A Light In The Dark, I hadn’t had that much experience. Since then we started playing more and actually touring and I went on practising on my own as well. Also, as I get older, I’m more into the kind of gear I use so when I got to record Phases, I was looking into all the gear I wanted. Back then I didn’t really care about it and sometimes I asked my dad to help me pick cymbals and snares, but now I have a strong idea of what I want and how I want my kit to sound.”

It’s not all been plain sailing though. Following in the footsteps of such a famous parent has had its drawbacks, with allegations of nepotism rife. It’s something Portnoy Jr addresses in The Apple. As in, the apple never falls far…

“I really don’t understand it because this is what I wanted to do and if I didn’t want to do it, I wouldn’t be doing it, same as the other people in the band,” he shrugs. “It’s not the case of my parents forcing me into it – it’s something I wanted to do and they’ve just been very supportive about it.

“Mike’s just my dad to me and he’s very supportive. If he wasn’t Mike Portnoy, he would be doing exactly the same thing. Some people don’t see that”.

Phases is available now via InsideOut. See www.nexttonone.net for more information.

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