Interview: Mike Portnoy talks Sons of Apollo’s “five ring circus,” writing lyrics, his son’s drumming

Posted by on January 22, 2018

Nobody takes pictures of the drummer, unless of course you’re Mike Portnoy. It’s not the norm for the percussion section to be the face of the band however since breaking onto the progressive metal scene with Dream Theater that’s the role Portnoy assumed, and continues with his latest group Sons of Apollo. Founded with ex-Dream Theater bandmate Derek Sherinian on keyboards the band’s all-star line up is rounded out by Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal on guitar, Billy Sheehan on bass, and Jeff Scott Soto on vocals. In this candid chat Portnoy discusses the band’s upcoming tour, his relationship with Sherinian, his son, being a “hired gun”, retirement, and more. Listen to the entire interview below.


Sons of Apollo are hitting the road soon in support of the new album Psychotic Symphony. The album has been out for a few months now, are you liking the reactions? How has it been sitting with you?

Yeah it came out in October and we’re dying to hit the road but we kind of had to wait for Jeff (Scott Soto) who was out doing Trans Siberian Orchestra. Now that the holidays are over and he’s free from that, we’re gearing up to hit the road in a couple weeks. We can’t wait. The reaction to the album has been great, but once we hit the road and people see this band live that’s when it’s gonna really hit home for everybody.


Yeah you’ve got a murderers row of players in this thing. First of all I love Jeff Scott Soto’s voice. He’s got that just pure balls to the wall driving hard rock voice, and everybody else in the band, Bumblefoot, Billy Sheehan, and Derek Sherinian, your old bandmate in Dream Theater for a time. So I guess the obvious question for a lot of people is are there going to be any Dream Theater songs in the set maybe from your era in the band together since you (Sons of Apollo) only have one record?

Yeah I think it’s inevitable this first time around. I’ve done first album tours with a couple bands now, with The Winery Dogs and Flying Colors, and every time you’re a new band with only one album out you’ve got to pad out the set with other stuff so inevitably we’ll do the same with Sons of Apollo. I’ve already written the set list and sent it out to the guys, there’s a lot of cool surprises in there, so people are gonna love the set this time around. Probably when we have a second album out we can just do our own material.


That makes sense. Are you bringing anyone on the road with you? I didn’t see any support bands listed.

Not yet, nothing’s been announced yet. This first run we’re doing in February is just a quick little club run to just get our blood going and hit the road for the first time, get our legs together. After that we’re going to be back in April and May with a more extensive tour and on that one we’ll be carrying a couple cool opening acts we’re getting that sorted away right now.


Nice, I’m hoping to check you guys out when you hit Asbury Park, NJ (House of Independents Feb.15th). The album just kicks a lot of ass, it sounds so thick.

Yeah this band on stage is gonna be ridiculous. It’s gonna be like a five ring circus, everyone in the band is a performer in their own right, so it’s definitely gonna be an amazing band on stage.


You did a good chunk of the lyric writing back in Dream Theater, so did you write any lyrics on this record?

No it’s all Jeff.  Derek and I kind of collaborated with him as the producers of the album we spent a lot of time with Jeff shaping the melodies and the words but for the most part its stuff that he brought in. I did used to write a lot of lyrics in Dream Theater but once I left the band I kind of wanted to get away from that, since then I’ve only written very little. I wrote one song for Winery Dogs and a little bit for Metal Allegiance but for the most part I’m enjoying NOT writing lyrics these days and Jeff is someone that can come in with a million ideas of his own so that’s a great thing. I just want to let him do his thing and bring his talent to the band.


Yeah, it’s a personal thing but nothing really turns me off more than hearing that cliche lyric. It’s so tough to write lyrics.

Yeah for me all of my lyrics were always straight out of my life and straight from the heart. The “Twelve-step Suite” songs were all about my alcoholism, then I wrote a song for my mom who died in a plane crash with “A Change of Seasons,” Then I wrote “The Best of Times” for my dad when he was on his death bed, these are all lyrics that are straight out of my life. For the Winery Dogs I wrote “You Saved Me” which was a thank you to my wife and family for sticking by me after all the drama of leaving Dream Theater. So I’ve always written lyrics kind of more Roger Waters’ way were it’s very emotional, it’s not really poetry or things like that, it’s more stuff that people can relate to the human emotion of.


I would think that might be even tougher in a way cause you want to do the experience justice and be true to yourself.

Yeah. But to me its always been very therapeutic to get that shit off my chest and get it out there and share it you know.


So I gotta bring this up, I heard you guys on Eddie Trunk, I didn’t know that Derek (Sherinian) was actually fired from Dream Theater, He was in the band for a 5 year stretch in the 90’s, what was the reason for the firing you guys never really got into it. . . you guys seem really cool now and have a great chemistry but what was the reason?

Well Derek and I always had a great chemistry, even when we were in Dream Theater he and I were like the rock and roll guys. The other guys were a little more straight and just kept to themselves and their instruments but Derek and I were always the outgoing ones, partying, and always having a good time so he and I have that connection. We coined ourselves “The Del Fuvio Brothers” because we were just kind of sarcastic that were just winding and stirring people up. So even after were parted ways with him in Dream Theater and after I left Dream Theater it was inevitable that he and I would reconnect. But as far as his being let go in Dream Theater it was just the wrong guy at the wrong time. In the late 90’s Dream Theater almost broke up around ’98. I had had it with all the industry bullshit, the labels, the managers, the producers, and everybody sticking their hands in and having an opinion, it was just so frustrating we needed to shake things down and in order for the band to survive that period. One of the things was that we took command of our music and needed to start self-producing, but the other thing was making the change with Derek. I think he just wasn’t jiving with a few of the other guys in the band. I mean Derek was on stage with lava lamps and this whole flamboyant personality and I think some of the other guys just wanted somebody like Jordan who’s just a serious musician and even to this day that’s kind of what the Dream Theater reputation is. So for Derek I think it was just bad timing, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But above all he and I remained friends and I’m glad to be playing with him now in Sons of Apollo.


Was he kind of like a “hired gun” in a way? I just watched this documentary on Netflix called Hired Gun. Have you heard of  it?

Yeah, I just watched that too it was a great movie. Derek started that way when he first joined the band and we hit the road for (the album) Awake he was a hired gun. If you look at some of the early promo photos or even the video for the song “Lie” it was just done as a four piece we didn’t even have a keyboard player in those videos and photos. So yeah Derek started that tour as a hired gun and half way through the Awake tour we made him a member and brought him on board.


You were kind of a hired gun especially in the Avenged Sevenfold situation where you stepped in.

Yeah I’ve had a few of those situations with Avenged Sevenfold and also Twisted Sister. I’ve also done some gigs filling in with Stone Sour, Overkill, and Fates Warning. So yeah, I’ve had the hired gun experience and it’s actually fun I mean the tours I did with Avenged Sevenfold and Twisted Sister were some of my favorites of all time. It was nice to just show and play drums and not make a single decision, it’s a lot of fun. I don’t know if I’d want to do that full time but I definitely enjoy it once in a while.


What do you think about the term “hired gun” do you think its a negative term at all?

I take no offense to it, maybe others do but for me personally with Avenged Sevenfold and Twisted Sister that’s what I was you know. And eventually they make you feel at home especially with Twisted Sister those guys really took me in, they patched me in and everything you know like I was joining a motorcycle gang. They took it seriously, Dee presented me with my colors they patched me in and it was like real family they consider me a member of the band and that’s nice when you can go from the hired gun situation and kind of be taken in and be made part of the family it’s great. I had a little bit of it with Avenged, they have a very tight knit family situation, but when I was with them they were still kind of mourning the death of The Rev so I think they were a little more hesitant to . . . I mean even the drummer that came in after me he was never fully accepted for a while to get over being gun shy and bring somebody in but I don’t mind the term hired gun in the case of Avenged Sevenfold that’s what I was.


I just read something depressing, that Rush are officially done. I guess Alex Lifeson made a comment that the band has no upcoming plans and we know Neil Peart had retired a couple years back, I’m assuming you were a big Rush guy right?

Oh of course yeah. I grew up with them and went through a huge Rush phase in the mid 80’s early 80’s when I was a teenager, Neil was always my hero back then and since then I’m honored that we’ve become good friends and I cherish that relationship and I’ve stayed a Rush fan through all these years. It’s sad to see it end but you gotta respect that cause if they can’t deliver what fans want to see and they’re in physical pain I respect that they would go out on top. I don’t like when I see bands that are just a memory of what they used to be and there’s a few out there that I’ve seen recently that are still touring . . .



(laughs) I’m not gonna name them but some of the members can barely play their parts and they have a bunch of other members that weren’t even originally in the band so I don’t know I’d rather see a band like Rush go out on top and have all the good memories of what they’re capable of.


Well that’s kind of what I was leading up to, Ozzy’s about to announce his final tour soon and what you do is physically taxing, you just turned 50, do you see that as an avenue for yourself maybe to go out at your peak rather than grind it out till the wheels fall off?

You know I often joke that I would love to retire and have my son take my place but I’m just too much of a workaholic. I can’t picture ever really doing it, as much as I’d love to do it and just sit home and watch movies and TV shows all day, I think after a couple days I just be itching to get back on the road. So hopefully I can keep up with it, I am 50 now and I’m starting to feel it you know. I’m getting grey and I’m getting heavier, it’s just a part of life but personally my work ethic is just too crazy. I’m too much of a workaholic which is why I’m in six different bands right now. I can’t picture ever stopping just because I love it too much.


One last question, your son Max is a drummer, he’s in a band called Next to None. What balls on this kid, picking up a pair of drum sticks being Mike Portnoy’s son because there’s high expectations.  I wanted to know, did he come to you for lessons? Do you refer him to someone? How do you handle that because obviously you relationship is very complex as father and son.

Well he grew up on the road watching me play drums, literally sitting on my drum riser eating candy and watching me play. This was his childhood so I think it was inevitable that he would gravitate towards the drums and when he started to get serious about it, he went to somebody else for lessons cause to be honest A) I’m not a teacher I don’t think in those terms but B) I’m not home regularly enough where he needed to have regular lessons on a consistent schedule so he did that with somebody else for many many years. He’s developed into this amazing drummer in his own right. He’s actually been in a lot of the drum magazines and won some awards at this point you know, best new drummer, he’s done two albums with his band Next to None and now he’s got a new band called Tallah which is like full on hardcore metal. So he’s done the prog thing with Next to None now he’s doing the metal thing with Tallah and I couldn’t be prouder of him, he’s just an amazing drummer in his own right.


You guys must be really tight that sounds cool. Are you ever gonna do a drum battle type show like the Appice brothers Vinny and Carmine?

We wouldn’t do it live, but we’ve toured together many times. Next to None went out with Metal Allegiance and The Shattered Fortress and there’s a lot of times Max would jump up on the kit with me and we’d fiddle around and have fun. There’s a few videos online, I think Sabian put one out last father’s day, which was a really cool video of me and Max together battling it out together you can look that up online it was really cool.


You can listen to this entire interview below:

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