Mike Portnoy: “I Was Interested In Exploring Things That Don’t Sound Like Dream Theater”

Posted by on March 28, 2012

As the most recognizable face of Dream Theater, Mike Portnoy was synonymous with the band for a quarter century. When he left, many wondered what he would do to pass the time. He quickly answered that by playing with Avenged Sevenfold for an album (Nightmare) and tour before leaving them as well. As to what he’s been up to since, fans of the Long Island skinsman can pick up two albums featuring his work, both of which were just released: the hard rock supergroup Adrenaline Mob (featuring Symphony X vocalist Russell Allen) and the more proggy Flying Colors (with Deep Purple’s Steve Morse). Portnoy spoke to Metal Insider about the two albums being released more or less simultaneously, why he cares what fans and blogs say about him, and the status of the Progressive Nation tour. 


What are your thoughts on having both  the Adrenaline Mob and Flying Colors records out now? Did you know they would both hit at the same time?

No, it really wasn’t by design or part of any master plan. They were recorded many months apart last year. The Flying Colors album was started around January and the Adrenaline Mob album was started around April. So they were scattered in terms of recording, so I assumed they would come out that way. But it just turned out, with two different record companies, they both scheduled it for March releases. So at first I thought it was a crazy move, but the more I thought about it and the more I’ve sort of seen this evolve, I think it’s actually been a good thing. I think there was a lot of speculation or anticipation as to what I would be coming out with after Dream Theater. I think if only one of these albums came out it wouldn’t paint the full picture.

Flying Colors is more of a pop, alternative, prog kind of thing and Adrenaline Mob is more of a hard rock metal thing. So I’m glad people are actually going to get to hear both of these albums at the same time so you can kind of hear the balance of what I’m doing. It’s not just one or the other. It’s about both of them, and it’s about both of those styles. That’s what I’m about. I love so many different kinds of music and that’s what I want to do with my career post Dream Theater, I want do lots of different things. So it’s kind of cool people are getting to hear the yin and the yang at the same time.


If you had been asked to join a super proggy metally, kind of Dream Theater-esque band, would you have purposefully not done it? Did you want to explore?

Yeah, honestly I was interested in exploring different things that don’t sound like Dream Theater. I did Dream Theater for twenty five years and all of the projects I did while in Dream Theater, whether they were Liquid Tension Experiment or Transatlantic, they were always rooted in prog. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Obviously I love it, it’s a huge part of what I do. But one of the things I really wanted to do now is explore other things with other types of players. And to be honest, everything that I’m currently doing kind of fell into my lap. I didn’t really initiate any of these things. I didn’t initiate Flying Colors, I didn’t initiate Adrenaline Mob, I didn’t initiate the John Sykes thing when I was working with him. These were all things that came my way.

But to get back on track to what I was going to say, when Russell Allen approached me to check out what he was working on and if I would be interested in it, to be honest, I was kind of fearing that it would sound like Symphony X meets Dream Theater, which is just not what I wanted to do. So I was pleasantly surprised when I hit play and heard the demo of “Undaunted,” and suddenly it was just these big riffs and Russ’ big vocals. I think the fact that it didn’t sound like Dream Theater or Symphony X is what drew me to it and really appealed to me.


Did you want to do something that, for lack of a better term, was simpler in terms of drumming?

Yeah, after my experience with Avenged Sevenfold, I think I was really looking for something in that vein. I did the Uproar Tour with them and we were out with Disturbed, Stone Sour and Hellyeah. And I really enjoyed that environment and that type of music that was rooted in riffs and big bouncy grooves and song oriented writing. It was a good time and fun, and I didn’t have to think so much. Not that there is anything wrong with thinking, I made a great career out of that, and I still enjoy complex music. But every once in a while you need a break and you need something new and refreshing. That experience with Avenged Sevenfold was refreshing for me, and after that experience I really wanted something in that vein. So when I heard the Adrenaline Mob songs, it was exactly the right music at the right time for what I was looking for.


Is there anything else you got out of playing with Avenged Sevenfold?

I just enjoyed the experience. Like I just said, it was fun. I didn’t have to make any decision to control anything creatively. I was basically there just to play drums and help those guys get back on their feet. But the experience was a good time and I think we served as bridges for each other. I think I served as a bridge to help them get back on their feet, to get them where they needed to go with a new, younger unknown drummer and they served as a bridge for me to get to where I needed to go to get to this next chapter in my career. So I think we helped each other to get to where we needed to go and grew from the experience.


So you always had it viewed it as a temporary thing?

Yeah, I think all along my purpose was to help them get back on the road and pay tribute to The Rev, and that’s all it was ever going to be. I think once I left Dream Theater, the whole thing became very side tracked. I think the press and the media blew everything up and made the whole thing about me. It was never supposed to be about me and I never intended for it to be about me. I was always there to help them and pay tribute to Jimmy and then move on. I was never joining the band, that was never the intention. Once all the controversy and drama surrounding Dream Theater came up, it was obvious that we all just needed to move on and get back on focus to what the original intention was all along.


In a recent interview, Russell said he didn’t care what Dream Theater or Symphony X fans thought of Adrenaline Mob and that the criticism doesn’t really bother him. Do you have any thoughts on what Dream Theater fans have thought of the record so far?

Well I guess if anything I’m guilty of caring too much. I really do care what people think, and I revolved my whole career and all the twenty five years with Dream Theater. I ran that band and made decisions based on caring what the fans thought and wanted. I’d love to sit here and say I don’t care what they say, but the truth is that I do. That stuff carries a lot of weight with me. It hurts when people say negative things because I’m at a place in my career where I’m trying to stay very positive and optimistic, and everything is very good in my world right now. When I see people trying to drag it down and do all this negative trolling online, it really hurts. I find myself a much happier person when I turn off my computer and live my life.

So I have to say that stuff matters to me. But I understand that Adrenaline Mob is not going to be every Dream Theater fan’s cup of tea. I totally get that, I understand that, it’s different world. I know there are a lot of Dream Theater fans that do like the heavier side of music, but there are some that don’t. Different strokes for different folks. I get that and I understand it. I just don’t see the need for the negative, mean responses. There’s no need for that. If you don’t like it, move on. If it’s not your cup of tea, then just move on.  As far as I’m concerned, variety is the spice of life and that’s where I’m at right now. I want to do different things with different bands and different musicians, and I really want to dive into many different styles and genres. I’m a music fan first and foremost. I can find the beauty in Jellyfish and U2 just as much as Opeth and Lamb of God, just as much as I can with Rush and Yes. So I want to do all those things in my career. I don’t want to do just one.


And you’ve always been very hand- on with communicating with fans, even in the pre-Facebook and Twitter days. Has that been important to you from the beginning?

Yeah, it’s been crucial to me, even in the very, very early days in the mid-eighties when Dream Theater was still Majesty. I was the band member that was sitting there soliciting the demos to different magazines and answering fan mail and writing to everyone who wrote to us. I was always that guy. And then through all the years of Dream Theater, I was the one that ran all the fan club CDs and the official bootlegs and websites and oversaw the message boards. I’ve always been very hands on with that. And now in the age of social media with Facebook and Twitter, I think it’s an incredibly valuable tool keeping in touch with the fans, hearing what they have to say and keeping them informed. I’ve always been about that and that’s not going to change now even though I’m not in Dream Theater. I will still apply that mentality and that personality to everything I do.

But it’s not like it hasn’t hurt me. It’s been a great thing because I’m very in touch with the fans and I can keep them involved day to day. But it has hurt me in a way because I am so open with the fans a lot of times, things I say get blown up and taken to other places, other websites, that try and sensationalize everything and blow things up and try and make mountains out of mole hills. And all I’m doing is just trying to stay in touch with the fans. I know with Avenged Sevenfold, they didn’t like the social media. Once I was touring with them I wasn’t going to just cut off my fan base because I was playing in a band that wasn’t very open. I needed to still have that open relationship with the fans. So even when I was with Avenged, I needed to have that outlet and that relationship with the fans, I wasn’t going to just cut them off. I know once everything went down with DT and I was still trying to be open with the fans and still trying to explain things, the media just took it and blew it up to such ridiculous proportions. It went places where it really didn’t need to go, but all I was doing was what I’ve always done. Trying to be very open and straight forward and no bullshit, no strings attached with the fans. I’ve always valued that relationship and that’s something that’s never going to change.


Do you think social media has made it easier to communicate with fans?

Yeah absolutely, of course. I have 620,000 people on my Facebook and 140,000 on my Twitter, and all I have to do is hit send and it goes out to all those people. And I read what they write back as well and I take everything they say into consideration and into account, and I value what they say.


Did you think it was going to get to this point with social media when it started out?

Well, I guess it was inevitable. I mean, even before social media in the late nineties, early 2000’s just with the internet itself and message boards. It began that open line of communication and suddenly you’re able to see what the fans were saying. Back in the 80s, when I was starting out in this business, you basically put out your record and the only feedback you ever got was journalists either in magazines or on TV or on radio and that was it. The fans never had a say or an opinion. Once the internet came around in the late nineties, suddenly I was reading message boards and website digests and blogs, and suddenly everybody is given a voice.

And it’s a great thing, but it’s also a dangerous thing. You see all these negative trolls on Blabbermouth and they’re using their computers as a weapon. Half of them I bet are thirteen year old kids sitting in their parent’s basement looking to stir shit up. It’s frustrating to see people using the internet as a weapon, but I’d like to think that for every one asshole that’s doing that, there’s ninety nine using it productively and creatively and in a more positive manner. But it’s always the one that makes me fucking insane and crazy as oppose to the ninety nine that are saying great things. It just takes that one rotten apple to ruin the party.


You’re obviously not in a straight up proggy band right now, but you were a lot of the brains behind the Progressive Nation Tour. Would you ever curate something like that again?

Well, I wouldn’t say “a lot” of the brains behind it. I was the sole brain behind it, and I’m not patting myself on the back. I was the one that put together the whole thing and picked the bands and ran the whole show. I was very proud of the Progressive Nation Tour and we did three of them, two in America and one in Europe. Yeah, I would absolutely love to continue that. I plan on it, I just haven’t had a chance. After Dream Theater and Avenged Sevenfold, I had a dozen things fall into my lap and it’s just been craziness trying to juggle it all. But doing further Progressive Nations is something I absolutely plan on doing in the future once the timing is right in my life.


You’ve always been on the cutting edge of being a music fan. What are you currently listening to? Anything new?

God, anytime I get asked that I blank out. I would say my favorite album at the moment is Van Halen. I love the new Van Halen album [A Different Kind Of Truth]. It’s what I’ve been waiting to hear from them for the last twenty five years or whatever. So I’m really digging that. God what else…the new Animal As Leaders is pretty cool, those guys are pretty cutting edge. I’m looking forward to the new Meshuggah and the new Mars Volta. Both of those are coming out next week. I’m always spacing out on this stuff. I’ve been so immersed in the Adrenaline Mob and Flying Colors albums and promotion that it’s been totally consuming. I haven’t been able to listen to as much stuff as I normally would.


How do you sample music? Do you still buy CDs or MP3s or do you listen to Spotify?

I find myself downloading, legally of course, but downloading most of my music these days because it’s so convenient. I love the convenience of being in a hotel room in Omaha, Nebraska at three in the morning and reading about a band and being able to immediately access it rather than having to wait till the next day I can get to a record store. So as a music fan, I love that convenience and the immediacy of it. I do have to admit, I download almost all my music at this point and keep it all on my iTunes and multiple iPods and iPads and iPhones and having easy access to it. I still do buy CDs for the collectable side. So anytime an album comes out in a deluxe edition or a special vinyl reissue or a box set, I always go out and buy that stuff even if it means re-buying. Even if it’s the new Pink Floyd box set, I’ll go and re-buy it, even if I already have it on vinyl and CD. So I’m very much into the collectors stuff.


What’s next? Will Adrenaline Mob and Flying Colors be your focus for the immediate future, or are there already more projects lined up?

Adrenaline Mob is my most immediate focus as we will probably have the busiest touring schedule with a short US tour in May, a full European/UK run in June & July and possibly a larger US tour in late summer. However, we are trying to find a window for Flying Colors to do some touring in the fall as well. And on top of that, I also have my Metal Masters event in April in LA, a one-off show with Fates Warning in Brazil in April, some shows with Sheehan, MacAlpine & Sherinian in the Fall, a possible album with Billy Sheehan & Richie Kotzen and Neal Morse’s upcoming solo album. And even a few other things I can’t speak of yet. So life is very busy in MP land!

photo credit: Neil Zlozower

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Categorised in: Interviews