By Carl Begai
This interview came together in the interest of covering The Winery Dogs, but it was a given that no matter which of the trio got tapped for the chat – Richie Kotzen (vocals, guitars), Billy Sheehan (bass), or Mike Portnoy (drums) – there would be plenty to talk about with regards to their respective careers outside the band. It was Portnoy that stepped up, and the conversation that followed touched on several aspects but certainly not all facets of his career. Hell, taking time to walk through all the projects and plans he’s had on the go over the last few years would have forced the cancellation of the show. And that’s without discussing his departure from Dream Theater.
First up, congratulations were in order for the success of the Progressive Nation At Sea 2014 which took place back in February. It was essentially a 70000 Tons Of Metal-styled boat cruise for the progressive rock/metal nerd legions, and it was Portnoy that led the charge.
“Thank you. It was amazing. I played with three bands on board, seven sets in total. I played two shows each with three of the bands and a seventh set with Jon Anderson doing all the Yes stuff, plus there was two days of rehearsal on board, and then overseeing the whole thing, it was incredible. It was a fucking blur, and it went beyond my expectations. I saw the guys from Haken a couple nights ago and they were telling me how they’re still buzzing all these months later. That was a pretty common reaction from everybody that was on board whether it be the bands or the fans; everybody walked off that cruise just buzzing because they had been a part of a once in a lifetime event. For me it was incredibly surreal having overseen the project from both sides, as a player and a promoter or whatever you want to call it. It was one of the highlights of my career, hands down.”
“It’s my love for music and the fans and that’s the truth,” Portnoy says of the push to tackle such a monstrous project. “Believe me, half the things I do aren’t because I have spare time. I do these things because I’m passionate about the music, so being able to do something like the cruise for the prog scene… how could I not? It was a dream opportunity for me to be able to do something like that.”
Which means there will be a second cruise at some point in the future?
“I hope so. There are a lot of financial details and technicalities that need to be sorted out, a lot of behind-the-scenes work. I don’t concern myself with money; I do these things because it’s a labour of love. There are people that invested a tremendous amount of money in the cruise, so we have to see if the numbers add up and hopefully do it again. If I wanted to sail away into the sunset and play it safe for the rest of my life, I could have stayed with Dream Theater. That was security, but I follow my heart and want to do things that are labours of love, things that inspire me, work with different musicians, and do projects that are based on passion and inspiration rather than money. If the cruise was a once in a lifetime thing then I’m satisfied.”
At present – and for over a year now – Portnoy’s top priority has been The Winery Dogs. When he left Dream Theater in 2010, Portnoy said goodbye to the big stage productions and playing to several thousand people a night, but he’s back on track with a full-time band with The Winery Dogs. Portnoy makes it clear that even though he’s had to re-start from scratch, it hasn’t been the ordeal some people might expect.
“It’s a lot less work for me personally because with Dream Theater, I did it all. I wore 30 different hats so it was a huge weight to carry. In The Winery Dogs I’m not the ‘leader’, the three of us carry the responsibilities equally, so it’s a lot less work. In fact everything I’m doing now is a lot less work. I guess it balances out because I could wear 30 hats in one band, or I could wear six hats in five different bands.”
Being a part of The Winery Dogs has put Portnoy in the position of writing and playing clean, compact songs far and away from his prog rock / metal foundations. Call it a personal gripe, but there are albums in the Dream Theater catalogue over the past 15 years where the band meanders through prog metal paradise seemingly with no destination in site. It was as if they’d forgotten how to write songs, and Portnoy was part of that equation. He’s now feeding a much different animal.
“I’m as much of a fan of Van Halen as I am of Rush, so I felt that after 25 years of Dream Theater that I’d said everything I wanted to say with that type of band,” says Portnoy. “I needed other outlets because as a music fan I go way beyond what Dream Theater is. I needed to do different things, and Avenged Sevenfold and Adrenaline Mob scratched that certain itch for the heavier side of me. Transatlantic provides for the prog side of me, and Flying Colors is for the part of me that like Coldplay, U2, The Beatles and Muse. The Winery Dogs gives me my classic rock outlet. I needed to explore certain things, and one of those things was simpler songwriting. I think if you look at everything I’ve done post-Dream Theater other than Transatlantic, the focus has been on writing compact, memorable songs. They were different genres but the focus was always the same.”
“As time goes on your taste changes and sometimes you grow out of a certain type of music, so I get what you’re saying. You don’t want to eat the same meal at the same restaurant for the rest of your life.”
Portnoy is gracious in addressing the subject of his ongoing sobriety, a question brought up because of the amount of touring he’s been doing over the last several years. More than a few musicians who managed to beat the bottle have fallen off the wagon due to the mind-numbing hurry-up-and-wait nature of being on the road. Boredom = beer or something stronger if one isn’t careful.
“When I first got sober 14 years ago it was a struggle,” Portnoy admits. “I had to work diligently at it for the first couple years from day to day. I had to go to meetings every day, I had to talk to my sponsor every day, and it was difficult because it was a huge adjustment in my life. We had to get rid of all the alcohol backstage and on the bus and in the hotel rooms, but it’s 14 years later and if I can survive touring with Avenged Sevenfold, I can survive anything (laughs). I still have to think about it because if I don’t keep in in check I could slip like anybody else, but I think 14 years of sobriety has given me the tools to be able to survive out here on tour.”
Another big focus for Portnoy outside his own music career is that of his son Max, the drummer for progsters Next To None. He takes an active role in supporting his son’s work and is acting as producer for the band’s forthcoming album, but beyond that he keeps his fingers out of Next To None’s music.
“The first big show Max played was opening for me when I was with Adrenaline Mob and it was one of the proudest experiences in my career, and it didn’t even involve me. For me as a spectator and as a father it was really incredible. Since then they’ve gone one to open for The Winery Dogs, they played Progressive Nation At Sea, and I’m about to produce their first full length album. And they’re growing fast. A couple years for teenagers are like dog years to us; between 13 and 16 years old they’ve progressed so much, taken huge leaps. We did a video for them a couple years ago for their song ‘Fortune Cookie’, and the leaps they’ve made in the two years since then are ridiculous. Now they’re busy writing these eight and nine minute technical progressive epics. It’s just incredible. All I can do is be supportive, and sometime I catch shit for being so supportive but hey, I’m a proud father, so of course I want to help my son.”
“I don’t teach him,” he continues. “He picked up playing the drums on his own. Max grew up watching me play from the minute he was born, he’s been touring with me since he was an infant, so I watch him and it looks like mini me (laughs). The way he plays, the different stage things he does, he definitely got it from me, but Max takes lessons from a great teacher which is important because I’m not home to teach him consistently. I’m also not a teacher; I’m a drummer and I do what I do, but I don’t know how to teach. There are people that are very good at teaching, and that’s not my thing.”
On the other hand, interacting with his fans has always been Portnoy’s thing, long before the Zuckerberg Empire made social media a form of digital heroin. He’s a constant online presence and makes a point of sharing news and updates with his fanbase, but Portnoy has been called out regularly by some of those same fans for supposedly speaking out of turn. The day before this interview took place he posted his opinion of the David Gilmour-proposed Pink Floyd album without Roger Waters, calling the idea “disrespectful,” and was subsequently reamed for it.
“It’s frustrating, it’s maddening,” Portnoy admits. “Sometimes I just want to have an opinion and talk about music like all the fans do. For instance, that Pink Floyd comment, I put that out there to discuss it as a fan, just as anyone else is allowed to state their opinion online. It was never meant to be a ‘press release’ or ‘news’, but all these websites take it upon themselves to take anything to stir shit up and make a headline out of it. It’s sad, really. I’d love to be able to talk openly and I try to always be very honest and open with my fanbase. I’m grateful for that relationship with my fans and I like that I have a forum where I can be open with them. There are a lot of musicians that are incredibly closed and introverted people, and you never hear anything bad about them. They’re not sharing their lives with anybody. I like being able to have that open relationship, but unfortunately that sometimes bites me in the ass.”
“It’s funny because I’ll have an opinion about an album and some people will say ‘Shut the fuck up!’ and ‘Who cares?’ and ‘Who the hell are you to give such an opinion?’, and these are the same people that are saying the same shit about me (laughs). It’s like ‘Wait a second! You’re condemning me for exactly what you’re doing to me!’ (laughs). I can’t win and a lot of times I have to bite my tongue, and sometimes that’s really hard. At the end of the day I’m just a fan. These are not malicious posts I’m making; I’m a music lover.”
Check out my interview with Portnoy about The Winery Dogs on BraveWords.