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Thinking Out Loud: Mike Portnoy

Mike Portnoy on Dream Theater, Rush and learning a valuable lesson from Lars Ulrich...

Mike Portnoy, 48, has drummed for Dream Theater, Avenged Sevenfold and Twisted Sister in a career that has spanned over three decades.

He's appeared on over 50 albums and his new band The Winery Dogs – featuring bassist Billy Sheehan and guitarist Richie Kotzen – released their second album, Hot Streak, last year. 

We sat down with the sticksman and found out exactly what's on his mind...

My father was an absolutely huge influence on me. He wasn’t a musician, and he didn’t play an instrument or anything like that, but he was just a huge music lover, and he was a disc jockey on a rock radio station so I was listening to The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Bowie, Zeppelin and The Doors from literally the day I was born – and that’s not an exaggeration. I was like the only kid in first grade who knew what the b-side to Revolution by The Beatles was, and I just became a huge rock ‘n’ roll fan from the get go because of him.”

I got my first drum kit when I was 11, and I just noodled in my bedroom for the first few years. I learned how to get around the kit by studying my favourite drummers in bands like Led Zeppelin, Kiss and the Ramones, and as I started listening to more progressive music it was guys like Neil Peart [Rush] and Bill Bruford [Yes, King Crimson]. I’m self-taught on the drums, but I kind of had the best of both worlds because I also studied at Berklee [College of Music, Boston], and even before that I took music theory classes in high school because I wanted to learn as much as I could about music. So I’m self-taught, but I have that musical background where I know music theory and all that stuff as well.”

I joined my first band when I was 15. We played early hard rock and metal covers. This was around ’82, so we did stuff like Van Halen, Mötley Crüe and Ozzy in and around local churches. Then a few years later, I joined my first original band. We were called Rising Power. That was my first time writing and coming up with my own drum parts, and even to this day you can find that CD on eBay or whatever.”

I have a lot of great memories from my 25 years with Dream Theater. There are so many – I could give you one for every city – but the one that always immediately comes to mind is April 1, 2006 at the Radio City Music Hall, when we filmed the Score DVD. It was the last night of our 20th anniversary tour and it was a hometown show in New York, in one of the most beautiful and prestigious venues in the world. It was just one of those nights where the stars aligned on every level."

“**No matter what I do with my career, I’ll always be that kid listening to Kiss records in my bedroom. **I’ll always be a fan first and foremost. So to me, the greatest perk of this job is getting to be friends with so many other musicians that I grew up listening to and admiring. The list of people that I’ve jammed and hung out with over the years is mind blowing: everybody from Neil Peart to Peter Criss, and everybody in between. Getting to know those guys, and in some cases become friends with them, is the greatest perk, for sure.”

I enjoyed my time with Avenged Sevenfold, just because it was such a different world to what I’d been doing with Dream Theater. I don’t judge bands by how well or fast they play their instruments – I don’t care about that shit. I’m playing with Twisted Sister right now and they’re one of the best live bands in the world, but when you compare what I do with them to what I did with Dream Theater, it’s obviously worlds apart. I don’t judge bands on anything except whether or not they put a smile on my face, and I had fun playing with Avenged. It was a hard time because they'd lost The Rev [original drummer James Sullivan], so the emotions were still very fresh. Once again, it’s similar to what I’m dealing with now with Twisted Sister, who are going through the same thing after losing A.J. [Pero]. In that respect they were sad circumstances, but it was a lot of fun and they were living the big rock star lives, so I have fond memories of that time.”

“**For me, it’s all about being gracious. **I have so much gratitude that I get to do this for a living, and that I actually have fans who come to the shows and buy the records and support me online. To this day, it doesn’t matter how many drum awards I’ve won, I’m most grateful to my fan base. I know so many people that struggle and struggle and never get a break, so I never lose sight of that gratitude.” 

The best lesson I learned from another musician is something I observed from Lars Ulrich. Lars and I were doing an autograph session together for Tama Drums, as we both had signature snare drums coming out at the same time, and he’s in one of the biggest bands of all time, so I figured he’d be the type that wouldn’t even look up and push the line along as quickly as possible, but he was actually the total opposite. He was so completely gracious with each and every person, and he’d look every single one of them in the eye and spend a few minutes asking them questions. That was a tremendous lesson for me. I’ve done signings with guys that are in 1/100th of the band that Metallica is, and they’ve had attitudes and wouldn’t give fans the time of day. But watching one of the most famous drummers in the world have that kind of attitude, even after all these years, was really inspiring to me.”

“**Nowadays, with the internet and social media, it’s a whole different world. **Back in the ‘70s there was always this air of mystery and all those rock stars were untouchable. Now for a nominal fee you can meet any band in the world, with all these VIP meet and greets that bands do, but when I was a kid I would’ve never had the opportunity to meet Kiss. So it’s a very different world, and some aspects are better and some are worse. I like the fact that news travels so quickly. Like, when Keith Moon and John Bonham died you had to wait a month for the magazine to come out so you could read about what the hell happened. But there was something kind of fun about that, too. And a lot of people are against downloads and things like that, and I do miss being able to go into record stores and browse, but there is something to be said for the convenience of being in a hotel room at three o’clock in the morning in Budapest, and being able to grab any old album that you want from iTunes immediately. So like anything else, there’s good and bad sides to it.” 

Since leaving Dream Theater five years ago, I’ve been a part of so many different bands and projects, but The Winery Dogs seems to have taken off the quickest and the easiest. In all these cases, when you’re starting over you really are starting over and it doesn’t matter how big my name is; the name is still a new name and people aren’t going to necessarily know who you are, so you still have to start from scratch. In the case of The Winery Dogs, it seems as if people have really taken to it. The shows all do well and there are always great turnouts to them, and the reviews from critics and fans have been great, too. So for some reason this band just clicks with people – maybe because it’s not prog and it’s not metal, and it’s not strictly for one type of audience. The Winery Dogs are universal. It’s the kind of music that anybody can enjoy.”

“**I’m very fortunate to have my wife and my two children. **Not many people can balance the music and their family, but I’ve made it through this crazy career being able to balance the two, and the way it’s worked for me is I’ve never separated the two. I’ve always welcomed my family into my professional life and as soon as my kids were born they were always welcome to come and join me on tour. They grew up on the road with me, and I’ve managed to balance the two by integrating them and allowing them to co-exist. I’ve been with my wife for 26 years now, and I couldn’t be happier.” 

“**One of the reasons I needed to leave Dream Theater was because I didn’t want to end my career as just the drummer in one band. **I didn’t want to play with the same four musicians for the rest of my life. I needed to spread my wings, and I knew I had more to offer than just Dream Theater. I think if you look at my body of work now it speaks for itself, and I’ve done over 50 albums with so many different bands, in so many different styles, from metal to rock and prog, and everything in between. All of the bands that I’ve been in make up the bigger picture of who I am, and I would hope that my musical legacy is about all of those things. I’d just like to be remembered as a huge music lover. ”

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