Flashback – Armchair Interview: Mike Portnoy

This is a repost of a June 28, 2004 interview – The world tour is over and the next one is about to begin for Dream Theater. In between, drummer Mike Portnoy worked on a new album for friend Neal Morse. Nothing is ever still in the world of the progressive musician. Able to carve out some time in his schedule, Mike graciously spoke to the ManRoom’s number one Dream Theater fan. We talked about the new DVDs coming out, performing on stage, tales of fun and fury, and we get Mike’s opinion on what happened to Metallica.

TMR: The new DVD, Live in Tokyo/5 Years in a LIVEtime, are previous VHS releases. What”s different with the DVD version? Did you add anything, other than the commentary?

MP: Well, the content is the same because between the two it’s already three and a half hours of material. So, there’s definitely plenty of material already. The new stuff is the audio commentaries, which we did in April while we were in Japan and together. That’s real interesting because you are hearing our perspective today on some of the stuff that took place over ten years ago. Plus, Jordan has joined us for the commentaries as well, even though he’s not on either video. You’re hearing an almost outside perspective. The commentaries are fun and interesting and definitely fact filled with all kinds of interesting behind the scenes stuff. The other difference is it was remixed with 5.1 surround sound audio. And, also, you get all the neat features that DVDs bring you, like chapter selection. Chapter selection is a big thing, I think, when it comes to compilation videos and music videos because sometimes you want to be able to access certain songs and not have to fast forward through the entire concert.

TMR: One thing I noticed on the commentaries was John Myung talking a lot. What got into him?
MP: On the Live in Tokyo video he talked more than usual. Then, for the second commentary, LIVEtime, he quiets back up. They must have been serving some good Starbucks that morning. I think these commentaries capture more from him than anything else in Dream Theater history.
TMR: What did you notice when looking at these old shows that is different, other than some big hair styles?
MP: That was the first thing, the hair. I mean, we couldn’t believe how huge our hair was. Other than that, not much has changed musically. We’ve noticed how much we’ve changed as people, but not so much as a band. Musically, we still carry on that Dream Theater tradition. It’s the little things that we notice personally, like our hair styles, the way we dress, and the fact that we were much younger and in our 20’s and it was before we all had families. It was more of the personal observation that was obvious to us.
TMR: One of the things you mentioned at the beginning is the DVDs have all your keyboardists, one way or the other. What are the differences from working with Kevin, to Derek, and now to Jordan?

MP: They are three definitely different characters and players. Kevin was the most introspective. He was your typical quirky, artistic kind of guy. Kind of kept to himself. As far as his playing goes, he was more of a song writer and lyricist than he was so much of a player. He, of the three keyboard players, probably cared the least about technique and playing ability. He was more interested in the writing side. Then came Derek, who’s like the Liberace of progressive metal. He was all flash and he loved the rock and roll lifestyle and he looked, dressed, and acted the part. As far as his playing goes, he was very interested in the playing and he took his playing real serious and wanted to be a flashy player. He treated his keyboards almost like a guitar. Some of his biggest influences were guitar players. It brought a real heavy aspect to the keyboard department when he was in the band. Now with Jordan in the band, I think Jordan is the keyboard player that we’ve always wanted or needed. I think that he fits in the most of the three. He’s just the most unbelievable player you’ll ever see. He’s probably the best keyboard player I’ve ever seen. His focus is really, really on his playing and the musicianship; which is, of course, the biggest part of Dream Theater. And, then, he’s a great writer and musical contributor. His personality is very much in sync with ours. But, it’s three definite different personalities.

TMR: The Nightmare Cinema clip that sneaks in – was that Derek’s concept?

MP: I don’t remember if it was his concept. To be honest, it may have been mine to actually switch instruments and play an encore. But, it was definitely Derek provoked. He was very much a part of that whole attitude of just having fun and fuck it don’t be so serious. So, that was definitely his attitude. But, I don’t think it was necessarily his idea. In any case, he thoroughly enjoyed it. He was the one, when we played Nightmare Cinema, he got his own guitar and he was all serious about it and wanted to play and show off. Whereas, the rest of us took it all very lightly and tongue-in-cheek.

TMR: Was it a moment of genius or insanity?

MP: Definite insanity. The thing with Nightmare Cinema is that it is much more fun to watch than it was to hear. If you ever hear any live CD bootlegs, you’ll probably hear how horrible it is and you can’t enjoy the fact that you’re seeing us on different instruments. It’s definitely more fun to see us on different instruments than to hear it.

TMR: Well, watching it , John Petrucci definitely has a different style of drumming. It looked like he was swatting at flies.

MP: Absolutely. He would play a five minute song and then he would come off the drums and couldn’t lift his arms. He couldn’t believe how physically demanding it was.

TMR: Watching the LIVEtime disc, for me, the highlight was the “Damage, Inc.” cover with Barney Greenway. And, I’m wondering, what does Barney’s voice normally sound like?

MP: That’s exactly what it sounds like. Some people have those voices. If you talk to Phil Anselmo from Pantera, he’s got that real deep, raspy voice. Some people sound the same way they sing and he’s like that. Except, he has a British accent. The British accent may not come across when he sings. Basically, he sounds like the cookie monster from England.

TMR: Looking at the videos that are on the DVD made me wonder. As a progressive band, you are limited on your airplay, by nature, because you don’t write short, little cutesy songs. You make a comment watching the Awake videos that you didn’t understand the point. I guess because you knew they would get very little play. What was the record label hoping for?

MP: It started with “Pull Me Under.” We probably wouldn’t have made a video for “Pull Me Under” if it wasn’t already blowing up on radio. Once it started blowing up on radio, then the label jumped on the bandwagon and decided to shoot a video for it. That was very successful. So, I think, the label’s attitude from that point forward changed their whole marketing approach towards us. Suddenly, they had some success. So, they kept trying to repeat it. It was the obvious, easy marketing route. Once you get a hit or something that works, you try to just keep repeating it. That’s not our attitude, though, it’s just the corporate attitude. If “Pull Me Under” never hit on the radio, to begin with, we may not have ever made a single video. I think the whole process began for us only because we began having some success on radio. The five videos that followed, by the time we made those, the climate had changed. Suddenly, radio and MTV were no longer interested in metal bands by the time we got to the mid 90’s.

TMR: You make a comment that at the end of LIVEtime you were ready to call it quits. What were the battles with the label and management that were driving you nuts?

MP: The frustrating period began, for me, when we were writing the Falling into Infinity album. The label was going through a lot of changes. Our A&R guy and all of our key marketing people were all fired and replaced with new people who knew nothing about us. So, we were put into a kind of big, giant holding pattern where we were not allowed to just go into the studio and make our next record, like we had in the past. Suddenly, we had to keep writing and keep presenting material to them. They wanted to hear a certain thing from us and we didn’t want to be anything other than what we just naturally are. So, that was the start of the frustration. Finally, a year and a half later, we finally did get into the studio. We were making an album with Kevin Shirley. Who, as nice as a guy as he is and as much as I like him, when he produced that album, he chopped our songs up left and right. To me, that was an incredibly frustrating experience filled with a lot of artistic compromise. It was a big, tough cookie for me to swallow. That was another step in a really frustrating process. He brought in Desmond Child to co-write one of our songs. We were being pushed into directions that Dream Theater would have normally never would have naturally gone. Once we hit the road with that album, we started having problems with management, our lawyers, and a whole bunch of behind the scenes crap that was just bringing everything to a boil. Finally, at the end of that tour, as I state on the commentary, I had had enough and I was ready to jump ship unless things changed. Luckily, things did change. We put our foot down. We got new management. Our new management went to the label and said leave these guys alone. If you want to keep this band, if you want to have Dream Theater on your roster, you’re going to have to get out of their hair and let them do what they do. The rest is history. The last five or six years have been incredibly smooth sailing.

TMR: So, how much does a producer influence the recording?

MP: Producers can take different roles. Sometimes, they can be strictly sonic, like when we worked with [Duane] Baron and [John] Purdell on Awake. They didn’t get involved with changing the arrangements. They were more producing from a sonic perspective and how things would sound which, to me, is more the role of the engineer and the mixer. The engineer controls how the sounds goes to tape. The mixer controls how they come off of tape. The way it was with Kevin Shirley and David Prater, those kind of producers come in and are, actually, like another member of the band where they are giving you an objective ear. In our case, they were like a sixth member of the band coming in and making suggestions to the music and the arrangements. I always felt we already had five chefs in the kitchen and the last thing we needed was a sixth. The five chefs would spend months and months or years, in the case of Falling into Infinity, creating this concoction. We would spend weeks and months arguing among the five of us how a song should be. The last thing you want is for someone to come in a year later and just completely chuck all of your arguments and all of your passion right out the window to suit him. There could be an argument saying that yes, of course, the objective ear is great and it probably is, if you’re Bon Jovi. If you’re a band that is aiming to have hit singles and trying to shape your music to fit a certain thing, that objective ear is good. But, when you’re a band, like Dream Theater, where you are just trying to be yourselves, be original, and have the freedom to write twelve minute songs, then, you don’t need an objective ear. Our objective ear is our own because that’s what makes us original. It got to a point where, at least I and John Petrucci, felt that we didn’t need a producer like that. We were able to do it ourselves.

TMR: Is Bob Rock holding Metallica down, like everyone thinks? A producer like him.

MP: I am absolutely of the opinion that, at least with the Black album and the Load album, I think Bob Rock ruined Metallica. I think that there are a lot of producers who have ruined certain bands. But, that’s just my opinion.

TMR: Well, your not the only one with that opinion. On a new topic, is there anything that you are listening to that’s maybe new on the horizon that fans might like?

MP: What am I listening to these days? I don’t know. My tastes run from heavy stuff, like Opeth, Superjoint Ritual, and Mudvayne, stuff like that, to poppy stuff like Rooney and Travis. I listen to a lot of different things. I listen to a lot of really weird, quirky stuff. Mr. Bungle is one of my favorite bands. I listen to a lot of progressive stuff. I still listen to a lot of my old classic rock albums. I generally listen to most stuff that’s out there, except for the whole Nu-Metal scene. That whole Nu-Metal movement doesn’t interest me. I don’t hear anything original in any of those bands. They all sound the same to me.

TMR: All sounds like Pearl Jam to me.

MP: Yeah. Well, Pearl Jam I have a lot of respect for now because of the way that they have their live shows. They’ve become so anti-corporate. I really respect that. Their live shows have been different set lists every night and cover songs. I have a lot of respect for bands like them and Phish. I try to model the way our live presentation is after bands like them.

TMR: What other drummers do you like?

MP: There are so many great drummers. Most of the best drummers, technically, are the ones that aren’t in bands and don’t get the recognition. People like Virgil Donati, Mike Mangeni, Marco Minnemann, and Thomas Lang. These guys, technically, are probably the best out there. But, none of them are in consistent bands, like I am with Dream Theater. So, it’s hard for them to get the true recognition. Then there are also drummers that are in bands that I really love. I think that Daney Carey from Tool is awesome. It’s good to see Tim Alexander back with Primus. There’s a lot of great drummers out there and I have a lot of respect for most of them.

TMR: Are you still using the Siamese Monster?

MP: Yep.

TMR: Are you looking to get a new one in the future?

MP: This will be two albums and two tour cycles with that kit. So, it’s possible for the next album and tour I’ll get something different. I’m not sure yet.

TMR: How many pieces are in that kit?

MP: I have no idea. I always say this, so I’ll say it again. The only reason I have a kit that big is because a) I don’t have to pay for it and b) I don’t have to set it up. If I had to pay for it or set it up, I would be playing a Ringo [Starr] kit. You’ll have to go the website and count them.

TMR: You create the set list and you change it up on every show. And, you do a lot of cover songs. If you decide that you want to do something new, how long does it take the band to be ready to go with it?

MP: I try to give them at least a weeks notice. I try to come up with a week’s worth of set lists at a time and I’ll e-mail everybody the set list for the coming week. I’ll also e-mail it to our lighting director and our sound man. So, anytime I want to throw something unusual, like a one off cover, everyone will have a week or sometimes more to prepare it. They’re real good and comfortable with that. There’s been a couple of occasions where I’ve actually spontaneously come up with a really wacky idea that day. For instance, the last time we played Paris, I wanted to play one of the songs of the Majesty demo. Something that I, John Petrucci, and John Myung wrote back in ‘85. We’re talking about a song that was almost nineteen years old. I just had this strange idea when I woke up that morning, the day of the show, and said “We’ve got to do this song.” I went to the guys and burned some CDs and they transcribed it. So, in that case, we learned it that afternoon and played it that night. Usually, I’ll give the guys a weeks notice with something new.

TMR: Who came up with the idea, like “Caught in a New Millennium”, to play two songs at once?

MP: That was just a creative idea that I had, as the person who writes the set list. Usually, anything that is in the set list is something that I’m pushing for. It was just a wacky idea that I had. Actually, it originated back in ‘96. We did some one off shows in ‘96. We did a version of “Caught in a Web”, this was before “New Millennium” existed. It was a strange, grungy, industrial version. In 2000, I had the idea of taking that old version, because not many people had heard it, and mixing it up with “New Millennium”. Whenever we can change a song live or give it a different twist, I think that’s a good thing to do because it offers something that is completely different from the record. It makes the live experience unique.

TMR: Not counting the German drum clinic, what’s the strangest think that’s happened while you performed?

MP: Not counting the German drum clinic?

TMR: No, that one would easily top the list.

MP: Yeah, that would have. I think the true answer is probably something I would need a little while to think about to give you the real answer. If I have to spontaneously rack my brain…one of the stranger things was when I dislocated my wrist during a show. That was also in Germany. It was in April of ‘97. If anyone wants to dig out a bootleg, you can probably hear me actually snap my wrist and stop playing for a good ten seconds in the middle of the song. It was at the end of the show and I dislocated my wrist. I turned around and looked and suddenly my wrist was completely backwards. I had to stop playing and bang it back in place and play the rest of the song with one arm, Rick Allen style. That was a weird one. Then, there was a night in Toronto back in ‘94, I believe, ‘93 or ‘94 where I threw my back out during the show. I just froze. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t play. So, we had to stop the show and see if there were any chiropractors or masseuses in the audience, during the show. James called one out of the audience and I went and had my back worked on for about five minutes while those guys went on and did an impromptu blues jam. These are moments, if you’re a bootlegger or tape trader, you can try to dig up. It will give you some interesting moments or strange moments in Dream Theater’s live history.

TMR: Going back, there was a comment made on the LIVE disc that, at the time, you had a wireless setup for your instruments. And, I think I’ve read that now, on stage, there is actually no sound being heard. I’m just curious how that happens.

MP: That’s the whole concept of inner ear monitors, which we’ve been using for a couple of tours. Basically, there is no need for amps and monitors on the stage because everything you’re hearing is in your ears. Generally, it helps the front of house mixer for our sound engineer because he’s getting a clean slate to pump through the PA. It’s not affected by a massive stage volume of amps and monitors. Also, it’s good for James. He’s usually getting completely blown away by the wall of amps. Jordan as well. Once we switched over to inner ears, we were able to bring down the stage volume significantly. When we started off with them, we actually cleared all the amps off the stage. John Petrucci’s were off stage inside of these road cases and the mikes were built into the road cases. It was the same with the bass amps. So, we were able to have a stage where the only thing you’re hearing is drums. It makes for a real clean stage. The only bad thing about that, the audience in the first five rows, who aren’t in the line of fire for the PA, they’re only hearing the drums. So, we had to put a couple of mini PA speakers on the front of the stage aimed out to the people in the first few rows. It’s kind of changed now because John has brought his amps back onto the stage because he likes to have them there for feedback and that natural live sound. We’re not quite as clean as we started off. It’s still a much more controlled atmosphere.

TMR: What are you hearing through your ear pieces?

MP: I have a little bit of everything. When I used to use traditional monitors, I would just have drums and guitar. There was just so much noise on the stage it was hard to have any separation when it’s so loud like that. Now that we’re using inner ears, everybody’s mix sounds like a CD. So, I have a bit of everything mixed in now because I can have control over the levels. Another interesting thing when you lose all of your stage monitors. I was used to having that big giant speaker behind me. Every time I would hit my kick drum, you’d feel it because the whole riser would shake. Now, without traditional monitors, you no longer have any of those vibrations. I actually have to use little drum vibrators mounted to my seat. So, every time I hit my kick drum, my seat shakes. It gives you a live feeling when you’re playing with the inner ear monitors.

TMR: You guys just recorded a live CD/DVD combo in Japan. How did that show go?

MP: It was a great show. I think that it was kind of the culmination of the entire Train of Thought tour. The whole Train of Thought tour was really a bigger and better presentation for us. The Budokan show was kind of the grand finale. Actually, we did one more show after that in Korea. But, that was the big finale with the Train of Thought tour. It was great and everything we hoped it would be. The audience was amazing. The venue was beautiful. The recording and the video came out awesome. The DVD is done. It’s edited. Now we’re mixing the CD. It’s all in the process of getting wrapped up and delivered for a Fall release.

TMR: Double CD?

MP: It will be a triple CD and a double DVD.

TMR: How did the upcoming tour with Yes come about?

MP: I don’t know who asked who. It was mainly through management and booking agents. That’s how tours usually come about. This one was no different. However it came about, we’re excited about it. They are one of our all-time favorite bands and biggest influences. To us, it’s an honor to be on the same stage as them. They are one of the few bands that we thought that we could really have a great touring package with. I think for the Yes fans they’re probably going to have heart attacks once we hit the stage. They won’t know what hit them. We are going to have to tone down our set a little bit to make sure we don’t offend any of the older Yes fans. On the other hand, I think we are going to be bringing a younger generation to the shows that maybe didn’t grow up on Yes the way that we did. There’s a whole new generation of younger progressive fans that started out with Dream Theater. We started out with Yes, Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Rush. So, I know that we’ll bring a younger generation to the tour.

TMR: Will it be equal set times?

MP: No. We are absolutely the opening. These guys are celebrating their 35th anniversary. We wouldn’t dare suggest co-headlining with them. We’ll play about an hour set. A longer than usual set for an opening act.

TMR: But, a very short set for Dream Theater.

MP: Yeah. But, that’s fine. We’re up for it. We busted our asses on the Train of Thought tour playing 3 and 3 ½ hour shows every night. It really beat the hell out of us. Playing an hour every night and opening for one of our favorite bands of all time is going to be a nice summer vacation.

TMR: You started the Official Bootlegs CDs and the Portony Archieves DVDs. How’s the response been?

MP: It’s been great. I’m real happy that we are able to offer things like that. It took a long time for us to be able to arrange it because of contractual things with our label. Now that it is up and running, I think it’s a great thing. It’s fun for me to put together. I know the fans are digging it. I think it’s a win-win situation for everybody.

TMR: I know you’ve released the Master of Puppets show. I believe you did Number of the Beast?

MP: Yeah. That’s definitely next on the agenda.

TMR: Is there a particular album you want to cover in the future?

MP: Yes. Master of Puppets and Number of the Beast were two that I wanted to do. I’ve got a nice long list of ones that I want to do in the future.

TMR: After the Yes tour, are you going back into the studio?

MP: After the Yes tour, I think we’ll be ready to start something fresh. So, I think that’s the plan.

TMR: One of the themes of TheManRoom is the concept of a “Man Room”; the room in the house that has all the video equipment and stuff most wives aren’t interested in. Do you have one in your house?

MP: I actually have a movie theater that I just built in my basement. My entire basement is like the “Man House.” My wife has two floors above me of anything she would like. I have the entire basement which has been transformed into a movie theater/library/office. I have a drum room which has four or five of my kits from throughout my career setup almost like a showroom. The movie theater is my pride and joy. It has three rows of stadium seating and a huge projection screen. I’m a huge DVD fanatic and I have thousands and thousands. I’m a big collector. When I come home of the road, you can put me down in my basement and you won’t hear from me for months on end.

TMR: Any final words to the website members about how right I am in my quest to convert people to Dream Theater in our forums?

MP: It’s a small, but growing club, the Dream Theater club. It’s been around for a long time. This club has been in existence for almost twenty years. It’s the sort of thing where once you’re a member, you’re a lifetime member. But, it’s an exclusive club. Not everybody gets it. That’s what makes it so special. Maybe the more people you try to tell about Dream Theater and they don’t get it, makes it even more special for us that do. I think that’s kind of been the story of our career.

TMR: I appreciate the time to talk with me.

MP: Good speaking with you.

Special thanks to Greg Necastro for conducting the interview.