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Interview: Mike Portnoy

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Without any exaggeration, Mike Portnoy might be the busiest man in rock.

Mike Portnoy

After his startling exit from progressive metal titans Dream Theater in late 2010, the drummer created a plethora of new projects, exploring the realms of pop music, hard rock, thrash metal and more with his newfound artistic freedom.

“My sole purpose of leaving Dream Theater and going onto do these other bands was to do different things musically,” Portnoy explains.

“I had already been doing the progressive metal thing for 25 years and had done it to death. I needed different musical outlets and different musicians and people to surround myself with.

“My goal was to do what I did: I did the heavy, groove metal stuff with Adrenaline Mob, I did more alternative pop stuff with Flying Colors, I went and played with Twisted Sister and Stone Sour, I formed Metal Allegiance and did thrash metal stuff with them and I did more straight-ahead rock with the Winery Dogs.

“My goal all along was to spread my wings; just because I made progressive metal for 25 years doesn’t mean I go home and listen to Symphony X in my free time. I’d go home and listen to Jellyfish, Sepultura, Slayer or the Beatles. My musical taste is so broad and I wanted to have outlets for all those tastes I do have.”

Yet out of the many groups he has attached himself to in the past five years, his “main band” in his mind is the hard-rocking trio the Winery Dogs, which he established in 2012 with vocalist/guitarist Richie Kotzen and bassist Billy Sheehan.

“Winery Dogs is he most full-time of everything I do. We go out for a year straight, playing a hundred shows all across the world; it’s a full-time commitment and all three of us are committed to it. It is the priority for all three of us, while [supergroups] like Metal Allegiance can only be part-time because everybody’s in different bands.”

Compared to other names in the modern hard rock world, the Winery Dogs is a relatively young band, having only existed for four years. This alongside Mike’s status as a metal veteran gives the band a great deal of artistic liberty, unlike what the drummer felt in the closing months of his time in Dream Theater.

“The freedom is incredible,” he says.

“That’s what being in a band should be, that’s why the first few years of any band – when you’re starting out in your basement without any record deals – are magical.

“And as soon as you sign your first record deal, all the bullshit and the politics start getting in the way. It fucks everything up! The rest of your career is spent chasing your tail to make the labels and the managers and the lawyers and the booking agents happy. After 25 years in Dream Theater, it was just about the business at that point. The love of making music for the sake of music and that innocence go away so early in most bands’ careers. Sometimes you have to walk away from it and start from scratch to have that freedom again.”

The last time we saw Mike Portnoy in the UK was as a part of his 2016 European tour with the Winery Dogs, but the next time he graces our shores will be at this year’s Bloodstock Festival, performing drums for metal legends Twisted Sister in place of the recently deceased A.J. Pero.

Twisted Sister’s 2016 dates have been touted as the band’s farewell tour. Unlike many acts who hold a “retirement tour” only to return several years down the line, according to Mike, this is the real deal.

“If I was a betting man, I would bet that this is it. When [Twisted Sister’s lead singer] Dee Snider says something, he means it. He’s one of the most straight-ahead, straight-shooting, no-bullshit guys I’ve ever met. He goes out of his way on-stage each night to mock all these bands that have had these ongoing farewell tours. So I would bet that they’re ending it as he’s saying they are.

“That being said,” he proceeds, “I wish for them to continue. I’m sad to see it end, I’m having a total blast! There’s no-one on Earth that would love to see them reconsider more than me.”

And according to Dee Snider, Mike was hand-picked by A.J. Pero before his death to be his touring replacement in Twisted Sister.

“Dee always tells the story that apparently each of them pitched a replacement if they couldn’t make a show or were sick or whatever. And apparently, according to what Dee says, A.J. chose me. Even while he was alive he’d say ‘If I ever can’t make a show, I want Mike Portnoy to replace me.’ So according to Dee, I was hand-picked by the man himself.

“But then the story from my perspective is, the night after A.J. died, Adrenaline Mob had a show booked in New Jersey and they asked if I could come play the show. And [Twisted Sister’s guitarist] Jay Jay [French] was at the show; that’s the night he approached me and asked me what my schedule was like for the summer. I happened to be available so I said ‘If you need me, I’m there for you.’”

Mike’s work with Twisted Sister marks the second time he has filled in for a band’s fallen drummer, the first being when he joined Avenged Sevenfold on their 2010 Nightmare Tour after the death of James “The Rev” Sullivan.

“The feelings with Avenged were very bittersweet; with Twisted, all the shows we did last summer were in honour of A.J. and live on-stage they would show footage of his drum solos on all the big screens and on the backdrop. That summer was all about A.J. and it had the same vibes as it did with Avenged Sevenfold.

“In both cases, I’m being brought on as a hired gun to finish a job started by a drummer that’s no longer with us. So in both cases I had to really respect The Rev or A.J. by not only being true to their drum parts, but I also have to tone my own stage presence down. Normally I’m a very animated guy on-stage and I can’t do that when I’m filling in; I have to pull it back and be more of a team player. And I’m fine with that, that’s what I’m there for.

“But this time around, Dee and Jay Jay both asked for me to turn it up a little bit more. I get to be myself a little more this time. I did my time paying respect to A.J. and being subdued, but I think now at this point they want a little bit more Mike Portnoy.

“I’m going into my second summer with [Twisted Sister] and now it’s more about their fortieth anniversary and their farewell tour. So this summer we’re able to enjoy ourselves a little bit more. Of course the sadness of A.J. is always hanging over us, to the point where I almost feel guilty enjoying myself.”

Another of Mike’s projects – the supergroup Metal Allegiance – is also scheduled to appear at Bloodstock on the Sunday, but due to his commitments with Twisted Sister, he will not be able to play the show.

“It was originally supposed to be me and Charlie Benante [from Anthrax] playing double drums, so now it’ll just be Charlie. They’ll be in great hands, they’ll be fine without me.

“And one of the thing about Metal Allegiance is that it’s a rotating cast of band members anyway. Charlie and I have always been the drummers, but with everybody’s schedules, not everyone can always make it. [Bassist] David Ellefson’s been out with Megadeth so he’s not been able to do it for a while, but every Metal Allegiance show has a different line-up anyway. It doesn’t matter what show you see, you’re going to see something unique.”

This leaves Metal Allegiance’s Bloodstock line-up consisting of Death Angel singer Mark Oseguada, bassist Mark Menghi and drummer Benante, with his Anthrax bandmate Scott Ian, Slayer/Exodus’ Gary Holt and Testament’s Alex Skolnick on guitar.

But being the intense multitasker that he is, Mike Portnoy doesn’t just have the rest of his 2016 mapped out with his many bands, he’s also laying out plans for 2017: primarily, his 50th birthday party.

The event will take place aboard the Cruise to the Edge in February, and will see Mike performing his “12-Step Suite” live for the first time.

The “12-Step Suite” is a collection of five songs that Mike wrote for Dream Theater between 2002 and 2009, intending to one day perform them live back-to-back. However, his 2010 exit from the band made that impossible, until now.

“I would love nothing more than to perform it with [Dream Theater]. But they’ve made it clear that they have no intention in reuniting at any point. So, life is short; this is going to be my fiftieth birthday and it just felt like the right time and place to finally play this music. I write all five of these songs with the intention of them being performed from start to finish and I would have loved nothing more than to be doing it with Dream Theater. But it’s obviously not on the cards for them. I can’t sit around waiting for a reunion that may not happen.

“That being said, all four Dream Theater guys have an open invitation to join me on the cruise. I would love nothing more than for them to be there with me.”

So the next time you’re feeling stressed or bogged down with work, remember that somewhere out there, right now, is Mike Portnoy. A man who is working with four different bands simultaneously and will spend his fiftieth birthday behind a drumkit, on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Winery Dogs’ latest album, Hot Streak, is available physically and digitally now via Three Dog Music.

Metal Allegiance’s self-titled, debut album is available physically and digitally now via Nuclear Blast Records. Check out our interview with the band’s founder, Mark Menghi, here.

Mike Portnoy will be appearing with Twisted Sister on Friday, 12th August at Bloodstock Festival. Read more about the festival in our exclusive preview here.

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