In the lane beside Sydney’s Metro Theatre, there’s a guy all in black stalking around like a nervous cat. Every time the doors open and someone comes outside, he talks with them animatedly, then steps away, dejected. He’s there, he tells me, to get a bunch of stuff signed by Mike Portnoy. He vanishes for a few minutes and when he gets back, he notices a white mini-bus parked nearby that wasn’t there earlier.
“Was Mike Portnoy in that van?” he asks excitedly.
“No man,” I tell him honestly. “I haven’t seen him.”
But I do know that he’s inside. Upstairs in a room at the back of the venue, the lean and heavily tattooed drummer shakes my hand warmly and swings casually on his stool. He’s doing a short round of press ahead of tonight’s performance with Shattered Fortress, his live rendering of Dream Theater’s Twelve-Step Suite, the sprawling saga of his battle with alcohol that spread across five of the band’s albums. While originally intended to be performed on stage, Portnoy admits that after leaving Dream Theater it took something a little special to finally bring it off.
“It took a good reason,” he says. “After I left Dream Theater I really had no intention of going back and revisiting Dream Theater material. I guess the good reason was my 50th birthday concert. We had a 50th birthday bash on Yes’ Cruise to the Edge. There was a couple of shows covering 30 years of my career, so I played some Transatlantic and Flying Colors and I did a little bit of Liquid Tension, so inevitably Dream Theater music would be a part of it as well and I figured now was a good time to finally put these songs together to get some closure on that, not only for myself but for the fans as well.”
He admits to being unsure how he would feel about playing his old band’s material, a group he describes as “his baby” and in which he felt “artistically free” but something that he believed he had to put behind him. It’s something he comes back to several times during our chat, his need to explore beyond the constraints of the band he founded 32 years ago.
“I didn’t know how it was going to feel playing this music again, because I didn’t think I would ever play Dream Theater music again. I never really planned to. So I didn’t know. But once we started, it felt good. It was like coming home or riding a bicycle. A very familiar feel and the fans are loving it, they’re smiling or crying or whatever. But I did it. I’m not going to make a career out it; it’s a one-time celebration before I move on to all the other things I’ve got going on in my life. So it is what it is, and it’s been like my 50th birthday celebration, doing this. It’s been fun.”
This evening’s performance, then, is likely to be one of the final times the world gets to see Portnoy playing the music of his most famous band. Next year is going to be primarily about touring Sons of Apollo, his latest supergroup that also features Billy Sheehan, Jeff Scott Soto, Derek Sherinian and Bumblefoot. In the seven years since walking away from Dream Theater, Portnoy has been in and out of a string of established acts and supergroups – Adrenaline Mob, The Winery Dogs, Metal Allegiance and Flying Colors among them.
“I was planning on doing lots of things, I just didn’t know it would be this many!” he says with a laugh. “I think I’ve played in 12 bands or so since leaving Dream Theater and I’ve done 20 or 30 albums in that time. I didn’t think it would be this extreme, but I guess that’s what happens when you’re a workaholic and thankfully in demand. There’s been the Twisted Sister gig over the last couple of years, and I’ve filled in with Stone Sour and I’ve filled in with Fate’s Warning and Avenged Sevenfold, not to mention all the bands that I’ve put together. It’s been an amazing ride and it’s totally fulfilling. Every one of these bands have been so different to one another that I’ve been able to do all this incredible shit.”
The list of bands and artists he’s worked with over the years is now ridiculously long, but one name remains elusive to him: Opeth’s Mikael Akerfeldt.
“He’s the one guy that I’m still waiting to collaborate and do something with. Pretty much everyone else on my wish list – look at all my bands! Those are pretty much all the guys on my wish list!”
Despite the immense body of work he has now completed, Portnoy is still best known for Dream Theater. No matter what else he might be doing, interviewers invariably want to talk to him about them. It’s frustrating, he admits, but like others who have moved on from very well known bands after long tenures, he’s come to terms with the fact that it was a huge chunk of his life and he can’t ignore it.
“I’m sure there’s not a single interview that Roger Waters does where he’s not asked about Pink Floyd,” he says, “and his tenure in Pink Floyd was 15 – mine in Dream Theater was 25, so it’s a long time. I’d rather not talk about it, and I refuse to talk about where they are without me, but if I’m asked about my 25 years, it’s part of my history. I can’t not talk about it.”
“I see the headlines on Blabbermouth,” he continues wryly, “and the fans are saying, ‘Why is he always talking about Dream Theater?’ I’m not talking about Dream Theater! I get asked about it. When I sit down to do an interview, I try to be polite and answer the questions that I’m asked. I’d rather not, but I’ve accepted the fact that when I am, I try to answer as honestly as I can.”
His reason for leaving Dream Theater came from a desire to know more about himself and expand his horizons. He didn’t, he says, “want to go to my grave and just be the drummer from Dream Theater. I knew there was way more to what I had to offer.”
“I love when people know me from things other than Dream Theater. That was one of the reasons… even when I was in Dream Theater, I started doing a lot of drum clinics and drum festivals, and I really started to establish my name for myself. That was important to me. I got known in the drum world. After I left Dream Theater, and I was doing Avenged Sevenfold, Twisted Sister… all these other things, I made a lot of new fans in a lot of new areas. It was important to know who I am, all these different pieces of the puzzle.”
Portnoy copped a lot of heat from fans when he stepped into the breach left by the death of The Rev in Avenged Sevenfold. There was lamenting and protestation from across the metal world from those who didn’t understand the move. Why, they argued, would the world’s premier progressive metal drummer want to play in a band like Avenged Sevenfold?
“I think it was just that [Avenged] attract a different type of audience,” Portnoy says reasonably. “Not everybody’s gonna understand it. The same thing with Twisted Sister. It’s a completely different audience, as well. Me, I’m a music fan. I don’t like to stereotype certain things. A lot of people would be surprised that I liked Twisted Sister when I was younger or that I can respect a band like Avenged Sevenfold. But I do. I like so many different kinds of music and I can be comfortable playing all these different styles and all these different personalities, because I’m a music lover.”
His love of music has seen him play thousands of shows in all parts of the world and jam and record with a laundry list of talent. Mike Portnoy has won dozens of awards for his playing and sold millions of albums. Now at 50, he has a new set of personal priorities and influences that have little to do with music and drumming.
“My family,” he says humbly. “My wife and two kids. My kids are 18 and 20, and the fact that I’ve been married all the time and raised my kids – that’s hard in this business. That’s probably more important to me at this stage of my life than music. In fact I feel like I’ve done everything in music. I’ve played every gig I could ever want to play, I’ve won every drum award I could ever want to win, I’ve played with 87 different bands and musicians. Honestly, it’s my family that’s my real motivation and when I look forward to what’s left in my life, it’s more about them than my career. It’s more about living long enough to see my kids grow up and get married and have kids of their own – things like that.”
Portnoy’s wife Marlene is a former touring musician herself and their children were born into the business, as some would say. By now, they are all used to him being away for long stretches, but there has been times when they’ve all travelled together. He believes that has been instrumental in keeping his marriage intact.
“In the early days, I always included them as much as I could, and I think that helped make it work. Whenever I was out on tour, they were always welcome to come. My first time here in Australia, my wife came with me. By not putting that division, by not putting that line in the sand, I think it’s helped my marriage. And honestly, as much as I’m away… for some people that would be a problem, but for my wife and I, it works for us because if we were at home all the time we’d make each other fucking nuts! So actually being away is a good thing!”
Tonight, Mike Portnoy will be bringing his Twelve-Step Suite to life on stage for what will be, as mentioned, one of the final occasions. After that, his schedule will probably get busier than he even knows, as it seems to have already been for the past decade at least. Wherever the path leads him, however, he’s likely to adapt, and enjoy it.
“It comes naturally to adapt. But I have to be conscious of it. I have to play certain ways for certain bands, but also I have to play different roles in different bands. Sometimes I’m more of a leader, sometimes I’m more of a democratic team player, sometimes I’m just a hired gun and I play my parts. I like leadership. I like the leadership role that I had in Dream Theater, but it comes with its frustrations. It’s very very hard work. Even though you take credit for the good stuff, you shoulder the blame for the bad stuff as well. But I like being a leader because I’m very much a control freak, but at the same time playing with Avenged and Twisted Sister where I just play drums and didn’t have to make a decision about anything was awesome too. Those were two of the most fun gigs I’ve ever had. It’s more about having all these things that make me who I am.”