Mike Portnoy scoops us
on Dream Theater
So what do successful musicians do on their day off? I believe it would be a
misnomer to suggest that Mike Portnoy was just lounging around the house in
an old bathrobe and bunny slippers until it was time for our interview. But
then, what would I know? Anything is possible, right? While researching this
article I stopped off at Portnoyís Web site to discover a rather intricate "Tourography"
that outlined every tour date Dream Theater has played since May 28th, 1986.
And when you add to this substantial list of dates, his endless appearances
at drum clinics and the multiple side projects he is involved with you begin
to wonder if this man even sleeps!
I swear the he must have boundless energy.
The day I spoke to Mike Portnoy, drummer of Americaís definitive progressive
rock band Dream Theater, he was bubbling with enthusiasm. Having just
returned from a five-week European tour, he was excited to share their
successes, but at the same time I was surprised to hear him say that he was
also enjoying some time off.
"Normally weíre fully charged and ready to
rock," Portnoy explained. "We donít get tired until weíre six to seven
months into it. I donít know if itís because weíre getting old and the music
is so heavy or the sets so long, but man, when we got done and came home
from this first leg, it was like we were coming home from war!"
On this latest tour in support of their
recent album, "Train of Thought," Dream Theater found themselves playing in
some of the largest venues theyíve ever headlined. To step up to the
challenge, they put together a huge production and video show and ultimately
the band found themselves playing three and a half hours each night to
packed houses. There was an obvious ring of pride in Portnoyís voice when he
commented, "Everything about it was probably the best presentation we have
Iíve been lucky enough to have previous
interviews with Dream Theater and each time I find myself commenting on the
departure that the most recent album has taken from previous efforts.
Honestly I think that Iím beginning to sound like a broken record, but here
I go again! For those who havenít heard the album, "Train of Thought" is
much darker and as a whole, heavier than past records.
"I donít know if this was necessarily a
change," Portnoy began. "Weíve always had heavy songs. Weíve always had the
occasional dark subject matter. So I donít know that this was necessarily a
change. I think this was more of just a focus. This was a conscience
decision to make an entire album of that type of songs. Thatís it. Like I
said, weíve always had that in our repertoire, in our past catalog. This
time around we just decided to do an entire record like that. The reason
why? I donít know, it just felt like the next logical step for us to go in.
I should state that this isnít necessarily the ĎNew Dream Theater.í Itís
more just the 'Now Dream Theater'. We never want to do the same album twice.
So the next album after this will probably be completely different from
ĎTrain of Thought.í This is only where weíre at right now."
I found myself agreeing with his analogy. On
their last record, "Six Degreeís of Inner Turbulence," the band took a
somewhat lighter, more retro approach to the music. While still addressing
heavy subject matter, they delved into the delicate topics of mental illness
and anger displacement without an obvious grind. Musically there was
certainly a great deal of experimentation happening, but once again, that
tends to happen on a Dream Theater record!
Perhaps the biggest departure on the current
release came on the production end. Back in the early days of Liquid Tension
Experiment, a side project put together by Portnoy and Dream Theater
guitarist John Petrucci, they discovered the creative spontaneity of writing
in the recording studio. The adrenaline rush carried over to Dream Theater
soon after when Liquid Tension Experimentís keyboardist, Jordan Rudess,
joined the band. But for this album Portnoy was interested in trying
"We wanted a real heavy live sounding album.
We wanted to write it in a rehearsal studio with the amps on just playing it
like a live band, as opposed to writing in the studio where youíre playing
through headphones and the composing is done on tape. To make this type of
record, we needed to write it before entering the studio," Portnoy
As any musician can tell you, there is a
certain motivation discovered while playing through your amplifier with the
volume knob cranked to 11. The time in rehearsal also afforded Dream Theater
the opportunity to focus on the songs as whole rather than constructing them
in portions in the studio. And I suspect the largest advantage came during
performance, they didnít have to sit down and learn the songs they just
"Exactly, that was exactly one of the
reasons we chose to record this way for this album," Portnoy agreed. "We
wanted it to sound like a live band. Weíve never really just pieced stuff
together, I mean, when we write there are a lot of things on the table and
constructing it is part of the whole art of song writing. So that much is
going to be a constant formula for us. But we werenít really piecing things
together so much as we were writing songs."
Having alleviated the challenge of learning
the songs, I asked what was left. What are the remaining challenges?
For the moment Portnoy became rather serious with his answer, "Itís the
stamina aspect. When youíre playing a three- to three and a half-hour show,
and we have a completely different set list from night to night, we have to
have something like six to ten hours of music rehearsed and polished at our
fingertips. So the stamina factor is one of the biggest challenges. Itís a
very draining live experience night to night. Itís draining for the audience
and they do it once-- we do it every night!"
For most bands there are many considerations
when recording an album. Itís the lucky few who get to focus on their art
with little concern of satisfying the record company. Whereas most bands
find themselves burdened with the necessity of writing a marketable radio
single and appeasing the label executives, Dream Theater is somewhat
different. I asked Portnoy if radio was even a concern at this point in
"No, not at all," Portnoy replied. "In fact,
for the last three albums or so, weíve been able to completely do whatever
we want on our terms. We havenít delivered a single song to the label until
the album was finished. We do what we do. We donít expect radio or the media
to get it. We just care about keeping ourselves happy and hopefully keeping
our fans happy along the way. Our career at this point has never been based
or attributed to radio. Early on, ten years ago or so, it was a
consideration. But now in 2004, radio has absolutely nothing to do with our
careers, so why should we write to accommodate them? They have done nothing
to accommodate us. Our progress has been based on our fans. They are the
only people we concern ourselves with pleasing."
Over the past year Dream Theater has also
begun releasing "Official Bootlegs" through their own label, Ytsejam
Records. This is a marketing step that has been proven by other bands and is
popular among the fans. Bootlegs easily predate the Internet and the advent
of file sharing software has perpetuated the, until now, music black market.
To help combat poor quality bootlegs, Portnoy and crew began making portions
of their massive live archive available to their fans. I asked if he thought
this would cause a conflict with any future live Dream Theater albums.
"No, the biggest reason for that is because
itís only availableÖ" Portnoy paused for a moment to consider his words,
"First of all I should say that our real fans want everything. They want to
have and collect every release they can get their hands on. With that being
said, it was real important to us that these official bootlegs only be
available on our specific Web sites. Originally when we were in talks with
Elektra, they had mentioned putting these at retail like they do with Phish.
Phish has a whole official bootleg series with Elektra and itís available at
retail. But it was really important to us that we not let these be available
at retail because we donít want the general consumer, if faced with a choice
between ĎTrain of Thoughtí and the original Majesty demos, we donít what
there to be any confusion over which is the real album. So they are only
available through the Ytsejam Records Web site and are directed at the
existing fan base."
In many ways Portnoy holds a close
association with his fans. He has long been rumored to be a bit compulsive
with his collections of music and movie titles. For many itís the thrill of
the hunt. The excitement of finding elusive and rare recordings of their
favorite artists is the payoff for hours of on-line browsing.
"Iím definitely a complete-est," Portnoy
admits. "For me, file swapping is not a problem because I will go out and
buy every CD anyway. On the other hand, the part of me that is a big fan and
a big collector loves finding those rare MP3s and live recordings. Thatís
why so much of what I do for Dream Theater is for the fans, in terms of the
official bootlegs and fan club CDs to changing the set list every night. So
much of that I do for the fans because I know what it is like to be a fan
because I am a fan. I collected every Rush bootleg, every KISS bootleg, Pink
Floyd or Beatles bootleg; I did all of that when I was younger. So I can
appreciate where our fans are coming from. Iím always looking out to keep
them satisfied in that regard."
So what is in the future for Dream Theater?
Currently the band plans to return to Europe soon after their shows in Asia.
And if past tours can be relied upon as a template, I suspect they will also
add a second leg to their North American tour. When I asked if there would
be a DVD, Portnoy simply replied, "Yes, I think it would be nice. I think
itís time again."
As I was thanking Mike Portnoy for allowing
this interview during his time off I thought of one final question, albeit
slightly from left field. I asked if he wasnít playing progressive music,
what style would he be playing?
"I have so many loves. I mean I love old
school progressive music and thatís why I put together TransAtlantic. I love
the really heavy stuff so what weíve done with ĎTrain of Thoughtí is
satisfying to me in that respect. I love really eclectic, strange
avant-garde music like Frank Zappa or Mr Bungle. I love simplistic pop
music. Thatís why I put together my Beatles tribute band. I have so many
different styles that I love and luckily Iíve been able to tap into a lot of
them through Dream Theater." Portnoy said, "And the stuff I havenít been
able to tap into Iíve been able to touch through other projects to satisfy
Eclectic tastes indeed. I wonder what twists
and turns the next Dream Theater album will take!