The albums we 've made with Neal Morse are the greatest albums of my career
They say that sometimes meeting your idols or talking to them can be proved a bad idea, but this interview with Mike Portnoy was the exact opposite for me. Just a few days before the amazing "The Similitude Of A Dream" of The Neal Morse Band comes out I had the chance to talk with him and find out why he considers it a highlight in his career, but also about a variety of things regarding his whole career, from the past to the future. Mike was in a really good mood and answered everything with honesty and cogency, so this turned out a rather nice and interesting talk.
Hey Mike, are you good?
I was thinking that twenty years ago when the 15-years old me opened the booklet of "A Change Of Seasons" while putting the cd in the player his musical taste which also means his life in a way changed forever, so thanks for that!
Oh wow! Thank you, I appreciate that!
So, with all these highs in your career and being so influential to many people like me, you refer to the new album of The Neal Morse Band as the highlight of your career. What makes you say something like that?
Well, it’s one of those albums that I really think has everything that I love about music in it. And I’ve always loved concept albums. Some of my favorite albums I did were concept albums, like "Scenes From A Memory" by Dream Theater or "The Whirlwind" by Transatlantic. Or some of my favorite albums by other bands, like Pink Floyd’s "The Wall" and "Tommy" by The Who, Queensryche’s "Operation Mindcrime"... I’ve always had a soft spot for concept albums.
This is just one of those albums that I think just really nails it on every level... the songs, the playing, the production, the concept. It’s kinda like one of those albums that if I had to stay in a deserted island with only one album from my catalogue, this one has a little bit of everything there, so this would be the one.
I agree with you that this is a real masterpiece. In my review I mentioned that it’s not just the progressive rock album of the year, it’s much more than that. Did you instantly realize that you had something great in your hands while you were making it, or does it have to pass the test of time a little bit?
Well I think the test of time is really at work. Every time I make a record, or any time any artist makes a record you’re obviously very proud of it, very excited by it. At this point in my career I get to make two or three albums every year with all those different bands I play with, so I’m very proud of all of them.
Usually, at the end of the making process you sit down and you listen to the whole thing and I’m always excited by every album I’m making. But with this particular album, we sat down at the end of the writing and the arranging for an hour and a half - or however long it is - and we all listened it from start to finish and by the time it got to the finale at the end, we just looked at each other and we knew we had something that was monumental and epic and special. I had the same exact experience when I listened to the whole thing from start to finish, when the final mixes were delivered. I sat and listened to the entire thing and by the end of it, I had goosebumps and tears came to my eyes.
And like I said, as an artist you’re usually proud of everything you make, but it’s very rare that I’m brought to tears by an album. The two albums I mentioned earlier, "Tommy" and "The Wall", are two albums that brought me to tears and this new album brought me to tears. So, that’s how I knew it was really the most special thing I’ve ever been a part of.
A couple of weeks ago I had an interview with Neal and the way he described how things evolved kind of reminded me of the way you work with Transatlantic. You know, the other guys work on ideas and then like a maestro you go and change everything around... for the better of course, right?
Yeah, it’s a similar chemistry. In fact, all three bands that Neal and I are in now have a similar chemistry. You know, Transatlantic writes like that, Flying Colors writes like that and now The Neal Morse Band. In the past with Neal’s solo albums basically he was writing everything and demoing everything. Randy and I would come in, maybe make a few suggestions but for the most part just play.
But now with the addition of Bill and Eric, we changed it to The Neal Morse Band it’s a lot more similar chemistry to what Neal and I have with Transatlantic and Flying Colors. Neal is a huge-huge part of that, he’s just such a prolific writer. He can write a 25-minute epic in his sleep and I mean that literally (laughs)... He’ll wake up and spit out a 25-minute song first thing in the morning, so inevitably any band he and I are working with, he’s going to be the biggest driving force because he brings so much material to the table. I’ve always kind of played the role of the architect, the master arranger in all the bands I’m in.
In the case of The Neal Morse Band I think Bill and Eric are also incredible writers and creative people, so they’re bringing a lot of ideas to the table as well.
Even though it’s clear that it’s a team effort and obviously Neal is kind of the mastermind, I think that in this album in particular it’s Eric’s talent that shines both from singing and guitar playing, maybe more than what one would expect. Would you agree with that?
Yeah, I would say Eric’s talents shine as a performer. And I would give a lot of credit to Bill, and Bill’s talents shine more as a writer. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I think Bill’s biggest contributions are bringing a lot of ideas in vocal parts to the table and Eric’s contributions are more his incredible voice and his incredible guitar playing. I think the two of them add so much to this band and bring so much to the chemistry.
I also think one of the greatest things now in The Neal Morse Band is that there’s multiple vocalists. Bill and Eric’s vocals add so much to this album. I’m doing a lot of singing as well, so ultimately we have four different voices in this band, similar to what we have in Transatlantic. So, I think that’s another huge asset to this band.
I totally agree. Now for some reasons I can draw some parallels between this album and "Snow" from Spock’s Beard. One of them is because I can clearly remember you back in the day writing on your website before "Snow" came out, that you were blown away when you listened to it and that it was as good as "Tommy", something that you said again in this album. How do you feel about these brave comparisons that you’ve made and why do you think people misunderstand it a lot?
Well first thing, I should say that I don’t often say that. I remember when I came out and said that this is one of the greatest albums of my career, suddenly everyone was saying on the internet “oh Portnoy always does that”. But, I don’t actually, that’s not true. I put out two - three albums a year and I very rarely say that.
Yes, I did say it about "Snow" fifteen years ago, and I still to this day consider that one of my favorite concept albums of all time, and one of Neal’s biggest masterpieces. I think this album is very similar to "Snow". I think Neal has made three double concept albums in his career, he did "Snow", then he did "Testimony" and now he’s got "The Similitude Of A Dream". And in all three of those cases, all three albums are masterpieces. I’m very honored to have been a part of two of them and I feel that this album is on that level.
The reality is that I don’t throw these words around very often.
Now, in this album, there is a constant flow of melodies and great musical parts. Are there some of them that you would pick as your favorites songs or moments of the album?
Well, "The Battle" is surely one of the craziest, sickest most intense progressive pieces of music I’ve ever been a part of. It’s kind of up there with Dream Theater’s "The Dance Of Eternity". Ιt’s kind of like mine and Neal’s absolute insane instrumental. So, yeah, that’s a moment that surely comes to mind.
Then there’s the more emotional moments on the album, like the closing of disc one, with "Breath Of Angels", or the closing of disc two with "Broken Sky". Those are so emotional pieces of music. Both of those songs kind of give me goosebumps and bring the tears to my eyes.
It’s one of those albums that have such a variety. There’s so many great songs, you know free-standing songs like "I’m Running", "So Far Gone", "The Man In The Iron Cage"... so it’s one of those albums that has a little bit of everything. It’s got individual songs, it’s got emotion, it’s got intensity...
Now in my books, most of the albums that you’ve made with Neal are up there with the classic rock albums, and I wouldn’t hesitate to compare them with albums of bands like Genesis, Yes etc. Firstly, do you think this is because of the chemistry you and Neal have on both a personal and an artistic level, and secondly, why do you think people are reluctant when someone compares a new album with an older one that’s considered a classic?
Thank you! I think a lot of this is attributed to the great chemistry that he and I have together. This is why we have now eighteen albums together and we’ve been working together for almost twenty years now. Eighteen studio albums is almost twice as many as I made with Dream Theater, so I think that says a lot for the great chemistry we have and like you said it’s both musical and personal.
I don’t know... Maybe it is pompous to compare your own albums to albums by Yes and Pink Floyd and Genesis, but I’m such a music fan that I feel I’m allowed to make that kind of comparison. Because, Ι’m a fan, Ι’m doing it as a fan and as someone on the internet - or on my facebook page - would say those kind of things. I don’t generally look at my albums as "my" albums. I look at them just as albums, like anybody else’s. So, I like to compare them to other albums by other people.
But yeah, what Neal and I have is really so special. I was a fan of his even before we started working together. I was a Spock’s Beard fan from day one, I always admired his songwriting and now that we have collaborated this much it’s amazing. To me, these albums we’ve made are the greatest albums of my career, and I think they’re the most overlooked. Everybody knows my Dream Theater albums, and they know The Winery Dogs albums now, they know Avenged Sevenfold. The mainstream media knows all those albums and that side of Mike Portnoy. Sadly it’s only really the prog world that knows my albums with Neal and it’s a shame, because this latest album deserves to get as much mainstream exposure as say the latest Dream Theater album. It deserves to be known and heard by everybody.
Well, am I allowed to speak as an outsider?
Yeah, of course!
It should draw at least the same attention!
Well, all we could do is talk about it and spread the word! It’s out there for people to discover, so we need to help people discover it.
So, six years after a shocking announcement that you were leaving the band you started and named. Would you say that you feel justified for this decision?
Are you disguising the question as asking if I feel justified from leaving Dream Theater? (laughs)
Well, yeah... so you feel good in your heart for making that decision six years ago?
Oh yeah! I know it hurt and a lot of the fans have trouble accepting it and still do to this day and I feel bad about that. But, I did give 25 years of my life to that band and to the fans of that band and I still am here for all of those fans of the band, still working my ass off 24/7 no matter what I do, for those fans.
So, to the Dream Theater fans that have stuck with me for the last six years I think they’re being rewarded with so much music and so much creativity. You know, I’m the hardest working guy in the business, so if you stuck with me you’re reaping the rewards of that. But, I feel bad for the people that were so close-minded after that.
To answer your question... Do I feel good about it? Absolutely! What I’ve done in the last six years, I would never have been able to do half of that stuff had I not taken that decision. I’m proud of those 25 years I spent and built that entire band from the very ground up. I’m proud of that and it’s my legacy, but i have always felt that Mike Portnoy is much more than just the drummer of Dream Theater.
What I’ve done since then with Flying Colors, Transatlantic, The Neal Morse Band, The Winery Dogs, Adrenaline Mob, Metal Allegiance, Twisted Sister, Avenged Sevenfold and the list goes on and on... You know, that right there is three lifetimes worth of creativity (laughs)... touring and albums... I wouldn’t have been able to do that otherwise. So yeah, no regrets whatsoever. I could not be happier and prouder of what I’ve done in the last six years.
Even though I pretty much agree with everything you said, I would like to correct you in one thing... You were never just the drummer in Dream Theater, you were so much more...
Well, thank you! I guess I shouldn’t have put it that, way because I agree. And it bothers me when I see people compare their current drummer to me. You really can’t make that comparison, because he right now is just playing drums for that band, while I was always the songwriter, co-writing the music, writing lyrics and melodies, overseeing the fan clubs, the websites and producing the albums and directing the videos... So, yeah, I guess when I’m kind to just reduced to just the drummer for those 25 years it is a bit of an insult. So, thank you for making that correction even though I just said it... (laughs)
Is there something you miss from the role of the captain in Dream Theater? After all they are still one of the most important bands of our generation and that’s not an achievement to be underrated or your part in it.
I’m not sure what’s the question...
Is there something you miss from this legacy, or your role in the band?
Well, the only thing I miss, to be honest, is being the captain of a ship. Because after I left Dream Theater - all of the things I’ve done after Dream Theater that I just mentioned, in all of those cases - I’ve never been the clear leader. Everything I’ve done like Flying Colors, The Winery Dogs, they’re more collaborative roles and to be honest I do miss the amount of control that I had in Dream Theater. I was able to make 90% of the decisions and direction in Dream Theater on my own and didn’t really discuss everything and those guys kind of trusted me with that. So, I do kind of miss that.
One of the things about being in a band is that sometimes the collaborative process can be great, but it’s also incredibly frustrating at times. Having to go through a hundred emails on every single decision sometimes, you pull your hair out of your head and I miss the days that I had in Dream Theater, where I ran the show. But honestly it’s okay, because that was then and this is now.
On all these years that have gone by, only in a few special occasions you’ve revisited some of Dream Theater stuff, but now you announced The Shattered Fortress, a project meant to play the whole 12-step suite. Is this a temporary project or do you plan to keep it on a steady basis and play songs from Dream Theater?
Oh no! I have no interest in doing this on a long term level. This is absolutely just a temporary one-off event that will happen in select festivals and shows next year.
Like you said, I’ve rarely revisited the Dream Theater material since I left the band and honestly I have no interest in it. If I wanted to be playing Dream Theater material I would have just stayed in Dream Theater. That’s obviously not my intention.
Doing that with The Shattered Fortress is mainly kind of just trying to finish some unfinished business, not only for the fans but for myself as well. Honestly, I had no intention of even doing this, until the idea of the 50th birthday concert came up on Cruise to the Edge, so that’s where this kind of stemmed from. Once I had the idea of doing a retrospect concert for my 50th birthday I knew that was the right time to finally do the 12-step suite once and for all. And then once word got out about that, suddenly I started getting these offers from these different prog festivals, so I thought now it’s the time, let’s just do it once and for all and get it out of my system and give it to the fans finally. It’s really just a one-off thing that will happen in 2017 and after that I have really no interest in going back there again.
So what you’re saying is that I should book tickets to see you somewhere in Europe, ok I get it! (laughs)
Yeah (laughs), I definitely would recommend it. Catch it while you can!
In 2017 The Winery Dogs are taking a break, you have a tour with The Neal Morse Band and there is a new Flying Colors album in the works, but I think that’s not enough for an average Mike Portnoy creative year, so do you have anything special or secret in the plans for next year?
No, that’s pretty much it! I have lots of touring with The Neal Morse Band, special shows with The Shattered Fortress, and then a possible Flying Colors album and a possible Metal Allegiance album. So, I’m in four bands in 2017, Ι think that’s enough! (laughs)
But, you never know. If you said to me two years ago that I would be playing with Twisted Sister for the next two summers I would never anticipate that. So you never know what opportunity may arise. If I can fit it in my schedule, you know me... I’m a workaholic. But, as of now, that seems to be what’s planned for 2017. We’ll see what comes along.
That constant need you have to collaborate with other musicians has led to some amazing projects. Are there any artists you still would love to do something with and you haven’t managed to do until now?
I think it’s well known if you’ve ever heard in any interview with me that’ve always talked about it, but the one remaining collaboration that I’m waiting to do one of these days is with Mikael Åkerfeldt from Opeth. We’ve been talking about it for years, that’s pretty much the one remaining collaboration that I haven’t done yet, but I would love to do.
Then, of course, there’s the dream gigs. There are so many heroes of mine that if I ever got the phone call to play with I would drop everything and go do it. If I got the phone call from Roger Waters or Paul McCartney or Pete Townshend to play with them, I’d dream to do that. So, yeah, you never know when something crazy like that may come around, but for the most part any collaboration I’ve wanted to do I’ve done at this point.
If there’s one man that waved the prog flag high, regardless if it was accepted/trendy or not, that’s you. How do you feel about this change of seasons regarding prog these days?
Well, I never stopped being a fan! And even though I’m the biggest prog fan you’ll ever meet, I’m also the biggest metal fan, the biggest classic rock fan, I’m just the biggest music fan!
But in term of carrying the flag for prog, once I started to have a lot of success with Dream Theater, I wanted to use that power in the industry to help the prog scene and I always handpicked the bands to go out with Dream Theater. I took everybody from Fates Warning to Pain Of Salvation, to Porcupine Tree, to Spock’s Beard... you know, I handpicked all of these bands and took them out on tour to help give them the exposure that I know mainstream outlets weren’t really giving to them. Then I started Progressive Nation and did a few tours with Opeth, Bigelf, bands like that and then I put together the Progressive Nation Cruise a couple of years ago.
I always kind of felt it was not only my duty and responsibility, but it’s my privilege to be able to use my position in the industry to help the scene as much as possible.
Your album proposals were always very interesting for many people - including me, so as the year is coming to an end, what are the albums from 2016 that Mike Portnoy would suggest before making his best-of list?
Actually, it’s been a great year for music! There’s been so many great albums. There’s some great heavy stuff out there, the new Ghost album, the new Gojira album, the new Meshuggah album, Periphery, a lot of great heavy stuff.
As far as prog stuff, the new Marillion album is great, the new Kansas album, Headspace is a great album.
And then there’s a lot of different albums... I love the new one from Avatar, which is really cool, reminds me a little bit of Avenged Sevenfold in places. Also more commercial stuff, like Biffy Clyro… Oh there’s also the new Haken album... God, I mean it’s been a great year for music. So, there you go, I just rambled off ten albums right there, so it’s been a good year.
But, so far number one is "The Similtitude Of A Dream", I think we’ll agree on that, right?
(Laughs) Well thank you, I appreciate that.
So there’s a big debate among fans on whether musician should speak out loud about many issues including politics, religion. You’ve always been an artist that speaks his mind and that has got you into some trouble sometimes, so have you taken a step back and think that it’s not worth it being that straightforward and honest or like Axl Rose would put it, "silence isn’t golden when you’re holding it inside"?
Ha, yeah! I’ve always been pretty straightforward and outspoken and a lot of times people can’t handle that and I get a lot of trouble. I try not to talk about politics or religion, mainly because I’m not very educated in neither of those areas, and neither of those areas have been important to me. I generally don’t talk about those kinds of things just because it’s not in my interests.
But, I am open about other artists, the people and things like that. I’ve learned I have to try to bite my tongue whenever possible. I’ll never bullshit anybody, I’ll never lie about something, if I give an answer it’s the way I really feel and I’m not going to sugar coat it. But, I guess the thing I’ve learned is that I don’t always have to give an answer. I was just asked in another interview about the last Dream Theater album, and you know, I have my opinion, but I realize that it’s better sometimes to just don’t go there, don’t answer it. So rather than giving an answer that’s going to cause trouble or be controversial I’d rather just avoid the topic altogether.
Before we close, here comes the one million dollar question of prog, who is the leader today of prog music, Neal Morse or Steven Wilson?
(Laughs), Oh god, I’d say Mike Portnoy, of course! (laughs)
Ok, I’ll vote for that too!
(Laughs) Thank you!
So this was really a privilege to be talking to you, so thank you very much!
Oh, thank you! My pleasure man!
Photo Credit: Robert Smith