EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Mike Portnoy of The Winery Dogs

They say never meet your heroes. Unless of course one of your heroes is Mike Portnoy from The Winery Dogs, Flying Colors, The Metal Allegiance, Twisted Sister, Transatlantic, Neal Morse, formerly of Adrenaline Mob and Dream Theater and I’m sure I’m forgetting something. Mike Portnoy is one of the most entertaining yet technical drummers of all time. He’s got he stage presence of Tommy Lee, the business and leadership abilities of Lars Ulrich, the chops of Neil Peart. He demands attention on stage much like his heroes before him: John Bonham and Keith Moon. The guy is the total package. Two of my favorite active bands as we speak are Flying Colors and The Winery Dogs. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Currently Mike is on tour with The Winery Dogs in support of their new album “Hot Streak” which is a phenomenal album that actually gets considerably better after seeing them live.

Recently my podcast partner on The Nothing Shocking Podcast Eric Nesbit and I got the chance to catch up with Mike backstage at The Winery Dog show in St. Charles, IL (might I add that it was the best concert I’ve ever been too…seriously).

Bob Zerull (BZ): I love the new album “Hot Streak.” You guys have been saying this album was more collaborative what do you mean that?

Mike Portnoy (MP): Well this time around we’re actually a band. There’s a trust that’s built up. On the first album it was more of an experiment. We still collaborated on 70% to 80% of the first album but we had that safety net of completed songs that Richie all ready had. This time we came in with nothing and wrote them all together.

BZ: Do you guys share a lot of the same instincts? When you hear a beat in your head but Richie hears something different to go with the melody he’s working on how to you handle those situations? 

MP: Like I said there’s a lot of trust. Billy Sheehan is my favorite bass player in the world. I don’t have to worry about him playing a bass line right. He’s going to come up with something better than anything I could tell him to play. Same with Richie.

(Mike walks out the room because he’s got a cold)

BZ: How hard is it to be drummer with a runny nose?

MP: Oh it sucks. That’s why I don’t shake hands on tour I just do fist bumps. Some people take offense to it but if you shake 300 hands a night you’re gonna get sick fast and that’s gonna make for a miserable tour.

Eric Nesbit (EN): Sonically how is “Hot Streak” different than the debut?

MP: Well sonically it’s not different. We used the same mixer, producer etc. We liked what we had sonically with the first album so we used the same people and equipment. Stylistically it’s different. There are songs like “Oblivion” that would fit in perfectly on the first album. But then there’s a song like “Hot Streak” that is a lot more funky, “Spiral” is practically a disco song. So I think stylistically we’re still evolving.

BZ: You’re known for your side projects. Do side projects help prevent getting burnt out.

MP: Definitely. I was in a band for 25 years, granted I did side projects back then as well, but it’s a way to get away and play something different. I’m juggling six side projects now.

BZ: What I find amazing is that all of these side projects are top notch. Not even just your side projects it seems like across the board everybody working on side projects are putting out quality material, do you think is due to the fact that they don’t send these things through the machine? 

MP: At this point in my career I want to do what I want, play with everybody I can play with. Nothing is about a record deal or selling records or making money. It’s about playing the music I want with the people I want. I was in a band for 25 years, that was my primary focus, now I want to focus on as much as I can.

EN: What’s the status of Transatlantic. I know at one point you put it on hiatus so Neal Morse could concentrate on his Christianity, so where is it now?

MP: We were on hiatus for eight or nine years. We reunited in 2009 to make the “Whirlwind” album. Since then we’ve made two albums so yeah we went through that hiatus. But that hiatus is over and we’re now back together and we’ve done two albums since then. We’re just not active at the moment we’re just in between cycles.

BZ: What’s your favorite part, is it the creating or the performing?

MP: Hands down for me it’s the performing. I like the creative process because I’m a creative person. I’m never just the drummer. I’m involved with the producing, I’m involved with the writing and all that stuff. But to me it’s a very tedious process so I get bored very quickly. As much as that’s a nice enjoyable side of what I do I way prefer playing live. I way prefer being on stage connecting with the audience, having that integration with the people out there, getting to ham it up. To me that’s a way more enjoyable side of it. Not everybody agrees with that. Not even everybody in The Winery Dogs would agree with that. I know Richie prefers the studio side.

BZ: With Dream Theater you use to release bootlegs, is that something you’ll do with any of these projects?

MP: With Dream Theater I had years and years and years of archives built up. I didn’t start doing the official bootlegs until about 20 years into the band so there was twenty years of archives built up there. For Dream Theater I would do about four or five official bootlegs each year. I’d like to still do that but obviously The Winery Dogs and Flying Colors don’t have as much of an archive. The stuff I do with Neal Morse, Neal’s good at archiving everything. He’s got his inner circle so most of the stuff Neal and I do together get’s released in a million different forms. Neal’s very much like me in that respect.

BZ: I saw a video with the Metal Allegiance guys talking about Bill Ward and Black Sabbath. Drummers seem to get the least amount of respect in the industry. Chris Adler has said he’s going to be pulling double duty with Lamb of God and Megadeth and that just seems really challenging as a drummer, or a singer but specifically a drummer.

MP: It depends on your work ethic. Different people are different. Chris is gonna do it, I’ve done it before. Shit I’ve done triple duty on my progressive nation cruise. I was playing with Transatlantic, PSMS and Big Elf. I very well may be doing triple duty next summer with The Winery Dogs, Twisted Sister and Metal Allegiance. So yeah I’ve done double duty, I’ve done triple duty. It’s exhausting, but I have that drive and work ethic, but it’s not for everyone. I guess Chris is gonna do it so he can handle it. Dave Grohl is the sort of personality that could handle it. Corey Taylor, Phil Anselmo, Mike Patton. These are the type of personalities that can do it but it’s not for the weak hearted. But I use to play three, three and a half hour shows with Dream Theater and three, three and half hour shows with Transatlantic. What’s the difference if I’m doing an hour and a half with The Winery Dogs and an hour and a half with Twisted Sister. It’s no different than what I’ve done all those years with any of my prog bands.

EN: You’re always looked upon as being the workaholic with all these projects that you’re working on. Do you ever find the point where you just need to step back and take a break or go on vacation? 

MP: No I haven’t gotten to that point yet. I love doing what I do and I get bored so quickly. In the times that I have had a couple weeks at home I get fidgety real quick and I’m really itching to go. Even when I’m home I’m dealing with a million emails having to deal with merchandise or interviews or whatever. It kind of never stops even when I’m home. It’s not a vacation. That’s ok, that’s just the way I’m wired.

BZ: I know the music industry is really struggling right now. It seems like it’s almost a necessity to be in multiple bands at the same time. Do you think this is the perfect era for you or do you kind of wish you were around in the seventies?

MP: No this is perfect for me. I might be partially to blame. I was one of the guys starting multiple projects in the late nineties when many people weren’t. Mike Patton was doing them and Phil Anselmo but not many people were. I started doing them in the late nineties with Transatlantic and Liquid Tension Experiment. It suits me like we already discussed, it suits my personality. I love it. Yeah it’s true it’s hard to find many musicians these days that are only in one band. It’s very common now.

BZ: What does it take for a young band to be able to make it in todays landscape, being able to do it for free? It generally takes three or four albums to build up a name and an archive?

MP: Being willing to do it for free is certainly an attribute that will help you make it because these days it’s really hard to make money from it. I would hate to be starting off in 2015. It’s tough. I see it with my son. He’s in a band, I just produced their debut album. He’s got the head start because he’s got me to get his foot through the door but God I can’t imagine how hard it would be to start from scratch in 2015. It just take a lot of perseverance and a willingness to go and do it no matter how hard it is. That’s the only way you can really make it.

BZ: One thing I feel that’s missing from rock n roll today is the mystery. Nobody knew anything about Zeppelin, the whole Paul is dead thing with the Beatles. Today with social media everybody know everything about everybody. Do you like that part, hate that part?

MP: Once again it’s based on personalities. I personally have always been an open book with my fans. Even from day one before there was the internet. Day one with Dream Theater I was the one answering the fan mail and sending out the merchandise and sending out the demos. I was the one hanging out by the van and drinking shots of Yager with the fans. That was always my personality. The rest of the guys in Dream Theater were kind of never like that. I was always the spokesperson for that band for all those years because that was my personality. It suits me, but now having social media being as important as it is, it works great for me. I like putting everything out there and having that communication with the fans, but it’s not for everyone. A lot of the other bands I’m in not only Dream Theater but like Flying Colors some one like Steve Morse or Dave LaRue those guys don’t really embrace it like I do. You could pretty much point to every band out there and you’re going to find a few members that do and a few that don’t.

 BYLINE: Bob Zerull is the Managing Editor of Zoiks! Online. He writes pop culture commentary, does interviews with bands, and reviews music and stand-up concerts. He also administers Zoiks! Online's Facebook page. Follow Bob on twitter at bzerull. Email Bob at bob@zoiksonline.com.
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