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| 3 November 2016 | Reply

Limiting your discussion to the latest release from a musician can be a little complicated at times, but when that musician is Mike Portnoy, it is almost impossible to ignore almost 3 decades of recorded material that span more than 70 releases!  In advance of his latest collaboration as a member of the Neal Morse Band – The Similitude Of A Dream, we were able to grab some of Mike’s time to discuss the release and so much more…


Toddstar: Mike, thank you so much for your patience in getting this lined up.

Mike: No problem, dude.

Toddstar: Listen man, you have so much going on – probably one of the busiest men in music, you always have so much going on. Let’s talk about the newest thing you have coming out – the new release from the Neal Morse Band, of which you’re a part.

Mike: Yeah, I could not be more excited or proud of this album. It’s certainly a massive undertaking and quite an achievement.

Toddstar: You used the phrase ‘massive undertaking.’ First of all, anybody putting out CDs is a dwindling, dying breed. Yet you guys come out with a two disc release. What was the thought process behind that? That’s monumental these days.

Mike: Honestly, if you know anything about mine and Neal’s relationship and our past, we’ve always been about more is more. This is our 18th studio album together. We made music together in Transatlantic and we’re together in Flying Colors. I’ve been working with Neal on his solo albums for over a decade now, as well. The music we make together is usually pretty epic. I think we have a list of well over a dozen songs that are past the 25 minute mark each. Epic song-writing is nothing new for the two of us when we get together, but this one really just takes the cake. It’s a concept album, which is nothing new for Neal and me. We’ve done about a half dozen concept albums together, but it’s a double concept album, which we haven’t done together since Testimony, back in 2003. It’s pretty epic. The biggest difference from mine and Neal’s albums of the past is the addition of Bill Hubauer and Eric Gillette into the creative process. I think they really brought a tremendous amount into this album.

Toddstar: I’d agree with that. This is definitely a step up from Testimony. Would you say that is due to the additional contribution of other members?

Mike: Yeah, absolutely. Testimony, which was Neal’s first solo album after leaving Spock’s Beard, that was all him. He wrote the whole thing by himself. He performed pretty much the whole thing by himself, other than me on drums. That was a true solo album for him, just with the addition of me playing drums. This was much different. The word ‘band’ in the name, the Neal Morse Band, it’s an important word. It really changes everything because now we are collaborating on everything, from the writing to the singing, to the production. It’s a much different animal. I would say now the chemistry that Neal and I have in the Neal Morse Band is similar to the way we worked in Transatlantic or Flying Colors, which is that of collaboration.

Toddstar: You have mentioned Flying Colors a couple times, and I’ve been a big fan of the studio and live releases. The one thing I always thought you guys were able to do was bring the true sound of you as instrumentalists across in a live setting as well as in the studio. With computers and everything else, you never really know, but it’s hard to doctor a live performance. When it comes to what you guys do, especially when you’re putting together a big effort like this, how different do you approach something like this than you do something like a Flying Colors, or anything you’ve done in the past?

Mike: It’s not that different. Like I said, I think the chemistry now in the Neal Morse Band is similar to the chemistry in Flying Colors and the chemistry in Transatlantic. I think with all three bands – Neal and I are collaborating with the other people that make up the chemistry. In the Neil Morse Band, it’s Bill, Eric, and Randy. In Transatlantic, it’s Pete and Roine, and in Flying Colors it’s Steve, Dave, and Casey. In all these cases, Neal and I are working with different people, and I think that’s what helps bring me and Neal into different places. A lot of people ask, “Why are you and Neal in three different bands together?” In all three cases, it’s the people that we’re surrounding ourselves with that make the chemistry so different. I think that’s the beauty of collaboration.


Toddstar: Building on that, you’ve always been a driving force in projects that you’ve been in, whether it’s more streamlined rock and roll stuff like the Winery Dogs, or it’s the prog-flavored stuff like the Neal Morse Band or Flying Colors. Why not the Mike Portnoy Band? Again, you are a driving force; you are a lot of the collaborative effort in the background. Why not the Mike Portnoy Band?

Mike: It’s something that maybe someday I would like to do, but honestly, I’m so busy with everything else. The minute I left Dream Theater, I was surrounded by all of these other things right out of the gates. Right out of the gates we made a Flying Colors album and I made an Adrenaline Mob album and I was working with John Sykes, and I was working with PSMS. Literally, the minute I got my freedom, so to speak, I immediately got swept up with all these other things. I just haven’t had a chance. Someday, it could be fun. It could be interesting. Honestly, even if I was to do a Mike Portnoy Band or Mike Portnoy Project, it would still be about the collaboration. To me, that’s what I enjoy about making music is getting to put my thoughts and my ideas into a melting pot with other people I admire. Even if I was to do my own project, it would still be collaborative with other people I’d want to work with.

Toddstar: That’s a great answer, thank you Mike. The Similitude of a Dream – going through the track list, there’s songs that just jump out at me that I really love because of a driving sound or something that maybe takes a little left turn from what you’ve become known for. Are there any tracks that you go back and listen to and say, “Yeah, I nailed that. That’s a great drum part?”

Mike: The one on this album that stands out the most is “The Battle,” which is I think the second to last song on the second disc. It’s pretty much the musical climax, in terms of intensity, in the storyline. It’s an instrumental, and it’s got to be one of the most progressive pieces of music I’ve ever recorded. Neal brought it to the table as a piano piece, and it was just this crazy Gershwin on acid kind of technical piano piece. From there, I orchestrated it with the drums, and then from there, the other guys orchestrated their parts. That’s the one that, if I wanted to play one piece to just blow people away, that would be the one that I would play for them. It’s just such a technical tour de force. To be honest, the music in the Neal Morse Band isn’t always about the technique or the progressive stuff. The songs on this album that really move me the most are the more balladesque type songs. In fact, the two closing songs on each disc. Disc one closes with “Breath of Angels,” and disc two closes with “Broken Sky.” Those two pieces in particular, they both just give me goosebumps and bring tears to my eyes. Just because they’re so emotional, and so much of Neal’s writing has that emotional intensity. That’s one of the aspects of him that I love so much, beyond just the prog epic sensibilities. He also has this sweeping, majestic, emotional sensibility, too, which is incredible.

Toddstar: We can certainly tip our hat to Neal on that, because like you said, he does write some stuff that just really is emotionally driven, from the lyrics to the music, but we can’t discount what you do. Your fingerprints are all over this disc, even tracks like “Breath of Angels.” You need something to anchor that track. Is there a different approach you take when you’ve got a song like “Breath of Angels,” as opposed to “City of Destruction,” where it’s a little more charging at you, when you’re going to sit behind your kit and do what you do?

Mike: To be honest, my concentration when making a record is not on the drums. The drums come extremely natural for me. I don’t have to really think about them or put much time or effort into them. They kind of just happen. When I’m making a record, I’m usually concentrating on all of the other aspects, the musical songwriting and the production and the sequencing and the arranging. All of those elements are the things that I usually obsess about in the studio. I think Neal, Randy, Bill, and Eric would be the first to say the same thing. I’m usually the one in the studio with the chalkboard, moving the arrangements around and the sequencing around. That’s kind of my obsession, and that’s usually the thing that I spend the most time concentrating on. It’s not the drums. The drums, like I said, that aspect comes completely natural to me, and I don’t even have to put any thought process into it.


Toddstar: I’ll be honest, as well as you play the drums, that surprises me. Just as a fan of music. Just because everything is so technical, when it comes to what you do in the bottom end of the music, with your percussion.

Mike: I appreciate that, thank you, but honestly, that stuff is second nature. Not to go here, but that’s why it’s always bothered me since I left Dream Theater, when people compare A versus B. It’s like, “Well, you can’t.” We’re different people. My contributions to that band were sprawled across a dozen different areas, beyond the drums. I don’t think that’s a fair comparison when I see people making that. To me, the drums are a very, very small piece of what I do.

Toddstar: That being said, Mike, how fun is it for you to just go out and be a drummer, like when you stepped in and assisted on the Avenged Sevenfold stuff or the Twisted Sister stuff, where you stepped in and it wasn’t going to be a band thing per se. There was no writing going on or anything like that. You just went in and did what you did because you enjoy playing drums. How different was that for you, or how much fun was that?

Mike: So much fun. I got to say that some of the most fun tours I’ve ever had were the tours I did with Avenged Sevenfold and the ones I’ve recently done with Twisted Sister because I’m just playing drums. It’s so rare, in my other bands, that I get that opportunity. It really is fun for me to just get on stage and play and not really have to worry or think about anything else. I don’t know if I would ever want to do that full-time, but surely it’s been fun to have on the side, like I had with Twisted and Avenged. Now that my time with Twisted is coming to an end, to be honest, I wouldn’t mind finding another gig like that. Whether it be Whitesnake or Journey or Bad Company or Five Finger Death Punch or Alter Bridge, whoever. The idea of filling in and just playing drums has been so much fun for me, that I would surely welcome that opportunity in the future with any other bands or situation that might come my way. Just because it is a lot of fun for me.

Toddstar: How much fun is it beating the shit out of a Hello Kitty drum set?

Mike: [laughs] Not as much fun as it is beating the shit out of a Pokémon drum set. That’s twice as much fun.

Toddstar: When it comes to the production, because you mentioned that, and looking back over this, this being an epic tale that had to be tracked a certain way, how much work was really involved in you doing the sequencing on this to make sure that it told the story the way you guys intended?

Mike: It came pretty easily, to be honest. The biggest struggle was whether or not we were going to let it become a double album, or if we were going to try to strap it in and make it a single album. Honestly, I was fighting to try to make it a single for a lot of the session. Eventually, it became obvious that there were just so many ideas that it needed to be a double in order to fully realize all of the ideas. The actual sequencing and the writing of it came very, very naturally, actually.

Toddstar: What song fought you guys tooth and nail from start to finish? What was the hardest song to complete?

Mike: Technically, like I mentioned earlier, “The Battle.” “The Battle” was the one that was the hardest one technically on the drums because it was so progressive and it required a lot of creative orchestration on my part. Technically, that was the hardest one. Actually, the first song on disc two, “Slave To Your Mind,” we wrote and recorded that track in the midst of a heated argument in the studio. The day that we tracked that and the day that we were working on that song was one of the hardest days I’ve ever had in the studio. It wasn’t the result of that particular song, it just was a result of the circumstances, like I was mentioning earlier, with us debating on single disc versus double disc. That just happened to be the song that we were working on that day, when we were struggling. I would have to say that that particular song was the hardest, just because of the circumstances we were writing it in.


Toddstar: I know you’re a busy man, so I have another one or two for you, if you don’t mind, before we let you go. Mike, you’ve had a storied career. You’ve played with a veritable who’s who of musicians from so many different genres. Who’s still out there that’s on your get list, that you’d either like to write with, produce with, share a stage with? Who’s still out there that is on your wish list?

Mike: I’ve given this answer before, so it comes to me easily and quickly only because I have given this some thought and I’ve been asked it before. There are two categories. The one is the realistic, and the other is the dream. The realistic answer is Mikael Åkerfeldt from Opeth. He’s the one guy that I really love and admire and I’m friends with that I have yet to work with. I invited him on stage a few times with Dream Theater when I was still in the band, so we did that, but I would love to actually make a record with him. That’s the one realistic collaboration that has still eluded me. Then there are the dream collaborations, or not even collaborations, just the dream gigs. If I got a phone call from Roger Waters or Pete Townsend or Paul McCartney, I would drop everything in a heartbeat to work with any of those guys. Those are the dream gigs, for me, and my biggest heroes of all time that I would give anything to work with.

Toddstar: Those are great choices. Wouldn’t we all give up our day job for those?

Mike: Exactly.

Toddstar: That said, looking back, again, just a storied career, Mike. As a fan of music, I can’t thank you enough for your contributions to music over the last couple decades. If you could look back and say, “This was a misstep that I took, and I wish I could change it or just tweak it a little bit for a different outcome,” are there any other there? I don’t want to call them regrets, but just missteps.

Mike: Yeah, I don’t call them regrets. I actually have a tattoo on me that says “no regrets.” I truly believe that everything happens for a reason. One of my favorite quotes, concerning regrets is, “It’s better to regret something you have done than something you haven’t.” I do believe that. I do believe that I would rather take a step or even a misstep; I would hate to have ever regretted not doing something. If the question is what would I have done differently, I don’t think I would have done anything differently in terms of the moves. Certainly my split with Dream Theater became so public and over-dramatic. I kind of wish that maybe some of that was kept a little bit more private. I don’t really regret many of the things I did because I followed my heart and I made the right decision for what I wanted to do and what I needed to do. If I would have realized that some of my posts on my private Facebook page or on my private website would become so public, I probably wouldn’t have posted them. I never intended for that to become such a public split. I guess now I’ve learned that when you’re in a position like I am, when you have a million and a half people on your Facebook page, I guess anything you post or write is going to be criticized, analyzed, blown up, and exaggerated. If anything, I’ve learned to try to be a little bit more careful with that kind of stuff. The moves themselves, and the decisions themselves, I don’t regret a single one of them.

Toddstar: That’s good to know as a fan of yours and a fan of your catalog and legacy. Listen Mike, again, I thank you so much for your time. We wish you guys so much good tidings with The Similitude of a Dream, which comes out November 11th on Metal Blade Records. Hopefully we’ll see you guys out touring this thing.

Mike: Yeah, it’s a pretty extensive tour for a Neal Morse tour, so we’re looking forward to it.

Toddstar: Hopefully Detroit Rock City is on that calendar.

Mike: I don’t think so, but close enough. Come see us, if we can’t come see you.

Toddstar: Sounds good. Thanks again for your time, Mike.

Mike:    Thank you man.









Category: Interviews

About the Author ()

ToddStar - that's me... just a rocking accountant who had dreams of being a rock star. I get to do the next best thing to rocking the globe - I get to take pictures of the lucky ones that do. I love to shoot all genres of music and different types of performers. If it is related to music, I love to photograph it. I get to shoot and hang with not only some of my friends and idols, but some of the coolest people around today.

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