Mike Portnoy Dishes on The Winery Dogs & Transatlantic, As Well As Progressive Nation At Sea 2014
Drummer par excellence Mike Portnoy has touched enough musical projects as there are constellations in the night sky at this point in his career. Right now, with the Winery Dogs, he’s making music that “you can just play and feel. You don’t have to sit there and think and count. It’s music you can enjoy without a calculator,” he tells me. In the middle of the first tour with the band, Mike found time to speak with me about the Winery Dogs and some of his other recent endeavors.
Moreover, a rumor about Daniel Gildenlow of Pain of Salvation being a part of the next Transatlantic record was addressed, as well as a rumor that the Progressive Nation at Sea cruise that he is heading up will be filmed for an upcoming release. One of the flag-carriers for the prog genre, Portnoy didn’t need to prove anything to anyone except for himself, as I was about to find out, which is the mindset of a true artist.
Frank Serafine (Progressivity_In_All): Right now, you guys are in Allentown, PA. Is that correct?
Mike Portnoy: Yeah. This is actually a hometown gig for me. I just set my son up on stage. My son’s band is opening for us tonight. Pretty cool!
Frank: Is this the one you were playing alongside with in the video a few months ago?
Mike: Do you mean playing the Avenged Sevenfold tune? Or the Rush tune? The Avenged Sevenfold video was from three years ago. That was when my son was 11. He’s 14 now. There’s also a video of me and him playing some Rush stuff together. His band, Next To None, is opening for us tonight here in Allentown.
Frank: Fantastic. Now that you’ve had time to take the songs on the road for a little while, how are you finding the dynamic to be between the three of you on stage?
Mike: We’ve really gotten very comfortable with each other. There’s really an amazing musical chemistry. I guess we’ve been playing almost four or five months straight now. We’ve been to Japan, South America, Europe, and now America. It’s one thing to make a record together in the studio, especially when you first meet each other, you’re feeling each other out, and you don’t really know each other that well. Once you’re on the road, and you’re playing night after night after night, that’s when you really gel as a band and as people.
We’re fuckin’ rock solid and completely gelled at this point. I’ve never felt so connected with a bass player as I do with Billy. He and I just look at each other and laugh night after night, because we’re both very spontaneous players in regards to just jamming. We’ll pull stuff out of the hat on the spot. He and I are just locked, airtight. It’s a great chemistry we’ve got going. A great band.
Frank: Aw, that’s cute - You guys are past the dating phase, then. You’re moving on to serious things!
Mike: (laughs) Yeah! We’re in the happy phase of the marriage now. We’re a long ways away from the separation and divorce. We’re still very much on the honeymoon.
Frank: (laughs) Nice. Your playing style, this time around, with The Winery Dogs, is a bit more relaxed than in your bands prior to this. It’s kind of similar to what you were doing with Yellow Matter Custard, your Beatles tribute band, I’d say. Has this given you more time to gauge the audience’s reaction?
Mike: I don’t know about the audience reaction… As far as my playing getting more comfortable… The music is something you can just play and feel. You don’t have to sit there and think and count. It’s music you can enjoy without a calculator. I think the three of us just feel really relaxed on stage. It’s the sort of music that you have to go on emotion and feel, and not necessarily technique and numbers. Therefore, you can play a lot more relaxed.
To be honest with you, I’m always relaxed on stage. Even with Dream Theater and the most complex music I’ve ever played, I’m very relaxed on stage. When I’m on stage, it’s all about connecting with the audience. I’m not the type of drummer that sits there and overthinks what I’m doing. I get up there to interact with an audience and connect with an audience. Twirl my sticks, spit, and jump around. That’s what it’s about. It’s about the connection.
Frank: Great philosophy. How has the audience been -- have they been older or younger, age-wise?
Mike: You know, actually, I would say a little older. I’ve seen such a range of audiences over the years. When I was playing with Avenged Sevenfold, the audience was teenagers and kids in their twenties. Now, with the WInery Dogs, it’s a very different audience. There’s a range. We definitely see a lot more women than in anything I’ve done, other than Avenged Sevenfold, obviously. Of anything else I’ve been a part of. There’s a lot more women because I think this music has a wider range of appeal. This isn’t a prog audience or a metal audience. The people coming to the shows are people that listen to everything, from [Led] Zeppelin to Van Halen and everything inbetween. Also, there’s a range because the people from the shows are coming in as either a Billy Sheehan fan, a Richie Kotzen fan, or a Mike Portnoy fan, so you’re seeing Mr. Big shirts, Dream Theater shirts, or whatever…
But everybody’s leaving with their Winery Dogs t-shirts on. So they come in fans of the three of us, but they leave as fans of the Winery Dogs.
Frank: Right, so it’s kind of a transformative experience.
Mike: Yep, that’s what it’s all about. This isn’t a one-time project. This is a real band, and we’re looking to pave the way for a long and exciting future ahead for many years to come.
Frank: As the “old guard” of traditional songwriting, as you guys said on radio, is that the demographic that you’re aiming for? The one that’s currently turning out at the shows?
Mike: We hadn’t thought about that. We’re not aiming for anybody. We aim for ourselves. We make a record that we like and we enjoy it, and whoever wants to come along for the ride is welcome! I think that the music can appeal to such a range of people, but we didn’t aim to reach anybody. We made a record that the three of us would enjoy making together.
Frank: Right. What’s your favorite tune to play together as a band, after getting to play them for a few months?
Mike: Typically, I like the more upbeat and more aggressive things. Stuff like “Not Hopeless” and “Elevate.” That’s my flavor or my preference. It’s weird, but contrary to that, one of my favorite moments in the show is when we do “Regret,” because it’s so different -- at least for me -- from anything I’ve ever performed on stage. That song is all about subtleness and dynamics. When we play that song, it’s almost like you feel like you’re going to church. It’s a very spiritual part of the show and you can hear a pin drop.
It’s so different from so many other parts of the set, so I do enjoy that particular one.
Frank: I was actually JUST about to ask about that. Honestly, when I heard it, it sounded as if you guys wrote that to be sung by a soulful black singer.
Mike: Oh, Richie is a soulful black singer -- In a white pretty-boy’s body!
Frank: (laughs) That is VERY true. It’s definitely quite different. I loved it. Taking a turn here, just today, Lou Reed passed away. Did he mean anything to you and do you have any remarks on his passing?
Mike: Well, I was never really a huge Lou Reed fan, to be honest. I can respect the avant-garde direction that he went with the Velvet Underground. That was showing signs of early prog and psychedelic mixed together. I did like his [Tom] Verlaine album, which I thought was really cool and had some real emotional shit on it, but to be honest, I was never a big Lou Reed fan. I’m probably not the right guy to comment on it.
Frank: Getting back on track, what is your opinion of similarly-situated bands nowadays? I know that you had talked about, in previous interviews, being heavily inspired by bands that weren’t popular, per se, but had a large following anyway. Bands nowadays, like Arctic Monkeys and Alter Bridge pop up on the charts only now and then, but seem to have a gigantic fanbase. What’s your opinion of the bands, these days, that run with that kind of style?
Mike: Well, I can relate to it because I spent 25 years with a band that could certainly be added to that category. All the years I was with Dream Theater, we were the most popular band that nobody had ever heard of! We would sell out Radio City Music Hall and we’ve got people outside that are like, “Who the fuck is Dream Theater?”
Mike: There’s something to be said for bands that make it on their own terms and aren’t at the mercy of radio play or media exploitation. Some of those bands I am fans of, and some I am not. As far as I’m concerned, I like all different kinds of music, but it doesn’t mean it’s all good. It doesn’t mean it’s all bad, either. Frank Zappa once said, “There’s only two kinds of music -- good and bad.” Every genre has one of each.
Frank: Very true. Honestly, I think there should be a quote book for Frank Zappa.
Mike: He’s a genius, for sure.
Frank: I’ve noticed that, along with these bands that are drifting through and sustaining a fanbase, there has also been a resurgence of the older rock styles coming through. It’s in both the mainstream and the underground. You have country bands like Lady Antebellum going borderline Fleetwood Mac at times, Opeth and Pain of Salvation both turning their backs on modern production styles and writing… The Moody Blues are enjoying being one of the best-selling concerts of last year in the nation and they have a rock cruise that’s pretty successful. Do you see yourself continuing to carry the flag for that style and taking a break from heavier music for a good while?
Mike: I can relate to that. My wanting to take a break from Dream Theater was exactly that. I needed to explore different things and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life just doing what Dream Theater was doing over and over. I’m a huge music fan and I didn’t become a musician to tie myself to one thing for the rest of my career. I wanted to try different things, and that’s why I love what I’m doing with the Winery Dogs. It’s so different from what people would expect from me. You could say the same about Flying Colors, which was a whole other left turn from what people would expect from me. I still have Transatlantic for the prog side of what I do, and I have PSMS (Portnoy Sheehan Macalpine Sherinian) for the more technical side of what I do.
I can relate to these bands, like Opeth and Pain of Salvation, that need to shake shit up and try different things. No artist wants to keep doing the same thing over and over. It works for some bands. It works for Motorhead. It works for Iron Maiden. It works for AC/DC, but personally, myself as an artist, I need different things in my life to keep it interesting.
Frank: I got you. Do you see yourself, then, branching out in more different directions from here forward?
Mike: I have four or five different outlets at this point. I just named a bunch of them, and each one gives me a lot of fulfilment. I would say that the area that I don’t have something currently would be the metal band -- the thrash thing. That’s a big part of my upbringing. I’ve been involved with these Metal Masters shows with the guys from Slayer and Anthrax, Megadeth, and Pantera. I’m friends with all of the guys in all of those bands. I’m definitely a part of that scene. I grew up with it and I’m friends with those guys, but other than the Metal Masters shows that I do, I haven’t really had a project or a band that has tapped into that.
That’s probably the one remaining thing I would still like to get on my plate. Other than that, my plate is incredibly full at the moment. All these other bands I have give me plenty of outlets with plenty of musical directions for many years to come, so I’m very very happy with where I’m at.
Frank: Good to hear! Lastly, speaking of cruise lines, you’re the founder and organizer for Progressive Nation At Sea 2014. With that one, you’ve got 23 bands stacking the bill for a week on a cruise. What drove you to make the transition from a land-based tour to a sea-based event?
Mike: I guess you know the backstory. I put together a Progressive Nation tour -- well, three of them, actually -- back in 2008/2009 with Dream Theater headlining. We had bands like Bigelf, Opeth, and Zappa [Plays Zappa]... For me, it was a big dream project to oversee and get something like that going. Having had a five year hiatus from it, I had been itching to do something again and get Progressive Nation back off the ground.
It was Derek Sherinian who came to me with the idea of a cruise. He and Eric Singer were talking about the Kiss Kruises that Kiss does. Eric introduced Derek to the people who run the cruises and Derek came to me with the idea of doing a prog cruise. I told him, at that point, “Well, look, I have the Progressive Nation trademark and have been wanting to resurrect it. This is a perfect idea. Let’s put the two ideas together and do a Progressive Nation cruise!” Rather than doing a 6-week tour with 4 bands, we’re able to do a 5-day cruise with 23 bands. It was a lot easier to get bands to commit to a 5-day window than a 5-week window, when bands have a lot of touring or so 8 months in advance.
I was able to put together this big dream list. I had about 30 bands on my list, and 23 of them are on the cruise!
Frank: Damn, that’s a nice percentage.
Mike: It’s basically my dream lineup. It’s going to be an absolutely amazing experience I can’t wait to do in February.
Frank: You’ve got so much going on right now. You’re the busiest guy in this kind of music. You also somehow found time to do “Kaleidoscope” with Transatlantic.
Mike: That comes out in January and we’re going to be doing a quick tour throughout February and March. Gotta keep busy! Even when I was with Dream Theater, I did a million things. Now I’m doing ten million things!
Frank: True! Could you give any more details on the Transatlantic album?
Mike: Well, it’s everything that anybody that’s a fan of Transatlantic would want to hear from the band. “The Whirlwind” was a big epic undertaking and, when we started to make this follow-up, we did what we do. We make these epic songs. “Kaleidoscope” is made up of basically five songs, two of which are huge epics. One is 25 minutes, and one is 35 minutes. The three pieces in the middle are medium-length songs -- 6 or 7 minutes. It’s everything that Transatlantic fans would want from the band -- taking that classic prog sound from the 70s and giving it a modern twist and taking it to all-new extremes.
Frank: Excellent. I guarantee you that, just based on that comment alone, you’ve probably got an extra 1200 pre-orderers right now.
Mike: (laughs) The crazy thing is that I see a lot of “fans” online say “Ohh, Mike Portnoy, why are you doing this with the Winery Dogs and Flying Colors? You’re turning your back on prog with Avenged Sevenfold! Blah blah blah” Look -- I never left prog! Transatlantic is the freaking ultimate prog band, really. Now I’m overseeing the Progressive Nation cruise. I’m basically carrying the flag for the genre and I’ve always been very much a spokesperson of the genre and doing everything I can to move the genre forward into new places. I will continue to do that with Transatlantic and the Progressive Nation Cruise in that direction. I’m not playing with Dream Theater anymore, but believe me -- I’m still doing as much stuff in the prog world as I ever have.
Frank: Very true. Let it go on record that I was about to say that you were carrying the flag for prog before you said it, so there’s no misunderstanding, “ohhh Mike Portnoy said HE was the…”
Mike: Thank you.
Frank: Will “Kaleidoscope” actually involve Daniel Gildenlow of Pain of Salvation, since you’ve been using him on tour?
Mike: We talked about it before starting the album, but, really, Transatlantic is the four of us and there’s a great chemistry between the four of us. Daniel’s a great additional element on stage live, but we wanted to keep the writing chemistry just as it always has been, with just the four of us. That being said, we did find a nice spot for Daniel to do a guest vocal on the album.
Frank: Will there be any “official bootleg” of the cruise performance, as well? You guys did an “official bootleg” for Transatlantic before.
Mike: Yeah! I plan on filming and recording it. We’ll see. I film and record everything I do. I have the biggest archive of anybody you’ve ever met. Everything I’ve ever done in the studio or on stage is documented. I try to release as much of it as possible, with the Dream Theater official bootlegs, and the Dream Theater fan club CDs and DVDS. I was the one that always put all of that together. That’s not going to change. I’m just going to apply that mentality to all of the different bands that I’m in now.
I plan on filming and recording the cruise as well, so we’ll see how it comes out!
Frank: I’m looking forward to getting on that cruise with you, so hopefully we’ll meet up with you there.
Mike: I look forward to it too. Transatlantic is going to do a final encore, with Jon Anderson singing, of all Yes classics. That, in itself, is going to be colossal. It’s going to be incredible. The very final performance on the ship.
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