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Mike Portnoy

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MIKE PORTNOY

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“They were written one at a time,” clarified Mike Portnoy on the songs that make up the 12 Step Suite which is the cornerstone of the upcoming Shattered Fortress shows in November. “Basically I had this idea in 2001 when Dream Theatre was making the “Six Degrees” album of writing about the twelve steps because I had just gotten sober and it was something that was a very big part of my life at that time. I figured the twelve steps was such a massive concept I didn’t want to delegate it all to one song so I had this idea of splitting it up into chapters and putting a few on each album. So I wrote about steps one, two and three with ‘The Glass Prison’ from the Six Degrees album and a couple of years later I wrote about steps four and five and then a few years later six and seven and so forth and basically the whole process took about ten years over the course of five different albums. The sad thing was once I had finally completed this massive concept I left Dream Theatre shortly afterwards so I never had the chance to perform it in its entirety which was always my intention.”

The five songs, ‘The Glass Prison’, ‘The Dying Soul’, ‘The Root of All Evil’, ‘Repentance’ and ‘The Shattered Fortress’ were written as a means of helping Portnoy through the difficult period of giving up an addiction, but while they ultimately helped many of his fans deal with their own demons the songs were always meant to be more personal.

“They were definitely more for myself,” he confirmed. “To me it was very therapeutic and that was my way of going through those steps, which of course everyone in the program has to do. So to me that was a very therapeutic way of dealing with it in my own life. But, as a result, it has ended up helping a lot of people. Through the years I’ve met literally hundreds of people that have come to me and said that those songs connected with them and as a result they were able to improve their life or deal with struggles they were going through so of course that was never my intention but it is a very, very nice bonus when it does happen.”

Shattered Fortress made their debut aboard the Cruise to the Edge ship in February this year, with Portnoy reflecting fondly on the occasion.

“That was part of my fiftieth birthday bash and that performance was also celebrating my own career,” he said happily. “I had music from so many different bands from throughout my career from Trans Atlantic to Flying Colours to Liquid Tension Experiment but the Dream Theatre portion of that celebration was finally performing the 12 Step Suite for the very first time and it was… it was very emotional. There was a lot of things going on at once. I was celebrating my fiftieth and I was surrounded by family and friends and band members so that was very emotional but finally playing this piece of music was very emotional and also the fact that I was revisiting Dream Theatre music at all. That in itself was also pretty emotional. Yeah, it was pretty heavy.”

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After waiting almost ten years to perform the songs as a collection, Portnoy says after finally getting to achieve his dream he had mixed feelings of emotion.

“It was a combination of things,” he offered. “There’s a big feeling of relief to finally get some closure on this and play these shows throughout the year. Not only in Australia but we’re doing this in Europe and a few select ones in other places around the world so to me it’s a way to get some closure and there’s kind of unfinished business, not just for me but the fans as well. I’ll be able to get that closure for myself but also be able to share it with those fans that have waited to see this for all these years.”

As well as performing the five songs, Portnoy will also be playing a selection of songs from his time in Dream Theatre.

“Those five songs equal an hour of music,” he said, “because they are all very long songs but inevitably the set will include other ones of my personal songs from the Dream Theatre catalogue which there are a lot of. I wrote twenty or thirty sets of lyrics for the band, so there’s a lot of music to choose from.”

Mike Portnoy isn’t the sort of man who focuses his time and attention to one project at a time. In fact, he always has several projects on the go at any one given moment, with each band reflecting different sides of his persona.

“I wouldn’t say my personality so much as I would say my musical taste,” he corrected. “It is very broad. When I’m listening to music on my own at home, it ranges from everything from Jellyfish to Pantera so now that I’m a free agent so to speak musically I want to tackle a little bit of everything. If you look at everything I’m doing it is so different across the board. You have Flying Colours which is like Muse or Radiohead, and then you have The Winery Dogs which is a classic rock power trio then you have Metal Allegiance which is a thrash metal project with the guys from Megadeth and Testament and Machine Head, so every one of those bands is different from each other. Then I’ve got the Neil Morse Band which is more traditional prog, so it’s kind of all serving a purpose to satisfy my broad musical taste.”

…continued below…

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With each different band comes fresh challenges, but according to Portnoy none of those challenges is musical in nature”

“For every one of those bands I just mentioned I have different kits and different configurations,” he outlined. “Each one has very different personalities within the band members involved and each one of them I play a different role in. Sometimes I’m a team player, sometimes I’m the leader, sometimes I’m just a hired gun like when I just toured with Twisted Sister for the last ten years so yeah, I am a bit of a chameleon, not only musically but in terms of my personality and involvement.”

“I wouldn’t say any of them pose any musical challenges,” he continued, “I think I can tackle music pretty easily. That’s usually the easiest part for me (laughs). I would say the hardest thing is trying to juggle my calendar to be honest. If you look at any one of my years ever since I left Dream Theatre I’m pretty much juggling two, three or four bands at any given moment so that’s the hardest thing is trying to make it all work. Every band has a different agenda and a different level of touring and different needs so I have to kind of be on top of it. Luckily I’m a very obsessive compulsive person so I’m very anal with my calendar and my schedule and make sure it’s all working.”
Portnoy is one of the most recognizable and sought after drummers in the world, but admits to being both humbled and flattered by the adulation heaped on him by his peers.

“Possibly because I’m such a music fan,” is his humble explanation.”I love so many different kinds of music and I have an appreciation for so many different kinds of music that I’m able to adapt. Like I said, Metal Allegiance and the Neil Morse Band could not be further apart in style but I could literally jump from one to the next and get along with everybody I’m working with and be able to adapt musically very easily so I think the fact that I’m such a music fan makes my involvement an asset to whatever band I am with.”

With such a high work ethic and full schedule the possibility of burnout is always strong, but Portnoy says that by not paying attention to factors outside of his control it helps ease the many pressures.

“I’m constantly jaded,” he laughed. “It’s very important to be in this business – for me it’s been thirty years at this point – to not be affected by it and I think that’s the secret to my success and longevity is to roll with the punches and I don’t let the industry or the fans get me down.”

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“Especially in this day and age of social media it’s so easy to read what these trolls on line are writing about you and some of the insults are just so brutal and it’s easy to get beat up by that and at times it does get to me and at times I have to kind of fire back but for the most part I try to not let it bother me. But yeah, it’s very easy to get jaded and beat up and defensive and shell shocked b this crazy business that we’re in.”

After three decades in the industry Portnoy says that another of the reasons for his prolonged success is his work ethic and the fact that music still gives him as much as he gives it in return.

“Yeah, absolutely,” he replied. “That’s why I still work as hard as I do and not to toot my own horn but I’ve got to be one of the hardest working drummers there is in this business and I do it because of the music. It’s not a money motivated thing. It’s really motivated by my love for making music and sharing music with fans and playing music on tour. That’s what still motivates me to work as hard as I do and play with four or five different bands at a time. It’s all about the music; it always has been.”

Despite the extra attention both by fans and the people who hide behind their keyboard terminals, Portnoy is adamant that he is still the same person today as when he first started his musical journey.

“I don’t think I’ve changed that much,” he shrugged. “If you really wanna look at it here I am at fifty years old and I’m doing this interview from my office at home and I’m looking around and am surrounded by photos of KISS and Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and I’m looking around and it’s no different from when I was an eighteen year old starting out. I’m just a music fan and a music lover. I’ve been very fortunate to have this incredible career and a very supportive fan base for all these years but at the end of the day I think I’m still that thirteen year old kid that’s in his basement listening to KISS songs. I just happen to be a fifty year old guy with a long beard now (laughs).”

Written by Kris Peters

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