March 17, 2012
The first time I met Mike Portnoy was on the set of That Metal Show after the taping of an episode featuring him and guitarist John Sykes.
“Hey there, Mike,” I said, “Big fan.”
As awkward as it might be for a 43 year-old man to proclaim himself a “big fan” to someone his age, it was the truth. Portnoy is one of rock’s greatest living drummers, collecting musicianship awards with the same frequency that most people put gas in their car. The self-taught percussive prodigy routinely appears on lists of the greatest drummers of all time, usually haunting the top slots. While he is best-known for the twenty-five years that he spent powering prog metal giants Dream Theater, Portnoy has donated his jaw-dropping talents to a stunning number of rock and metal acts. In the past year alone, his collaborations have included a long run with Avenged Sevenfold, a historic gig with Stone Sour, a partnership with iconic guitarist John Sykes and his participation in the titan-studded Metal Masters clinics.
In 2010, as Portnoy was assessing his options in the wake of his acrimonious split from Dream Theater, guitarist Mike Orlando was cutting a collection of blistering, riff-heavy metal tracks with Symphony X vocalist Russell Allen–a singer with the range of Chris Cornell and the snarl of Phil Anselmo. Satisfied that they had stumbled upon something special, they reached out to Portnoy to see if he might be interested in joining, not as a sideman, but as a full-time member. Those rough demos were all he needed to commit to his new band–Adrenaline Mob, which they officially announced to the world in the summer of 2011.
The Mob released a five-song EP, then wasted zero time writing a group of new tracks that together mark their full-length debut, Omertà. Simply put, Omertà is a phenomenal, hard-charging collection of hard rock and heavy metal, full of massive grooves and skyscraper-sized choruses. Prog fans looking for sixty minutes of complex time signatures and mathematically-precise soloing will be bitterly disappointed–this is as straightforward as hard rock gets, complete with lacerating guitar solos, head-banging riffs and of course, Portnoy’s ferocious attack. Even when he’s pulling back, you can still hear the virtuosity playing out with every roll of the toms.
“Hit the Wall,” “Psychosane” and “Undaunted” are stand-outs, and Halestorm’s Lzzy Hale adds her potent rock vocals to an unlikely, but smoking cover of Duran Duran’s “Come Undone.”
So how did Portnoy respond to my profession of admiration?
“Funny, you don’t look that big,” he cracked.
Anybody who’s seen him on That Metal Show knows that’s Portnoy–a good natured, wise-cracking guy from New York, who just happens to be one hell of a drummer.
I had the chance to catch up with Mike just before the band’s album release party in New York City earlier this month. Never before I have I looked forward to the Either/Or questions with such unbridled enthusiasm.
TNB Music Editor
Adrenaline Mob started the year off with a big personnel change, bringing on Disturbed bassist John Moyer. I know that you actually reached out to him. What about his style made him your choice?
Well I knew John from when Disturbed and Avenged Sevenfold toured together on the Uproar tour a couple summers ago, so John and I had spent a lot of time together. I knew that he was a super cool, down-to-earth guy, so I knew he’d fit in personally and stylistically, and with all of his time in Disturbed, I knew it was a musical background that would fit right in with what the Mob is doing. Most importantly was the fact that Disturbed had just announced that they were going on an extended hiatus, and it was critical for us to find a bass player that didn’t have any other bands or commitments. We assumed we’d have to get a complete nobody or an up-and-comer because everybody else already had other bands and other things going. It just happened to turn out that it was the perfect time for John because he now has this downtime when he can commit to us and we don’t have to worry about any scheduling conflicts. So on every level, John was the perfect choice.
As the drummer, it’s obviously important for you to find somebody that you can do business with in the rhythm section, so even before John hit the radar, was there a criteria that you personally had in mind for a new bass player?
Well, we were looking for somebody that was a team player and somebody who was into doing song-oriented music. Even though I have this reputation for being this over-the-top drummer and even though Mike Orlando is this incredibly flashy guitar player, we weren’t looking for a crazy over-the-top bass player. We were looking for somebody who was more of a foundation type of player. So John was exactly the type of player we were looking for–a bad-ass motherfucker who could hold down the fort. John absolutely fit our criteria.
What sound were you shooting for on this album? Or was there even a sound that you guys had in mind?
The whole idea behind Adrenaline Mob is to play song-oriented music that has shredding players, but really it’s all about the riff and the groove and the melody. Mike Orlando and I can step out every once in awhile when needed, but the most important thing in the end is to have huge riffs and a groove with a nice bounce, as well as Russell Allen’s vocals, which are totally memorable and melodic. It’s one of those albums where I think that every song is strong in it’s own right. There are so many tracks on this album that you can picture being played on the radio. So that was the idea behind Adrenaline Mob–to have an album filled with songs that had memorable hooks that made your head bang.
Compared to the arc of a lot of other albums, you guys turned this around in relatively short order. What was the songwriting process?
Actually, since Adrenaline Mob was announced last summer, then yeah, I guess you could say it’s been a relatively short turnaround time, from the announcement of the band to the album. The reality is that these songs have been brewing for years, starting with Mike Orlando, who had been working on them on his own for so many years, and then Russell Allen started working with him a couple years ago, shaping them and modifying them. They came to my attention early last year, so it’s been an ongoing process between the three of us, building and developing what has finally become Adrenaline Mob. But it certainly wasn’t an overnight thing–the songs have been in the works for years.
So when those guys reached out to you, what was it in their pitch that appealed to you about this project?
I was just coming off of my time with Avenged Sevenfold. I was doing the Uproar tour with them–bands like Disturbed and Stone Sour and Hellyeah and Halestorm–coming off of an experience surrounded by these bands that were doing real riff and groove, song-oriented music and I really wanted to get involved with something that was similar. After twenty-five years of prog ethics with Dream Theater, as much as I love that–and I still do love that–I kind of needed to wrap my head around something different. When Mike and Russ played me these tunes, I immediately knew it was exactly what would satisfy that urge inside of me to do something like this. It was actually the perfect band at the perfect time for me.
Guitarist Rich Ward also left the band recently. Are there any plans to replace him?
No, we’re gonna keep the band a four-piece. When we auditioned John Moyer on bass, the other thing that we were auditioning was ourselves to see how we would sound as a four-piece. In rehearsals it sounded great, so we said, “Let’s just keep this a four-piece.” It’s easier, it’s one less scheduling obstacle to work around, and it sounded big and full, and some of our favorite bands were four-piece bands, like Black Sabbath, Van Halen and Pantera, so we felt that it would be a good lineup to go forward with.
You just had your album release party at the Electric Ballroom in New York. What’s next for the Mob?
We’re gonna hit the road. Right now there’s a US tour being assembled with dates to come asap, and in June we head over to Europe to do festivals and miscellaneous one-off headlining shows over there. We’re just looking to be on the road for the rest of the year, keeping busy.
This is probably offensively early to ask, but you’ve been through one album with these guys now–do you see this being an ongoing collaboration for you? Will there be other albums down the road?
Absolutely. This is absolutely a band, this isn’t a side project. We plan on making many albums and touring all over the place with this. We’re very excited about the potential for the music and it’s definitely a new chapter for all of us, so it’s not just a side project–it’s a real full-time band.
You’ve also got another band–Flying Colors. What’s happening with them?
Flying Colors is the polar opposite on the spectrum from Adrenaline Mob (laughs) and that just goes to show my musical tastes. I can do many different things and fully love them all, because I have broad tastes–and a lot of listeners do as well. Flying Colors is more pop/alternative, with a splash of prog musicianship thrown in there. It’s another song-oriented album, but it’s more in the vein of the Beatles-meets-Coldplay-meets-Foo Fighters.
Do you guys have an album coming out?
Yeah, it comes out on March 27–two weeks after Adrenaline Mob.
How are you going to balance the concurrent releases?
Well right now I’m balancing them both by doing a lot of press and promotion, but once the albums come out I’m going to be touring with Adrenaline Mob immediately and that’ll be the first focus. We hope to do some touring with Flying Colors as well, but it’s a little bit harder with that because everybody in Flying Colors is actively busy in other bands. Most notably, Steve Morse with Deep Purple. So Flying Color’s ability to tour is going to rely a lot on Deep Purple’s schedule. But we absolutely are looking forward to playing live shows with Flying Colors as well, it’s just a matter of scheduling. We might need a little time to juggle that, but it’ll eventually happen.
You’ve had an action-packed twelve months. Looking back on everything you did in the last year, can you narrow it down to one highlight?
I don’t know if I can. Last year I played live on stage with I think five different bands, and this year already I think I’ve played with three different bands, or four different bands, so I don’t know if I can pinpoint any one particular thing. I don’t know, they’ve all been really cool experiences. I mean, I love the Adrenaline Mob and Flying Colors albums that are coming out, I love the music I’ve been making with Neal Morse, I’ve played to 100,000 people at Rock in Rio with Stone Sour, so that was a great highlight. I did a gig in New York with the guys from Megadeth, Anthrax, Pantera and Slayer, doing a supergroup with those guys, so that was a huge highlight. So I don’t think I could pick one. I think the key to my happiness, post-Dream Theater, has been all about variety and diversity and playing with different people in different situations. So the combination of all of them has made the past year so exciting for me.
You bring up Dream Theater. Now that some of the dust has cleared, and in view of all you’ve done since Dream Theater, where do you see that band fitting in your overall legacy?
Dream Theater will always be the thing I’m most known for. It was twenty-five years of my life and it was something that I poured my heart and soul, blood sweat and tears into. I literally ate, breathed and shat Dream Theater twenty-four/seven for twenty-five years, so regardless of where they go in their career and regardless of where I go in my career, I will always and forever be linked to Dream Theater and that’s fine with me–I’m proud of every song I wrote in that band, every album I recorded in that band, and every show I played with that band. So I have no problem with the fact that I will forever be known as “Mike Portnoy from Dream Theater.” That’s something that will never change. That’s always how it’s gonna be and I’m proud of that. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I think I’m probably one of the few people who you have not collaborated with, and…
Until now! You could say we now have.
That’s a good point–maybe we can remix this interview into a dubstep album. Is there anyone who you haven’t played with who’s your dream collaboration? Someone you’d like to get in the studio with but haven’t yet?
Well there are the realistic ones and there are the fantasy ones. The fantasy ones are guys like Roger Waters, Paul McCartney and Pete Townshend. Those are my three biggest living heroes. I honestly don’t anticipate ever having the privilege of working with any of the three of them, however I would do it in a heartbeat because they are three of my biggest heroes. Then there are the realistic ones, and the one person that I’m still patiently waiting to collaborate with is Mikael Åkerfeldt of Opeth. He and I have been talking about it for years, so that’s one collaboration that I’ve been patiently waiting to happen.
We end our interviews with five little Either/Or questions. I’m just going to give you a choice and you pick one. Sound good?
Keith Moon or John Bonham?
Oh Jesus… you started off with like, the hardest one possible.
That’s what you think.
(pause) It’s fucking impossible. (laughs) They’re two of my heroes–I have both of them tattooed on me. (pause) I would say Bonham for playing, Keith Moon for showmanship.
OK. Classic rock or heavy metal?
Oh, man… That is tough. Ugh… I have to say metal by a slight margin.
Guitar solos or bass solos?
Bass solo if it’s Billy Sheehan playing but guitar solo if it’s Eddie Van Halen playing. However, if you’re talking about a bass solo by Bill Wyman or a guitar solo by Malcolm Young, then I don’t know. (laughs)
How diplomatic! So far I haven’t been able to pick either. You’re giving me such hard choices.
That’s the point. I want to catch you flat-footed. I think this one you can nail–jazz or blues?
God, uh… I’m not a big fan of either. When you did classic rock versus heavy metal, why couldn’t you have done classic rock versus blues, or jazz versus metal? That would have been much easier.
I’ll have to say jazz, just because it’s more exciting for drummers.
Last one is a drumming question– 4/4 or 9/8?
Ah, that’s easy–9/8.
Just because I made a living off of 9/8. Anybody can play 4/4, but I made a nice career out of playing 9/8.
Very cool. That’s a wrap, Mike. Thanks for your time.