Mike Portnoy is a name that has been synonymous with heavy metal drumming for the past 26 years, ever since he started the progressive metal outfit Majesty with fellow Berklee musicians John Petrucci and John Myung.
This band was soon re-christened Dream Theater and went on to become hugely successful, releasing 12 studio albums, touring worldwide and earning respect and admiration from fans the world over.
During this period, Portnoy gained an undoubted reputation for his skillful and highly technical drumming style, laden with some truly unique time signatures. His prowess not only made him Dream Theater's primary songwriter, but also turned quite a few heads within the music industry itself.
Because of this, he has been able to expand his palette beyond the Dream Theater realm by involving himself in projects like Transatlantic, OSI and Liquid Tension Experiment, and working with musicians like Neal Morse. He recently parted ways with Dream Theater, the very same band he co-founded, and Dream Theater has decided to move on with new drummer Mike Mangini.
Portnoy's split with Dream Theater is well documented, so rather than getting into that, I decided to focus more on what he is pursuing in the present day, and what he plans to do hence forth.
After his departure from Dream Theater, he joined forces with Russell Allen and Mike Orlando's hard rock band Adrenaline Mob, and after recruiting Rich Ward as the rhythm guitarist and Paul DiLeo as bassist, the band recorded its self-titled debut EP and is on a run of dates across the States.
I had the pleasure of talking to Mike to discuss Adrenaline Mob and his future plans.
The first thing I want to talk about is your tour. You guys have already started doing a run of dates. How has the tour been treating you so far?
It's been a blast, man! We're kind of seeing two completely different sides of the coin. Half the time we're playing with Godsmack, doing big arena shows and festival shows, playing in front of their audience, and the other half of the time we play in tiny clubs doing our own shows, which are intimate and more for the people that are familiar with us. So it's a real one-on-one experience, but in most cases, we're having a blast and we're definitely a live band through and through.
We all just give an energetic performance up there, whether it be with Godsmack for 5,000 people or in a small club with 200 people. We give it our all and we're out here to make a name for this band and build this thing from the ground up.
The first ever show you guys did was on June 24 at the Hiro Ballroom in New York. What did it feel like performing with a new group of musicians for the first time?
It was exciting. Any time we step on stage with new people, it's always exciting. But in that case it was very strange because people bought tickets to that show without having heard a single note of what the band was about. They only bought tickets based on my name or Russell's name or whoever they were familiar with, and even at the show, other than the covers we played all of the songs that are on our album and nobody knew any of it. So it was definitely a different experience from most live shows I've ever played. But that being said, it was incredibly exciting, and from there we put out a video of "Mob Rules," which got posted throughout the world.
People could see what we sound like as a band together, and from there all these other opportunities came up and that's how his tour came about. From then on we've been doing our own shows as well as going out with Godsmack. So it's been step by step, but the whole thing has been happening much faster than we aniticipated.
How did this lineup come together and how did you decide that these are the musicians you want to work with?
Well, it's not my band. It existed before me and I was actually recruited. Russell Allen and Mike Orlando were the ones who started it, and they have been working for years writing this material, and as soon as I became available after the Avenged Sevenfold tour, Russell reached out to me and asked whether I'd be interested in checking out what he and Mike were working on. Immediately upon hearing the music, I was on board. I was immediately sold and the songs were so strong that I really wanted to do it.
At that point, the three of us kind of formed the core of the band and then we drafted Paul DiLeo on bass and Richard Ward on guitar, finished up work on the album and now here we are!
So were all of these songs already written when you joined, or did you also contribute to the writing process?
Everything was in demo form, that Mike and Russ had worked on. And then I did some shaping. I can't say I contributed anything to the writing, but I definitely did some arrangement shaping with the guys. Once I started doing my drum tracks, I changed things around but for the most part, these songs existed already.
I believe this self-titled EP came out on August 9 in digital form. Is there also a physical version of it available somewhere for people to buy?
Yeah, right now you can get the physical CD at www.adrenalinemob.com or www.mikeportnoy.com. We also have them at the shows on the tour we're on. We do not have retail at the moment. Basically, we just self-released this spontaneously.
Once the Godsmack tour came around, we didn't want to go on the road with nothing available till next year, which was the original plan. So we knew we needed something immediately and we just put out the EP by ourselves to give people a taste of what the full album will be like once it comes out.
Unfortunately these days the importance of the physical versions is diminishing. You've been around for so many years, and seen it all. What do you feel about this change?
Well, change is inevitable with the evolution of technology. In the '70s we had records, in the '80s we had CDs, and now we are living in the digital age. You can say it's sad or unfortunate, but the reality is you've got to roll with the times and the technology. I still love collecting because I'm a huge collector myself and I love to go out and buy music, particularly the special editions. But the reality is, when I'm sitting in a hotel room at 3 in the morning and I see something on the Internet that interests me in the form of a band I want to hear, I like the ability to just go online to iTunes and download it immediately. So it's something I as a fan enjoy being able to have. I see both sides of the coin.
Russell Allen reminds me so much of Ronnie James Dio. I think he is just about the perfect guy to do a "Mob Rules" cover. Do you agree with that?
Yeah, absolutely. Russ is definitely this generation's Dio. He's obviously twice the size, but his voice is very much in a similar vein as Ronnie's, and Ronnie is one of his biggest heroes. But I think Russ has many different sides to his voice. Besides the sound of Dio, he's got the sexiness of a David Coverdale, he's got the melody of a Steve Walsh, and he can be gritty like Rob Zombie. So he is very much a chameleon in terms of his vocal abilties.
Since you guys have a five-song EP, what do you play in the live shows, specially the headline shows? Do you play more cover songs or new tracks?
In these headline shows we are playing obviously everything that's on the EP, and we're also playing almost all of the full-length album. So people can get a taste of what's to come in the full-length album, and then we round out the set with some covers as well.
So you're saying the full length is ready for a release in the near future.
Yeah, it is absolutely ready.
Drumming-wise, what kind of a challenge does this band present to you? Obviously there is a huge gap between this and Dream Theater.
The thing is about restraint, and playing what's best for the groove of the song, and I'm down with that. I'm totally cool with that. I played with Dream Theater, and so far that's been everything I'm about. This is far from what I'm about, and I'm about many, many different things. I could be just as happy playing a Beatles song as I am when I'm thrashing out the double bass stuff with Adrenaline Mob. The stuff I'm playing with Adrenaline Mob is all about the energy and the song. It's about groove and riff-oriented songs. So, if anything, I have to show some restraint and make sure I play what's best for the song.
As you mentioned at the beginning of the interview, you're playing smaller-sized venues for the headline shows. You must be enjoying that because you haven't played small-sized venues for Dream Theater, at least recently.
When Dream Theater first started, we were touring in a van and playing clubs. So now it's a similar situation for me. We're starting from scratch, from the beginning, from the ground up. So it's a very similar feeling. We are back to the clubs, playing for 200 people a night, just sweating it out to win these people over night by night. We don't take any audience for granted. Our goal is to take no prisoners and win every single audience over in every city. Every night is another challenge, and we're up to it.
Obviously you are always involved with so many other projects. Is there anything in the pipeline or is Adrenaline Mob your primary focus?
I have a few other things going. Actually, this year alone I did three different bands and projects in the studio. They're all slowly coming around, so throughout 2012 and beyond, you'll see me with three other bands. Adrenaline Mob right now is my main focus, but I've also got a thing going with John Sykes which is in more of a classic rock vein, and then I also have a thing with Steve Morse which is kind of an alternative, proggy thing.
So each of these bands is taking me down different musical roads and in the coming year or so, there will come a situation where they will all be releasing music, and at that point I'll be kind of juggling all of them on tour but they are all very different from each other and I'm very proud of each of them for different reasons. But Adrenaline Mob is what I'm doing now. This is the first one to actually come out and it's very exciting for me to move into the next phase of my career.
How do you approach these multiple projects from a writing point of view? When you write something, do you have a certain mindset of writing for one particular band at a time?
They are different situations. I've worked with many different bands, and I've had different goals for them all. With Dream Theater I was one of the main writers, with Transatlantic I was one of the main collaborators, and then with something like Avenged Sevenfold I was just a hired gun and I went in to play somebody else's music. So I'm able to shift from role to role in different environments and do what's called for.
The Adrenaline Mob stuff was pretty much written by Mike and Russ, so I went in and just served the songs. But then with Steve Morse I collaborated and wrote together, so I play different roles in different bands, and I'm comfortable with that. I have some bands that are full time bands, some are part time bands, some are side projects, some are hired guns, and you know, and some are tribute bands (laughs).
Your influences are very well documented, but one name that kind of caught my eye and interested me was Deen Castronovo, the current Journey drummer. Is it true that he has also been an influence on you?
Yeah sure, I can give you a list of hundreds of drummers that are an influence on me, but Deen is an amazing drummer and I had been following him on all of the Shrapnel guitar hero records back in the '80s and '90s. Obviously, what he gets to do with Journey now is a whole different thing, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for him.
Finally, I wanted to ask you about something which you did as a bit of a one-off, when you switched instruments on stage with Dream Theater, under the name Nightmare Cinema. Have you ever thought of doing something on an instrument other than the drums in a serious band?
That would be fun, but I don't think I'm good enough to play any other instruments beyond a joking switch instrument thing on stage (laughs). I mean, I can play bass a little bit, so I might be able to play bass in a tribute band or something, but I think that's about as far as that would go for me! (Check out Adrenaline Mob at adrenalinemob.com for all the news and tour dates.)
Andrew is a Los Angeles-based writer who has been running his own website, Metal Assault, since early 2010, and has been prolific in covering the hard rock and heavy metal scene by posting interviews, reviews and pictures on his website -- with the help of a small group of people. Besides being hugely passionate about heavy metal, he is an avid follower of jazz music and recently started a blog called Jazz Explorer to pursue that interest.