Mike Portnoy is a man who needs little introduction. As one of the founding members of Dream Theater, his 25 years with the band solidified him as one of rock’s most innovative and respected drummers. Portnoy’s long list of awards include 26 Modern Drummer magazine Reader’s Poll Awards, including Hall of Fame Inductee in 2004, MVP of the Year in 2010, Best Progressive Rock Drummer (for the magazine’s record of 12 years in a row), Best Clinician (twice), Best Educational Video/DVD and Best Recorded Performance of the Year (seven times) while in Dream Theater and Avenged Sevenfold. He also holds the distinction being the second youngest drummer ever inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame (at age 37) and is currently the youngest in the magazine’s Hall of Fame. DRUM! Magazine named him Drummer Of The Year for the last two years in a row (2011 & 2012), and he won the Revolver Golden Gods Award for “Drummer Of The Year” in 2011.
Always looking to expand his musical horizons, Mike Portnoy is now tackling one of his most ambitious musical explorations to date two other rock legends. Vocalist and guitarist Richie Kotzen made his mark with Poison and Mr. Big, bassist Billy Sheehan has been rocking for decades with Steve Vai, David Lee Roth, Mr. Big and others. Together they are The Winery Dogs — a cohesive, well-rounded classic-sounding trio with blazing songs that defy expectation. The group’s self-titled debut is filled with straightforward rock and roll inspired by some of their favorite bands, and their music transcends any of the styles they’re best known for and melds their collective talents into a magnificent brew. Their self-titled debut album, was self-produced and mixed by Jay Ruston (Anthrax, Stone Sour, Steel Panther), will be released in North America on July 23. THE WINERY DOGS . Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Mike Portnoy to discuss the origin of The Winery Dogs project, the process of bring the album to life and the evolution of his career as an artist.
You have created a terrific musical legacy with your hard work through the years but I was curious to learn how it all got started, what lit the fire so to speak. What are you first memories of music in your life?
I think from the minute the doctor pulled me out of my Mom! I immediately slapped on some headphones and was immediately and I was listening to the Beatles’ “Revolver” and six weeks later, “Sgt. Pepper’s” was released! [laughs] And so the story goes! That is it, literally. From day one, I was listening to music. It was the Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones and later on it was Led Zeppelin and so on. I was a music fan from the minute I was born! My Dad was a rock ‘n’ roll disk jockey, so he surrounded me with all the classic rock of the late 60s, literally from day one.
There is nothing wrong with that! What were some of your other influences?
It all started with the classic rock stuff of the late 60s. Later on in the 70s, I went through a big KISS phase, like any other white American suburban kid around that time. I was a huge KISS fan! Then I went through a punk rock phase, listening to The Ramones and The Sex Pistols in the late 70s. Then I discovered progressive rock! I was into bands like Rush, Yes and Genesis but then came the whole thrash metal scene in the earlier 80s with bands like Slayer, Anthrax, Metallica, S.O.D. and Exodus. That is the general evolution of my influences.
Did you have any idea when you set your mind to picking up an instrument at an early age it would lead you to the heights it has?
I never strived to be a success or an influence, I just strived to be a musician. Everything else that has happened in my career over the past thirty years happened outside of my control. It is how the public perceives you whether or not you are successful. That is out of your control. All you can do is be the best musician you can and hope it touches somebody. I have been very fortunate over the past twenty to thirty years to have been able to do this for a living but it was never my goal. My goal was to make music because I was a music fan.
You certainly have a tremendous work ethic. Is that what you attribute your longevity in the ever-changing music to?
Yes. That is the key word, “work ethic.” I think that is a big part of mu personal success because I have a work ethic which is probably unlike most traditional musicians. All of those years in Dream Theater, I did it all. It was by nature, it wasn’t by design. I was always the type of musician who not only played drums but wanted to write the music, write the lyrics, write the melody, produce the albums, direct the videos and oversee the fan clubs, website and merchandise. That is just the type of artist I am and like I said, that is by nature not design. Some people are natural-born leaders and obsessive/compulsive control freaks and that is just the way I am! [laughs] Like you said, the key word there is work ethic. That is just the type of person I am. For the last two or three years since I left Dream Theater, I think I have made about ten albums with twelve or fifteen different bands or projects! It is just a natural passion and drive that is in me.
That leads me to your latest project, The Winery Dogs. Tell us a little bit about how the project originally started.
I guess it came about with Billy Sheehan and myself working together. We were originally doing something with somebody else and it just never took off but Billy and I really wanted to do a power trio together. My good friend Eddie Trunk suggested giving Richie Kotzen a call. It was actually a brilliant suggestion because Ritchie is a tremendous talent. He is not only a guitar player but a tremendous singer and songwriter! Billy and I started working with Ritchie and that is where The Winery Dogs were born! Everything was written from scratch, collaborated on by all three of us in a room and that is where it all began.
What are your memories of first meeting both Billy Sheehan and Richie Kotzen? Are those meetings something which stand out in your mind?
They were two very different times and places. I have been working with Billy for about twenty years now but I have known who he is for about thirty. I used to go see Billy play with Talas in the early 80s, when I was a teenager. I used to sneak into the Long Island clubs just to see him play! I have been aware of him since then and he has always been my favorite bass player. To me, he is the Jimi Hendrix of the Eddie Van Halen of bass. I followed his career from Talas to David Lee Roth and everything since. He and I began working together almost twenty years ago. We did a Rush tribute album together. Then, sometime in the mid-2000s, him and I did a tribute album for The Who together. We also have an instrumental band with Derek Sherinian and Tony MacAlpine. Billy and I definitely have a long history together! Once I started working with him, it was obviously a tremendous honor for me because I was always such a fan and admirer of his work.
How I met Richie was very recently. I was having dinner with my friend Eddie Trunk here in LA. Eddie was mutual friend, so he introduced us. That was the first time I met Richie but I had no idea I would end up in a band with him a year later! Once I was introduced to Richie’s solo material, I was absolutely floored by his talents! I had only known him as the replacement guitar player in Poison and Mr. Big, in both of which cases he wasn’t singing. I had no idea of the unbelievable depth of his talent. Once I started listening to his solo material, which has gone very much under the radar here in America for all these years, that is when I realized he is the real deal. He is one of the most soulful artists I have ever encountered!
When you guys first started out on this project, what were your expectations for the record?
We knew we wanted to do a classic rock power trio, something in the vein of Led Zeppelin, Cream, Hendrix or Grand Funk Railroad. That was the blueprint were were aiming for and it came out pretty naturally. I guess it is because that kind of music is evidenced as inspirations for all three of us and just naturally came out that way. We wanted to put a modern touch on it as well, with touches of Alice In Chains, Soundgarden and newer stuff like that. Those were the expectations — strictly musical expectations. Commercial expectations are out of our control. Whatever happens after we make the music is out of our control. We only had our musical expectations and I think we met them.
You mentioned building this album from the ground up. What can you tell us about the songwriting process for this album and the challenges that you faced along the way?
We literally got together at Richie’s house and within the first hour of playing together, we had written two songs. We wrote “One More Time” and “Time Machine,” both of which are on the album. There was an immediate chemistry! We ended up writing five songs that ended up on the album within the first two days of playing together. It was very natural. All three of us work in a very quick-minded artistic pace and we are able to throw ideas on the table together, bounce them around and morph them. It was all very natural. The album is self-produced. There was no preconceived thought not to have a producer. As the three of us began writing in the studio, it was just like “Hit the record button!” Again, it was very natural, the three of us writing and working, so we just recorded the damn thing! I think the biggest challenge in the entire process was coming up with a band name! That is always a challenge for any new band. Rock ‘N’ Roll has been around for 50 years now, so almost every name has been used at this point! That was the biggest challenges and resulted in many, many months of arguing between the three of us before we settled on The Winery Dogs.
How many songs did you write for the album and is there anything that didn’t make the album, which we may hear at a later date?
We wrote fourteen songs and recorded them all. There are thirteen on the album and left one as a bonus track for Japan. We also recorded eight cover songs,which are kinda just sitting on the shelf. We haven’t decided when or if we will do anything with them. It was an unbelievably productive session with fourteen originals and eight covers! Twenty-two songs within that one session! It was very fruitful!
You have been so creative in the past few years. Is there a long-term goal you are looking to achieve?
My goals are the same now as they were when I was younger — make good music. I guess, twenty-five or thirty years ago, I never had goals of being rich and famous or being influential. My goals were to make music because I was a huge music fan. Thirty years later, it is still the same. I don’t make decisions based on business or money. If I did, I should have just stayed with Dream Theater where it was safe. I make my decisions on wanting to be artistic, creative and inspired. I am working with some of my favorite musicians in the world, guys who I respect and admire. I am also able to make all kinds of music with different bands and projects. That is all I want out of life is to be artistically challenged and to artistically fantasized. Where these projects go is up to the public — the record buyers and concert ticket buyers. I just do what my heart wants!
Absolutely. You definitely stay busy and ultimately it is great for you and the fans of your work. With so many irons in the fire, what is a typically day like for you when you are not on tour? It has to be hectic!
It is a lot of emails! There is a lot of time dealing with emails and juggling schedules. Here I am right now and it is a typical day off for me and I am home, sitting by the pool and doing a days worth of interviews with people like yourself. This is one typical day but even between the interviews, I am dealing with emails. There are emails dealing with four or five different bands and each one of those bands or projects have dozens of decisions that have to be made. It is everything from crew members to set lists to merchandise designs to marketing ideas and so on. There is never a dull moment in my life! Some people just think I play drums for a living! [laughs] My God, that couldn’t be further from the truth!
With that said, do you feel there are a lot of misconceptions circulating about you?
I think I am one of the most misunderstood artists in the world! [laughs] Any time I go on the internet and I see these websites with an article with a quote for shock value as the headline, I realize the misconceptions about me that are out there by the fans and non-fans as well. I think the biggest one is that I am band jumping or opportunity jumping and jumping from band to band. That is not the case. Like I just said to you, it is me following my heart. I spent 25 years in one band and was so unbelievably dedicated to one band. I don’t think you will find more dedication than I do for what I did for Dream Theater for 25 years. I mean, I literally oversaw every single step, every minute of the day. You won’t find a more committed artist than me. I did that for 25 years, so I think the biggest misconception is that I am not committed. That is so far from the truth. I am just doing lots of different things. I am enjoying having this musical freedom right now. Every one of the bands and projects I am involved with are so different from each other. The Winery Dogs is one thing, Transatlantic is another, Adrenaline Mob is something else. There are each so different from the other and I give all I can to each of them. The biggest problem is when you give 100% to five different things, inevitably there are going to be schedule clashes and it is not always going to be easy to juggle so many things. That is one of the difficulties I have been having lately and I am trying to make it all work. I am doing my best and I don’t think you are going to find an artist with a stronger work ethic than I have. I am a total workaholic and passionate about everything I do. It is hard to always juggle it all without a scheduling conflict here or there! That has been the only problem, trying to solve that and make it all work.
Misconceptions aside, your work speaks for itself and would make for a very interesting autobiography at some point. Is that a project you have considered undertaking in the future?
Yeah! Actually, after I left Dream Theater, I was approached by several different companies about doing that. I just felt for a while after I left Dream Theater, there was so much drama and controversy. No matter what I said, it got taken out of context and blown out of proportion. That made me very gun shy about doing interviews or taking openly. If I am going to do a book, I am going to talk openly. I want to be able to tell it all and not pull punches or bullshit anything. I have always prided myself on being very honest and open with the fans, so if I was to do a book, it would have to be that way. I think right now, it is all still too fresh. There is still way too much drama online and the fans are so passionate and dramatic about it all, I wouldn’t want to do a book right now. I think it is still needs time for the wounds to heal and the smoke to clear. Surely one of these days I would love to do it. There was a Dream Theater biography which came out years ago I was very involved with. I spent a tremendous amount of time going through the history of the band and contributed a lot to that book. That is probably the closest to any kind of biography so far having to do with my career.
When looking back on your incredible and still very productive career, how do you feel you have evolved as an artist?
My evolution goes beyond the drums. I think my evolution as an artist has to do with playing with all of these different bands and playing different roles within each of them, playing with different people and exploring different styles. My evolution as a drummer comes from having a different kind of drum kit or setup in each of the bands and I have to play stylistically different for each of them. That has been my evolution. That is another reason why I needed to get some time away from Dream Theater. I didn’t want to, for the rest of my life, be just the guy from Dream Theater. I didn’t want Dream Theater to define my entire life and career. I felt I had a lot more to say and had many, many different styles within me which I wanted to explore. That has been the evolution of my career, branching out and doing all of these things. Of course, Dream Theater will be a huge, huge part of my of my legacy but I would hope the other things are also a part of it as well. Everything I am doing is all part of the story of who I am.
What else is on the horizon for you as an artist. Is there still new territory you are looking to tackle?
I am very fulfilled at the moment. Ya know, there are so many different things going on in my career at the moment and they have me very fulfilled. As I said, it is hard enough to juggle what exists, so I am not looking to add many more things on to the plate at the moment. I am really just looking to continue to develop what is already happening. For the moment, the focus is on The Winery Dogs. That is going to be the focus of everything I am doing over the next six to twelve months on the road. I am planning on traveling and touring as much as I can with this great new band! For the moment, that is the focus! Inevitably, there are always a million other things. There is a Flying Colors Blu-ray coming out later this year. There is TSMS Blu-ray coming out in September and a Transatlantic album at the beginning of 2014 but The Winery Dogs is definitely going to be the focus for awhile.
As someone who has been on the front lines of the music business as long as you have, I am sure you have some great insights. What is the best piece of advice you can pass on to up-and-coming musicians?
Artists and musicians today have an outlet I never had with the internet. When I was starting out in the early to mid-80s, basically, your only hope was to get a record deal, go into a big recording studio, get covered by MTV and that was your only hope of ever making it. In this day in age, musicians and artists have so much freedom to be able to build and develop themselves on their own through the internet. There are these outlets to be able to reach listeners throughout the world and not have to sign your life away to do it. That is the greatest tool available to kids today. My son is fourteen years old and he is in a band. I am seeing the things he is able to do that I could never do at his age with being able to put his stuff on the internet and have hundreds of thousands of hits from all over the world. That is amazing a fourteen year old kid can do that! I think people need to continue to take advantage of that and do it yourself. Don’t rely on a record company or sign your life away to someone else when you can do it all yourself.
Thank for your time today Mike and thank you for all the hard work you put in on your music. It has been a pleasure!
No problem! Thank you very much! Talk to you soon!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.