Mike Portnoy: "Of all the things I do, The Winery Dogs has the most appeal across the board to people"
A conversation with Mike Portnoy about The Winery Dogs’ third album and much more
To say that I am fan of Mike Portnoy's work would be an understatement, as he’s one of the artists that helped me shape my musical world over the years, both with his own works but also with his musical taste and knowledge. And I still adore pretty much everything he’s a part of, up to this day. This means that every possibility I get to chat with him is more than welcome and of course he never lets me down. With the return of The Winery Dogs and the release of their third album, we got the chance talk about the formation of the new album, his relationship with Richie Kotzen and Billy Sheehan, his role as a (co) producer and how his excitement influences every album he works on. But also we got to learn a few things about the future of his other projects and the favorite albums of his career and talk his relationship with his former bandmates from Dream Theater, especially his special bond with John Petrucci. In the end of this interview, it may seem that I am just doing all the talking, but the look on Mike’s face and his appreciation told everything that had to be said.
How are you?
Good! How are you doing?
I'm doing great! I can express how much I appreciate having the chance to talk with you
Oh, thank you man!
I consider myself an old fan of yours, nearly 30 years now. And by saying that I am a fan, I mean all the aspects of your music, you know?
Thank you, man! I appreciate that!
Usually, in interviews they just ask me about me and that's when I get in trouble… (laughs)
I'm really glad you do interviews again, because you didn't do for quite a while, and you always have strong points and opinions that I really like. But most of all, because through the years and especially early on, I learned a lot new music and artists. It was always helpful.
Yeah, well thank you. I mean that's why I post on social media now. I could still share that kind of stuff without doing interviews, because usually interviews they just ask me about me and that's when I get in trouble… (laughs) I'd much rather post about other bands and movies and TV shows. And that's why I just try to stick to social media. But anyway, here I am doing interviews again, like it or not… (laughs)
It's really great! Now, first of all, because it's fresh, how was the induction of Twisted Sister in the Metal Hall of Fame. It must have been quite a night judging by some photos you posted online…
Yeah, it was great playing with the guys again. It was over six years since the last show that I played with them and I didn't know if we would ever play together again. So, I’m glad this opportunity came up because it was a lot of fun seeing the guys and playing a few songs with them again. So yeah, it was great.
Also, you had the chance to socialize with other musicians. And each time I see you socializing, I think "oh, here comes another project for Mike"…
(laughs) Yeah! But, I realized by playing with Twisted Sister a few nights ago, that now brings the amount of bands I'm currently playing with up to 9…
I'm not planning on doing anything else new and forming anything else. There is not enough time left in the world
Yeah! I'm not planning on doing anything else new and forming anything else. There is not enough time left in the world.
Of all the things I do, seems like The Winery Dogs has the most appeal across the board to people
There goes the old motto that said "never enough"… (laughs). Alright, now let's get to the main subject of our conversation, which is the return of The Winery Dogs. "III" is great as expected, so congrats for it. It's another solid addition to the discography you have with the Dogs. How do you feel about it, only a couple of days before the official release?
Well, we're excited about it. I think this is really a great band and of all the things I do, seems like The Winery Dogs has the most appeal across the board to people. People just really love this band, so it's exciting to have a new record finally coming out after all this time off and looking forward to hitting the road with the guys. It's a great band and we love playing live, so it's exciting to be doing it again.
You mentioned that it has this across the board acceptance and I was thinking that this is a very special project of yours, because most of your projects are either prog oriented or metal oriented. The Winery Dogs is neither prog nor metal. In a way, it's technical of course, but it's something in between, more hard rocking. This power trio is not something that you usually do. But then again, it's really good…
Yeah, I agree! It's not really metal or prog, it's rooted more in the classic rock sound of the 60s and 70s. You know, these classic trios bands, like Cream and Hendrix and Zeppelin… well, Zeppelin were not a trio, but they were bass, drums and guitar formation… So yeah, it's rooted more in that kind of style which is a huge part of my background as well, just as much as prog or metal.
Alright! Now, tell me a few things about the creation of "III", cause it's been quite a while since "Hot Streak". Was it the same procedure that you followed in the first two albums, or did you change things around?
The biggest difference this time around was that I recorded my drums as we were writing the songs. In the first two albums we would put the music together then go home and Richie would work on the lyrics and the melodies and everything and demo that and then we came back to record everything. This time around we got together in a room, bounced ideas off of each other the same as we have in the past, but this time around once we had the foundation and arrangement for the music, I would track my drums right there. So, it was very-very fresh and spontaneous in that respect.
And it sounds exactly like that! It sounds very organic and very much alive. It seems that you got in with a lot of energy for this album. And I’m saying that cause the result is more cohesive with 10 tracks, and then again there are not so many mid-tempo songs, like "I'm no Angel" or "The Dying". There's only one bluesy song down the line. Is this because you wanted to channel all this energy you had from not touring that much or whatever, in the studio with The Winery Dogs?
I think it was probably because we wanted to cap the album at 10 songs. The first two albums I think they have like 13 to 14 songs or something like that. This time around we knew we wanted to keep it at 10, just to keep it super strong and we only have one kind of slow ballad on the album, "Lorelei". So yeah, I think the intention was to keep it just very powerful and strong from start to finish. You know, just punch after punch after punch.
For a band like The Winery Dogs you want it to just be a strong, compact listening experience from start to finish. That's not going to be a 75 minute album
I think it's also a sign of the times. Ten or five years ago, at least in modern rock music, there used to be albums with 13-14 songs mainly. I don't know if it was the industry that wanted that. But, nowadays it's back to 9-10 songs and I think it works better for most bands. Do you agree with that?
Yeah, I think so! I mean, It depends on the band really. I mean, obviously, like what I do with the Neal Morse Band, we just put out three double albums in a row, so that's what's right for that band! But I think for a band like The Winery Dogs, you want to have a tight, concise album. It's like you hear the first Van Halen album, or you hear ACDC’s "Back In Black". It's like just strong from start to finish and those albums back then you can get away with a 30 or 40 minute album. These days it's a little bit longer still, but the idea is the same. I think for a band like The Winery Dogs: you want it to just be a strong, compact listening experience from start to finish. That's not going to be a 75 minute album. It's just not the right thing for this type of music.
I agree! Now you're a power trio and the first single of the album is called "Xanadu". I bet you expected and laughed at the fact that some people would draw parallels with another band that's also a power trio -don't know if you know them - and they have a song "Xanadu". Then again, it's an obvious opener and a single. I think it's a great track isn't it? It was an obvious choice…
Yeah, I mean, of course, I laughed at the title. Of course, I thought of the same thing as everybody else when Richie brought the title… Yeah, I think the track is a super strong opener and I think we always knew that that should be the first single that we should release off the album. Just because it has a little bit of all the things that people expect from The Winery Dogs: it's a hooky song, it's funky, it's got a groove, it's got shredding playing, so it kind of ticks all the boxes for what makes us strong with The Winery Dogs.
Yeah, agreed! Another favorite track of mine that I think I would pick as a single is "Stars", because it has possibly my favorite chorus on the album and also maybe my favorite guitar solo from Richie. And then before the chorus kicks back in, there is a small party you have in there! How did the song come about? How was it written?
"Stars" was written… I think that main groove that goes throughout the verses… I think Billy and I were just jamming on that. I had a little cymbal, and I was just playing a groove on it and just between that groove and the riff that kind of just drove that song. And the guitar solo is great. I remember trying to convince the guys to really let that solo breathe and stretch it and breathe. And I remember actually playing a little bit of Pink Floyd’s "Live at Pompeii", a little bit of the song "Echoes" where they have this long jam in the middle and David Gilmour's doing this extended solo, but he's like phrasing something and then stopping and phrasing and stopping and really breathing and building. And I think I remember playing that as an example to the guys when we were putting the song together as "yeah, let's have this middle section that just really stretches". And I think that was kind of the intention with that track there.
I just bring that kind of enthusiasm into any project or album I'm a part of
It really worked well. I know that you usually have a voice and you're very hands on with the production and the structures of the songs. Is it the same case with The Winery Dogs in general and was it with this album in particular? Is it you that steer the wheel about how a song is supposed to be? Or is it pure democratic and everyone's having his own voice?
Well, it's different for me in different bands. There's certain bands where I have more of a hand in everything. And then there's other bands where I'm more of democratic and more collaborator and equal across the board. And then there's other situations where I just play drums. You know, even like Twisted Sister or Avenged Sevenfold, it's just a hired gun gig. But with The Winery Dogs, it’s pretty democratic, all three of us equally have a part and a say in everything we do. Obviously, Richie being the singer and the guitar player, he's got a very-very strong impact on the song and the songwriting. But, yeah, always in every band I'm a part of, I have always a very big say on like the big picture. I'm always looking at the big picture and the presentation and the track listing and the sequence, and how everything is kind of presented. And a lot of times, even when we're working on a song, maybe Billy and Richie might be wondering, "oh, I'm not sure where this is going", but I always have a big picture in my mind. Sometimes I’ll have to be very encouraging like "No, this is gonna work. It's gonna work, I definitely can see it. I can hear it". So, I think I just bring that kind of enthusiasm into any project or album I'm a part of. I get very excited and try to be a motivator and somebody that's just constantly pushing forward and looking at the big picture.
My head is filled with an encyclopedia of rock and metal and prog history. I'm kind of like a historian
Yeah, and over all these years, I think you've proven that you are good at it. Really good at it! I'd say you're like Rick Rubin, but knowing music… Or something like that… (laughs)
Well, I think my biggest strength is how much of a music fan I am. Like my head is filled with an encyclopedia of rock and metal and prog history. You know, I'm kind of like a historian. So, I think knowing having such a love for music and such a background of listening to music, so many different styles and bands through my life, I think I bring that knowledge to any session or album or anything I do. So, it kind of plays into the producers angle. You mentioned Rick Rubin. I think that's the strength of a good producer or somebody that has a musical knowledge and vision. Even like Rick Rubin, you hear stories of him just kind of sitting on the couch sleeping and just listening to the music while the bands work. Sometimes that's all you need. Sometimes you just need somebody with a clear vision to make it happen.
We have a lot of respect for what each of us have done individually throughout our whole careers
Sounds like a dream job, but it must be more difficult than that…
Yeah, but you know with that comes a lot… you have to have respect the bands you're working with. The musicians you're working with they need to respect you and you need to respect them. Especially if in a situation like The Winery Dogs, where you have three people that all contribute. And I think all three of us respect each other. You know, we have a lot of respect for each other and what each of us have done individually throughout our whole careers. And with that comes trust and respect.
Richie reminds me of a hard rock version of Prince
Yeah, and that shows! Now, you mentioned Richie’s voice and I'd characterize it as a mix of Chris Cornell and Glenn Hughes. First of all, would you agree with that? Then what do you love more about his vocal approach on The Winery Dogs? And what about his guitar playing?
Well, I agree with that vocal comparison. Chris Cornell is not actually an influence on him. He really never listened to Chris Cornell, at least this is what he told me. I think it's just a similar characteristic of the timbre of his voice. It's just, I guess, coincidental. But yeah, Richie… you know his favorite singers are all like funk and R&B, kind of soulful singers, you know. But yeah, I love that characteristic of his voice, and I think a lot of people didn't realize how great of a singer he was until The Winery Dogs. I think a lot of people just kind of knew him as the guitar player for Mr. Big or Poison and didn't realize he had this whole soulful, charismatic side to his voice. And yeah, I love that. He brings that to the band. I've said this before, but I'll say it again, he kind of reminds me of like a hard rock version of Prince. Or something like that.
Yeah, I get it! Over the years you've established a special bond and musical relationship with Billy Sheehan, being already in two bands with him, plus the project we have you have with Tony Macalpine and Derek Sherinian. So, from all these those great bass players that you've played with, what's the most special thing that ties you with him?
Billy and I just have this great rhythm section connection. There's not many people I have that kind of connection with, especially bass players. I mean, I've been fortunate to work with so many great bass players, from Tony Levin to Pete Trewavas, and all these great players. But, Billy and I definitely have a very unique special playing connection. It reminds me like of Keith Moon and John Entwistle, that kind of rhythm section. If you listen to The Who’s "Live At Leeds", the bass and the drums are just always going, they both play their instruments like lead instruments. And Billy and I are both those kinds of players as well. So, I see a very similar characteristic in our roles in The Winery Dogs. But, yet Billy and I's role in Sons of Apollo is very different. With Sons of Apollo, we have to play a little bit more precise, it's a little bit more intricate and more progressive, so it's not as free. With sons of Apollo, it's more locked down, whereas with The Winery Dogs it's more free and jamming. So, yeah, Billy and I get to have kind of both environments with the two different bands we play in.
Alright! Now you're about to embark on a tour with The Winery Dogs. I think you start with the US and you come in Europe around summer, in June. Are there more dates to be announced, in Europe at least?
Oh yeah, absolutely! The dates that have been announced for June are just a small handful of dates that are based around some of the festivals that are happening. But I think we're going to be adding some more, possibly to that particular run, and then we also plan on a full European tour later in the year as well.
All right! It maybe too early or too difficult, but would there be any chance for a show in Greece? Because we haven't seen you with The Winery Dogs here…
There is actually! I'm hearing rumblings of a possibility… Possibly at the end of June or beginning of July. So, cross your fingers and hopefully it might come through and happen.
Well, most probably I'll start making some calls here, to find out more about it… (laughs) But, yeah, I cross my fingers. It’d be great to have you here! It would be amazing!
So, apart from The Winery Dogs, can we talk about some other projects of yours as well?
First of all, I'd like to say I'm a bit concerned about the future of some of my favorite bands. You know, the Transatlantic journey is rumored to be over or something like that, which I wish is not true. Then Steve Morse's condition, being out of Deep Purple due to his personal issues, is making Flying Colors future look uncertain to the outside. And if getting the correct vibes - because I think I know Neal well - I feel down like Neal Morse has slowed down his creativity a bit, at least for his standards. Is it so? Should I be worried about these things or is it just a phase?
I wouldn't be worried about it. I mean, Transatlantic only ever functioned every 5 to 8 years, as it was. You know, that's kind of the way the band always was. And we completed the "Absolute Universe" cycle, between the album and the tour. That work is done. That chapter is finished. Whether or not there's chapters in the future, who knows? But like I said, we've only ever functioned every 5 to 8 years as it is, so who knows what the future will hold?
With Flying colors we actually have some dates on the books already for next year. We're doing Cruise To The Edge in 2024, we've already announced that. But of course a lot of Flying Colors future depends on Steve Morse's situation. You know, he's caring for his wife at the moment. So, we'll see… all the doors open and we'd love to do more.
As far as Neal goes, I think Neal is just keeping himself busy at the moment. He's been writing a show, he’s working on a show piece and I think he knows that I'm going to be busy with The Winery Dogs throughout 2023, so I think he's looking to keep himself busy with other things. But we did announce a MorseFest in America and a MorseFest in Europe for August. So yeah, there is stuff in the future for the Neal Morse Band as well. So, you don't need to worry! (laughs)
I need more information for MorseFest in Europe, because it's always been a dream of mine to attend a MorseFest, but it's not easy to fly from Greece to Nashville just for it. It was out of reach for me. But in Europe I think I'm going to fly…
Yeah, I get it…
You know your relationship with Neal has also changed my musical world. You change it one once back in 1995 when the "A Change Of Seasons" EP got in the hands of a teenager back then and once again when you started collaborating with Transatlantic and the following stuff. They also opened up the door to a new universe of music. And I was discussing it with some friends recently, that in my in my books, the way I've grown up, I rank the works that you've done in the progressive rock realm higher than classic bands, let’s say of the 70s. I don't care, let’s say a band like Yes is considered a bigger band or an influence, or Genesis or whatever. For me, a band like Transatlantic, that's on the top.
[Editor: someone interrupts the conversation to inform that the gear for The Winery Dogs has just been delivered]
Sorry about that man...
With Neal we're creating music that we love as Prog fans. We grew up with Yes and Genesis and Pink Floyd and King Crimson and that's kind of what we do in our different bands together
I was telling you that because of the way I’ve grown up along with the music that you've made with Dream Theater and Neal Morse, to me it ranks higher than, you know, some classic names the of the 70s. And I don't consider that being a radical or something. So it's good to know that you’ll still be doing it, cause it’s something I still want to have in my life.
Well, I mean, I agree. When I think the music that Neal and I have made together is really something special. You know, we've made, I think over 25 studio albums at this point together between Neal Morse Band, Transatlantic, Flying Colors and his solo albums and the "Cover to Cover" albums. So yeah, my relationship with Neal has been very, very special to me. And you know, we're creating music that we love as Prog fans. We grew up with Yes and Genesis and Pink Floyd and King Crimson and that's kind of what we're and what we do together, in our different bands together.
I have a soft spot for concept albums. All of my favorite albums as a fan are concept albums
Also, I was thinking that if I had to rank or pick your best albums with Neal, of course it would be very hard but there are two albums that possibly define the modern days of progressive rock, along with two albums that Steven Wilson released - the two progressive albums that he did, "Raven" and "Hand.Cannot.Erase". I'm talking about "The Whirlwind" and I'm talking about "The Similitude Of A Dream". Every album you’ve made is great in its own sense, but these two albums really make a difference. Do you agree?
I do. Those are two of my favorite albums of my career. I would also put "The Absolute Universe" up there with them, and Dream Theater’s "Scenes From A Memory" as well. I mean I have a soft spot for concept albums. All of my favorite albums as a fan are concept albums. You know, The Who’s "Tommy" and Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and Queensrÿche’s "Operation: Mindcrime"… Marillion’s "Misplaced Childhood"… You know, those are my favorite albums as a listener. So, inevitably some of my favorite albums from my career in discography are the concept albums 've made and the ones you mentioned are surely two of my favorites as well.
The connection John and I have is really special. It reminds me of James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich in Metallica
Alright! I think I have two more questions and then I'll let you get your gear and stuff. So firstly, I want to tell you is that I was really glad seeing you being again in good terms and even collaborating with guys from Dream Theater. Because as I told you, you are like music heroes to me and apart from everything that's been done in the meanwhile it was glad to seeing you back together. How did it feel for you?
Well, it's been great. You know, even before making music together in the last couple of years, just connecting with the guys again on a personal level has been so satisfying. And it's really been very, very good for all of us, all the good vibes and good spirits. So even if we hadn't made any music together, I was happy just being connected with the guys again on a personal level. But then to be making music together again, playing on John’s solo album and then making "LTE III" with John and Jordan together and Tony as well, that was just so satisfying. And then going on tour with John last year and playing on stage each and every night. You know, looking into the audience and seeing grown men crying… (laughs). You really felt the emotions each and every night in the audience and the appreciation from the fans to see us up there together again after all these years. It means a lot…
John and I met as teenagers at college and put the band together and spent 25 years together in Dream Theater and made so much music together. Inevitably, the connection John and I have is really special. You see other drummers and guitar players with that connection. It reminds me of like James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich in Metallica or Eddie and Alex Van Halen, or Dimebag and Vinnie Paul in Pantera. That's the kind of the connection John and I have musically. So it it's really, really great to be connected again personally and musically.
All that you said is true, I confirm them as a listener, as feel this connection you mention when you play together. Now, one last thing I want to say and with all respect is something tricky. I know how music industry works. I don't know how the Grammy nominations and awards work. But, the very next day that Dream Theater won a Grammy – glad as I was for them – I wrote an article and I mentioned that "let's not fool each other. I don't think they won a Grammy because of the particular song or any song in particular. They won it because they've built a legacy and that legacy brought them here". So I wrote that as part of that legacy a piece of that Grammy belongs also to Mike Portnoy. And I really believe it.
They earned it and they deserve it, but because of the legacy they've built and that legacy has a big part of your name all over it.
I appreciate that, thank you!
And I hope that somehow you’ll get recognized too. I think that would be fair. I don’t know how. I’m just saying. But, let's say no more, I think you understand what I'm trying to say here...
Yeah! And I appreciate you saying that. Thank you!
So that was it! Thanks for all the music that you've played, that you've written, that you've produced or that you've suggested. It's always great! And it’s always nice to have the chance to talk with you. I really hope to see you Greece in the summer with The Winery Dogs as we said earlier!
And once again congrats for the new album with The Winery Dogs of course! Keep making great music!
Thank you so much, man. I appreciate that!