The Urban Dictionary defines a nut-swinger as 'someone who hangs from someone else's nuts; someone who follows ever move they make'. Although such a description may ultimately lack originality and specificity, it does, for better or worse, accurately summarize my feelings for former Adrenaline Mob, Avenged Sevenfold and Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy. In fact, for as long as I can remember, I've been a disturbingly-dedicated follower of the mulch-instrumentalist's distinctive delivery. While I may have become temporarily disenfranchised during his less-than-amicable departure from previously-mentioned Progressive Metal icons Dream Theater, I continued to find solace amid my well-worn copy of Falling Into Infinity (1997). Not surprisingly, I now find myself utterly intrigued with the oft-stunning self-titled debut from The Winery Dogs.
Todd: How were The Winery Dogs formed? Am I correct in understanding John Sykes was originally involved?
Mike Portnoy: “That's not totally correct. (ex-David Lee Roth/Mr. Big/Talas bassist) Billy (Sheehan) and I were working with (ex-Blue Murder/Thin Lizzy/Whitesnake guitarist) John Sykes on something completely different, so it's not fair to say that John was actually involved in any way with The Winery Dogs. Billy and I were working with John on something else, which was basically John's material and it never took off. It just kind of sat there and nothing ever happened with it. ...Billy and I wanted to do something together, so Billy and I started looking elsewhere and that's when my friend (That Metal Show host) Eddie (Trunk) suggested giving (ex-Mr. Big/Poison guitarist) Richie Kotzen a call. The Winery Dogs as we know it didn't actually begin until me, Billy, and Richie got together at Richie's house and began writing the music from scratch, the three of us all together.”
Todd: Was the chemistry between everyone immediate or was it something that needed time to fully take flight?
Mike:”It was absolutely immediate. I have video of it. We literally went into Richie's studio and within three minutes, we were already writing the first song. Within the first hour, we already had two of the songs that ended up on the album written. It was just that the chemistry was immediate, personally and musically. The songs just flowed out naturally. The bond between the three of us were so really apparent right from the get go.”
Todd: How did you initially become involved with Billy Sheehan? Were you a fan of his work prior to becoming his bandmate? I seem to remember you working with him on a Magna Carta Records tribute project...
Mike: “My history with Billy probably begins in the early '80s when I was a teenager. I used to sneak into Long Island (New York) clubs to see him play with Talas. I was aware of him with Talas and how he was like the Eddie Van Halen of bassists. Every time I would always see Talas, my mind would be blown by what he was doing. I had never seen a bass player play the instrument like that before, so I was a fan of his before I was a friend and collaborator. I continued to follow his career once he went to David Lee Roth's band and so on and so forth. ...He and I began working together in the mid '90s and through the years we've done many things together. We did a Rush tribute album (Working Man: A Tribute To Rush, 1996) together. That's when I worked with him for the first time. Then we did a The Who tribute band along with (Mr. Big guitarist) Paul Gilbert and (Extreme/ex-Van Halen vocalist) Gary Cherone in 2006 and we also had an instrumental band with (guitarist) Tony MacAlpine, so we have this long relationship where we have now worked together for twenty years now.”
Todd: What ultimately led to your departure from Adrenaline Mob? Was it mainly caused by scheduling issues?
Mike: “I guess it's been the danger of juggling so many things. ...Over the last three years since I left Dream Theater, I've been fortunate to be able to juggle them all successfully, but there was always the possibility that the time would come where there was too much to juggle and I guess I finally reached that boiling point. Basically, I spent the last year or so committed to Adrenaline Mob, touring with the band and doing whatever was needed but now, with The Winery Dogs album coming out, I needed to give my attention to that. We already have four months booked on the road and Adrenaline Mob still wanted to pursue shows, touring and recording. It was just a schedule conflict, ya know? They were still out there playing, but I had to move on and do the next thing on my schedule. It was a matter of a scheduling conflict, with me biting off more than I could chew. I really tried my best to juggle it all all the time, but at some point, something just had to give, ya know?”
Todd: How hard was it for you to walk away from the group after investing so much time and energy into it all?
Mike: “It was hard. Contrary to what some of the online trolls say, I'm a tremendously dedicated and committed person. Obviously, my twenty-five years with Dream Theater prove that. I am a very dedicated and committed person and I give my all to everything I do. It was hard to walk away from Adrenaline Mob because I really liked what we did together, but I can only be in so many places at once, ya know? I did my best to juggle it all, but inevitably there's going to be these scheduling conflicts. It's just the way the circumstances kind of unwound. It's unfortunate, but I don't want to hold those guys back. If they want to continue to develop the band and continue to work, I'm not going to hold them back and make them wait. ...It's just the way that it had to be.”
Todd: Based on who is involved with The Winery Dogs, do you consider yourselves a legitimate 'Super Group'?
Mike: “That's not for us to coin that term and call ourselves that but, I have inevitably seen that term thrown around. I guess any time you have guys coming from different bands or guys with different career credibility coming together, that term is going to be coined. It is a super group. I will say that! It's definitely super. I think what me, Billy, and Richie have together is so very special. ...I can't wait to bring it to people around the world.”
Todd: How did the Portnoy, Sheehan, MacAlpine And Sherinian project come together? That's quite the line-up!Was it something that happened organically? I'm definitely looking forward to checking out the new live DVD...
Mike: “A live album was released on September 3rd on DVD, Blu-Ray, and CD. It's from the tour that we did last year. The way that project came about was that I was asked to do some drum shows at the beginning of 2012. I think it was a show for Sabian cymbals and then another show for the Guitar Center Drum-Off. In both of those cases, they wanted me to put together a band or a project that performed at these shows. I had the idea of assembling Billy Sheehan, Tony MacAlpine and (ex-Dream Theater keyboardist) Derek Sherinian. It was a line-up that just came to me. I thought it would be an amazing line-up for an instrumental band, plus all four of us had ties with each other through the years. Obviously, Derek and I had played in Dream Theater together and Billy and Tony played together in Planet X and on Tony's solo albums and Billy. ...There were these common threads between all four of us, so it seemed like a very natural line-up to assemble. We did two shows in L.A. at the beginning of the year and once word got out about that and when the videos started surfacing on YouTube, we got all these offers to do these tours in Europe and in southeast Asia and Japan. Once the offers came in, we said 'You know what? This is a great band and a fun project so, let's go out and do it'. We spent a couple months touring and the Blu-Ray/DVD that came out in September is one of the final shows that we did while in Tokyo.”
Todd: At this point, have there been any serious discussions regarding the project recording a full-length album?
Mike: “When we did the tour together, obviously we talked about it and it was something we were constantly asked about. It's something surely the four of us would be interested in, it's just a matter of timing. Obviously, right now Billy and I are very focused on The Winery Dogs. It's probably going to be well into next year that we're going to be working and touring with The Winery Dogs, so that's the focus for now but who knows? Once our collective schedule winds down, who knows what will happen? It's surely a possibility. ...I never say never.”
Todd: Was opting to work with Loud & Proud Records a natural choice after your experience with Roadrunner?
Mike: “It was absolutely a natural choice. I loved working with Roadrunner for all those years while I was with Dream Theater. I was always one of the record company liaisons. I worked very closely with a lot of people at Roadrunner for all those years and developed a great relationship with the label on an artistic level. Ever since we've been Dream Theater, I kind of wanted to continue working with the Roadrunner people with any of my bands and projects. ...I was hoping that one of them would land there and I'm happy that The Winery Dogs did.”
Todd: At this point in your career, do you find yourself attempting to further develop your drumming techniques? While it's obvious you're already a very accomplished musician, do you still find yourself learning?
Mike: “Not really. I don't care about technique. I never have and I don't think I ever will. Technique is not important to me; passion is what is important to me and passion isn't something you can learn or practice. It's just the way I've always been. I've always been the drummer that I am just because I love music. I listen to drummers like Keith Moon (The Who) and Ringo Starr (The Beatles) who don't really have very good technique, but they speak to me and they move me. And then there's drummers like Neil Peart (Rush) and who do have a great technique and I've learned a lot from them. I've studied them in the context of the music they've made. I never really studied them in terms of the rudiments that they played or the way they held their drumsticks. That stuff doesn't concern me. I am more interested in making music with other great musicians and exploring and going beyond the drums. I've always been somebody that's been concerned with every aspect of making music, not only the drumming. All those years I was in Dream Theater, I was also part of writing the music, writing the lyrics and the melodies, Producing the albums, directing the videos and overseeing the websites and the fan clubs and the merchandise. To me, that's all part of what being an artist is all about. It's not just about playing your instrument. To answer your question, am I still developing as a drummer? I'm developing because I'm working with so many other great bands and so many other great styles. That's what continues to inspire me to continue trying new things, ya know? Every time I play with a different artist, musician or a different band, it inspires me to travel to new places musically, but not in terms of any technique.”
Todd: Taking into consideration your current schedule, when can we all expect new material from Transatlantic?
Mike: “The will be a new Transatlantic album, which will be our fourth. It's coming out at the beginning of next year. We finished recording it a couple months ago. We'll probably do some dates around that and we've also began the groundwork for a new Flying Colors album as well, but because everybody's schedules are so busy, especially (guitarist) Steve (Morse) with Deep Purple, we can only do a little bit at a time with that band. Who knows when the follow-up record will come with that one. But in the meantime, we do have a live Flying Colors Blu-Ray/DVD/CD (Live In Europe) that's coming out later this year from the tours that we did last year.”
Todd: You obviously maintain a very rigorous touring schedule. Is it difficult to balance touring and family life?
Mike: “Yes, but my wife and my kids are kind of used to it because as long as I've been married to my wife and as long as my kids have been alive, this is kind of the life I've always led and the schedule I've always kept. We're all kind of used to it, ya know? It is kind of difficult and I try to be home as much as I can. When I'm on the road, I try to bring them out as much as I can but, to be completely honest, I think it actually works for us, especially for my wife and myself. I think if I was home all the time, I'd probably make her crazy, so I think in our case, absence does make the heart grow fonder. This schedule does actually work with us, believe it or not.”
Todd: As far as the songwriting is concerned, was it a group effort or did one member dominate all the sessions?
Mike: “It really is a mix from everybody. All three of us collaborated on everything, really. There's two songs on the album that were Richie's that we just left alone because they were great as is. Those were “Damaged” and “Regret”, but other than those two, the remaining twelve that we wrote together were truly collaborated on by the three of us. With Richie being the guitar player and the vocalist, a lot of it stemmed from him, but inevitably me and Billy would get involved and twist it and turn it and morph it into what it ultimately became. We changed a chord here or there, an idea there or a riff or a melody. ...We worked on all of that stuff together.”
Todd: How involved were you in the writing of the lyrics? Did you contribute to the vast majority of the material? You obviously established yourself as a quite prolific lyricist during your tenure with Dream Theater...
Mike: “Actually, I only wrote lyrics for the “You Saved Me”. The rest of the lyrics were written by Richie. I actually had no intention of writing any lyrics, to be honest. In fact, after I left Dream Theater, I wasn't sure if I'd ever write lyrics again. Even before I left Dream Theater, I felt that I had kind of said everything I wanted to say. The last two songs I wrote for Dream Theater were “The Shadow That Tortured Us”, which was the end of my twelve step suite and “The Best Of Times”, which was the song for my Dad who had passed away. I really felt that with the last Dream Theater album that I had really said everything that I wanted to say and I thought I'd be done. But then when we started doing The Winery Dogs album, there was one song that musically spoke to me and inspired me. I went 'You know what? I may have something I want to say that goes with this song', so I wrote the lyrics and melody to “You Saved Me”, which I basically wrote as a thank you to my wife for all of her support in standing by me the last couple years that have been filled with change and transition in my life. I really did write it was a thank you to my family. ...At the end of the day, family is forever, ya know? These bands, the business people and the business associates, they all come and go and they can turn on you on a dime, but family is forever, so I was inspired to write about it. ...It kind of brought me out of lyrical retirement.”
Todd: In hindsight, how difficult was it for you to deal with the backlash associated with your departure from Dream Theater? Had you truly anticipated that there would be so much drama and negativity associated with it?
Mike: “It was difficult only because I like being open with my fans. I always have been and I've always cherished that open relationship. Once I left Dream Theater, I found that I was very open to scrutiny, so any time I would try to be open and honest with my fan base, it always was twisted and turned and misconstrued into something much bigger than it ever really meant to be. It was very frustrating for me to be so much drama with the split. I guess that's the danger of the internet age, ya know? Ten years ago, when somebody left their band, there would be an article written about it in a magazine a month later and that would be the end of it. It wasn't like every article and interview was completely dissected and interpreted by the fans. I guess that's the danger of this age and especially with somebody like me that really uses social media so openly. It was frustrating and for a while, I had to kind of just turn off the internet, stop reading the news and stop reading what the fans were writing. Every once in a while I would get suckered into responding because I'm a passionate, honest person and I do want to be open with the fans, but every time I did, it always backfired. ...I had to wait until the dust settled. I think life is finally back to normal. I was really happy once the Queensrÿche split happened because it took the focus off of me. I was like 'Phew. Okay, now it can be somebody else's turn.'”
Select Mike Portnoy Discography
The Winery Dogs (2013)
Welcome To The Family (EP) (2010)
Wither (EP) (2009)
Black Clouds & Silver Linings (2009)
Chaos In Motion 2007 - 2008 (DVD) (2008)
Greatest Hit…And 21 Other Pretty Cool Songs (2008)
Systematic Chaos (2007)
Live At Budokan (2004)
Images And Words: Live In Tokyo (DVD) (2003)
Train Of Thought (2003)
Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence (2002)
Metropolis 2000: Live Scenes From New York (DVD) (2001)
Live Scenes From New York (2001)
Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes From A Memory (1999)
5 Years In A Livetime (DVD) (1998)
Once In A LIVEtime (1998)
Falling Into Infinity (1997)
A Change Of Seasons (EP) (1995)
Live At The Marquee (EP) (1993)
Images And Words (1992)
When Dream And Day Unite (1989)
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