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Dream Theater's Mike Portnoy talks about sharing the road

After a successful worldwide “Progressive Nation” headlining tour, Dream Theater are finishing up the year with an opening slot on Iron Maiden's Final Frontier tour

By Pat Prince

As the popular bandleader/drummer of prog metal band Dream Theater, Mike Portnoy hardly needs an introduction. Since its inception, Dream Theater has sold in excess of 10 million records and DVDs worldwide, and Portnoy is as well-known and respected as his band. When there's time away from his first love, Dream Theater, Portnoy occupies himself with various musical projects — it is apparent that jamming and recording with other musicians is almost intuitive to him.

After a successful worldwide “Progressive Nation” headlining tour, Dream Theater are finishing up the year with an opening slot on Iron Maiden's Final Frontier tour. However, from there, Portnoy will go on and tour with Avenged Sevenfold.

The tragic death of Avenged Sevenfold's drummer James ‘The Rev’ Sullivan — who reportedly died of "acute polydrug intoxication" last year — brought on another new, musical relationship for Portnoy. He was asked to record Sullivan's drum parts on the new Avenged Sevenfold album. It was only fitting, as Sullivan was a huge fan of Portnoy's work. Portnoy will wrap up 2010 as their guest drummer on tour.

Goldmine caught up with Mike Portnoy before one of the Dream Theater gigs with Iron Maiden in June.

How is everything on the Iron Maiden tour so far?
Mike Portnoy: Good. But, to be honest, it's a weird adjustment for us to be the opening band. We've only done it a couple of times in our career. So, on one hand, it's awesome to be onstage with the mighty Iron Maiden that we grew up with. They were a big, big part of our history and an influence. On the other hand, we are adjusting to the smaller stage space, shorter set length, and the things that happen when you are the opening band. So, it's a strange adjustment for us, but it's worth it for us in the end.

How are the Iron Maiden fans accepting you?
Portnoy: Well, that's why we're here. It's all about trying to make some new friends from the Maiden fan base. That's ultimately why we are on this tour, and it seems to be going great so far. There are a lot of their fans who are kind of old-timers who have been with them through all the years and maybe don't know a band like Dream Theater, so ... I wrote a set list that is a kind of crash course in the metal side of Dream Theater. It's the same set every night, which is unusual for us, as well. But I think it is something that their fans will be able to latch onto. It's an easier-to-swallow set list. Not any of the big 20-minute epics. More of just the metal side and the "hits" — not that we have any hits — but the ones that are a little more accessible to grasp onto.

Luckily, Dream Theater was never a hit band, because I would hate nothing more than to always go out and play the same exact songs because that's what people want to hear. I'm seeing this with Iron Maiden right now, because they chose to do a set list on this tour that is, basically, from the last 10 years. And there's a big backlash amongst some of their fans. On one end, I can understand the fans' point of view, the ones that do want to hear the hits, but, on the other hand, I understand Maiden's point of view, that they don't want to be stuck playing the same songs for the rest of their lives. They put out new albums; they want to play the new music. Usually, when I write set lists, it is a wide-open palette that I can choose from. I like to pick over 100 songs and not feel like we have to play anything.

The first couple Maiden albums were classic metal, but the band has become more progressive over the years.
Yeah, if you look at the track listing of their upcoming album, I think they have an 11-minute song, and songs in the nine-minute mark, so ... yeah, they absolutely have become a little more progressive. But they always were, when you look at it. Like, "Powerslave," you have stuff like "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." They always kind of dabbled in the prog side of metal, which is why I think they were such a big influence on us in the early days.

What are Dream Theater's plans after the Maiden tour?
After this, Dream Theater will take the rest of the year off. At this point, we've been on the road since last June, so this is the final stretch for us. In fact, we weren't even supposed to be touring at this point. We were supposed to be done by now. And when the Maiden offer came, we took it. Once this run ends, I jump directly onto the Avenged Sevenfold tour to play drums with them for the rest of the year. So, I am literally going the day after the Maiden tour ends. I fly to L.A. to begin rehearsals with them.

There are rumors that Dream Theater will be recording a new studio album in 2011.
Yeah. I mean, we assume so. That's the plan. Generally, after a tour ends, we take some time off and then regroup to start the next record, so I'm sure this will be no different.

Are you constantly writing new material on your own?
Not at all. None of us do. We only write together. All of our albums are done from scratch once we enter the studio together.

Avenged Sevenfold's drummer, Jimmy Sullivan, was a huge fan of yours. Your participation with the band is probably a big honor for them, and it's really a nice gesture on your part.
It's an honor for me, as well, to have been kind of hand-picked and asked to do this, because of the situation. You know, when I went in and did the album, it was something I was honored to do. I wanted to be really careful to bring The Rev's drum parts to life for this album. They lost their brother at an unbelievably early age. You know, he was only 28, so it was a tragedy that they had to endure. I wanted to go in there and carry on his legacy with the drum parts he was supposed to be playing. So, I did my job, and we had such a good time with each other on a personal level ... The guys are really cool guys, and I really enjoyed making the record with them. And I told them, if I was able to tour with them, I would love to do it, and, sure enough, their tour is beginning as soon as Dream Theater's is ending.

Is it going to be easy for you to switch gears so fast?
I'm used to playing with many different artists through my last 15 to 20 years, if you look at my discography. I mean, I've played with at least a dozen different side projects and bands. Even this year alone, I'm playing shows with four different bands, all of whom are very different: Dream Theater, Avenged Sevenfold, Transatlantic, and Hail! It shows that my musical taste is broad. I love so many different styles of music, and that's one of the reasons why I like playing with other artists.

And you remain a huge fan yourself.
Yeah, absolutely. That's never changed. I'm still the same 13-year-old kid that was in my room listening to KISS records. I just happen to be 43, and have a family. Otherwise, the kid inside is exactly the same. (laughs)

It's always refreshing to meet musicians who embrace music on that level instead of being so wrapped up in their own thing.
Once a fan, always a fan. And not everybody has that kind of mentality. Surely, the other guys in my band aren't really like that. And you see people in other bands that aren't really like that. But there's a certain type of personality. Maybe it's obsessive-compulsive personality, or maybe someone who is just a genuine fan of music and art. And that's me. I've always been extreme about it, even when I was a kid ... I was the only kid on the block with 500 records in my collection. It's just the type of personality I am.

Also, the fact that you are into the bootleg stuff, and the way you encourage fans to be fans ...
I mean, I run Dream Theater very much for the sake of the fans. Everything I do for Dream Theater — whether it be our fan club CDs or our official bootleg CDs, Web sites, or the message boards or the forums — everything I do in Dream Theater is for the fans, with a fan mentality, because I know what I always wanted from my favorite bands. Changing the set list each night and being conscious of all of these sort of things stems from me being a big fan and wanting to deliver to our fans.

After all these years, are you still comfortable with the term 'progressive'?
We've never been uncomfortable with it, even 20 years ago, when bands were trying to avoid that word like the plague, whether it's a band like Tool or a band like Radiohead. For so many years, bands were uncomfortable with that term. Dream Theater's never been uncomfortable with it. We've always embraced it and have been proud of it. There's no denying that that's the type of band we are. We are a progressive-metal band. We have the elements of progressive rock and heavy metal, and that's what Dream Theater is. And we've always written 15-minute songs, and we've always had long instrumental passages. This band was formed out of the blueprints of progressive bands like Rush and Yes and Genesis, and metal bands like Maiden, Priest and Sabbath. We've always been proud to be a progressive band, and it's just now that the rest of the world seems to be OK with that term. Now, all of a sudden, bands like Mastodon and The Mars Volta and Muse, suddenly now it's cool to be progressive. For so many years it wasn't, but we were never afraid of it ourselves. That's why we started Progressive Nation, and that's why I named it that. It just goes to show that the word progressive these days doesn't mean Genesis and King Crimson. The word progressive can go into so many different avenues that range from Opeth to Porcupine Tree.

Do you think a 15-minute rock song will be under-appreciated by the average rock fan? They may look at the total time of the song and become discouraged by it?
Well, yeah. but you're using the word "average" rock fan, so, yeah, the average rock fan doesn't want to listen to a 15-minute song. The average movie fan doesn't want to sit and read subtitles for two hours. We're not aiming at the average listener. We're aiming at someone who wants a little bit more out of their music.

So you think that 'progressive" — that genre, that word — is much healthier as a contemporary movement?
Yeah, I've already name-dropped them, but look at a band like Mastodon or The Mars Volta. These bands have put out these big, long songs now, and they aren't afraid of it. The fact of the matter is, a band like Dream Theater has never been a radio-friendly band. Or a MTV-friendly band. Or a mainstream act. We're never going to be in the pages of Rolling Stone. That's the way it was 25 years ago, and that's the way it still is today. And we're totally cool with that. We built an amazing career without that. If we wanted to be writing five-minute songs, then we can do that in a heartbeat. But that's not what this band is about.

Any art form can be looked at in the same way.
You're right; art is like that. I would much rather be seeing a three-hour David Lynch film than sitting and watching the latest Arnold Schwarzeneggar or Sylvester Stallone shoot-'em-up, blow 'em-up Hollywood film.

Dream Theatre's last two album were released on vinyl, and there has been a resurgence with the vinyl format. Do you still collect vinyl?
I don't collect like some of the people I know who are really fanatical about it. But I do casually pick it up. I still have my record collection from the '60s, '70s and '80s. I mean, personally, I'm not one of those people who swear by the fidelity of it. I really do think CDs sound great. But my interest in vinyl goes more for the packaging and artwork. Back when we started making records, you had this big, 12-inch gatefold packaging where you can actually read the lyrics and enjoy the artwork and the pictures, and then that suddenly went down to the size of a CD cover, and nowadays it's down to the size of a thumbnail on iTunes. I think vinyl is really cool to be able to really enjoy the actual packaging and experience of a new record. As a kid, I used to love picking up the new KISS album or Zeppelin album or Pink Floyd album and sit there and actually listen to the record, and hear the needle drop, and having to flip the record at the halfway point and looking at the photos and the gatefolds, and sometimes they would include little things inside the packaging, too. You know, I miss that. I miss having that experience. But you can't be nostalgic. It's 2010. And kids enjoy their music in a much quicker, faster, immediate way these days. It's nice to kind of relive the heyday of records through current vinyl, but you'd have to be able to put out double or triple albums to put out the amount of music that's on CDs these days.

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