EntertainmentTell Interviews Mike Portnoy of The Winery Dogs

Sections: Grammy Award, Music

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Mike Portnoy (center) flanked by Winery Dog bandmates Billy Sheehan and Richie Kotzen (Photo Credit: Travis Shinn)

Mike Portnoy (center) flanked by Winery Dog bandmates Billy Sheehan and Richie Kotzen (Photo Credit: Travis Shinn)

Mike Portnoy hasn’t been taking it easy since he left the band he co-founded and drummed with for 25 years, Dream Theater, in 2010. He’s veered from the worlds of prog-rock, playing with Neal Morse and Transatlantic, to the metal of Adrenalin Mob and Avenged Sevenfold. 2013 finds Portnoy starting up yet another band: The Winery Dogs, a trio with guitarist/vocalist Richie Kotzen and bassist Billy Sheehan (see my review here).
EntertainmentTell recently spoke with Portnoy about his new band, his favorite tech toys … even his chances of getting into that often-clueless Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
(Note: An edited version of this interview appeared in the August issue of Tell magazine. The following is the complete interview.)

EntertainmentTell: Good to speak with you.

Mike Portnoy: Yeah, same here.

EntertainmentTell: You are a busy guy. I counted about six bands that you’re currently involved in. But I understand that you’re pulling out of Adrenalin Mob, is that correct?

Portnoy: Yeah. I have a couple more shows with them this month. But basically I guess the hardest thing about juggling all of these bands is the scheduling, and when you have so many different things going at the same time, inevitably there’s going to be schedule conflicts. And I’ve spent the last two years devoted to Adrenalin Mob, and now The Winery Dogs is coming out. Something’s got to give; I can’t do all these things at the same time. So, you’ve got to go where the momentum is, and unfortunately I guess that’s the only setback. I just want to make music and explore lots of different things, and I guess that’s been the hardest thing, trying to juggle it all on one calendar.

EntertainmentTell: You’re only one man.

Portnoy: Exactly.

EntertainmentTell: If you could clone yourself, you’d probably be in good shape.

Portnoy: If I could clone myself or invent or invent the 60-day month, that would help as well.

EntertainmentTell: So let’s talk about The Winery Dogs. I got to review it, and I think it’s a great project, really exciting music. How did that start up?

Portnoy: Billy Sheehan and I were working together, and we were working with somebody else at the time (former Whitesnake/Thin Lizzy guitarist/vocalist John Sykes), and we wanted to have a classic rock power trio and do something in that vein. And it wasn’t working out with the other guitarist, but once that was apparent, that it wasn’t going to work out, Billy and I wanted to find somebody that could really round out a power trio in the classic rock vein, and my good friend Eddie Trunk (of Vh1 Classic’s “That Metal Show”) suggested Richie’s name. And it was just such a natural; it was a brilliant suggestion. Richie’s such an unbelievable talent, not only as a guitar player, but also an unbelievable singer, unbelievable songwriter, and it was just what Billy and I were looking for—it was just a natural. I ran it by Billy, and obviously Billy and Richie had a history together in Mr. Big. Billy was totally excited to reunite and do something new and original. And the three of us got together and the chemistry was immediately apparent. That’s where it began.

EntertainmentTell: It just seems really organic, the way Billy and Richie lock in on some of those runs, and then you’re right there with them. It seems like you guys have been together for years, you know?

Portnoy: Well, Richie and Billy did play together in Mr. Big and me and Billy have been playing together in various different projects through the years, so there was already a built-in chemistry between a few of us in terms of pairings. But really the three of us fell in pretty immediately and easily. We have very similar musical tastes and it all came together just incredibly naturally.

EntertainmentTell: Sounds that way. How did the songs come together? Was it stuff that you guys came in with, or did you jam things out?

Portnoy: No, it was all three of us in Richie’s studio just bouncing ideas off of each other. Within the very, very first day of playing together, we had written three songs. We’d written “One More Time” and “Six Feet Deeper” and “Criminal.” Those three came together right then and there on the first day. And the way that the songs were coming together was basically all three of us collaborating. There’s a couple of songs on the album that Richie brought in by himself that we left as is, because they were so perfect, there was no reason to change them. But I would say a good 12 or so out of the 14 we wrote and recorded were completely collaborated on.

EntertainmentTell: It’s great stuff. It sounded like it was cut live in the studio—was that how it was done?

Portnoy: Yeah, absolutely. We did the whole album at Richie’s home studio, and like you said before, it was very organic, very old school, very much in the vein of those classic rock bands that we grew up with—Led Zeppelin and Cream and Hendrix and (Deep) Purple, just going for that true organic power trio sound.

EntertainmentTell: How was it playing in a trio? Did you find there was more space you had to cover?

Portnoy: There’s going to be a lot more space on the tour bus, that’s for sure.

EntertainmentTell: Yeah! (laughs) You’ve played with some big bands … I saw you with Neal Morse at the Keswick Theater …

Portnoy: Right. There was like, eight guys up there.

EntertainmentTell: And at the end of the show, everybody was onstage together!

Portnoy: Exactly. There is a lot of space, sonically. And when you have a bass player like Billy Sheehan, who throws off a lot of sound, it’s a great showcase for that. There is a tremendous amount of space, sonically, which I think is refreshing. And it’s also a lot easier to work with just three people. I think that’s why a band like Rush has succeeded for all of these years. There’s something to be said for the power of three. And this is my first time in trio. Out of all of the bands and projects I’ve been in, this will be the first one. So it’s a refreshing change for me as well.

EntertainmentTell: You’ve been in quartets and things, but not three.

Portnoy: Yes, quartets and quintets.

EntertainmentTell: But that’s the prog thing, right? Always four or five guys, big bands.

Portnoy: Right, exactly. But that’s the thing—for me, this is not prog. This is not prog and it’s not metal. My entire background has been based on prog and metal. And I think this band is neither of those. This is just straight-up rock. This is a rock band, in the vein of Van Halen or Led Zeppelin. And to me, that’s also what makes it very exciting.

EntertainmentTell: Definitely, I hear the Zeppelin influence on things like “Elevate”—that had a “Black Dog” feel to it, which you guys nailed. It’s not ripping it off, but it’s definitely evocative of it.

Portnoy: Yeah, absolutely.

EntertainmentTell: So you’re going to be doing shows with The Winery Dogs?

Portnoy: Of course! The album comes out July 23rd and the tour begins about a week prior to that and the dates are getting filled real quick, and once again this is the reason for the first question you brought up when we started. But yeah, that’s one of the scheduling things for me this year, that pretty much the rest of the year is devoted to The Winery Dogs. We start in Japan and then we go to South America and then America and Europe will follow in the fall, so it’s going to be a very busy schedule for the band once the album comes out.

EntertainmentTell: Are you going to be doing theaters and clubs as headliners, or will you be a supporting act?

Portnoy: It depends on the market. In America, I would assume it would be clubs. It’s our first time around, a brand new band, so you want to get in there and start intimate and see where it grows from there. And obviously, time will tell how the band develops.

EntertainmentTell: We wish you all the best with that. It’s a very exciting project.

Portnoy: Thank you!

EntertainmentTell: So, what else do you have going on? I believe Transatlantic and Flying Colors are both doing new albums?

Portnoy: Yeah, correct. We started work on both of those, although  those won’t see the light of day until 2014, but at least we’re planting the seeds now so they will blossom next year. These things take time. But yeah, both are already underway, and I look forward to more with both of those bands next year. And there’s also a Bigelf album coming out later this year that I played drums on as well.

EntertainmentTell: Right. So are you a member of Bigelf as well?

Portnoy: No, I was just helping (Bigelf frontman) Damon (Fox) out and played on the album.

EntertainmentTell: Just pitching in?

Portnoy: Exactly. It was kind of like what I did on Avenged Sevenfold—helped out, played on the album. Looks like I’ll play some live dates, schedule permitting. Of course, I’d love to, but time will tell for that.

EntertainmentTell: I did see you with Flying Colors up in New York (see my review here), but you haven’t been able to do too many shows with them. I guess everybody’s schedule is crazy in that project?

Portnoy: Yeah. That’s been the biggest hurdle in Flying Colors. Not only do you have mine and Neal’s crazy schedules, but Steve’s been incredibly busy with Deep Purple and his own band, The Steve Morse Band, so yeah, the biggest hurdle with Flying Colors is being able to align the schedules. It’s even been a problem with the follow-up CD. When we started the follow-up sessions last month, we really only did one of what will be several sessions. We can’t get a good two- or three-week chunk to bang out the album, so we’re doing four days here, four days there, and throughout the coming 12 months we’ll eventually accumulate an album, but it will be the old-school way of recording. That was the way that Zeppelin did it back in the day—record a couple of songs, then go back on the road, record a couple more songs, go on the road. So that’s how Flying Colors is going to have to do it, just because of the scheduling.

EntertainmentTell: With Flying Colors, is that the kind of situation where people come in with stuff written?

Portnoy: No, same thing as Winery Dogs—complete collaboration. I mean, to me that’s the beauty of being in a band or project is seeing how the different elements collaborate and the chemistry. If it would just be one person’s music, you’re not really getting a true sense of a band, and when you put together a band like Winery Dogs or Flying Colors or Transatlantic, the beauty is in the chemistry between all of the members.

EntertainmentTell: And you can certainly hear that on those Transatlantic records—you can hear what you bring, what Roine Stolt brings, what Neal Morse brings, and on Flying Colors as well—you can hear that everybody plays a part in the creation of the music.

Portnoy: That’s what it’s all about. I’ve never been a fan of these projects that are just done via e-mail and people not even meeting each other. Everything I’ve done throughout my career has been about the collaboration and the human chemistry and the musical chemistry. That’s what it’s all about for me.

EntertainmentTell: With all of this going on, have you ever thought about doing a solo record, your own thing?

Portnoy: I have! Actually, after I left Dream Theater, it was one of the very first things I thought about. And the idea definitely appealed to me, especially the idea of maybe collaborating on different songs with different friends. I have so many different friends and artists in this business that I admire and have great friendships with, that certainly I’d love to be able to do a solo album and collaborate with all of them. So the idea is definitely there, but, once again, it’s the scheduling. I just haven’t had a moment, from the minute I left Dream Theater, immediately there were 10 or 12 different things that just happened, and there hasn’t been a quiet moment yet for me to sit back and say, “OK, what’s next?” It’s just been going nonstop. So, one of these days, if I actually find more than a week available on my schedule, maybe I can get around to it then.

EntertainmentTell: You haven’t been sitting idle. Do you like it that way—do you like being so busy?

Portnoy: I have to be. I go crazy if I’m not working. Even (during) all those years in Dream Theater, I was still doing a million things at once. It’s just my nature.

EntertainmentTell: As you say, you have a lot of famous friends. You’ve played with a lot of amazing people. Who are some of the folks that you’d like to play with that you haven’t yet?

Portnoy: Well, honestly, I really have so much gratitude for what I’ve done thus far, and I’ve worked with so many artists that I love and admire. I mean, the fact that I’m in a band with Billy Sheehan and the fact that I’m in a band with Steve Morse, and I’ve done so many things with Neal Morse … these are people I truly, deeply respect and admire, so I have a lot of gratitude for that. But in answer to your question, yeah, there’s a lot of people I would love to work with. There’s the dream people and then there’s the real people. The dream people, which I never would expect would ever come to fruition, but they are my dream artists which I would love to work with or for, would be Roger Waters, Pete Townshend and Paul McCartney. Those are my three biggest living musical heroes. So those are the dream guys. And then there’s the reality guys, the kind of projects that I could realistically put together, given the time, and one person is Mikel Ackerfeld from Opeth. He and I have been talking about doing something for years. It’s just a matter of finding the time for that. There’s also part of me that would love to do a thrash metal band project, because in everything I’ve done, I haven’t really tapped into that world, which is also really a huge part of my background. I did these Metal Masters gigs with the guys from Anthrax, Slayer, Megadeth and Pantera—I got to tap into that world with that. I certainly would welcome, one of these days, doing a project for a band that’s in that world as well. But for the most part, my plate is just so ridiculously full at the moment that I’ve having enough trouble juggling what’s existing. So these are just hypothetical scenarios.

EntertainmentTell: I’m sure you’ve already worked with a lot of people that are on your wish list.

Portnoy: Absolutely … Steve Morse, Billy Sheehan, Paul Gilbert, Richie Kotzen, … it’s a who’s who of anybody that I could ever want to work with.

EntertainmentTell: You’re like a musical equivalent of Kevin Bacon … name anybody, odds are you’ve played with them at some point.

Portnoy: (laughs)

EntertainmentTell: I know you’ve done some tribute things in the past … the Beatles tribute Yellow Matter Custard with Neal Morse and the Rush thing with Billy Sheehan. Are there any other things that you’d like to tribute sometime?

Portnoy: Yeah! That’s sort of my collaboration with Paul Gilbert. Paul and I have done four tribute bands now … we did The Beatles, The Who, Zeppelin and Rush. And Paul is definitely a great partner in crime for that type of thing, because he’s as much of a music fan as I am. And yeah, he and I have talked about some future ones, and a few bands we’d like to do. And once again, it’s just timing. Ever since I left Dream Theater it just hasn’t stopped. So one of these days we’ll get around to doing another one. And if you’re looking for a name, I’m not going to drop it.

EntertainmentTell: OK (laughs) No exclusives today, alright.

Portnoy: No.

EntertainmentTell: It’s hard to think of who you haven’t covered, but I’m sure there’s some.

Portnoy: Well, there’s at least two at the top of my head that would be next in line, and I’ll just say they’re both four-piece bands that began in the 70s.

(Howard’s Note: For the record, my guesses are Queen and Black Sabbath. Just guesses, mind you—we have no inside information. And yes, I know Sabbath started in 1968, but their first album came out in 1970. So I think they’d qualify. OK, back to the interview.)

EntertainmentTell: OK. Cool.

Portnoy: But time will tell.

EntertainmentTell: Time will tell. And as we know, you have no time.

Portnoy: Yeah! (laughs)

EntertainmentTell: I understand you did a drum cam thing during the Winery Dogs sessions. Could you tell me a bit about that?

Portnoy: Well, basically, every session that I do, I film the making of and film the drum cam footage, so The Winery Dogs will be no exception. I’ll put out a drum cam DVD with that as well in July. But I did the same for the Flying Colors album and for the Adrenalin Mob album and the last few Transatlantic albums and the last bunch of Dream Theater albums, so it’s just something I’ve always done with any session that’s mine. If I’m a hired gun, like I was with Avenged Sevenfold, or a lot of Neal’s solo albums, I don’t put out drum cams for those. But anything that’s a band or project that I’m a full member or equal partner of, I do these drum cam DVDs.

EntertainmentTell: Do you look at those as kind of an educational thing as well as  entertainment?

Portnoy: Well, yeah. It’s not educational in that sense that I’m not actually discussing the parts or breaking down the parts, but it’s truly giving fans a “fly on the wall” inside look at what it’s like in the studio, and I also offer an alternate audio track where you can hear just the drums. So I guess it’s educational in that sense—you can really see how I put together these drum tracks on these albums.

EntertainmentTell: As far as education goes, you’ve done some drum clinics over the years. Are you going to fit any of those in?

Portnoy: No, I stopped doing clinics in 2003, so it’s been about 10 years now. In the late 90s and early 2000s I did hundreds of them. I had a good run but now I’m focused on many other things, so that’s not really high on my priority list at the moment.

EntertainmentTell: Got it. Now, I write for a technology magazine and website. I was just wondering what kind of tech gear you have—what do you enjoy?

Portnoy: Well, I’m not a gear head in terms of studio and recording and performing, but man, I am the ultimate gear head in terms of media … iPads, iPhones, iPods. There are things that I can’t live without—my TiVo for instance, it’s the greatest invention ever. I’m just a TV junkie, so my TiVo is amazing. I have these Archos players that I use on the road, which are for movies. I’m just really into that. In terms of musical media, I have multiple iPods that I carry at all times. I’m just a media junkie, a collector of all music, movies and TV.

EntertainmentTell: I guess that gets you through the long rides on the tour bus, watching movies and stuff?

Portnoy: Yeah. When I  first started touring 20 years ago, it was CDs and videotapes, so I’d be going on the road with these holders of hundreds of CDs for music and there were no DVDs or anything. It was all videotapes, so I’d be going with milk carton boxes filled with videotapes, and I’d be having my wife videotaping things for me back home and sending them to me in the mail. So, surely it’s lightened my load on the road.

EntertainmentTell: Sure. You don’t even have to cart around DVDs anymore, right?

Portnoy: Exactly! I literally have a 2-terabyte hard drive that’s filled with everything and it’s the size of my wallet.

EntertainmentTell: Nice! That’s what happens with technology—it gets smaller, faster and cheaper, right?

Portnoy: Well, I love it.  A lot of people complain about the digital age and how it’s killing music, but man, I just love it. I love the immediacy and how it’s just made everything so much quicker and easier to access. I love that, just because I’m a media junkie, so I want to have it all. I love that fact that I could travel with my entire 500 gigabyte music collection at my fingertips.

EntertainmentTell: Absolutely, yeah. I’m sure you don’t miss lugging around those VHS tapes either.

Portnoy: No.

EntertainmentTell: One thing I talk to a lot of musicians about—both artists that have been inducted, and those who are not in and should be—is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Do you think you’ll get there, perhaps with Dream Theater? What do you think are the odds of that? And how cool was it that Rush finally got in?

Portnoy: It’s amazing that Rush finally got in. I e-mailed Neal (Peart) and Alex (Lifeson) a few days beforehand to congratulate them, and I wrote to them, “This is one small step for Rush, and one giant leap for music in general.” And I think that’s what it is. It’s amazing that they finally made it, and they’ve been so deserving, but I think if anything, it’s more of a statement for music in general, musicians in general, and progressive music in general, because that entire genre has been so shunned by the Hall of Fame, and the Grammys as well. Those are two institutions that really just have not given their fair due to so many great bands. So hopefully Rush getting in, and Metallica getting in a few years ago as well, will open doors for other bands where it’s a travesty that they’re not in there—bands like Yes and Deep Purple are the first two that come to mind. So hopefully it’s a step in the right direction.

EntertainmentTell: Maybe the problem with Yes is that if they were inducted, then there would be, like, 20 guys that would have to get up?

Portnoy: More people on the stage than in the audience!

EntertainmentTell: Do you think you’ll get up there someday?

Portnoy: Uh, I doubt it. In a perfect world, a band like Dream Theater would be recognized for all we did for all those years, but honestly, if Deep Purple and Yes are not in there, I’m not holding my breath.

EntertainmentTell: I’m sure a lot of people would like to see that happen.

Portnoy: If it happened it would be an incredible honor, but I’m not holding my breath, and honestly, it’s not that important to me. Having been inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame to me was the greatest honor of my lifetime and I can die happy with that.

For further information and to check out music and video from The Winery Dogs, go to

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