A lot of words come to mind in describing Mike Portnoy including driven, motivated and work fiend. Upon leaving Dream Theater after 25 yearsthe band he co-founded back in 1985he played and recorded with Avenged Sevenfold and has now joined in two new bands. Adrenaline Mob is a metal group fronted by Symphony X singer Russell Allen and sporting the Zakk Wylde and Dimebag-influenced guitar playing of Mike Orlando. Their first album titled Omerta is a platform for Portnoy to pull out his heavier side and on songs like "Undaunted" and "Psychosane" does just that.
On the other side of things is his collaboration with Steve and Neal Morse, bassist Dave LaRue and singer Casey McPherson in a group called Flying Colors. Their first self-titled album is a surprising blend of the Beatles, Queen and Muse as reflected in tracks like "Kayla" and "Love is What I'm Waiting For." Here Portnoy throttles back his playing in creating a pocket for McPherson's vocals.
Apparently Mike never sleeps because 20 minutes before getting on the phone for this conversation, he was in the studio yet once again working on a covers album with Flying Colors keyboardist Neal Morse. And he also spoke about another project he was involved in. No moss grows under his feet and in the course of another day filled with frantic activity, Mike Portnoy talked about what makes him run.
UG: Calling you a driven individual is the understatement of the year.
Mike Portnoy: Yeah, I'm definitely an absolute total workaholic. Absolutely.
You did the Adrenaline Mob EP back in August 2011. You dug the experience and wanted to follow that up with a complete album?
Those guys approached me. Mike Orlando and Russell Allen were already working on the material for a while before I became available with my career and life. Once that happened Russ reached out and said, Hey, check this out. Would you have any interest in being involved with it.? And from the minute I heard the first 30 seconds of Undaunted I was onboard. One of the things I wanted to get into after my experience with Dream Theater and Avenged Sevenfold. I knew I wanted to have something that was balls out groove-oriented hard rock metal and not a progressive edge. Just something that was fun and energetic and as soon as I heard the material Russ and Mike had cookin', it was totally obvious to me that I wanted to be involved.
Did you bring any of that Avenged Sevenfold attitude to Omerta?
Absolutely. Adrenaline Mob came to me right after my experience with Avenged finished up so I was totally in that headspace. I had just done the Uproar tour with those guys and I was surrounded by bands like Disturbed, Stone Sour, Hellyeah and Halestorm. I just thoroughly that scene and that style and I just had such a great time with Avenged playing music that was just fun to play and you didn't have to put your thinking cap on in order to execute it. You could literally just get up there and play music that has that bounce and Adrenaline Mob definitely has that bounce and the groove and the riffs. So it was really the perfect band at the perfect time for where I was at.
How well did you know guitarist Mike Orlando before joining Adrenaline Mob?
I actually had never heard of him when this music was presented to me. Me and Russ Allen had a long relationship and we'd been friends for many years and Symphony X had toured with Dream Theater several times. So me and him had an extended relationship and had been longing to do something together. But I had never heard Mike's stuff. I think Mike was really the unknown element for me and I was immediately blown away not only by his playing but his writing. It's like, Oh, my god, where has this guy been hiding all these years? How is this guy not a guitar hero yet? The riffs he writes and his shredding ability as a player, it was just immediately obvious that this kidnot this kid, this guywas a total star in the making and just waiting for the right vehicle to give him the exposure. And here we are and Adrenaline Mob is absolutely gonna do that for him.
Mike Orlando is a very talented guitar player.
Yeah, it's Zakk meets Dimebag. That whole kind of approach is awesome.
Looking at some of the songs on Omerta, your playing on the ballad All On the Line took on a very supportive groove to the vocal.
I'm always completely conscious of the song and what's surrounding me when I'm tracking in my drums. And in the case of this music I was fortunate enough to have the vocals already established. In all my years with Dream Theater we would write the music first and then me, John Petrucci or James LaBrie would write the melody in the vocals afterwards. But in the case of all this Adrenaline Mob stuff, the vocals were already in place. So I was able to kind of work around them and support them. And once I did that I noticed that Mike Orlando did a lot of things that followed the drums afterwards like a lot of his leads and riffs and things like that. It's all about listening when you're recording and writing. It's not only about just executing your part; it's about keeping your ears open to what's going on around you and reacting and supporting what's around you. And to me that's always so important. I'll always want to play for the song; I'm never trying to just show off. I'm trying to do what's right for the right mood that's being played.
Hit the Wall is one of the heavier songs on the album. Are you specifically trying to un-think your Dream Theater chops?
I think if anything Hit the Wall probably has the most kind of over-the-top drumming probably of all the tracks on the album. Because it was a very driving song, it wasn't one of those straight ahead arrangements. All On the Line, Undaunted or Down To the Floor, in those cases you know what you have to playyou just have to lay it down and play simple and keep the groove. But Hit the Wall was always one of those tunes where the drums are supposed to really drive it and in that case I was able to really be Mike Portnoy and let it loose. So that's one of those tracks where I was able to actually go a bit out and have some fun.
Were you looking for a different drum sound than what you had with Flying Colors?
Absolutely. Different mixers mix different records different ways and my drum sound is completely different if you were to put Flying Colors and Adrenaline Mob side by side. Not only is the songwriting completely different and not only is my drumming completely different but yes, as you said, the sound of the drums in both mixes are completely different. Adrenaline Mob calls for big, over the top powerful drums, a big, hard rock metal production with the drums upfront and just slammin'. And Flying Colors calls for more subtle dynamics and more ups and downs and the drums need to breathe a little bit more and not be as in your face. So yeah, absolutely, different albums call for different mixes and approaches. And in both of these cases, I think we had the perfect mixers.
You like what Jay Ruston did on Omerta?
As soon as I started with Adrenaline Mob and heard the Anthrax album [Ruston mixed Worship Music], I knew Jay was the guy I wanted to mix this album and sure enough he came onboard and did it. It was the same with Flying Colors. As soon as I started doing the Flying Colors album, I remember saying to the guys, Michael Brauer has got to mix this; he'd be perfect. So in both cases we got the exact mixers that were on my dream list for both bands.
Moving on to the Flying Colors record, that project was produced by Peter Collins who had worked with everyone from Rush to Bon Jovi. What did he bring to the album?
We weren't looking for somebody with the experience because myself, Steve Morse and Neal Morse have probably a 100 albums worth of experience between the three of us. So it wasn't so much looking for experience as we were looking for an objective outside ear. Because we knew that myself, Neal and Steve and Casey McPherson the singer all had very strong voices, visions and passionate ideas and direction. So we knew that putting so many chefs in the kitchen could have been disastrous.
Were you worried about the integrity of the project being watered down with too many ideas?
For a minute there I was worried about throwing yet another chef into the kitchen with a producer like Peter Collins. But it turns out that it was the best thing that could have happened because Peter very much served as the bottom line. If me, Neal and Steve and Casey were discussing something and stuck on something, Peter would always have the final say. So it was good to have somebody that served as a quote-unquote referee to get in there and draw the bottom line whenever there was a dispute or a question mark involved.
"I knew I wanted to have something that was balls out groove-oriented hard rock metal and not a progressive edge."
Flying Colors had a built-in audience with fans of Dream Theater and the Dixie Dregs. Did you think, We better do a great record?
I never doubted it. I mean any album and project I've ever been a part of, I've always put a thousand percent into but I've always worked with other people that are as passionate and driven as I am. I've never done a project or an album that I wasn't fully positive of the people I was working with. I knew that this lineup would be exceptional musicians and passionate artists and I knew that we would get along and work great.
You have worked with the Flying Colors musicians before.
I've done 10 albums with Neal before and I've done several tours with Dave LaRue before and several tours with Steve before and I had known Casey for years. So I knew this chemistry between all of us was gonna be a really positive experience and we would come out on the other end with something that was incredibly quality.
Did you know the type of album you wanted to make?
I didn't necessarily know what the style would beif it was gonna be prog or if it was gonna be pop or whatever. That kind of wrote itself once we started working together. But I knew regardless of what the direction would be, it would be great quality.
The album came together in nine days, which must be on the other side of the scale of the way Dream Theater used to work.
Well it was a very similar writing process to Dream Theater. With Dream Theater and especially myself, John Petrucci and Jordan Rudess, the three of us worked at an incredibly fast pace when it came to writing. Jordan, myself and John had that kind of quick experience with Liquid Tension Experiment. So realistically the writing chemistry I had with John and Jordan for all those years was really similar with these guys in Flying Colors. It's just that with Dream Theater we had the budget to stretch it out for months and months but that was usually the tracking process and not necessarily the writing. The writing with Flying Colors went almost as quickly and was very, very similar to the Dream Theater writing process. When you have a group of guys that are very professional and focused, you can get a lot done with the right people.
Blue Ocean opens the album and during the intro you can hear the band talking in the studio. Why did you leave that in?
That was important because so many of these bands and projects and quote-unquote supergroups these days don't even meet each other. They just send their tracks through emails and ProTools files and it was very important to establish that this was five real people in the studio together working together and making music together. So the minute you hit play on the CD you're brought into the studio with us and you're part of the whole experience that we went through.
Your performance on Blue Ocean had a very laid back and organic feel to it. You didn't overplay, which would have been disastrous.
I'm inspired by the people I work with and in the case of both of these albums, I'm very, very inspired by the incredibly talented people around me. With Adrenaline Mob I have one of the greatest metal vocalists in the world and I have one of the best new up and coming metal players in the world. In Flying Colors I'm surrounded by three veterans whose careers I've completely admired with Neal, Steve and Dave and a new up and coming singer/songwriter in Casey who I've been a fan of for years and always felt he was waiting for his moment in the sun and here it is with Flying Colors. My playing is directly inspired by the people surrounding me and I've always took a lot of pride in the people I worked with and the people I choose to make music with. In both of these cases it's people that I fully and totally respect and admire.
How is Steve Morse a different personality than John Petrucci?
I kind of alluded to it a minute ago but just to further expand on it, the writing process in Flying Colors was very, very similar to Dream Theater. And it's interesting because Flying Colors was the first album I did post-Dream Theater. It was a very comfortable environment but basically it was a lot of collaborating and bouncing ideas off of each other. Obviously I've worked with Neal so much in the pasta dozen albums together at this pointso I knew that our writing chemistry was already intact but it was great for me to work with Steve for the first time. I've known Steve forever and Dream Theater toured with the Dixie Dregs in 2000 and Dream Theater toured with Deep Purple in '98 so Steve and I have known each other and toured together but never worked together and created together. Getting to see the magic of his mind firsthand and up close was a total honor for me. He's always been one of my favorite guitar players in the world to make music with him was a truly amazing experience.
Kayla is the ballad and has a kind of Mr. Mister-meets-Toto vibe.
That has a little bit of everything in there. That whole album is filled with so many different styles from song to song and styles that you wouldn't expect from us.
"I'm always completely conscious of the song and what's surrounding me when I'm tracking in my drums."
The fact that the music went in a more poppy/slash alternative direction. I think when people saw these names on paper, they imagined something that would be Transatlantic meets the Dixie Dregs; me and Neal meets Steve and Dave. But once we threw Casey into the picture it took the whole band into another world and I think it became something that was a little bit more akin to Coldplay-meets the Beatles and Queen-meets U2 and Muse. With a little Foo Fighters and musicianship and the instrumentation and the playing you'd expect from us but in a more song oriented vehicle and that's exactly what it became.
Forever and a Daze was the funky track on the album. Is playing with Dave LaRue different than working with John Myung?
Oh yeah, they're completely different players. Dave I've had the great fortune of working with many times through the years. We've done six or seven G3 tours together and he also played in my Zeppelin tribute band, Hammer of the Gods, back in 2003. He and I have worked together much in the past and he's one of those players that can do anything. He never hits a wrong note and he can cop anything from funk to rock to jazz and everything in-between. He's one of most well rounded bass players I've played with.
On the funkier side of things, do you listen to players like Dennis Chambers and Steve Ferrone?
Absolutely. I just saw Dennis a few weeks ago and we did a drum show together [Portnoy performed at the 2011 Guitar Center Drum-Off]. Yeah, I admire drummers like those guys greatly. They do things that I could never do. Their pockets and their grooves are so deep that it's insane. It's funny I'm in the studio right now with Neal Morse actually and we're doing a covers CD and we just did a tune that Jeff Porcaro originally played drums on. So I just literally 20 minutes ago finished doing my version of a Jeff Porcaro drum track and yeah, I have deep admiration for drummers like that.
What song was that?
Uh, I don't think I can reveal it yet but all will be revealed.
Porcaro was the king of the Purdie shuffle.
Yeah totally. Well, I just laid down my version of one of em. It was a lot of fun.
Love is What I'm Waiting For has some classic rock elements like the Guess Who and 10cc.
Beatles-meets-Queen influence. Hey listen, I think Kevin [Portnoy's publicist]is calling on the other line and he's letting me know I have to wrap this up.
That's too bad. So in a perfect world what would you like to see happening with Adrenaline Mob and Flying Colors.
I mean in a perfect world? Both of these bands will be on the road at different points throughout 2012 and into the future and I can't wait to make new albums with both of them. I also have other things brewingas if two bands wasn't enough, I have other things brewing as well. But right now my focus is on these two and I can't wait to get out there and play live with both bands. They're completely different sides of my Mike Portnoy so you can't judge one without hearing the other because they both kind of complete this spectrum for me.
Interview by Steven Rosen
"The writing process in Flying Colors was very, very similar to Dream Theater."