As Mike Portnoy describes it, he has a "musical thirst" that constantly needs quenching. He has done everything from cover band projects with Paul Gilbert doing Beatles, Rush, Who and Zeppelin songs and maximum prog rock with Transatlantic, to playing thrash music with Hail! On December 28, 2009, Avenged Sevenfold drummer James "The Rev" Sullivan was found dead in his home and with a new Avenged album already underway, the Dream Theater drummer was given the call. Of course it wasn't a gig that he was actively seeking out but when he received the call, it all made perfect sense. Sullivan was a longtime fan of Portnoy and had repeatedly trumpeted his admiration for Mike's chops and style.
Several months ago, Portnoy entered the studio with Avenged Sevenfold and producer Mike Elizondo and on July 27 the culmination of this sort of shotgun relationship will be revealed with the release of Nightmare. This was a strange and sensitive situation to be sure: The Rev was a major part of Avenged's sound and direction and replacing him would not be easy. Mike was contacted and instantly jumped at the opportunity. If the album's title track is any indication [the only music available at the time of this writing], this fifth studio album by Avenged Sevenfold represents yet another forward leap for these metal/rock purveyors.
Portnoy had just completed a soundcheck in Columbus, Ohio with his own Dream Theater band when he talked about the Avenged album. The prog masters were out on tour with Iron Maiden and the drummer had a few minutes before curtain time.
"I'm ready to rock," he announced about opening for Maiden and it was here our conversation began.
UG: Touring with Iron Maiden must be pretty special for you. You've been a longtime Maiden fan and covered To Tame a Land on the special edition of Black Clouds & Silver Linings.
Mike Portnoy: It's definitely an amazing experience because they are one of our childhood heroes. When we formed this band 25 years ago, they were one of the role models for the Dream Theater sound. I would say when we formed the band it was kind of like we wanted to be a cross between Iron Maiden and Rush. They were kind of a big part of the blueprint of the original sound for this band from the beginning. At this point in our career, there are very few bands that we would still open for but they truly one of em.
What was it about Maiden's music that so attracted you? Were Dream Theater going to come out of the gates as a two-guitar metal band?
When we formed the band in 1985, our two loves were progressive rock with bands like Rush, Yes, and Genesis and the other side of the coin was heavy metal. And at that stage around 1985, it was Priest, Maiden, Sabbath, and Metallica was just starting to come out. But Maiden had a little bit of both elements and I think that's what appealed to us. They were a metal band but out of the metal bands at that time, they were doing longer songs and instrumental arrangements. You had stuff like Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Power Slave so that kind of progressive edge to what was popular metal in the mid-eighties is what appealed to us.
What about the precursors to those bands? This isn't a direct line but were you moved by the English blues groups like Cream, Fleetwood Mac, and the Yardbirds? Hendrix?
Well, everyone in this band has different backgrounds and different musical tastes. My taste is very broad and I'm definitely a bit of a musical historian. By the time I was a teenager, I had a record collection of like 500 records and I grew up on a lot of that classic rock. So for me personally, the English classic rock scene like the bands you mentioned Cream and Zeppelin and all that stuff was huge for me but I can't necessarily say it was for the other guys in the band.
As a drummer were you picking up on what John Bonham, Ginger Baker and Keith Moon were playing?
My early classic rock heroes, the big three, were Keith Moon, John Bonham, and Ringo Starr; those were the big three. But then there was also Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell, and John Densmore and all of that late 60s, early 70s stuff was a huge, huge part of me developing as a musician. And then later on in the mid-70s came progressive rock and then in the 80s came more metal but it all began for me in the classic rock world of the 60s and 70s.
You were able to learn about playing drums from Ringo Starr?
Ringo is the guy. I mean the Beatles are literally my favorite band of all time. They were from the minute I was born until here at the age of 43. The Who and Zeppelin were also up there but really at the end of the day the Beatles are it for me. Number one.
Have you had a chance to meet any of your drummer heroes? A lot of them are gone now Keith Moon, John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell and some others but what about the guys who are still around? Ringo?
Those are the heroes that really intimidate me. Through our career I've gotten to meet almost anybody I've ever wanted to meet and the people that are in the Maidens and the Priests and the Sabbaths and the Metallicas of the world, they're kind of like more my generations. But once you get to that 60s era the Stones, Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Who, Pink Floyd those are the upper echelon of heroes that are on a whole other level. The only ones that I've met from that group, I have met Ringo. We did several shows with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant back in the 90s and I've met Jimmy Page many times since then. And then also Roger Waters and Nick Mason; I'm also a huge Pink Floyd fan. They were a big one for me as well.
When you're playing with Dream Theater or the new music with Avenged Sevenfold, are there ever moments when you might remember a John Bonham fill or something the Who did and it will trigger something specific in your playing? Do you do that at all?
It never doesn't do that; I mean every moment of my life [laughs.] Anytime I'm behind the kit, I'm feeling the sum of all the parts of who make me who I am. And no matter who I'm playing with, it triggers memories of music and other drummers to me. I am the biggest music fan you'll ever meet and everything I do resonates with the music I grew up with. Yesterday I flew out on our day off to fly to Kansas City to see Rush and I spent the day hanging out with Neil Peart. It doesn't matter how old I am or how much I've done with my career, I'm still that 15-year old kid that loves music. That's never gonna change. And yesterday I was sitting in the fourth row playing air drums to Neil Peart just like everybody in the audience. I happened to be signing autographs and taking pictures during the intermission but other than that I'm a fan like anybody else. And that doesn't change and anytime I'm playing drums, I always feel the ghost of Keith Moon and John Bonham in everything I do.
You talk about channeling the ghosts of Moon and Bonham. When you started working on the new Avenged Sevenfold album, Nightmare, were you thinking about The Rev and what he might have played on these tracks? Did you approach these songs as, What would the Rev have played? Or was it, This is what the Rev would want me to play.
Luckily the Rev left behind demos of every song. They were demos of him playing on an electronic kit. So they weren't proper drum tracks but they were blueprints of every song with electronic drums. Luckily I had the ultimate roadmap left by the Rev himself. My purpose for doing this record with those guys was to bring his drum parts to life and finish what he had started with this record. When I've done other sessions and other projects, I'm usually hired to do my thing but that was not at all my mission with this record. My mission with this record was to do exactly what the Rev wanted to do and just wasn't able to do for himself at this point.
What that a difficult undertaking for you in taking his ideas and giving them life while still staying true to his original design and intent?
Well, I had to show a lot of respect and restrain but that's OK; I was OK with that. To me this was a very fragile situation and a sensitive situation for the bandmembers who had never played with another drummer and were just fresh in the mourning period. So I had to be very, very respectful of the sensitive nature of this session and I wanted to respect the Rev and pay tribute to him. So, yeah, I wouldn't say it was hard; I had to kind of shift gears from what I normally do. Normally I go in there and do things myself in my own way and I self-produce my drums but in this case I had to kind of just wear a different hat. And because of the circumstances it made it kind of easy to swallow.
What were those initial breaking-in sessions like for the Nightmare album? Did they come together seamlessly or was it trying to understand how Avenged Sevenfold worked in the studio?
For me it was easy. Through the last 20 years, I've probably worked with 40 or 50 different musicians in different projects both on tour and on stage and in the studio. So for me to work with other musicians is an easy adjustment at this stage of my career. I think it was a huge adjustment for those guys because they had never played with another drummers. They had literally grown up with the Rev since grade school and this was the first time they'd picked up their instruments with another drummer sitting behind them. So the big adjustment was really moreso for them than with me. My biggest adjustment was taking direction. Like I said earlier, I'm used to self-producing almost anything I play on so it was a bit of an adjustment to just take direction and work with an outside producer and having other bandmembers tell me what to play. But I was OK with that because of the circumstances.
For the Nightmare album, Mike Elizondo produced. You talked about typically self-producing your own drum tracks so what was it like working with Mike?
I had never worked with Mike before and he was an absolute angel; he was so easy to work with and such a nice guy. He had spent a few months already working with the band including the Rev in pre-production during the writing process. So he was really as much a part of the music and the album as the band was. I haven't worked with an outside producer in 12 years or so or more, so I would have been hesitant to have somebody breathing down my neck and telling me what to do. My past experiences with that were very frustrating. But Mike is one of those guys that is just an easy-to-work with lovely guy. There are producers that are really nice guys and make a session a pleasure and then there are producers that are pricks and assholes and make a session a nightmare. But Mike was the former.
"I would say when we formed the band it was kind of like we wanted to be a cross between Iron Maiden and Rush."
Was the process itself different than what Dream Theater did in the studio? Did you record your drum tracks in any kind of new way?
The process of the physical recording was not that different from what I do with Dream Theater. With Dream Theater the creative process is extremely different but in the case of the actual tracking, it was kind of similar. Basically I tracked along with Johnny [Christ] on bass and Synyster Gates on guitar and it was just basically the three of us playing to a click track and in some cases some guide vocals and stuff from the original demos. But for the most part, Johnny and Gates started from scratch with scratch tracks while I was laying down the drums. And we would basically lay down maybe one, two, or three takes of a song and either they would comp the drums from those takes or we would punch into a take if we just needed to get a certain fill or a certain phrasing.
Did you have to alter the sound of your drums in any fashion to accommodate the twin guitars of Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengenace?
One thing that was different with them is they actually have a studio drum tech specifically to tune the drums between each take; to change snares out; and to change heads out. I've never had that with Dream Theater so that was a bit of a new experience for me and it was actually really nice. It was a guy named Mike Fasano who does a lot of L.A. session work and drum stuff for people in studios. Working with Mike was really cool and he came in with a whole bunch of different drums and snares and made em all sound amazing. So that was a cool experience.
What kit did you bring into the studio for the Nightmare album?
It was something that Tama basically put together for the session. It was a Starclassic Maple kit and the setup was two 22 kick drums; three rack toms [measuring] 8, 10 and 12; two 14 and 16 floor toms; four various-sized Octobons with 6 heads; and two Signature Melody Master snares, a 12 and a 14. A relatively big kit but not nearly as big as what I use with Dream Theater but it was on the bigger side.
Nightmare is the only song that's been available to hear at this point. There is an intense groove during the verse and then a lot of double-bass stuff during the chorus. If we use this song as a template, were those ideas that the Rev had already put down on those pre-production demos?
I say this with all due respect but the Rev always kind of sounded like me. I always heard a bit of my style and in my influence in the Rev's drumming. So it was really interesting with this album to learn his parts which already I could already hear a bit of me in and then actually come full circle with me performing them. It was just kind of a strange full circle situation. But as far as the parts themselves, I basically learned the blueprints. The demos had him playing an electronic kit and just kind of playing the basic patterns, the basic kick and snare patterns. He planned on developing some of the cymbal work and the nuances and the fills a little bit more in the studio and being that those weren't ever fully developed, I guess the guys gave me some space to do that kind of stuff.
So when you listen to something like Nightmare, the patterns and the grooves were what the Rev had but there's little nuances like little Octobon fills are me and on the chorus the double bass going on. I mean the Rev had the double bass going but I added those little bell patterns on the ride cymbals. So that was something I added on top of it.
It's a combination of mainly the Rev's ideas and grooves and blueprints and just my little sprinkles on top.
How much time had you spent with the Rev back in the day? Were you close friends?
No, no, actually not at all. He and I only ever e-mailed and texted each other. He was a big fan of mine and always said great stuff about me in the press and then a couple of years ago we kind of connected with e-mails and always meant to hang out and talked about touring together or something but it just never came to be.
Can you talk about any of the other tracks from Nightmare? Nothing else has been released at this point so it's impossible to know what the rest of the album sounds like.
Without getting too specific because I don't know how deep those guys are revealing things at this stage, I'll just say that I think it's an incredibly strong record. I think it's the next logical step in their career in terms of developing and breaking the band even further through a broader audience. It's got kind of the polish of maybe Metallica's Black album but at the same time it's got the rawness of Pantera at times. So it's a nice blend of the two with poppy, hooky choruses but crazy, huge riffs. And at the same time it has some ballads and also has some epic moments and some incredibly sad and personal moments; it's got a great, great balance of all of that stuff.
You're also doing the tour to support the Nightmare album?
Yeah, I'm gonna be touring with them for the rest of the year. The Dream Theater tour ends July 20th and I begin Avenged rehearsals on July 21st.
You'll be doing songs obviously from their earlier albums?
Yep. I can handle it.
"Anytime I'm behind the kit, I'm feeling the sum of all the parts of who make me who I am."
Getting a bit more personal, you've been working on another Transatlantic album called The Whirlwind. You've been involved with these Transatlantic musicians for some time now.
Transatlantic is a project I assembled at the end of the 90s and it was kind of my dream prog rock supergroup. I really wanted to work with Neal Morse who was in Spock's Beard at the time; he was and is one of my favorite composers out there so I really wanted to work with him. So I brought him onboard as well as Pete Trewavas from Marillion and Roine Stolt from the Flower Kings and we made two prog rock epic albums at the end of the 90s and the beginning of the 2000s. And did some touring and in 2001 went our own separate ways. Then reconvened and regrouped and reunited last year to do The Whirlwind. It's prog rock and the epic to end all epics. The entire album is a 77-minute piece and we just did two months of touring: we did a U.S. and Canada tour and then we went and did Europe and the UK and did something like 30 shows and recorded a live album and DVD which will come out later in the year.
You mentioned that you've played and recorded with so many musicians apart from the Dream Theater band. Are you just looking for different groups of players to satisfy the various kinds of music you've always listened to?
I think I said it at the very top of this conversation: my musical taste is incredibly broad. And the fact that I grew up with Zeppelin, the Who, the Beatles, Cream like we were talking about earlier, the rest of the guys in Dream Theater don't necessarily share that side with me. With Dream Theater we share a progressive side and a metal side but that doesn't really scratch the surface of my musical tastes. I grew up with the classic rock stuff and I also have a side of me that loves heavy, heavy thrash music and I listened to everything from Lamb of God to Exodus. That's a side that I don't necessarily share with the other Dream Theater members. I went out and did a thing with this band called Hail! earlier this year which kind of satisfied that side of satisfied that side of me doing like Slayer and Motorhead covers. Every project that I'm involved with is satisfying or quenching a musical thirst inside of me that is just so broad that I need to work with other people to quench it.
Now that the Nightmare album is completed and you've had a chance to distance yourself from it a bit, do you feel that you truly accomplished the goals you set for yourself? Keeping the Rev's vision alive and at the same time creating something Avenged Sevenfold fans will want to hear?
Well, for me doing the album and tour with Avenged Sevenfold, one of my biggest fears was how their fans would react to me. Because the Rev's fans were very diehard; Avenged Sevenfold's fans in general were just diehard fans and obviously they were heartbroken with the loss of the Rev. So my concern as well as the other four guys in the band were How are the fans going to accept somebody else playing drums? And when it was announced the fans totally embraced me which such a relief not only to me but the rest of the guys in the band. And it was just a relief that they could move forward and continue out without the Rev and the fans would be behind them and that the fans would be behind me. I guess a big part of the fans accepting me and embracing me was that I was one of Jimmy's favorite drummers so that surely helped the equation be that much more acceptable. But whatever the case, their support of me playing with the guys has been so incredibly cool and such a relief to us.
Go have a great gig with Iron Maiden and remember to play all the right drums.
Even if I play the wrong ones, it'll still be fun. See ya
Interview by Steven Rosen
"I am the biggest music fan you'll ever meet and everything I do resonates with the music I grew up with."