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Posted on November 7, 2009

DREAM THEATER’S Mike Portnoy was in the UK recently to attend the Classic Rock awards, and so we took the opportunity to sit down with him and put some of the questions you sent in for the Ask The Artist session to him.

Thanks so much to everyone who mailed in- this was the BIGGEST response so far. Here are the answers to the questions we selected out of that vast resopnse. Enjoy!

Has Dream Theater ever considered scoring movie soundtracks?

We would love to – we’ve talked about that our whole career, especially the instrumental side of us. Sometimes we’ll go off on these improv jam tangents which we ended up using a lot in the Liquid Tension Experiment. We would love to, we just need the right opportunity. Bands like Pink Floyd used to do it back in the 60s and 70s, they scored a few films. I think we’d be able to come up with some cool shit so we’re just waiting for the invite.

On the ‘Live at Budokan’ DVD, at the end of ‘Beyond This Life’ Mike and Jordan play a call-and-response duet. Mike moves to the kit and the rest of the band joins in, and the section closes with a Zappa quote. Frank’s on the screen conducting and the band is ripping through the tune – but what Frank Zappa tune is it? I can’t put my finger on it!

It was not a Zappa song we were using, we were jamming in a Zappa style. The ‘Unison’ part in ‘Beyond This Life’ that this jam leads to, we always called the ‘Zappa’ section because it’s got this strange tonality and Jordan’s using this merimbau / xylophone sound. When we started playing this jam live, Jordan and I started jamming Zappa-style tonality and quirky phrasings and I had this idea of putting Frank on the screen conducting us – so it’s our own jam, just in Frank-mode!

We are all aware that recovering from alcoholism has a lot to do with attending meetings and working on those steps on a daily basis, and sometimes even sponsoring someone. How do you deal with these issues being a musician on the road? Do you still go to meetings when you’re at home, or even find time to go to meetings in other countries?

That’s a good question. AA for me was the solution to my problem. It’s not for everybody, different people have different ways of tackling their issues but for me that was the solution. It wasn’t until I started going to meetings that I was able to put drink and drugs down once and for all. I’m coming up on ten years of sobriety now and that’s due to the AA meetings. My first couple of years of sobriety I had to go to the meetings every day, and I went every day, and even on the road the first thing I would do when I got into a town was call up the hotline and find a meeting to go to. I’ve been to meetings everywhere from Kansas to Tokyo to London, and everywhere in between. It was absolutely mandatory for my sobriety. Now, with close to ten years under my belt I’m able to go stretches on the road without going to meetings, but stopping completely’s not recommended, you really have to always go to meetings. Sometimes people at home will ask why I’m still going, but I know that if I don’t, I’ll drink again. You have to keep it fresh. I don’t go now as much as I used to, but I do still go, it’s absolutely important for me.

Will you be doing any drum clinics in the UK in the near future? And also, where did you get the idea for your Max Stax line (Mike’s signature Sabian cymbal series)? Did you just experiment with putting different cymbals on top of each other?

Unfortunately I don’t do clinics anymore, I did hundreds and eventually I just put my foot down and stopped doing them about six years ago. The Stax came about basically like you said. When I started playing Sabian they didn’t offer any Stax- it was before Terry Bozzio was endorsing them- so I would just stack couple of things on top of each other – a splash and a china kang – to give myself that kind of sound on the kit. Eventually I came up with the idea of putting out my own line because they weren’t available, and still weren’t available when I put them out because Terry Bozzio wasn’t working with Sabian yet. At the time it was the only cymbal of its type that Sabian had available.

When you’re playing complicated drum patterns, why do you sometimes hit yourself on the head? Also, is there any chance of Dream Theater bringing back ‘An Evening with Dream Theater’ format for your live shows? And have you considered doing any more acoustic / unplugged shows?

I don’t know why I hit myself in the head, I’m starting to think maybe I should stop – I’m fearing a brain aneurysm coming on! And yeah, it’s very possible that the ‘Evening with…’ format will come back in the future. We needed a break from it, but now having had that break for several years, it may make sense to mix it up and bring it back. With the acoustic shows, I never say never, it’s possible. I’m not much of a fan of the whole unplugged thing- it’s kinda cliche and every band does it. We did some shows like that back in the late nineties and it was fun, it was different, so I never say never but right now there are no plans.

Dream Theater offers a lot to the fans with DVDs, live shows, bootlegs, side projects etc. With so much going on, how do you keep it together as a band and as an individual?

Well, time management is a big issue for me cos I’m overseeing all this stuff for the band, so it’s a matter of somehow squeezing it all in there. I don’t know, I’m just built for keeping busy. The other guys can go home and take weeks or months off and not do anything and they’re cool with that, but for me I need to be doing a million projects. I don’t know what the answer is, it’s not something you can design. You’re either that type of person – a workaholic – or you’re not. There are certain personalities that are made for it, and fortunately, or unfortunately, that’s just my personality.

Is there any chance you will be putting out a Progressive Nation DVD?

I would have liked to have, but no, it’s not on the cards. This album and tour cycle will be the first without a DVD, but I think that’s ok, I hate always doing the same pattern or the same formula.

How long was it to get the Dream Theater ball rolling from the infant it was to the giant it is today? I see so many bands reach a certain point and just hit a wall.

Well, it’s been 24 years now since we formed at Berkeley to sitting here in this hotel room, getting ready to go to the Classic Rock Awards. That’s how long it took from infancy to empire. It took years to get the ball rolling and we constantly hit brick walls. If you know anything about our career it’s been filled with ups and downs, false starts and false promises. It takes a lot of perseverance and I think many bands if they were faced with the personnel changes, the business issues and obstacles we’ve faced would’ve given up, and there were a couple of times when we contemplated it, but here we are. We’re still standing because we didn’t give up.

Did you create any of your signature fills by accident, or did you sit down on the kit and work things out?

I don’t think any of my ‘signature fills’ are created in a vacuum, it’s a culmination of mining things that I’ve picked up from so many other drummers. My drum heroes have been well documented but people like John Bonham, Keith Moon, Neil Peart and Terry Bozzio, when I was young I learned all of their fills and all their tricks of the trade. I think my style is kind of a combination of all of them. I think that’s how any music or any musician develops, you have to take a lot of different influences and put them into a melting pot, and that’s how my drumming came about.

Would you ever collaborate with Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson?

I’m hoping to. It’s been talked about for years now – a collaboration between him, myself and Mikael Akerfeldt. It’s just been a matter of timing and I think all three of us are hesitant of the anticipation that has now surrounded this project, all three of us feel that we possibly can’t live up to it. I think we all wish we’d kept our mouths shut and we’d just quietly gone away and done it, and surprised everybody with it. That being said, I personally would prioritise it in my schedule and I even told both those guys that I’m ready, willing and able to somehow make it happen in 2010 if possible. I would love to do it.

What is your favourite thing to eat at Wendy’s?

Single with cheese, no onion. Sometimes, if I’m daring, I’ll even get the chilli on the side, but I’d go to Taco Bell before I go to Wendy’s, and if you’re in California, nothing beats In-&-Out Burger.

I would like to pursue a career in music with my band. From your perspective, has becoming a successful act in the entertainment business turned out differently to what you expected when you first started Dream Theater as a teenager?

It is everything I dreamed it would be, I get to live a charmed life and I have a lot of gratitude for that. Thank god I succeeded in this business because I really can’t do anything else in the real world. I can’t wake up in the morning and go do a job, I can’t do anything that’s handy, so thank God I succeeded at doing something creative. When we formed this band we didn’t have these illusions of playing all around the world, selling records and touring, that wasn’t our goal. We were just a bunch of kids who wanted to play music together. I think if we’d really wanted to have all of those rock n’ roll lifestyle rewards we probably would have chosen a different style of music! If it was all about sex, drugs and rock n’ roll I probably should have been in a band like Motley Crue, but somehow we ended up doing what Dream Theater does, which is obviously a more specialised style of music which, if you wanted to be rich and famous, probably wouldn’t be the best choice. We’ve been very fortunate to have the perseverance and to have made a name and a career for ourselves doing what we do, but it took a long, long time to get where we are. I have a lot of gratitude. We have a great fanbase all around the world, we get to play to a lot of people every night, we all have wives and children and we make enough money to provide our families with a nice lifestyle, and I’ve met, hung out and played with all of my heroes through the years, so it certainly has been a dream come true.

As you are the self-proclaimed number one Dream Theater fan, does it frustrate you that you will never be able to sit and enjoy a Dream Theater show in the same way millions of fans do?

Yeah, sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be in the audience or even to just hear what we sound like live. I mean, I’ve never heard my drums from the perspective of the audience. I guess the only way I could do that is if I quit the band or if I was to get kicked out of the band, and neither of those seem like options right now so I guess I’ll have to continue to enjoy Dream Theater from the other side of the stage.

What band – dead or alive – would you like to hear covering a Dream Theater song?

Opeth doing ‘A Nightmare to Remember’ or maybe Iron Maiden doing ‘A Change of Seasons.’

What’s the best Dream Theater tribute band you’ve come across to date? And are there any plans to manufacture and sell the custom ‘water-shoes’ you wear to play live on occasion?

I can’t name one specifically. I’ve seen them all from Italy to Japan to America, they’re all flattering, they’re all great musicians, they all do it well, I can’t pick a specific one. As for the shoes, no. New Balance makes them as a custom shoe for me, but I don’t think they have any plans to sell them.

I assume that an octavarium, and being ‘trapped inside’ one, is a way of describing the helplessness of having to adhere to and obey the rules of music theory, and that despite the perception of creative freedom, one is not truly free in that any melody he or she may compose will unfailingly consist of a series of the same twelve notes, in a veiled metaphorical allusion to the real confines and limitations of daily life. Am I correct?


The current album from Dream Theater ‘Black Clouds & silver Linings is in stores now. Pick it up online HERE.

Miss the other Ask The Artists in the series? Then catch up at the links below. Currently have questions out with Robb Flynn of MACHINE HEAD. Watch this space for those being posted.


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