In the drumming pantheon, Mike Portnoy is the embodiment of experimentation, versatility, and virtuosity. The recipient of 30 awards and one of the youngest musicians to be inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame, Portnoy has long been lauded for his technical prowess and deep commitment to his art. Chiefly known as a Dream Theater co-founder, he has also formed or been involved with a number of other projects, ranging from The Winery Dogs, Metal Allegiance, Liquid Tension Experiment, and Avenged Sevenfold through to Transatlantic, Adrenaline Mob, and Twisted Sister. This November, Portnoy and his backing band, comprising Eric Gillette of the Neal Morse Band and members of UK outfit, Haken, will be heading our way to perform his 12-Step Suite and a selection of Dream Theatre songs for antipodean audiences. The Shattered Fortress Tour will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for fans to witness the five elements of Portnoy’s musical exploration of his battle with alcoholism as it was intended to be played: live, as one powerful piece. Thanks to our good friend, John Howarth of Nuclear Blast, we had a chat with the creative visionary about the Shattered Fortress Tour, the individual parts of the 12-Step Suite, and his thoughts on success.
SR: I’ve been watching some of the Cruise to the Edge footage from February on YouTube. The performance was great. What was the vibe like?
MP: Well I did two sets on Cruise to the Edge. Basically, I did the opening show for the cruise and the closing show for the cruise both as a 50th birthday bash. Both shows were completely different from each other and they spanned a lot of my career with many different bands. The first performance I had a surprise appearance with the Flying Colors and Transatlantic, and the closing performance was a set of Liquid Tension Experiment music with Tony Levin and then the premiere of this Shattered Fortress set and doing the Dream Theater Twelve-Step Suite. So, to be honest, it was very emotional overall just because it was celebrating my 50th birthday and there were so many friends and fans and fellow musicians on board. It was just a really overwhelming experience for me.
SR: These Shattered Fortress events are a unique expression of your struggle with alcoholism. I know this is something you’ve had in the pipeline for a long time with Dream Theater, but when did the idea first come to you as something you could translate into a single act?
MP: Well, I stopped drinking in April of 2000 and I would say that my first year of sobriety took a lot of effort. It was a big struggle and I had to go to meetings every day. I had to really watch myself on tour. It was something that was a huge, huge part of my life. The next record I was making with Dream Theater was in 2001 when we started the Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence album, and as my sobriety was such a huge part of my life at that time, I decided I wanted to write about it. We had a song at the time called…well, it wasn’t called The Glass Prison at the time…but we’d written the music first. It was a piece of music that we had that I wanted to write the lyrics to and at that point, I knew I wanted to write about the Twelve Steps, but I knew it was such a massive topic that it couldn’t be covered in one song. So I had this idea of just starting with steps 1, 2, and 3 with that particular song. And then I would write about the next steps on the next album and I would write a few more steps for the album after that; and I had this idea of it just being this ongoing process that would take several albums to complete. And, ultimately, it took 5 albums over the course of 8 years to get around to all 12 steps. And the sad part of this is that I left Dream Theater shortly after, so I never had the chance to put all 5 pieces together and perform it live in its entirety, which was always my idea and intention.
SR: You’re no stranger to being in the public eye and having your life scrutinised. Was it liberating to take this personal experience and reveal it on your own terms?
MP: I’ve always been that way with all my lyrics. The first song I ever wrote lyrics to was A Change of Seasons, and I wrote that back in 1989. A big part of that song was writing about losing my mother in a plane crash. So, literally right out of the gates with the first song I ever wrote, I was always wearing my personal life on my sleeve and sharing the experiences. So, you know, writing about losing my mom and writing about recovery with the Twelve-Step Suite…I wrote a song about losing my dad in a song called The Best of Times…I wrote about my wife and my family being behind me after I left Dream Theater. You know, if you look at all my lyrics it’s kind of like my life written out on the page. And for me, it’s always been very therapeutic. I’ve always been an open book and I’ve always been very open with the fans. I’m not the sort of person who is very private. I’ve always been an extrovert and I’ve always engaged in things like social media. So I guess the idea of my being so open with my lyrics is pretty natural for my personality.
SR: Despite your openness, is it ever difficult to keep dwelling on and discussing your sobriety? When you complete these performances, will it feel like you’ve had closure, or is it important for you to remain mindful of what a slippery slope addiction can be?
MP: That’s a good question. It is ongoing. It’s an ongoing process, and once an alcoholic or an addict, forever an alcoholic or an addict. That’s not something that goes away once you complete the 12 steps or write a song about it. It’s something that’s going to be a struggle for me for the rest of my life. Yes, there will be a certain level of closure to finally performing these songs and finally getting that out of my system, for both myself and the fans. But yeah, you bring up a good point — it’s closure for me on an artistic level, but I guess on a personal level, the struggle will be there for the rest of my life.
SR: For fans who haven’t yet had a chance to hear this material, can you please take us through the 5 songs that comprise the suite and what the narrative involves?
MP: Well, the first song is The Glass Prison, which is steps 1, 2, and 3. For the most part, it deals with the admittance to being an addict or alcoholic and surrendering to the disease. The next song is This Dying Soul, which is written about steps 4 and 5. These are the steps where you kind of look at yourself and all of your character defects and all of the things that you’ve done that have made you the person you’ve become. You’re kind of looking at yourself and discussing it with your sponsor, so that’s a very dark song because that’s a very dark process. The next song is The Root of All Evil, which is talking about steps 6 and 7, which are really about turning it over to a higher power and letting go. Those are very optimistic lyrics and that’s a very optimistic song. Repentance is steps 8 and 9, which are all about making a list of regrets and going to the people you’ve harmed and making amends. When I wrote that song, I had the idea of incorporating some guest spoken word parts from many different people that I’m friends with – everyone from Corey Taylor from Slipknot to David Ellefson from Megadeth to Steven Wilson to Jon Anderson of Yes to Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. I had all of these friends contribute their regrets and kind of make amends in a spoken word form, and I made a sound collage in the middle of the song. So, that’s a very emotional song. And then the final piece of the puzzle is the song The Shattered Fortress itself, which is steps 10, 11, and 12 and the completion and the end of the 12-step journey. That’s all about solidifying who you are and where you’re at and carrying the message to other people who are struggling with this disease. And, you know, I really did the ultimate kind of 12 step by writing these songs, because I was sharing my experiences with other people who may be able to relate to the struggle. And you know, through the years I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve had literally hundreds of people come up to me and thank me for these songs because it reached out to them and helped them with their struggles.
SR: You’re working with Eric Gillette who you’ve previously worked with in the Neal Morse band and a number of the members of Haken for these performances. When did you first get together as a group and what was their initial response to the material?
MP: Well all the guys in Haken as well as Eric Gillette are all fans of my work in Dream Theater, so every member of this band is somebody who knows the material very well and is very passionate about performing it and executing it perfectly. So, it’s really an amazing band for this show. I knew Haken was the perfect back-up band a few years ago. I was at one of their shows and they invited me up to play one of my Dream Theater songs called The Mirror with them. I went up and played with them and it was just so perfectly executed that, at that point, I knew that if I ever needed a back-up band for the Twelve-Step Suite, they were it. So I pretty much cemented a deal in my own mind at that moment, when I played that song with them a few years ago. And I knew I wanted Eric on board as well because I’d been working with Eric for the past few years with the Neal Morse Band. He’s just such an amazing talent and he just nails these incredibly intricate guitar parts so perfectly that I knew he’d be perfect to be on board as well.
SR: I understand that you’ll be playing some Dream Theater songs during these shows too. How have you organised the shows in terms of the set list?
MP: It was very easy for me. I mean, the Twelve-Step Suite takes up an hour right there, and then I have literally dozens and dozens of Dream Theater songs to choose from that I wrote the lyrics to through all those years. Honestly, it’s easy to come up with the set list. With this group of songs, it’s actually harder to narrow down which ones to play – it wasn’t hard to come up with the songs. But they’re pretty obvious to me. In addition to the Twelve-Step Suite, there’s a handful of songs that I wrote the lyrics to that were obvious contenders for the set list. The one that saddens me the most is that I’m not going to be able to play A Change of Seasons, which I had intended on making the encore. That was the first song I ever wrote the lyrics to in Dream Theater; and, as I mentioned earlier, it was written about my mom dying in a plane crash. It’s an incredibly, incredibly personal song to me and it breaks my heart that Dream Theater are playing it on their current tour without me. Once I heard that they were performing it, that pretty much scratched it off my set list because I don’t want to be doing it now because they are. I had to choose some other songs instead.
SR: You’ve been involved in a huge number of projects and I’m just considering how long you’ve been waiting for the Shattered Fortress shows to become a reality. When you approach each new venture now, is it with a sense of spontaneity, or are you checking off a long to-do list?
MP: Yeah, at this stage it’s kind of like I have my bucket list and I’m just slowly checking everything off. I have the freedom in my career now to do whatever I want and whatever my mind can imagine. Through the years, all of the bands I’ve put together and played with, from The Winery Dogs to Metal Allegiance, and Flying Colors, each and every one of them are kind of like these dream collaborations that I’ve always wanted to do. And it’s an amazing gift to be able to have, you know? It’s amazing that I can do this and have this freedom at this stage of my career. One of the songs I wrote with Dream Theatre is called Finally Free and that’s honestly the way I feel right now. I am really not tied down by anything and I can do anything my imagination can come up with. It’s been amazing. From all these bands I’ve formed to being able to play with so many established bands, ranging from Avenged Sevenfold to Twisted Sister, it’s just been an amazing ride.
SR: And what are the most satisfying aspects of your life now, outside of music?
MP: Is there something outside of music? (Laughs) I don’t know – I’m so busy juggling 83 bands at a time that I have very little spare time. But I do love film and TV, so I do spend all my free time consumed by that.
SR: You’ve played with so many acts, won a number of awards, and were one of the youngest drummers to have been inducted into the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame. When you reflect on your career, what are some of the things you’re proudest of and what are some things you’d still like to achieve?
MP: Well, I’ll give the clichéd answer, but it’s the truth: I would say my proudest achievements would be my kids, Melody and Max. I’ve watched them grow up to become such great kids, and now they’re young adults – Max is 18 and Melody’s going to be 20 in a couple of days. Max is succeeding in his own band: they’ve just finished their second record and he’s a tremendous drummer in his own right. And Melody’s going to performing arts school. So, honestly, yes it’s been an amazing career and I’ve won every award there is to win and I’ve put out almost 100 albums now. That’s all amazing, but nothing compares to the feeling and the pride of being a father and watching my kids grow up.
As far as what there is left to achieve? Oh god, I’m not saying this in a bragging way – it’s the god’s honest truth – I’ve really won every award for drumming that I could ever want to win. So at this point, I’m not striving to prove anything to anybody. I’m not trying to win any awards. I’m literally trying to keep making my own musical dreams come true and do things that excite me and inspire me…and work with new people constantly. I surround myself with so many amazing musicians that I admire – everybody from Billy Sheehan to Steve Morse to Paul Gilbert to Neal Morse. I mean these are all people I really, truly love and admire, and working with them excites me. So that’s it. What is there left to do? Live happily ever after.
SR: Do you have any plans to film any of these Shattered Fortress shows for DVD release?
MP: I’ll definitely film a few of them for my archive. Whether or not I release it, I’m not sure. I’m going to have to see how the shows go. I would also have to look into the logistics of it in terms of red tape with my former band and make sure that there are no objections on their end. I don’t want to cause any more drama, so I’ll have to see how all that plays out later on down the road.
SR: Do you have a message you’d like to send out to your Australian fans ahead of the tour?
MP: It’s the obvious response, but it’s the truth. I’m really excited to be coming back. It’s been 8 years since I’ve been there and I’ve been waiting patiently to make a return. I’m very excited to be coming back and to be doing it with such a special, one-off event. It’s going to make it even that more special.
MIKE PORTNOY’S SHATTERED FORTRESS TOUR DATES
Thursday 16th November – Auckland – The Studio
Saturday 18th November – Brisbane – The Tivoli
Monday 20th November – Perth – Astor Theatre
Wednesday 22nd November – Adelaide – The Gov
Friday 24th November – Sydney – Metro Theatre
Saturday 25th November – Melbourne – The Croxton
Pre-Sale Tuesday 9th May 9am (local)
On-Sale Thursday 11th May 9am (local)