Mike Portnoy is laid back, cool and relatively calm despite all the hysteria going on around him. When he called to talk with Glide last month, he was holed up in a recording studio in Nashville “doing a new album with Neal Morse.” he explained while taking a break from tracking drums. That's in addition to a new release called Omerta with his band Adrenaline Mob and another new record with his other band Flying Colors that will be released right after Omerta. Then there will be touring and sitting in with Fates Warning and a DVD and … “I have to constantly refer to my calendar” Portnoy laughed.
But the former drummer for Dream Theater did squeeze in a little time to talk about not only Omerta, which will be released in a matter of days, but about his youth in New York, his massive drum sets and why the excitement of getting his first drum kit comes with sadness as well.
Do you ever get to go out and do anything else besides play drums?
No, I’m pretty useless at everything else (laughs). I’m very good at sleeping and playing drums and watching movies. Those are probably my three greatest assets.
So what you were like when you were a kid?
I grew up on Long Island, New York, and came from a kind of middle-class family and I was always a music fan, literally from the day I was born. When I was like five or six years old, I already had this enormous record collection and was listening to The Who and The Beatles and the Stones and Zeppelin. I went and saw George Harrison live when I was six years old and I saw Paul McCartney when I was eight. I went and saw KISS when I was ten. So, you know, I was a true rock & roll kid from the very beginning.
Your father was involved in music...
He was a rock & roll deejay so I think that played a big part in me being surrounded by music from the day I was born. I used to go do the radio show with him when I was a kid and he’d let me pick the songs.
What songs did you pick most often when you were down there with him?
The Beatles were and still are my favorite band of all time so I was obsessed with The Beatles early on. They were my first favorite band, and still are, but then I went through other phases.I went through a big phase of The Who and Keith Moon was my favorite drummer when I was really young. Then I went through a big KISS phase and then a big Ramones phase later on and then a big Rush phase. I’ve always been obsessive-compulsive so I would go through phases where I would get into a band and become completely obsessed by them. I’d have to own every record and cover my wall with posters of them.
What would you say is your favorite album of all time and why that particular one?
Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I think that is Roger Waters’ masterpiece and I think it’s one of the greatest albums ever recorded. It’s one of those albums that is just an emotional rollercoaster and a real experience when you listen to it from start to finish and it’s just perfectly executed and produced and written.
Were the drummers in the bands always your main attraction?
Not always. I mean, I already mentioned Keith Moon being a drumming favorite of mine and then later on Neal Peart from Rush was a favorite drummer of mine. But it wasn’t always the drummers that attracted me. When I went through my big KISS phase, my favorite member was Ace Frehley who was the guitar player. In The Beatles, I was as much a fan of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison as I was of Ringo. So it’s different for different artists. And even to this day, probably my biggest musical hero of all time is Frank Zappa and he’s not a drummer.So I’m inspired by all different kinds of musicians and it doesn’t always have to be the drummer.
You mentioned you saw George Harrison when you were six. What was that like?
It blew my mind because I was already this big Beatles fanatic and to actually see one of them in the flesh a hundred yards from me on stage was incredible. I knew at that point that that was the world I wanted to be in. I wanted to be playing concerts and playing music and being surrounded by an audience. I was just very, very inspired by the whole experience.
When did you actually start playing drums?
I got my first drum set when I was eleven years old, but I was already such a music fan before then that it was inevitable I was going to do something in the music world. It was just a matter of what instrument I would be drawn to. And it ended up being the drums.
How did you get your first drum set?
It was actually given to me for my 11th birthday, April 20, 1978. It was given to me by my grandparents and that very day my grandfather had a heart attack, which ended up killing him a couple days later. So it was a strange, weird, rite of passage to be given my first drum set by my grandfather who then passed away a couple days later. It was very, very strange timing.
Do you remember the first time you played drums in front of people?
It was at a girl’s bar mitzvah that I went to (laughs). We were all thirteen and the band was playing at the party. They knew I was a drummer and they invited me to come up and play and we played “Proud Mary” by Creedence and that’s the first time I ever played anything in public and I haven’t stopped since.
Your drum set is massive. Do you have to have it that big? Do you play every single piece that is sitting in front of you?
I have different drum sets for different bands. The drum set I used in Dream Theater for so many years was totally massive and I kind of became known for having this massive monster drum set. And I did utilize it. With Dream Theater, I utilized every single drum and cymbal and knick-knack, used them all. I was always an equal opportunity employer of every one of those drums (laughs). It’s different things for different environments. I have different bands and projects that I’ve played in where I’ve played on tiny little 3-piece kits. I even did a Beatles tribute band many years ago on a small tiny 4-piece kit. Dream Theater was always about very over-the-top, bombastic playing so it called for a big bombastic over-the-top drum kit. So I’m able to adapt to very, very different kits depending on the different bands I’m in.
Your leg muscles must be humungous. I bet you could take someone down with those.
(laughs)They are and,yes, I probably could.
The new Adrenaline Mob album, Omerta, has a great energy to it, like everyone is feeling good and having fun. Is that how it feels to you?
Yeah, it’s all about high-energy fun music. Not having to put on your thinking cap and sit there and try to figure out what’s going on with the calculator (laughs). It reminds me of one of those albums like AC/DC’s Back In Black or the first Van Halen album, where it’s just song after song that is strong and catchy and memorable and filled with hooks and riffs and melodies. So yeah, it’s definitely one of those types of albums.
How long did it take you to record it?
It was recorded over a couple of months throughout 2011. We did it at Mike Orlando’s studio, the guitar player, and pretty much self-produced it.Then it was handed off to Jay Ruston, who mixed it and did a great job. It wasn’t a long tedious process, just a couple of months.
So what is 2012 looking like for you?
I’ve got another album coming out with this band called Flying Colors and I also have a DVD that I just finished with Billy Sheehan and Tony MacAlpine. So I’m juggling many, many things. I’m also going to South America in April to play drums with Fates Warning. But my focus right now is the Adrenaline Mob album and the Flying Colors album and the touring that will follow for both of those. As I’ve always had in my career, I have a million different things going on simultaneously and I’m just juggling them all.
Last Question: Who is your biggest influence?
Frank Zappa. He is my all-time biggest musical hero and inspiration and like I said earlier, he’s not even a drummer but yet he is my biggest hero of all time. He was one of the most brilliant musicians of our lifetime. He had the greatest musicians in the world playing in his band, drummers and guitar players that are huge influences of mine through the years. But Zappa’s music is something that people will be learning from for centuries to come.
Do you realize how much of an influence you are?
Well, I do. I’m very flattered by it. I see so many young kids that cite me as an influence and a hero and it’s very, very flattering. I never wanted to really be an example or a role model. I was just a music fan myself, just playing drums and making music because I love music. The fact that it’s reached and touched so many people it’s really flattering and an honor for me. I just hope I can continue to make people happy with what I do. That’s all I ever tried to do is just make music and make people happy, including myself.
Join us next week as DjAshba, guitar slinger for both Sixx:AM and Guns N Roses, chats with us about his mischievous youth, his first guitar and how he decorated for Prom.