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Mike Portnoy on Touring With Classic Rock Legends, His Favorite Rush Covers and More: Exclusive Interview

Ethan Miller, Getty Images
Ethan Miller, Getty Images

Former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy had a busy year on the road, staying occupied behind the kit with a multitude of live dates, including shows with Twisted Sister during the band’s final year of its farewell tour. He also toured steadily with the Winery Dogs, his project with guitarist Richie Kotzen and bassist Billy Sheehan.

Next year promises to keep Portnoy just as busy — he’s already in the middle of writing for the third album by Flying Colors — another side project, this one with Deep Purple guitarist Steve Morse, bassist Dave LaRue (who’s played with Joe Satriani and Dixie Dregs), singer Casey McPherson and longtime comrade Neal Morse (Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic). He’ll also celebrate his 50th birthday in early February on board Cruise to the Edge, where he’ll play a special show under the banner of Shattered Fortress — featuring the entire “12-Step Suite,” which he wrote over the course of several Dream Theater albums and will be performed live for the first time.

Portnoy tells Ultimate Classic Rock that fans will learn the identities of the band members who will be performing with him at the exact same moment they play their first note together at Cruise to the Edge. “They’ll find out when we take the stage,” he laughs. “Not even when they get on the ship. When we perform that at my 50th birthday concert, that’s when the musicians that I’m using for that will be unveiled.”

He says after that there will be a few festival appearances rather than a tour. “[They’re] just one-offs,” he explains. “I have no interest in doing that as a career move or else I would have stayed with Dream Theater. I have so many other things going on in my life and my career that that’s kind of just a pet project that I’m putting to bed once and for all for me and the fans.”

He will be back out on the road in January for the first major U.S. headlining run from the Neal Morse Band in support of their latest album, The Similitude of a Dream, a double-disc conceptual epic that clocks in at more than 100 minutes. They’ll perform the new album in its entirety during the upcoming dates.

We spoke with Portnoy in advance of the upcoming trek to discuss the new album and also some additional topics and classic rock-related highlights from his career.

Putting a concept album together:
“It’s like making a movie or writing a book. And I’m a huge film fanatic, so maybe my obsession with organization and sequencing stems from me being such a big music fan, because you know, I’m just such a film buff. When you’re putting together a concept album, it’s all about the flow and the story. Like a good movie or good book, you want to come out of the gates strong. You want to have a good storyline with peaks and valleys and ups and downs and you want to finish with a big grand finale.

“You want to have a little bit of everything along the way and have many different kinds of styles and areas of the story. I’ve always been a very OCD kind of person and that keeps everything organized, whether it be my schedule or making of an album or writing a set list for a live show, I’ve always been very anal with that kind of stuff, so it’s kind of fun to apply that to a concept album when you’re making that kind of record.”

The experience of touring with Yes during his time with Dream Theater — and how he would have loved to have gotten the call to play drums with Anderson, Rabin & Wakeman:
“I got to see Rick [Wakeman] and Trevor [Rabin] a few days ago. We did a radio show together and it was good seeing those guys. I haven’t seen the show — I would love to, but I just haven’t been around when they were playing. I’m kind of upset that they didn’t call me! I was waiting by the phone for that gig! I would have loved to have played with those guys.

“There’s been a lot of crossing paths with the Yes camp over the years for me. The first one was when Dream Theater and Yes toured together in 2004, which was a lot of fun. And then in the last couple of years, I’ve had the great honor of playing some of this wonderful music. In 2014, Transatlantic and Jon Anderson did a set of Yes music together on my Progressive Nation cruise and that was amazing. We got to play “And You and I” and we played side one of [Tales FromTopographic Oceans. That was a really magical experience, playing that music with Jon. Last year, I had the honor of putting together a Chris Squire tribute show on Cruise to the Edge.

“I had various guys from the Neal Morse Band, Marillion, Spock’s Beard, all of these different guys coming together. We played a really unique set of Chris’ music, doing some of the more obscure tunes. We did side one of [Squire’s solo album] Fish Out of Water and we did a lot of the lesser-played stuff from Yes’ catalog. My love for Yes is pretty well-documented. They’re one of my favorite bands of all-time, and it’s been amazing to become friends with those guys and cross musical paths on so many different levels at this point. I hope that 2017 is the year that they finally get inducted into the Hall of Fame, where they should have been 15 years ago.”

Watch Dream Theater Perform ‘Machine Messiah’

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Playing “Machine Messiah” from the Yes album Drama during that same tour:
“That was my doing, because I was always such a huge fan of Drama. At that point, they had not played any of that material since the Drama tour, which was twentysomething years earlier. I actually asked Alan [White] and Steve [Howe] if they would have any issues with us doing a little excerpt of “Machine Messiah.” I didn’t ask Jon because I figured [he] would have objected. [Laughs] But Alan and Steve thought it was a great idea and, in fact, Alan actually joined me on my kit for the last show of the tour and we played double drums on that together. That was incredibly cool that they let us do that. Which is pretty unprecedented, you know? I’ve never heard of an opening band playing an excerpt of the headlining band’s songs in their set, so it was really cool that they were okay with that.”

The tour with Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake and Palmer that kept Dream Theater going as a band:
“It was an amazing bill, and it was especially amazing for Derek Sherinian, opening for Jon Lord and Keith Emerson, both of whom are no longer with us. That was a keyboard player’s dream tour. That came at a weird time for Dream Theater. I don’t know if you know your Dream Theater history, but that tour came around at a time where actually we were on the verge of breaking up.

“We stuck together in order to do that tour and see out that tour commitment, and then ultimately that tour was so much fun that it kind of brought us back together and kind of reignited us and set us up for Scenes From a Memory. But that tour came around at a crucial time that the band almost gave up during.”

How Deep Purple’s Steve Morse (also a member of Dixie Dregs) and Portnoy ended up working together in Flying Colors:
“We were all huge fans of Steve and the Dregs. There was a lot of incestuous stuff going on between Dream Theater and the Dregs. John Myung and Derek were working with Rod Morgenstein with Platypus. Jordan, who later came into the band, had a duo with Rod. Steve Morse was always one of John’s biggest heroes. Dream Theater and Deep Purple did that tour and then a few years later, Dream Theater and the Dregs did a tour together. So there was always a lot of interplay between the two bands.

“Jordan was also playing keyboards in the Dregs for a short period of time. There was always a lot of mutual respect between the two bands, and Steve was always one of my favorite guitar players and somebody I always wanted to work with, so once the opportunity to work with him and get Flying Colors together came along, I jumped at the chance of working with him and it’s been such an honor to play with him and write with him and get to know him as a friend a musician. He still is one of my favorites of all time.”

Watch Cygnus and the Sea Monsters Perform

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Choosing the set list for his Rush tribute band, Cygnus and the Sea Monsters:
“I had already picked a lot of songs for Dream Theater to cover. I kind of always made it a tradition, whenever Dream Theater played Toronto, to play a Rush cover. So I had a list of songs that I had already covered with Dream Theater, like “The Camera Eye,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” “A Passage to Bangkok.” We had done “The Necromancer” a few years earlier as well. So I already had a list of songs that I had already covered. Plus, I was the creative consultant on the Working Man CD, so I had a list of songs that I had already covered with that.

“So between the Dream Theater covers and the Working Man covers, I wanted to do stuff that I hadn’t done yet. For me, doing “Cygnus X-1” and “Hemispheres” back to back was a no-brainer. Because for me as a hardcore Rush fan, Hemispheres is like the holy grail of prog-era Rush. So I wanted to do “Hemispheres” and I wanted to precede it with “Cygnus X-1” and just have those two back to back. With “2112” and “YYZ,” I basically figured go big or go home. You know, I figured [we’d] do the side-long epics with “2112” and “Hemispheres” and then “YYZ,” I only stuck in there because it was a drum show that we were performing at. So I wanted to at least do the live version of “YYZ” with the drum solo in there, only because it was a drum show and I wanted to pay tribute to Neil.”

He’s done the Rush tribute, a Led Zeppelin tribute, a Who tribute, a Beatles tribute — and several full-album tributes. What else would he like to do tribute-wise?
“I’m such a big music fan that I’m always kind of dreaming up these tribute things. I had my four tributes with Paul Gilbert and then I also had four albums I covered in their entirety with Dream Theater, so that knocked out pretty much eight bands right there. But there’s still a few I’d love to do. I would love to do a Queen tribute or a Van Halen tribute. Even a Kiss tribute could be fun if we did the obscure stuff. So you know, there’s still some bands that I would love to pay tribute to. But I still have the outlets to do that. Like Metal Allegiance, for instance, is very much a great outlet for a lot of the metal covers and things like that. Even with Metal Allegiance, we covered the entire Van Halen album and we covered the entire Master of Reality album by Black Sabbath. So that’s kind of given me an outlet for some of these tribute ideas as well.”

What would a Portnoy-led Van Halen tribute look like?
“Oh, I don’t know. Anything from the first five albums. I’m always all about the deep cuts. So who knows? But you know, Paul Gilbert and I had so much fun with the four tribute bands that we’ve done. If we could ever get around to doing some more, we certainly would.”

The experience of playing with Twisted Sister:
“It’s been such an honor playing with them for the last two years. Especially now that they’re wrapping up their career and these are the farewell shows. It’s been an honor for me to be a part of their closing chapter. The shows themselves have just been unbelievable. Especially in Europe, where they’re headlining all of these festivals side by side with Metallica and Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath — they’re kind of held in that same headlining status at these huge festivals over there. So it’s been really incredible, playing to 60,000 and 80,000 people a night with them. They just kill it. Dee Snider is still to this day one of the greatest frontmen of all time. To be onstage with him every night, it’s been incredible.”

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